(belated) happy holidays

I've been absent for a while: a beautiful snow-white Christmas has been and gone, and now, all of a sudden, it's almost a whole new decade. December has been an insanely busy month for me: I spent most of it either being ill or working on completing my masters dissertation, which I finally submitted on 23 December. Hurrah!

Now the dissertation is at long last completed, I'm anticipating a delightful 2010 including lots of lovely and frivolous things, and not much reading of serious books or indeed learning of any kind. And I'm also looking forward to spending more time here.

Hope everyone has had a jolly holiday - and happy new year!

[This lovely festive illustration is by J.P. Miller and comes via Grainedit]

sophie calle: talking to strangers

I love this beautiful photograph from Talking To Strangers, a retrospective exhibition of work by the French artist Sophie Calle, which I recently went to check out at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

The exhibition includes the premiere of the English language version of Prenez Soin de Vous (Take Care of Yourself), which was first shown as part of the 2007 Venice Biennale, and which I've been looking forward to seeing ever since I first heard about it. This installation is a response to an email Calle was sent by her lover, the unnamed ‘X’, ending their relationship, which concludes with the words ‘take care of yourself’. Calle invited women, ranging from a ballerina to an accountant, a tarot card reader to a sharp-shooter, to use their professional skills to interpret the text, as follows:

“I asked 107 women... chosen or their profession or skills, to interpret this letter. To analyse it, comment on it, dance it, sing it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me. Answer for me. It was a way of taking the time to break up. A way of taking care of myself.”

Walking through this beautifully presented installation, a combination of video, photography and text, we encounter the responses of everyone from a 9 year-old girl (‘It is sad’) to a criminologist (he says ‘I’ more than 30 times in a letter with 23 sentences’). Actors Jeanne Moreau and Miranda Richardson read the text aloud in French and English respectively; others interpret it through dance, music, puppetry and even chess; a children’s writer transforms it into a fairy tale; whilst my personal favourite, Brenda the green parrot, happily tears it to shreds in her beak. Prenez Soin de Vous is a deeply intriguing and often very entertaining work: I could happily have stood for hours exploring this fascinating multiplicity of responses. However there’s also something slightly unnerving about this cacophony of female voices, perhaps partly because it is so powerfully gendered. Whilst it can be read as a straightforward celebratory feminist artwork, the installation also hints to both aggression and obsession directed towards the invisible (and perhaps indeed fictional) excluded male subject, the unknown ‘X’. Yet there is the distinct sense here that the artist herself is aware of these tensions, subtly and playfully exploiting the sense of ambiguity in her work: we are left feeling that it would probably be possible to construct just as many different ‘readings’ of Calle’s artwork as there are responses to ‘X’s original text itself.

The exhibition continues upstairs with earlier works spanning the past 20 years of Calle’s career, many of which demonstrate a similar kind of subtle ambiguity. In The Sleepers (1979) the artist made one of her earliest forays into participatory and collaborative work, inviting 29 strangers to sleep in her bed; this interest is continued and developed through works like The Address Book (1983), a voyeuristic investigation of the owner of a found address book through the contacts listed within it, and Berck (2008) in which Calle invites a medium to determine her actions on the basis of clairvoyant predictions. Amongst these earlier pieces, I particularly enjoyed Gotham Handbook (1994), in which Calle follows to the letter a series of instructions sent to her by the writer Paul Auster - including talking to and smiling at strangers; handing out cheese sandwiches and cigarettes to homeless people; and adopting a corner of the city, in this case a phone box which she ornaments with flowers, snacks, magazines and ‘have a nice day’ notices - and minutely records the social interactions that result.

For me, Calle’s work seems distinctively French – elegant, disarmingly confident in its treatment of complex ideas, and exhibiting a sprinkle of charming, almost Amélie-like whimsy. But what I find particularly interesting and engaging about these works are their explicitly textual nature: this is art about language and interpretation, art that tells stories, art that requires reading – it’s no surprise to learn that Calle has collaborated with a writer like Auster, even appearing as a fictional character in one of his novels.

Altogether, Talking to Strangers was a fascinating experience: at once deeply personal, whilst simultaneously exhibiting a certain arch detachment. Indeed, intelligent and nuanced though they may be, what I finally liked most about these works is their playful sense of humour; even Prenez Soin de Vous itself comes with a knowing wink and a smile.

[Images via Whitechapel Gallery]

the haunted bookshop

One dark and stormy night this week, I ventured through the rainy streets of Shoreditch to the opening of a pop-up shop with a difference: the mysterious Black Dog Books.

Black Dog Books, which describes itself as “London’s most unusual bookshop” is the brainchild of East End gallery Black Rat Projects: a pop-up antiquarian bookshop, built inside their railway arch gallery. This beautifully-realised installation perfectly recreates the atmosphere of a tiny, creaky old-fashioned bookshop, complete with vintage fittings, an antique till and even a welcome mat. You can browse (and buy) a selection of books ranging from Where the Wild Things Are and The Gruffalo through pleasingly shabby paperback poetry books, through to a range of new artist books, exhibition catalogues, monographs and quirky artist-made fanzines.

But watch out for surprises: Black Dog Books is rumoured to be haunted. According to Black Rat Projects: “The idea of creating the bookshop came when the Black Rat owners slept in the gallery one evening and were woken by the toilet flushing and books falling from the office bookshelves. Thinking they were being burgled, they turned the lights on only to find the gallery empty. Asking around, a local landlord mentioned that the gallery had been used to store the stock of legendary Victorian book dealer F.J. Williams, who disappeared in 1903 and is rumoured to haunt various pubs and houses around the East End."

Black Rat Projects continue: "Reports have already been received of eerie incidents and strange happenings, with books magically flying off shelves, and lights switching themselves on and off. Halloween may have been and gone but the real ghosts and ghouls work all year round.”

