STRING THEORY

String is thought to be the earliest manufactured thread and has been described as the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth.  String can be used for carrying, holding, tying and trapping, securing and decoration.  Textiles underlie the great prints and canvases of Western Art and form a surface to write upon. Paper nowadays is largely made of wood pulp but is still made in the traditional manner with the fibres from plants in specialist paper mills; these fibres are pulped and bleached, washed and dried and then filtered onto a mesh and compressed onto a fine felt. 

 Sophisticated textile production dates to six thousand years B. C., in southern regions of Europe, and four thousand B.C. Egyptian women were weaving linen on horizontal looms.  Archaeologists have unearthed fabric and rope fragments that date as far back as twelve thousand years in the past, making them the oldest known textiles in South America.  In China, where the spinning wheel is thought to have first turned, sophisticated drawlooms had woven designs that used thousands of different warps.  These prehistoric weavers seem to have produced cloths of extraordinary complexity, woven with ornate designs far in excess of the simple need to cover and protect bodies or to provide warmth and comfort for their dwelling places.

ancient-greek-fabric-attica

The production of ‘homespun’ yarn and cloth was one of the first cottage industries, pin money was women’s earliest source of independent cash and women were selling surplus yarn and cloth, working as small-scale entrepreneurs, long before the emergence of factories or the mechanisms which now define the textile industry.

There were other spin offs from textiles too.  The weaving of complex designs demanded far more than one pair of hands, and textiles production tends to be communal, sociable work allowing plenty of occasion for gossip and chat.  Weaving was already multimedia:  singing, chanting, telling stories, dancing, and playing games whilst they worked; these spinsters, weavers and needlewomen were literally networkers as well, spinning yarns, fabricating fiction and fashioning fashion.  The textures of woven cloth functioned as a means of communication and information storage too, long before anything was written down. 

Weaving is often used to mark or announcer information and a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Textiles do communicate in terms of the images which appear on the right side of the cloth, but this is only the most superficial sense in which they process and store data.  Because there is no difference between the process of weaving and the woven design.  Cloth persists as records of the process which fed into their production; how many women worked on them, the techniques they used and the skills they employed.  The visible pattern is integral to the process which produced it, the programme and the pattern are continuous. 

lozenge-shaped-blk-wht-fabric

The lozenge motif dates as far back as the Neolithic and Paleolithic period and is tied to human fertility and land. The binary male and female principles serve as the basis for deciphering the meaning of this symbol. It consists of two triangles. But in the pre-Ukrainian period, it was believed that the woman held the three corners of the lozenge (the three corners of the home), while the man held the fourth, which completed the integrity of the family. A lozenge with a dot in the middle symbolizes a sown field, which meant abundance and prosperity.  In addition to simple lozenges, we often see rhombuses with hooks (tiny horns) in Ukrainian embroidery. This design is called “zhaba” (frog) and symbolizes fertility. In ancient beliefs, this little creature was linked to heavenly moisture that gives life.

Lozenge-shaped patterns were embroidered on wedding towels and bridal gowns. Pregnant woman wore shirts covered with diamond patterns until childbirth as this symbol served as a powerful talisman.   

As the frantic activities of generations of spinsters and weaving women make clear, nothing stops when a piece of work has been finished off.  Even when magical connections are not explicitly invoked, the finished cloth – unlike the painting or the text, is almost incidental in relation to the process of its production.  The only incentive to cast off seems to be the chance it provides to start again, throw another shuttle and cast another spell. 

 

 

 

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82 portraits and 1 still life

82 portraits and 1 still life by David Hockney at The Royal Academy

David Hockney is doing something very important for artists –combining the conceptual understanding of contemporary art today with the innate craftsmanship of applying paint onto a surface.

He is a modern man who doesn’t close his mind to new innovations.  He has that most important ingredient for an artist in any age, an open mind.  When a young man he became known for his photographic collages, large canvases which put together small standard photos but overlapping, adjacent and continuous to the previous image.  What these photo collages did was attempt to give a bigger picture than was possible with a single lens camera.  His paintings of sunny California bucked the trend away from the craft of painting and encapsulated something bigger and more interesting than the play of sun on swimming pool water.

