I’ve loved this building since before I knew who Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933) and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) even were. Glasgow Boys and Whistler inside. Almost as great as heading to dinner with my brother and sister-in-law and on to the pub with the incredible Mitch Miller and getting my own copy of Nothing is Lost. To be discussed further, but the coolest thing I’ve seen in forever. You could own it too.
Beyond Caravaggio – a wonderful exhibition, though I wanted more paintings by Caravaggio and more, and more. Because it was incredible to see this after having just read Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.
To see Caravaggio’s work, the paintings themselves… They are stunning, the brushwork is invisible creating pieces so luminous they almost glow. They are bigger than I had expected them, so when I stepped forward everything shifted. The figures emerged from the darkness, fingers stretched towards me from the canvas. The scenes enveloped me. Jostling crowds behind me could almost be forgotten (and I may have to beg their forgiveness, but I never was so rude to stand right in front). I realised too, that these paintings must have been even more wondrous in that first decade of the 17th Century, imagine them candlelit, and without the bloating I sometimes feel of having all art immediately available at the search of the internet to create a jostle of periods and wonders so that novelty is hard to come by.
No wonder Caravaggio had the impact that he did, no wonder that so many copied his style – this exhibition was full of truly inspired examples of that. Orazio Gentileschi, his daughter Artemisia, my other favourite Jusepe de Ribera.
Caravaggio remains apart from the wealth of talent that innovated with his use of darkness and light, not just for the power and skill of his work, but for the common faces bearing their lives in the lines of their skin, the stances that reveal their character, the gestures and the spaces they create that invite you into the paintings. The rips in the sleeves — I wanted to reach out to trace the torn fabric in Supper at Emmaus, itching for a needle and thread. There is also the extraordinary beauty of the object, the crystal glasses and decanters, the baskets of fruit that are incredible perfection of detail. They were unexpected, despite having read of them, seen the reproductions.
The poverty, the dirt encrusted around fingernails and into hands. Caravaggio’s own hand, none too clean, appears in the Taking of Christ, thrusting the lantern above the grouping, his face staring a bit wildly, beetled brows and he has done himself no favours – but impossible to guess at his emotion beyond curiosity. Seeing this as a picture on the screen hides the way that details leap out at you, how much you can see emerging from the darkness…
Caravaggio’s commissions were so often religious, he had little choice in his subjects, yet he clearly felt deeply that these men and women surrounding Christ were poor, old, sick, faltering, doubtful, poor. Their feet bare and tired.
Caravaggio was also a painter of intense violence, matter-of-factly inflicted here upon John the Baptist, a curious, complex expression of Salome’s.
There was one enormous surprise – Cecco. Also from the town of Caravaggio, and Caravaggio’s model, housemate, probably lover, the one who stayed with him until that last flight to Malta (and I imagine that scene of farewells, driven undoubtedly by Caravaggio’s ambitions for a knighthood and the unwillingness of the Colonnas to sponsor him alongside Caravaggio into the very closed society of the Knights of Malta). Nowhere does Graham-Dixon mention, I am almost certain, that Cecco too was a gifted painter. Suddenly their relationship shifted, a collegiality and a greater touch of equality shapes it.
He still remains the laughing boy of Caravaggio’s lighter paintings in my mind — not part of the exhibition sadly, though Mario Minniti appears in Boy Bitten By a Lizard. But here Cecco is the model for a youthful John the Baptist:
Not so surprising as Cecco’s paintings were that the luminous works which draw on Caravaggio’s influence from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, almost all use the chiaroscuro but with rich cloth, wealthy patrons. Many of them copied his two paintings of cheating – the card shark and the gypsy. I was sad they were unable to bring these paintings by Caravaggio to be part of this temporary exhibition. But the small touches seemed absent from the paintings inspired by Caravaggio’s. The humanity, the necessity, the feeling that the next meal requires winning.
