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Archive for June, 2011

life in mono

I’ve just returned from a few days in Paris. It wasn’t really a holiday – I went for business for something I’m not allowed to tell you about yet – but I admit I did stay an extra night for wandering and recharging the cultural batteries. I have a bit of a thing about the Grand Tour – it’s been the reason behind at least three recent commissions – and I’ve an idea to explore the greater Tour to see if it’s still relevant to contemporary art and architecture. Still, it’s no surprise Paris was the stepping off point for this great art and architecture adventure. It still seeps culture at every corner and is certainly the bedstone of the city.

I love Paris.

It’s an affair that started many years ago – and I was more than a little horrified to work out just how many. I started out as a photographer. I did all sorts, but mostly stuff for the music mags and editorial pieces for the broadsheet weekend magazines. My passion for photography in itself was born by the work of the early 20th century French reportage photographers I saw at the Barbican ‘Art or Nature’ exhibition in 1988. From that moment on I was hooked.

Atget’s urban landscapes were haunting, timeless capsules – documents of places and things, often devoid of people. They had a real stillness about them. Unhurried and full of detail – stories hidden in corners and through half-opened doorways.

Jaques-Henri Lartigue did great sweeping panoramas full of blurry atmosphere in glorious widescreen. Cartier-Bresson had a darker view of the seedier side of Paris, Wily Ronis and Robert Doisneau almost owned the genre of what is now known as street photography with volumes of classic and well known studies of people living, laughing, kissing, dancing, yelling playing in the streets.

But most of all for me there was André Kertèsz. He saw the city through strong graphical compositions often abstracting the mundane, everyday into a series of lines and shapes.

…and of course, this one!

Over four or five years, while I was working in a darkroom in London, I would make frequent trips to Paris in search of this light and a desire to capture that spirit in way I could just never do in London. I also had the advantage of working in a specialist photographic lab so processing and printing film, was not only free, but crafting those images in the darkroom – fine-tuning the combination of film type and paper and toners – in search of the timeless quality of those great images.

D'Orsay_Clock (1990)

Street near Pigale

Street near Pigale (1989)

Metro

Paris Metro (1990)

l'actrice (1989) - I loved these stencil works in the Marais district - all a good 15 years before Banksy made his name

So, last week, arriving in Paris with my trusty (now digital) Leica, I found myself switching it to black and white mode and shooting in 35mm full-frame format. With demise of my favourite fim and photographic paper, this was going to be the closest I could get to that experience of my youth.

The Institute Arabe (2011)

Saxaphone Busker on the Metro (2011)

tourists at Notre Dame

It may have been more than a decade since I was last in the city, but it seems in some respects some things change very slowly. Out of the city centre, away from the coach dumping points, there is still chracter and beauty in hidden corners. Glimpses through half-opened doorways and people leading their carefree existence – the joi de vivre.

I may not be a great photographer, and the images may not be the timeless classics of Kertesz or Brassai, but for the first time in over a decade I’ve fallen in love with my camera again.

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I love local stories. Everywhere has them. Things happen that for one reason or another people remember them, and tell other people, who tell other people, and so it goes on over time. Sometimes the telling peters out and for whatever reason the story stops getting told and eventually the story dies. Sometimes if the story is lucky it gets written down and lasts a bit longer.

Most of my work is temporary. Some more temporary than others. Obviously I like to document the pieces so there is at least some kind of record, and inevitably other people come and take their own photos too. Some have even painted them. However, I like to think they’ll last longest as memories for the people who experienced them – living on as stories.

Whooshy Spinney at Wreay

My latest piece is a meadow of 1,200 windmills next to Wreay  primary school near Carlisle in Cumbria, UK. It was the result of a period of working with the primary school and seeing what topics they were studying and how they could all come together as a single piece. It all started with a story –  Don Quixote and his tilting at windmills and cascaded down the school from there. It was a lovely piece to do, working with a great little school (only 60 or so kids and fantastic teachers) in such an inspiring village.

