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More ‘Fragile Beauty’

One of the greatest pleasures of attending an art exhibition with Wendy is her reaction to the more pretentious object labels.

There was a moment in Madrid’s Reina Sofia when, after reading a particularly florid text, she just said ‘I don’t have the bandwidth for that’ and turned on her heel. It’s usually hard to disagree.

Wendy wasn’t able to attend ‘Fragile Beauty’ at the V&A with me, but when I read the label accompanying Richard Caldicott’s untitled triptych, I did wonder what she’d have made of it:

Richard Caldicott’s red, yellow and blue triptych playfully transforms everyday objects – in this case Tupperware food-storage containers – into a sea of colour. The artist’s choice of primary hues references classic colour theory, underpinning hundreds of years of optical experiment. To stand in front of Caldicott’s photographs is to be confronted by a field of light refracted by luminous kitchenware.

I think she may well have furrowed her brow and exclaimed: ‘But why would you want to be confronted by luminous kitchenware?!’

Fragile Beauty continues at the V&A until 5 January next year.

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‘Fragile Beauty’

I went to see this overcrowded exhibition of photographs at the V&A. It’s an oddly curated selection of photographs from the Elton John and David Furnish collection.

The blurb claims that the exhibition ‘tells the story of modern and contemporary photography’—I don’t really think it did.

There were a lot of brilliant and arresting images in the collection, but there didn’t seem to be a thread, story or argument to the curation. Perhaps there wasn’t supposed to be—perhaps the point is just to appreciate the photographs. I found it a bit unsatisfying.

But here’s something I took away: four images of the American flag from different time periods. I think this is an interesting series to contemplate: I’d have displayed them together, but the curators had other ideas.

So take the following series of images as some guerrilla curation—and perhaps the series will play on your mind as it has on mine.

Untitled by Larry Clark, 1971.

American Flag by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1977.

Flag by Mitch Epstein, 2000.

Untitled (confetti #8) by Roe Ethridge, 2012.

Fragile Beauty continues at the V&A until 5 January next year.

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Piano projection

My sister sometimes tells a story about sitting down to a General Studies exam and facing a question about how pianos work. ‘How am I supposed to know?’, she wondered, despite having had piano lessons.

This was in my mind as I read this fascinating FT article by Rhodri Marsden about a UK-based piano manufacturer. The pianos pictured in the article couldn’t be further from my personal taste, but never before had I thought about issues like the sound projection versus string tension:

Pianos are generally built to project sound rather forcefully (I’ve played a Steinway on the Barbican stage but it’s very different from what you want in a home piano), and that’s an issue Edelweiss has tackled head-on. “Concert grands in particular have high-tension strings and a very stiff, rigid soundboard, so the whole thing roars,” says Norman. “And of course that can give you a buzz when you’re playing, but if you aren’t a die-hard pianist you don’t really want that in your home, with the sound overpowering the room. You want something that’s beautiful to listen to. I don’t know any other manufacturer with this approach.”

The Sonos speakers we have dotted around the house have a function that ‘tunes’ them to the space, and yet I’ve never before considered that different environments might warrant different piano constructions. Marsden’s article shone a light on a world I didn’t know existed.

General Studies was apparently discontinued as an exam subject in 2020, so sadly no more will teenagers be stumped by questions about piano mechanisms… and nor, like me, will they have to bluff their way through essays on the Elgin marbles, Dadaism or the International Monetary Fund. It seems a shame, really: when I try to recall sitting my A-Levels, it’s the General Studies papers that come most prominently to mind, precisely because they were so unpredictable. But I suppose times change.

This post was filed under: Art, Music, , .

‘Racing Ahead’

When I lived in Stockton, this life-sized sculpture by Irene Brown stood outside M&S. The sculpture was removed in 2013, when the High Street was being spruced up. M&S closed in 2018.

The sculpture isn’t really my sort of thing, but it is enormously popular with Stocktonites. There was great fanfare when the refurbished sculpture was repositioned outside the library in 2016, and where I took this photo yesterday.

This post was filed under: Art, Photos, , .

Dinosaurs’ habitat at risk of extinction

Twelve years ago, I told you about Teessaurus Park in Middlesbrough, a pocket of child-friendly green space in a highly industrialised part of the town. I wrote more about it the following day, and still think of it often. The sculptures feel very 1980s, and the whole idea of a park surrounded by heavy industry feels worthy yet dystopian.

