Tuesday, 13 January 2015


My 5 year old son enjoyed his visit to the "Barbarican", as he calls it. The bottom photo could also be a time-lapse film, as the person by the piano didn't move for hours. Something I notice about The Barbican is that people can hang out there without having to 'rent space' by buying a coffee or purchasing something. There is lovely low-key atmosphere. There's even free entertainment relayed from the live concerts going on in the auditorium into the foyer. There is no sense of people being moved on or hurried. Student-types, wearing black "Barbican" T-shirts, tend vending booths, reading books between intervals. A man who appears to be homeless was sitting on one of the sofas watching the concert on a small TV screen downstairs when we visited. 

As we wandered in, Pure Imagination, the song that Willy Wonka sings when he introduces his Chocolate Factory, was resounding ethereally around the building from a concert called 'The Sound of Musicals'. Not perhaps the soundtrack that immediately springs to mind when you think about Brutalist architecture.

"If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Wanta change the world?
There's nothing 
To it."

Come with me
And you'll be
In a world 
Of pure imagination
Take a look 
And you'll see
into your imagination"

Is the Barbican Centre a paradise? While this soundtrack was playing it certainly could have been, and in my imagination it very nearly was. 

With its bold structures, surface textures and different layers, it is a photographer’s dream. It is the largest performing arts centre of its kind in Europe, and has contemporary and classical concerts, theatre performances, film screening and art exhibitions as well as a library. In the conservatory, over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees nestle amongst the concrete and glass structures and walkways, and is free of charge to visit. The photos I took in there were taken during the very last rays of light of the day. When I look at the photographs now, could all that concrete be looking just a little organic? Could the far edge of the building with its ridges look like a spine? The conservatory pictures, like the Barbican’s atmosphere are also low-key, but in a tonal way. So dark, the colour has edged out of the frame. The building appears almost fragile, the leaf shapes pick out sillhouettes in its body; the building soft and blurred, the plants hard-edged.

Concrete is not such a hardy material and does not weather well in our maritime climes, where nature has often had the better of it. This material gave the architectural style its name. Brutalism does not originate from the idea of "brutality" but from the French Beton Brut or "raw concrete" the material of choice for Le Corbusier. Brutalism's critics have blamed the style for urban decay, but when you experience the Barbican, which is now Grade II listed, you wonder whether Brutalism's 'failures' are more down to a lack of political will and financial support, rather than design. Perhaps the social ideals of some of its proponents are also out of step with today's political agendas. A project like the Barbican, which took over 30 years to complete, does hold some of the optimism and idealism of Willy Wonka's song, where he sings, "Wanta change the world? There's nothing to it." 

What also seems to have weathered rather badly in this country is the idea of architecture being for public benefit. The Barbican, with its textured concrete surfaces, rough at the edges charm and totalitarian feel, is ironically much more welcoming and transparent than any of the new city slickers on the block like the 'Walkie Talkie'. This latest addition to the London skyline was granted planning permission on the premise of a 'Sky Garden', a free public garden on the building's roof. Sadly this hasn't turned out to be the case. Guardian critic Oliver Wainwright says of the Sky Garden "it feels like you are trapped in an airport" and "it is not the public park that was promised, but yet another private party space, available by appointment."

English Heritage also criticised the 'walkie talkie' as a "brutally dominant expression of commercial floor space". In short, I know what kind of brutal I prefer. As Willy Wonka sings: "If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it" - for free - at the Barbarican. 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Freshly washed Creed

Martin Creed Work no: 1059, 2011
A public sculpture, commissioned for the historic Scotsman Steps by the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. 104 steps lead down from the Scotsman Hotel on North Bridge down to Waverley Station and the Fruitmarket Gallery on Market Street. Each stair is clad with a different colour of marble. More information here. 

