The Vanity of Small Differences

perry1 (The Adoration of the Cage Fighters)

When I first came across Grayson Perry I have to say I was distinctly underwhelmed, I think because it all seemed to be about him and not about the art.  As I result I ignored him for a while but slowly as I started to come across him more, listen to what he was saying and look at his art my mind was totally changed.  In fact I now think that he is not only one of Britain’s best contemporary artists but he is also one of the best commentators on art, he has an engaging quizzical style that enables him to get across concepts and ideas in a very accessible style.  This perhaps culminated in his Bafta award winning documentary series All in the Best Possible Taste in which Grayson visited Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotsworlds and created tapestries depicting a story inspired by art history and the different social groups, classes and tastes that he came across during the visit to the very different regions of England.

Since seeing the documentary I’ve always wanted to see the tapestries so was very excited when I heard that they were coming to Leeds and would be installed for a period in Temple Newsam House.  It’s worth mentioning the curation of the exhibition as I think it was a very clever idea to place the tapestries within a stately home as opposed to an art gallery.  The tapestries themselves primarily deal with issues of taste and class and are full of artefacts that reflect this.  Seeing them hanging on the walls (each one in a different room) of the South Wing surrounded by the changing styles and taste of previous centuries gave them a suitable backdrop that could not be recreated in any art gallery.

perry2(The Agony in the Car Park)

The tapestries tell the story of Tim Rakewell and his rise from impoverished working class Sunderland to nouveau riche stately home owner after Tim’s success as an app developer and his sale of his company to Richard Branson and finally his death after crashing his Ferrari showing off to his new trophy wife.  The Story is “The Geek’s Progress” – a headline that appears on the ipad on tapestry 4 and is a nod to William Hogarth’s “A Rakes Progess” which tells the story of Tom Rakewell and his descent from inherited riches to madness, destitution and death.  Grayson’s modern take on Hogarth’s work is brought into focus in the exhibition which enables you to compare the two bodies of work as all 8 of Hogarth’s pictures are reproduced in the room that houses Grayson’s final tapestry.

perry3(Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close)

Whilst I’d seen pictures of the tapestries and seen the documentary on the inspiration behind them nothing can prepare you for the stunning colours, vividness and detail of seeing them in them up close.  There is so much detail that personally I could look at each one for a considerable period of time, they hold your eye as you take in all that is going on and in looking at them for a prolonged period my brain was totally engaged in thinking about Tim’s progress and what this tells us about Britain today and who we are.

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(The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal)

Artefacts play out strongly across the tapestries, and this again links through to where they exhibited as you pass through rooms full of artefacts of the period before you get to the tapestries.  From the miners lamp, to the cafetiere, the football shirt to the Cath Kidston bag so many assumptions are made on the clothes and artefacts we wear and surround ourselves with.  Technology and how it has changed is also strongly reflected throughout the journey, from the very first tapestry where the baby Tim reaches out his mother’s mobile phone screen, the huge cranes of the declining shipyards to be replaced by call centres, the tablet computers and app development that brought Tim his fortune.

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(The Upper Class at Bay, Or An Endangered Species Brought Down)

In comparison to A Rake’s Progress which dealt with someone’s descent from riches to rags, The Geek’s Progress charts the successful rise from impoverished background to stately home.  As Britain becomes more and more unequal and social mobility less and less achievable Perry is I think asking important questions on what sort of society we want.  On one of the tapestries Jamie Oliver is depicted as the god of social mobility looking down as Tim moves across to the middle classes, however Tim as Grayson did attended a Grammar School and I wonder if Grayson is making comment here that this is now one of the only ways to achieve social mobility.  In the end though both Tim and Tom lie naked and dead each destroyed by their wealth.

perry6

(#Lamentation)

Across these six tapestries Grayson Perry weaves an extraordinary exploration of British social history over the last thirty years encompassing politics, class, taste, social observation, art history, celebrity culture, changing industry, technology and social media.

It does all of this is a very accessible format, my kids came with me and both said how much they’d enjoyed it partly because they could follow and understand it.  The accompanying booklet is really excellent, there is an app that you can also download and this is available on tablets in the exhibition so that you can explore the tapestries in more detail and look up many of the other historical pieces of art from the 15th century that inspired the work.

The exhibition is on till December 7, I’ll definitely be going again.

