Home is where the art is

When the Talking Heads closed, one of my homes in the city was lost to me and I wondered where, if anywhere, would take its place: a pressing issue given the very diminutive dimensions of my actual home.  In fact a number of places have taken up some of the slack, I’ve followed some of the surviving regular events at the Heads to their new homes and have taken advantage of the expanded programme at NST (the Nuffield Theatre, as was) – though NST was already a home, it has just become a more regular one (albeit now in two places).  No, the Southampton cultural space which has taken the place of the Heads as a second home is the John Hansard Gallery.  Rare indeed is the week where I do not pass through its welcoming doors at least once.

I do not remember being dragged reluctantly round art galleries as a child in an attempt to ‘improve’ me.  This may be because it didn’t happen or just that my brain has repurposed that storage space for even less useful trivia.  This absence may explain my lack of antipathy towards art galleries, though does less to explain why I started going: it was probably originally to get out of the rain and then got out of hand.  It may certainly go some way to explaining my enduring unimproved condition.

Over the years, I have been to see an ever wider range of art – generally dating from the second half of the 19th Century or later – and have often found something to enjoy in at least some modern art.  However, the realm of the truly modern and the conceptual – which is the métier of the JHG – had always passed me by.  I’d visited the gallery only once in its old home on the university campus and was largely baffled by what I saw.  But then, earlier this year, it moved to Studio 144 in the heart of town and on my way to (or from, given the commutative nature of translations in space) almost anywhere in or near the city centre.  After a brief taster session, it opened properly in late Spring and it was from then that my engagement with a whole multidimensional hypersphere of new art began.

Of the eleven main artists whose work has been shown in the gallery since its opening proper, I had heard of only two, and one of those I knew no more than the name.  Had the gallery still been at the campus, I probably wouldn’t have been to see any of the exhibitions and my life would have been so much poorer as a result. Given that the gallery is free to enter and, in its new location is so often on my way to or form some other errand, it is just so easy to pop in: so I do.  It is a lovely excuse for a little time out from the stresses of quotidien life and to escape into a whole different realm.  In the midst of a shopping expedition, or when stuck on something at work, I can lose myself in a picture, sculpture or film (or something even more strange) for a few precious minutes.  I cannot claim to have loved everything I’ve seen, but most have prompted new thoughts to bubble up in what remains of my brain and many of the artworks have become friends.  That’s the joy of being able to visit the same visiting exhibition multiple times, which I’ve never really had a chance to do before: the familiarity builds deeper links with the works and some that you might initially overlook become firm favourites.  It is always a wrench when a exhibition leaves, though my feelings of loss are tempered by the excitement of thinking about what will be next to fill the gallery…

The JHG does not just rely on the art itself and its location to draw people in, it also has a very solid programme of public engagement.  From the start, it has organised free talks and workshops reacting to, inspired by, or explaining the art or artists on display.  As often as I can, I have attended these – initially, as the token member of the public but now as part of a wider community.  The talks are always interesting and having been to a number, I have started – occasionally – understanding something of what is said!  I exaggerate (slightly), but I do still get quite excited when I understand one of the references to another artist or artwork.  I also now run a book (currently only with myself) for how far into a talk the first reference to Roland Barthes will come: I really must read the chap one of these days…  As well as these more intellectual talks, it seems that most weekends there is some activity for children to get involved in art: last weekend it was making camerae obscurae, which did rather struggle with the dim December light.

It is not just a home for visual art: the gallery had a Writer-in-Residence as it transitioned and I was somewhat startled to see myself in the video which accompanied his piece (1:01:01 long) when I came to hear it performed.  The gallery also acted as the host to the recent So: to Speak Festival Small Presses Poetry Showcase – which was an amazing afternoon: three presses, ten poets and 200 minutes of poetry in one afternoon.  I’ll admit that my brain was somewhat frazzled after so many words and ideas were forced into it in a such a short time: who needs mind-altering drugs with stimulus like that!

