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Success. It’s a great concept, but what do you mean by success? Sure fast cars, big houses and pots of cash can be a fair indicator, but success can exist at all levels – like when your Yorkshire puddings rise evenly or when you put a piece of IKEA furniture together and you don’t have any pieces left over.

But what about art? When would you consider yourself a successful artist, or even how do you measure the success in an artwork? These are the kind of things you have to evaluate for funding reports and consultations. Stuff I don’t like doing and generally try to avoid, mostly because it’s full of questions like this.

Sure, last year’s PaperBridge in the Lake District seemed to be a success. It went up and stayed up. It even went down well with visitors attracting nearly 10 times what I’d anticipated. Pictures of it went around the world and it appeared on TV on four continents. That’s pretty successful isn’t it?

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‘PaperBridge’ in BBC Focus magazine

Well, if being popular with the general public is the measure of success then yes. But as a work of art, how do we measure success for that? Did it do all the things art needs to do? I’m not sure how we work that out. I’m quite sure it didn’t fail though. That’s a different thing.

One recent TV interview asked me about risks involved in putting up a bridge made of paper. In particular they wanted to know how sure I was that the one in China would take a car going over it. The honest answer to that was I wasn’t sure. It had never been done before at that scale so how would anyone know? In fact there was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work. It could so easily have failed and collapsed and trashed a £100k car. Sure we  took lots of precautions and did lots of complicated calculations. We even enrolled a world leading structural engineers to check it all over with the latest hi-tech computer modelling. But at the end of the day they had to admit there were too many unknowns involved in building big structures out of sheets of paper – a material not made for building bridges out of – to sign it off as safe. In short – no one knew for sure it was going to work.

On one level the risk-taking was part of the deal. That element of peril was part of the narrative. If it was easy it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. If it was easy someone else would have done it before, I’m sure.  Actually, as I’d built a bridge before I kind of knew how they behaved and was sure it’d be fine, so I probably over did the risk bit for dramatic effect – but I certainly didn’t tell the client.

What was important was that everyone involved was aware of the risk and was happy to take that risk with me.

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RangeRover on ‘PaperBridgeChina’. Suzhou, November 2015

There’s a real element of risk in all my projects. Someone once said to me – if you have a 100% success rate, you’re not taking enough risks. When you’re pushing at the boundaries of things, that’s where the excitement comes in and if you manage to pull it off then that’s where great things can happen.

In that respect, the opposite to risk and success is mediocrity. There’s nothing more dangerous than playing it safe. Taking the easy road. That’s where things get stuck or become so half baked they start to deteriorate into something much much worse.

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Mediocrity in all its splendour. This ad screen in Newcastle is sturdy, health and safety compliant, practical and meets all the planning regulations. What’s not to like? errr…. (image © James Perry via twitter)

Failure on the other hand isn’t so bad. Every now and then I have a project fail in me. More often then not it’s at such an early stage no one ever knows. I’ve lost track of the number of times projects I’ve been asked to get involved with have failed at the proposal stage. Some don’t even get that far. Mostly these are because the client doesn’t want to take a chance. Play it safe maybe. In which case, they’re just not the people I want to work with. Occasionally a project will get all the way to the final piece and then fail in spectacular style. That’s a different issue. I once had a high profile piece that was supposed to be up for 5 months, however it blew away after 5 days. Still, it went in if only for a short while, and even led to a chapter in a large international publication about just why it failed – the reasons were really interesting. I’m not sure the client saw it that way mind.

And then there’s the times that failures aren’t really failures. ‘Metropolis’ – the fritz Lang cinematic masterpiece. The first film with a final budget in the millions. It was only ever shown at one cinema before being deemed a flop by the studio. It was subsequently re-edited to a shorter story in an attempt to reclaim the costs.

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photo: Alex Stocker (1896 – 1962) – Ufa-Pavilion, Berlin. 1927

 

Schubert never heard any of his symphonies performed. Very little of his orchestral music was performed at all during his lifetime, yet his ‘Unfinished’ symphony is now regarded as one of the greats of its time.

More recently, Anish Kapoor’s ‘Orbit’ became the victim of a playing it safe mentality with the producers and suffered from an incursion of mediocrity that has now extended to installing a helterskelter slide down it. I think time is yet to decide on that piece.

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‘Orbit’ by Anish Kapoor at the Olympic Park, London. 2012

If I’m being brutally honest, I think there are problems with most of my pieces. There’s always something that doesn’t go to plan or work out quite how I wanted it. However, in most cases these are things other people generally don’t notice. Or I make a feature of them. That line between success and failure is so fine. So delicate in fact it’s barely there. Or at least not so you’d notice.

 

post script.

Since writing this bog post (sitting outside in the sun with a cup of tea) I’ve just stumbled across this wonderful book on failure by Erik Kessels. He does it so much better than me. Not sure why I bother sometimes…

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I like books. Books are good.

As much as I use a plethora of apps on my iphone in my work – from keeping track of what I’m doing in my calendar, to checking the fall of sunlight in any given place on any given day, to checking the level of the landscape, relative heights and geopositioning. Yet I’d be totally lost without my trusty notebooks.

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Yes, they’re all red. (I like red). They’re all Moleskine plain paper ones. I like the weight and feel of the books. They’re small enough to fit in a pocket so go everywhere with me, but sturdy enough to survive all weather and rough handling. Ive not had one fall apart on me yet. Well, this year they’ve not been in pockets long enough to fall apart as I’ve gotten through them at a fair pace.

As an artist, many presume they’re full of lovely sketches and doodles. That’s what artists do afterall, right?

Sadly, mine tend to be mostly full of equations:

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These are calculations for the balloons in ‘level’ in Peterborough back in February. Given the size of the space and budget I needed to work out the optimum balloon / helium ratio to achieve the overall effect I was after.

And the really boring bit working out how much sand I needed to keep each one in place.

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There’s lots of site plans in there too. This one is of the light fittings in a corridor in the York Nuclear Bunker:

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for this:

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and this is the dimensions of the central path inside the Forbidden Palace:

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(not the real one. Shhh!)

I’m also a big list person. There are lots of lists. When it’s particularly busy there’s daily ‘to do’ lists:

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And, very occasionally there’s entire magazine articles written in pavement cafes:

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But on the whole it’s diagrams..

