Rain Room at the Barbican

According to the literature, Random International combine aesthetic purity and technical sophistication, to create works, often hard won, that explore materiality and immateriality, the animate and inanimate, alike.

What this means in practice, when it comes to Rain Room, currently on as a free exhibition in the Curve at the Barbican, is an interactive installation, of rain falling, through which you are invited to walk, without getting wet.

So popular is the show that the waiting time is currently a minimum of two hours.  We decided to go anyway, and to make the wait part of the event itself, which was just as well.  Arriving at 8:45 for an opening time of 11, we were second in line, but by the time it was 9:05 there were already scores of people behind us.  The was entertaining sport in watching the consternation on the faces of the people who thought they were arriving in plenty of time before it opened to get a good place in the queue only to discover that they would be joining the line beyond the ‘four hour wait from here’ sign.

By the time 11 am arrived, the waiting area was full to bursting of cross legged people, having breakfast picnics and cups of coffee, chatting or working on the laptops they brought with them for the wait.

Finally we were allowed into the Rain Room.  A darkened space, quiet apart from the sound of falling water.  We walked slowly through the falling rain toward the bright light ahead of us.  As we approached the water parted around each person.   We stretched out our arms, and spun around, throwing our shadows up the walls, challenging the water to anticipate our moves, both hoping to catch it out, and fearing the dampening consequences of too swift a move.

It was a magical experience, being bale to watch the water come on and go off, and to see the shadows and light glinting off the raindrops.

We’d waited a long time to see it, but it was worth it.

Rain Room is on at the Barbican until 3 March.

Jim Crace at Foyles

IMG00769-20130219-1931There is endless fascination in listening to writers talk about writing and their personal approach to it.

Every one is different; for each who extols the necessity of ‘writing what you know’, there are ten who insist that you must make stuff up, and for the ten who insist on years of research before setting pen to paper, there’s one who insists that you should just make stuff up.  There are the planners, setting out the skeleton of each chapter before writing anything, and then there are those who collect bits of pieces of writing together in files before they can work out what story it is they’re telling.  There are gushers and miniaturists, hand writers and iPad-ers.  For whatever aspect of character and approach you can find, it is also possible to find the polar opposite.

Maybe I’m just looking for reassurance that my own rather haphazard approach is as valid as any other.

Jim Crace (JC) is a writer whose work I admire, and as I have just read his new novel ‘Harvest‘, when a friend told me that he would be speaking at Foyles bookshop, I booked a place straight away.

He is a speaker to whom is very easy to listen, and was thought provoking in his analysis  of his own writing style.  He explained that while he might have tried to write according to what others might regard as a better way, he always returned to his own voice, which he described as the writing voice I have been given.  This voice is rhythmic, moralistic and serious, but not autobiographical .

JC suggested that his happy life is antithetical to the production of fiction inspired by the ‘use what you know’ principal, as fiction doesn’t like happiness, long contended marriages and well adjusted children.  Readers want to experience drama through fiction rather than experience it in life.

An attempt at a novel inspired by autobiography was abandoned, on the advice of his agent, after 30,000 words.  A couple of days after taking the decision to stop writing, despondent, he and his wife took a journey from their home in Birmingham to an art exhibition in London.  On the train, near Watford Gap, a generally unprepossessing space between two tiny hillocks, run through by a motorway, railway lines, home to a service station the butt of many jokes, and two rivers, one of which flows to the sea on the east coast and the other to the west, he noticed the ridge and furrow patterns in the surrounding fields.

It was that pattern in the landscape which started him thinking about the centuries of agricultural activity in England; that one of the important things about the country is that it has been occupied for so many years that there are layers of human habitation and history everywhere.  It is not possible to walk anywhere where no-one has walked before you; and that we are surrounded by the signs of history if we care to notice them; it’s all drenched in narrative.

