Art bringing people together

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I’ve been to a couple of galleries recently, the British Art Show is in Leeds and my good mate Phil Dean continues to interpret the world around him through his delightful sketches.  It’s got me thinking a little bit about art and whether it brings people together.

My dad used to love to sketch and as his mobility declined liked nothing better than getting himself sat comfortably with a nice view where he’d either sketch or get the watercolours out.  When people saw him they would often drift over and have a look and my dad would invariably draw them into conversation.  I was really reminded of this when we were in Malaga recently watching the way Phil would quickly capture a scene wherever we happened to be.  He also does it in a way that does not distract from whatever else we are doing, happily chatting away enjoying some food and drink whilst at the same time sketching.  He will then often continue to work on and embellish the picture throughout the day, adding little flourishes and touches.

I’m no artist so resort like many of us to snapping a few photos on my phone but I think I have always struggled to adapt to the taking a photo of everyday things, is it intrusive ?  I feel uncomfortable with it lots of the time, there is sometimes an element of slyness,  furtiveness or voyeurism using a camera to capture an image that standing openly and drawing is the antithesis of, it’s transparent, people can come and look at what you are doing and in doing so give their approval (or otherwise of course).  What I noticed when Phil was doing this was how much people enjoyed it, someone taking the time to sketch their town, it didn’t matter what part of the town the sketch was in people wanted to have a look.

In looking it brought a smile to people and this was universal in whatever bar we happened to be in and on one occasion a waiter thrust a takeaway bag under Phil’s nose for him do draw something on.  We got chatting to numerous people, our lack of Spanish and their lack of English becoming irrelevant as the sketches of their town elicited a warmth that made us feel very welcome wherever we went, the art becoming a bridge between us.

This simple bringing of people together over someone’s drawings contrasts to the most part of my experience of galleries – they bring people in but do they bring people together ? Most galleries seem to actively discourage conversation you seem to have to look, contemplate internally and nod sagely.  I can’t imagine that this is what artists would have wanted when they were creating their art, surely they would have wanted interaction, comment, reaction and discussion not silence and sterility.  Maybe we are just scared of saying the wrong thing, of showing our ignorance in not ‘getting’ the work that we are looking at.

However even in galleries connections are sometimes made, while we were in the Centre of Contemporary art in Malaga looking at Ai WeiWei’s Zodiac Heads, Andrew got chatting to this elderly gentlemen who was staring in total wonder.  He was so awed by it he simply said I don’t want to leave this place.  A beautiful and powerful example of the transformative power of art.

Stephen Fry in a talk about art said the following:

Oscar Wilde quite rightly said, ‘All art is useless’. And that may sound as if that means it’s something not worth supporting. But if you actually think about it, the things that matter in life are useless. Love is useless. Wine is useless. Art is the love and wine of life. It is the extra, without which life is not worth living.

I love that sentiment and wholeheartedly believe it to be true, but in watching Phil sketch across the weekend it took on a different meaning, art is the extra, the addition to life and in creating it you can enhance people’s lives and bring people together, however fleetingly and put a smile on their face.

All the artwork on this page is from Phil Dean drawn on our recent Malaga trip.  Go check out his sketching site shoreditchsketcher

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Malaga (again) with the Boys Book Club

Each year our boysbookclub heads to foreign climbs for a weekend in October, we try to head to southern Europe so that we can have that last weekend of the year where hopefully the weather is warm, we can sit outside and relax before returning to Britain and hunkering down for the winter.

Four years ago we went to Malaga which proved something of a revelation as a city.  I went with very low expectations but was amazingly surprised by a compact city with a great atmosphere, good culture and history.  It was something of a revelation and I’ve been back since so I was very happy to return again with the boys again this year.  Our membership has shifted a bit over the last few years so it was never going to be exactly the same.

Of course like our book club (and ourselves) the city does not stand still and Malaga has undergone something of a regeneration over the last four years with a completely redeveloped harbour area adding to the cultural attractions.

We did what we also do, wander, generally with no particular fixed objective.  We might for example say lets have lunch somewhere near the beach or lets go to an art gallery in the afternoon but they are loose goals.  In arriving at them we drift around streets, duck into markets, stop in squares etc all the time of course sampling the great bars and eateries across the city.

