Mind the Reality Gap

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Back on Tuesday, I went along to an early evening talk by Nils Norman at the London Transport Museum on the Fantasy Piccadilly line. As a previous post indicates, I have a certain fascination with design and the Tube, and I’ve always had an interesting in mapping fantasy spaces onto real ones. The talk also covered a lot of ground around the idea of introducing deliberately anarchic play spaces into ordered and controlled public spaces. There’s a whole other topic there which, although interesting, was not my prime reason for going along.

Regular Piccadilly line users will be familiar with the Piccadilly Above Ground poster. This takes the form of an impossible perspective over London, showing various features the Picc runs beneath. Norman was commissioned by the then Platform for Art to look at doing something with the same space on the carriages. One interesting side note is that he was unable to find anything out about the original work: who commissioned it, why its choices of features is so odd and who actually produced it. Norman’s eventual response was to map a fantasy version of London over the same impossible perspective. This map contains utopian and dystopian ideas about the city (or about cities in general) and landmarks which might exist in these other versions of London. So there are 1930s floating stations at Arnos Grove, Ron Heron’s Walking Cities (an idea, co-incidentally, I used in Badblood Diaries), wind turbines out on the Thames Gateway and HG Wells’s aliens in Acton. There are skywalks, a branch of retro-futurist urban design with its own flickr group now.

There’s also the Mini-Tru (Ministry of Truth) from Nineteen-Eighty-Four which is one of Orwell’s ideas which sticks in your memory. Most Orwell fans will know that, although described as being on the edge of the river (where both the classic BBC adaptation and Norman place it), its external description was based on Senate House (a building replicated, bizarrely, on a building over in Henrietta Place).

In Islington, there are biodomes. A recurrent theme in cityscape utopias/dystopias and something we have started to treat as familiar since the building of Eden, Norman tied his to ones designed by Fuller in the 1930s and 1940s. Fuller’s largest dome was envisioned covering Mid-town Manhattan and providing an air-conditioned environment for those within it. Naturally, as Norman pointed out, you wonder what about the people excluded from the dome? Are they doomed to hot sweaty ugly lives?

Norman also created the Boho/Asbo artwork at Piccadilly Circus. He mentioned in passing that he was told Picc. Circus is the only Tube station entirely below ground, but I’m not sure how correct that is. Other stations, such as Tottenham Court Road, are entirely sub-surface but have their street exits emerging through buildings, and Picc. Circus has one exit (which I still call ‘the Tower Records exit’ through a shop’s basement.

Overall, the talk was interesting in that way that sparks off lots of little thoughts, and provides lots of things to start researching when you get back home. The Cubic theatre is also just the right size venue for this sort of talk, and has theatre seats covered with a Tube moquette. There’s to be talks on Tube poster designs over the coming months, which I hope to be in town for at least one of.

Conjure the wandering stars

Sunday, 20 July 2008

So, Tennant’s Hamlet. The press are already writing of it, and Jonathan Miller sneered at it for ‘celebrity casting‘. Last week, I saw the PR shot for it, and it instantly brought to mind another image.

Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Mists (or The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog). It’s an arresting image, from the Romanticism period in art (painted around 1817). The same period which saw the rise of the sublime as a form of beauty, and concepts of nature v nuture emerge from post-Revolutionary France. It was also around the time when Shakespeare went through a massive revival, led in part by the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare (1807), and Hamlet became a tragic hero (rather than a whiny emo boy back from gap year to find ‘Uncle’ Claude has moved in with mum). All this suggests the tone the production intends to take with the play: a Romantic who ends up caught up in that fog that he looks down on.

The military coat (as well as making me go “Captain Jack!”), also recalls Branagh’s Hamlet, which looked to create a strong sense of both the political/military forces waiting on the borders, and the idea of a Germanic stoicism – Hamlet having studied in Wittenberg – in the face of the threats Hamlet faces (real and imagined).

It opens next week, and I shall read the reviews with no end of trepidation. Naturally, I have tickets for September but I can’t work out if I’m more excited by seeing Tennant as Hamlet, or by seeing what looks like it’ll be a smart production of Hamlet with Tennant as the icing.

I picked a quote from Hamlet over the other possible title for this piece, which suggests the latter reason for the excitement. The other title? “Don’t cry, emo Dane prince!”

The Art of War

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

“No, painting is not made to decorate apartments: it’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”
Pablo Picasso

Simon Schama on Picasso‘s Guernica, this Friday, 9pm, on BBC2.

On the trailer for The Power of Art, they mention the “unexpected end” to the story of Guernica. As far as I know there are two details about the painting which give it contemporary meaning:

  • The dispute over where it should reside.
    Madrid (traditionally part of Castillan Spain) wants it as Picasso is Spain’s most reknown – and critically acclaimed – artist. Bilbao want it because it represents the destruction of the ancient capital of the Basque region.
  • The controversy when the UN covered a tapestry of it so it would not be in shot when Colin Powell discussed Iraq.

When people ask why bother with the history of art, it is this on-going interaction of art and society which is interesting. That is how a work from 1937 can still carry weight and meaning nearly 70 years after its painting.

Modern(ist) Life is Rubbish

Friday, 19 May 2006

Not really.

Back from another work-related trip to London. Luckily the tedium of long-distance commuting and meetings I could have done in my sleep was offset by an enjoyable trip to the Modernism exhibition at the V&A. It’s an exhaustive show, as well as exhausting. Ninety minutes or more of looking at things and debating the aims of the modernist movement, what we liked about it and why these utopian idealogical dreams failed both in general European terms and in spefic relation to Britain’s cities of tomorrow (which are the slums of today). We also discussed chairs, ballet and which car was Thierry Henri advertising in those va-va-voom adverts. That last one had nothing to do with the exhibition, just sprung out of nowhere. It’s the sort of show which suits wandering and discussing stuff.

I have discovered the one flaw in the relaxation of drinking laws in the UK. Since time is no longer rung in some pubs, you may find yourself realising it is nearly midnight and you need to get onto the Tube quick before it shuts down. Had a hotel room with a stunning view of the Post Office tower through a shell of a building being gutted and rebuilt, which seemed an entirely appropriate image to end an evening of modernism on. I did try to take a photo but it was feeble.

Back in Devon, I’ve switched hairdresser to one who actually listened to what I wanted and had a rare moment of buying music. I went in vaguely hoping for some Cory Branan and came out with Belle & Sebastian, The Magnetic Fields and British Sea Power. At least generically they are all similar and The Magnetic Fields album makes sense as I have been unable to stop singing I’m The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side since I first heard it. I was going to get Brenan because I also love The Prettiest Waitress in Memphis and in my brain – and my playlists – those two songs are linked.

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