Manuka tie decay in New Zealand

It is 2009. I am on a long, long flight. Needing to fill out an application for a visitor’s visa, I dig into my hand-luggage for a pen. I smile at what else I have brought with me. Carefully folded are three high-quality silk ties given to me by a friend who, on his retirement, swore he would never wear one again. I told him what I planned to do with them. He beamed.

Tie 1

I am lured back to New Zealand every year by the prospect of casting a dry fly over trout of memorable size in rivers of unforgettable beauty. This year takes me to the banks of a little-known creek off the Waikikamukau river. The creek is home to tiny trout that dart for cover as I approach. Only in the winter spawning season will the massive pink mama trout make their way up from the lake to await that brief and critical tail-flickering encounter with a hook-jawed male. However, I am not here for the trout. I am here for the manuka forest through which the creek tumbles. I want to install the ties and seek three trees of neck-size girth standing together.

Tie 2

In 2012, I pull on my hiking boots and return to my chosen manukas. I am amused by the way my carefully knotted ties with the naily tie-pins have maintained their business-like form but look like they have done way too many business trips. I wonder where this idea will go in the coming years.

Tie 3

2016 finds me back at the creek. I am always fascinated by decay of man-made things but my little project in entropy seems to be a bit of a flop. Let’s be honest, the whole thing looks like what it is: three ties rotting on tree trunks. I have a sneaking feeling that Andy Goldsworthy is watching over my shoulder with a wry smile.

Tie 4

It is 2019. The ties are now gorgeously decayed. Their strut has long gone. They are almost at one with the flakey manuka bark and so are becoming part of nature. Time is the “artist.” I like what I see.

I try to recall why I did this in the first place. It was something to do with my anger about the bank-induced financial crisis of 2008. Why the tie thing? A tie…. That symbol of the powerful smart man. That totally unlikely, brightly coloured, pants-pointing neck-wear. I realise that my anger is now redirected towards the Trumps, Putins and Johnsons of the world. Maybe my exposed tie experiment conjures up more than macho-corporate decay; perhaps it speaks to our daily-growing awareness of that biggest of human trade-offs: on one hand, we have our booming population living life-styles that are driven by manufacturing economies that in turn are driven by the business and political worlds (both lorded over by tie-bearing men.) On the other hand, we have our inevitable, massive and global impact on the environment. Whatever path humans take, nature will win in the end. Big mama trout will swim upstream to spawn long after us clever and exotically dressed hominids have been consigned to the archives of the planet’s natural history. I admit to finding comfort in this.

Saving the ocean, one plastic bottle at a time

It’s summer holiday and we’ve just arrived in Indonesia. We’re on our way to Labuan Bajo in the eastern archipelago, but we’ve decided to spend a few days in the capital to beat the jetlag. I’m not too fond of the bustling and congested megacities of the Far East, but Jakarta is the hometown of my wife and a good reminder that life is not always as comfortable and peaceful as in Geneva. This time though, the reminder is a little starker than usual.

Photo credit: The Jakarta Post

The Big Durian has just been hit by a massive power failure, with big parts of the city completely blacked out, paralyzing the traffic and forcing buildings to run on back-up generators. As we enter a mall to buy some necessities for the kids, Twitter tells Sari that “the blackout has affected some 30 million people in Greater Jakarta” and that the “recently established metro system was evacuated this morning.” Should we be worried? I’m not sure.

Saving the ocean 1

As we venture deeper into the mall, a rather odd-looking installation catches our attention. Squeezed between Guccis and Pradas is a little shop, with its ceiling covered in odd-looking, colorful and sparkly stripes. At a closer inspection, we learn that the stripes are made of plastic waste recovered from the Indian Ocean, and that the shop is the entrance to an exhibition. How exciting!

Saving the ocean 2

Benji finds the installation amusing. He pulls and rattles the plastic bottles, treating them like an instrument. Josi looks rather concerned and tries to curb her little brother’s enthusiasm. I take a few photos. The ocean-like glittering caused by cold light meeting plastic translucence reminds me of a dive in Bali. Just after rolling off the boat, we found ourselves looking up at a surface covered by a thick layer of plastic bags and trash, probably dumped by a nearby boat. At the time, we didn’t do anything about it. Today, I feel embarrassed.