One of the key aspects of the JHG that have made it a second home is the staff, they are friendly and welcoming in way which I didn’t really expect from an art gallery.  There is a beautiful neon sign in the foyer, in the pink and blue of the transgender flag, which bears the legend “You Belong Here” and the gallery assistants veil this glowing message in the flesh that makes it a living reality.  Given the regularity of his visits, these poor souls are now all too familiar with the author.

I think it was one of the gallery assistants who, as November drew to its apotheosis, organised the first Gallery Session: where live musicians took over the gallery foyer for the evening.  This was not the first music in the gallery, as they had a short series of works responding to their Gerhard Richter exhibition of which I only managed to catch one (even I have to work from time-to-time: probably more often than is suggested by these pages), but the first time music was ‘exhibited’ independently of the visual art.  This was such an enjoyable evening, always helped by programming three of my favourite local bands in a familiar space.  From a JHG perspective, this was their first time in the gallery for several members of the audience: so it worked as a real way to bring new audience into the building and showing that it’s not at all scary.  I believe a second session is already on the cards…

Last night, I was at the gallery once again for the preview of their latest exhibition of sculpture by Siobhán Hapanska.  These are four extraordinary pieces, each one large but completely different from its fellows and really benefiting from the breathing space they are given in Gallery 1.  They look gloriously tactile but cannot (sadly) be enjoyed haptically: perhaps appropriate, as one has a theme of temptation.  It was so exciting experiencing them for the first time and it is good to know that I can keep returning to them, each time seeing something new.  To avoid excessive spoilers, I shall show you a mere teaser fragment of Love, which may also act a metaphor for the story of my life and its lack of emotional maturity?

I also wandered upstairs to check out how the indigo is moving through the great curtain of Anya Gallaccio‘s All the rest is silence – what a marvel to have an artwork which has changed each time you go back to see it.

The final current exhibition is a retrospective of the photography of Edward Woodman (who has never, so far I know, played Callan or the Equalizer – a missed opportunity?).  Some of these photos are quite extraordinary, while others do nothing for me at all: which is entirely as it should be!  He has inspired me to look at the world around me in different ways – and to attempt to photograph it.  Not for me the laborious set up, thought and preparation of the view camera: I am more of the school of the slightly inebriated quick snap with my phone, just now (sometimes) with an additional nod in the direction of art.

IMG_20181202_183422 (2)

Making tracks (after Woodman, but little threat to him)

For those with a desire to see more of my attempts at ‘artistic’ snaps (don’t worry, I have yet to tackle the nude and rarely use myself as a subject), my Instagram feed is available (other, better feeds are also available and the work of real photographers should also be recommended at this time).  My feed is also available to those with no such desire and for them this paragraph can act as an early warning and an opportunity to dodge a potentially painful visual encounter.

Spending time with contemporary art has enriched my life so much, and it’s not just the art.  In recent weeks, I have used the gallery as a respite from the rain and during the long hot summer I became an habitué of the deliciously cool environs of Gallery 2.  When I visit, I’m almost certain to bump into at least one friend: as was the case with the Heads.  The location is also very handy and a talk or preview at the gallery can act as the first of act of a whole evening of cultural fun.  Last night, after enjoying the art, free wine and conversation available at the preview I ambled a few doors up Above Bar Street for some wonderful folk tunes from Alex and Hannah Cumming at the Art House.  They delivered a marvelous mix of traditional tunes, including a smattering of carols, but it was their rendition of the Grey Funnel Line that I found particularly affecting.

With most of my second home needs now catered for, I just need to find a tame space with a grand piano…

Mastered by mortification

Today, for the first time and after a mere twenty-three month residence in the city, I finally visited the Southampton City Art Gallery.  I cannot claim that it lies in an especially remote location – it is little more than five minutes walk from my home and lies directly above a regular haunt of mine, the central library.  Entry is also free, and so I cannot blame my much lauded fiscal responsibility.  It does have somewhat limited opening hours – though I can only blame those for twenty-two hours of my delay in visiting.  I did attempt my first visit yesterday, but in my successful attempt to avoid school parties arrived too late for entry.

