Sunday, 22 February 2015

I Wish This Place

Sand has formed itself to shell
Impossibility within which to dwell

Good luck, fair weather, another year
For the place that stays on here

My wish is more selfish than that
I want to take it, wrap it up

I pick up the corners of loose bricks
And fold them slowly, light as air

I slip the windows into my bag
And into my pocket goes the door

I find a compass of zigzag tracks
A ballet of heavy machinery

Scaffolding falls into a telescope
Now thin lines are holding up the sky

I wish this place well, and I wish it ill
But it takes off alone, and I haven’t the will

Monday, 9 February 2015


A response to this month's photo theme of Construction/Deconstruction from the Democratic Camera Club here in Edinburgh. It's website will be up and running soon. 

Pictures taken at Quartermile in Edinburgh. I find buildings are often most attractive whilst they are still in the state of construction. As for deconstruction, I got quite excited that there were so many forms and guises this Meccano-like structure could become through the lens. 

Thanks to Nick Haynes for this month's theme. 

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 B├╝chel - 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: 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.