At the watercolour exhibition the picture which jumped out at him was one of a bird’s eye view of field enclosures. This, together with his ‘Watford Gap Moment’, started him thinking about land clearances and the people affected; and that even if he wrote something ‘historical’ it could still have contemporary relevance as there have always been, and still are, people being turned off land.

He quoted Hilary Mantel’s ‘rule’ that in historical fiction if you are going to include a fact, then you must ensure that it is correct.  JC said he didn’t adhere to that tenet.  For him, facts create constraints on narrative imagination – the less you know, the more you can imagine.

The questions from the audience after he had read from Harvest, focussed on his stated intent that this would be his last novel.  Some people were worried about how he would express his creativity without fiction to write(!).  He assured us that he still has plans to write some natural history books, (which, with his love for making things up may not be entirely based on science), and that, after many years of sitting alone in his work room in his garage, he has other creative plans outside….and there’s always the possibility that he will change his mind and find the right ‘autobiographical’ book to write.

So, here’s to a Watford Gap Moment for us all today.

Drawn Forward

IMG_2936We had a few little flurries of snow yesterday.  Nothing that made any difference, other than to make a point of how cold it was, but those few little flakes dancing about on the wind reminded me of all the photographs I took when I went to Paris last month.  Then the snow was so thick on the ground it changed the look of the city.  It’s place I’ve visited many times and have taken scores of photos, but the whiteness of the ground and sky there everything into relief, compelling me to take even more.

It’s been something I’ve been thinking about in my writing recently too; taking something familiar, maybe overly familiar, and adding something new to make the perspective change, not something necessarily shocking or outrageous, but instead a salient detail which highlights the point of the narrative.

I like this photo of the gardens at the Palais Royal, because, although it’s possible to see how straight the avenues of trees are whatever the time of year, in the summer the leaves and branches create a shady walk, and on a ‘normal’ winter’s day everything blends together in a palette of greys, but on this snowy day, the eye is drawn inexorably towards the vanishing point ahead because of the dramatic contrast between dark and light colours of the elements in the view, and the geometric straightness of the line of trunks as well as the symmetry of the pruned branches.

What awaits the lone figure at the end of her walk?  An unhappy encounter with a faithless lover, or a warming cup of hot chocolate laced with cognac in a convivial café with her adult son?  Or something else?

Technology Eating Time

IMG_2979As a late adopter of most technology, when I do finally take the plunge it usually means a massive leap in sophistication which then involves me in a massive amount of learning and time wasting.

I’m currently in the middle of one of those phases, where time disappears into the jaws of feeling utterly incompetent, watching online instructions and the locating of long forgotten passwords, trying to get a new bit of kit to work.  It’s shiny, with a swishy swipy screen and I expect I’ll be able to use it fairly soon, fat fingers notwithstanding.

So, in the meantime here’s a photo of Hungerford Bridge by night(!)

Music and Movement

IMG_3008Even if we didn’t actually have any music, this week’s class was about capturing movement.  We had a model, and life drawing, as I expect I’ve said before, is my least favourite aspect of this learning to draw adventure.

But if we do have to sketch a person, it’s best for me if we have to do it quickly, because if we’ve only got three/five/ten minutes, and the model isn’t even sitting still, how can we expect anything other than to make a bit of a mess?  It’s when I’m left with more time and a requirement that it all be in proportion that it all tends to go really wrong…

So these are the best of the several rapid sketches I managed at yesterday’s class (and no, although the model was very slender, he didn’t have spindly legs like that – he’d never have been able to stand up on those calves….)IMG_3010

Lichtenstein – A Retrospective at Tate Modern

IMG_3001 Lichtenstein is best known for his paintings of comic strip type images. The canvasses are large, the images of weeping blondes and lantern jawed fighter pilots are close ups in bright primary colours, with areas of flat colour delineated by black outlines juxtaposed with dots of colour, simulating the way cheap comics are printed, but magnified so that they are a challenge to the way we look at the works.  There are speech bubbles telling us the thoughts of the characters, and descriptions of the narrative in the picture, and every element is a cliché of the all America action hero comic books.