He is still looking for the bigger picture, and, after a long and distinguished career, he comes to this project with a the vast amount of knowledge about the photographic image.  But he comes to it with something else, he personally observes the difference between looking through an image-catching single lens machine and looking directly through his two, independent eyes and he adds to that the skill to put down what the magic inside his head has translated and conveyed to his hands.

barry-humphries-by-dh

82 portraits and 1 still life, Hockney’s ambitious new hang at The Royal Academy is so much more than just a collection of people painted in front of uniform backings in a maximum of three days in the artist’s studio in Los Angeles.  This collection of paintings is not only a view into the way we see the difference between individual sitters but also “reaffirms the significance of the painted portrait in an age when selfies and photo-portraits have proliferated in social media.”[1]

For me this exhibition is a very poignant and personal archive which when installed in near-chronological order – as it is, permits the viewer an insight into the psychology of the artist himself.  “Hockney was recovering from a very difficult series of events, including a minor stroke, and he did not paint for some time, which was unusual for him.”[2]  When you walk around the gallery space and take time to observe the format and execution of these paintings you can almost see as a tangible thing, Hockney’s emotional state of mind lighten as we follow his confidence and conviction in the format and medium grow.

celia-birtwell-by-dh

As I came away from the gallery and walked along Piccadilly it seemed that my own perceptive abilities had been heightened by an artist who had taught me a lesson in how to really observe people. The tourists, locals and business-people I passed now appeared more interesting; so much that I could almost see them with a blue wall behind them and a green carpet beneath them sitting on a chair and revealed in all their complexities.

This is what I consider a successful visit to a gallery.

[1] 82 portraits and 1 still life, by  Edith Devaney.  Royal Academy catalogue

[2] Ibid

WHAT IF?

At school I embraced science and rejected religion.  The certainty of science was reassuring.  Science meant facts & knowledge.  It was immutable, incontrovertible and empirical.  Science measured things, tested things, showed how things worked.  That knowledge was power.  Nothing left to chance, nothing a matter of faith. Religion was passed down to us as a fact, true, but we were expected to accept it at face value.  Knowledge imparted through dictum, not experience.  Testing God was not on.

Science nowadays seems bossy and smug; a closed egalitarian system for the initiated in-crowd and it too involves interpretation.  Richard Dawkins, the spokesperson for the hatred for all things religious and love of the life scientific, had seemed so plausible – of course science should help us find the answers together with experimentation, tests, blind-tests and empirical measurements.

On the other hand, Religion did not seem to have much going for it.  Christianity could be held responsible for a lot of bad things, going back through its two thousand year history, the inquisition, nepotism, child abuse, heretical burnings.  But in that same time period it had also been the great religious orders – the Cistercians, the Benedictines, the Dominicans – that offered the opportunity for scientific experiments.  In those days there were simply no other organisations supporting brilliant minds, just the religious orders.  Cut off from society in lonely monastery cells, these religious were radically pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward.  The thirteen century Franciscan scientist, Roger Bacon was an intellectual pioneer of the study of nature through empirical methods.  In his day there was no such thing as a scientist, it was the monks’ faith that led them to explore the conditions for life, as a God-given mystery, to be understood.  The monasteries and convents were the power-house of creativity, education, medicine, hygiene, food, wine and scientific development.

To be religious now could mean thinking and speaking from the heart, nebulous thoughts, more fluid connections and ideas, free from the threat of damnation and hell fire.  Yes, and even humour is back in fashion in the Vatican, this new Pope can laugh.  What a laugh it would be if he were courageous enough to ordain a woman as a Cardinal, in one fell swoop he would steal a march on the Church of England and open up the church to the millions of women who shore up large and tiny parishes, all around the world.

Where are those power-houses now?  Is it Silicon Valley, or its counterparts in Russian, China, Korea?  The great Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft empires, where folk still dress in sandals and have long, flowing locks and beards; could they ever be capable of great art, music or writing?  Or is their vision concentrated, fixedly on their monitors and banks of screens, searching for answers along the virtual connections, circuitry and silicon chips of their sophisticated machines?  Is their future one of co-evolution, of human/machine coupling?

