A Lot Has Changed

12 Jun

Five years have passed since my last post. I’ve been light on my feet, ducking and weaving through major life changes – births, marriages and deaths, several house moves and finally finding a place to call home here in Cardiff.

Someone once said to me (I can’t recall who) that if you change your location, and end up doing the same things you have in other places before, you’re probably doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You might argue that you could be making the same mistakes in different places. But I like to think that in the face of change, some things remain constant, and for me, those things have been good.

Art, training and allotment-ing are my top three activities on top of the foundation of family and friends, and outside of the realm of work. All of them are physical, skilled and to do with creating, growing and striving. There seems to be a balance between making, doing, thinking and feeling that pervades all three, a mixture of complementary elements that I need to feel fulfilled.

The most recent move has, for some reason, really highlighted how these things are linked. I’ve left behind the compartmentalisation of previous years. More importantly, I have become less interested in the ‘make / show / add to CV’ trajectory that art school and the London art world had tainted my vision with. My approach is more organic now, it’s more meaningful and fun, and even though I’m putting in fewer hours in the studio, I’m getting much more out of it.

I’ve made connections with people who are doing things I respect, and that I enjoy spending time with, rather than standing around with an unwanted beer at gallery openings, not looking at art, watching strangers looking over eachother’s shoulders to see who’s who, and thinking about dinner. Collaboration has been a buzzword in recent times, and I think there’s a good reason for that. Like the relational and educational turn in contemporary art, if used with intelligence, integrity and empathy, it can be a genuinely powerful thing.



It’s not Immigration Street. It’s Memory Lane.

20 Mar

Idly channel hopping one night I stumbled upon Channel 4’s pseudo-documentary, Immigration Street. I had remembered the surrounding furore in the media from when it was being filmed in my home town, Southampton. I had hoped that the controversy would prevent it from going ahead, and duly forgot about it.


Symbols of Southampton.

Due to the inflammatory title and controversy over the production company’s previous series, Benefits Street, this was never going to be a balanced and reasoned discussion on the subject of immigration. Nor was it likely to be a positive representation of the area of St. Mary’s, Southampton. It started off innocently enough, but as the programme progressed, it descended into chaos. Clearly out of their depth, the production team defensively struggled to keep control amid growing dissent, culminating in disturbing scenes of violent unrest in the community. The selective editing reminded me of Martin Parr’s sneering lens, disingenuously protesting objectivity while pouring ironic condescension on unknowing subjects (otherwise known as people).


Sam Wollaston’s review in the Guardian described it as “depressing” and “like a snowball of hatred and mistrust and inward-looking irony rolling down Derby Road”.


For me, though, it was more personal. As I watched, tears smarted in my eyes; I felt the kind of furious, swirling, impotence which springs forth from your gut when you’re cornered and you can’t fight back. For Love Productions had not only misrepresented and disturbed and entire community. They had trampled over a part of my history. Then, unable to harvest more content, they had fled with their tail between their legs.

Sikh Doorway Southampton

Sikh adaptation of ornate doorway, St. Alban’s Road, Southampton.

By way of setting the internal record straight, I took a walk down to St Mary’s with an old friend, fellow mixed race Southampton native and blogger, Ms. Mongrel. We procured samosas and Indian sweets from Banga newsagent, as I had many times before.

imageI was pleased to find it largely unchanged, save for the addition of new fangled items, such as an automatic coffee dispenser and credit card machine. Samosas were still stacked high, meat on one side, vegetarian on the other; never the twain shall meet. We enjoyed a convivial picnic in the Shah-mobile while discussing the area, the city, our childhoods and the general state of ‘things’, as we have been doing for some 20 years now.

I told her of how the school hall, in which the protest meeting was held in the program, had been many things to me. My father was the headteacher of the school and had devoted his whole working life to it. I played there during the holidays. I helped to dig the pond. I participated in a dance class with the other children (we did the Monster Mash). I enjoyed my dad’s brilliant performative assemblies, in which he used secular songs from his own upbringing to educate and engage. Later, I had worked there – many happy hours creating displays from sugar paper, laminating worksheets and tidying the children’s library. I had debated the colour of the curtains, the use of Barbie in educational books and discussed the Bradford riots with members of staff there. I attended my dad’s retirement event in that same hall, deeply moved by the extent of goodwill, and the underlying foundation of inter-faith and inter-racial collaboration. So, to see it as the backdrop for this circus was upsetting.