Perhaps this is why Jusepe’s work stood out so much to me, though his works were all religious in nature. This one was extraordinary
As was this beautiful painting of Susana and the Elders from Artemisia Gentileschi
I loved the exhibition. I will end on one of the more beautiful of Caravaggio’s paintings, one of a series of John the Baptist in the wilderness. It lingers with you as you leave the final room for the hum of the National Gallery
Before leaving Tuba City, we went to the museum right next to our hotel, one of my favourite stops on this trip.
The Navajo Interactive Museum shares some of the Navajo’s own history. It is the first place I have ever been that does not try to whitewash the history of conquest. It does not shy away from how people were killed, enslaved. It tells of the forced march, relocation, return. The immense loss. Grief. It shows how much has been saved, how custom and belief are not things of the past but of the present. It shared versions of the creation. Methods of weaving, the sheep that are the sources of wool. The building of hogans and some of their spiritual meanings. It is divided by the four directions, reclaims history for its own people, and offers it as a gift to us.
From one of the signs:
Indigenous languages are holistic, fluently expressing intrinsic human relationships with everything. Navajos believe that their language is a spiritual gift from the Holy People, for it connects them directly to the entire universe. It is a language of webs and motion, relationships and process, not of nouns and objectivity.
I have been thinking so much about language and patterns of thought, the limitations of science and how perhaps it is built into the English language itself. Spanish too, but just knowing two languages helps you understand language’s limits. There is still so much I cannot express, I wish that I had been honored to speak such an indigenous language. It is not hard to see why conquerors would work so hard to destroy language, it is so intertwined with culture, with worldview. It is always a place of strength and resistance.
Next door was a small museum in honour of the Navajo code talkers, the men who joined the US army and used their language to keep our transmissions from the Japanese. The whole text of the ‘Navajo Code Talkers Act‘ was on the wall, and it surprised me. I have put in bold the things I never though the U.S. government would say out loud, and we circle around language…
(1) On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor and war was declared by Congress the following day.
(2) The military code, developed by the United States for transmitting messages, had been deciphered by the Japanese and a search by United States military intelligence was made to develop new means to counter the enemy.
(3) The United States Government called upon the Navajo Nation to support the military effort by recruiting and enlisting 29 Navajo men to serve as Marine Corps radio operators; the number of enlistees later increased to over 350.
(4) At the time, the Navajos were second-class citizens, and they were a people who were discouraged from using their own language.
(5) The Navajo Marine Corps radio operators, who became known as the Navajo Code Talkers, were used to develop a code using their language to communicate military messages in the Pacific.
(6) To the enemy’s frustration, the code developed by these Native Americans proved to be unbreakable and was used extensively throughout the Pacific theater.
(7) The Navajo language, discouraged in the past, was instrumental in developing the most significant and successful military code of the time. At Iwo Jima alone, the Navajo Code Talkers passed over 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period.
(A) So successful were they, that military commanders credited the code with saving the lives of countless American soldiers and the successful engagements of the United States in the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa;
(B) So successful were they, that some Code Talkers were guarded by fellow marines whose role was to kill them in case of imminent capture by the enemy; and
(C) So successful were they, that the code was kept secret for 23 years after the end of World War II.
(8) Following the conclusion of World War II, the Department of Defense maintained the secrecy of the Navajo code until it was declassified in 1968; only then did a realization of the sacrifice and valor of these brave Native Americans emerge from history.
I am unsure what the U.S. government has done since then to grant full, respectful, honoured citizenship or to encourage the speaking of indigenous languages, but I suppose medals were something. It would take a few years before other tribes were honoured for similar roles, the Comache and Choctaw among them, in WWI as well as WWII.
We drove and drove, Northeast, out of the red rocks towards New Mexico. We passed Black Mesa, and the Peabody Company’s coal mine — another reminder of exploitation, another form of resource extraction.
EACH YEAR PEABODY COAL COMPANY PUMPS MORE THAN 4,500 ACRE-FEET OF PRISTINE NAVAJO AND HOPI DRINKING WATER FROM THE “N-AQUIFER.”
Peabody uses this pristine water supply simply to mix with crushed coal-called “slurry.” This “slurry” is then pumped through a pipeline over 275 miles to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada.
