Week 345 – hedges snowlike strewn

04-06-2019 19:06

On Monday morning I went to the National Portrait Gallery with Sonya, Tobias and Effra, to see an exhibition of recent work by photographer Martin Parr. I’ve always loved his wry social commentary, and his ability to capture the unwitting honest moment in the chaos of a crowd. He’s fascinated by class and national identity – unpicking how we perceive ourselves and others, the rituals and tastes that divide us – always in a gently humane and humorous way.

Each room in the exhibition was devoted to a themed body of work. A spinning mirrorball sent rainbow specks of light round a gallery devoted to his ongoing series of photos of dancers. There were girls letting loose on a hen night, a scary punk mosh pit, kilts flying in a ceilidh, and the social dancers pictured (this man’s giggle caught my eye – and the glum couple nearby!).

There were portraits – of the great and good (less arresting, as they knew how to pose), and interesting non-celebrities. My favourite one was this man proudly showing off his incredible leek!

Parr has recently made a series of idents for the BBC. They feature community groups – from dog walkers, to mountain rescue teams, to jive dancers, to wheelchair basketball teams. Pictured are a group of bog snorkellers!

Parr’s images are often most successful when they blend humour and uncomfortableness. His photographs of ex-pats in Africa were particularly telling – funny and chilling and awful.

After the Brexit referendum, Parr travelled around the UK, visiting the areas with the highest proportion of ‘leave’ voters. He observed people at country shows, at hunt meets, in traditional fishing/farming/manufacturing facilities that will collapse without EU funding. He observed festivals and street parties celebrated by immigrant communities living in these areas.

It was all very dispiriting, but this section did feature the most hilarious image of all (see above), taken at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The final section was devoted to the ruling elites. Here the privilege continues, unchanged – arcane dress-ups and ceremonies and a strict social order which perpetuates – quite unconnected to the struggles of the general populace. This refectory scene from Christ’s Hospital School looked like a still from Harry Potter!

There was a brief video interview with Parr. He came across as such a lovely, intelligent, thoughtful chap. He said that his favourite images were often the least sensational, such as this one of a couple of Muslim girls running a traditional British fish and chip shop.

Before Sonya and I parted ways, we popped down to Trafalgar Square to see the the Fourth Plinth. The current artwork, by Michael Rakowitz, is a commanding presence. It is a recreation of the Lamassu (winged bull) – one of the thousands of ancient art pieces that were destroyed in the Iraq war. It is made entirely of recycled date cans.

I walked over to the National Film Theatre, to catch an afternoon showing of Kubrick’s 1964 political satire ‘Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)’. It’s strong stuff, and the humour still bites. It’s about what happens when the wrong person (a crazy military renegade) hits the nuclear button. The powers that be flounder around helplessly trying to prevent the impending apocalypse. Peter Sellers is impressive in three different roles – most memorably, as the Nazi psychopath scientist, Dr Strangelove. Ken Adam’s dramatic Bond-style sets (especially the ‘big map’) looked marvellous on the large screen. A real treat!

There was more top-class London culture to follow! I’d scored a standing ticket for the evening’s performance of Puccini’s crowd-pleaser ‘Tosca’ at the Royal Opera House. Bryn Terfel starred as the monstrous villain Scarpa, Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais took the titular role, and Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo played the lovestruck Mario. Jonathan Kent’s staging was understated, but particularly effective in the first scene. Terfel was alone, plotting his evil in the basement chapel, whilst above him a church service – all shining children and robed priests – was taking place. Grigòlo had the sweetest voice – his romantic arias were utterly gorgeous. Opolais came into her own in the tragic scenes. But it was a shame when she bumped Terfel off – the energy levels on stage took a sudden dive!

On Tuesday I caught the train up to the Midlands. The late May countryside was so green, and the hawthorn blossom so white and frothy – it brought to mind the line ‘hedges snowlike strewn’ (from Larkin’s ‘Cut Grass’).

I met my (almost-3-month-old) niece Emily! She smiles and cries and loves to curl up on a warm lap, and seems to be ravenous most of the time! She also barely sleeps during the day (just like Maisie at that age).