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and lots and lots of calculations:

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The other nice thing about the moleskine books are the little pockets at the back. These generally fill up with receipts, but every so often  little momentos make their way in, like this from my ‘One Show’ appearance..

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or this polaroid by Justin Leighton of the PaperBridge site in Suzhou..

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So, in over 400 pages of scribbles from 2015, there’s just the one sketch…

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but more of that next year..

 

 

 

 

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Jean-Michel Jarre has a new album out.

OK. I’ve got to start a blog post somewhere and it’s been a while since the last one so be gentle on me.

But really. Jean-Michel does have a new album out. Predictably it’s all big synthesizers and arpeggios, only this time it’s collaborating with other big synthy people, like Tangerine Dream and Vince Clark and Moby and … er… Lang Lang.. Still, it’s predictably Jarre enough for me today.

Jarre at his best is a serious musician writing big, complex compositions using electronic synthesised instruments. Hugely prolific – having recorded over 20 albums since 1972 and influenced generations of electronic musicians – he’s kind of the Mozart of electronic music. And like Mozart, he’s quite partial to a tune or two.

In the 80’s he famously transformed his concerts into huge outdoor spectacles of light and sound. I’ve written about these in a previous post (a long time ago). For me, the transformation of city skylines as a backdrop for music has always fascinated me.

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Last year I embarked on a collaborative project with one of the orchestras I play with to create artworks of music and light in underground spaces. The Cobweb Orchestra is an amateur organisation that allows musician of any instrument and ability the opportunity to come together and play in an orchestra. There’s a number of regular weekly groups across the north of England and the project wanted to do something that united the whole membership and explore the region. And what unites the region is the heritage of going underground. Be that mining or shelter or transportation. So the Underground Orchestra project was born to play the music of the north deep within the land of the north. An orchestra playing underground is interesting and unusual. but an orchestra playing inside a light installation underground would be amazing and unique.

The difficulty comes with doing something that relates to both the location and the music, but doesn’t over power either. I wanted to do something that wasn’t stage lighting or lighting design, but could stand alone as an installation in its own right, yet became something again when combined with an orchestra.

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Long before Jean-Michel Jarre there was Thomas Wilfred.

Wilfred was born in Denmark in 1889. As a teenage he moved to New York and began experimenting with light as an artform. In 1919 he created his first ‘Clavilux’. A machine which through the use of mirrors and coloured glass, performed symphonies of light. Each composition was contained on a glass master disk so that in theory a machine could play different pieces. In reality, the machines were very different – each more advanced and complex. Opus 2 had its first public performance in 1922 to huge critical acclaim. In the audience that night was Leopold Stokowski – but more of him later.

As purely analogue machines, the compositions have a quality and presence that I fear is somewhat lost on Youtube. The machines themselves included curved screens behind curved glass creating a unique three-dimensional effect. Wilfred was adamant that his light compositions were not filmed – he saw the quality of light as a distinct artistic medium – so the only compositions that remain are with the 30 surviving Clavilux machines.

The quality of light and colour perception is a main component of James Turrell‘s work too.

‘Breathing Light’ – James Turrell 2013

I think it’s difficult to work with light and colour and not be influenced in some way by Turrell’s mastery of the medium, although recently Drake’s music video for ‘Hotline Bling’ might have come a bit too influenced..

The conductor Leopold Stokowski was particularly interested in the relationship between light and music. One of the more colourful characters of classical music, Stokowski was a bit of a showman. He’d famously throw scores onto the floor if he knew the music well enough. He also dismissed with the baton entirely, instead preferring exaggerated gestures using both hands to conduct the orchestra. In some of his more extravagant experiments he would plunge the orchestra and theatre into total darkness with only a light on his white gloves. On another occasion he spotlighted himself to cast a shadow of his movements above the orchestra. However, Stokowski’s main claim to fame is his legendary appearance in Disney’s ‘Fantasia‘. The opening sequence and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue are pure genius:


 

The great things about underground spaces is they are dark. really dark. The kind of dark where you genuinely can’t see your hand in front of your face. This means that whatever light you use, it’s pretty much going to be the only light. Of course there are issues that with an orchestra, the musicians are likely to want to see their music, which means some white light. But if you make a feature of that light rather than try to hide it, even the reading lights become part of the visual and part of the environment.

 

The first venue in October last year was the ‘Victoria Tunnel’ beneath Newcastle. The Victoria Tunnel was built to transport coal from the mines to boats on the river Tyne and runs right underneath the centre of the city of Newcastle.  I wrote more about it last year. As the first of the events I was keen to find a voice for the future events. Somewhere between Turrell and ‘Fantasia’ is what I had in mind. Using mono-frequency lights to give me a saturated blue light to accentuate the Purkinje effect – the way things tend to look bluer under very low light levels and the way moonlight seems to be devoid of colour. By using LED lights I could strip away the rest of the spectrum as it just wouldn’t exist beyond the 465nm wavelength. It’s technical, and you don’t need to understand how it works, but when you’re in it it’s very different to seeing photos of it.

The Cobweb Orchestra performing Michael Betteridge's 'From Mine to Tyne' in the Victoria Tunnel beneath Newcastle upon Tyne. 22nd October 2014

The Cobweb Orchestra performing Michael Betteridge’s ‘From Mine to Tyne’ in the Victoria Tunnel beneath Newcastle upon Tyne. 22nd October 2014

The main challenge of the tunnel was the listed nature of the structure itself. This meant that I couldn’t physically attach anything to the walls. So instead I had to devise a way of keeping the lights in place purely by springing them against the walls using carbon fibre rods.

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The restrictions were amplified at the next venue – the York Cold War Bunker. Built to monitor fall-out levels in the event of a nuclear attack the site oozes with the cold, steely fear of ‘the bomb’.

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As an English Heritage site, every last detail was listed. The very fabric of the building and every layer of paint on its surface had to be conserved. The solution to this was to filter the existing lights to create bodies of colour to set moods and define space.

With such little time to install and so many rooms to transform, everything had to be as simple as possible. Still continuing the Turrell / Disney inspiration, each room had its own character. The depth of colour and its changes through the building added to the unsettling atmosphere of this Cold war relic.

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In the women’s dormitory I used the same blue light as the tunnel, but added sound responsive white lights. The normally dormant pillows would progressively wake and glow in response to the volume of the music being played in that room.

