As the title of this post shows Dylan Thomas had a way with words and the Welsh bard’s famous play Under Milk Wood has been reproduced in many forms. However there is a fantastic mash up that has been done of the early part of the play where Richard Burton’s haunting rendition is mixed with a King Tubby dub reggae track. It shouldn’t work but it does, check it out here via soundcloud. To begin at the beginning …..
If you had said to me 6 months ago that I’d have found myself in the company of complete strangers at a random get together that had been organised through Twitter I’d have given you permission to beat me severely with a blunt instrument, however that was indeed the situation that I found myself in recently after having accepted a Twitter invite to a Bradford Curry Crawl organised by @irnaqureshi. I’m relatively new to the twitter game but the randomness of someone I don’t know inviting people for a curry in Bradford totally appealed, as I wrote in this post having new experiences and encounters is fundamental to a happy life and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
We met at Zouk’s on the Leeds/ Bradford Road and that turned out to be a great find for me and I’d certainly go back. I always like a place that has got a large hot grill as soon as you walk in so you know the meat is going to have a great flavour to it. Credit to everyone who took a punt and turned up, a lovely mix of people and experiences with Irna acting as the perfect host. Broad range of topics covered including pop up afternoon teas (through twitter), what’s Bettakulchure all about, keeping chickens, science v art, Bradford, politics (a bit), food, breadmaking, the differing rice habits of Asian cultures etc. I learnt and enjoyed things throughout the evening and huge credit to Irna for throwing the idea out there and of course my fellow Tweetuppers for putting up with my ramblings for the evening.
The whole evening made me smile, if there is another and you fancy smiling too then come along.
I’ve written a couple of fairly long posts recently so no harm in a couple of short ones I feel. I’m a big fan of Hunter S Thompson (who isn’t ?) and was having a beer recently when I noticed this quote from the great man on the pint glass. Now Hunter liked a drop of the good stuff and I’m sure he would have had something to say about this (hell he had something to say about most things) and I doubt it would be complimentary. However I must admit I liked it. It was on a pint in one of the Leeds Brewery bars who I think have done a lot of good things over the last few years in the city and I think that most of their bars and beer live up to the sentiments on this glass. Cheers.
I was kindly asked recently to write a post that would be jointly hosted by both Culture Vulture and Leeds Inspired. It is to be the first in a series that they are putting together under the title of ‘The Art of Sport’ and I felt honoured when they asked me to write the first piece on bikes. Quite why they asked me is open to question as I don’t know much about art and am not a great rider, however I came up with the following post that I hope does the subject justice and which first appeared on their respective blogs, which if you don’t know them are excellent places for all things cultural and goings on in and around Leeds.
When I watch the pro bike racing on TV one of the things that has always struck me is the sheer visual nature of the spectacle and in particular the peloton sweeping down a mountain pass writhing their way through a series of S-bends. The fluidity of movement encapsulated in these moments has always reminded me of brushstrokes swept across a canvas with the sponsored team jerseys providing a vivid blur of primary colour often offset against stunning visual scenery. It’s no surprise to me that artists have looked to capture this colour and motion in many guises, for example David Gerstein :
or a particular current favourite of mine in the recently commissioned Euskaltel by Chris Billington depicting the orange kit of the Euskaltel Euskadi team snaking their way up into their Basque Pyrenean homeland.
Other artists such as Alexander Calder (6 day bike race – 1924) or Leroy Neiman (Indoor Cycling – 1979) have sought to capture action similar to that we will see on the velodrome at the forthcoming Olympics when for a brief moment the population at large will become aware of the sport and Laura Trott will become a household name. In contrast to these paintings that seek to exploit the fluidity of movement inherent in cycling I particular like Edward Hopper’s 1937 painting French Six Day Bicycle Rider (below) which shows the rider (in my view anticipating the motion to come through the stillness) before he competes. 6 day racing was very popular at the time (hence the similarity with Calder’s title) and Hopper regularly went to watch the racing at Madison Square Gardens and although Hopper did not say who the rider was in picture the likelihood is that it was Alfred Letourner a regular winner at the Gardens in the period and nicknamed ‘Le Diable Rouge’
The feeling of flow is something of a holy grail among those of us who ride, that moment when all your feelings, emotions and senses coalesce with your physical movements and you slip into a bubble where there are no thoughts just oneness of movement. I don’t find it that often but when I ride the Yorkshire Dales single track treading in Turner’s footsteps I sometimes stumble across it and I wonder whether this heightening of the senses, being totally aware of your surroundings and colours is what artists feel when they find their muse? As a cyclist you will invariably find yourself riding past the same landmarks time after time and in doing so you will notice the subtle changes of immediate surrounds as you pass through the seasons in a way that has been perfectly encapsulated by Hockney in his most recent exhibition with paintings of the same lane or same tree over a period of time. I could immediately identify with this and now keep seeing “Hockney’s” whenever I ride. I guess however that this feeling can be better summed up by someone who can actually write so here’s Hemmingway:
It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle
I sometimes wonder how bikes have affected art in ways that we cannot measure, how did some of the landscape artists of the early 20th century get to their destination? In my mind they cycled there and this ability of the bike to take us further afield must have had an effect on the art being produced at the time? In a way this process is still happening today as land artist Richard Long is known to cycle down to his favourite muddy bank before collecting mud to put in his saddlebag before riding back to the studio to get to work and Grayson Perry has been a keen mountain biker for a long time and I wonder how that may have influenced his work.