If I am to find a sink for my culpability in taking quite so long to make my first visit, then I fear I must look to human psychology – and mine in particular.  As a result of its ease of access, I can always tell myself that I will visit tomorrow – an internal monologue which would seem to have worked for some 700 tomorrows.   You may wonder what finally broke this long succession of unfulfilled internal promises and so it would seem churlish of me to deny you that knowledge.

A little while ago, I think at an event at the Nuffield,  I learned that the City of Southampton boasts a rather impressive collection of art – though only a fraction of this is on display at any one time.  As a result, I resolved to visit – and so the weeks passed but still my resolution remained stubbornly unresolved.  Then, earlier this week, I was asked to take part in a customer survey about the gallery as I left the library, and it was the crippling sense of guilt about my inability to answer any of the questions in a useful fashion that finally spurred me to act.  Oddly, I do seem quite a popular choice to proffer my opinion on subjects of which I have little or no knowledge: relatively recently I have also been quizzed (on camera) for my thoughts on the Premiership relegation battle and (on mike) about hip-hop (I had very few useful thoughts on either but was persuaded to make some up – after a short briefing – for the camera).  I don’t think I give off an art gallery-visiting, beautiful game loving, straight outta Compton vibe – but perhaps my subconscious or face have other ideas?  I do feel that my experiences help to illuminate the general pointlessness of vox populi and hope they might help encourage the media to quietly (and quickly) ditch the whole idiotic idea.  Whilst the number of people who are well-informed on a topic are clearly massively outnumbered by those who are not, I still feel it is worth making a little effort to seek out the former.

Anyway, having now seen off the amuse bouche we should probably move onto the meal proper.  I must say that the gallery was rather a pleasant surprise – with a modest but interesting collection of works spread over substantial and almost deserted gallery space (I did cunningly arrived just after two parties of primary school children departed, which I suspect improved my experience).  I rather enjoyed the paintings of Southampton through the ages – and I now have oil-painted evidence that the city was once a Georgian architectural theme park, before the Luftwaffe and post-war town planners had their wicked way with it.  Pleasingly, in one such painting I’m pretty sure I could see my flat (a first for me – I don’t think I’ve ever seen my primary domicile portrayed in proper art before) – though in those days it probably hadn’t been subdivided.  Green as the city is today, it once boasted even more parkland in the centre and its suburbs were – as recently as the nineteenth century –  rather beautiful downland.  Seeing images of the city, painted over the course some three hundred years, does incline a chap of a slightly romantic disposition to see ghosts wherever he treads.  Still, knocked about a bit though it is, I have grown oddly fond of modern day Southampton over my tenure and find myself keen not to leave just yet.

Among the gallery’s temporary delights, I was rather taken with Spatial Objects by Dan Holdsworth (I fear the lighting in the linked photo does not do them justice) – though I’m not sure I have a home for them (even if I could have sneaked one out under my jacket).  My highlight was a photograph taken by an HND Photography student from Brockenhurst College (one Isabelle Orman) as part of her coursework.  It was of a rather mundane industrial-looking scene, but captured in a quite extraordinary light.  It took a view that most of us would have dismissed as rather ugly and made it truly beautiful.  If that’s not Art, I don’t know what is – the latter may, sadly, be true but I am trying to slowly educate myself.

I shall try and avoid waiting another two years before the difficult sophomore visit – but I’ve made unkept promises on GofaDM before, so I’d recommend you judge me on results rather than good intentions (which I believe make decent pavers for an express route to Mount Avernus).  Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the promise of seeing more of the gallery’s rotating collection (from which, were I a company, I could hire examples at a very reasonable rate) may help me to stay true to my once avowed intent.

More Forsyth than Lee

This post exists primarily as a gallery for two images, which marks it out from its predecessors – but I feel you deserve the occasional hint of novelty after all this time.  I will admit that the images do portray the author but I shall be applying the very finest of my endeavours to demonstrate that these images are not being shared with the primary purpose of showing-off (though that may form a happy corollary): I fully expect to fail.