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The third location – the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum presented its own challenges. Again the prime factors were the number of spaces (three) and the relatively short install time. One of the spaces was a drift mine shaft – a brick-lined tunnel sloping down into the ground about 80 metres long. There was enough space for three musicians to play at the bottom. However, there was a limit to the number of people who could be in the tunnel at any one time. I somehow needed to convey what was being played to an audience who may not even be in the tunnel.

the drift mine entrance

the drift mine entrance

For this I looked to Wilfred and his use of light as music. As it was a trio performing I figured they could be represented by the three primary colours of white light – red, green and blue. With each instrument linked to their own colour, the resulting projection would constantly change colour in direct response to the playing.

 

 

The next location was always going to be the centrepiece of the project. A full-sized symphony orchestra playing inside an iconic Lake District mountain. The space was vast – an old slate mine cavern deep within Fleetwith Pike at Honister. This would be the biggest orchestra of the project and at 80 – 90 people, the largest single underground audience. What was needed here was something on an equally grand scale.

Honister Slate Mine above Honister Pass in the Lake District, UK

Honister Slate Mine above Honister Pass in the Lake District, UK

A few years ago, when my studio was in a drafty barn on Stainmore, I was playing with smoke machines for a piece on the gothic decay of light in the clouds for a conference in Lancaster. This meant filling the studio with smoke to test the piece. At the end of the day as the sun was setting, my eldest came to see what I was up to and ended up playing in the shafts of light as they came through the gaps in the barn doors.

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It’s all so very Anthony McCall, but I liked the way you could see on top and underneath these shards of light. They had a real presence to them.

For the piece in Honister Mine I wanted to recreate those thin slices of light through the air – big flat, sharp slices in the way that slate is sliced cleanly down the grain.

testing the shards of light in a warehouse in Gateshead

testing the shards of light in a warehouse in Gateshead

‘Rive’ took weeks of development and testing to find the right light source for the right quality of light and the right sharpness of its edges. the installation inside the cavern alone took over a week.

Installing 'Rive' in Honister Slate Mine

Installing ‘Rive’ in Honister Slate Mine

The final piece was a series of thin shafts of light from the roof of the cavern to the floor. they had a solid, sculptural quality – you could look all around them and clearly see their edges, yet you could walk straight through them as if they were an apparition. Again this was a real experiential piece. No number of pictures or video really does them justice.

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By contrast, the final venue last week, was by far the smallest and most intimate. A single prison cell beneath the former town hall in Wallsend. THis was a very simple affair with musicians playing short 20 minute sets with room for no more than four players at a time. The cell door was kept closed and the audience could hear the music throughout the basement but could only see the players through the spyhole in the steel reinforced door.

wallsend prison cell

wallsend prison cell


The Underground Orchestra was no Jean-Michel Jarre experience. But neither did it want to be. These were small-scale performances in mostly very small-scale spaces. But was interesting was looking at the relationship between music, musicians, light, scale and location. The music was a key element – a wonderful programme of music from the Northern counties – historical and contemporary. Beyond being an investigation of the cultural heritage of the north, for me this was as much about exploring the landscapes that I live within.

There are many sides to landscapes. The underneath one was fun.

 

 

 

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Good things come to those who wait. Patience is a virtue. Cliché cliché maybe.

I’ve had my fair share of mad, short timescale projects. Some so short they almost felt like instant pop-ups. ‘Level’ in Peterborough earlier this year was devised and realised in 30 days.

Level in Peterborough

The ‘Paviljong’ in Sweden was a 14 day project, while ‘Souvenir’ in Shanghai in 2006 was less than 10 days from concept to finished pieces. Pieces like this are born and raised on adrenalin. It’s the only way.

My latest project, on the other hand comes from the opposite end of the timescale spectrum. ‘PaperBridge’ has been hanging around my life on and off for nearly five years, but a couple of weeks ago it finally became a reality.

PaperBridge

Around 22,000 pieces of paper arch over a beck at the foot of the Helvellyn range in the English Lake District. The bridge weighed over 4 tonnes and could support the weight of 60 sheep (if you could fit that many on it), yet it didn’t use any glue, nuts, bolt, screws or any other fixings. It was just pure paper wedged between two cages of stone.

Despite the long gestation period, it’s still felt a bit of a whirlwind project and the last two weeks of my life have been some of the craziest in a long while.

The bridge is in a fairly remote valley in the Lake District. The nearest village is Patterdale at the south end of Ullswater. Getting to the village from anywhere else requires either a long winding journey down the length of the second longest lake in England, or up and over the Kirkstone Pass – one of the steepest mountain passes in the country. From Patterdale (population 400) the bridge is a good two mile walk up the Grisedale Valley. A mass-tourist destination it isn’t. Because it’s a bridge made only of paper I wasn’t sure how well it would take to thousands of people crossing it, so I put it in a place where I thought not so many people would venture. It’s on the main Coast to Coast long distance path and there’s a nice 5 mile circular from the Ullswater villages, so it would get passing visitors OK and maybe the odd person venturing out just to see it.

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I’d allowed four days for the install incase of bad weather and to have some breathing space. I’d got a good team to hep build – Phil had helped build an earlier test piece, Ewan and Michael built drystone walls in Teesdale together (Ewan was also part of the God’s Bridge project a couple of years back), and there was Li – a second year architecture student from Newcastle. It was a pretty simple build once we got started so it should all be straight forward.

Michael and Phil had built the gabion abutments the week before to give them time to settle. There was a fresh fall of snow on the fell tops that day. Walking up the track towards the valley head those rocky peaks looked the daunting mountains they really are. This was the wild Lakeland landscape I was after. Not the bit most of the 16-million tourists who visit the Lakes each year see. The shocking statistic is that around 95% of visitors to the Lakes don’t travel further than 80m from their cars. I’ve seen them down at Bowness on Windermere cooing over the water and boats, eating ice cream and happy to be in ‘The Lakes’. Chiang Yee had seen the same thing back in the 1930’s. It hasn’t changed. But for me, those mountains. Those scary crags are what have really shaped the western idea of landscape. Writers, thinkers, poets and artists have been inspired by these distant, towering rocks over the past 200 years. Their names as old and layered with hinted stories as the art they inspire – Dollywagon Pike, St. Sunday Crag, Pinnacle, Striding Edge. The stream the bridge crosses – Nethermost Cove Beck – its name littered with the remnants of a Viking past.

installing the gabions

It had been a glorious April on the whole and every site visit I’d made this year had been still and sunny. It lulled me into a false sense of security. The Cumbrian weather had other ideas come May.

