Saturday, 23 May 2015

In Norwich last month I was lucky enough to spend a day exploring an exhibition in four different venues of the city of extraordinary works by the Brazilian artist Ana Maria Pacheco.

At the Gallery of Norwich University of the Arts is The Banquet - a grotesque, life-size scene ...

 in which four avaricious, gloating men in black are about to feast on a pleading naked figure prone on a table. The host seems to gleefully invite his guests to tuck in, while the figure on the right is already eyeing the buttocks of their defenceless victim. 

In the Cathedral of St John the Baptist is a small but powerful work: the severed head of John the Baptist, powerfully displayed in a spotlit nave behind a wrought iron door.

Pacheco's largest work of the exhibition is in Norwich Cathedral ...

Shadows of the Wanderer is a huge sculpture on a wooden plinth in a transept of the cathedral, below stained glass windows.

A group of black cloaked figures stand as shadows behind a young man carrying his ailing father on his back. The younger and older man are carved from a single tree.

 There are echoes of Greek myth here, but the work has generally been interpreted as portraying the vulnerability and fear of exile, displacement, migration or asylum, and thus has a very contemporary impact.

The faces are haunting: there are lifelike onyx eyes and expressions etched with fear and anxiety. As with her other sculptures, the mouths have real human teeth, embedded in wooden gums.

Her art is unsettling, but full of humanity: there is violence, cruelty, abuse of power and fear, as much as vulnerability, love, and the possibility of transformation.

In the words of Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum:

"The young man at the front ... fleeing from something we cannot see, carries nothing but his father - his past, his identity ... This man literally cannot leave his past behind, but must take it with him. And that young man is about to step off the plinth and be among us. How are we going to react? ... What will we do? Will we behave with justice and with love?"

Norwich, April 2015

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Cambridge v. Oxford

Visiting Cambridge for the first time a few weeks ago, I wondered how it would compare with Oxford which I'd been to often.

It has the same profusion of dreaming spires ...

imposing quads ('courts' here) ...

court of Clare College

grandiose architecture ...

portion of the massive facade of Kings College

anachronisms everywhere

and the same reek of power, elitism and privilege.

But Cambridge's rural setting - surrounding sheep-dotted meadows with the fens beyond,  and the Cam running through its centre - give it an edge of beauty, especially when there's spring sunshine and blossoms.

Cambridge's origins lie just up the road in the cathedral town of Ely (A bishop of Ely founded the first college of Cambridge university, Peterhouse, in 1284) ...

... where a couple of small horses were canoodling sweetly in front of the cathedral in April sunshine and all was prettiness around.

Cambridge and Ely April 2015

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Wild Cornwall

Scenes from a wild and wet out-of-season Cornwall last month ...

Minack, the open air theatre carved into the rocks and perched spectacularly on the cliff tops overlooking Porthcurno Bay is just a short drive from Lands End.

Despite or maybe because of the thick mist this place and bit of coastline was astonishing, though I may have become a tad obsessed with Cornwall's history of smuggling and pirates from watching BBC One's Poldark.

There was a detour to the quaintly named Mousehole (quaintly pronounced Mowzel) to track down Dolly Pentreath's tombstone.

This fish wife of Mousehole was the last monolingual native speaker of Cornish, and when she died in 1777 the language essentially died with her, "the peculiar language of this county from the earliest records till it expired in the eighteenth century in this parish of Saint Paul". (Actually her status as last speaker is disputed, and the language is undergoing attempts at revival, but I'm not inclined to quibble - I'm all in favour of tombstones to dying languages).

Also on the south Cornish coast, Trelissick gardens near Truro are set on a peninsula with fabulous sea and estuary views on each side.

Cornwall's closeness to the Gulf Stream makes it Britain's only sub-tropical region with its own micro-climate, and Trelissick is only one of a number of botanical gardens including the wonderfully named Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Rhododendrons are the big thing at Trelissick, many of them grown to massive heights.

From Trelissick the King Harry ferry was definitely the most unusual and scenic way to travel across the estuary that divides Truro from St Mawes ...

to reach St Just in Roseland where there is possibly the prettiest cemetery I've ever seen, around a 13C church on the edge of the estuary

Cornwall south coast April 2015

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Down by the sea

Planning a weekend in Cornwall in springtime is a gamble with the weather. 
The start of day one was bright enough to appreciate the rugged prettiness of the north coast and its fishing villages.

Port Isaac was all rocky cliffs, colourful fishing boats and wheeling gulls. But it seems that not much fishing is done any more, outside of the tourist season. This quaint little harbour on the beach looks more like a static film set - which it is in fact, for the TV series Doc Martin. (I confess I'm a fan and always charmed by the scenes of this place in the series).

Out of season in early spring the streets were empty here, as in most of the other Cornwall towns I saw. Thoroughly gentrified and second-homed, the crowds descend in summer, clogging the narrow lanes winding down to coastal villages and depart abruptly in the autumn. Making this a perfect time of year to visit ...

Just a little further along the coast, nestled on an estuary, is Padstow, famous for chef Rick Stein's collection of restaurants, hotels and foodie shops.

Padstow was another dying Cornish fishing village before Stein arrived and pretty much single-handedly convinced the British that the fish in their own waters was worth eating, and in so doing revived the fishing industry here. 

This is an actual working harbour now, and the seafood at Stein's restaurant is truly fabulous, as I discovered.

St Ives is a lot further down the north coast, towards the end of the pointy finger of western Cornwall. And by this time it was turning pretty wet and grey and I had to use my imagination to picture the 'brilliant' light that has attracted artists to St Ives since Turner and Whistler.

By the standards of where I come from the beach front is no great shakes, but it's easy to see how lovely it could be here on a summer's day

and the Tate St Ives is right here, its striking architecture making full use of the view over Porthmeor beach. 

From the Tate it was a short wander through wet streets and empty holiday cottages to the Barbara Hepworth museum

for a wet walk around her sculpture garden and the studio where she worked, looking exactly as if she'd just finished working for the day.

Port Isaac, Padstow & St Ives, Cornwall, April 2015

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