I feel there is something oddly artistic about the two pictures, though this might be explained by the monochrome associations that have been carved into the fleshy tablet of my memory by the work of Adam, Brandt and Cartier-Bresson (to cover but the ABC of famous photographers).  I wonder if my profile picture should move to black-and-white?  It could look more stylish (you might think less stylish would be impossible, but you didn’t see the many, horrific, rejected attempts at a selfie) and the casual viewer might then imagine my hair is blonde rather than white (and thus that I have more fun).  As will become clear to all but a knavish fool, I did not capture these images myself – my full mental and physical resources were otherwise engaged – so at least I’m not using this respected organ to hype my almost non-existent photographic skills.

In a last-ditch attempt to place a positive spin on publicising images of yours truly, I would point to the fact that my face is largely hidden from view – though I will admit that you can see rather a lot of my limbs (though I think my excess of limbs – in length, not number – causes me far more issues than it does you).

With the first tranche of excuses out of our way, I suppose I must bite the bullet and explain the content of the images.  When it comes to famous Bruces, I have more in common with Forsyth than Lee, but despite this handicap I have, for some time now, been attempting to master one of the latter’s signature moves.  I am not about to reveal either that my hands are deadly weapons (well, not intentionally – but I am rather clumsy and they are sited a long way from my brain and its executive control, so they could yet see someone off: to add to the existing funeral roll of slaughtered crockery and glassware) or that I’m an expert in Wing Chun.  My fighting style remains unknown (even to me), though it is likely to involve a number of witheringly sarcastic put-downs.  No, I have been attempting to master the dragon flag (perhaps in an homage to my Welsh roots – and I do turn quite red, which is appropriate).  This is also one step on the long and painful road to the full human flag: one of the very few areas of physical endeavour where the human version is more impressive than the draconic.

Over the last week or so, I had the impression that my technique was becoming quite good – though I can never be entirely sure as exactly what unseen (and unseeable) portions of my body are doing is always a matter for some internal speculation.  I did know that it had recently become much more difficult, which is often a good sign.  Yesterday morning, despite feeling somewhat depleted from the fun of the previous brace of days, I was called upon to demonstrate my progress and some of this was captured in (on? via?) flash memory.

The Human Sextant

The Human Sextant

I can’t recall if this is on the way up, or the way down, but the subject is subtending quite a decent angle (I was going to measure it, but I find that I am now living without a protractor – which is barely living, if we’re honest) – and he is impressively straight.  I have some hope that holding in this sort of position will have a positive effect on my hips and so delay the fateful day when they must be replaced.  I must admit that I find the image oddly beautiful, despite the fact that I appear in it: something I would normally try and avoid (maybe monochrome has an anonymising or distancing effect?).

Levitation 101

Levitation 101

If we look carefully, we can see that the subject’s feet are not touching the ground and most of his body is hovering.  It is really just my head and shoulders letting me down (or holding me up, as the case may be), but still a solid attempt at a form of levity previously unseen on GofaDM.  If I hadn’t been there are the time (in a minor capacity), I’m not entirely convinced I’d believe this position was biomechanically feasible without the subject’s back snapping like a dry twig (but as I am the biomech in question, denial seems a tricky position to sustain).

It is sometimes hard to remember that one of the reasons for starting (many, many years ago) the whole process which has brought us here was to try and improve my dreadful posture.  I do seem to have wandered quite some distance from the true path but, as with the earlier remarks about my hips, I fondly imagine all this physical imbecility will spare me the back pain which afflicts so many (and has such serious economic consequences for the nation).  While correlation and causation have been seen together in the same room (and so are not the same), I am fortunate enough to have been almost entirely spared vertebral torment despite my encroaching antiquity – so perhaps it’s working.

In a Bruce-themed post with some component linked to human (or at least authorial) chutzpah, there was only ever going to be one homily with which to end:

Didn’t he do well!

A smile and a stick…

According to Robert Powell will cover you for most situations in life, with only occasional need for recourse to the stick.  I fear he may have spoken these words before the development of that modern scourge, the selfie-stick (or narcissistick as I have seen it described).