Designed by Will Randall and Giles Walker, and supported by publishers including Tate and Thames and Hudson, Black Dog Books certainly makes the most of this supernatural history. I'm afraid I can't promise a genuine encounter with the ghosts of East End London, but there are some enjoyable uncanny touches here, not least the presence of a strange figure guarding the bookshop entrance...

Black Dog Books can be found at the Black Rat Projects gallery, through the Cargo garden, Arch 461, Kingsland Viaduct, 83 Rivington St, London.

under a red umbrella

I have to admit that there are some times when London feels like awfully hard work. Getting on and off endless buses and tubes and trains. Fighting your way through rush hour crowds. Negotiating the pedestrian crossings at Oxford Circus. Battling your way round Sainsbury’s in Angel on a Saturday afternoon. Encountering numerous random people who seem to be unaccountably angry about absolutely everything, for example, the man at Highbury and Islington station who has been known to stand on the platform and shout “You’re a LIAR” at the TFL guy with the megaphone when he’s just announced that a Good Service Is Currently Operating on the Victoria Line.

But then there are those other moments when London feels like everything you want it to be. Just recently, I was walking down Regent Street on one of those dark, wet evenings when everyone is hurrying to get home. All around me, everyone was elbowing their way onto buses and down into Oxford Circus underground station, but safe in the shelter of my red umbrella, there was something strangely pleasing about dawdling along the street, taking in all the shop windows, and admiring the kitsch Christmas lights down Carnaby Street. Shimmering with the rain, the street seemed transformed into somewhere unexpectedly magical. Perhaps for no other reason that everyone else was hurrying away into the dark at such a pace, for a moment or two, I felt as if the city belonged to me alone.

The crowning touch was stepping into Liberty’s to check out Luella’s Christmas grotto, and of course, to admire the magical Christmas windows – a riot of charmingly festive nostalgia:

For more pictures of the lovely Luella windows, check out Wee Birdy and Wish Wish Wish.

P.S. Whilst we're on the subject of Christmas windows, I must briefly mention the fabulous windows at Harrods, which this year have a special Wizard of Oz theme to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the film! You can even buy your very own pair of ruby slippers, though sadly by the time I had made it to Knightsbridge they had all sold out...

[Liberty's window image via Dazed Digital]

the museum of everything

The Museum of Everything: Art Comments

Take just a few steps away from the chi-chi cafes and boutiques of Primrose Hill; follow the hand-lettered red signs tied to the trees; turn left by Chalk Farm Library and you find yourself standing before a crooked doorway fit for a fairy-tale or funfair. The sign above the door, reads simply, in mismatched letters: EVERYTHING.

This is The Museum of Everything – a boldly-titled pop up gallery housed in a former dairy and recording studio, bringing together works by 90 artists from Europe, America and Asia. Yet what separates The Museum of Everything from London’s wealth of temporary art spaces and pop-up exhibitions is its subject matter: this gallery is devoted entirely to showcasing the very best in outsider art. The works on display here are created outside the mainstream art world, with its markets and its institutions: here, self-taught artists and makers represent a variety of extreme mental states, presenting a wealth of unique fantasy worlds and unconventional perspectives. As The Museum of Everything puts it: “For these artists there are no studies, no press junkets, no art fairs, no magazine spreads. Instead there are treasure troves of untrained work, discovered under rocks in basements and attics, its creators often unaware their art will ever see the light of day."
Henry Darger

Far from the conventional white cube gallery, the works in this exhibition are presented in a deliberately haphazard fashion, jumbled together in exuberant, and almost overwhelming chaos. You encounter these works in a series of dimly-lit rooms, twinkling with strings of fairy-lights; ducking down rough-floored corridors under swaying bead-fringed lampshades; tripping down tottering staircases and along a labyrinth of creaking passages; peeping through windows and vitrines into miniature theatres of the obscure and eccentric.

Rev BF Perkins: King Tut Treasure

Every turn offers something unexpected to discover, from Charles August Albert Dellschau’s intricate sketchbook pages to Emery Blagdon’s complex wire ‘Healing Machines’ to Morton Bartlett’s disturbing mannequins. This mixed-up assemblage of works certainly reveals the vitality and diversity of outsider art, ranging from the meticulous, systematic order of drawings by Hioyuki Dori and Heinrich Reisenbauer to the imaginative flamboyance of Russian military enthusiast Aleksander Lobanov. Each artist offer us a glimpse of their own particular imaginary space, be it the ghostly world of medium Madge Gill’s intricate black and white drawings, in which wistful female faces appear and disappear against an elaborate backdrop of Alice-in-Wonderland kaleidoscope patterns; Aloise Corbas’s portraits of fantasy princesses with flamboyant jewels and magnificent swirling hair; or Henry Darger’s ‘Vivian Girls’ – a complex, illustrated narrative about the heroic escapades of a group of beautiful young girls, which on closer inspection is disturbed by the inclusion of sinister and subversive elements in surrealist fashion. Peeping into these inner worlds, the viewer is occasionally invited to take a closer look through magnifying glasses or binoculars, in a clever play on the distance between gazer and object, artist and spectator, insider and outsider.

George Widener: Friday Disasters (Photo: Museum of Everything)

This quirky showcase of secret artworks is accompanied by a series of texts by well-known artistic and cultural figures, including Hans Ulrich Obrist, Peter Blake, Ed Ruscha, Grayson Perry, Mark Titchener, Eva Rothschild, Jeremy Deller, Jarvis Cocker and Nick Cave; yet thankfully, on the whole they resist the temptation to over-intellectualise, or obscure these works with contemporary art jargon. Instead, in general these texts appear to focus primarily on what inspires and excites about these works, setting the tone for an exhibition which skilfully side-steps value judgements. For in the end, it doesn’t really seem to matter who has made these works, or what their ‘outsider’ status might be: far from grappling with questions of what makes these works are ‘art’, instead The Museum of Everything is primarily focused on offering the viewer an idiosyncratic gallery experience. Though this quirkiness sometimes may feel a little too contrived, this higgledy-piggledy assemblage of artworks certainly conveys a vivid sense of intensity and frenetic energy often missing from a more conventional presentation of work.