Saving the ocean 3

“Laut Kita” (“Our Ocean”) is an installation by Sejauh, an Indonesian fashion brand, attempting to educate the general public about the importance of reducing the use of disposable plastics and protecting the environment. The curator has juxtaposed images of Indonesia’s coastal beauty with stacks of plastic waste and recyclable bottles installed to mimic a kelp forest. “Indonesia is the second largest plastic waste producer with a total of 3.2 million tons per year,” Sari reads on the info board. “About 40% ends up in rivers and the ocean.” Ugh.

Saving the ocean 4

At the end of the installation, a group of kids has stopped in front of sign posts equipped with catchy slogans and data on how plastic pollution is destroying the ocean. I wonder what they think. Are they contemplating how to save the world, or are they just appalled by the extent to which their parents and friends have lived their lives at the expense of the environment? Perhaps a bit of both. I don’t dare to ask. As we leave, Josi writes a note about sharks in the guest book and Benji adds some color. Proud papa moment.

Saving the ocean 5

I didn’t expect that our trip to the mall would turn into a cognitive journey from consumerism to sustainable living. I’m glad it did. As the fluorescent lights of the mall continue to flicker and the ventilation system struggles to keep us cool, most shops and restaurants remain empty. The setting reminds me of a scene in Dawn of Dead, where people are looting the pharmacy for medicines, scavenging the supermarket for food and arming themselves in the hardware store. Let’s hope our current path of destruction won’t take us there. In the meantime, we can all do something to save the ocean. Why not start by recycling one plastic bottle at a time?

Saving the ocean 6

Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 1

Tate Britain bowls me over again. In one hit – in retrospect, a mistake – I get to take in the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Don McCullin with Mike Nelson as the bonus prize. These three stunning exhibitions could not be more different. I only have the morning. I move through them perhaps too quickly; the resulting cocktail of emotions takes me surprise.

Van Gogh came to London in 1873 at the age of twenty; he lived here for three years. England and english people inspired him; when his work became well-known, he in turn inspired English writers and painters.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Prison Courtyard” Oil on canvas 1890 (after Gustave Doré, “The exercise yard at Newgate Prison” Engraving on paper 1872.)

Long after leaving England, he painted a prison exercise yard. This was inspired by a fascination for London’s seedy underbelly and descriptions of the city’s prisons by Charles Dickens: a writer whom the young painter admired greatly.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Starry night” Oil on canvas, 1888

Years after his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s work was labelled “post-impressionism.” Some found the style shocking but exhibitions of his paintings in London drew thousands. The hall-mark brushstroke technique was eagerly adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters.

Soothed and enchanted by Vincent’s starry, starry night, I believe myself ready for Don McCullin. Wrong again!

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Don McCullin “Londonderry, Northern Ireland” 1971

Don McCullin is a legend. This comprehensive show covers his extraordinary sixty-year photographic trajectory through the world’s worst trouble – misery spots. There is a reason that the Tate has an advisory notice pertaining to his images. Much of the subject matter is heart-wrenching; the outstanding quality of the (self-printed!) photographs only serves to make them more powerful still. And there are hundreds of them. I recoil from the man-made suffering, the executions, the starvation and the dead bodies. It cuts just that bit close to my bone. I notice that the many viewers fuse into a sort of silent, shuffling, heavy-weight-around-neck chain gang tasked with looking at McCullin’s photos. Some of us loiter around his own escapism in the relatively few but exquisite landscapes and still-life studies.

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Don McCullin “Shell-shocked US Marine, the battle of Hué” 1968

I confine my focus to his portraits. Even these can be harrowing. Probably the best known is the Vietnam shell-shocked American soldier of whom he took several photos and who neither moved nor blinked over several minutes. In the trade, this is known as the “thousand-yard stare.” McCullin admits that receiving praise for photographing the suffering of others sits uncomfortably in his soul.

