Monthly Archives: December 2014

China Trip – Day 5 Xi’an

More tasty breakfast (mostly pork buns) and a swift check out by 8am. Most of the group went off to see the Xi’an city wall (apparently the biggest city wall in the world). A few of us, HB and I along with HB’s brother and his wife, went off on a special family expedition with a lady from the Xi’an cultural heritage centre. The expedition was to see an exhibition put together with help from HB’s cousin David Brough – about the work of a group of quakers who went to offer aid in China and Burma in the 1940s. It was lovely to see HB and his brother posing next to an old photograph of their great uncle Bill in the exhibition – the quaker group went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. A great article and more information is here.

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We rejoined the group at the Large Wild Goose Pagoda in town, a lovely temple which had all of the beauty and sincerity that the Famen temple didn’t. We got a very quick tour from a very keen tour guide who got very annoyed if we weren’t paying full attention. We had a small lecture on chinese calligraphy and painting, which was very interesting – and we were shown how to make ink and how to do the basic 8 strokes, as drawn in the character for eternity.

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After lunch we jumped on our bus, and stayed on it for a very long time. Epic bus ride through endless mountain tunnels to our next location – the legendary Wudang mountain. Our hotel was in town at the foot of the Wudang mountains scenic area.  We arrived late and hungry to an insanely cold hotel, where all the staff, even the waitresses at dinner were wearing outside coats and hats!

China Trip – Day 4 Xi’an

Woke up to a pollution count of 200; very glad we brought breathing masks with us. On a better note we woke to an unbelievable hotel breakfast with everything from hash browns and baked beans to the now compulsory congee and fried devils, pork buns, pickles, fried rice, veg, Danish pastries, croissants, peanut chilli noodles, infinite egg varieties and banana bread!

After eating as much as possible, we travelled a little out of the city to to tomb of the Tang Dynasty 3rd Emperor and Empress (Wu Ze Tian, China’s only female in the big seat). Wu Ze Tian rose from being a concubine to the 2nd Tang Emperor before seducing his son – who then returned her to the palace as his own concubine, and later wife, on his father’s death. The tour guide hinted at lots of other exciting tales, including murdering her own daughter and deposing other wives in order to take power. We were able to visit their mausoleum running alongside their tomb – other which was discovered in recent decades but not opened – waiting for a time when what is inside can be preserved. More evidence of a foresight and pan-generational perspective within China which I bet is unrivalled in the world.

We climbed the natural hill in which the tomb was found (but sealed with molten steel to be opened on pain of death – literally). Not bad considering I was in a skirt and casual shoes. Kind comparisons to gentlewomen lady Victorian explorers as I held up my skirt while scaling the near vertical and very slippery rocks near the summit. Interesting conversation from the tour guide on the way to lunch – who answers our questions about the Chinese views on the afterlife. As with the Saxons, Egyptians (and no doubt others), people would leave precious objects – food, money, weapons, pots and pans even animals in the grave to help the departed in the next life. In current times, most monotheistic religions and all but removed these types of traditions. In China, paper effigies of objects are now burnt as funeral offerings – paper money, paper cars, paper iphones even (to the bus’s amusement) paper wifi routers.

After this we went on to the Famen Temple, an enormous national complex of Buddism with everything you could possibly seek from an Avenue lined with giant Buddha statutes and meditative gardens with delicate music coming out of fake rocks on the ground. Sadly to us most of the complex felt cold and corporate with no feelings of tranquility or peace. The site is home to a sacred relic belonging to Sakyamuni – lost for centuries then found beneath an old pagoda on the site in the 1980s. We were lucky to get a sight of it in the new building recently constructed for it – and looking disturbingly like an pagoda housed within an alien death ray machine. We left unsatisfied (particularly the practicing buddhists among the group) feeling like we had just been through some sort of tourist propaganda.

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A better end to the night in the Xi’an Muslim quarter, with a bucketful of Bau – special dumplings with vegetable soup on the inside.

