Saturday, 22 December 2012

Of Christmas and Kiwis

In 1991, in his finely argued essay “Of Kiwi eggs and the Liberty Bell”, the late and great Stephen Jay Gould managed the equivalent in evolutionary writing of the Irish ‘if I was going there I wouldn’t start from here’. This idea is of key importance in so much thinking, particularly in history and research into history and as with theories of evolutionary dynamics, the idea of previous pressures can often be missed in our own ideas of what things must have been like. In his essay Gould looked at the head-scratching that had taken place in evolutionary circles about why a bird the size of a Kiwi would evolve to have such large eggs. By turning this study upside down to look at the bird as it might have been prior to this time he was able to argue that it was all in the wrong focus. The ancestors of the Kiwi were much larger, but due to evolutionary pressures within their habitat they grew smaller and their eggs did not.

At Christmas we indulge in all manner of rituals and celebratory habits, often without thinking much about how these practices came into being, or if we do, presuming we know how stark the slicing out of certain notions should be, because they are pagan. Very often the pagan practices get excluded from atheistic notions of a marking of winter and attempts to cheer things up.

We have our holly and our ivy, mistletoe and Father Christmas. As well as SNOW! Not alot of any of that occurs in the Middle East where the original Christmas events took place.

The first Christmas card that I designed, back in 1983, was a simple black and white photocopy of some sketches I had done inspired by the different elements that formed a twentieth-century Christmas. I broke it up into five categories:
·    Decorations
·    Presents
·    Cards
·    Trees
·    The date.
While I have gained a great deal more knowledge since then, in many ways the structure of my thinking remains the same. However, something that I have learned is that to judge us and our traditions now, based on looking backwards to our ancestors using what we understand, is to miss all that had gone before them. It is so important to look at all that has happened in the context of what was known or believed at that time and try as hard as possible not to impose what we know now on to how we feel about what has happened or about how we might interpret motives and expectations.

Christianity has been practised as a religion for just under 2000 years. From humble beginnings it grew to near world domination and this happened through growth, assimilation and reappraisal at all times of concepts and interpretations of thinking. The assimilation of the ideas and cultures of other countries as well as other religions has been a remarkable strategy for success. To view this with cynicism is easy in our modern complicated world, but seldom are any paths as clear, as they happen, as retrospect makes them.

In October this year we visited Algeria. Looked at from here, Algeria is a North African country with a complex population of Berbers, Arabs and with a history of French colonialism that has caused pain. It is now a Communist state and it can be hard to achieve a trip there. We were lucky to be on a cruise ship (as lecturers), so had the benefit of the considerable skills of the tour staff and the purser to ensure that we managed to get onto our trips that had had to be pre-arranged. It was fascinating. It was also very surprising to realise that St Augustine of Hippo came from Algeria. He was responsible for a large body of work examining the nature and interpretation of Christian thinking. He assimilated much of the Christian teaching with his inheritance of growing up in a culture that was not the same as that of modern Algeria but as part of a degrading Roman Empire as it faded in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. While he almost certainly had some Berber blood he had been brought up within Roman culture and some remnants of the Phoenician from before the Romans. This will have been influential upon his thoughts, even if subliminally.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Screaming in public spaces...

This last week, one of the four Edvard Munch “The Scream” paintings was up at auction and broke records of price at $119.9M (£74M).  It is an iconic painting and has, in print form, decorated the walls of millions of angst-ridden teens and early 20’s students over many decades.  As a painting it taps into several primeval yearnings or responses to circumstances that most humans will experience at some point in their lives.  In a frame in an art gallery, that view into the sub-conscious mind is almost therapeutic and has a structure to it.  While the painting itself is stark, the environment within which is it usually presented is structured and has a safety to it.

How does it stay upright??

Public art in The Faroes
What if a work of art of that scale of emotional reality were to be exhibited in a public open space?  Obviously if it had a frame, there would be a sense of structure continuing to help guide the mind through the turmoil.  If it were a piece that had no frame, that was one and part of the surroundings, if it were in an isolated place?  What would its role be then?  That sense of safety may well no longer be there.  To enter within an art gallery is an action of choice, even if only to shelter from the rain.  To walk through a public area is an action caused far less by choice and is part of everyday experiences.  It is for this reason that public art in public places seldom runs amok with the emotions in the same way that paintings like The Scream can.  It is not appropriate.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Fertilising what?

Grime on Lisbon stone - arguably including sulphur dioxide deposits

On Thursday I came across a fascinating article in Science Daily (see link below) about the possibility that the use of potassium fertilisers in flower-beds on top of a Belgrade fortress had contributed to a dark crust on the limestone of the structure itself.  Previously this effect has been thought to be more to do with the effects of sulphur dioxide pollution from coal-based industry and heating activities.  It is also an effect that occurs widely in the UK and the rest of the world and this research gives much-needed pause for thought on the very use of high levels of fertiliser in horticulture and also in agriculture.  It ties in with other effects on biodiversity and landscape that I have noticed in myriad locations.

This blog post is more complicated than some, so instead of weaving the point through the text as I often do, this time I am being very up-front about what it is about:
Economics – why use more than is absolutely necessary, surely having it leach away is throwing money literally down the drain?
Aesthetics – why make what we want to look good look anything but?
Practical common sense – why use too much and at the wrong time for it to benefit the intended recipient?