St. Mary’s Wreay (opposite the school) is one of those incredible little gems hidden away in the countryside. It was designed and built by Sarah Losh – a local girl who did the grand tour at the start of the 18th century and came back bursting with ideas and a passion for architecture. The village church was falling down, so she designed a new one drawn from all the architectural masterpieces she’d visited. And what she created is something so special. The decoration is incredible – flowers, birds and animals everywhere. The handcrafted nature of the place feels very arts and crafts and yet pre-dates it by over 50 years.

nave detail

You can find more about Sarah Losh and her church here or here. For me though, the strongest, and most touching aspect was the sense of happiness. Sarah didn’t like death, and here is a church with no symbols or mention of death anywhere. The only crucifix is a plain wooden cross. There is no graveyard outside (it’s a few hundred yards away on the other side of the village) and her own mausoleum is a simple barn-like structure a couple of fields away. And here, it’s that lack of death which makes the story all the more touching. As a memorial to her sister it speaks volumes.

inside St Mary, Wreay

A couple of weeks ago I was shown another, very different but equally touching story on the island of  Öland in Sweden. I was over doing a talk and some work for Yellowbox in Sättra, about the Middle Wood (Mittlandsskogen). One morning we had a drive around this woodland to get a sense of the place. I’d already been taken to an incredible Viking fortified settlement and done a walk with the local ecology officer. It’s a fascinating research project. On the road tour we passed this beautiful house:

House

Sweden has its own ingrained idea of socialism where it is just not socially acceptable to shout about your wealth, so houses tend to be very modest affairs from the outside. This however wasn’t. Going through a little cast iron gate on the other side of the road we found a non-garden with this:

It’s a concrete model of the house opposite. Beautiful in its own way. And yet, if you peered through one of the glazed upstairs windows there’s this photo in a frame on the wall:

There’s a beautiful story here. It’s not about wealth – there’s obviously something deeper and more touching at hand. The story is sketchy – it may be local, but it isn’t written down really.

Later in the day I was taken to a small, tidy churchyard to see the final piece in the story. A granite headstone of the same house. On the back, the simple quote from the ten commandments: “Do not covet your neighbour’s house”

Inside those three houses is a story of great beauty and love. I don’t think you need to know the details – the story is still there and will doubtless live on, long after the names are forgotten.

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Not in Venice

I’m feeling very sophisticated while I sup my beer in the sunshine beside a canal contemplating art installations. While the rest of the ArtWorld ™ are lording it up in Venice for the start of the 54th Biennale this week, squeezing onto overcrowded vaporetti and dodging the rain, I’m in the relatively civilised Northamptonshire countryside nailing some details for a vast installation I’m doing here as part of Flow in the summer.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Venice biennale. I love the crowds and chaos of opening week and never-ending supply of parties. For an artist who spends most of their time tucked away on the side of a mountain, it’s a unique opportunity to meet and mingle with other artist and curators from all over the world. There’s a lot of art there, and by the law of averages, some of it is actually quite good, but on the whole it’s all about networking – meeting new people, seeing new artists as well as catching up with random people you never get round to hooking up with back home. Everyone’s there – or so it seems.
Two years ago I was in the heart (and heat) of it with another installation spread over the lagoon. Although it nearly killed me, was about the most painful project I’d ever done (so no link) and it wasn’t really the piece I wanted to do, if I’m honest, I’d probably still do it again. It’s not the city that’s the draw – there are far better cities in the world. It’s the doors that doing something there for even a week in June can open up like no where else. If it wasn’t for an Arts Council curators’ trip in 2005, most of the big pieces I’ve done since probably wouldn’t have happened. And that’s not an exaggeration.

This is not the piece I did, but I'd still love to do it if anyone's interested....

Still, back in Northamptonshire I’m getting there with the installations. Originally the piece – NeneNine – was to be in the river Nene for a couple of weeks as part of the Flow programme. However, things are seldom as easy as they seem and for technical reasons we’ve had to delay the install until September and reduce the time to just 4 days – and even those are weather dependent. That’s left a big hole in the programme for August and a shorter exhibition period. Then up steps the wonderful British Waterways who have offered the canal network in the county as a venue with lots of enthusiasm. Not wanting to show the same piece twice, I’m now devising a new version of the Nene piece specifically for the canal. It’ll still be based on the Spires of Northamptonshire, but a little more ‘narrowboat’ in build and overall aesthetic. Besides, canals here are only 3ft. Deep and hardly flow at all. With less logistical issues I can spend more time developing and refining the piece. So much easier to float an artwork on our lovely canals than the river Nene or even the Venetian Lagoon.

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