Ms. Mongrel and I finished our snacks and strolled contentedly up the road. We reflected on our parents, and how their inter-racial relationships were received within their families. We reminisced about a school trip to the Sikh Temple, and pondered what a strong impression our staunchly multicultural upbringing and education had made on us. We discussed how the programme was a missed opportunity for a potentially fascinating and valuable study of race relations in the area. “Derby Road had this conversation 20 years ago.” MM continued, “This road is not so different to anywhere else in the area.”. I agreed, “It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it’s normal”. The conversation about race and immigration is complex, sensitive and ongoing. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that this kind of “misery porn”, as MM put it, should not be part of it.

We are lucky enough to consider ethnic diversity so normal as not to cause comment. But it is all too easy, when surrounded by like-minded people, to forget that not everyone has the same view. My first non-media filtered sightings of UKIP support, in the form of a poster in someone’s window and, surreally, an empty UKIP bus trundling up The Avenue at night, gave me a chill.

Memory is important to me, and so is where I come from. My time in Southampton reminded me that the city has work to do in terms of its recovery from recession, and the commercial homogenisation that many British towns have suffered in recent years. But what it needs is positivity and the right kind of investment, not media hacks looking to boost viewing figures with their emotionally bankrupt agendas.

imageWith special thanks to my collaborator and friend: https://msmongrel.wordpress.com/

Getting better

7 Jan

Great post from Ms. Mongrel on the virtues of practice

Ms Mongrel

Practise. Practise hard. Don’t just visualise or plan, or list or fret or anticipate… practise.

There is an energy around you and it can only reach actualisation through your activity. The words are there, but you have to write them, the colours are there, but you have to paint them, the evidence is there, but you have to find it. You can imagine the results every minute of every day but that will not bring them into reality. You have to achieve them.
So practise.

Practise singing in the car. Practise poetry on the back of receipts on buses. Practise drawing in the condensation on windows. Practise drumming on… anything. Practise your lines. Practise your perfect side swept half-updo with curls. Practise your sewing. Practise your serve. Practise being friendly. Practise love, by loving yourself.

In your mind’s eye, the opportunities are there for the taking. So why aren’t you…

View original post 25 more words

Will Wunders Never Cease?

5 Oct Kunstkammer Wein, handstone

The Kunstkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is a magnificent storehouse of extreme opulence; a muscular, unapologetic ‘fuck you’ to functionality.

I am no expert on the Habsburg dynasty and their collection of treasures, but what I do know is this: the Kunstkammer houses some of the most mind-bending craftsmanship, imaginative flair and artistic mastery you will ever see in a single, concentrated display.

From intricate ivory and limewood carvings, to cast, hammered and gilded metal; pietre dure inlaid marble panels, showpieces embellished with precious stones, lively and expansive tapestries, fine marquetry cabinets and those ever mysterious rock crystal vessels, their solidity offset by their timeless translucence.


Rock Crystal Vessel “Opinions diverge widely as to the origin and date of the faceted monolithic rock-crystal vessels with their handles carved out of the same block. Analyses of form and cutting technique have so far not led to clear results.” – no pun intended, I’m sure.

In addition to the virtuoso skill of these extraordinary creations, there is an added dimension of wonder in the inclusion of objects from nature and the way in which they are showcased within the designs. These items indicate the fascination with exoticism, rarity and the act of exploration and knowledge gathering in far off lands, which was gaining momentum during the C16th – C17th. They express the excitement that flora and fauna which had never been seen in Europe before would have aroused, the desire to discover and examine, but also to contain and control.

Kunstkammer Wien

Rhinoceros Horn Goblet with Lid (The Kunstkammer, p.202) The author considers acquiring a similar vessel for morning coffee – nothing could faze you after starting the day with that.

There are also jarring double-bluffs and layers of mimicry – animal horn carefully carved to resemble coral, and then real red coral, cut, carved and polished into tiny figures and grotesque monsters; pearls piled upon pearls to create a coral reef which becomes a tableau for the display of a perfect coral ‘tree’, in turn serving as an armature for an abject yet exquisite crucified Christ. Scale is done away with, as small rocks become towering mountains the curve of a nautilus shell becomes the breast of a cockerel, and a captive ostrich appears to strain under the weight of a real ostrich egg, three to four times the size of its bearer.