It’s in the news this week because the Twentieth Century Society is applying to list the three most important sculptures, which were designed by Geneviève Glatt. This is in response to a local plan to close half of the park.

The C20 Society article about their campaign has much more background and history about the site, much of which was new to me. There are very few major public sculptures from this period by women which adds to the rarity value of the three they are seeking to list. The article also introduced me to the fascinating North East Statues website, which is a rabbit hole I’m now inevitably going to spend quite some time exploring.

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‘There is light in the fissures’

While we were at Belsay Hall this week, Wendy and I were lucky enough to see this series of installations by Dr Ingrid Pollard MBE. There are twelve installations in the exhibition in all, from the large and arresting piece above—a large sandstone rock suspended on jute ropes—to printed acrylic panels filling in gaps where the original wallpaper has torn away.

Other works include printed voiles over windows, slate tiles carefully arranged in the library, and mirrors placed in the quarry garden.

Wendy and I both reflected on how challenging it must be for an artist to be commissioned to display work that responds to and exists within a Grade I listed building. We both thought that there were some interesting ideas in each of the installations, but none of them particularly connected with us, nor made us reflect differently on the space or our surroundings. Perhaps that was, in part, because this was our first visit, so we have no conception of how the artworks changed our response to the Hall.

We’ll have to visit again.

This post was filed under: Art, , .

Mul’s at the pub

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Judging by the sheer quantity of ‘think pieces’ that have been written on the subject, it seems that it is now mandatory for every living being to share their opinion on Beyoncé’s cover of Dolly Parton’s Joelene.

Mine is best summarised as: ‘meh’.

Beyoncé’s revised lyrics change the tone of the song from plaintive to combative, and it’s therefore a bit discordant to keep the same plaintive melody. It’s the Wonka / Pure Imagination problem all over again.

But, then again, perhaps the discordance is an intentional commentary on how plaintive feelings often find expression in combative language, particularly among those who are reluctant to admit vulnerability.

I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt… but neither version is really up my musical street and I have no immediate plans to listen to either version again.

This post was filed under: Art, Music, .

Vermeer on screen

A year ago, a visit to the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer exhibition left me completely astonished.

Obviously, it’s the paintings that are the star here. That unexpected, indescribable presence, the astounding attention to detail, the lifelike quality. They really are utterly unbelievable, completely astonishing.

I was so unexpectedly bowled over by the exhibition that I did something I’ve never done before with any exhibition: I went back the next day. I was so surprised by the strength of my own reaction that I couldn’t quite believe it, and wondered if I’d just been tired or overawed at being back at the beautiful Rijksmuseum. But no: the paintings really are spectacular, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

This weekend, Art Fund members—myself included—are being treated to the opportunity to stream the film version of the show, created by Exhibition on Screen. And so, last night, I found myself settling on the sofa to watch.

I was impressed. Obviously, seeing paintings on TV is not nearly the same as standing immediately in front of them. Many of the things I liked about the exhibition, such as its spare use of commentary and explanation which really allowed the work to sell itself, wouldn’t lend itself to film.

Yet, the film really did a fantastic job of bringing across that ineffable quality in Vermeer’s work, the arresting way they pull in the viewer. The experts featured in the film explain that this is partly attributable to Vermeer’s use of light, as I thought when I saw them. They also point out that Vermeer’s brushstrokes are invisible: an attribute I hadn’t noticed independently, though I suppose it should have been obvious.

It was an hour and a half well spent. That the opportunity to watch the film appealed even after seeing the exhibition twice made me reflect on quite how big an impact that once-in-a-lifetime show had made on me. As I said last year, Vermeer got inside my head; he clearly hasn’t left yet.

This post was filed under: Art, Film, , .

‘Gan Canny’

This metal sculpture by Ray Lonsdale in Sunderland city centre commemorates the Vaux brewery. The brewery operated from 1837 to 1999.

The brewery continued using horse-drawn delivery wagons long after other methods became financially preferable. Five delivery horses were rehoused at the Beamish museum after the brewery ceased production in 1998, and the last surviving horse—Justin—died there in 2016. The chains on the sculpture were donated by a former driver, and are part of the original tack.

This post was filed under: Art, Photos, , .

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