Art and bikes move much further though than simply the depiction of racing or bikes in the physical form to which most people imagine when they think of a bike. Take the fantastically titled 1920 painting by Max Ernst below – The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses !
I think that this picture was one of the first pieces of bike art that began to disassemble the bike and was the forerunner, alongside Marcel Duchamp‘s Bicycle Wheel (1913), to those who realised that the bike’s genius simplicity and component parts make the perfect materials to produce some of the most eye catching and memorable work of the 20th Century, most notably with the Head of a Bull (1942) by Pablo Picasso at the top of the piece that uses the saddle and handlebars and is probably instantly recognisable for many people. This tradition of using the bike itself as the art rather than depicted bikes in art has continued through to the modern day with Ai Weiwei Forever Bicycles – 1200 bikes formed together into this remarkable structure:
I love the way that all of the artists who work in this way from Duchamp through to Weiwei are taking a brilliantly designed but essentially humble everyday item and seeking to expand our horizons to what is possible and surely all those who saddle up seek to explore expanded horizons?
The bikes of Duchamp, Picasso and Weiwei could not of course be ridden but many many cyclists enjoy the concept of creating or modifying their own bike and applying colour schemes, designs, details and frame decals and the controversial Lance Armstrong got in on the idea when he rode a series of customised art bikes in the Tour de France that were then auctioned off for his Livestrong charity. The artists KAWS, Kenny Scharf, Shepard Fairey, Marc Newson, Yoshitomo Nara and Damien Hirst produced a serious of one offs with my fav being that by Yoshitomo Nara:
Once you start customising bikes people can tend to get very obsessive, a trait I suspect that might exist in the art world, that can be perhaps best illustrated by the people who actually tattoo the brand logo of bike part manufacturer Campagnolo onto themselves, which might be the perfect manifestation of bike art?
The most recent trend in using bikes as art would, I suspect, never be considered art by those who do it and that’s the Ghost Bike movement whereby bikes are sprayed white and tied up at the site where a cyclist has been killed. I’m not sure where I stand on Ghost Bikes but they remind me very much of the Situationist Art movement where all art was done for a political reason and when you first come across a Ghost Bike it very much makes you think about your own mortality, what happened at that site and why? what changes need to happen to prevent further Ghost Bikes appearing? If Guernica can bring to our attention what is happening in the world around us and can challenge us with profound questions then I think Ghost Bikes do the same thing and are very much in the best tradition of art with a purpose.
Bike art has continued to develop as different mediums for expression have developed and photography and film have perhaps proved the perfect medium. Graham Watson has been photographing cycling for 30 years producing any number of breathtaking images and new kid on the block Jered Gruber I particularly like for his ability to really capture the soul and culture of cycling and bike racing. Film makers in this area are mushrooming and there are now film festivals dedicated to all things bike. Channel 4 got in on the act last year through their Concrete Circus series of films and the 2 bike films in particular reminded me of the grace, control, balance and rhythm that any dancer would be proud of, especially when you watch Flatland BMX specialist Keelan Phillips get to work. If you have not seen Danny or Keelan ride before the prepare to be amazed.
For many of us however the bike does not need to be depicted as art, the bike itself is art and none more so than currently being demonstrated by the growing artisan bespoke movement in this country producing some of the most beautiful creations imaginable that achieve the difficult marriage of form and function to perfection. There are none better than Yorkshire’s own Ricky Feather (who I’m hoping will be building my next bike in the future and if it’s as good as the one below I’ll be smiling) and we should celebrate these craftspeople and their skill and creativity.
So since the first bike pedal was turned bikes have influenced countless artists and continued to do so through developing mediums. A question often asked is what is art ? and for me the answer is freedom, whether that be creative freedom or freedom of expression. Art is what people do and have always done there is a primal urge within all of us to create (admittedly well hidden in some of us) and that is it’s essential link to bikes as if you ask people what riding gives them from the very youngest upwards the word freedom will consistently appear, perfectly summed up in 1896 by Susan Brownwell Anthony:
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.
For me though perhaps the piece of cycling art that means most to me is the one that I cycle past regularly a few minutes from my house. A wall at the back of a row of shops that has been painted to commemorate Beryl Burton, Britain’s greatest ever cyclist (and in my view greatest sportsperson). Fine though it is I feel it is time for a new piece of bike art and that is a sculpture of Beryl for the centre of Leeds.