Alfred Jensen

At the end of the journey you emerge, stepping through a ribbon curtain into a café that could be straight from a village fete – complete with tea, jam, and things to buy that have a pleasingly handmade aesthetic. Self-consciously kooky though it may well be, The Museum of Everything is certainly a memorable experience: a colourful treasure-trove of the surprising, thought-provoking and bizarre.

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new home

I've been absent for a while: work and dissertation have been occupying much of my time. I've also just moved into my new flat in Islington, the lovely land of red telephone boxes, falling leaves and Narnia street lamps. There really is no place like home!

Back soon, but in the meantime, I have an interview with author Sadie Jones on the Bookmunch website here, and a brand new review of Manchester Art Gallery's Angels of Anarchy exhibition on the Manchester Art Gallery site here.

[Image by Jenuine via My Love for You]

Angels of Anarchy at Manchester Art Gallery

This post was originally written for Manchester Art Gallery's Angels of Anarchy microsite.

Stepping down the dark red tunnel and entering Angels of Anarchy is like emerging into a hushed treasure trove of elaborate, otherworldly curiosities. There is so much to discover here, from Méret Oppenheim’s theatrical surrealist objects to the disturbed domestic spaces of Dorothea Tanning’s eerie gothic paintings; Frida Kahlo’s exuberant still-lifes to the elaborate, unquiet fantasy landscapes of Leonora Carrington. What is more, this selection of artworks from three generations of female surrealists is accompanied by a fascinating miscellany of ephemera – from the limited edition books and little magazines so essential to the development of the avant-garde movement, to personal letters, drawings, and even a tarot pack designed by Ithell Colquhoun.

But for me, the real treasure amongst this rich and diverse assembly is the selection of portraits. Much of the work in this section is less overtly surreal: instead, Eileen Agar’s illustrative pen and ink drawing, and Leonor Fini’s line and wash work are delicately graceful and understated; whilst Lee Miller’s warm and evocative portraits of her fellow artists are elegant, though often subtly uncanny. Yet interestingly it is also Miller who offers us one of the most troubling and indeed profoundly surreal self-portraits in this exhibition – a photograph of an amputated breast laid out on a plate, complete with knife, fork and napkin, as if ready for consumption. Meanwhile, looking at Claude Cahun’s miniature self-portraits is like peeping through a series of tiny windows at the disorientated artist-subject as she performs a whole series of different identities before the viewer. It is in this section that the complexities of female subjectivity, the tension between woman as muse and woman as creator, really begin to unravel themselves in full.

Like so many of the other twentieth century avant-garde art movements, surrealism has always seemed the enclave of iconic male artists: Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, André Breton and the rest. Yet the strikingly feminist artworks that make up this exhibition are easily as original and subversive as the better-known works of their male contemporaries, mounting a powerful, but often distinctively mischievous challenge to the conventions of art, as well as to the orthodox gender politics of their contemporaries. Especially intriguing is an array of drawings from the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, where art becomes the product of a communal creative activity, no longer the preserve of the individual (male) artistic genius, working in isolation, but something altogether more exuberant.

In the end, it was this sense of exuberance and energy that for me was most striking – and indeed, most enjoyable – about my delve into this haunting assemblage of artworks: Angels of Anarchy is above all an encounter with the dynamism and vitality of this secret history of twentieth-century avant-garde art.

[Image: On Being An Angel (1977) by Francesca Woodman, courtesy of George and Betty Woodman and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, via Manchester Art Gallery]

bloomberg new contemporaries 2009, cornerhouse

I have realised recently that I'm often just as struck by the mood or feel of an exhibition as I am by the individual works themeselves. This was particularly true of my recent whistle-stop tour of Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2009 at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

Now in its 60th year, New Contemporaries is made up of work selected from open submissions of work by the UK’s art school undergraduates and postgraduates. As such, there's no doubt that it's a difficult show to engage with: often controversial and often contested. This year's offering, selected by Ellen Gallagher, Saskia Olde Wolbers, John Stezaker and Wolfgang Tillmans, is no exception, even amongst the Manchester blogging community. For example, whilst Manchester Photography hails it as “THE Manchester show of the year so far” and for the Art of Fiction it is a “diverse, considered show”, runpaintrun characterises it as “the equivalent of a biggest vegetable competition at a country show. There is only so much you can be impressed by a marrow, how ever bloody big, shiny and perfectly formed it is.”

Now, I have to say I can appreciate where runpaintrun is coming from on this one. There’s no doubt that the quality of artworks in this show varies wildly – sometimes they’re experimental, sometimes controversial, sometimes intriguing, and sometimes just a little bit underwhelming. But for me, a visit to New Contemporaries is somewhat different from a visit to any other exhibition. It’s about a mood, an energy, an overall narrative. At the end of the day, New Contemporaries is a graduate show - albeit one of a very sophisticated kind - and as such, I enjoy it for the multiple directions it points me, the possibilities it offers for the future. It’s often a bit rough and raw around the edges and usually there’s a few works that I really can’t stand, but there's always something that stands out: this time, for me, it was Frances Blythe's melancholy and slightly spooky photographs of suburbia. What is more, amongst this thoughtfully-curated jumble, something rises to the surface - vitality, energy, and however misplaced it may be, an unabashed and strangely infectious optimism about the future of contemporary art.