As I was closing on Waverley Station on Saturday morning, I saw a very hefty smartphone being carried at the end of what I believe to have been a selfie-stick and realised that I objected to this technological development: despite my obviously rampant egomania.   Now this could just be a consequence of my age (and later this theory will be shown to have some weight) or it could be a reaction to my total inability to take a decent selfie – in any attempts I look not unlike a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (to quote the great Tom Lehrer) – but I would like to propose another reason.

As you will have come to expect, I shall not be relying on the more normal reasons to object to the selfie stick:

  1. The assumption that the captured image of any vista, monument or event can be improved by the gurning visage of the photographer filling half the frame; or
  2. the dreadful lack of consideration for others which ownership of such a stick seems to engender

but instead appeal to the joy of photography that the stick eliminates.

Despite some (half-hearted) attempts over the years, I am very far from being a great photographer – and even in these days where it could scarcely be simpler to capture an image, rarely remember to do so.  I can enjoy the work of much better photographers, but the actual process of taking a photograph offers little appeal to me.  However, there always used to be an exception – which was the rare attempts to try and include the self within the captured image.  In the good old days (with Leonard Sachs MCing), this could take one of two routes:

  1. Find a stranger and inveigle upon them to take the snap – and so encouraging social contact with your fellow humans; or
  2. Attempt to prop the camera in a somewhat stable position, set the timer and then race round in front and hope that everything has worked.

This second option was – usually – the most exciting with real tension and a risk of physical danger as the photographer attempts to get into “frame” in the few seconds available.   In the days before digital cameras, it could also be some weeks before you knew how well matters had gone.  There are a number of photos in existence, normally taken at the summit of Welsh hills or mountains, with the youthful author and his family captured in this way – and with my Dad just having made it into the frame at the last second.  It gives the shots a vibrancy and life that I doubt any selfie-stick can ever hope to replicate.

However, I can see one possible use for a (perhaps modified) selfie stick.  As presbyopia continues to ravage the accommodation in my eyes, it is going to become increasingly important to hold books further away from my face than even my pointlessly long arms can achieve and here I can see a potential use for the arm-extending capabilities of the “reading stick”.  As with the original selfie stick, the application is driven by o’erweening vanity – but does not destroy an existing pleasure or (if used responsibly) inconvenience others.  I do also wonder if both the selfie and reading sticks could double up as a very handy back-scratcher?

The Face of Youth?

The final part of my cultural olympiad on Wednesday was a trip to the Wigmore Hall for some string quartet action.  However, prior to that a quick trip to the Meson Don Felipe for some tapas and a carafe of Toledan red wine – slightly alarmingly, I realised I’ve been going to the MDP for 21 years and it has barely changed in all that time (I think the walls may be a slightly different shade of red) whilst I’ve become raddled with age.

The Škampa quartet concert at the Wigmore was being broadcast on Radio 3, so to add to my growing roster of celebrity encounters I did have an excellent view of the back of Petroc Trelawny’s head (though his ears were concealed by his ‘cans’).   The concert was jolly good – and the Shostakovich Quartet No. 3 particularly affecting, which might be down to the performance by the Škampa, cultural overload on my part or the effect of consuming a carafe of red wine (or some combination of the above).

As well as the radio recording, the concert was also being photographed for internal publicity material for the Wigmore Hall.  This photographic record seemed to be entirely of the audience – and, so far as I could tell, mostly of me.  Chatting to the photographer and his assistant in the interval, it would seem that I was selected because they needed pictures of someone young – and in common with many classical music audiences, there were slim pickings.  I did point out to him that I wasn’t that young, but he was willing to take ‘relatively’ (an indication of just how ancient the rest of the audience were).  His oppo even asked what someone like me was doing there.  I’m not quite sure to what aspect of me he was alluding: my youth perhaps, my lowly social class or the fact that I was particularly stylishly dressed (as I like to think, but I have many of these illusions – entirely unsupported by any evidence whatsoever).  Even as I was heading off down Wigmore Street after the concert, I was ‘papped’ once again.

So, for current and future employees of the Wigmore Hall, it would seem that I will be the “face of youth” (and possibly the body as well).  A proud boast I’m sure you’ll agree – and the main driver for this post!