Walking down the steps today, on a hectic pre-Christmas shopping day, the stairs had just been freshly washed by the council, and the relative quiet and seclusion of the stairwell seemed ironically to amplify the hubbub around the station and streets outside it. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

...than World to be Pictures: Narrative Takes

This is part two of a talk I gave at the Democratic Photo Club held at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh on November 6th. Members are invited to set a theme for others to interpret through photography with a talk, discussion and show of members work. For November I chose the theme of NARRATIVE TAKES and was interested in artists who create tensions between reality and fiction in their work, challenging our conventional scripts. To introduce the theme I told two stories of my own inspired by the artist Thomas Demand. Here is the second story.The first story with more background information on the artist is here

"There is no innocent room" Thomas Demand

Grotto, 2006 C-Print/Glass, 250 x 550 cm

I had an opportunity to see another work by Thomas Demand  in May this year in Dusseldorf, eight years after seeing his solo show in London. His photograph "Grotto" was part of an exhibition called Unter der Erde: Von Kafka zu Kippenberger (Under the ground: From Kafka to Kippenberger). When we visited the museum K21, it was "Family Day", which turned out to be a blessing and a curse. The entrance was free, though we discovered this would come at a cost, and an important part of the exhibit, a story by Franz Kafka, remained curiously absent during our visit.

The exhibition blurb drew me in - “artists and writers had interpreted the theme of underground -- in bunkers, cellars, caves, grottos, tunnels- which is closely connected to the utopias and anti-utopias of the 20th century". Kafka’s unfinished short story Der Bau (The Burrow) was to play an important role in the exhibition, “acting as a backdrop and inspiration” to the exhibits by 12 contemporary and 2 modern artists. 

We descended into the basement where the exhibition, appropriately enough, was located. I imagined the story of Kafka’s The Burrow then to run through the exhibition as you say in German, wie ein roter Faden (like a red thread). The implication was that it would thematically link the exhibits. How would the story unfold through the rooms I wondered? Would the story somehow link the artworks? I hadn't read the story: so who or what was the protagonist ?

Kafka's story turned out to be an elusive beast; we couldn’t find it anywhere. Not only that, but there was no information at all on display about the art exhibits, many of which were conceptual, or any information to connect them or to say how they related to the theme of underground at all.  

The first room of the exhibition showed a Thomas Demand photograph “Grotto”. Next to this hung some pencil drawings by Henry Moore of war shelters in the London underground.  Without any other information we began to make a game of creating our own (rather feeble) narratives about the exhibits, following art visitors around who seemed more in the know than us and also got chatting with the wardens. 

There was  a work by Martin Kippenberger,  a self-portrait of the artist sitting in a mobility scooter on rails."Is this supposed to move along the rails," we asked the ever patient wardens. "Yes, it used to, but I think it not working because of ‘Family Day’. "It might be too dangerous for the children". 

In retrospect perhaps the Demand image of a grotto was displayed in the same room as the Moore sketches because of the idea of refuge it conveys. Whereas Moore’s depicts figures sheltering in a manmade construction, Demand's  depicts the first form of human shelter. We marvel at Moore’s ink strokes to describe the figures and walls just as we marvel at the perfect construction of a grotto by Demand. Natural forms have been simulated and crafted with the aid of technology, apparently Demand used several computer programs which do not understand one another.  A manmade structure on the other hand  has been reproduced by hand. In Demand’s photograph it is as if technology has improved upon nature. Is it how we imagine a grotto in our mind's eye? What are our images of grottos based on? Demand says “When something comes to me, as trivial as it might sound it always has a history, a history of how it has been received. A piece of lawn seems initially at first to be just that. But the image of the lawn comes to me by any manner of paths, be it through ads, a film, or whatever.” Demand never saw the Mallorcan grotto in real life, but based his image on a postcard.