[Image: Susanne Ludwig, Passing Church. Feasibility Fantasies via Cornerhouse]

mostly truthful

I had a lovely time reading at the launch of Mostly Truthful at Lancaster Liftest on Saturday. I must admit I expected it to be a little bit nerve-wracking as opposed to enjoyable, but in the end it proved to be an altogether very pleasant experience. It was great to be back in Lancaster, in the pleasingly familiar surroundings of the (albeit newly refurbished) Storey Institute and the audience were fantastic, but most of all, I really enjoyed the opportunity to hear my fellow writers, Jane Routh, Adrian Slatcher and Kate Feld, reading from their work.

Editor Sarah Hymas describes Mostly Truthful as "Flax's first adventure into creative non-fiction ... a vibrant collection of voices that represent a slice of now, of us being on the brink, as always, of change."

You can download the anthology, which also has an introduction by Jenn Ashworth, for free from the Litfest website here.

Creative Tourist's Top 25 Art and Culture Blogs

I’m pleased to report that I survived reading at the Manchester Blog Awards on Wednesday more or less intact. In fact, I had a great evening: I managed not to fall on my face getting either on or off the stage, and cleverly avoided being in any of the photographs of the event. Hooray!

Once the reading was over, I enjoyed catching up with Manchester pals, listening to Jenn’s tantalising reading from her new novel Cold Light, and generally making the most of the evening’s celebrations, though unfortunately I had to disappear just after the winners were announced to catch the train back to Lancaster. I’m afraid I didn’t win a prize this year – the Best Arts and Culture Blog Award went to Ella Wrendorfs of the excellent runpaintrunrun.

The other winners were the mysterious Lost in Manchester, for Best City and Neighbourhood Blog; Words and Fixtures, for Best New Blog and of course, the wonderful My Shitty Twenties, which was the deserving winner of not one but two awards – Best Writing on a Blog and Best Personal Blog. The full list of winners, including the judges' comments and the runners up, can be found here.

Creative Tourist, who sponsored the Best Arts and Culture Blog category this year, also announced at the awards event that they would be launching their list of Top 25 UK Arts and Culture Blogs later in the week - and yesterday I had a lovely surprise in the shape of this.

To select their list, Creative Tourist used a number of different measures to assess the popularity of a blog, including Technorati inlinks, Bloglines citations, Google readers numbers and Alexa data. The final 25 includes some fantastic blogs like We Make Money Not Art, Amelia’s Magazine, the Frieze blog, Jonathan Jones at the Guardian, Art in Liverpool, The Culture Vulture, and the FACT blog. It also includes (at number 16)… Follow the Yellow Brick Road!

I even have a jaunty yellow badge to prove it - check out that sidebar action.

In the Library

I'm spending a lot of time in libraries recently: from the amazing British Library where I'm spending most of my weekends, working on The Dreaded Dissertation, to the wonderful Barbican library, which keeps me in books to while away my daily commute.

Browsing the library shelves recently, I came upon an old favourite - an essay by the theorist Walter Benjamin entitled "Unpacking My Library". This essay is Benjamin’s hymn to his book collection, which for him becomes a “dwelling… with books as the building stones”: a home within a home into which he can disappear.

I too am a book collector. I haven't got many books here in London, but it's nice to know that back in Lancaster, they are all there waiting for me: my foundation stones, the books that built me up brick by brick. There are the vintage hardbacks with their faded paper jackets, their nostalgic endpapers, the titles arching across their spines in romantically twirled letters – Dimsie Moves Up, Dancer's Luck, Cherry Tree Perch – or dashing capitals – Underwater Adventure, Smuggler’s Cove, The Secret of Grey Walls. There are the 1970s library cast-offs with their laminated pastel covers, still shedding loose pages, tattooed with the marks of someone else’s felt-tip pen. There is that familiar rainbow of well-worn Armada paperbacks, unravelling my own past along their ragged spines: dog-eared Famous Fives and Chalet Schools interleaved with Nancy Drew adventures, priced in shillings and pence. A whole flock of Puffins: Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons jostling alongside Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers; Anne of Green Gables beside Stig of The Dump. They have a musty, archaic smell that for me will always evoke a long-lost world of bicycles and picnics and seaside adventures and plucky heroes and heroines, into which I too can disappear.

Assembled they are a cheerful, dog-eared muddle far removed from the elegant, clean-lined Parisian edifice I somehow associate with Benjamin’s book collection. This construction is infinitely more chaotic: a tiny crooked Nara-esque wendy house built out of disintegrating paperbacks, jumbled with childhood souvenirs, glinting with tarnished treasures that I can only peep at through miniature postage-stamp windows, stooping to catch distant, mysterious underwater sounds. This is my dwelling: a little house (with or without prairie), a secret garden, an enchanted wood.

Perhaps all this sounds a little too nostalgic, excessively dewy-eyed. Some years ago, I remember reading something Julie Burchill wrote in her column for The Guardian, where she derided people like me, the people who grew up secretly aspiring to “a childhood spent talking to the animals on Sunnybrook Farm perhaps, before going to board (sharing a room with Pollyanna) at Mallory Towers and then leaving with straight As to work in Narnia as Aslan’s personal assistant.” The piece was not in fact about children’s books at all, but something else entirely, yet this sentence stood out to me as if it had been highlighted, underlined in bright red pen. Burchill was doing her utmost to make the people she was describing sound ridiculous, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised this didn’t sound ridiculous at all to me. I couldn’t imagine joining Burchill in co-conspiratorial scorn at these deluded dreamers: in fact, if anything, I couldn’t help wondering how any self-respecting child raised on a diet of Blyton and C.S. Lewis could be reasonably expected to hope for anything else?