With every breath we take, 50 gallons of pristine ground water has just been pumped from the dry lands of northeastern Arizona. On Black Mesa, home to the Hopi and Navajo people, more than 300 gallons of potential drinking water has, in the last 10 seconds just been mixed with crushed coal. In the time it took to read these sentences Peabody Coal Company pumps over a thousand gallons of the cleanest groundwater in North America, simply to transport coal. Today, Peabody Coal pumps more than 3,600 acre-feet (equivalent to 4,600 football fields, one foot deep) per year of pristine water from the Navajo Aquifer.
You can find out more on the Southwest Research and Information Centre site. These beautiful lands are also be exploited for their uranium, in summary of the report on uranium mining on the Navajo Nation from Brugge and Goble:
From World War II until 1971, the government was the sole purchaser of uranium ore in the United States. Uranium mining occurred mostly in the southwestern United States and drew many Native Americans and others into work in the mines and mills. Despite a long and well-developed understanding, based on the European experience earlier in the century, that uranium mining led to high rates of lung cancer, few protections were provided for US miners before 1962 and their adoption after that time was slow and incomplete. The resulting high rates of illness among miners led in 1990 to passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
You can read and listen to more on Democracy Now’s program ‘A Slow Genocide of the People’. Even now people gather to stand against another exploitation of the earth and threat of contamination for land and water — the North Dakota pipeline.
In North Dakota, indigenous activists are continuing to protest the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which they say would threaten to contaminate the Missouri River. More than a thousand indigenous activists from dozens of different tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp, which was launched on April 1 by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
I wish I could be there too. Instead I am here, writing. We drove onward. It looks pristine, but corporations are poisoning this land.
A sea of crushed metal, old cars left here.
Up to the ‘Aztec’ ruins. Midway between Chaco and Mesa Verde, this was an incredible Anasazi construction, planned and for the most part built within a very short time. Labelled Aztec because that’s all people apparently knew of indigenous cultures building in stone, too ignorant or racist to ask its real name. The National Park Service did try to give a ‘balanced’ history, but such radically different ways of seeing the world sit uneasily next to each other. There could be nothing too critical of the role archeology has played in the mythologizing of western expansions, nor of those expansions, nor the disrespect of native histories. A disrespect that stems from their attempted destruction. But it was good to hear native voices here, and the contrasting ways of seeing.
This is a place that feels good, a place left to the ancestors before white men arrived, like Chaco, like Mesa Verde.
It’s construction is beautiful, full of details. The corner openings:
Stones rolled smooth from the river
And other bands of decoration:
Once standing three stories high
This wall traces exactly the path followed by the sun during the summer solstice
It is a beautiful place. To see with eyes open and with eyes closed. The ground story of storage rooms still stand
They open into other rooms, a mat left behind is still here, hundreds of years old.
From archaeology we see the map of the whole. Almost all of it built between 1100 and 1130, which is amazing. Then slowly added to.
This map shows its symmetries, though it cannot explain their meaning.
They have reconstructed the great kiva here, I am not sure about entering such a place of ceremony without ceremony. Without invitation. So I didn’t take pictures, but I did give thanks to be there. With mum. They are wonderful sacred spaces.
Several of them, along with the large central one, are surrounded by smaller rooms. I have never seen this before.
I didn’t love the small museum as much as the one in Tuba City, but the pottery was beautiful (so much here, as in the other NPS museums, on loan from far away. Pottery and artifacts taken away as property by the institutions who sponsored digs, I do not understand how they do not see this as a living place to which things still belong). Apart from the maps of the place itself, the trade routes were also wonderful:
From here we continued on and on, up to Chama. A good day.
Concrete conservatories are amazing. I have long had an architectural love affair with conservatories of metal and glass, and these elements are not missing from Krakow’s Botanical Garden of the Jagiellonian University. Founded in 1783, it still serves as a teaching garden, and has a most wonderful collection of orchids and other tropical plants, many from the collection of botanist Joseph Warszewicz (1812–1866). The first greenhouse was built here in 1787, but they have been extended, reconstructed, and added to over the years and are entirely wonderful.