This weekend Leeds became a multimedia, multi-arts moving canvas and various parts of the city became part of the Overworlds & Underworlds “project”. I use the word project as I’m not sure how else to describe it. For those who don’t know the city, the river Aire runs through it but at one point part of it flows underneath the railway station through a serious of tunnels which are known as the dark arches. They have always had a slightly otherworldy feel to them as the noise of the rushing water is amplified and there is unsurprisingly a dank and dampness to the place. This weekend the whole dark arches area formed the Underworlds element of the project dreamt up from the warped imagination of the Quay Brothers.
In each of the arches something different was taking place, there was the journey of the River Stykes through the cycle of imagined, observed and remembered memories; Phoenix Dance and the Northern Ballet performing; a floating Queen/ Ghost like character on a sunken ship; film loops; chalk drawings; a wailing/laughing ensemble (Phoenix Dance) with a lot of chairs and a dead horse; a miniature port hole / coffin depicted a shattered/ flooded world. All to the accompaniment of bells and water. Water was clearly a key theme to what was going on although quite what was going on is open to interpretation.
As we were wandering a gap opened and 3 dark angels appeared and handed one of my kids an umbrella full of holes and instructed her to follow them and shelter them as they weaved through the crowd past the band of lost souls. These dark angels then turned into a fire breathing / eating act, again with the bell toiling for the dead caused by the flood ? Out in the courtyard a gaggle of steampunks carried water jugs and emptied them in a solemn ritual into the canal, each one again to the ringing of the bell while next to them a pylon had found it’s watery grave.
The Band of Lost Souls
A Dark Angel (photo credit – Carl Milner)
Photo Credit – Carl Milner
A watery grave
Dark Angels playing with fire !
The strange and macabre world of the flooded underworld was of course only half the story, what of those who had survived the flood? celebration was required. The main shopping street in Leeds found itself with a shipwreck, brass bands in “band off”, celestial dancers floating through the shoppers, shop windows converted to themes of the sea. All of this of course taking place while much of Leeds does what Leeds does on a weekend and worships to the god of consumerism. What on earth did they think to these strange goings on around them and I even missed the singing children in one of the arcades.
Members of the Paper Birds Theatre Group and other theatre performers, who we had earlier seen in the ‘water into the canal ceremony’ then mingled in with the bands and dancers and the bells rang out again as they led the way pied piper like back down to the dark arches where without doubt the best thing of the whole “project” was. Almost hidden right at the end of the dark arches you could see a tightly packed huddle of people all staring at something but it was unclear what. I wedged my way in to the very densely packed throng but could see nothing but pitch black with the rushing sound of water, then magically the most incredible projection appeared that wrapped round the arches and illuminated the space underneath. It was like a flooded cathedral or a ballroom of a titanic like ship and totally took the breath away. I could have stayed there gawping at it for a long time but the throng of people wanting to look meant that I needed to make some room. The projections were created by Mic Pool, I have no idea how he has done them but they were the highlight of this amazing day.
Photo credit – Carl Milner
Photo credit – Carl Milner
I have no idea what any of this was really about, it was beautiful, beguiling and macabre in equal measure. I’m not sure if it was environmental or political all I do know is that huge credit must go to all who collaborated on it and Leeds needs more things like this.
This month’s book club book was remarkable in lots of ways:
This book was packed full of drawings. It’s not the first book we’ve read with pictorial excitement but we haven’t read many that use illustrations to tell the story along with the prose (apart from Maus that is). This book tells the story of an obsessive 12 year old boy who has to physically draw and map everything that happens to him in his life – from the accidental shooting of his brother in a barn to waste paper on a Chicago street. Everything is drawn and recorded in exquisite detail and these illustrations were the constant companion to the text throughout the book.
It was an odd, large, square-ish format, this book. Larger than A5 and smaller than A4. It would flop open and fall awkwardly when trying to read it in bed. On the plus side, it would fall open flat without having to break the spine. The large format allowed the illustrations to really breathe and the typographic layout was pleasingly open and engaging. But most of all it was just odd.
Old book or New Book?
This book was an old book set in the modern era. It was a timeless tale set amidst the high plains initially with cowboys and ranches and then hobos on railroad cars and then Smithsonian derring do. The author played around with the idea of time I think to the point where it wasn’t important which for me is interesting as I’m always trying to pinpoint time because it helps me to process the information.
The author was relentless in his articulation of the obsession of the main character TS Spivet to the point it almost detracts from the narrative. I found it was only when I relaxed and enjoyed the illustrative diversions that they no longer distracted but delivered additional texture and depth. As a bit of an obsessive myself, this book spoke to me on many levels and Spivet shares many traits with myself not just as a 12 year old but now.
Six out of Ten
That’s what I scored this book, which I upped at the end of the night because I felt I’d underscored it somewhat. There was a mixed bag of scores and even one of the guys hadn’t read it – which is unusual in itself and often tells us more than the review would from that member. I enjoyed the book, it was light and fresh after last month’s intensely brutal South American dictator novel and I’m thinking back on it fondly.
On to next Month.
There’s a few folk who write for and read this blog that really do need to have this shirt.
Available now on Howies.