Today, “escapism” is so often dismissed with derision by writers and cultural critics: the recent tentative suggestion of children’s book author Anne Fine that maybe books don’t always need to be about realism, but instead could be the preserve of hope resulted in a barrage of criticism and condemnation. Yet from the vantage point of my paperback house, it seems to clear to me that sometimes we need to creep under the ivy, through a secret door in a garden wall, or embark on a riverside picnic with Ratty and Mole. We need to retain these happy endings, the loyal dogs and picnic baskets, the mysterious land at the back of the wardrobe. In a world where, as Thomas Wolfe once put it, “you can’t go home again,” maybe we all need a place to escape to, a “dwelling… with books as the building stones” into which we can retreat.

As for me, like Benjamin himself, I’m happiest “among… piles of volumes.” Right now, I have to admit that I really don't mind spending my Saturday morning in the British Library. In fact, I'm happy to be there, because wherever I go, I know that between bookshelves I’ll always find a home from home.

[Image by Arcane via Tumblr]

manchester blog awards and more

I’m half asleep this morning, owing to a whistle-stop journey up to Liverpool and back yesterday, followed by a book launch in the evening, and then a very disturbed night’s sleep resulting from a leaking ceiling. (What is it about me and leaking ceilings anyway? Is it something to do with my Lancashire roots – perhaps my special 'superhero' power is the ability to conjour water from the skies even when indoors?)

However, I just wanted to write a quick lunch-break post to say that Follow the Yellow Brick Road has been shortlisted for the most excellent Manchester Blog Awards once again this year – this time in the Best Arts and Culture category! Thank you very much Manchester Blog Awards!

I’ve been really enjoying making my way through this year’s shortlist, which includes some familiar delights like My Shitty 20s, Cynical Ben, Big City Little Girl, Manchester is Ace and Lady Levenshulme, as well as some fantastic new (to me) discoveries including Manchester Zedders, Justtesting, Lost in Manchester, Forgetting the Time, Words and Fixtures, I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car and ... well all of them really. And I’ve especially enjoyed reading my fellow nominees for Best Arts and Culture blog, which are all excellent.

Here’s the full short-list: definitely well worth checking out!

Best City and Neighbourhood Blog

Best Personal Blog

Best Arts and Culture Blog

Best Writing on a Blog

Best New Blog

The winners will be announced at the Manchester Blog Awards event at Band on the Wall on Wednesday, October 21. I'm going to be reading at the event, which is quite exciting! Find out more and book tickets here.

… and whilst we're on the subject of awards, I was also rather flattered to discover recently that I’d been bestowed the Plashing Vole’s very own special honour (what else but) The Order of the Vole!

Vole described FTYBR as “a stunningly literate and highbrow piece of work which conveys the excitement and variety of the arts world with delicacy and not a hint of the preciousness with so often permeates such affairs.”

Gosh. I am bridling as we speak. Shame there’s no one to show off at: I’m all alone in the office today but for a prawn and rocket ciabatta. Anyway, I reckon that’s not bad for someone who is currently doing a very convincing impression of a dormouse. Thanks very much Vole!

Right, self-congratulation lunch break over. Time to get back to the coalface…

Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959-2009

This week I had my first private view experience at the Serpentine Gallery, for the opening of the Gustav Metzger retrospective exhibition Decades 1959-2009. I was a bit disappointed not to spot any celebrity gallery-goers (my private view partner-in-crime Lisa tells me she spotted Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney at the last Serpentine opening) but enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere – al fresco drinks in the pavilion, and lots of impressive designer footwear on display – and of course, checking out the work itself!

Manchester folks may well remember Metzger as the artist responsible for Flailing Trees, the public artwork installed in the Manchester Peace Gardens during this year’s Manchester International Festival, which I blogged about very briefly back here, and have subsequently been acquired by the Whitworth Art Gallery. Metzger’s “inverted trees” prompted a mixed response from festival-goers: whilst some people loved them, others were notably underwhelmed.

The upside down trees are back in this show, alongside a whole range of other works, charting the development of Metzger’s distinctive “auto-destructive” practice: stacks of newspapers are exhibited alongside a smashed-up car wreck, whilst German racial laws on Jews from the 1930s and 1940s are displayed on a bright yellow wall. There is a film of Metzger creating auto-destructive art in the 1960s by hurling acid at a wall, and an interactive work in which gallery visitors are invited to crawl underneath an enormous green sheet where they will encounter enlarged photographs of Jews on the streets of Vienna in 1938. Throughout the exhibition, Metzger’s works remain highly politicised, touching on everything from nuclear weapons to climate change, forcefully exposing and documenting the excesses of consumerism, the destructive forces of capitalism, and the violence of 20th century history.

Yet whilst there’s no doubt that Metzger’s work is very potent, dealing with challenging and powerful ideas, ultimately I have to admit that like Flailing Trees, much of this exhibition left me mysteriously feeling a little cold. Even the most highly charged pieces in the show failed to provoke an emotive response. I'm not sure what it says about me and my attitude to art, but my favourite piece was in fact the least overtly political in the whole show – the Liquid Crystal Environment light projection, a darkened space where gently swirling colours and slowly mutating patterns were projected on the walls.

But regardless of my personal, intuitive response to these works, ultimately I would have to agree with Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian, who sums up Metzger’s work much better than I can: “at once playful and aggressive, plainly sincere and powerfully, brutally direct.”

Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959-2009 is showing at The Serpentine until 8 November.

[Image: Gustav Metzger's Liquid Crystal Environment commissioned for Tate Liverpool, via The Serpentine website]

Words and Pictures

I’ve always been unsure about whether it’s a good idea to write here about work-related matters. However, I just can’t resist saying a little something about the great event I was involved with organising at the Free Word Centre earlier this week.

