Les Voyageurs by Cedric Le Borgne

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It’s the last days of December. I head off across Geneva to work. I am very late. It is minus 6 degrees. The wintery morning sky is crystal clear. My tram squeaks and rattles its way through Place Bel Air. I wipe the condensation from the window. I notice some guy in the street taking a photograph of something up in the air. I crane my neck to see what has caught his attention. There is a figure made of chicken wire hanging off a cable. I go back to my newspaper.

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Much too late the same day, I am back on the tram crossing Place Bel Air again but in the opposite direction. A cold dry wind is whistling down the lake. Night has fallen. I look up wondering what has happened to chicken-wire man. I spot him. He has been dramatically and intensely illuminated. I feel as though a fuse has been lit inside me. I see only a beautiful floating-flying figure. I leap out of my seat and tumble out onto the pavement. I am mesmerised. I dig into my bag for a camera. This will be a photographic challenge. I then notice a second glowing figure sitting high on a nearby building. I have an extraordinary and uplifting feeling that, out of the dozens of people hurrying home, I am the only person of interest to these luminous dudes.

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I look around me. There is another flying man high over the river. His poise is elegant. He is in some kind of communication with the first guy. They both seem to be having such fun; maybe comparing notes how best to glide in the freezing air?

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I turn and look at the tram stop. Another watchful figure surveys the scene. She is pensive, static and emanates a lightness of being. There is no doubt that she could, at any moment, simply lift off to swoop and loop with her companions. I’m sure they don’t really take much notice of us. But then I think maybe they are watching over us but in rather a distracted, amused and casual way.

Meet “Les Voyageurs” by Cedric Le Borgne. This is a masterful creation that has indeed travelled to many corners of the world. The figures give the impression that, with the blink of an eye, they could simply flit off into the night never to be seen again. The whole work pulls me into fantasy land; it represents a presence from another world. Rarely has an urban work captured me like this.

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However, at a more objective level and what I admire most about this work is Le Borgne’s technical mastery of what must be an incredibly difficult medium to work with. How does one bend and mould chicken-wire to create figures that are not only anatomically correct but also adopt a credible and pleasing human posture for a non-human activity (i.e., flying)? Visually, they work. This is why they do a little transport job on my spirits and my sense of reality. If you are late night shopping in the next couple of weeks, take stroll down to Bel Air. Let your spirits be transformed!

“Les Voyageurs” is a part of Geneva’s first Lux Festival. Other installations can be seen in Place Longemalle and on Ile Rousseau. I look forward to the second Lux festival.

The knives of Blackbird Valley

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The knife is perfectly balanced in my hand. It reminds of a scalpel: the healing steel. The honed blade glows dully. The handle is the fine antler of a one-year old stag. I want to use this knife but for a delicate task. It is made by Ross Johnston, master knife-maker, at his Blackbird Valley forge near Nelson, New Zealand.

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Nelson – at the top of the South Island – was originally a small town serving an agricultural community. The climate is fabulous. The area is now a beach destination and the surrounding sheep farms are largely replaced by vineyards, olive groves and orchards. Many creative spirits have made this area their home; there are numerous galleries and studios all brimming with beautiful stuff. It is probably most famous as the birth place of the World of WearableArt.

But today, I am looking for something more earthy; some uncut gemstone of kiwi beautiful stuff. A friend tells me I should meet Ross at his forge. This former steeple-jack and deep sea diver has been making knives from recycled steel for forty years. His knives are his life and his passion. He is a big man with a big smile and big hands and a big handshake. He is one big good old kiwi bloke! He gives me a big welcome. His knife shop is faced with sections of massive bandsaw-blades from local timber mills. Next to the door is the rib of a whale and a ceramic party-dress made by a friend. (So Nelson!) But before I see the display of finished knives, I want to see the forge: the first lines in the narrative of the knives of Blackbird Valley.

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The forge is everything I expect from a one-man outfit working steel: functional, untidy and honest. I am immediately drawn to what is simply scattered on the ground in front. I walk over fragments of old circular saw-blades, cut-up bandsaw-blades and vehicle springs. It is difficult to believe these can be transformed into beautiful glistening knives. Also strewn around are deer antlers from trophy stags for the knife handles. This is the uncut raw material of Ross’s beautiful stuff.

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Ross displays his knives on a deer-skin. He recites the provenance of each blade whether Honda leaf-spring, circular saw-blade or part of a 19th century carriage spring found when digging in his garden. Ross is familiar with the properties and apperance – raw and worked – of each.

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He shows me a huge Bowie-style knife. Not really my thing. But I pick it up. It also has a pleasing weight and feel. It begs to be used. I wonder if I might just be ready for a discussion with Croc Dundee. What I love about it is that the blade is made from a huge wood rasp; this gives it a unique, scaley and rather sinister look.

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I then spy a knife that Ross has put aside assuming that I would not be interested. It is a simple flat file fashioned into an exquisite kitchen knife. The handle part has been made by cleverly twisting the file around itself so as to produce a perfect fit for my hand. It speaks to me. I fall for it and buy it. I feel its edge and see it slicing through the skin of a ripe tomato.

The knives of Blackbird Valley raise the whole question of aesthetics and function and the aesthetics of function. These are beautifully crafted objects without doubt; but the perception of beauty comes from picking them up, turning them in one’s hand and imagining their use. They become beautiful objects when looked at in terms of their potential function.

The Blackbird Valley forge is worth a visit. It’s real-deal kiwi. And… you’ll find a knife that speaks to you!

Victoria’s Great Petition

The sun is rising. Jet-lag numbuzzes my head. I follow signs to the taxi rank at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport. Ahmed is just a bit too chatty as he drives. He left Pakistan ten years ago. He loves Australia. “I got rights here, mate, you know!” I reflect that had he arrived here over a hundred years ago, he may not have said the same. When it comes to racial discrimination, this country has come a long way. (May be further than Switzerland!!) I am just in time for breakfast.

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“Great Petition,” 2008 by Susan Hewitt and Penelope Lee. Steel and bluestone.

Eggs Benedict force a stroll for a block or two. I squint gritty-eyed into a dazzling blue sky. Rush hour traffic and trams rush and rattle by. On a quieter patch of green behind the imposing Victoria State Houses of Parliament I find a huge creamy-white scroll-like metal structure unfurling itself. It speaks to time and paper and lots of both.

“Great Petition” by Susan Hewitt and Penelope Lee is urban sculpture at its best. It is at once arresting and intriguing. I love its setting and its narrative of political challenge. I tap it gently and think of the technical challenge of its construction.

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The Monster Petition – as it was then known – is 260 metres long and so heavy it had to be man(!)handled into the Victorian Parliament for its deposition in 1891. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society amassed 30,000 signatures as evidence of the widespread support for equal voting rights for women. After several parliamentary setbacks, the Adult Suffrage Act was eventually passed in 1908. However, the State of Victoria denied aboriginal women their political rights until 1962.

Hewitt and Lee consulted widely in the design stage of their work. One emphatic request was made by a prominent ex-Parliamentarian: “Make it big so the blokes can see it!” When it comes to discrimination against women, this country has come a long way.