The plants were beautiful too, and here you can find many of the medicinal plants collected in jars upon jars at the Museum of Pharmacy, botany just another form of the dual aspiration to explore the wonders of the world and to better understand the various healing powers of plants. Until, of course, you bring Empire and the desire for profit extraction into it, I am curious how countries like Poland were part of that dynamic. But mostly I just love plants and conservatories.
For more on brutalism and/or gardens…
Only a thin line separated alchemy from old pharmacies once. Apothecaries (who only later became the mystery-stripped ‘pharmacies’ or even worse ‘drug stores’) once contained wondrous collections of barrels, bottles, alembics, retorts, crucibles, pestles and mortars, animals whose bodies and bones were crushed and used in medicines. Of the medieval collections in Krakow’s Pharmacy Museum, the notes quote Shakespeare:
I do remember an apothecary—And hereabouts he dwells—which late I notedIn tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows,Culling of simples. Meager were his looks,Sharp misery had worn him to the bones,And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,An alligator stuffed, and other skinsOf ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelvesA beggarly account of empty boxes,Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,Were thinly scattered to make up a show.–Romeo & Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1
Cabinets of poisons clearly marked to avoid accident:
Great vaulted cellars, full of more wondrous things, above all the medicinal wine, either steeped in herbs or to be later mixed with dried herbal powders:
We found this hidden round a corner. I don’t even know what this is.
Old water distillers, coloured glass vials, presses, alembics:
As time moved on, techniques became refined, the furniture in polished inlaid wood of the Baroque or the Biedermeier style, the glass neatly labelled:
Rows and rows of canisters in glass and porcelain sitting above wonderful drawers of uniform shape, all rescued from old apothecaries across the city and brought here:
Hirudines! Aka leeches. A collection of more mortars and pestles, pictures of leading pharmacists of Krakow and their documents now of historical relevance rather than professional necessity:
Enormous mortars and pestles. And oh, my love for bottles and small labelled drawers full of strange powders and herbs and medicines overfloweth:
Old books are here also, with velveted covers:
Wooden boxes of superb craftsmanship filled with strange bottles and implements for the storing and mixing of musk:
Stoppered bottles of vibrant colour that make my heart beat faster:
Clear glass of strange shape and design:
Strange scissors of a shape perfectly crafted to an unknown task, old herbals, locked and keyed and made into beautiful works of art:
A map of plants and the ‘world’ as it was once believed to be:
Tiny glass vials and velveted boxes of syringes used and reused.
Cork-crushers and medicine makers
Herbs and storage
All found in the attic, where warmer and dryer air might do their work:
This is one of my favourite places in this city, and I will be writing more because this only scratches the surface of the apothecarial wonder.
Also, please let us resurrect the term apothecary and use it more in everyday life.
I shall end with another quote from the museum, this from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude:
The rudimentary laboratory—in addition to a profusion of pots, funnels, retorts, filters, and sieves—was made up of a primitive water pipe, a glass beaker with a long, thin neck, a reproduction of the philosopher’s egg, and a still the gypsies themselves had built in accordance with modern descriptions of the three-armed alembic of Mary the Jew. Along with those items, Melquíades left samples of the seven metals that corresponded to the seven planets, the formulas of Moses and Zosimus for doubling the quantity of gold, and a set of notes and sketches concerning the processes of the Great Teaching that would permit those who could interpret them to undertake the manufacture of the philosopher’s stone. Seduced by the simplicity of the formulas to double the quantity of gold, José Arcadio Buendía paid court to Úrsula for several weeks so that she would let him dig up her colonial coins and increase them by as many times as it was possible to subdivide mercury. Úrsula gave in, as always, to her husband’s unyielding obstinacy. Then José Arcadio Buendía threw three doubloons into a pan and fused them with copper filings, orpiment, brimstone, and lead. He put it all to boil in a pot of castor oil until he got a thick and pestilential syrup which was more like common caramel than valuable gold. In risky and desperate processes of distillation, melted with the seven planetary metals, mixed with hermetic mercury and vitriol of Cyprus, and put back to cook in hog fat for lack of any radish oil, Úrsula’s precious inheritance was reduced to a large piece of burnt hog cracklings that was firmly stuck to the bottom of the pot.
