Venice of the North

Amsterdam with the possible exception of Venice, is probably the best preserved city in Europe where it’s still possible to imagine a world before the car. History is constantly evoked in the details of houses that defy the Netherlands’ waterlogged geography. Walking in the canal belt leads one back 350 years to the Golden Age following the Dutch Republic’s final defeat of Spain. That 80-year struggle produced a self-sufficient society keen to explore and trade with the rest of the world.
As you pass the tall, narrow houses that buckle on soft, soggy ground, you appreciate how a mercantile society spent its newfound affluence on domestic dwellings,  which continue today to convey elegant order and precision. If you look up above the eyeline, you’ll see how each house has subtly different gables. Some are stepped like the crenellations of a medieval castle and some employ curly plaster  in the  Baroque fashion of the 18th century hiding the steeply pitched roofs behind. These gables function as the decorative icing on a cake, hiding the more banal details of structural construction though cccasionally it’s possible to see how the attics that extend behind meet the façade at a sharp angle. These grand frontages disguise functional loft spaces of which the only visible clue is the ubiquitous pulley hooks used to hoist up food, furniture and fuel into the houses because the staircases were built so steeply.
On a winter visit it’s possible to wander across canals leeched of colour by Jack Frost, but the city is largely quiet as the residents dash through the cold that seeps into the skin like a contamination. On a previous visit at Christmas we were so chilly that in order to stick to our sightseeing we found some long underwear to avert frosbite-induced amputation. But at Easter the famed Dutch skill at gardening becomes evident. Canal boats become impromptu roof gardens and almost every house proudly supports window boxes or pots that spill down the steps and onto the street.
Nowhere else in the world encourages cycling as much as Amsterdam. The quays become flashpoints for tourists on foot encountering sanguine cyclists who duck and weave around the dozy visitors taking their eyes off the road to read their maps. But this dodging game becomes an admirable alternative to the familiar process of avoiding trucks and cars in other cities.

What I’ll remember from the recent trip is the enjoyment of wandering late at night away from the main tourist arteries and looking into the homes of local residents as they came home from work to cook, socialize and put their feet up. In Amsterdam, life has a communal quality that quietly discourages the drawing of blinds or curtains. On the contrary, the cosy interiors are illuminated and left open to view. For a nosy flaneur, this affords an unprecedented sense of access to the lives of random strangers at home even to the point of seeing a naked Amsterdammer sitting nonchalantly at a desk, in all probability doing the weekly shop online. Residents of this city are somehow closer to nature, perched as they are above the briny deep that washes all around them.

Legal Highs

The overriding memory of a recent trip to Amsterdam involves the pungent, sweet smell of grass lingering on the streets of this remarkable city built on water. The coffeeshops sitting on almost every commercial street lure tourists in for an experience legally denied at home. It’s peculiar  to see and smell grass being openly smoked in public but, on balance, an indication of Dutch maturity in their approach to the inhalation of what is essentially the smoke from a plant. Politicians elsewhere are so muddled in their attitudes that clear paradoxes are set up. Is Marijuana intrinsically any worse than alcohol? I certainly didn’t see weed fuelled aggression on the streets. I’d rather sit with a crowd of stoned people than drunks any day.
The problem arises with the way in which the plant is quite removed from what you might have smoked in the 1960s. Cultivation now takes place on an industrial scale and to meet demand unscrupulous growers seem intent on producing ever stronger highs so that it is reputedly becoming more dangerous particularly for the young and those susceptible to mental illness. A gentle trip to the moon that my parents might have enjoyed 40 years ago has been replaced by the effect of being shot into space on a rocket, which is not a pleasurable experience. One British resident of the Netherlands also told me that it was difficult to warn his children of the dangers since they were surrounded by coffeeshops selling freely available grass. It’s a fair point, but frankly having seen the Dutch solution in action, I suggest it’s still preferable to the absurd criminalisation and hypocrisy we see elsewhere in the world.
Don’t many of us simply share a common desire for honesty where we can discuss the merits and dangers freely without feeling condemned or complicit in something that’s been considered wrong because it’s labelled a ‘drug’? What’s not desirable is the almost global current state of affairs where politicians and police treat alcohol as a tolerable anomaly but bully and criminalise anyone wanting to puff a joint at home. 

The Arcelor Mittal Orbit: An Olympic Eyesore?