Life, emotions and relationships cannot conform to an algorithm, it is chaotic.  But if chaos theory tells us anything, it is that when Chaos is magnified enough times, it becomes order; maybe we just haven’t the ability to see the whole picture yet.  According to the big bang model, the universe expanded from an extremely dense and hot state.  After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies.  The big bang theory does not provide any explanation for the initial conditions of the Universe, rather it describes and explains the general evolution of the Universe going forward from that point.  Why had the conditions that went to make that explosion, existed in the first place?  The potential for the beginning.  Where did that potential come from?

Why are we designed the way we are?  The human genome project illustrates just how marvellous we are, but why are we that way?  To find God maybe we need to be even bigger than the memory of a strand of DNA, after all DNA has not been given to us by scientists, scientists have just revealed DNA to us, it comes from….. who knows where?  Our brains make connections, our blood flow can be observed, using MRI scans, moving around both sides of our hippocampus – our brain waves are a brain wave, but our inventions only expose the beauty of what we always had, but couldn’t see?  Seeing is believing, but the ultimate answers are still a mystery.

The beautiful, brilliant mystery that scientists are beginning to reveal, still does not supply the answer as to why the original pieces, the building blocks that make us who we are, were there in the first place?  Potential us, so dependant on chance encounters and conditions allowing for millions of different outcomes.

There are things that can’t be explained or matched up and ticked off.  Maturity, life experiences, does it endow us with a newfound tolerance for uncertainty?  No answers?  Mystery?  Daring to say there are some things we just don’t understand? Faith?  Have we reached a place where we can accept that open-ended, unsatisfactory realisation?

THE GREAT EUROPEAN DISASTER?

On Sunday 1st March 2015 a programme called ‘The Great European Disaster Movie’ was broadcast on BBC 4 and followed by a ‘Newsnight Debates’ programme with newly floppy-haired Robert Peston. 

Following those programmes, there has been massive wringing of hands, predictably, from UKIP who have complained (unsubstantiated) that the film was EU funded, and schadenfreude from political journalists like Peter Hitchens.  Undoubtedly the future looks bleak for the great European dream that began on March 28th 1957 with high hopes and the signing of the ‘Treaty of Rome’.  It is worth reminding ourselves, I think, of a little bit of European history which is often overlooked.  It is called the ‘Werner Report’ and it illustrates that The British Government was never hood-winked into signing up to a secret idea of Europe that they were unaware of – the only people deceived  were the poor British public.

 In 1970 British Prime Minister Edward Heath’s government applied to join the Common Market, the same year that Pierre Werner’s confidential report began circulating in Brussels. The Council of Ministers had commissioned the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Pierre Werner, to draw up a plan to move the Common Market forward to full economic and monetary union, possibly also including a common defence policy, and Werner’s recommendation was that this should be achieved quickly, “within a decade”. 

 When secret papers released under the 30-year rule, from the time Mr. Edward Heath was the British Prime Minister, the most striking of these documents were those reflecting the Heath Government’s reaction to that report. Apparently, what alarmed the Foreign Office was not the contents of the Werner Report. On the contrary, Mr Heath and his ministers did not throw up their hands in horror and say “good heavens, we had no idea this was what the Common Market is about. We could not possibly accept such a thing”. In fact, when Geoffrey Rippon, the minister in charge of our negotiations, went to see M. Werner on October 27, the minutes of their discussion show that Rippon went out of his way to congratulate him on his report, which he said “well stated our common objectives”.

Privately, Her Majesty’s Government had no objection to the political union Werner was proposing. The only real concern of Mr Heath and his colleagues was that this plan should not be talked about too openly in public, because this might so inflame public opinion that it would be much harder to persuade Parliament and the British people that it was in their interests to join what they were being assured was no more than a ‘common market’, intended to boost trade.