The first day was due to be just getting materials onto site. I’d arranged for all the paper and the wooden formers to be delivered on the same wagon so that everything could be carted up the track by tractor in one go. By the time the delivery wagon arrived it had been raining for over 12 hours non-stop. We knew this was no longer going to be as simple as we wanted. I followed the wagon up the narrow and steep track to the farm in the pouring rain, grateful that finally things were arriving. Only to discover that instead of 7 pallets with 4 tonnes of paper, there was only two pallets to unload. With no mobile phone signal in the valley I left the the farmer to cart what was there up as near to the bridge site as he could get and the team to move it the last bit by hand while I went off to sort the case of the missing consignments.

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By the time the rest of the materials were delivered the next day so much rain had fallen in the valley that the farmer couldn’t get a tractor anywhere near the bridge site. A frustrating 24 hours where we could do no more than check into the cottage I’d rented for the team and twiddle our thumbs.

By 7am on day three the sun was out and the wind had dropped. After fuelling on breakfast butties and tea we got an early start on things.

First task was putting together the flat-packed plywood former that the bridge was to be built over. The form was designed with Peter Foskett who’d previously worked on the ‘Seven Spires’ piece back in 2011. The former was designed in two halves and precision cut by CNC machine in Carlisle. The form was held together by pegs cut from the same sheets so the whole thing could be assembled without tools. The form was then supported on screw jacks and acrow-props between the abutments. One of the key secrets in the formwork design was the way the two halves could be jacked-up in the middle to help get the final pieces of paper in and keep the compression high across the arch.

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Once the former was in, it should then be a simple process of stacking the paper over the top. Two packs of paper followed by a wedge made of smaller sheets – the size and quantity having been predetermined in the design process. Nice and simple.

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Only the paper was in packs of 100 sheets – each sheet measuring 900mm x 700mm. Each pack weighing 17kg. And ALL the packs were on pallets over 500m the other side of a bog. The only way to get the paper onto the site was to carry them by hand. All 168 of them.

This wasn’t going to be a quick process.

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possibly the most remote pallet of paper ever

Paper that size and in those quantities isn’t an easy thing to handle. Once out of their protective wrapping the packs quickly lose their shape and rigidity. What started out as a one person job to stack the paper became a five person task by the end of the day.

As the day progressed we got slicker at building and got into a rhythm. The weather continued to improve so we kept going while things were in our favour. But by 8pm we were exhausted. Twelve solid hours hefting large packs of paper around was enough.

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Elm How was a great base for the install team. A huge traditional farmhouse with amazing original flagstone spiral staircase, it was large and comfortable and quiet. And only 15 minute walk up to the bridge site. Surrounded by fields of pedigree swaledale yows with their newborn lambs and shorthorn cattle calving in the barn next door, by night it was all stars, hooting owls and wandering badgers. Its isolation came with disconnection from the rest of the world – no mobile signal, no internet. On a morning when the rest of the country was waking to the aftermath of the general election, we were blisfully unaware of any of it. And it was lovely.

My original plans had been to build the bridge mid-week and if we got ahead of ourselves we’d just wrap it up in tarpaulins until the Friday morning. There had been a fair bit of media interest in the bridge over the previous week or so and I’d booked a minibus to bring people halfway up the track for the press launch. The 16-seater bus had already been over booked with photographers and at least two different TV crews. However, on the Thursday night I’d driven down into the village to pick up some leaky wifi to send some emails and discovered that every single press photographer and TV crew had cancelled at the last minute to do vote counts.

So press launch was to be a no press launch.

At least the pressure was off. We just had to get the bridge built by late morning in time for whoever decided to still come on the bus.

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As the final pieces were being hammered into place as small crowd was gathering on a rocky outcrop on the other side of the bog. The couple staying in the cottage behind Elm How had also come down to lend a hand. The plan to raise the centre sections up to get the last pieces of paper in didn’t quite work to plan as the acrow-props were being jacked further into the river bed rather than lifting, so the final pieces were done more with brute force and heavy whacking.

By the time the wooden formers were lowered and slid out there was a fair crowd gathered along both sides of the beck. a loud cheer as the final piece was removed and the pure red arch remained leaping over the water. I had expected the arch to sink a little at the top as the formers were lowered, but all that hammering and wedging the final pieces paid off and it didn’t move a jot as one side then the other was gradually lowered and I could see daylight between the paper and the plywood.

Despite the nearly five years of development, the many scale models, the months of testing in all weathers, and the long hours designing every last millimetre – that sense of relief when finally those thousands of sheets of bright red paper finally stood there on their own was immense.

While I tried to comprehend the wave of emotions sweeping through me as I stood next to that newly-born artwork, I had no idea this pile of paper was going to run my life for the next two weeks…

‘PaperBridge’ was commissioned by Lakes Culture with support from Arts Council England

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Time is a funny old thing.

It’s always around but there never seems enough of it. And look – there goes another year of the stuff. Gone. Fortunately there’s another one now. I hope it sticks around a bit longer than the last one – there’s so much to fit in it this time around.

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There’s nothing quite like a long, bracing walk to flush away the cobwebs from the brain and kickstart it again after the holiday season. Yesterday I ventured over the hills into Weardale and beyond to explore Rookhope. Like much of the upper dales, Rookhope grew up as a heart of the industrial landscape of lead and iron mining.

Buried deep in its own valley, limestone and pig lead were transported out of the village by way of a rope-hauled incline. A mile or so up the hill the wagons were then transported by steam loco across the network of lines that criss-crossed their way over the North Pennines to connect with the wider railway network in Consett, Tow Law and beyond to Newcastle and the Tyne docks. The line at the top of Bolts Law, above Rookhope, was the highest standard gauge railway in the UK. The long sweeping curve from Bolts Law to the junction at Park Head has some of the widest and wildest views in this part of the North Pennines with views out to the Sunderland coast on a clear day.

That line closed in 1923, yet you can still see the ghosts of the sleepers along the line. Landscape has memory. That’s a good thing as it has lots of stories to tell.

