Just after I posted about using limitations to enhance creativity, I came across this TED talk from Phil Hansen, called ‘Embrace the Shake’. He thought his art career was over when he developed a tremor in his hands, but it turned out to be the start of something much bigger and better – but only once he’d accepted and embraced his limitations. It’s well worth ten minutes of your time.
My contribution to the project – low tide, West Kirby, on the Wirral Peninsula
Ages ago – years ago, now – when I was just finishing studying with Open College of the Arts, some students on the Flickr forum got together and designed a collaborative project. It was called The Nearest Faraway Place, and each of us who wanted to take part had to supply a 6 x 4 print that interpreted the title any way we wanted.
The book took a concertina form which made it easy for each person to add their bit onto the end of it, and it travelled round the world to one student at a time so that they could personally attach their contribution. Each person also saved the stamps from the parcel it arrived in and added them to the metal box in which the book travelled. The idea was that these would become part of a collage that made up the book’s cover.
I remember the day it came to me in the post. It was incredibly exciting to be holding something that had travelled so far, and had been put together by many people whom I knew online but had never actually met. There was something very special about holding the book and knowing that these people had also held it in their hands. This is how it looked when I got it:
The book made its way round a large chunk of the world – USA, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, Tanzania, Japan, Switzerland, Greece, Ireland, and more – eventually ending up in the UK. There were one or two hairy moments when it seemed to have got lost in the post – with one notably long and anxious wait when it was making its way from South Africa to the UK – but it always turned up eventually.
I think it took about two years in the end for everyone to get their chance to contribute, but a few months ago the book finally made it to the last person on the list. This person is Yiann, who had volunteered to tidy the book up, make a cover for it, and generally put it into its final physical form. On one of my increasingly rare visits to Flickr, I discovered that she’s now done just that and, even better, made a video of the finished thing. She’s done a brilliant job with it, as you can see in the video below:
I so wanted to see the poppy installation when it was at the Tower of London, but never managed to get there. A part of it, though – the Wave – is now at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and we made a visit there last week. It’s small in comparison – around 5,000 poppies compared to 888,246 at the Tower – but still impressive. The poppies pour down from a small stone bridge, spilling into the water at the bottom, and the setting works well.
Unfortunately it was a dull grey day with uninteresting light, plus a lot of other people on site, so getting decent photos of it wasn’t easy. To be honest, I felt a little bit flat on seeing it. From a distance it looked fantastic – a flow of bright red in the greyish landscape- but close up it lacked something. The coach parties of visitors didn’t help – I would have liked to spend time with it alone, tuning in to its real meaning. I took some photos nonetheless, and quite like some of the close-up details.
I think perhaps the poppies paled into insignificance for me after viewing the Bill Viola exhibition first (also on at the YSP). Bill Viola is a video artist – or as he prefers it, an artist who happens to use video. Now, I usually find video art very unappealing, but there are a few exceptions – Tacita Dean’s installation in the Tate Turbine Hall, for example, and something I once saw in an art gallery in Reykjavik although I can’t remember what it was. Even then, they don’t touch my soul in the way that a lot of other art does. Bill Viola, though, is my new art crush.
I can only tell you about it here, because although there are plenty of videos on Youtube showing his major works, they’re badly-recorded phone camera jobs that aren’t even a pale imitation of seeing the real thing and would probably make you think he’s not worth bothering about. A lot of this is because Viola’s films are exceptionally and beautifully sharp and detailed, and shown very, very big. Much of their impact lies in the clear, sharp, detail, coupled with the extreme slowing down of the ‘action’ which is his trademark.
I first came across Viola years ago, when I was taken along to what I think was his Quintet Series 2000 exhibition. I wasn’t as into art then as I am now, and I didn’t have much understanding of it either, but I knew quality when I saw it. However, I found this work quite hard to take as it involved huge close-up videos of five actor’s faces in exquisite – and sometimes excruciating – slow motion as they experienced a variety of mostly negative emotions. I often feel very uncomfortable looking at faces this closely, and I found it difficult to watch the minute nuances of anguish on someone’s face over a period of what felt like hours, although it was actually minutes. It was very, very good, but I simply couldn’t watch it for long.
However, much of Viola’s work is centred around water and fire, and these were the pieces that did it for me at the YSP. Two of them were created to act as backdrops for a production of the opera Tristan and Isolde. One of these, Ascension, starts with a pale, draped figure lying prone on a white plinth. Gently at first, a column of water begins to pour upwards from the figure, getting ‘heavier’ and ‘heavier’, till there are water drops bouncing off the plinth and waves developing in the water around it. Then slowly the figure begins to ascend towards the source of the deluge, finally disappearing, and the water slowly decreases again till it’s nothing more than mist. Its accompanying film, Fire Woman, begins with the silhouette of a woman against a huge wall of flame. Eventually she begins to move, slowly, until she dives into a pool of water in front of her and the water splash rises up in front of the flames, to fall back into the fire-reflecting ripples of the water. Both videos had soundtracks, of the pouring water or the crackling fire, and were shown several times larger than lifesize. Everything happens in slow motion, and is meditative, stunningly beautiful, and awe-inspiring.