Diligently we walked through the exhibition and all the time I was on the look out for signs of Kafka's  story. Where was this story hiding?  We wondered if it had infested an ant farm by artist Roni Hall, crawled into Spider Hole by Christoph Büchel - a reconstruction of Sadaam Hussain's hideout, or unwittingly ventured into  Kinderzimmer (children's bedroom) by Gregor Schneider - a metal corridor leading to a creepy cell-like room with just a mirror, and a bare mattress on the floor. 

Finally, we asked another warden who told us that the story was all in the audio guide, we just had to go back upstairs and ask for one! My friend ran up and asked for an audio guide only to be told that as it was “Family Day” we couldn’t have one. You could only borrow an audio guide if you had purchased a ticket, and as we were unable to purchase a ticket because of it being “Family Day”, we were therefore unable to have an audio guide. It was absurd. If we hadn’t found Kafka in the exhibition our visit had at least become a Kafkaesque story that really did serve as a “red thread” running through our experience the exhibition.

Last week I looked up the Kafka story in Edinburgh lending library. I discovered that “The Burrow” is the story of a mole-like creature. In fear of some foe, imaginary or not, it lives in an intricate den, its life work. The efforts to build it has even caused the creature to draw blood from its head and its upkeep takes up all its energies and thoughts. Although the creature feels moments of security and serenity in its underground dwelling, it is also trapped by it. More than this, though, the burrow is a physical manifestation of its mental machinations. Its has built its very thoughts, paranoia and delusions into its environment

"And so I can pass my time here quite without care and in complete enjoyment, or rather I could, and yet I cannot. My burrow takes up too much of my thoughts"

Grotto, 2006 detail.  Thomas Demand

"There is no innocent room"says Demand on architecture, and this also seems to echo the themes of The Burrow, where a space becomes imbued with history and is shaped by narrative, whether that is personal or collective.  As Francois Quintin writes in his essay on Demand "All architecture takes on a story. In his work, he tries to recover innocence and purity - to recover and achieve a first impression by meticulously eluding all the accumulated signification of the place. 

“I deliberately make things that are so empty that they no longer transport a truth, but offer at most a sincerity or a certain faithfulness, as it were. When I make a piece of art I’m not yet at the point where I can say what its meaning should be.” Thomas Demand

Perhaps by not having an explanation to the exhibition that day, the museum did us a favour by freeing us up from the search or reliance on a fixed truth to interpret the artworks in the exhibition. Perhaps Demand, by presenting images emptied of meaning and association frees us of that burden too.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Goodbye Gustav

One of the worst things about living in rented accommodation in the UK is that you have to put up with furniture and pictures that are not yours. I can't believe that I lived with a huge gold framed reproduction Klimt for the last year and a half that was hanging over the fireplace since moving to Edinburgh. I replaced it with one of my own photos taken in Berlin in 2003. (Well, saves it hanging around in the spare room and frees up some space!) I also took down the framed map of Scotland in the bedroom a few months ago, and replaced it with two drawings I bought from my friend George Barber in Berlin.  Much better. Considerate of the landlord to put up pictures at all, but it is amazing how even though you pay rent, you feel you have to live under the jurisdiction of other people's taste.
Goodbye Klimt. Can't say it has been a pleasure.

Hello Berlin circa 2003

Goodbye map of Scotland. In feverish nights I always saw strange figures in you.
Hello lovely drawings. So nice to wake up to.

I have got lots of spare postcards of that photograph taken in Berlin that is now on my living room wall. The colours are more subtle than in this scan. 

I can send you one free by post if you send me your address to this email account: contact@catherine-marshall.com or my usual email address. 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Screen Savour

I savour my screensaver. But it is telling not only of my computer's inactiveness, but also my own procrastination. The screensaver ‘Word a Day’ available on my Mac floats random words mesmerisingly across a rippling blue background then reveals their definition. It repeats four new words daily, the meaning of which is usually unknown to me. Sometimes the four words it settles on evoke strange associations for me.