For more on apothecaries:
More posts on Poland:
Today started with Copernicus (1473-1543) — a visit to Collegium Maius where he was a student. Though never a professor. We had a splendid, if quick, tour with decidedly witty commentary. Copernicus kept his head down in a deeply Catholic atmosphere, kept quiet, and published nothing until the year leading up to his death at age 70. Not Galileo, and look what happened to him…
I am not sure of the moral of this.
Collegium Maius is an amazing place, gothic brick construction along with limestone exuding knots of flint and two most beautiful ammonites. It has vaulted ceilings, incredible carved wood, has been a place of learning and study since the 14th century, and in this form since the 15th. Professors lived upstairs and taught downstairs, and it is most splendid.
I was most excited about the instruments Copernicus used — early ways people were trying to understand our universe before lenses or proper telescopes. They are amazing, these three.
The Jagiellonian Globe:
Made in 1510 in France and most likely the first globe to show the Americas. In completely the wrong place.
A copy of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, the famous text by Copernicus positing our own revolution around the sun:
Many more most wonderful instruments of astronomy, like these from Moorish Toledo:
The college itself is more stunning than I can say, with wonderful carved wood and painted ceilings, carvings, instruments, books, windows, furniture, murals, beaten metal shaped to reflect candle-light to illuminate a room, the most wonderful wooden spiral staircase I have ever seen, the Nobel prize medal won by Wisława Szymborska who was a student here, the Oscar and other awards won by Andrzej Wajda, an intricate inlaid door commemorating Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of American and showing the maiden Europe distributing justice to the New World and Africa. We did not, however, manage to catch the clock figures striking the odd hour…
This was only the beginning of a day in Krakow, which also included an exhibition of Max Ernst: An Ornithologist’s Dream (most wonderful) a trip to the Pharmacy Museum (again wonderful), lunch at Noworolski’s, where Lenin once took his mistress (and sometimes his wife), drinks in Kazimierz at Propaganda… but I have no more energy, and all of these things demand more thought.
More posts on Poland:
Artists and Empire, the Tate’s description of the point of it:
At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and the most influential global power. originating with a few overseas possessions and trading posts, it grew to encompass dominions, colonies and protectorates rules or administered by the United Kingdom. In 1922 the Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s total land area; by the end of the century it had diminished to just a few overseas territories. During this contraction, ‘Empire; became a highly provocative term.Its history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful, to address but its legacy is everywhere: not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.
This is what the booklet says. No slavery. Empire become provocative only as it contracts? It seems unlikely that a project of Empire was not provocative at all times, especially amongst those being Empired. The blurb on the website is slightly different:
In 21st century Britain, ‘empire’ is highly provocative. Its histories of war, conquest and slavery are difficult and painful to address but its legacy is everywhere and affects us all. Artist and Empire brings together extraordinary and unexpected works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire.
A bit better, that. Hard for Britain to do, but something that must be done. It was a thought provoking collection. It mostly filled me with rage, sat with nausea in my stomach. I confess, though, that is knowledge and rage I myself brought in through the door. I am not sure that there was too much open critique offered of Empire here in the Tate Britain, founded by Sir Henry Tate with all of his money from sugar grown in the colonies by slaves. From comments by the elderly middle class people seeing the exhibit with me, I got little sense there was too much critique going on in their minds either. Even though they sat staring at art deriving from a history of murder, occupation, exploitation, enslavement, genocide, extinction. Fairly neutrally curated given the subject.
So there were curiously neutral descriptions of paintings like this one:
‘Portrait of Poedua 1777-85’ by John Webber. The caption on the wall went on to say that she was painted by Webber while being held captive by Captain Cook, a hostage to force her father to round up some runaway sailors.