Not content with spending £9 billion to stage the Olympics, about which we can debate the merits of potential social and economic regeneration of a poor and depressed area, Boris Johnson and Tessa Jowell have now decided to spend a further £19 million to create a landmark on the site of the Olympic Park in Stratford, the grimly named ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’. Apparently this is designed to draw visitors to what is implicitly feared will become another Olympic white elephant. Almost every Olympic site has become neglected and virtually redundant after the two-week games have finished. Does this Stalinist scale folly reveal that this vastly expensive project will become an abandoned wasteland without a fair ground ride to draw in visitors? Computer generated images suggest a tower made from Meccano, which I remember from childhood that allowed you to make fantasy structures from bolted together strips of painted steel. Rising above a large, windswept piazza, the ‘Orbit’ might well become a bleak and isolated destination.
This giant folly, taller than Big Ben will apparently act as an observatory. But offering a view over what exactly? The new shopping centre at Stratford? Empty sports arenas? Post-industrial garbage dumps and clogged canals? This is a vanity project once familiar from Soviet occupied Eastern Europe. At least the London Eye has one of the best views in the world across the Thames to historic Westminster. The ‘Orbit’ resembles Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower, another council-led attempt to build a ‘landmark’, but bereft of ideas.
Anish Kapoor is capable of making some sublime sculpture that explores our bodily encounter with materials and space but this helter-skelter, kitsch Tower of Babel commissioned by bureaucrats and named after multinational is an unworthy mistake. It has none of the suggestive power of Kapoor’s ‘Marsyas’ formerly installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Imaginative and engaging public sculpture is a necessary feature of our shared civic space but this awkward, outsized and confusing fair ground attraction seems a serious waste of money even if most of the costs come from the pockets of a benefactor. What’s more troubling is the apparent confusion about how to create a valuable legacy for the Olympic Games and how to commission public art of genuine and enduring value.

Lost London

Visiting ‘Lost London’ at Kenwood House in Hampstead reinforces how this city is an accretion of buildings constructed over hundreds of years. English Heritage has mounted a display of its photographic archive of buildings and streets that were brought down to the ground by bureaucrats and developers or destroyed under aerial bombardment. To see this accumulation of loss is to suffer a pang of sadness at the immense scale of unnecessary damage in the past 150 years. It’s true all cities are constantly remade, Paris being the ironic exemplar, so that buildings inherited from the past are occasionally superceded by better designs, but whenever a historic structure is lost all the traces of activity contained within it evaporate at the stroke of the wrecking ball. We lose contact with people who once inhabited or worked in these structures, the embodied of their values and experiences and which provided some form of access to the past.

Now we can never experience the grandeur and grime of the old Columbia Market built in Gothic splendour on a scale to rival St Pancras Station. Photographs remain a documentary record but are a poor substitute for strolling its market stalls. Such irresponsibility illustrates an extraordinary lack of appreciation of London’s legacy, it’s inhabitants and the value of their labour. That such a remarkable testament to the Victorian age could be cavalierly ripped down is frankly an assault on the spirit of anyone who values the legacies of history.

But what this exhibition staged by English Heritage demonstrates is the slow but concrete progress towards conservation in this country, that our past can be preserved while continuing to remain relevant to our lives today. You only need to think of Covent Garden’s brilliant transformation from redundant market to its respectful adaptation today to appreciate how we might regenerate London without ruining our collectiveinheritance. With its archaic sounding name, the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was founded in the 19th century to use the new technology of photography in order to hold onto to something that might endure of London’s history.

Later in the 1950s and 1960s  a slow reassessment of Modernism’s utopian impulse for shaping the future from the ground up, real conservation gradually took root. Too much of London’s fabric suffered destruction during the war, but the exhibition uncovers how bomb damaged structures provided the rationale for widespread post-war flattening of entire streets. Georgian King’s Square in Finsbury and Swedenborg Square in Stepney suffered the inevitable degradation of war but nevertheless survived largely intact. Instead of refurbishment, they were swept away in the rush to modernize housing. It seems so obvious today that renovation is so often preferable to wholescale demolition. Not until 1971 did listing buildings require prior consent before being altered or pulled down.

This is an exhibition that doesn’t simply focus on the lost artistocratic townhouses or great landmarks but also highlights slum housing and mundane, rickety commercial structures that accidentally survived the Great Fire of London. But the humble coaching inn, the tenement, the pub and  the parish church lost to the wreckers are irreplaceable features of the city that once connected us tangibly to the lives of our ancestors and those subtle aspects of history embodied in brick and stone. Our losses in the past serve to impress upon us today that we needn’t carelessly allow the pressures of development to destroy the fabric and character of London or indeed any other city. ‘Progress’ requires a responsible negotiation with and respect for history.