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Reliance – by Stuart

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As mentioned previously we try and come up with some of our own stuff at the Boys Book Club for our yearly trip away and this time in Barcelona we had the theme of Reliance to get our teeth into.  I’ve already put Phil’s marvellous Roll of Honour but here’s a different style from Stuart.  We all read our own pieces out on the night and this was delivered with some cracking intensity:

RELIANCE

History never repeats, but it rhymes
Memories are not read only files
They are torn pages rebound with emotion
“You’re a grown fucking man.”
Rely on nothing
No thing
Rely on the silence that allows the words
Surrender to the space you occupy

Roll of Honour – by Phil Dean

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When the Boys Book Club go away for the annual trip we have, over the last few years, done some of our own writing as well as reviewing whatever the book happens to be.  The year in Barcelona we had a theme of Reliance and could come up with whatever we wanted to around that theme.  We hunkered down in a bar and read out our own pieces to each other, it was a special moment for me and a real highlight of the trip.  It’s one thing to critique published authors, it’s quite another to have a go at something yourself over a short time-frame (we had three weeks) and reveal that to others.  Phil is, alongside me, one of the earliest members of the bookclub and he wrote a beautiful piece called Roll of Honour inspired by his visits to the stunning Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red installation at the Tower of London.  He has published his piece on his blog so make yourself a cup of tea and go and have a read of Roll of Honour 

I’ll post a couple more of our interpretations on here hopefully over the coming week with the authors permission.

Iron Tree by Al Weiwei

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I recently went to one of my favourite of all places, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, primarily to have a look at the Al Weiwei exhibition in the newly converted chapel on the site which I had not yet got round to seeing.  Before I went into the chapel I was mesmerised by the copper tree structure outside it which I had no idea was going to be there.

The sculpture of the tree is made up of numerous casts which capture the intricacies of the bark and the structure of the tree in all it’s glory, the texture and detailing are astonishing which is only heightened by the beautiful weathered copper colour.  When I was talking about seeing this piece a friend said that he had often thought that if trees didn’t exist naturally in such abundance we would have examples of them in museums such is their beauty.  Seeing the Iron Tree I couldn’t help think that he was right.

However the beauty was also tinged with darkness, the Iron is bolted together roughly in places and it appears as though the iron has perhaps encased the original tree killing it in the process.  I couldn’t help think of how totalitarian regimes have done exactly that throughout the generations to the fee creative spirits that have existed within them, encasing them in iron and squeezing until life, creativity and freedom of expression are extinguished.  This of course is what is happening to Al Weiwei himself (and countless others in China) placed under virtual house arrest, passport confiscated and finding it harder and harder to communicate with the world outside the iron grip of the Chinese regime.

A beautiful, stunning and thought provoking piece of art that made me think as much about freedom and creativity as it did about natural beauty.  What’s the point of art or is that art is a conversation I have with my kids on and off, sometimes you come across a piece which for me encapsulates the point brilliantly.  The Iron Tree is one of those pieces.

Barcelona and the Boys Book Club

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This year’s annual boys book club weekend away saw us continue the search for a bit of autumnal warmth by heading to Barcelona.  Our trips follow the routine that I wrote about in last years Palma post and Barcelona would be no exception, no grand plan just wander around taking the temperature of the city and it’s culture as we meander, perhaps with a bit of architecture or art thrown in for good measure.  We would of course be reviewing this months book, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and discussing some of our own work as we had set ourselves the theme of Reliance and were tasked with coming up with something creative around that theme.  We also had a couple of new members this year who had not been away with us before so that was also going to be interesting to see how the dynamic might be affected.

Much as I’m not a fan of getting up early in the morning, the forced early start does enable you to make the most of a weekend away as we were sat with a cold beer in our hands in a lovely little plaza by lunchtime with the day before us.  We’d actually stumbled upon a historic weekend to be in Barcelona as all 881 mayors of the various towns and villages of Catalonia were in town to discuss whether they should collectively sign a memorandum calling for the right to be able to hold a referendum on independence.  As a result there were TV crews around, demonstrators and a general feeling of excitement that something was afoot heightened by incredibly loud firecrackers being let off.  Yellow badges were being handed out that it was explained to us were not necessarily signifying that the Catalans wanted independence but that they wanted the right to a referendum to decide their own fate  Echoes of course of what we have recently gone through with Scotland and what might happen with Europe.  Much as I fully support the principle of national self determination I can’t help feel that globalisation is causing communities and nations to encircle the wagons somewhat and wrap those wagons in a national flag which has potentially dangerous undercurrents.