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Don McCullin “A boy at the funeral of his father who died of AIDS, Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia” 2000

I try – and fail – to imagine how McCullin has been able to cope with the extreme insecurity and distress inherent in his chosen contexts and then function professionally and creatively. I leave this landmark exhibition steeped in admiration for the man, his endurance, his compassion and for what he has achieved with his talent.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

I literally stumble into the Duveen galleries; the main central space of Tate Britain. I am looking at some old telegraph poles and a section of a wide concrete pipe laid out on some canvases all in a kind of makeshift roofless shed.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

The galleries are full of old machinery and a variety of heavy objects mostly associated with manufacture. Everything sits on a neat stone plinth. Is it an industrial museum? Is it a contemporary installation? Is it a tongue-in-cheek collection of big old heavy mechanical and electric stuff. Well…. all of the above! And what’s more, it contrasts rather deliciously with the classic architecture of the space. What I am standing in – and enthralled by – is “The Asset Striipers” created by Mike Nelson for the annual Tate Britain Commission.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

Nelson’s concept for the commission is that the Duveen Galleries become a kind of warehouse of objects that serve as monuments of Britain’s former industrial wealth just as the industrial is being superceded by the digital; as manufactrure is being superceded by service. To make the point, he selected and purchased all the objects through on-line auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators. I find the concept at once brilliant and intriguing.

Then suddenly I am drained. I feel as though I have just climbed off one of those roller-coaster rides that is supposed to be fun but, in reality, precipitates spells of wheeeeee… and white-knuckle nausea. I head for the main exit with a haste that surprises me. I find calm on Millbank; the black taxis, the River Thames and the unseasonably warm May London sunshine.

All images reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

The Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche

The Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche 1

Terre Blanche Golf Resort describes itself as a “Land of Inspiration in Provence.” In my mind, a reasonable claim. Even though it’s the French equivalent of Saint Andrews, I’m not only here for the golf. The club house and elegant surroundings are crammed with stylish contemporary sculpture. And big names too. However, despite the best efforts of the helpful staff, nobody can tell me the provenance of something that really captures my attention: a huge silver-steel-shiney orb sitting among some stunted oak trees that line the path down to the first tee. It is entirely out of place and all the more intriguing as a result.

The Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche 2

The object’s surface is covered with randomly spaced indentations of varying size; they are clearly meant to recall craters. It reminds of the first time I used a high powered telescope to look at the moon the surface of which is entirely covered by evidence of asteroid impacts. I read once about the “impact events” that have affected planet earth. Apparently, every 500,000 years an asteroid of more than 1km collides with earth; one of over 10 kilometres hits us every 20 million years (and extinguishes most life forms.) The reason that these craters are less obvious on earth as compared with the moon and other planets is simply because of water; many hit the sea and the signs of those that have had a terrestrial impact are slowly ground down by atmospheric erosion and plant life.

Fascinated, I wander around this lonely planet. I lay on a hand; the brilliant surface is smooth and very cold. On touching it with the tip of my nose, I detect a faint but definite metallic odour. I tap this beautiful sphere with my knuckles and am treated to a deep and distant resonant clang; it’s not a forest noise. Finding this sculpture here, completely discordant with it’s earthly surroundings, augments the other-worldly feel it gives out. Form and placement together result in an immensely satisfying piece of work. Does anyone know whose work it is? Or did it fall from the sky?

Damien Hirst’s take on Human Anatomy

I stroll through the Norwich University of the Arts. A massive skinned, dissected figure outside the St George’s building stops me in my tracks. Bells from my anatomist past are jangling. Is this now the Norwich School of Medicine?

Damien Hirst’s take on Human Anatomy

Damien Hirst “Hymn” Bronze, 2000

I ask at the reception desk what this is about. “Oh!” the nice lady replies with just a hint of condescension, “That’s Damien Hirst!” Ah!…. Silly me! I should have known. I learn that, unsurprisingly, the 7 metre high Hymn (play-on-words “Him”) caused controversy when first displayed. Is it “art”? (Pushing the boundaries etc. Same old!) Furthermore, it was claimed to be a direct copy of a 25cm educational toy; this resulted in a quiet financial settlement. Nevertheless, Hirst came out of it well by selling the sculpture to Charles Saatchi for £1 million.

Armed with this information I go back out onto the street and regard Hymn anew. With this sculpture, Hirst has within a few minutes taken me from curious to a bit embarrassed and then to intrigued. On knowing the provenance of Hymn, I then find myself admiring both the work and the concept. I ask myself if progressing through these mental steps is precisely what Hirst intended the viewer’s experience to involve. Whatever, he plays on our squeamish fascination for things scientific, forensic, visceral and medical and does so on a monumental and intimidating scale. This confrontation makes unavoidable the realisation that “Those are my insides!”

My last thought is: yes, Damien Hirst does it again whatever “it” may be. But then I’m sure that he couldn’t possibly give a damn what I think.