When these documents were released in 2001, these details were confirmed by a retired Foreign Office official Sir Crispin Tickell, who had played an intimate part in Britain’s Common Market negotiations as Geoffrey Rippon’s private secretary and was present at the meeting with Werner. In a BBC interview Tickell frankly admitted that, although worries over Britain’s loss of sovereignty had been “very much present in the mind of the negotiators”, the line had been “the less they came out in the open the better”.

 Here was chapter and verse showing how politicians and civil servants had been party to a quite deliberate attempt to hide from the British people what Britain’s entry into the Common Market was letting them in for.  From the very beginning, the British government’s involvement with the “European project” introduced an element of deliberate deceit into the politics of this country. To anyone who follows such matters in detail, nothing is more striking than the way, again and again, we see supporters of Britain’s participation in this project apparently having to resort to obfuscation and subterfuge, both to disguise what the project is really about and to hide what they themselves are up to. And the fundamental reason for this culture of concealment is that there have always been two quite different perceptions as to the nature of this European project.

 For 40 years British politicians have consistently tried to portray it to their fellow-citizens as little more than an economic arrangement: a kind of free-trading area primarily concerned with creating jobs and prosperity, which incidentally can help preserve the peace. This is the lie, founded on deceit, that is now pedalled by such decent and upright people as Nigel Farage (who by the way has no scruples in taking EU money himself) and Peter Hitchens whose fantasy world of a perfect Britain standing alone, out of Europe – proud and independent, is only a product of his fevered brain. 

 But ultimately this culture of concealment derives from that same basic act of deception, the pretence that the nature of the ‘European project’ is something different from what it is. Is it too much to ask for honesty now in British politics and political journalism?

 What does Britain want from membership of the European Union now? 

Most other EU countries are committed to the union, and are prepared to work for that dream of closer harmony.  If Britain isn’t, then they should leave and go it alone.  But I personally fear for what will happen to the United Kingdom if that is what they decide to do.

AVATARS

November 2014

Yesterday I heard a very interesting radio 4 programme about Avatars.  Apparently the word Avatar was not conceived by a Hollywood film producer but comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘descent’.  It relates to when a deity manifests itself in an earthly embodiment.  In Christianity ‘incarnation’ describes the coming of the divine in bodily form to the world in which we inhabit.  Does this make Jesus an Avatar?  Some Hindu’s believe he was, along with Krishna and Rama, and the programme explored the parallels and distinctions between the two.

Also as new technologies offer the prospect of digital Avatars able to simulate our personalities in the online world after death, they discussed what such developments tell us about contemporary attitudes to life after death and immortality.

Millions of us interact with Avatars through computer games and online virtual worlds like ‘Second Life’ and it has become the buzz-word’ for a secular age. In a very subtle shift from the religious connotations of an Avatar being God taking human form to re-establish ways in which we can connect with him, to the contemporary meaning where we can be represented in a virtual environment through a simulacrum which can be considered the real us in a virtual existence in which we can live vicariously.

The logical progression of this will be creating our own Avatars and, the programme maintained, the technology will soon exist (estimated at within twenty years) to enable us to preserve our personalities and life stories, digitally.  It is not too far fetched, they said, for us soon to curate our own legacies which our children and grandchildren can access after our death so they will be able to react with us long after our own physical demise.

There are already 25, 000 people signed up to a library of clones site that promises to preserve their thoughts some time in the future.  At the moment this is just a matter of collecting information to store for when the time comes and robotic answers can be found to preserving their ‘real selves’.  So many questions arise from this prospect.  Is it actually desirable?  Who would ensure that these Avatars are authentic or just idolised personas? Who decides what part of our personalities are preserved?  And would this ‘break-through’ actually just perpetuate the grieving process preventing us from letting go of the dead?

Is it morally right to continue our existence beyond what it is supposed to be?  Death is important for life, because the fact of the finite time we have, forces us to make important decisions about what sorts of people we are here and now.  Death is not just extinction but an important boundary about what sort of person we want to be and forces us to behave and interact in a world that ensures we are those people.  If there was always a possibility that anything we physical did could be overwritten by this programme with the profile of an unfeasibly perfect person, who is to say some of us will not just cut ourselves off from the world and concentrate on fabricating a totally fictional character?