Kunstkammer Wien, Coral Cabinet

Coral Cabinet. Southern German and Genoa (?) 2nd half of 16th Century [The Kunstkammer, p.23]

Kunstkammer Wien, Ostrich Egg Goblet

Ostrich Egg Goblet, Clement Kicklinger (master craftsman from 1561-1617, Augsburg) [The Kunstkammer, p.168-9]

Kunstkammer Wien, Handstone

Handstone with the Resurrection of Christ, Caspar Ulich (active 1555-1576, Joachimstal) [The Kunstkammer, p.186-7]

In pieces such as the handstones, the artist has used the natural form (in this case, a lump of ore) to suggest the design of the piece, incorporating organic occurrences into apparently naturalistic and narrative scenes. The eye follows the twists and turns, explores the cavities; the mind wanders and gets lost inside these miniature grottoes. The desire emerges to join in the activity, to clamber up the rocks, enter the improbably-proportioned building at the top; to look out over the golden balcony like the tiny figure there – to enter the microcosm in which wonders really never do cease, and to remain there.

Kunstkammer Wein, handstone

Handstone in the Form of a Table Fountain with David and Bathsheba, Caspar Ulich (active 1555-1576)

The Kunstkammer: Treasures of The Habsburgs; Haag and Kirchweger, eds.; Brandstatter; KHM Wien; 2012


Coloured Flesh Which Quivers

5 May

A closer look at Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen reveals the torturous effort and psychological intensity of physical training.

In Simon Wilson’s Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, he quotes critic Nina de Villars:

‘Suffering is necessary to arrive at the airy lightness of the Sylph or the butterfly; what we see here is the sad reality of the profession; the pale, sickly face is contorted with effort … I experienced in front of this statuette one of the most violent artistic impressions of my life …’ (1)


Joris Karl Huysmans, idiosyncratic C19th novelist and sporadic critic of Impressioinst art, described it thus:

‘Both refined and crude with its functional clothes and its coloured flesh which quivers, furrowed by the working of the muscles, this statuette is the only truly modern effort in sculpture that I know of.’ (ibid)

On a recent trip to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna I wafted through the interconnecting rooms with a vague feeling of urgency, that the best was yet to come. On entering the final room I stopped, centred myself and circled around the apparition before me: Rudolf Belling’s three-quarter bronze statue of the boxer Max Schmeling.


The embodiment of strength and determination, both Belling’s boxer and Degas’ Dancer have style and poise which are shot through with physical power – the power of muscular memory, of discipline, strain and repetition.


(1)    Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.99 | https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/degas-little-dancer-aged-fourteen-n06076/text-illustrated-companion

Worlds in Stasis – The Charms of Glass Paperweights

25 Jan

In her analysis of paperweights and snow globes in relation to kitsch, Celeste Olalquiaga notes:

“Dream spheres” provide a unique medium for … evanescent recollections and fantasies, replicating in their glass and water distortions the amorphous state of half-consciousness” (p. 62)

The phrase “dream spheres” was apparently coined by King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845 – 1886), a truly eccentric aesthete, whose bizarre activities and mysterious death have made him something of an enigmatic cult figure. The fact that he invented this term, or that it has been attributed to him, is entirely appropriate. Glass paperweights are objects of wonder, worlds in miniature, “crystal globes to look at the past, not the future” (Colette de Jouvenel, in Olalquiaga, p.66).

Aside from their obvious and simple function, they may become objects of contemplation, sites to absorb and distil your gaze as you collect your thoughts. They are therefore as much at home in any contemporary workspace as they would have been on an effete Parisian wordsmith’s writing desk, at the height of their popularity in the mid-late nineteenth century.


Almost every person that approaches my desk will pick one up, pausing for reflection, and turn it over and over their hand. Their words speak of everyday tasks, but their faces are a picture of reverie, even if only for a fleeting moment. Perhaps the “the sense of suspension and containment conveyed by glass globes” (Olalquiaga, p.65) provides a momentary haven for the busy mind, an enclosure of silence and shifting, translucent colours.