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I started the year off in Lochearnhead uncovering stories in the landscape within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. I’d been artist in residence since the previous September and was just refining some of the ideas I was working on. Some of the things I had become interested in were about sound and how in travelled in the vast wilderness landscapes of the highlands. I liked the two-way dialogue it had with the landscape – how sound could describe the character and material of the hills and lochs and woodlands and how in return the weather, temperature and ambience affected the quality and volume of sound.

There was also another narrative about National Parks – why they exist, who they exist for and how where they are, and the role that railways had in opening up wild landscapes to a wider population as an antidote to urbanism.

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The result of all this was a proposed 18-mile long sound installation based on steam engine whistles up a disused railway line. I’m genuinely excited by the ‘Whistle’ piece. I’d set out looking for a way to work with the scale of landscapes you get in the Scottish Highlands.

Back in February we did a first test using a couple of whistles in Glen Ogle. In April we upped that to six over two miles. That’s the longest distance I’d ever worked at so there was lots to learn. BBC Radio Scotland came down to see how it was going – you can hear the broadcast piece here:

Also in April I installed another sound piece. This time indoors in a gallery. The ‘Curlew Machine’ recreated the call of the curlew within the vaulted painting galleries at the wonderful Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in an attempt to capture the audible essence of the open North Pennine landscape as part of the ‘Gods Bridge’ group exhibition. Although the machine didn’t actually make the bird sound – there’s a blog post about why that was impossible – the sound was a recording of a brass whistle I created and sounded using the metal machine as a speaker unit. Just as the ‘Whistle’ piece uses the landscape to temper the sound, the ‘Curlew Machine’ used the lively acoustics of the barrel-vaulted roof to carry the bird song right through the entire building. The painting galleries are on the second floor so wherever you were in the museum the sound came from somewhere overhead – just as the lonely curlew call is in the wild.

curlew machine

May brought another three pieces into the landscape. This time back in the Lake District. A series of works and events which uncovered the history of looking at the landscape – from strategic Roman defences, through the picturesque and romantic movements to WWII lookout posts and subaquatic recordings.

‘Lookout’ was a concrete WWII pillbox clad in 3,000 reflective baubles:

Lookout

‘Scope’ was a giant kaleidoscope overlooking Windermere:

scope

and down at the southern end of Windermere, at Fell Foot Park, ‘Drop’ had its final outing:

drop at fell foot

In between were Chinese watercolour workshops at Rydal Hall, magnetic poetry on the car ferry and in two locations artist Bryony Purvis sent people’s mobile phones 1,000ft up into the sky under a bright yellow weather balloon.

_DSC3078---Version-2 Image0000027---Version-2

There’s a whole blog post on this project too..

June saw the creation of ‘Ravens’ – a artwork in grass designed to be seen from the sky. 2014 was the year the Tour de France came to Yorkshire. The media was full of pictures of huge crowds in beautiful green countryside. One of the comments I frequently get when doing lectures overseas is that people didn’t realise how stunning the north of England was. The Tour de France in Yorkshire not only showed the classic beauty of the county’s countryside, but also the spirit of the communities that live and work there. Creating a piece for one of the world’s largest sporting events was a truly memorable experience made even more special by the people and community I got to work with.

ravens

The summer months were marked by some of the sunniest and hottest weather in recent years. It was also when I moved out from my house on the mountain to somewhere equally stunning but more practical. I also moved into a sparkly new studio thanks to the wonderful people at UTASS. Having a proper studio away from home for the first time in years has been huge step for me. Although I feel like I’m still moving in, I can already see a change in the way I’m working. How that manifests itself over the next 12 months is yet to be seen, but I think this could be significant step.

studio pip

The autumn saw two last projects. The first was a low-key project with an infants school in Workington in West Cumbria. A really quick project working with five and six year old kids. We did big paintings – big for them (A3) and then scaled them up really big to a drawing in grass (25 metres). The original idea was to use big tarpaulin stencils to bleach the grass and change its colour by restricting photosynthesis. Probably too technical for a 6 year old, but potentially interesting for me. However, we probably started too late in the season and for what ever reason, after 6 weeks it wasn’t working properly, so we had to cheat a bit. It’s not a masterpiece and I don’t really do schools projects, but I quite liked the simplicity and naivety of the kids drawings. I quite like the effect too. Might use this again sometime…

grass drawing

The other piece saw a 22-piece orchestra perform in a 6ft wide tunnel underneath Newcastle. The collaborative project with the Cobweb Orchestra, composer Michael Betteridge and myself was a pilot for a larger series exploring the musical and subterranean heritage of the northern counties.  Michael wrote a new site-specific work for the orchestra which was performed alongside a programme of mostly new works from the North East. The thinking was a concert underground is an amazing thing in itself, but combining it with a light installation we could transform it into something incredible. The concert in October in front of a sell-out audience of 60 or so standing in pitch darkness was pulled together on a shoestring. To compound the problems the Victoria Tunnel is a listed structure so I couldn’t attach anything to the fabric of the tunnel. Still, I like a challenge. I used mono-frequency light sources (at around 465nm) – under low light conditions this part of the blue spectrum stimulates the brain in the same way that I use red in daylight. Something known as the Purkinje effect (it’s technical). The result is that visually the orchestra were in a block of pure colour. Doesn’t work so well in the photos (it relies on you being there) but still looks good with the head torches.

tunnel

In between all those things there’s been an endless stream of research and preparation for lots of new projects for the future. Quite when those futures will be is subject to lots of variables. Some are finance issues, some are way more complicated. Either way, they all take time. Fortunately time is going to be around for while yet.

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It’s that time of year again. The crowded summer is definitely over and the year is slowly winding down. The leaves are just at the turn of colour – give it another fortnight or so and those golds and reds will be in their prime. Already the sun is lower giving longer shadows and bringing shape and texture back to the fells. There’s an overall warmth to the light bathing everything in a cosy glow while the evening air is filled with the first of the log fires.

autumn colours

While there’s still a bit of warmth around and a good full day’s daylight it’s my favourite time of year – the landscape is at its best around now.

Back in 2004 this was also the time a bunch of us like-minded artists decided to shake up art in our rural corner of England.