Moreover will we become scared of death, will we hide from it and immune ourselves to it?  Do Avatars, in fact, tranquilise us from the fact of death?  For me the question must be, what is in it for me?  And the answer can only be nothing, because even though our Avatars will contain our thoughts, personality and experiences, once we are dead will we not experience the relationship our loved ones are having with our Avatars, so what is the point?  I would much prefer to live my fallible life and let my friends and family remember me for the flawed human being I really am, and surely it would be better for them to come to terms with my death as quickly as possible and not prolong the parting with agonising conversations with what sounds like me but is in fact a simulacrum of me.  I will be far gone.

MARTYRS at St. Paul’s

Martyrs_(Earth,_Air,_Fire,_Water)

“And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.” ― Julian of Norwich.

On my way to see Bill Viola’s video installation at St. Paul’s I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew the work, Martyrs, was displayed on four vertical plasma displays on the South Quire Aisle and I knew that each screen contained a figure being subjected to the elemental forces of earth, wind, fire and water.

I was hoping for was an echo of Viola’s stunning projection The Messenger, made for Durham Cathedral, in which he pulled off a transcendent piece of art shot-through with pulsating, gurgling colour; an incredible and disturbing soundtrack; and at four metres high an artwork on the grand scale.

I was worried that it might resemble The Passions in which he recreated scenes from the bible using actors and shown on LCD screens lying on their sides.

What I found was fresh and didn’t actually look like either of these.  Approaching this work you see the installation positioned on the side of the high altar at the end of the quire. The structure in which the screens sit, designed by Sir Norman Foster, fits the space perfectly, measuring 140 x 338 x 10 cms, neither huge nor mundane.

On the left hand screen there is a man covered in a pile of earth holding his head.  Slowly the earth flies upwards and the man stands, ultimately alone, looking upwards.  The second screen is the only woman, who is bound hand and foot and held, dimly hanging from above.  Wind blows her from side to side, painfully twisting her around.  Eventually her ordeal ends and she hangs, now still but looking upwards.  In the third screen sits a man in a darkened space.  Very slowly little tongues of fire fall around him, culminating in a conflagration that engulfs him.  The flames stop and he rests, looking upwards. The final screen on the right shows a man lying on his side and bound at the ankles, his eyes shut.  He is pulled upright, upside down.  He hangs with his arms raised in the horizontal, with water falling heavily onto his feet and down his body. The water lessens and he is drawn upwards, his arms back at his sides, and out of vision.

Many thoughts were sparked by looking at this and many religious parallels could be made. Many questions about man’s endurance, persistence and steadfastness also came to my mind.  I repeatedly wondered at the pain the woman must have felt, hanging there, and I wondered, was it deliberate that Viola give the woman the heaviest burden?

Bill Viola uses technology but his sources of inspiration are the Western and Eastern mystics.  And many of Viola’s titles simply are religious content. It seems to me that Viola is asking fundamental questions that traditionally we look to religion for the answers.  By asking those questions it doesn’t automatically make the work religious.  If that echoes the way we pray and meditate that merely reflects man’s insecurities not religious faith.

I thought the work might take on something of a moving stained glass window but this work is not concerned with colour, then I realised there are no stained glass windows in St. Pauls – too Popish I suppose – and maybe he was respecting this.  He also eschews sound, sadly but understandably, especially as, when I was there, a simple sequence was being played quietly by an organ somewhere.

Like most of his work, Martyrs is shown in slow-motion (the second screen may have been in real time, it’s not exactly clear) a device that has been criticised for being inappropriate, ponderous and achingly obvious, but isn’t the point of slowing things down more to do with exposing the true elegance and wonder of the world around us, of giving us time to think?

Viola’s work The Passions has been called vulgar, smug and tear-jerking hocus-pocus but I can honestly say Martyrs struck me as understated and dignified. I can see that some of his comments can be seen as self-satisfied but this work is anything but vulgar or smug.  Bill Viola and his technology have come of age.  This work shows an artist at his peak, assured of his tools but restrained and considered. All was exceeding well.