Tuesday, 15 May 2012



Blog 32

James Watson,
Friends and contributors
                            A Writers’ Notebook


 *   Sheep, Sharks & 8,6001 flawless diamonds:
     Damien Hirst at Tate Modern
  * Bauhaus at the Barbican   *  Poems of Place (9): Arno
  * Correspondence:
     Ned Baslow addresses Inspector Morse on a question of semantics

Who's this, where is it and
what two rousing words was
the lady famous for?

Sheep, Sharks & 8,6001 flawless diamonds
One thing’s for certain: the kids love it. How could they not, presented with sharks and sheep in glass tanks; vast walls of coloured dots, maggots dead by the thousand, and real live butterflies. There’s a hair dryer projecting a table tennis ball on a plume of air and later a beachball is suspended over a coloured box in similar manner. The adults alone will be reading meaning into artefact, looking for clues in the title, checking out the exhibition notes and pondering on whether Loving in a World of Desire is really about the ‘interplay of precariousness and balance’.

Containers and contents
What is striking is the contrast between the frame and what it frames. Thus steel and glass frames –vitrines, shelving – are of the highest specification yet they contain, varyingly, fag-ends, pills and pill boxes, rows and rows of surgical instruments; indeed Medicine Cabinets are succeeded by an entire exhibition room transformed into a Pharmacy.

Everything in the Gold Room is practically that, yet housing the most ordinary objects. Memento mori? Hirst is explicit about this in his television interview: ‘Every work of art that’s interested me is about death’. The fag ends in Dead Ends Died Out, Examined remind us (as if we needed reminding) that smoking half as many as those on display, or those filling the gigantic ceramic ashtray entitled Crematorium is a death sentence. Comes the illness, follows the treatment – the pills and then the surgery.

Short swim, short flight
Sheep and sharks in vitrines filled with formaldehyde, and fish in shelved tanks within a tank (Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding, swimming) are subjects reflecting Hirst’s interest in, and use of, the natural world. Dead fish, but live butterflies, these clearly symbols both of beauty and brevity. They stand for vulnerability and perhaps for hope: at least in Room 11 we are treated to Hirst’s relish for colour.

Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven glitter with the brilliantly varied wings of butterflies within frames resembling stained-glass windows. Alas, Room 12 brings us literally down to earth with a gigantic wall circle of dead flies, Black Sun of 2004. Though it is obvious, it is also fitting with the Hirst story.

Beneath the flesh
The exhibition is a constant reminder of contrasts. Hirst’s preoccupation is with dualities, the ‘push and pull' as the exhibition notes put it, the primary one being life and death. Thus in the statue of an angel carved from Carrara marble we encounter first the beauty and seeming immortality of the angel only to realise that under the perfect exterior, she possesses a human skull, under the perfect flesh, human innards and within her perfect foot all too human metatarsals.

That the statue also resembles those to be found in cemeteries is another reminder of the inevitable. Most sensationally, of course, there is the jewel-encrusted skull. The duality here is obvious though overshadowed by another duality, between price (of a mindblowing 8,601 diamonds) and outcome. In his TV interview Hirst lets us in on the secret of the skull’s origin. It came from the ‘Get Stuffed’ company in Islington. The skull’s teeth were given a once-over by a dentist.

There is little doubt that this glittering skull and the price attached to it will rank in terms of public recognition along with the Mona Lisa and other global icons of the art world. It could also be seen in the long run as an outrageous indulgence amounting to little more than a hill of beans (or an ashtray of fag ends). That will not reduce queues to match those waiting to be amazed by Hirst’s Crown Jewels.

Lost for words
If there is a hint of the ludicrous in learning how the skull was seen to warrant a dental appointment, there’s a touch of almost comical anti-climax in Hirst’s first response when he set eyes on the completed For the Love of God: ‘When I saw it, when it was finished, I thought “Wow!”’

Though there is considerable variety of image in Hirst’s work, there is a consistency (or what my friend Phil calls ‘repetition’) that marks him as a thinker, constantly addressing the nature of art and life (and death). Whether he is saying anything new, or even surprising, is debatable; though this may not be important. Key seems to be his comment ‘In any art work I always try to say something and deny it at the same time’. That suggests a respect for uncertainty, an acknowledgement that meaning itself is a tale of push and pull.

The exhibition continues till 9th September 2012.

Bauhaus at the Barbican
In brief, the Barbican’s major revisiting of the Bauhaus years Art as Life, is a must. It is not like walking into a historical period, its images and products interesting but long-gone. It is like entering a world that is new and fresh. Whether it is the design and production of furniture, kids’ toys, carpets, puppets, tapestries or buildings, whether it is the exploration of materials or the potential of the camera, the operative principles are simplicity, colour, understatement and practicality.

What is so impressive about the Bauhaus is the number of staff and students who were soon to become major figures in the art, design and architecture of the period, most notably Feininger, Klee, Kandinsky, van Doesburg, Moholy-Nagy, Albers (the first student to become a teacher) and van der Rohe. But the Bauhaus school was no monastery. Women artists were in profusion, such as Natalia Goncharova, Alma Buscher, Gertrud Arndt and Charlotte Volpel, experimenting in materials, images and abstraction.

What is surprising is the mood (at least captured in this exhibition) which seems to have prevailed at the Bauhaus whether it resided in Weimar, Dessau or Berlin-Steglitz, that is, of optimism, light-heartedness and fun. Feininger’s son Lux, a photographer, ran his own band. Sport and party-going were encouraged, art being a constant guest. The spectacular ‘Metal Party’ was attended by students and staff clad in tin-foil and frying pans. Dancing took place to the sound of bells.