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China Trip – Day 3 Xi’an

4.30am wake up call. Ouch and very unhelpful while dealing with jet lag. Breakfast in a box on the bus to Beijing airport. HB joked that it would be ham sandwiches, and lo and behold it was: ham and cheese sandwich and a boiled egg – a Chinese view of what westerners eat. Quick bus journey and we were soon headed on a plane for Xi’an a couple of hours west of Beijing in Shaanxi province. The flight to Xi’an took us out over the mountains; another endless great expanse. You really start to feel the vastness of the country and understand how it affects the whole psychology of the people of China. The final descent into Xi’an was very impressive – views over paddy fields and open countryside. We were picked up by a new tour guide for the airport, who was funny and very knowledgable about the city. He was happy to discuss ancient history and switch to modern economics as we passed one of the seven power stations in the city. 9m people and Pollution count of 170; the smog was obvious and unpleasant.

First stop straight from the airport was the Terracotta Army, one of the things I’ve always wanted to see. Our guide told us of the history of the very first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who was the first man to unify China and end a long period of war. He was crowned (?) at 13, and already fearful of the afterlife, ordered work to begin on his tomb. The museum was amazing and very well done, showing the archeological work which has been done on preserving and restoring the parts of the huge site which have been excavated so far. Words cannot describe it and pictures do no justice to the endless rows and rows of ceramic warriors and horses which stand guard of the body of Emperor Qin.

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The tomb of Emperor Qin itself has not been opened, officials waiting for a time when China has the technology to preserve the grave goods know to be inside – apparently worth some significant % of China’s GDP. More evidence of the incredible Chinese long term view – this would be unheard of in the UK. The army was found by a farmer a few km from the hill where the tomb is thought to be. They are buried in long rows and were original,y positioned in long corridors with a wooden roof structure over them. Unfortunately, two years after the death of Emperor Qin at 50 years old, a peasant revolt saw the whole lot burned down, collapsing the roof onto the heads of the standing soldiers. This crushed many of the Warriors, and over the last 40 years, each man and horse has been reconstructed piece by piece. Only a few thousand left to do…

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Each of the soldiers faces are different, and very realistic, based upon the different ethnic groups present in Qin’s army at the time. I had heard that the potters of the time are likely have been influenced by Greek portraiture as this type of realism in ceramics hadn’t been seen before in Chinese art. So incredible, and somewhat creepy. This army would scare anyone, even from the afterlife.

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In the midst of all of this was a very tasty lunch, with more pork buns, and five varieties of hand pulled noodles. And soup. And deep fried aubergines, rice and oddly tasty warm stir-fried celery.

After the museum we went on to the Winter Palace, built for the Lady Yang during the Tang Dynasty. She was a concubine of one of the Tang Dynasty emperors, apparently famous for being very beautiful and a bit plump. The palace was destroyed many centuries ago, and rebuilt completely in 1980. It gave us a rather odd feeling wandering around a reconstruction, which was only casually dropped into conversation by the tour guide. The Lady Yang Wei Fei had some fascinating stories associated with her, including a meteoric rise up the ranks of the concubines from 7th level to 1st level in two years. Complicated business all these concubines and wives.

After the palace we went to dinner and then out for a walk near our hotel. We accidentally happened upon an amazing night Market – feeling like a glimpse into real China at last. Amazing Street food – meat or chilli tofu skewers, twirly bread sticks, flower pepper peanuts, pomegranates, watermelons, fried noodles as well as stalls of random stuff from beads to socks to iPhones.

China Trip – Day 1 & 2 Beijing

Well, what a week it has been!! Just arrived back into the UK after an epic 36 hour journey back from central China. Now getting round to writing up the amazingness of the trip away, due to hazy wifi while travelling.

Day 1

We arrived in the colossal Beijing airport around 9am local time (body clock time completely confused) and welcomed by the below freezing air on arrival. Being intrepid adventurers we went straight onto our tourist bus and on to visit the Summer Palace. Built for the Dowager Empress Ci Xi (the dragon lady) we walked around the massive site, getting our first glimpses of palace, temple, frozen lake and tales of imprisoned emperors, poisonings and sacred rocks.

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I found it very interesting to see how well the mix of vast modern city, with a rather ridiculous volume of neon everywhere, sits so neatly among such a range of old relics and sites. The mix of ancient heritage and modern seemed to me not to feel contradictory. Is this how the locals feel? After the summer palace we went out to lunch. Out tour guide was clearly used to some very unworldly people as she amusingly started trying to explain what Chinese food was (and how to use chopsticks) to us – a group of Kung fu students plus me who all eat rather a lot of Chinese food!