Free Word is London’s new international centre for literature, literacy and freedom of expression. To celebrate the launch of this exciting new venue, Free Word is currently playing host to the first ever Free Word Festival, with events being organised by all the founder organisations - Apples and Snakes, Article 19, Booktrust, English PEN, Index on Censorship, The Arvon Foundation, The Literary Consultancy and The Reading Agency.

Words and Pictures was Booktrust’s contribution to the festival, bringing Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne, together with fellow award-winning illustrators Emily Gravett and Catherine Rayner to take part in a discussion about the value of picture books. These are three fantastic illustrators, with very different styles and approaches, and it was fascinating to hear them talking about their attitudes to making picture books.

Children's Laureate Anthony Browne has published over 40 books, and won numerous awards including the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Prize. His celebrated illustrations are strongly influenced by fine art and surrealism in particular. His characters (often his trademark gorillas or chimpanzees) inhabit a finely-detailed world, where visual clues help to convey a hidden meaning or to tell a story that may be only hinted at in the text. My favourite amongst his books is undoubtedly Gorilla, which I have vivid memories of reading as a child.

Anthony Browne, Voices in the Park, published by Random House

Emily Gravett's first book Wolves was published to much acclaim in 2005, winning several awards including the Kate Greenaway Medal. Her subsequent picture books have featured a menagerie of lovely animal characters, all drawn in her distinctive illustrative style, which often incorporates collage techniques. She is especially interested in books as objects that children can engage and interact with - I love her anarchic approach in both Wolves and also her newest book The Rabbit Problem.

Emily Gravett, Wolves, published by Macmillan

Catherine Rayner won this year's Kate Greenaway Medal with her book Harris Finds His Feet. Her beautiful, painterly illustrations of animals have won comparisons with one of my favourite ever children's book illustrators, Brian Wildsmith. I'm intrigued by the way she plays with the use of white space in her books, and experiments with design to compose each page in a unique and interesting way - and I especially love her gorgeous use of colour in Augustus and His Smile.

Catherine Rayner, Augustus and His Smile, published by Little Tiger

The thought-provoking and entertaining discussion that ensued, expertly chaired by Sunday Times journalist Nicolette Jones, covered everything from their favourite childhood picture books, to their individual stories of how they became children's book illustrators, to why they all believe picture books to be one of the most important and influential forms of art. Here's a few videos from the event:

The event finished with all three illustrators playing “the shape game” – a fun, collaborative drawing game that Anthony Browne is promoting as part of his laureateship as a way to encourage children (and adults) to draw, invent stories, and be creative.

Works by all three illustrators will be on display in the hall area of the Free Word Centre until the end of September. Find out more about the Free Word Festival and the other events coming up here.

London Fashion Week: Shoe Spotting

So this week was London Fashion Week, and since this is a blog that is (occasionally, ostensibly) about shoes, I thought it would be good to make the most of the moment and post about some shoe-related antics for a change. Here's my little LFW shoe round-up:

For anyone who was utterly baffled by peep-toe ankle boots last season, I'm afraid it looks like a look that's set to stay with us for a little while longer. Check out Julien Macdonald's and Matthew Williamson's futuristic beauties, just for starters. Personally I love them, but I have to admit they might be a tad impractial for a cold February morning. But then whoever said fashion was supposed to make sense?

Julien Macdonald: Matthew Williamson

On the subject of nonsensical, it's all getting very crazy and structural at Burberry Prorsum, Jean Pierre Braganza and Atalanta Weller, shoe designer for House of Holland. Is it a shoe? Is it a modernist sculpture? To be honest, it hardly seems to matter anymore.

Atalanta Weller via stylebubble

I have to admit I'm can't get very enthusiastic about the studded black statement boot which is set to be everywhere this autumn and winter, a la Christopher Kane for Topshop. Yes, they may pack a powerful post-punk punch. But they also look a wee bit sweaty and uncomfortable. I quite like this bold graphic style by Charles Anastase though.

Charles Anastase

Meanwhile Twenty8Twelve and Julien Macdonald demonstrated that the ubiquitous, and to be frank, deeply unflattering gladiator sandal is set to stay on the scene. Boo to shoes which are not designed for those with, shall we say, a less than sylph-like ankle!

Twenty8Twelve: Julien Macdonald

Why not opt for something a little more jaunty and colourful for jumping through spring puddles? Louise Goldin advocated sweet ankle socks in sugar and sherbet shades; Peter Jensen and Christopher Kane showed lemon-yellow lace-up boots; whilst Betty Jackson and Luella opted for nifty bows on the toes.

At Erdem, models strutted down the runway in mismatched floral pumps; Kinder Aggugini ornamented shoes with butterflies and bows of polka dot ribbon; whilst Mulberry offered us a veritable rainbow of ankle-strap sandals and lace-up high heels. Hurrah for pretty shoes this spring!

Kinder Aggugini: Luella: Betty Jackson: Erdem: Louise Goldin

(For more on London Fashion Week from some proper fashion bloggers, check out Style Bubble and Wish Wish Wish)

catching up

I’m back in London again, on a soft and greyish day. It’s really starting to feel like autumn here: walking through Bunhill Fields last week through the first falling leaves, wearing a jacket and boots for the first time, was a picture-perfect autumn moment.

It’s been a very, very hectic couple of weeks. I’ve spent a lot of time on trains, going here, there and everywhere in my work capacity. I’ve been to the Edinburgh Book Festival, as well as various other events and meetings, and have also been organising an exhibition of picture book illustrations and an accompanying event as part of the launch festival for the new Free Word Centre. And this weekend I was in Coventry for a conference of librarians – what a truly glamorous life I lead!

In any spare moments (few and far between) I’ve been trying to fit in my university studies, spending time in the library, and working, very slowly, on my dissertation. Even though getting it done is posing me with something of a challenge at the moment, I'm nonetheless enjoying it. I'm also glad it gives me the perfect excuse to head north on a regular basis, as I’m still studying at Manchester University.