It comes up one day with the word 'Sere', which means dry or withered, conjuring up an image of an arid landscape, devoid of vegetation. But the next word to float across the screen is 'Patisserie'. In my mind’s eye the arid landscape has transformed into a counter of pastries, horribly dried up, sprinkled not in sugar but caked in salt. The word ‘Patisserie’ glides gently away to the left. The pace of the screen saver is quite slow, so you really have time to ingest these images, so take your time. Have a cup of tea if you feel like it, and put your feet up. Where was I? Oh yes. So the word ‘Patisserie’ floats slowly and gently away, you have the taste of a salty old dried up croissant on the tip of your tongue, nice that, and ‘Patisserie’ is replaced by the word 'Dystopia'. Now I begin to wonder what my computer is up to, and I give it quizzical side-long glances, but it invariably remains poker faced.

 Ok, so have it your way, I think. ‘Sere’ + ‘Patisserie’ +‘Dystopia’ = There is no more water on Earth and only one building left standing, a fully functioning Patisserie. As you enter the Patisserie, you see a delicious looking plump croissant and your heart rejoices. Behind the counter a pastry chef in a clean white apron welcomes you. But the pastry handed to you disintegrates into dust as you try and put it to your mouth. Whatever robbed the Earth of its water sadly hasn’t spared this croissant. As you demolish half the shop in a craze lunging at madeleines, profiteroles and petit fours you are blind to the fact that it is all in vain. All your efforts turn to dust. Meanwhile the pastry chef is ringing up a hefty bill. You are starting to feel that things are looking just a bit doom and gloomy right now and as you turn out your pockets you have to admit you are completely broke. The Earth isn’t the only thing that has been robbed, that pastry chef has totally fleeced you.

Then relief fills your heart as you notice the word ‘dystopia’ gliding gently away on your computer, exiting screen left as if butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth. You try and think of more positive words like ‘sunrise’, ‘dawn’ but to no avail. Just as you think it couldn’t get any worse, the word ‘dystopia’ which is still gliding gently away to the left as I write, dissapears from view only to be replaced by the word ‘inhuman’, which is actually really kind of upping the ante.

The world has already reached such a state of degredation that you can’t get a half decent croissant anywhere. Isn’t that enough? I begin to think my computer is a bit of a drama queen, it absolutely has a consciousness and it is trying to psych me out.

In the patisserie I realise there is one last chance, a cabinet full of the most delicious looking pralines I have ever set my eyes upon. But guarding my way is the pastry chef, who now looks cruel and barbaric, despite the formerly deceptively pleasing appearance in the white apron. But what I mistook as a friendly smile on closer inspection turns out to be a cruel sneer. My blood runs cold and I realise that no human being could make such an array of fancy pralines single-handedly. This person is inhuman, an automaton at best. I have been tricked. I turn to make a hasty exit but the door has vanished. I’m done for. Not only has the Earth been robbed of its water and you can't get a decent pastry anywhere, I have been robbed of my money, and now my life……

Thankfully I have to finally get down to some work, as the situation is getting pretty critical. I give my computer another side-long quizzicle glance. It, doing its part, gives it the poker face again. My fate hangs in the balance for quite a bit longer as the word ‘inhuman’ drifts balefully across the screen. If I wait a few more seconds then the whole sequence will start over again. I ponder how long the sequence will take? Maybe I should pop out for a croissant before getting down to work? Yes, I savour my screensaver. But it is telling not only of my screens inactiveness, but also my own procrastination. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Narrative Takes: More Pictures in the World...

This is part one of a talk I gave at the Democratic Photo Club held at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh on November 6th. Members are invited to set a theme for others to interpret through photography with a talk, discussion and show of members work. For November I chose the theme of NARRATIVE TAKES and was interested in artists who create tensions between reality and fiction in their work challenging our conventional scripts. To introduce the theme I told two stories of my own inspired by the artist Thomas Demand. Here is the first story including a short intro on Thomas Demand.