 The challenge is there to consider where popular and ‘high’ culture meet.  Is he endorsing the stereotypical images, or has he put them in high relief to make us look at them more closely?  It’s a very dispassionate, analytical way of looking at the world.

The large retrospective at the Tate Modern starts with his first pop art works, and although there are a couple of examples of his earlier works shown towards the end of the show alongside some reworkings of abstract pieces he did at the end of his life, it is as if he arrived at his distinctive style fully formed.

I feel as if I’ve seen a lot of dots and spots at Tate Modern in the last couple of years; first there was Yayoi Kusama with her obsessive application of dots to whole scenes and three dimensional installations, then the repetitive, factory produced spots from  Damien Hirst.  Lichtenstein has  his own style of dots, produced, I’ve now learnt, using something called Ben-day, a sort of stencilling process, to mimic the printing process used in pulp fiction.

I’ve seen some of the comic strip paintings before, but what I enjoyed mist about this exhibition was seeing the other groups of works he created: a series of monochrome still lives, a golf ball,  a tire, a dissolving alka selter, all sharp lines and shapes making strong graphic images, making me think about how little in line and shape are necessary to construct an image.

The next rooms contained pastiches or parodies of other great works, a sort of conversation with other artists and paintings about paintings.  It becomes clear that once he’d established his visual language, and we have become familiar with it, we can recognise it anywhere.  I enjoyed the wit and humour of these works.   His playing with the ideas of Chinese landscape where he captured a sense of perspective by using different sized dots, were a surprise too.

By the end of the exhibition, I had a much better understanding of the range of things which had interested him, and the conversation he had through his work with the history of painting.

It’s All Material

IMG00767-20130215-1405There are some experiences which are simply easier to cope with, if, while they’re going on, I think about how they are raw material, which I shall be able to use one day.  It is by no means always clear how I might be able to use them, in fact it frequently seems highly unlikely, but that doesn’t stop the thought process from being extremely helpful, especially when the experience in question has exercise in futility written all over it.

This all started when, for reasons that are far too dull to bore you with, I needed to take a reading off the water meter for my flat.  Now I’ve lived in the same flat for several years, and I pay for my water with regular monthly direct debits, and a couple of times a year I receive a bill, which, so long as, using that age old auditor’s trick, it looks much like the one for the previous year, I’ve never thought twice about.

According to these six monthly bills, they are calculated according to an accurate reading from a meter; so someone must come periodically to take the reading.   But where from?

Just outside, and around the corner, there are four manhole covers, down which I was promised I would find my meter.  Trouble was, no-one knew down which of the four it would be, nor which of the 8 dials in each hole would be mine.  I have a 16 digit alpha numerical identification code, but embossed plastic when down a five foot deep wet hole become encrusted with mud very easily.

I was lucky to have help from S, who came equipped with a crowbar to lever up the manhole covers, and the thick gloves necessary to operate this sophisticated tool; and thankfully, most usefully of all, he was prepared to lie full length on the muddy turf beside the hole to try to decipher which meter was which.  When this revealed nothing other than the installation appeared to be in a random order, I ran inside and sent a morse code message through the pipes by way of turning the kitchen tap on and off at 10 second intervals.

Ta da!  Finally it was identified.  It has left me with the lingering doubt that I have ever received a bill for the right supply, but, more importantly, I’ve seen down the hole, and through into an underground world where confusion reigns.

Mountains – Photo

IMG_0098There’s never a wrong time for a photograph of mountains, is there?  And my photo archive and stacks of albums contain many images of jagged edges, snow topped peaks and red faced walkers pausing half way up to either put their jumpers on, or to take them off.

This is my favourite of them all, I think, because when I look at it, I remember exactly where I was, and how up until the moment the clouds cleared, how weary and resigned I had been feeling.