When we go away we always try to come up with something creative or our own.  We set a theme of Independence this year and you can interpret it as you want.  I’ve published some of the writing that we did on this blog if you want to check it out and one member did a fantastic mini graphic booklet of us all.  The Saturday night was reserved for the monthly book review which for October was ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ by Richard Flanagan.  The book completely split the book club but for me it was one of the most difficult books to categorise I’ve read in a long time but I found it a brilliantly original a mind warping book.

The highlight as always of our weekends away was simply the spending of time together in complete relaxation.  When do you every really get the chance to do that with friends?  Our personalities are such that there is very little friction or tension and we just bumble along together, chatting over long lunches.  It’s hard to return to ‘normal’ life after the weekend away but I for one feel completely refreshed by it and am already plotting next years trip.  Any tips on where you think would be great for us do let me know.

Madrid Street Signs

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Whenever I’m in a city, wandering around there tends to be something that sticks out at me and makes that city special.  This for me is not the usual landmarks, but something else that you would perhaps not give a huge amount of time to, but which I think reveals something about the soul of a place.  Last year for example when I was in Malaga I became interested in both the graffiti and perhaps more oddly the paving stones.  In Madrid recently there were two things that really stood out, the amazing markets in each area and the street signs in the centre of the city which I became quite mesmerised by as I wandered around.

Every street, square, alleyway or courtyard had one of these beautifully crafted individually tiled street signs.  There didn’t appear to be any particular style or uniformity to them as they were made up of either 9, 12, 15 or 16 tiles and the artistic designs were also quite different, they were also often quite high up on the walls, often with wires running across them or CCTV cameras next to them.  In other words they were just everyday signs but for me they added a real sense of beauty and style to the city.  Anywhere that takes this much care in designing a street sign for an alleyway has got to be good.  It also really added to my enjoyment of walking around the city as I was constantly looking out for the signs as I meandered along and they made great reference points.

I didn’t do much thinking about them as I walked around, apart from trying to translate the odd one, my knowledge of Spanish and Spanish history is not good enough to understand the meaning or resonance behind many of the pictures but I found myself wanting to know more.  What is the Calle del Codo with the arm in armour all about for example ?

I think about cities and sense of place quite a bit particularly what makes a good city or place?  I don’t necessarily have the answers but as with the paving stones in Malaga, any city that puts this much craft into it’s street signs must have soul.

Postcard from Madrid

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Madrid, one of Europe’s grand old cities, and what better place to spend a few days exploring and feeling the first real bit of warmth of the year.  Like many Spanish cities I found Madrid great for walking and exploring, there was no grand plan just some vague ideas and this approach works for me as you tend to come across things as you mooch, you have the time to take the temperature of the city and get a feel for it with the hassle of thinking I need to get someone by a certain time or to see a particular thing.  Much as great cities have fantastic places to see, it’s people that make places so getting a feel for them and the beat of the city is equally important as far as I am concerned.

Also, like when I was in Barcelona last year, it seems to be very easy to get away from the cram of tourists who follow a very predictable trail.  Walk a couple of streets away in any direction and you are in a different Madrid, one that’s much more to my liking.  I stayed right bang in the centre, in a great little flat that was my first experience of using air B & B and I couldn’t have wished for better.  If meant that I could step out of the door and be right in the heart of things but could stroll half an hour in any direction to explore some of the different areas.

I’d been to Madrid before a few years ago and I wondered how it would feel in light of the serious impact that the recession has had on Spain.  For me the city remains as warm and welcoming and as clean and safe as you could possibly hope for.  This time in the city I seemed to spend a lot of time in the markets, each area that I visited had one and they really were astonishing places and could really teach my home city a thing or two as it ponders how to ‘regenerate’ the city market.  For me the most astonishing was Sunday afternoon in San Fernando market in the Lavapies area.  I stumbled across this by poking my head through an entrance and the first signs were not promising, stalls with the shutters down, the odd one or two with a couple of people sat at.  However music could be heard so we ventured in and lo and behold the world changed.  In the middle of this covered market a hundred or so people were in full swing dancing away to latin music pumping out as DJ’s played the tunes, surround the central area, a labyrinth of packed stalls selling tapas, beer and wine kept the crowd fed and watered.  It was mesmerising and the atmosphere was so good it just made you feel alive.  We found a fantastic little wine place, drank what was recommended and just soaked it up.  I want to spend every Sunday doing that, it was perfect.