Art in Cumbria at the time was dominated by the tourist landscape painting market. There were very few opportunities for artists to show their work outside the souvenir gallery scene. A few years previous a series of open studio events had started which began to open up the market a little. However, the open studio model only works for a distinct portion of artists – namely those who made work to sell clearly. Those who only worked to commission or outside of the commercial realm were still invisible to most people. Yet Cumbria – and the Lake District in particular – had a huge potential audience – in tourism terms second only to London in the UK. Clearly we were missing a trick.

cant john kelly

‘Cant’ – John Kelly 2005

The solution as we saw it was FRED – a 10-day ‘Art Invasion’ where artists created work outside the gallery environment and brought it into the path of everyday life.

It was an idea which turned into a vision which gathered pace and became something that just had to happen. So it did.

The first year was done on an absolute shoestring budget. I still wonder how on earth we managed to do anything at all that first year, but we did. With no sensible budget we encouraged artists to realise projects they always wanted to do but for whatever reason had never got round to doing. By getting enough artists to do those little projects at the same time we would generate a critical mass where the sum of all that activity became a much bigger thing. Well, that was the idea. To hold it all together we needed a brand and visual identity. We wanted this to look and feel like an artist uprising. For that it was important that every detail was regarded as a work of art.We managed to persuade David Haldane – a cartoonist for The Times – to come up with a branding which would be an artwork in itself. This idea that FRED was art everywhere – a bit like the ‘Humphrey’ milk marketing campaign in the ’70’s. Davids FRED cartoons became postcards and stickers and spray-painted roadside placards.

fred 2004

FRED – © David Haldane 2004

We also managed to secure the unused advertising space on the back of car park tickets right across the main tourist spots in the Lake District. Adele Prince was commissioned to create a series of artworks which turned car park stickers into artworks – not advertising. It was all very low-fi and more than a little anarchic. But something happened.

Adele Prince Carpark Tickets

Car park tickets © Adele Prince 2004

On the very first day the BBC news picked up the story of the parking ticket artworks and the ‘outdoor art festival in the Lake District’ and ran it on the half-hourly news slot on the ‘Today’ programme on radio 4. Probably the biggest radio audience in the UK. By the end of the day every BBC radio station in the country had phoned me up, followed by regional TV and a couple of national newspapers. It even made the front page of the local newspaper. This might not seem a big thing, but art NEVER featured on the cover of the Herald, let alone crazy contemporary art.

Coniston UFO

Julian Claxton re-creating the UK’s first ever UFO sighting in Coniston. The artist even secretly stayed at the B&B owned by the first person to report it when he was a school boy in the 50’s. (photo: FRED archive – unattributed)

Around 40 artist – some alone, some as groups – created temporary projects all over the county – from park benches to railway stations, dry stone walls to shops. We even had  piece in the tiger’s enclosure at the zoo.

The media coverage alone far outweighed anything that had ever happened art-wise in Cumbria before. Bigger than most stuff outside London even.

lakelife by gill baron

‘Lakelife’ by Gill Baron. A painting of an underwater dance in the bus stop at Newby Bridge. THe bus stop has since been replaced – however the parish council pressed for a wooden replica in order to preserve the painting. It’s still there after 10 years and well loved locally. (photo: FRED archive – unattributed)

The Arts Council were a bit embarrassed at its success having turned it down for funding and so suggested doing a book on it to get their logo somewhere.

Over the next couple of years the festival grew in size and ambition. In 2005 the marketing work of art was done by Graham Rawle who at the time had a regular slot on the Guardian with his Lost Consonants series

can you find the art graham rawle

FRED 2005 – can you find the ART? Original artwork.  © Graham Rawle 2005

Following on from the success of the car park tickets we wanted someone to do something on the back of till-roll receipts at the service station on the M6. A couple of probably quite cheeky emails enlisted fellow rural-based artist Jenny Holzer to create a coupe of new works. The new versions of Truisms and Survival Series as ‘For Cumbria’ appeared on the back of over half a million receipts over the 16 day festival and helped attract more serious arts coverage in the national press.

for cumbria jenny holzer

‘For Cumbria’ – Jenny Holzer 2005. image ©stevemessam 2005

Whilst the ambition and profile of the festival grew year on year, the budgets didn’t really. The marketing commissions remained the only paid commissions. All the other projects were only paid travel, accommodation and materials expenses. As such they weren’t commissions and the artists consequently had complete artistic control. Despite that each year we waded through up to 500 proposals from all around the world and whittled it down to just 30 or so projects.

FRED by Gordon Brown

FRED Everywhere – ©Gordon Brown 2007

On top of expenses covered we also provided the artists with project management, marketing skills training and got them the audience and exposure many public funded galleries only dream about.

statueofliberty

visitors sally barker

‘Visitor’ – Sally Barker. Iconic landmarks in miniature – included a grass Statue of Liberty and Easter Island heads made from sheep poo. photos © Tony West 2007

The whole event was one big learning experience for everyone involved. An annual contemporary art event like this had not been done before so we had no one to learn from except ourselves. Over the years we developed and refined the programme always looking to see what worked best and what failed completely. What worked best year on year was being able to take risks and exploiting the untapped potential of the rural environment.

weathercube gareth kennedy

‘Weathercube’ – Gareth Kennedy. 2007. photo: ©Tony West

Scale was one of the biggest assets. We could do things that even the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern would struggle to cope with. Engaging with the landscape was more than just about the visual presence. The experience of landscape was just as powerful. For some of the really remote pieces that journey to get to them was all part of it.

wildboar jan hicks

Installing the wild boar by Jan Hicks- a hill drawing on the fell where the last wild boar in England was shot, made from the fleeces of the sheep that graze there. photo: ©stevemessam 2006

The complete lack of light pollution preempted the ‘Dark Skies’ projects and illuminated artworks took on a whole new level of engagement with their surroundings.

shake pole richard box

‘Shake Pole’ by Richard Box. 2006. 300 fluorescent tubes planted beneath the national grid power lines which glowed through induction. photo courtesy of the artist

resonet 2007

‘ResoNet’ – Mark Tynan and William Chen. 2007. The tensile structure in a woodland responded to movement – the lights tracing the wave of motion across the surface in the wind. photo courtesy of the artists