The Hoerengracht by Ed and Nancy Kienholz

The world’s oldest profession presents considerable challenges to an artist. Selling the body has a long history in art but in the past it has sometimes been alluded to subtly with a wink and a nudge. Visual codes were employed by artists like Jan Steen whose ‘The Interior of an Inn’ acts as a prologue to ‘Hoerengracht’ an installation by Ed and Nancy Kienholz made during the 1980s exhibited at the National Gallery. Steen depicts three men lewdly leering at a serving girl in a 17th century Inn. One grabs her dress while she lays her hand on his arm. Is it to reproach him or indicate that there are some ground rules to be observed? Another suggestively fills a long pipe with tobacco.  But ‘Hoerengracht’ relies less on suggestion and more on full disclosure of the game of arousal and illusion employed by prostitution to lure punters into a snare.
By adding one letter to ‘Herrengracht’ the artists translate the name of one of the city’s best addresses into ‘Whore’s Canal’ in Dutch,  a simulation of a district notorious for its honest marketing of women’s bodies. The Kienholz’s worked jointly on a project that took 5 years of labour to simulate the observed details of Amsterdam’s red light district and its working conditions. Using casts of real bodies, the Kienholz’s stage an uncanny simulation of prostitutes at work. There is no disguised allusion here as the visitor enters a murky, mocked up street scene faintly illuminated by red light bulbs and partially revealed rooms. Women loosely dressed for their trade either stand alert beckoning to potential street trade or appear languidly bored reading magazines or listening to the radio to pass the time of day. This installation plays with the revelation and discretion employed by prostitution. One disembodied head floats within a tiny window frame while around a sharp corner a woman sits slumped in stockings and underwear.  Each mannequin is finished with clear resin that runs down the figure suggesting both tears and the glossy surface of seduction. Their faces are framed by cigar boxes, which imply the commodification of their bodies.
‘Hoerengracht’ is characteristic of other installations made by Ed and Nancy Kienholz that deliberately entrap us in a voyeuristic complicity. As the visitor wanders through this uncannily accurate re-enactment, we become participants in a game of hide and seek, drawn by the hunt for flashes of their bodies and faces performing in tiny spaces as stage sets for fantasy. Obscure but necessary details of domestic life intrude, ashtrays, grimy sinks and drying laundry which capture the banal details of long pauses between  the main event. This is yet another variant of show-business and these grotty waiting rooms bear a strong resemblance to backstage dressing rooms of West End theatres.
But what this meticulously observant work fundamentally pleads for is a generous acceptance of the world’s oldest profession and a understanding of its rituals.

Miroslav Balka’s ‘How it is’ – Tate Modern

Coming down the slope that leads into Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, Miroslav Balka’s giant steel box remains hidden by the permanent bridge that cuts the space in half. A dark, mysterious object gradually appears in view at the far end of the building, which demands a journey to fully explore and comprehend. An inaccessible rectangular box comes into focus, but on walking it’s full length, you discover a slyly concealed ramp on the far side that guides visitors into a dark chasm. Climbing to the mouth of this void requires more exertion than courage, but poised on the threshold to enter, all our fears of darkness, reminiscent of childhood, induce a profound anxiety about proceeding any further.

Having summoned enough determination to walk into the box, you’ll discover a velvety darkness that admits a low level of light from the hall much like sunlight filtering down to the seabed.  It’s an unnerving experience summoning up one’s deepest, primal fear of the unknown and destabilizes the vision normally employed to guide you through an unfamiliar environment.

Balka’s Unilever commission assumes a magnified geometry that diminishes the human visitor. Metallic, functional walls embody the modern age of mass-produced parts bolted and welded together without concern for aesthetic appeal beyond efficiency and economy. A giant box resembling a container used to ship much of the world’s goods lies stranded, stripped of any functionality. However, its contents of air produce a baffled disappointment, for this is not an Aladdin’s cave.

Initial shock soon gives way to something much more disturbing and tragic. This empty structure begins to assume historical associations. While children shout with pleasure and run around, those familiar with 20th century history may well associate this sculptural installation with the transport of human cargo in the Holocaust. More recently, refugees fill similar containers in desperate flight from other life-threatening persecutions.

Balka’s work directly addresses the experience of his hometown in Poland where an entire section of the population was deported and murdered within living memory. His over-arching theme is the impact of history. In the moment we suppress our hesitancy about entering his large box, the deep abyss arouses our instinct for survival by playing both on the imagination and by undermining our sense of well-being.

With its overt historical allusions, ‘How It Is’, becomes the most politically charged commission in the Unilever series. Above all, the sculpture becomes a solemn warning of our capacity to harness mathematical reason and base materials for wholly destructive ends.

Launching the ship

My hope for this blog is  to write forthright but still informed pieces that may spur debate and provide some entertainment. In childhood my father would describe me as ‘opinionated’, a term I would wear with defiant pride. Sometimes this tendency to take a firm postion has landed me in trouble even to the point of provoking a surprisingly hostile response. I don’t aim to be needlessly offensive but simply want to use this forum to make a case, build some arguments and engage a readership.

A blog reviewing Modern and Contemporary Art.