Lizzie and I went for a stroll, bumping the pram over Leek’s cobbled streets, and came across this medieval (Angle-Scandinavian) cross shaft in the churchyard of St Edwards. After supper (at 8pm – I love the long midsummer light!) we drove up to the Roaches to watch the sun set, and enjoy a beer in the sweet-scented crepuscular gloom.

The weather was dismal on Wednesday, but Lizzie and I got stuff done. We went through cupboards and wardrobes and filled 8 large bags with clothes for recycling or binning (I remember some of the clothes from Lizzie’s university days!!).

We went for a damp afternoon walk around the local reservoir, the cloud so low above our heads you could almost touch it! From a little hide we watched lapwings and terns darting over the water. The bushes were twittering with tits and finches, and evening blackbirds trilled their melodious song. The lush meadows were vibrant with rain-flecked flowers – yellow buttercups, purple clovers and brackish grasses, blue dots of speedwell, ragged pink campion etc.

On Thursday we went to ‘Boob Club’, Lizzie’s local mum social group, which was held in a room above the Fire Station (a window overlooked the garage – but there was no action while we were there!). The babies were all very cute, curious and wide-eyed and dribbly, but seeing them didn’t make me broody – it was a relief to have moved on from that stage, and to be able to talk about subjects other than hours slept and feeding routines!

On Friday Lizzie, Emily and I went to Manchester for the day. We caught the train (Emily’s first train ride – and it was also her first venture to the big city!). We met Anna B at the Manchester Art Gallery, hung out in the café, and visited a couple of exhibitions.

The first was a showcase of C20th Scandinavian design – furnishings, furniture, textiles, metalwork, glass and ceramics. I could happily have lived with any or all of them! Some were folksy (such as Birger Kaipiaien’s gorgeous wall plate – above)…

… others were seductively-shaped (such as this pregnant silver pitcher by Georg Jensen). A few achieved unusual effects with familiar materials – I particularly loved this porcelain/stoneware dish by Hanna Hyving, which conjured up an icy blue water-hole in a frozen lake…

…and Lena Bergström’s amazing blown and cut glass planet series.

The second exhibition was completely different. To coincide with the release of Mike Leigh’s new film about the 1819 Peterloo massacre, every gallery and museum in Manchester is currently running events about mass protest and civil unrest.

In ‘Get together and get things done’, the Manchester Gallery had brought together historical images of all sorts of different crowds. There were Hogarth’s politically charged cautionary tales, full of terrifying debauchery, early C20th photographs of suffragette protests, more recent images of activists fighting for women’s rights in India, and 1980s Poll Tax rioters.

There were happier crowds too – I liked a vibrant painting of an 1863 London street party celebrating the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and a curious early C20th photo of the ‘largest ever gramophone concert held’ in a park in London (there was the picture of the crowd, alongside a tiny image of the gramophone, sitting in solitary splendour on a stage!).

Most striking were the political protest posters – there was the iconic 1980 ‘Solidarity’ poster, and, my favourite, an anti-right-to-buy poster designed for a rally held by the Tower Hamlets Federation of Tenants (this one also gave the name – and the typeface – to the whole exhibition!). Another interesting feature of the exhibition were the feedback cards, which visitors could fill out and add to the displays, propping them up on a shelf that ran all the way round the gallery (see above). There were a surprising number of thoughtful comments!

On our way back to the station, the city was hitting peak Manchester. There was a Spice Girls gig on that night, and the streets were awash with excitable, already drunk fans (it was 5pm on a Friday) dressed as Baby or Scary, or sporting Posh and Ginger t-shirts (my favourite t-shirt simply said ‘zig-a-zig-ah!’). A high homeless man was lying in the road, refusing to move for the taxis trying to get past, and racially abusing the drivers when they started remonstrating with him.

We had a quiet day on Saturday. In the afternoon I wheeled Emily around town. We explored Leek’s municipal park which is set on an alarmingly steep slope (it was quite a workout with the pram!) but has a bandstand, a large rhododendron and yellow flag-fringed pond, a skate park, a playground, and lots of tennis courts. Emily slept through all the excitement!

In the late afternoon Paul, Lizzie, Emily and I went for a walk along the lane that skirts the bottom of the Roaches, and up along the ridge path.