'ThickSpace' by Aaron J. Robin, Laura Belevica & Feng Guochuan. 2008

‘ThickSpace’ by Aaron J. Robin, Laura Belevica & Feng Guochuan. 2008

enclosure by robbie colman and jo hodges

‘Enclosure’ by Robbie Coleman & Jo Hodges. photo © Tony West 2006

However, we never tired of the opportunity to take risks. The very human connection you get working in small, often isolated communities, meant it was easy to find like-minded souls who welcomed and even encouraged real subversiveness and damn right cheek most art institutions would never get away with.

tits by Jane Anderson

‘Tits’ – Jane Anderson 2006. This ornithology book was censored with every word except ‘tits’ tippexed out. Correctly catalogued and shelved in the library at Sedbergh. photo © Tony West 2006

FRED was more than just about spectacle or art in beautiful landscapes. It was also about local issues and connecting with the people who live there. The real rural issues overlooked by the urban media and politics – public transport (or lack of), disappearing petrol stations and libraries, Eastern European wagon drivers, the decline of upland farming. FRED wasn’t just about tourism, at its heart was engaging and speaking alongside rural communities. This wasn’t about trying to replicate an urban notion of contemporary art. It was about finding a rural voice – doing something that simply cannot be done in any city anywhere. It was about being rural and proud of it.

refuel noel connor

‘Refuel’ – Noel Connor 2008. Poetry on the pumps at a community-run petrol station in Brougton-in-Furness. Photo ©Tony West 2008

FRED’s strength came from looking outward rather than within. Projects weren’t restricted to the geographical boundaries of Cumbria. There were plenty in all the neighbouring counties and even one running in Bavaria one year. So many rural initiatives suffer from being too parochial. Less than a quarter of the artists came from the county. By the final year there were more proposals from overseas than from NW England. I guess to an overseas artist the draw of travelling abroad and creating a piece in stunning landscapes and having all your expenses covered is quite strong. Rural issues are similar around the world also, and the ability to voice them anywhere is rare. But that mix of the local and international often ended up strengthening everyone’s work.

all wrapped up ettie spencer

‘All Wrapped Up’ – Ettie Spencer 2008. The family hill farm was no longer viable and so was literally wrapped up (in bale wrap). photo ©stevemessam 2008

Doing an event working with up to 80 artists in maybe 60 locations over 2,600 sq. miles, every year is a huge undertaking. I certainly didn’t do it single-handed. There was a team of 5 or 6 dedicated artists every year working ceaselessly for what little crumbs we had to spare. All doing their bit and without who it would never have happened. But the funding was never right. In five years of bringing in thousands of people contributing hundreds of thousands to the local economy each year on top of developing the contemporary art environment in Cumbria, we never received a single penny from the County Council. Only in the final year did any of the local councils contribute more than £100. Raising the money was a year round job – each festival took 18 months to fund, plan and organise. The lack of enough money meant I was also creating all the print design, building websites documenting half the works and reinvesting my own money just keeping the thing afloat.

orange slice bridget kennedy

‘Orange Slice’ – Bridget Kennedy. photo ©Irene Sanderson 2007

After five non-stop years it was decided to call it a day and quit while we were still on top. Initially the excitement and momentum kept me going, but after all those years it left me physically, mentally and financially broken. FRED finally finished in October 2008.

uncommon ground ben teasdlae

‘Uncommon Ground’ – Benjamin Teasdale. Photo © Tony West 2008

FRED was a product of its time – the right people in the right place with the same idea. It happened but there’s no going back. I doubt anything like it will happen again in the same place. Behind the scenes it ended up in such a messy way I’ve deliberately avoided looking back at it for years. However, wherever I go people still speak highly of it – both local people who remember the mad things that happened in their village and rural communities around the world in awe of its energy and ambition.

Evening Glory Charles Monkhouse

‘Evening Glory’ – Charles Monkhouse. A necklace of light around Old Man Coniston. Photo ©stevemessam 2005

Over the past few months I’ve finally come round to being able to look back on it and see all the things it done. It may not have generated any Turner Prize winning art – it was far too anti-establishment for that – and it was always a bit ragged around the edges. But it was raw and real.

head mills and walton

‘Head’ – Russell Mills & Ian Walton. A gold-leafed shed on the site of Kurt Schwitter’s allotment

And that glorious early autumnal light made it just look amazing.

P.S. There’s a rough archive of all five years of FRED online here: www.fredsblog.co.uk

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“What do artists do?”

I looked over the sea of hands suddenly shot up from the hundred or so gathered five and six year-olds. Feeling all teachery standing up there at the front of the assembly hall, the choice was mine to make – pick one. Any one. I was pretty sure they all had the same answer. I don’t remember which and I picked in the end, but the response was like a punchline

“They paint things”

It’s not just small people even. I doubt I’m alone among artists either – that response when people ask what you do, you say ‘Artist’, they say “what do you paint?”.

My standard response is “skirting boards. Occasionally”.

There’s a general assumption that art is something you put on your wall. At best it’s something other people put on gallery walls. And don’t get me started on “art in unusual places”… what’s THAT supposed to mean?…

The flip side of this of course is that I obviously have walls at home and I like art. So what do artists have on their walls? I clearly don’t do wall stuff, and even if I did I doubt I’d have any of my own work at home. It’d be like an accountant having spreadsheets on the wall, or plumbers having their best soldered joints in frames.

I remember going to one artists house and seeing a small Dali on the wall – apparently a swap with Dali himself. I’d love to have one like that. Even just a Dali would be nice…

The other week, quite by chance, I got a signed print by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgerson. Actually I’ve not really thought of him as a hero until recently. I guess he’s probably most known for his iconic album covers for Pink Floyd – that prism for ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, and the flying pig over Battersea Power Station for ‘Animals’.

animals cover

‘Animals’ Pink Floyd – design by Storm Thorgerson / Hypgnosis

Back in my youth album cover design was a big thing. Factory Records had Peter Saville,

blue monday cover.

‘Blue Monday’ by New Order. Design by Peter Saville. Die-cut sleeve to look like a floppy disk (big old one)

'Technique' - New Order. Design by Peter Saville & Trevor Key. 1989

‘Technique’ – New Order. Design by Peter Saville & Trevor Key. 1989

4AD had (and still have) Vaughan Oliver

'The Moon and the Melodies' - Harold Budd, Elizabeth Frazer, Robin Guthrie & Simon Raymonde. Design by  Vaughan Oliver. Photograhy by Nigel Grierson. 1986

‘The Moon and the Melodies’ – Harold Budd, Elizabeth Frazer, Robin Guthrie & Simon Raymonde. Design by Vaughan Oliver. Photograhy by Nigel Grierson. 1986

'Filligree & Shadow' - This Mortal Coil. Design by Vaughan Oliver. Photography by Nigel Grierson. 1986

‘Filligree & Shadow’ – This Mortal Coil. Design by Vaughan Oliver. Photography by Nigel Grierson. 1986

and almost everyone else had Rob O’Connor at Stylorouge.