So this guy took a women being held against her will, stripped her, wrapped her in a rather British sheet and painted her.
But I am ahead of myself. I found the first two rooms most interesting, though the last room was my favourite. But we shall start with 1. Mapping and Marking. Because I love maps. And it behooves me not to forget just how they were used to control not just territories but also how we think about them. This was a stunning example of London at the centre of the world, and its lines of communication (England’s empire in Red):
They also had Crane’s map of Empire — from before the real ‘scramble’ for Africa, so it’s not quite as pink as the later map above.
I also learned that when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (Portugal) in 1661, he got with her Bombay and Tangiers. They were painted and etched meticulously for him, fortifications and all.
A picture of bucanneers, explorers, men I once knew as heroes Cavendish, Drake and Hawkins (that guy who chose to have a slave as part of his new coat of arms given his promotion by Elizabeth I). These were not display.
2. Trophies of Empire — the art, artefacts, and natural history. I love natural history. Again, force myself to remember what so much of these beautiful paintings of flora and fauna mean — the control and exploitation of nature, the constant ‘discovery’ of what native peoples knew already even as their knowledge was being erased. This history was present here to some extent.
In light of this, this portrait of Banks becomes chilling — such a key figure in botany, part of Cook’s voyage, President of the Royal Society, here wrapped in a cloak from his travels to the South Pacific, more exotic weapons collected beside him…these too were to be found here on display.
The collection of wild animals, the founding of zoos. The beginnings of collections such as that at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
3. Imperial Heroics. This is a rather disgusting room, but what is fascinating is just how many last stands there are. Not of those peoples fighting for their homes and sovereignty, but of British soldiers being brave. Being portrayed as the victims. Being shown as the face of determined masculine civilization standing against the savage. I think this needed a bit more reframing, as these pictures tend to reinforce the dominant narrative of Empire. I liked the mocking installation of such narratives in the centre of the room, but it wasn’t really calculated to awaken the consciences of the people sharing the room with me I thought.
There was some interesting looks here at ‘historical’ paintings though, a lot of them focusing on Mysore, the war of conquest there repainted in a very different way, particularly this scene of a ‘kindly’ taking of hostages.
Robert Home has even painted himself into the canvas as an eyewitness. This was most interesting, this claim of authenticity and this stamp of one version of events over something that was clearly of a very different nature.
4. Power Dressing? The appropriations and subversions of European dress were interesting, but Europeans decking themselves out in the finery of colonised peoples? We still see that every day.
5. Face to Face — portraits, and some chilling ones. Both European looks at the ‘other’ but some very welcome looks back at Europeans. I particularly loved this view of Queen Victoria.
I particularly hated the portraits made for Queen Victoria’s collection so she could better know her Indian subjects, though they were beautifully done. One of them forms the exhibition’s marketing materials. Men brought over for an exhibition of traditional crafts, though they were in fact trained in those crafts while in a Colonial prison.
6. Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire
Art of the diaspora, critical art, quite wonderful art. ‘Trophies of Empire’ by Guyanese Donald Locke, his compatriot Aubrey Williams’ powerful work. Sonia Boyce, Avinash Chandra, Ronald Moody, Ben Enwonwu and others. A very good way to end the thing I think, it left me liking it more than I expected, expelled some of the anger building up as I wandered through the rooms.
One of my favourite things — the title of Sonia Boyce’s ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great’ (1986).
I found the exhibition overall immensely thought provoking and moving — yet the presence of many of these objects in a British museum at all is a problematic thing, particularly for the objects of art and worship that were stolen, like the beautiful heads from Benin. A lot of this shit needs to be given back. Their very presence shows there is a lot more needing doing than just facing the past, so while this call for restitution had some voice here it was oddly discordant with the rest. Walking through, I did find these objects a powerful way to understand better the nature and impact of empire, even knowing their presence here in London is a troubling legacy of empire itself.