There were many more of Viola’s works to see, all of them quite amazing and many of them somewhat more complex than the two I’ve described. The whole point about them, though, is that like the best art they manage to express ideas and feelings that can’t be put into words, and so to attempt to describe them rather misses the point. There’s a meditative quality to all his work that draws you into it and won’t let go, and it’s difficult to get across something so intangible. All I can say is, if you’re in the vicinity, go and see it!
Resources: I eventually found a half decent video of Fire Woman on Vimeo. Just bear in mind, if you watch it, that when shown as intended the screen is twice as high as an average interior wall and a small video loses most of the impact, as you can’t see the subtle detail. The woman doesn’t begin to move until three minutes in, and doesn’t dive until nearly four minutes in, but this doesn’t matter when you see it really big – it’s enthralling enough to hold you even though not much is happening.
‘Where or what is home?’ is a question that’s been occupying me for some time – for obvious reasons – so when I came across this TED talk by Pico Iyer I stopped everything to watch it. If the question interests you, then I recommend you watch it too – it’s fourteen minutes well spent. (I’ve had terrible trouble getting the video to embed, so if it’s disappeared again you can link to it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home.html)
Iyer points out that ethnic origins no longer define where home is – he’s Indian by ethnicity, but has never lived there nor can he speak any of its languages. For myself, I’m Scottish by ethnicity and birth, but although I identify to a great extent with Scottish culture and I have a great deal of love for the landscape, I’ve never actually felt at home there. Even at a young age, growing up in the west of Scotland, I never felt as if I belonged. As time went past I managed to forget that, and a few years ago I went back there to live, expecting it to be a permanent move. I was miserable. That whole feeling of not fitting in and not belonging came back in a huge rush. Scotland is where I come from, and a place I love to visit, but it isn’t home.
There’s a problem with linking home to a physical place – what happens if that place disappears? Iyer had the misfortune to have his house burnt down in a Californian bush fire and was left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and a toothbrush. That’s an extreme example, thank goodness, but most of us have lost a place that represents home in some much less dramatic way. Leaving Canterbury felt like losing my home. I was back there for a week recently, and it really did feel like going home even though I no longer have any physical roots there. But the latter isn’t really what home is about:
“…for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.” Pico Iyer
That piece of soil may be strongly linked to a piece of our soul, but the soil itself isn’t home.
If home isn’t synonymous with place, we could think of home as being where the people we love are, which is fine if we’re thinking about spouses and pets, but what if your children, parents, and friends all live far away from you? And what if they all live in different places? No, home is something far more nebulous and much harder to pin down. And perhaps it’s something that’s different for different people.
Part of my feeling that Canterbury is still home lies in its familiarity. For the first time in a year and a half, I knew how to get to places, I knew where the best places were to go, I knew where to buy the things I wanted – it was all so easy and reassuringly familiar. New places are exciting, it’s true, but when you have to actively remember where the light switch is each time you want to put it on, novelty can get a bit wearing. I know some people thrive on it – they’re the travellers, the adventurers. I’ve never been like that. My taste for adventure lies in new ideas, different ways of thinking and being, and to travel effectively in my mind, I find I need a familiar, reliable, physical base. You may be quite different.
Home is more like a feeling than something that you can point to. I still find it difficult to understand why I feel at home in one place, but not in another, which doesn’t help when I have to make choices about where to live. I never felt at home when we were living in Cheshire, although it isn’t obvious to me why that was. And I already feel much more at home where I’m living now, even though I’ve been here less than two months. It isn’t exactly ‘home’ yet, but I can see that it might become it in time. Home, for me, feels something like having a familiar, stable base – a metaphorical and physical fixed point from where I can venture out and explore. It’s a mixture of familiarity, proximity to people I love, and perhaps most of all, a feeling of belonging. The first and last of these take time to develop, and sometimes never do. I wonder if there are places where we simply never can feel at home? I think it’s possible.
In You’re More Creative Than You Think You Are John Paul Caponigro shows how you can create a synergy between skills you already have (writing, drawing, photography) to turbo charge your creativity. If you aren’t already familiar with Caponigro’s work, do have a look at his website – it’s well worth it.
Not about photography today, but money and happiness are things we’re all interested in. If money isn’t buying you happiness, it might be because you’re not spending it right. Here’s Michael Norton on how that works:
Well, after feeling sorry for myself all day yesterday because of this RSI thing, I came across this video of a woman who lost both arms in an accident as a child, but is still managing to make a career in professional photography. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how lucky I am.
Geoff has got an interview in Chester (yay!), and I’m going with him and we’re spending a couple of days there. I’m not sure if they have internet access in the hotel, so I might not get the chance to blog.
In the meantime, this little video is both visually gorgeous and has wonderful words based on poems by Pablo Neruda and Carl Sandberg. The last line is so beautiful: ‘Love, with little hands, comes and touches you with a thousand memories, and asks you beautiful, unanswerable questions.”