I first saw the work of Thomas Demand at the Serpentine Gallery in 2006. Living in Berlin at the time, the fact that he was German and living and working there and of my generation were other factors that attracted me to seeing the show. Apart from that, London is my hometown and a gallery visit was a way for my Dad and I to spend time together, to structure and frame our somewhat difficult relationship. On a basic level it was something to do.
Staircase, 1995, C-Print/Diasec, 150 x 118 cm

When you first see a work by Thomas Demand, you may think it is a straight photograph of a scene or interior. As sources for his ideas he uses found or archive photographs and also personal memories. He constructs a life size model from paper and card which he then photographs again. After the photo is taken, the model is destroyed. It is only when you look closely that you realise the deception, that the photograph is lacking certain details or appears too perfect.

Klause/ Tavern 2, 2006, C-Print/ Diasec, 178 x 244 cm

You naturally begin to create a narrative from your own associations with the place/image in front of you. But even when you know the  story behind the image if there is one at all, you realise the world Demand has created doesn't exist, that it is fake and constructed. How reliable then are the narratives you choose in your everyday life and the ones you see in the media?

Office, 1995, C-Print/Diasec, 183.5 x 240 cm
When we arrived at the Serpentine, we saw that the walls of the gallery were covered in hand-blocked ivy themed wallpaper, in four colour tones to reflect different times of day. Normally you would expect art photography to be placed on a white wall. There appeared to be a deliberately stark contrast between the handicraft of the wallpaper and the apparent slickness displayed in the large photographic images.
Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, 2006 by Nic Tenwiggenborn

Copyshop 1999, C-Print/Diasec 183.5x 300cm

A 3 metre wide photograph in the exhibition called 'Copyshop' shows at first sight that: A ubiquitous space filled with photocopiers. There are no logos on the machines or paper. An impersonal space has been further stripped of clues. The photographic image of a photocopy room would appear to be the very antithesis of the process of handicrafts. Infact, by using the same material as a photocopier, paper, to make the somewhat banal scene in front of us Demand raises questions of reproduction, originality and the intrinsic worth of objects and images themselves. It is in itself a narrative that resounds through the gallery space, partly absorbed by the textured wallpaper, bouncing lightly off the glass surface of the photographs until it reaches us, where it will fall upon us to listen to our associations with the spaces that no longer exist or perhaps only once existed as an idea in paper that Demand once created. 

Hand-Blocked Wallpaper from the exhibition

After the show, I wanted to buy a book on Demand’s work. A disagreement began between my Dad and I about buying the show’s catalogue. My Dad thought it was too expensive and bought me another Demand book from a past exhibition:

 We had even walked away from the Serpentineinto Kensington Gardens and along the lake when I realised I really really wanted the exhibition catalogue as well as or instead of the other book. I was an adult but also the spoilt little girl with her Dad who felt she had to get what she wanted. Sometimes I hate this trait of mine, I get seduced by an exhibition and feel I must have “it”, whatever that thing is. I guess I am not alone in this as I have noticed the gift shops getting bigger in relation to art galleries and museums spaces. Anyway, I convinced myself that I couldn’t live without this catalogue, as it had pieces of the original wallpaper stitched into the book and was of the exhibition I had actually seen. Why couldn’t just seeing the exhibition be enough? I got my way, and we headed back and soon the issue of money seemed to loom up large between us. I felt embarrassed now as it turned out my Dad had only wanted to buy me something and he had. I also felt his dissaproval keenly that I wanted to spend more money which we both knew I didn’t really have on something that was in his eyes - unneccessary.

 In the midst of our discussion on the gallery steps, a man approached us and said he was a patron of the Serpentine and as such could get us a discount on the catalogue. (We must have been attracting attention). He accompanied me to the sales desk and I bought a catalogue for myself that my Dad still thought was too expensive even with a discount and was more expensive than the one he had bought for me.

It seems so poignant to me that this personal narrative has formed alongside the many narratives of the exhibition itself.

