Sunday 18 December 2011


'Underground: the title of a painting of great beauty. It is before you now. Notice how the blue and red lines of light reach out in wonderful curves and ovals, while a great yellow circle completes the design. It is a masterpiece of formal fluency and, although the people of Mouldwarp are considered to be devoid of spiritual genius, there are some who believe this to be their sacred symbol of harmony. It is true that certain spirit names have been deciphered - angel, temple, white city, gospel oak and the legendary seven sisters - but the central purpose of the painting is still disputed'. (1)

'lines along the third dimension indicate
connections through time: here, the King's Cross fire
leads to wartime bivouacs on station platforms
and further still, to children singing on a sunlit hill' (2)

'The Guests are scattered thro' the land,
For the Eye altering alters all;
The Senses roll themselves in fear
And the flat Earth becomes a Ball' (3)

1. Peter Ackroyd, The Plato Papers, London: Chatto & Windus, 1999, 26.
2. Michael Donaghy, 'Poem on the Underground', Collected Poems, London: Picador, 2009, 196.
3. William Blake, 'The Mental Traveller' (1863). 

Images: Harry Beck's London Underground map (the original version was drawn up in 1935); and Simon Patterson's lithograph The Great Bear (1992), which places me in Max Wall, just along the line from Tony Hancock and Bernard Manning. For a detailed version of Patterson's lithograph, and some thoughtful perceptions by Maeve Conway Fried, see here. For short essays on Patterson and The Great Bear, see here and here. Thanks to Sebastian Groes, The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Saturday 19 November 2011

ghost flock (last song)

The images above are all from Ghosts of Gone Birds, a recent exhibition of outstanding contemporary work curated by Ceri Levy at the Rochelle School in East London (2-23 November 2011): both an activist conservation project involving almost 200 artists, and an attempt to 'breathe artistic life back into extinct bird species' through each artist adopting a particular disappeared bird. 

In addition, the exhibition aimed to raise awareness of and money for the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions programme.

The title of this post combines the names of two exquisite pieces of work from the exhibition: Alisdair Wallace's 'Ghost Flock', and Andrea Roe's 'Last Song: The Grand Cayman Thrush'. 

For further details of Ghosts of Gone Birds, see here.

For a fine blog post that sets Ghosts of Gone Birds alongside two other recent exhibitions - Katri Suonion's 'Bird Hospital' at the Kuopoio Art Museum in Finland, and Bill Burns' brilliant 'The Museum of Safety Gear for Small Animals' at the Arnolfini in Bristol - see Sue Palmer's 'To the window flown' in her Inquiline here.

Monday 3 October 2011

amplifier worship VI

This past weekend I was in Kuopio in eastern central Finland for the ANTI Festival. Primarily to prepare a review article about this 10th anniversary festival, which included work by Blast Theory, Mammalian Diving Reflex, Gaetan Rusquet, Aaron Williamson,  Lone Twin (Beastie), TRYST, and the extraordinary Finnish vocal performer Juha Valkeapaa - but also, and more personally, to support friends involved in the '100 Year Old Rock & Roll Band' (Sue, Joff, Simon) and to watch their multi-generational gang's one-off performance of a single song.

By a huge distance, Kuopio is the furthest north I've ever traveled; it's hundred of miles north of Helsinki and St Petersburg, on a similar latitude to the southern edge of Iceland. And it is exquisitely beautiful - surrounded by lakes and forests, a grid city with every other street a pedestrian lane (the 'rannikatu', originally fire barriers between the wooden houses). 

As someone apparently profoundly 'southern' - born below the equator in the southern part of Africa, and with many later years spent in Australia: a child of light and heat - the north intrigues and puzzles me. People are markedly different, and part of this surely relates to the rigours of the climate and the landscape - weeks of no sunlight in winter, temperatures of -30, daylight throughout the night in mid-summer, etc. To generalise wildly, taciturn introverted men of great privacy, deflecting engagement, but with flashes of dry and eccentric humour; and warm and open women, welcoming and often hilarious. I've never encountered such polarised gender characteristics.

Meanwhile, in this apparently subdued and orderly context, there is a deep-seated fascination with heavy metal and hard rock, as there is in other Nordic countries (for example, the infamous and occasionally psychotic 'black metal' of Norway's Mayhem and other extreme bands). Kuopio's walls, youth clubs and bars are plastered with posters for metal gigs; and music mags are awash with ads for bands with ominous names, most of them in English, often accompanied by contrivedly and overtly theatrical 'scary' images. 

Lots of kids in coffee shops with studded leathers, with 'Six Feet Under' scrawled across their backs. And some of the wildest haircuts I've ever seen - towering gelled mohicans, and one tall thin streak of a guy munching a doughnut by a supermarket with a good three feet of vertical quiff bolt upright above him, as if he'd inserted his fingers into a plug socket.

Here's a swift selection of some of the band names I spotted:

Human Waste Disposal Unit. Disease of the Nation. No Signs of Life. One Morning Left. Wolves in the Throne Room. Klamydia. Rise to Remain. Anal Thunder. Fleshpress. Dark Buddha Rising. Sunk. Dead in the Water. Throat. A bunch of these bands were performing at a festival called 'Amplifier Worship VI', its logo an inverted cross. 

Hard to bring this submerged (and often comic, intentionally or otherwise) shadow world of apocalyptic paganism and the aggressive living dead into any kind of meaningful dialogue with what I could access wandering the oh so peaceful streets of a place like Kuopio. I could only guess at what fuels these fascinations and energies, how the psyche gets to want to hover there, in a very particular kind of ANTI, of an evening.

Hey, whatever keeps you going on those long winter nights ... 

Sunday 11 September 2011

all'alba (on fire)

'It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, 
in measures being kindled and in measures going out' (Heraclitus)

Whenever I go to Sicily, I take with me some writings by Annie Dillard. Her disposition, language and challenge somehow dovetail with the light, the blazing sea, the awakening of body, senses, perceptions. The invitation to rise with the sun, and to slow down into an amplified, extravagant, elemental everyday: rock, salt, sky, glare, water, skin, shadow. To be awake, there where you are, with the gods of the day:

'These are morning matters, pictures you dream as the final wave heaves you up on the sand to the bright light and drying air. You remember pressure, and a curved sleep you rested against, soft, like a scallop in its shell. But the air hardens your skin; you stand; you leave the lighted shore to explore some dim headland, and soon you're lost in the leafy interior, intent, remembering nothing ...

Kazantzakis says that when he was young he had canary and a globe. When he freed the canary, it would perch on the globe and sing ...

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will and sense them. The least we can do is try to be there ...

The whole show has been on fire since the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames ...

I walk out; I see something, some event that would have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell'.

(Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)