Particularly emotive given my own recent interests were the donations of several statues of beautiful African art by Sierra Leonan Krios — descendants of former slaves and Black men who fought for the British in the American Revolution, all sent by English abolitionists to colonise a piece of Africa. Their history was missing from this, I brought it with me. On one of the pieces donated, it noted the intent of the donation was probably as an attempt to show the richness of African culture to a European audience. An effort to find empathy, respect, understanding.
I found that donation encapsulates many of the complexities of empire, of museums, of just such collections as this. It did indeed face Britain’s Imperial Past, was even perhaps more critical than I might have expected given the probable pressures to refrain from critique. But it remained something of a mixed message, and in too many ways Britain still isn’t truly facing its Imperial Past.
Vertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?
We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.
Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.
Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.
There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.
From the exhibition guide:
The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.
But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.
We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.
Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.
Always there is the sounding of oceans.
Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.
Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.
Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.
Go see them if you can.
For more on race, environment and empire…
Cosmonauts was an exhibit of utter wonder and delight — who has not dreamed of space? You go from room to room, mouth dropping open and eyes sparkling like a kid on Christmas day. I kid you not.
I am still sparkling just a little. I mean, space. Human beings in space. Amazing.
It opens with some of the early work, the early imaginings tied to the early tinkerings with rockets that led to the full space programme. I wish this section had been longer to be honest. There is work from architecture student Georgii Krutikov, his designs for a flying city from his thesis in 1928 (to read more see the awesome charnel house blog):
Even better than Constant, how have I never seen them before? These were only a taste of the brilliant drawings, more of which can be found in his portfolio:
Tsiolkovsky and Federov’s works and words, and the role of the cosmists (cosmopolitans, cosmopolity) appear too. From the Cosmonauts exhibition website:
Cosmopolity’s formation had been foreshadowed in the opening decades of the 20th century by the emergence of cosmism, a philosophy developed by Russian thinkers including Tsiolkovsky and Nikolai Fedorov that contributed to a notion that the Soviets were masters of the cosmos.The members of Cosmopolity were sympathetic to cosmism’s goals of populating the universe and achieving eternal life, and shared its dream of distant planets populated by new societies. Eager to communicate their vision of the future to the wider world, they requisitioned a shop in Moscow and staged the first ever space travel exhibition.
Konstantin Tsiolokovsky’s ‘Album of cosmic journeys’, mathematical equations and rocket models, these dreams and writings and experimentations would push forward space travel — so on to the model of Sputnik, launched in 1957, the craft of Yuri Gargarin, launched into space on 12 April, 1961 and the first man to orbit the earth in Vostok 1.
Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman ‘to storm outer space’ in Vostok 6 in 1963.
Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, traveling in Voskhod 2 in 1965. The machinery of space travel, impossibly solid, and anything but futuristic or rocket shaped or even vaguely aerodynamic with its bits and pieces of receiving equipment sticking out, is breathtaking. The models are brilliant, but it strikes you with awe to see the awkward pods barely big enough to carry a human being, scorched and stained with travel distances more vast than I can really imagine.
Up, pup and away
And then there are the dogs. This is the Science Museum’s puntastic heading, and finding it on their website made my day today. That, despite the fact that a number of dogs were killed as the next sentence informs you. But before Yuri Gargarin went into orbit, 48 dogs had already been there before him, 28 of whom survived. They had this:
Film footage of a dog being released from this contraption and frolicking happily, pictures of dogs, stories of selections of dogs… Aw.
This is the first time I have really felt any desire to go back and see an exhibition again…but the book is fabulous and will be read with enthusiasm.You are drawn irresistibly to the great objects that carried dogs and humans into space and back again, first the ones that shine, and then the ones dulled by the intensity of re-entry into our atmosphere. But there was so much more to see here, to think about, to be inspired by. And the occasional complexities added by pictures of Stalin, Khrushchev, a background of the politics of the cold war. The fascinating life histories of these pioneers. The work put into not just surviving in space but living in space, and making the Mir space station possible.
We saw it on Friday during the museum’s late night opening, a truly brilliant idea as too often in London, great exhibits are ruined by equally great crowds. As Cosmonauts was a truly brilliant exhibition.