These inexpensive and unassuming little globes have a rich history and an even richer technical lexicon. Millefiori means “a thousand flowers” in Italian. These canes are used extensively in modern glass paperweights, but ancient people knew how to fuse, stretch, cut and encapsulate coloured glass rods to make fine pieces of both functional and decorative art.

ImageRoman millefiori bowl at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles; modern millefiori ring (Muranese), Bermondsey Antiques Market.


Gold-trimmed Roman mosaic glass fragments at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles.

Olalquiaga further notes:

 “Far from being a modern invention, coloured glass globes date back to Egypt, where they represented the Sun, and have been attributed magical and religious powers through the ages. They hung from windows as “witch-balls” to ward off the evil eye in northern Europe; they were used as millefiori beads in Africa to indicate social rank; and as “Venetian balls” they decorated French-style Italian gardens in the seventeenth century, where their colour replicated that of natural rocks…” (p.56- 57)

To the uninitiated, the words used to describe the process of making these highly charges objects are nothing short of poetic. I have therefore compiled a selection of paperweight-specific terminology from Anne Metcalfe’s book Paperweights of the 19th and 20th Centuries, for your linguistic pleasure:

Annealing: Cooling slowly so the paperweight does not crack

Aventurine: Usually a gold colour, but can be red or green or blue according to what metallic particles are added to the mixture; also known as goldstone

Filigree: Twisted opaque white canes or twisted coloured canes

Floret (florette): A large complex cane, resembling a stylistic flower head

Flash: A thin layer of transparent colour

Gather: This is the large blob of glass that adheres to the pontil rod when it is put in the furnace

Latticinio: Lengths of white opaque twist glass, sometimes called filigree, muslin or lace

Marbrie: A paperweight decorated with feathering, usually coloured loops on white

Marver: A flat metal surface on which the gather of glass on the pontil rod is shaped by rolling it backwards and forwards

Pontil rod: The iron rod used for gathering glass and subsequently fashioning it at the glassmaker’s chair

Rosette: Cluster of canes

Torsade: A latticinio and filigree twist encircling a paperweight motif, particularly mushrooms

That distant look which descends on people like a gentle fog when they contemplate these “dream spheres” is the annealing of their thoughts. Glass paperweights are kitsch’s answer to the Scholar’s Rock.


Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity. October 8, 2010–ongoing at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/molten_color/

Paperweights of the 19th and 20th Centuries – A Collectors Guide, Anne Metcalfe. Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London, 2000

The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience, Celeste Olalquiaga. Bloomsbury, London, 1999.

My Crap Town

13 Oct
Southampton, my home town, is in the collective consciousness again for all the wrong reasons. I’ll refrain from directing you the ignorant and irresponsible piece of frat-boy class snobbery – the literary equivalent of halitosis – that this post is a rebuffal of.
I have put together some facts for consideration in its stead:
Southampton’s utilitarian appearance is due to the fact that as a port of strategic significance, it was bombed heavily in WWII.
Southampton has one of the best preserved set of Medieval city walls in the country.
Southampton is a microcosm of the ethnically diverse society of the U.K.
Southampton City Art Gallery has a fine permanent collection, including some of the best examples of Bloomsbury School and Camden Town Group painting.
The John Hansard Gallery at the University of Southampton runs a nationally respected programme of contemporary art.
The Sea City Museum has recently opened in Southampton City Centre, aiming to present the city’s maritime history to new audiences.
RMS Titanic sailed from Southampton on 10th April 1912. Many Southampton residents perished – and many survived – the disaster. The survivors’ stories are fascinating, terrifying and uttely heart rending.
ImageThe Tudor House and Garden in the city centre is a fine and well preserved example of period architecture. Its uses over the past few hundred years reflect the city’s history as a centre for trade.
The docks are savagely beautiful, especially at night.
Spitfire aircraft were manfactured in Southampton. My grandparents worked in the factory that made them.
My parents met and fell in love in Southampton. They spent their working lives caring for and educating people, and created and nurtured our family there.

During one of the hottest days of the summer I swam in the Solent channel, sharing the waters with jet-skiers, dogs, children, container ships, pleasure boats and the Isle of Wight ferry, and gazing on Fawley Power plant on the opposite shore. I emerged invigorated with civic pride.