The light was diffuse and grey, but it was clear, and we could see for miles, as far as Snowdonia, and the Long Mynd. The air was fragrant with the scent of the wild flowers, and the gorse-hedged fields were full of bright white new lambs.

There were also some heavily fringed chestnut Highland cows! I wonder how they can see where they are going?!

Our walk took us through a large fire-scorched area – burned in August last year (shortly before Tommy’s and my last visit, at which point the whole area was still closed). The winds had whipped up the last sparks of a poorly-controlled (illegal) campfire. There were some hopeful signs of new growth.

We sat down for a rest in the shadow of the crags, and the sun briefly emerged, making the colours ping!

On Sunday, Lizzie drove Emily and I to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The route we followed was beautiful, over high cloud-swept plateaus, along wind-ridged reservoirs, across the dour scrubby bleakness of the Dark Peak.

I’ve wanted to visit the sculpture park for a long time, and my expectations were high – perhaps too high! The day got off to a disappointing start when I found out that the piece that I’d been most excited about seeing (Roger Hiorn’s ‘Seizure’) had been closed indefinitely!

And I was a bit over the Henry Moores as I’d recently seen lots in Japan (although it was quite cute seeing the sheep huddling up to them!).

Things improved once we stepped inside the Chapel. Korean artist Kimsooja’s installation was simple but effective. She had put in a mirrored floor and coated the windows in refractive film. Looking down into the depths of the mirror was disorientating – the height of the windows beneath you suddenly seemed quite dizzying, and walking up the shiny mirrored steps was challenging! The rainbow light bouncing off the glass added to the sense of unreality, as did the soundtrack of breathing and chanting.

There were a number of sculptures by British artist David Nash (his ’Seventy-One Steps’ we experienced in the most visceral fashion, as we bumped the pram up every one of them!).

My favourite of his was ‘Black Mound’, a gathering of charred stumps (I made a child cry by reminding her that the label said that they were not be climbed on!). Nearby was (an apparently) guerilla artwork – a small blue owl paste-up in the knot of a tree!

Lizzie and I were keen to find the Andy Goldsworthy pieces, which were situated at the far end of the site, at the end of an extremely tree-rooty, rocky path (we almost broke the pram in the process!). We were glad we made the effort!

Both were dry stone wall structures. The first, ‘Hanging Trees’, was a series of three rectangular enclosures, set in a boundary wall. Encapsulated in each was a rotting tree-trunk, its limbs piercing/supported by the stone walls. The second piece, ‘Outclosure’, was a high-walled round enclosure in a round wood. There was no opening – you could only just see (the wild weedy patch) inside if you peeked through a chink at the top.

A gallery at the far end of the park had been devoted to an exhibition curated by artist Yinka Shonibare. Entitled ‘Criminal Ornamentation’, Shonibare had chosen pieces from the Arts Council Collection to explore ‘the cultural and social dimensions of the use of pattern in art’.

I’m not sure how well all the pieces worked together to tell a story, but I enjoyed Shonibare’s own wax relief collage, a couple of classic Bridget Rileys, the excellent timorousbeasties London wallpaper (quaint nostalgia and scary modern intertwined), and Andy Holden’s oddly titled ‘Totem for Thingy Time’ (the crazy pastel ice cream mountain)!

Our (thankfully easier) way back down the hill took us past some monumental old oak trees, and past Bruce Beasley’s subtly shaded pile of bronze geometrical blocks (‘Advocate IV’).

We came across Lucy and Jorge Orta’s ‘Gazing ball’ (with severed bronze heart) by the lake, and I was rather taken by Mark di Suvero’s ‘The Cave’.

It looked like something from a shipping yard – chunks of rivetted steel and rusty iron (he often utilized found objects). The kinetic element of it – the curved rusty form dangling freely – vividly expressed great strength and tension.

The visit ended on a high with James Turrell’s ‘Deer Shelter Skyspace’. Turrell’s immersive ‘Skyspaces’ are tall, white, submerged chapel-like rooms, which frame a square of sky. Inside, you can lie back and look up and contemplate the heavens as the light changes, the weather passes, the birds flit by (we mainly saw distant wind-surfing swallows). Even Emily found it calming!

This Yorkshire Sculpture Park Skyspace is based in a C18th underground structure which was originally built to shelter the Bretton Hall Estate’s deer herd in the winter!