It was in Nepal, and it had been a long haul of a day, by the end of which I was wondering why I was putting myself through all the slog of climbing ever higher, and anticipating, with no great enthusiasm, another cold night in a tent.  We were sitting inside a tea-house having a hot drink and playing travel Scrabble.  The word game was compulsory as the group leader used it to monitor our cognitive function at high altitude, which at that stage wasn’t that impressive as evidenced by the fact that none of the words on the board were longer than four letters.

The day had been overcast, and consequently dusk seemed to be falling more quickly than usual.  And then we looked out of the window and saw the clouds part and the mountain appeared.  With more energy than I had felt since we’d set off from Lukla, I leapt up, and ran outside with everyone else to catch a better view.  It was fleeting; within a minute or so, the peak had disappeared again, and I began to doubt that it had ever been there.  Maybe it never happened at all.

Home Tourist Up The Gherkin

IMG_2986Even after living in London for many years there are still parts of the City that I really don’t know very well.  In my own defence, I’ve never worked in the Square Mile: I’ve always been a West End girl, the furthest East I’ve been for any length of time was in an office just off the Strand near the Law Courts.

So when I was invited for drinks in the bar at the top of the Gherkin, I’ll admit it, even though it is one of the most recognisable buildings in the London skyline, I had to look it up online to find its address (30 St Mary Axe, for future reference!); and then when I was nearby I kept having to look up to make sure I was still heading in the right direction.  And, when I did arrive, I discovered that it’s right beside the Lloyds building and the site of the massive development that people have taken to calling the Cheese Grater.

Of course I’ve heard of all of these buildings, and seen their outlines from various vantage points from across the River or from one of the bridges, but I’d never before stood on the pavement outside and looked up at them.  And it’s clear these buildings are built for show, shiny and bright.

The bar and restaurant at the top of the Gherkin is a private members affair, so it was quite the treat to be invited.  It’s 40 floors up, a journey involving the presentation of ID, security scanning, and travelling in two lifts, the first to floor 34 and then the second for the final hop skip and jump to the top.  As you’d expect it’s all shiny and glass, and, with no soft surfaces, noisy, but there are views across London in all directions, and with an oddly New York vibe, is a good place to drink champagne.

The protocol dilemma was, of course, whether it would be simply too uncool to take photos?  As I’ve never been cool, it was a question which didn’t detain me long, although the combination of the reflectiveness of the glass, the night sky, the interior lights, and the relative lack of sophistication of my camera, made for some surreal results.

But if you hold your head to one side and screw up your eyes, you might be able to tell that this is Tower Bridge.


At Night on The Southbank

IMG_2982We were out and about for drawing class yesterday, at the Southbank, a much diminished group, either because the others didn’t get the email, or because they all had a hot date.

Spend any time at all at the Royal Festival Hall and its environs and you will see pretty much all of life.  There’s the river, the bridges, the lights, performers, tourists lingering, office workers rushing by, people scavenging through bins outside the shops and restaurants……people sketching.

Inside the Hall, there are people having business meetings or conducting job interviews, people on their own hard at work on their laptops, concert goers having a drink before the performance, and others just sitting and looking and listening in to their conversations (unless that’s just me).

Watch out especially for anyone sketching, because, if you sit still for too long, you might find yourself the subject of a drawing.

We were outside for the first hour, struggling, some much more successfully than me, to capture something of the scene in the dark.  My fascination with the structure of Hungerford Bridge overcame my certainty that it’s far too tricky for me to be able to draw, especially in the dark , when it’s difficult to see the piece of paper on which I was trying to do it; but heyho, it’s a class, and it’s about trying things out, isn’t it?

An hour outside in February is enough for anyone, so after fingers had recovered some warmth, we were set loose inside, to draw people.


I think this man suspected I was looking at him and his friend, but I pretended to ignore him when he looked my way

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