I was chatting to someone from Lavapies about the market and he said that a few years ago it was dying, just a couple of stalls remained but slowly the community has brought it back to life with events and activities and placing it back into the heart of the community which has brought new stall holders and businesses in.  A fantastic success story.  Round the corner I also stumbled across a great little bike shop and bought the local cap, I found out that they have only made 100 and the money is going to help run the community cycling club.  They seemed amazed that some guy from Leeds wanted to buy one of their caps.

Little adventures and experiences like this happened across the few days we were there as we wandered about.  Yes we saw the main squares, Guernica, the parks, Churches, Palaces etc but it was the neighbourhood bars, markets and vibe of the city that I enjoyed the most.  Can’t wait to go back.

 

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.

Malaga Graffiti

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Graffiti is I completely appreciate a controversial art form (and there will some who will not view it as art but simple vandalism) but for me there has always been a place outside of the organised art spaces for other creativity to break out.  When I was in Malaga recently as well as visiting some fantastic galleries I couldn’t help  but notice, and be blown away, by the graffiti that was all around the area I was staying in.  At first I just noticed the odd piece but then began to realise there was more and more of it.  I loved the piece at the top, an unknown artist painting on a Jackson Pollock.  Look at the pot of paint which contains his Pollock paint, I couldn’t help but smile at this.

I came across skulls, lizards, rats, random bits and pieces, some small and some huge taking up the entire side of buildings.  Lots os the shops that had shutters down in the evening had taken up the graffiti theme and had their business spray painted on the shutters.  Check out the cheeky barber.  After I’d been in the city a couple of days I was walking back to the hotel when I looked up and saw this incredible Raven like bird on the side of a building out of which flew a host of smaller birds flying across the neighbouring wall.  I was completely transfixed by this, totally amazing.  Whilst I’m sure some people will disagree with this, for me this graffiti art added a real flavour to the city and there was some amazing talent on display.

 

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El Roto – Apocalipsis

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I was incredibly fortunate on my recent visit to Malaga to come across two of the best art exhibitions I’ve ever seen at the fantastic Centre for Contemporary Art.  I’ve already written up my thoughts on KAWS – Final Days but capping that was the astonishing Apocalipsis by El Roto which was one of the most powerful, thought provoking reflective exhibitions I’ve ever seen.  El Roto is one of Spain’s most important sartirical cartoonists, born Andres Rabago in Madrid in 1947, he has undergone various name changes but creats cartoons on a daily basis over many years that look at the human condition in a world of perpetual conflict that act as a moral compass to Spain’s history and politics.

Apocalipsis was based around the sequences in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal involving a game of chess between a crusader knight and death for the knight’s life.  271 cartoons were organised in four sections, each section containing 64 pieces (the same number of squares on a chess board) with the sections linked by chess knights and then a final selection of ten cartoons called epilogue depicting the end of the battle / conflict perhaps?  Each of the sections / boards had a theme – Ecology, Economy, Science and Violence.

Each picture was very simple with a minimum of colour used but the individual and collective power of each of the sections was truly remarkable.  Across the boards the economic and political problems of Spain (and the wider world?) were played out in starkly effective terms, immigration, war, ecology, famine, corruption, capitalism, religion, consumerism, politics, human relations, multi media, health, education and unemployment all featured but El Roto appeared to be pointing a way out of a worn out corrupt system in which we live.  Even with only about 4 words of Spanish in my vocabulary I was able to interpret the art even if I could not translate all of what was being said in some of the pictures.  I would have thought that for the Spanish audience this exhibition must have been nothing short of incendiary.

It’s very difficult to capture the scale of each of the boards here but to be able to drift round them, immerse yourself in the story that El Roto was trying to tell and reflect upon it was a brilliant experience.  To think that after I’d see this I turned a corner into the KAWS exhibition and you can perhaps understand what a fantastic overall experience this was.

Perhaps the final world should be left to El Roto “What my cartoons aim to show is not so much an attitude of despair but an indication of errors committed and thus the possibility of correcting them”.