Guano buildup in Chile is a key source of fertiliser
What is fertiliser? Traditional farming methods have used all manner of extra nutrients to augment the soil in order to improve crop yield and give a better return on investment, of both time and money.  Horticulture is similarly interested in promoting growth and vibrant foliage with the aim of making plants grow for longer, flower for longer and, with some but not all, to help them live for longer. Manure, potash, lime dug from lime pits, all have been used widely but have been finite in their availability.  In recent decades far greater emphasis has been laid on the use of inorganic fertilisers, many of which are heavy with nitrogen and create ammonia as a by-product. These inorganic fertilisers are ready to be taken up by the plants immediately, which means very speedy results, but the risks of leaching loss are magnified as a result.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Oh! I didn’t expect that!

This is one of my favourite responses to the world I pass through.  Much used by many purveyors of advertising, done well it can provoke a huge range of reactions and often-times includes the production of happy endorphins!

This first photograph took only a few short steps out of the back door to achieve the enigmatic ‘You what!’ moment.  Apparently a box-load of rubber gloves had been lurking in our neighbour’s shed and she decided one morning to wash them.  Obviously the next step was to hang them up to dry.  Very practical, but a very strange sight....

The next photo is part of a series that I used in a blog post last year, but it is such a remarkable piece of craftsmanship and warm sense of humour that I have to use another from the set.  Kaffe Fassett’s murals for the Highland Stoneware company utilised broken shards from some of their very popular designs.  The sheep design just visible adorns a well-loved vase of mine as well as this rock in the bay at Lochinver.

Some sights are utterly normal to those for whom they are a part of their daily life.  For the rope-makers in Reykjavik this bobbin delivering stock for the creation of fishing nets and tough mooring ropes are part of the daily routine.  For those of us whose grandmothers used smaller bobbins, it is an insight into a world we normally take so much for granted. It also raises questions about the work done behind the scenes, in a way that many other pieces of equipment would be hard-pressed to achieve.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Not always built to last.....

A time of year that triggers reflection, often on the ephemeral nature of things.  As deciduous trees respond to the night frosts and the sun sits lower in the sky, leaves turn brown and fall to the ground.  This can also be a time to celebrate a spontaneity that can come from short-lived design. 

The plan here is to avoid the temptation to get darkly reflective on the short-lived nature of the built form, but to look at items in the landscape that are designed NOT to last, but maybe to give cover to the construction of things that will last or to celebrate an event.  Sometimes these designs are for an ephemeral experience, but most often they are in order to add to one that in days past would have been dull-thudding boredom and a trigger for an exotic variety of graffiti.  Graffiti comes in many forms and will be the subject of its own post.  There is graffiti that is many centuries old, so it is not all eligible for this blog post!

The two photos showing construction boarding were taken in Helsinki and Madrid.  In Helsinki the construction perimeter surrounding the new Music Hall was stamped with designs that were echoing the elements of the modern city, such as mobile phones and screaming babies, lawn mowers and bicycles.  All sound generators, so a subliminal message of sound went along the distraction from the cranes and steel work on the site.  In Madrid airport the construction barriers within the new Terminal 4 had various emblems on them, again with subliminal and up front messages about the future use of the areas behind the screens.  The designs interact with the highly polished floors to create patterns for the eye and cease to be about just a wall up to block people out of an area, giving something back in exchange.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Traffic wind-up schemes

Usually when I put these posts together they are to comment on small features we tend to overlook in our day-to-day lives and they are primarily rant-free zones.  No blog can be fully rant-free forever, however, their very existence is for individual expression.  Today it is a bit of a rant, but I don’t believe that it is a lonely rant....

There is no visibility to oncoming cars and streams of
vehicles head off regardless of priority

We in the UK have an expanding population alongside increased vehicle ownership.  More people mean more houses and this means roads that had developed for lower levels of traffic now bear the strain.  While attempts to force people to adopt laughably inappropriate and inadequate public transport options fail in rural areas, parallel attempts at slowing the traffic down have varying levels of success.

In our Sussex village, inside the new South Downs National Park, we have what has to be one of the most ridiculous and irritating sets of traffic calming measures ever implemented.

There is a clue in the phrase 'Traffic Calming' that ought to imply that the idea is to calm the traffic down.  It is hard to remember this through most measures experienced.  Traffic Wind-up is by far the more appropriate phrase.  There has been considerable research done on this subject in both the Netherlands and in Germany.  It is of no great surprise to learn that traffic behaviour is at its very best when drivers are calm, unstressed and not confused.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Land of Harps and Puffin'

Harpa – the new Icelandic National Concert and Conference Centre in Reykjavik, Iceland

In August, for various reasons, I found myself in Reykjavik, dropped down by a bus right outside the unexpected sight of ‘Harpa’, the soon-to-be-opened new Concert Hall for Iceland.  It was in the last few stages of construction, to get ready for its official opening a few days later.  As a result of all that has happened to Iceland over the past few years it looms out of the edge of the harbour all dressed up for a party, surrounded by blank ground where new buildings are apparently intended to turn up sometime soon.

The unfinished landscape treatment added to this strange aura, but all sense of perplexity vanishes in a flash of blue and green-gold light as you look up to the facade as you get closer to it.

The building itself was designed as a collaboration between the Danish Henning Larsen Architects and the Icelandic Batteríið Architects.  The dressing up of the facades was planned and designed by a Danish-Icelandic artist called Ólafur Elíasson, apparently to echo the variety of geological and landscape features in Icelandic terrain.  (The Harpa website is here).  Certainly the effect is mesmerising, and for anyone interested in photography and light it is a playground.  The name Harpa I gather is a result of public consultation, Harpa being both Icelandic for harp and a popular girl’s name.