Unfortunately, all this leaves little time for blogging or indeed writing of any kind: I haven’t even managed to write in my faithful diary for months. Interestingly, I’ve noticed this blog is increasingly drifting towards being more of an ‘arts’ type blog than the personal blog it once was. I’m not quite sure why that is, except maybe it's simply easier to write about impersonal things - books, exhibitions - when you are super busy, because there just isn't much time or brainpower left to have many interesting 'personal' thoughts.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to getting the dissertation finished and then I can (at least occasionally) have a life, and a perhaps even a brain, once again.

However, in the meantime there are, nevertheless, some good writing things happening. The most exciting is that I’m going to have some work published in the latest anthology from Litfest’s excellent publishing imprint, Flax. Mostly Truthful is Flax’s first nonfiction prose anthology, and also features work by Kate Feld, Adrian Slatcher and Jane Routh. There will also be a launch event as part of the Litfest programme in October at which we’ll all be (eek) appearing and (even more eek) reading from our work. You can check out the event and maybe even book a ticket to see it, right here.

P.S. follow the yellow brick road also pops up on Kate's Cultureometer over at the excellent Creative Tourist this month. Check it out here.

P.P.S. Look who's joined me down here in London Town - yep, it's my most glamorous blogging compatriot, the fabulous Ms Coco Laverne!

[Image via lavendardays on we heart it]

Keith Tyson: Cloud Choreography

Heading over to Parasol unit for the preview of Keith Tyson’s new show Cloud Choreography and Other Emergent Systems on Tuesday night was a pleasant interlude in an otherwise very long, very busy and rather stressful week.

This was my first visit to Parasol unit, and I enjoyed peeping into the wet garden, complete with green lily pool, and standing in the outdoor marquee listening to the rain drumming on the roof. What’s more, this new exhibition from the winner of the 2002 Turner Prize is itself a particularly enjoyable one, bringing together two different groups of Tyson’s work in an intriguing exploration of the artist’s systems and processes.

The first group of works features pieces that engage with and reflect natural processes and physical forms, ranging from as series of works rendered on large-scale aluminium sheets that have been treated with chemicals, resulting in the creation of beautiful, swirling, multi-coloured patterns, to a new series of works entitled Cloud Choreography representing the abstract shapes of cloud formations.

A second group of works focuses particularly on mathematical and process-driven systems, including sculptures from the Fractal Dice series, and a number of paintings that incorporate bizarre pseudo-scientific equations, in which mathematical formulae are jumbled together with mundane representations of ordinary life, from chairs and buckets to pigeons.

Taken together, these two groups of work reflect Tyson’s ongoing interest in introducing elements of chance, risk and randomness into his artwork, as well as his evident desire to disturb notions of ‘natural’ aesthetic beauty versus the scientific, drawing into question the very nature of the artwork itself. Through his practice, the artist appears to be undertaking an unconventional investigation of the world around him, becoming a kind of ‘mad scientist’ figure who attempts to discover the secrets of the universe through a whole series of fascinating yet utterly baffling processes and experiments. Exuberant and inventive, this quirky exhibition is well worth a look.

[Image: Mathematical Nature Painting: Nested, Keith Tyson, 2008 via Parasol unit]

manchester and lancaster: two new exhibitions

I’ve just returned from some time spent up north, where (amongst many other doings) I had the opportunity to take in a couple of new exhibitions:

Outlet is a new transitory project conceived by exocet, who previously brought us Porch (a temporary gallery space in the porch of a Chorlton house) and startrunning (a series of cross-artform events bringing together visual artists with experimental musicians). This is an independent artist-led space in an empty retail space in the Northern Quarter that will be playing host to “a series of varied exhibitions and spontaneous events.”

I went along to the preview of group show MISCELLANY, which included a wide variety of works by artists including Robert Bailey, Naomi Kashiwagi, Richard Kendrick and David Martin. Pieces ranged from Andrew Bracey’s lighthearted site-specific installation to Richard Shield’s exuberant line drawings. Together with other recent shows like Trade City, exhibitions such as MISCELLANY are indicative of the continued health and growth of Manchester’s artist-led scene.

Meanwhile, up in Lancaster on Friday, I was intrigued to visit the recently re-opened Storey Institute, in its new incarnation as a centre for creative industries. Resident organisations include Lancaster Litfest and of course, The Storey Gallery. The gallery's current exhibition is Strange Days and Some Flowers, a group show of “strange and uneasy work” that, like MISCELLANY, refuses to conform to the curatorial conventions of thematic shows accompanied by traditional gallery interpretation: instead, a playful selection of works are exhibited within a graphic jumble of scaffolding and crates.

This is a show with a very clear sense of humour, from Dan Baldwin’s jaunty rainbow-coloured paintings, memorably described as “Enid Blyton meets the apocalypse” to John Stark’s quirky bee-keepers and an enjoyably bizarre video installation by Mika Rottenberg. The sense of convention-busting childlike exuberance is continued through the availability of an audio tour given, not by the curator, but instead by two children sharing their thoughts on the works.

Personally, I was particularly pleased to see the Victoria and Albert statue is still in place, and especially that the long-established tradition of customising them for each show is continuing. On this occasion the somewhat serious pair had been garlanded with psychadelic flowers and joined by an assortment of multi-coloured companions in perfect accord with the atmosphere of the show.

[Images of Strange Days and Some Flowers via flickr, by beanphoto and Suzy Jones, copyright to the photographers and The Storey Gallery]

reading procrastination

As fellow procrastination expert The Plashing Vole wisely points out in his comment here, there are few better ways to avoid doing the reading you’re supposed to be doing (say for a certain dissertation) than by spending your time reading something else instead.

