Friday, 28 October 2011

30 artists, 30 days, 30 stories... a homage to art for NaBloPoMo

This blog was created on Halloween 2010. On the same day, in an act of courage and/or stupidity, I signed up to NaBloPoMo - National Blog Posting Month - and reshaped my life for the ensuing 30 days around producing a 500 word post every 24 hours.

So, to celebrate mindandlanguage's birthday, I'm doing it again, but this time looking beyond my own nose to celebrate artists and their exhibitions. 

Each day, I will write a piece of fiction exactly 100 words long in response to an image from a current exhibition in London. I'll try to select contemporary artists, some up-and-coming, some established, and attempt to let them know what I'm up to at the same time.

This whole exercise has been inspired by doing this for John Stark and his paintings recently. Writing to artwork was such an interesting way to spark creativity that I want to do more. And I hope it might introduce a few people to new artists at the same time.

By way of a taster, here is an image by Mona Kuhn, forming part of her Bordeaux Series which is currently on show at the Flowers Gallery in Cork Street, and my story to go with it.

Mona Kuhn, part of Bordeaux series, courtesy of Mona Kuhn
Imagine the sun here, as it shone once through fluttering screens of green, as it lit the grateful lake. This was my view, standing warm amongst the tree shadows, the hand in mine radiating love, another small sun in my palm.
This is my view, now; memory has stripped out the colour, the heat, and left no glow except that cold lake light. It has stripped away the lullaby of leaves that hushed my heart and made joy gentle. Nothing stirs in the breeze; even my heart does not stir, as still now as naked trees around a silent lake.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Higher Education, Faster - a brave rethink by Coventry University College?

After digesting the alternative white paper recently – a response from academics to the government’s higher education reforms – I put some of my ideas about university education back into a cool, dark place to mature a little longer. I spent ten years in the university system, but I’m not an academic now, nor ever will be, and I felt I had disregarded some well-founded beliefs held by academics staff about the key elements of a university education.
However, the model I had reevaluated as rash in the light of the white paper is pretty much the one that is now being offered by Coventry University College, as splashed about in the news this week. In brief:
·         Classes available from 7am until 10pm Monday to Friday, and until 4pm at weekends
·         Pay as you go modules for those who cannot access standard student finance
·         Study times and intensity fitted around other pressures such as employment, children, or indeed the lack of these
·         A degree can be achieved in two years if you choose intense study; likewise any shape of part-time study can be accommodated
Having batted this kind of structure around with various interested parties of late, we had concluded that flexible study, with the ‘intense’ option, would be best suited to the cash-strapped of today, and in fact the most difficult part of the equation to complete would be the employment part – especially for those leaving college with little or no work experience.
The traditional degree structure, which now boils down to two semesters of 10 teaching weeks each spread lazily across each academic year, with six months of holidays in inconvenient chunks in between, is a nightmare for anyone trying to divide their time between work and study. Gone are the days when one could arrive at the temping agency a week after summer exams and be manning the reception desk of a construction company with 24 hours.
Another difficult element in the ‘intense’ degree model is how to cram all that teaching time into the lives of academics who are beholden to produce at least six published peer-reviewed pieces of research each academic year in the name of preserving the status of their department (or something like that). Students already feel fobbed off when their seminar leaders turn out to be postgraduates rather than bona fide lecturers.
A key stipulation of the alternative white paper was that students need to be taught by academics who are currently engaged in research in their field. However the USA has ditched this concern and has teaching colleges, where academics can commit to a year of well-paid teaching that is not interspersed with frantic research and writing sessions to meet departmental requirements. No serious academic aiming to make an impact in their specialism would remain in one of these jobs for long, but how much harm would one semester do, particularly if the focus on teaching allowed for more of it to be done without the usual strain?
Yes, it is wonderful for undergraduates to be taught by people who are actively researching and academically engaged, but the first piece of advice given to me as I embarked on teaching alongside my PhD work was to give the absolute minimum effort to seminar preparation and marking of papers. I was horrified, but this view was endemic. I would rather have given my all to teaching for half the year, and then wallowed without distraction in research the other half.
I have no idea how Coventry university college are planning to make their system work, but if it does, I hope that other institutions, offering a wider range of courses, will take note.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Bee Worship - a new cultural obsession?

John Stark's In Times of Exactness and Uncertainty

The zeitgeist has a hum to it: bees are everywhere. In my previous post I wrote about John Stark’s new exhibition Apiculture, in which his distinctive oil landscapes have become populated by enigmatic bee-keepers and brightly coloured hives. My interpretation of the images was based on the idea of a kind of bee worship, but this seems to be emerging in reality as much as in Stark’s quasi-mythical worlds. Urban beekeeping is almost as trendy as stitch ‘n’ bitch in London.  We’ve had national honey bee day, talks about bees, honey tasting events, not to mention recent books about bees…

Back to art, though. In Tessa Farmer’s work bees sometimes appear, as slaves or accomplices to marauding and sinister fairies, an idea which moves far away from the notion of bees as kindly cooperators working tirelessly to produce golden goodness. It is also a refreshing change from the traditional symbols of the hive, and the romanticisation of bees dancing and visiting blossoms rather like cutesy Victorian flower fairies.