One thing that has definitely changed, even in the short few years we’ve been doing this, is technology.  Photos can be quickly snapped on phones (in the early days a couple of the lads used to rock up with some serious proper camera gear) and of course city maps, places of interest, where to eat / drink etc can be summoned up instantly.  There are many advantages to this but at the same time it can add a bit of tension for those who want to experience things in the moment and not second hand through the glow of a screen or someone else’s recommendation.  The same is also true of the books, do you read it with no prior knowledge or do you use the easily available information to find out more ?  In our book club it is very much frowned upon to do research around the book / author but for some this is a very difficult temptation to resist

Friday’s wanderings saw us drift down through the Gothic quarter mazing our way away from the crowds down through Bareloneta to the beach before thinking about eating (we did a lot of both thinking about it and doing it over the weekend).  A few people had said to me before the trip that you’ll get stung in Barcelona, really expensive.  This was of course true if you couldn’t be bothered to walk a couple of streets away from the honey traps.  If you could then you could (and we did) eat and drink like kings for staggeringly reasonable prices – much cheaper and better quality than Leeds that’s for sure.  Walking away from the seafront area saw us adopt the method for the weekend, a simple neighbourhood bar with a few tables outside and a tapas board delivered fantastic quality and value both from a drink and food perspective every time.  As in every other Spanish city the vast majority of places to eat and drink are small, independents which makes such a refreshing change from the branded sameness of much of the UK these days

We lazily headed back towards the centre of town keeping our eyes open for somewhere good to eat in the evening and popping our heads into anything that looked interesting, which included me joining some lively looking locals for a game of street table tennis.  Before heading out for the evening we had a very quick turnaround at the hotel before regrouping at a local pinchos bar to discuss our own work.  This is always an interesting and eye opening part of the weekend and we started doing it partly as an experiment but also we spend a lot of time critiquing ‘professional’ writers so what does it feel like to have a go yourself and open yourself up to a bit of peer reviewing.  This year we had some great interpretations on the theme, from a Haiku to poetry and short stories, some funny others reflective and some genuinely moving.  I think it really adds something to the weekend and it also proved to me that no matter what we do for our day jobs there is some hidden talent and creativity amongst the group.  Hopefully with the author’s permission I’ll post a couple of the pieces on here.  After more wandering, eating and drinking we turned in after covering a good ten miles during the day, which we would do again on the Saturday.

After clearing our heads – how nice it is to be able to do this sat in a nice plaza with a fresh coffee and orange juice – we decided to have a wander up to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.  Historically of course cathedrals did often take hundreds of years to complete but it feels slightly surreal that this is still the case today – I think 2026 is the anticipated finishing date to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death, but I have my doubts.  It’s a very difficult building to describe but it is undoubtedly one of the most staggering pieces or architecture (or works of art?) that I’ve come across.  Of course there is plenty more of Gaudi’s work dotted about the city that you will come across from the astonishing to the mundane as he designed some of the paving you will be walking on and, as I’ve written about previously, I think you can tell a lot about a city from it’s paving.

After another stunningly good value pavement lunch we wandered down to the Museum of Contemporary Art which had a real mixed bag of a collection in it, a great exhibition called Nitrate by Xavier Ribas contrasted sharply to me against a couple of floors of impenetrable offerings and several surreal items including songs by the Housemartins and the Smiths ?  We all needed something to drink after wandering round the museum before we gathered ourselves for the evening meal and a debate on The Moonstone.  Despite a valiant attempt by one member to point out the relevance of the book it’s fair to say it was universally not enjoyed and I doubt very much if it will enter the reckoning for our book of the year awards in December.

Although we had the odd focal point what I enjoyed most about the weekend was the aimless wandering, the randomness of the conversation and getting to know the other members more.  As we wandered about you would find yourself drifting in and out of different conversations as you walked next to a different person or sat next to someone different at the next bar, these moments are for me what makes the boys book club such a wonderfully rich and rewarding experience.

The photos on this post are a mixture of mine, Phil’s and Andrew’s taken over the weekend.