Now turning the pages of the book eight years later I see that the back of one piece of wallpaper has tiny circular ink flecks and mottling soaked through from the front of the paper itself.

This is echoed on the next page in “Constellation” an image of how the night sky would appear exactly 300 years into the future.
Constellation 2000, C-Print/Diasec, 130 x180
With this photograph, Demand defies the logics of photography that it is supposedly telling us a narrative that is always about the past. At every new exhibition space he reconfigures the image again so that it creates an image at that space exactly 300 years into the future. 

Images, whether taken by us or present in the media become part of the landscape of our past. Thomas Demand literally punches holes in paper to make this photograph of the night sky and in doing so he also punctures the façade of these narratives. A projected constellation of the skies has no stories only the ones we choose to project upon it. I see this photograph as something wholly unemotional. I think that is what Thomas Demand does with the photographs and constructions that he makes. He takes out the detail, creates a certain vacuum lacking in emotion. In doing so he reflects upon and lays bare our own personal and cultural associations and ironically, emotions.

Again, there is a twist to the story of this photograph. We are not seeing an image of the future at all but one of the past. The projected constellation is of light travelling towards us is from a million years ago due to the speed of light. We are not dealing with nice human distances of miles and kilometres either, or digestable human nuggets of time we frame our small stories within. Therefore to project any sentimentality, emotion or stories onto it is absurd.  Still, we do it.

I am writing this about eight years after visiting the Serpentine Gallery with my Dad. I can still touch and look through the catalogue in front of me. I am glad I bought it, as it brings back happy memories as well as being a beautiful object. This is even as I recollect with a certain embarrassment the situation under which the catalogue was purchased. This small story echoes many other stories that played out between my Dad and I, each incident not allowed to be isolated or played out alone but heavily loaded just like a Demand photograph. Now, just eight years later, a small human scale of time, I can only remember my Dad through the photographs and memories I have of him, and now this story.

(More images and information  on Thomas Demand available on his website)

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


My 'Zentangle' otherwise known as a doodle

Last night I couldn’t sleep and I started doodling in a notebook which is solely for the purpose of doodling. The notebook is a Zentangle notebook. Zentangle is a registered trademark of a method of doodling, or pattern making as a form of meditation. This way of drawing is not really new to me, I sometimes draw pattern as a kind of distraction. Actually, I am pleased someone has registered the idea, as now I feel I am no longer procrastinating but involved in some kind of sanctioned Beschäftigungstherapie, or purposeful occupational therapy. I am not sure, however, if this type of drawing method helps allieviate my worrying and obsessive thinking, or reinforces it. I feel safe within the square and get caught up in  details. Straight after this drawing though I began playing around with words in a similar method. I started with a theme, played with and changed order, elaborated. This became a sort of zentangle poem about my obsessive thinking and its traps (oh and doing the washing-up).

The Zentangle notepad is copyrighted, or perhaps it is only the introduction at the front. In the notebook there are blank square templates. Four pale grey dots delineate the four corners of the square otherwise know as ‘the tile’ within which you draw. I started to worry whether the doodle I drew may no longer be mine but 'copyrighted' by the Zentangle method. The poem is also inspired by the methods restrictions and reliance on pattern, so perhaps that is also tangled up in copyright? Oh, well, one more thing to worry and obsess about…. Hope I don't sleep tonight so I can get to draw another one.


Burst my bubble
Let me sink
Full of dishes
Let me think
Of something else
Not of you
Trap me in my bubble
Let me through

Let me through
Trap me in my bubble
Not of you
Of something else
Let me think
Full of dishes
Let me sink
Burst my bubble

Let through me
My bubble. Trap me in
You, not of
Something else of
Me. Think…Let
Full dishes of
Me sink. Let
My bubble burst

Burst me full
Of dishes
Let something
Of me through
Let me sink
Let me think
In my bubble trap

(I will update the Zentangle above daily on this post as I draw a new one)