Of course, part of the current interest in bees is driven by anxiety about their declining populations in Britain; as the guilty party in this, humans are being encouraged to nurture bees, providing them with pollen-rich gardens and city pads. It is not surprising that, where science and art meet, bees should pop up, and low and behold they have – specifically in Bee Box, a piece by artist-scientist Ann Brodie currently installed at Bishops Square in Spitalfields, East London.

Anne Brodie's Bee Box, image courtesy of C-Lab
The box has been curated by C-Lab and sponsored by EPAC in a project to ‘exhibit art-science artworks’ across Europe. All well and good, and a trope that is appearing in many art forms, including literature, at the moment.

But as a piece of art, I don’t quite know what to make of the Bee Box. Inside the perspex casing real bees are suspended from thin lines in a vaguely swarm-like arrangement. What looks like a fan is fitted into a hole in the base, promising wind and movement, but it has not been switched on whenever I have visited and I wonder whether the stillness and inactive fan are deliberate elements of the piece. Of course the bees are dead, but they also look it – light, empty, dulled, and thus not at all evocative of a living swarm, heaving this way and that, laden with pollen or rage or both, and buzzing us out of their busy way.

The box does have some allure in the evening when it is illuminated in a darkening space outside the market, but the title 'Bee Box' teased my imagination and I admit I felt disappointed to see the collection of sparse, dried out bodies. Perhaps this too is what the artist intended; she describes it as ‘a swarm of bees going nowhere, pollinating nothing.’ Yet there is no poignancy, somehow. The audience cannot get close to the creatures as we can with Tessa Farmer’s installations. As the photographs reveal it is difficult to get a really arresting, interesting view of the contents of the box, dwarfed as they are by office buildings and a collection of oversized white rabbit sculptures on the pavement beside them.

The installation "relates to increasing tensions in both [human and bee] societies and questions what happens when the harmony is brought under threat." Perhaps with that fan turned on, the bee-lines tightening and entangling as the soulless bodies sail through the air, this piece would evoke tension and the loss of harmony. For now, the tensions in today’s society are more clearly expressed in the fraught faces of the office workers that scurry past the bees, oblivious.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Coincidences or bad plots? Life and Art

The Islander by John Stark -Part of his show Apiculture starting this week

I don’t believe in luck, or fate. Which is helpful for a fiction writer, because attributing any plot twist in a story to coincidence or kismet is usually seen as a cheap shot. Audiences want explanations, we are told: to be able to perceive cause and effect behind a series of encounters and actions. The cliché ‘you couldn’t write it’ takes on a warning tone – you couldn’t write it because nobody would accept it.

So, when a passing pedestrian borrowed a cigarette from me, as I guiltily skipped a tour of ‘first Thursdays’ (the monthly night when galleries in East London kick off their new exhibitions), it was amusing to find out that he was in fact an artist, working hard on preparing his show for the very next ‘first Thursday’.

When I found out half a conversation later that he had shared a studio for two years with one of my very favourite artists, Tessa Farmer, it seemed lucky indeed that we had been given this chance to chat. He is creating art driven by myth (a key theme in my reading and writing), in particular his latest series based around bee keepers. How funny, I said. I live in a building decorated with a plaster façade of bee hives…

So it went on. By another stroke of luck, you might think, I had just posted a tiny piece of fiction on my blog inspired by a piece of art, and my new acquaintance, John Stark, liked it. Since then I have visited his studio in Hackney and seen for myself the paintings of serene, hooded bee keepers in their colour-soaked pseudo-utopian landscapes. I have also written pieces in response to them, to go into John Stark’s exhibition catalogue to complement the images. As a writer this is wonderful opportunity.

Coincidences or fate aside, I found the worlds in John’s paintings very easy to engage with imaginatively. They lie somewhere between reality and fantasy. They are not pure folklore but there is folklore in there; hints of myths without explanations, both hope and fear lurking in landscapes that are rich and peaceful and yet sinister in their stillness. They reminded me of worlds created in words that I have fallen in love with – those of Margo Lanagan, Mervyn Peake, Margaret Atwood or Angela Carter.

I am not a reader of sci-fi or fantasy genres per se, but I love fiction that moves far enough outside of the everyday to release me from the real world, yet keeps my human concerns and tastes alive within it. John’s paintings are transfixing in the same way as, say, Angela Carter ‘s short story the Erl-King. We recognise the elements of human history, culture, myth and desire, yet they are made strange to us. We find ourselves asking questions about the elements of the story or painting, all the time knowing that our sub-conscious has the answers.

So, if you are in London, I urge you to visit John Stark’s exhibition Apiculture at the Charlie Smith Gallery in Old Street from Thursday 6th October. (If not, take a tour online at www.johnstarkgallery.co.uk.) In a world where plots are stranger than fiction, who knows what will happen if you come along?