As part of my procrastinatory activities, I’ve recently been enjoying the first issue of Corridor 8 magazine, Curtis Sittenfeld’s brilliant American Wife, and two new books I’ve recently reviewed for Bookmunch: The Bride’s Farewell, the latest from Meg Rosoff; and Small Wars, Sadie Jones’s follow-up to her phenomenally successful debut The Outcast.

I’ve also been reading a selection of really excellent young adult novels: Judy Blundell’s engrossing What I Saw and How I Lied, a 1950s-set thriller with a hint of Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer; Jenny Valentine’s pleasingly kooky Finding Violet Park; and the completely gripping The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first part of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy. Ness is also currently online writer in residence at Booktrust: his blog and straight-talking tips for writers are well worth checking out. I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous of today’s teenagers: the wealth of excellent young adult writing out there at the moment makes a marked contrast with the dreary selection of Judy Blumes, Point Horrors and Sweet Valley Highs on offer in the teenage section of my local library, back in the darkest 1990s.

In addition, I’ve been browsing a couple of entertaining cookbooks: Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays, re-published by the wonderful Persephone Books – a witty 1920s guide to cooking and entertaining, with chapters entitled ‘For the Punctual and the Unpunctual’ and ‘A Motor Excursion Luncheon’ amongst others; and Joanna Weinberg’s distinctly 21st century equivalent, How to Feed Your Friends with Relish, described as "not exactly a cookbook… nor a domestic manual [but] a book about food and friendship and cooking and love." There’s something very pleasing about reading recipes: as Weinberg herself points out in the introduction to her book “they tell stories of happy endings, perfect-length fairytales to read at bedtime.”

And finally, I’ve also been re-visiting a few old favourites to help with a contribution I’ve recently put together for Untitled Books. If you’ve never visited Untitled Books, I urge you to check it out: as well as excellent book reviews, news and features, this literary website and online magazine is currently host to an interview with Helen Oyeyemi, brand new fiction from the likes of Evie Wyld and even a literary lonely hearts column. My contribution will be coming soon…

Basically, in the words of C.S. Lewis, "you can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me"… especially when there’s something else more productive I’m really supposed to be doing. Now, I’m off to put the kettle on… what shall I read next?

[These lovely bookcovers come via the book cover archive, alteration and the always-inspirational daydream lily]

weekend in edinburgh

I’ve just got back from a brief but action packed trip to Edinburgh for the Book Festival. Some quick highlights: watching wide-eyed children play drawing games with Children's Laureate Anthony Browne; eating local Scottish scallops; spotting a little old lady dancing all by herself to funky street music; beautiful views over the city from the top floor of the Chamber Street museum; people-watching, coffee-drinking and bookshop-browsing at the festival site at Charlotte Square Gardens; checking out Greenaway prize-winner Catherine Rayner’s beautiful illustrations (including a giant moose!); Eva Hesse’s delicate cheesecloth and papier mache studio works at The Fruitmarket Gallery; and spotting a super-cool China Mieville hanging out at the Author’s Yurt.

However I have to admit that my favourite moment of the whole weekend was probably watching three Grey seals catching up on a little peaceful sunbathing in Dunbar harbour on Sunday morning.

Now back to London again…

manchester blog awards 09

It’s that time of year again! Nominate your favourite blogs for the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards at the shiny new MBA website.

The categories are: Best Writing, Best Arts and Culture Blog, Best City or Neighbourhood Blog, Best New Blog and Best Personal Blog. You can nominate as many blogs as you like or even nominate your own, but make sure you get your nominations in by September 18.

Being shortlisted for two awards last year – and winning Best New Blog – was absolutely fantastic, and a real highlight of 2008 for me, so if you have a favourite blog, make sure you put it forward!

And don’t forget to book your ticket to attend the Blog Awards extravaganza itself, which this year will take place at the brand new Band on the Wall on October 21. The lovely Jenn Ashworth will be reading, and if last year’s event is anything to go by, it’s bound to be a great night.

breakfast procrastination

My still-unwritten dissertation is stalking me... I won't be able to avoid it for much longer, but in a last-ditch procrastination effort, I'm drinking coffee and looking at these beautiful breakfast pictures from the Bowhaus flickr photostream (via daydream lily and lovelorn unicorn) - the perfect viewing 'fodder' (arf arf) for a Sunday morning:

Pink goop on toast and Coco Pops with strawberries is most definitely where it’s at.

[all photos from the Bowhaus flickr photostream]

travelling moleskine

I was recently invited by the most excellent folks at The Culture Vulture to take part in their lovely Travelling Moleskine project as part of The Big Draw 2009.

The concept for the project is relatively simple: dozens of pristine new Moleskine notebooks have been ‘unleashed into the world,’ each with its own theme. The recipients of the notebook respond creatively to the theme on one or two pages of the notebook, and then passes it on to someone else, who in turn will make their own contribution, and pass the notebook on. The result will be dozens of mini collaborative exhibitions-in-a-book: completed Moleskines will be returned to The Culture Vulture at the end of September, to be exhibited as part of a special project exhibition.

I was very pleased to start the ball rolling for a beautiful brand new Moleskine, with the theme of ‘My Party Trick’:

I love projects like this, and especially anything involving collaging, doodling or drawing. However, I make no claims to be an artist (I didn't even take a GCSE in art and, to be honest, still struggle to stay inside the lines when colouring in) so I'm not sure my effort really stands up next to some of the much more accomplished responses to the project, which you can view at the flickr pool here - I especially love this one by Katie of What Katie Does. However, I certainly had myself a lot of fun with the felt-tip pens and stickers!

You can find out more about the project and some of the contributors so far on The Culture Vulture website, which is also an excellent place to go for information about all manner of cultural goings on in Leeds, Bradford and beyond.