Juju album cover

‘Juju’ – Siouxsie and the Banshees. Design & Art Direction by Rob O’Connor. Photo artwork by Thomi Wroblewski. 1981

what kind of fool cover

‘What Kind of Fool’ – All About Eve. Design & Art Direction by Rob O’Connor. Photography by David Scheinmann. 1988

At the time I looked to record covers as where the exciting photography was and what I ultimately wanted to do. Peter Saville was pushing record sleeve design as works of art in their own right – most of the Factory records never featured the name of the band, or even album on the front and created a strong visual identity for the artists. Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson as 23envelope in contrast exerted their very individual style on every band that came on the 4AD label – unifying the label visually while transcending the style and nature of the individual bands (and not without a bit of a marmite split of support from the bands themselves). While many labels still chose to put pictures of the bands and singers on the records, these studios were turning product into a work of art.

The Factory / 4AD aesthetic (and particularly Grierson’s photography) was certainly in evidence in my early forays into record sleeves:

found

‘Found’ – EP. Waterglass. 1995

That strong visual element within certain streams of music I think shaped my musical tastes. I’m still guilty of judging a book by its cover. There are so many great bits of music and books I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for some brilliant photography on the cover.

But long before all that was Storm Thorgerson – the father of album cover art. Beyond every Pink Floyd album, his first studio – Hipgnosis – then subsequently Storm Studios – created some of most striking and downright surreal images of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s:

houses of the holy cover

‘Houses of the Holy’ – Led Zeppelin. 1973

deceptive bends cover

‘Deceptive Bends’ – 10cc. 1977

momentary lapse of reason cover

‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’ – Pink Floyd. 1987

wish you were here cover

‘Wish You Were Here’ – Pink Floyd. 1975

All classics in their own right, so I suppose were part of the cannon of music design and consequently part of the collective consciousness of artists working in that arena. Still, by the late 80’s, early nineties they all seemed a bit.. well, prog-rock and so dropped out of what I considered to be cool and relevant.

Yet, somehow bits must have stayed put in my psyche and could occasionally be seen subconsciously in bits and pieces, like this shoot for a theatre company where a man wakes up in a subway station at rush-hour:

sleepyhead

promo shoot for Vanishing Point theatre company in Glasgow. I’m guessing it’s about 1995. Looks like Kelvingrove subway station. Really was rush hour and had to wait for two trains to come in at the same time.

In the intervening years I’ve sought to find my own voice and visual path, and finally split from my music industry trajectory when I moved to Cumbria. Being out in the sticks has immersed my work with a whole new world of inspiration  and learning together with a whole different culture. The music industry has changed loads too – the downsizing of scale from 12″ vinyl to 6″ CD covers took away some of the visual emphasis. Since then iTunes and digital downloads have removed music from its packaging entirely. Around the same time MTV moved away from non-stop music videos and that great music design industry has largely slipped away.

 

Storm Thorgerson died in April last year. As with any passing of a great cultural figure there’s a period of reflection on that person’s achievements and a rediscovery of their forgotten genius. Storm Thorgerson, like Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville, comes from an era before digital manipulation. Oliver’s textural creations were created through a deep understanding of the reprographic processes and print technology to build up layers upon layers of image, graphics and text. Thorgerson on the other hand took a much more direct approach – to create the images for real and photograph them. Thorgerson’s images become more than just fantasies – they really happened. A product of immense prop building and researching the best landscape in the world to make it happen.

What I found most fascinating was now I saw another artist creating vastly ambitious temporary installations in vast open landscapes.

audioslave

‘Audioslave’. 2002

Coming at them from completely different places, the themes are so familiar

watercolour cover

‘Watercolour’ – Pendulum. Design by Storm Studios. 2010

red boxes

compare to ‘red boxes’ – installation on Ullswater for James Cropper Speciality Papers. ©stevemessam2009

smell the coffee

‘Wake Up and Smell the Coffee’ – The Cranberries. ©Stormstudios 2001

'Fairhaven Bubbles'. Probably my most Thorgersonesque piece to date. ©stevemessam 2012

‘Fairhaven Bubbles’. Probably my most Thorgersonesque piece to date. ©stevemessam 2012

As a commercial artist there’s a lot of output. Thorgerson seemed to publish books of his designs every few years. Sure the quality varies, and if I’m going to be particularly critical, I think a lot of the styling in the more recent work feels very dated and less contemporary – less aware of its time and place.

But then there are still gems.

The cover of ‘Only Revolutions’ by Biffy Clyro is Thorgerson at his best.

only revolutions

‘Only Revolutions’ – Biffy Clyro. Design by Storm Studios 2009

The theme of Revolution has a narrative of struggle and conflict – the figures face each other in a blindfolded dual. Each concealing heir weapon behind their back – a rolling pin and a knife. The resolutions having broken down, the peace table in flames. The huge flags rise in the air catching the wind, their colours reminding us of the French Revolution and Delacroix’s Marianne in ‘La Liberté’

'La Liberté' by Delacroix

‘La Liberté’ by Delacroix

This is where great album cover art works for me. Here is an image that’s more than a pretty design. It has depth and narrative like a Rennaissance painting. As a photograph it has authenticity, yet it has a real mystery and fiction too.

I’m glad I rediscovered Storm Thorgerson’s work. It’s a shame I came back too it too late and never got to meet him.

There are those influential people you look up to and aspire to become, and there are those that speak to you in a way that deeply affects how you think and work, or you connect with in such a way you follow their every output. Then there are those who you may or may not know about who just happen to think the same way or do things the same way – those are the people you share a path with.And then sometimes when you’re walking along your path and by chance you find someone who’s already managed to get to where you were heading. Those are your heroes.

…..

I’ve not gotten round to putting my print up yet. It’s all framed and standing on the kitchen table. But that’s the kind of thing I put on my wall.

print 006

 

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