After lunch we made it to the hotel after a 2 hour drive from the other side of town (only just a few km away) to get a shower before heading back out. We went to visit Tiananmen Square on the way to dinner which we saw as the sun was setting. Very formal place, with a feeling of no real life – and strange to see the square so often portrayed on international TV as the heart of China’s capital city. Also quit strange to see the famous red gate with the haunting image of Chairman Mao ringing around the vast expanse of the a Forbidden City. From here we went to a tea house for food and to experience an amazing array of Chinese Cabaret acts – from Sichuan face changing, to opera singing, shadow play, traditional ladies dancing and a long spout teapot performance. Alongside an endless pot of tea and snacks. Great to see all locals in the audience too, it was nice to be the only westerners in the room.

Day 2

Breakfast in our hotel, which had Jingle Bells on repeat in the foyer (alongside the giant neon christmas tree, mini grotto and giant gingerbread house). Huge range of stuff from fried noodles, eggs steamed veggies, pickles, fruit, banana bread, a few nods to “western tastes” (bread, ham, cheese, Danish pastries and muffins). I was recommended the congee and fried Devils – which are my new favourite breakfast dish. As well as the pork buns. Hmmm, so tasty.

After stocking up on food, we ventured out into the -7C morning. Our tour bus took us a couple of hours north of Beijing into the mountains and Great Wall country. We went to a touristy but lovely spot – Badalin – where the wind was wickedly cold in the valley where we stopped. Even with 5 layers, bobble hat and bunny fur mittens I was still really cold until we started climbing. And climb we did! Up and down insanely steep slopes and steps for about an hour. At the top, the highest point in the reachable area, the girl guide in me came out and HB and I were the envy of the group as we whipped out a flask of hot tea and snacks. The view is amazing and is an amazing feat of engineering, you can clearly see while the raiding hordes would be terrified of it. It puts my local Roman Wall to shame! We were incredible lucky with the clear blue skies all day.

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Tasty lunch on the way back into the city, and a fight to see whether me or RW could eat more of the Gong Bao chicken. Can’t get enough of the flower pepper and peanut combo. Afternoon naps all round on the bus back after so much fresh air, stairs, food and a warm bus. We stopped in a temple grounds near to our hotel for a quick walk to wake up. There were so many locals hanging out playing cards, games and singing – such a nice contrast to the formal coldness of Tiananmen Square the night before. After a rest dinner and a new exciting dish of inside-out fish. Another one to try at home perhaps?

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Gallery trip with the Quilt Ladies

Nice day out with my fellow City and Guilds students to a couple of North London galleries. First up was the William Morris Gallery, which was showing an exhibition by Alke Schmidt: Tangled Yarns, exploring he politics and morality of the cotton trade.

Pretty challenging subject matter, but well presented and offers a slightly ambiguous perspective on the contradictions of the textile industry from the 18th century to the present day. Some photographic highlights:

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I rally liked the idea of using a textile backdrop as a canvas – this reminds me of the work I was doing during the spring as part of my portfolio preparation. Would be good to revisit these ideas.

After a lovely cuppa and a mince pie, we wandered over to the Whitechapel Gallery to see the Richard Tuttle exhibition. Very contrasting!! From the interesting, provocative work of Schmidt with a clear narrative and strong political message we were all pretty dumbfounded by the Tuttle display. I didn’t follow it – and found myself unable to comprehend or connect with any of the work. It was very much in what I would box as fine art made only for peers – I think you really needed to be part of the art establishment to have a clue what on earth it was all for. There was no craftsmanship on display, and I struggled to see the connection to textiles, language or weaving. What was I supposed to interpret from a piece of dyed fabric hung on the wall? I tried very hard to engage with the pieces but sadly to no avail.

What I did find interesting instead of the pieces themselves, were some of the poems and expressions around textiles which went with the exhibition. Although I found these did not relate in any way to the pieces on display, as a piece of poetry in and of themselves some were rather good. Some words below which I picked out that I particularly liked.

“Wood, the struggle. Cloth the grace
Picture the human condition and reprieve
Paint is drawing minus the reprieve
A tight weave holding excess
Argue for the little known fact
Architecture in fluid
Each element wasted
Any topology, a sculpture in a light source”

“Just as a series of single threads are woven to form a textile, words are interlaced to form sentences and meanin. Both textile and language can give clarity to out understanding of the world.”

Last day in college for 2014

Today we had a quiet catch up day where a few of us popped back into college for a chitchat on progress with Maiko.

I went over a quick summary of my thoughts on my current proposal (still without a question, but that’s ok for now)

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I talked through where I was with my City & Guilds stuff and also showed Maiko my Land art inspired leaf thing. On questioning, I couldn’t really explain why I had made it and what it was signifying. I knew I wanted to make it repent the fragility and transitory nature of the falling leaf, using patchwork, but what did this really have to do with my construction? And what did my work add above a simple pile of leaves? Hmm still some work to do on understanding this “working with intent” thing. Also need to watch the trap of using natural materials and adding something to a natural beauty which humans are programmed to respond to.

My thinking processes are good – so can I get is level of method into my making? Useful discussion though, with Maiko suggesting that I should focus on my skill areas – and see how translate / expand my quilting and sewing skills. Experimenting is fine, but I do need to progress the quality faster. Fair enough comment I thought. Some ideas on how to do this next term, which I will record here and remember to come back to!

– superimposing geometry and order where there is none (e.g. Taking random falling leaves and constructing a juxtaposed / more jarring order onto them)
– looking at ritual objects, particularly uses of textile and fibre in myth and ritual
– Analysing my practice through making (but properly, as I think I started this activity back in September, but got distracted by the Getting Making workshops and went off on a tangent)
A) expanding my skills into other mediums (e.g. Leaves, paper, wood)
B) using textiles but with new skills (e.g. Weaving, basketry)

I won’t be back into Camberwell until January now, and as I am starting to feel the pains of a very, very long year I am going to declare myself officially “on holiday”. Any making, reading or gallery visits etc (like the trip planned for tomorrow!) are bonuses but it’s time for a rest and silencing the brain noise.

ANT xx

Artists profile: Olafur Eliasson

Bringing together the pieces of my jigsaw puzzle proposal, brought me to one of my earlier artists references – Olafur Eliasson. He creates stunning installation pieces, often using or demonstrating natural phenomenon. Possibly one of my favourite artists of all time – even though I have only seen age of his pieces first hand.

To explain his work, I found some extracts from a great article on Eliasson’s MoMA exhibition Take your time.

“Eliasson is the master of inverting your expectations. Anything that you think you know about a space or a material goes out the window. His strength as an artist is his ability to look at materials or phenomenonal effects with a fresh eye. He is able to isolate the raw potential of a material so that it can be used to transform the experience of the viewer.”

“It is no coincidence that most of Eliasson’s exhibitions include the word “Your” in the title. He wants to emphasize that the experience is yours and not his. He sets up the environment and makes the work but after that you are on your own. Your participation and your awareness are a critical components to the completion of the work.”

“When you are walking through a science museum, the experience is about learning about the science between basic scientific phenomena. This is achieved by demonstrating basic scientific principles with simple models. The experience is about the principle behind the model. The model is the means for communicating the idea. Eliasson is able to take the raw experience of a visit to a science museum so that the experience of the models is enough. The experience does not have to be in the service of some concept or scientific principle. Science works from the specific to the general. Most art works in the opposite way; it works from general the specific. The distinction highlights the polarity between art and science. Both Hirst and Elliason take from the general, whether it is an animal, insect or scientific principle, and distills it down until that is something very specific. In certain circumstances and when seen with the right frame of mind, the specific can even become art.

A good example of this would Eliasson’s sublime Beauty from 1993. When you experience this work you walk into a space with black walls, floors, and ceiling. There is only one light fixture which points at a very gently falling mist that is produced from some overhead sprinklers. Other than the light and the mist the room is empty. You do not have anything to look at except for the falling mist. The light produces iridescent and rainbow like effects as the light is diffracted on the tiny droplets of water as it descends. The effect is not that different from looking at the mist from Multnomah Falls in the Gorge. But because the effect is isolated, the water transforms as it descends. The water becomes almost hair like and sometimes, for a split second, the mist becomes sculptural like it was made out of metal or stone.

In Beauty, not only is the set up great, but it is the transformation that makes the work successful. Water is allowed to do what it does naturally, but in the process becomes something much more rich and complex than you might have expected. It is always water but it becomes more than water. A parallel might be the way the Jackson Pollock dripped paint. The paint is controlled not only by the movement of Pollock’s body but it is also based on a series of natural characteristics as well: gravity, the viscosity of the paint, and the height of Pollock’s brush/stick above the canvas to name a few. Each of the characteristics is variable that leave their fingerprint on the work. In Eliasson’s case he uses fewer variables but they are exploited to great effect. He uses water with its unique optical properties, a misting system, and a light fixtures that would highlight the diffraction of the water. His achievement is that the final work transcends the materials that are used to make it.”

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While most of Eliasson’s work has to do with the optical properties of different materials the Model room is about an exploration of geometry and mathematics. The models are a way of making the geometry real. The mathematics are allowed to reveal their own inherent beauty. While the geometry itself is naturally compelling and beautiful the room lacks the specificity of other installations in the exhibition. You are never sure if the geometrical models are ends in and of themselves, or stepping stones in larger projects. Eliasson might enjoy that ambiguity. The model room is an interesting addition to the exhibit because the experience is completely different than the work in the rest of the show. You feel like you might be walking into Buckminster Fuller’s studio to view various works and geodesics in progress.

“You are reminded of a certain innocence about Eliasson’s work. It is a kind of wild eyed wonder at the mystery and potential of the world. It might be a kind of wonder about the properties of certain materials like water but it also might be about a simple beauty of certain shapes. The Model room is made of probably a hundred geodesic models mostly made of configurations of small triangles. It is a strange contrast to the rest of the exhibition. Most of the exhibition is very experiential but this room is about a collection of shapes and geometries that suggest new configurations of the shapes and surface that form a recurring theme in Eliasson’s work.”

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And some other of his great inspirational work

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And a TED Talk which I will figure out how to embed properly

The Politics of Fibre

Notes from Talk at the Whitechapel Art Gallery by Janis Jefferies and Grant Watson

– artists working outside the traditional expectations of what textiles is
– textiles being looked at as a sculptural material
– liberating the surface from the content of the frame
– break the rigidity of definitions, break the frame of reference
– natural connection from fibre to line to language
– textile and fibre works mutating, being reinvented according to the discourse of the moment
– thread of human connection
– ways of making and nun making the world
– is your craft expanding? Can you play and invent and re-invent? Once tidies up, framed and on the wall the work takes up its position and its discourse is fixed
– do we still have a hierarchy of materials or is there more acknowledgement of the repertoire of possibilities?
– so often a Political context – feminism often labelled when it isn’t
– textiles can be a transitory, mobile medium
– there are still issues of language and meaning, what you call your work can define how it is perceived

Lots and lots of artist references as well to look up
– Sam Gilliam
– Al Loving
– Richard Tuttle
– Richard Smith
– Anne Wilson (invisible labour made visible thought performance)
– Abocanowitz
– Lenore Tawney

And a few shows:
– Deliberate Entanglements (1975)
– Decorum
– Thread Lines
– Open Letter
– Textile art and the social fabric

Key thoughts for me to take forward
– AUTONOMY V UTILITY
– textiles as a transitory material

Visit to Pitt Rivers Museum

We had a very interesting visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford yesterday. It is a museum of anthropology and world archaeology with the feel of rooting around at the back of a dark cupboard of curiosities. Some really interesting stuff though.

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I was looking for things which might spark some ideas around my new working title ‘mythology, magic and mathematics’. Although things were unsurprisingly lacking on the mathematics front, there were certainly not on the first two! I couldn’t pick which pictures to upload and which to leave out, so I’ve gone for a gallery of a lot the stuff I photographed.

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It was lovely to see so many objects made with what people had available to them – the shells, feathers, grasses etc, but still made into highly significant ceremonial objects. I liked some of the techniques used to make the strings of beads from the shells, and although I really don’t want to go anywhere near skulls (way too creepy) – there was something interesting in the covering of a ‘precious’ object in the woven shell/rope thing which appeals.

It is easy to pull out the dramatic macabre stuff, like the skulls or the famous shrunken heads, but it is more intriguing to examine the relatively everyday objects – even if they are not “everyday objects” now, they were back in their times. These were special, often sacred objects made by ordinary people to get through life – and yet are often intricately crafted objects.  These weren’t always made by artisans, certainly not made by ‘artists’.

Ordinary people were looking to unknown spirits/gods, communion with them in times of scarcity or rites of passage; how much has really changed?  Our rituals: birth, coming of age, marriage, death, re-birth; flowering, harvest, winter, spring are all still the same….are just the gods and words and objects different now – but the meaning behind what humans do is as it always has been?