Bauhaus art seems to have escaped the morbid darkness that enveloped German cinema during the run up to Nazi rule. It was a sufficient provocation to the forces about to take a throttle-hold of Germany for funding for the school’s funding to be axed in 1932. The Bauhaus closed in July 1934. Gropius, Albers and others took ship for the New World, taking their new world designs with them.

The Barbican exhibition runs till August. It opens at 11am each day.

Poems of Place (9)

Balloons of delicately unburst light
Float upon its inky skin
When the mood of the times
Would rather suggest shattered glass
At the hands of disenfranchised youth.

For here by Arno it would seem
The steely silk loops of faith and family
And the raven beak of old man reverence
Still rule the spirit of rebellion.

Yet above the head of a scavenging cat
Untutored also in the glory of monuments
A bare wall denied the accolade of marble
Betrays its noble masters with terse graffiti:

To the history-surfeited passers-by
An unknown philosopher declares independence
From verities thought eternal as stone.
In my own head the crack of ruptured glass
Begins to spill the dream of place
Into a valedictory of sand.

Now that school headteachers are planning to ignore the new tests in spelling and punctuation proposed by the Education Secretary, Mr. Gove, it seems appropriate for us to include here a letter from Ned Baslow on behalf of the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Literary, Film and TV Circle. Ed takes up an issue with Morse, the Oxford-based detective and intellectual.

Dear Inspector Morse,
This is first and foremost a fan letter, not just from me and my wife Betty, but from the whole family – Grandad Barney, Grandma Betsie, Benjie our 9 year old, our twin girls Beatrice and Barbara aged seven, baby Bertrand and Auntie Sally. We think you are not only a very clever man, but also very human in that the number of times you grasp the wrong end of the stick in trying to solve a crime cannot just be put down to bad luck or tricky villains.

My Betty says what Inspector Morse sums up for most people is class, and this she says is indicated by your taste in music and cars. That Jaguar of yours for instance fits you like a glove and is the perfect setting for listening to Mozart and Wagner, though if I might be permitted a personal note, you are somewhat hard on Vivaldi, his slower bits proving a perfect lullaby for our Bertrand.

We like the way you’re never overwhelmed by toffs. That look you give people could freeze a halibut. It doesn’t stop you running after your middle-class quality skirt, however; and I must say your taste in women is not to be sneezed at, though, of course, you usually lose out in the end.

No, our gripe concerns your attitude to Sergeant Lewis which, not to put too fine a point on it, is somewhat out of order, being very condescending. True enough, he’s only a sergeant, and being from Newcastle his education leaves much to be desired, though to do her justice his wife seems to be intent on improving herself.

Much as we have mixed feelings about your conduct towards Sergeant Lewis, the broader picture is what concerns us, namely, your attitude to the letter ‘s’, about which you seem, if you don’t mind me saying, to have an irrational prejudice. Poor Lewis has been the butt of your insistence on words ending in ‘ise’ being both incorrect and vulgar, and those that prefer to use that mode, blatantly ignorant of the niceties of English.

‘Z’ it would seem, is what every educated Briton should know is the proper letter to employ for synthesize, brutalize, maximize, mesmerize, demonize and exercize – or is it? Not even Dr. Johnson would insist on ‘exercise’ being spelt other than with an ‘s’; which means that if we are to be consistent, Z should be shown the door, that is, excised, with the exception, of course, when ‘size’ is being used; which would make ‘downsize’ in this context correct and acceptable, were it not for the fact that this is an ugly latecomer pretending to mean something other than ‘make smaller’, that is, ‘sack the staff’.

Personally, I have a soft spot for S in that its serpentine shape is aesthetically pleasing, while Z, in my humble view, sounds harsh and looks harsh, not to mention that its overuse has ruined many a foreign language. In particular I am thinking of the Poles who, in addition to having to suffer one of Europe’s harshest climates, have a language so stuffed with Zs and Ks that even their intelligencia are prone to emigrate to countries that possess a healthier climate of consonants as well as an attractive sampling of sunrise, surprise, enterprise and accessorise.

Of course, you do have an etymological point, Inspector, and with your classical education and your albeit unfinished studies at Oxford, it’s easily understood how you might insist on all verbs deriving from the Greek, izo, meaning to become, make, use or act like, being spelt with a Z. It would follow that Z must be used in legalize, fossilize or economize.

You might also claim that there are far more words warranting a Z than words from the Latin warranting an S, these not necessarily meaning make, use or act, such as revise, compromise and supervise.

Predictably the rather pedantic Oxford Etymological Dictionary, plus a few others tagging on to their tail, insists that the suffix ‘whatever element to which it is added’ is both Greek and Latin, that is, sounding as a Z, ‘there is no reason why in English the special French spelling – in iser should ever be followed’.

It comes as no surprise that the Yanks elected to go the whole hog with their Zs, and even employ the letter in such words as analyze and paralyze. Surely, Inspector, you would not go so far as to lend your support to such inflexible usage.

Finally, I call upon the late Professor G.H. Vallins to support my argument in favour of keeping Zs to a minimum. The Professor was of the opinion that the ‘artificial distinction based on an etymological subtlety that cannot be known to the ordinary man is an unnecessary archaism, and ought to be abolished forthwith’.

That seems to be, in my opinion, Inspector, both a celebration of the common man – namely in this case your admirable Sergeant Lewis – and a paean for equality, something many would think overdue in centres of privilege such as Oxford.

A dedicated follower of your crime-busting (lately on radio, I see), I would courteously suggest that you focus your attention in future on heeding Lewis’ good sense and judgment rather than picking on his use of language. Being from the north, he may not have passed his Eleven-plus, but without him it’s likely you’d have been on the dole long ago and too inebriated even to fill in The Times crossword.

With best wishes from all at ‘Yer Tis.’
Yours etc.
Ned Baslow
‘Yer Tis’,
Old Roman Road

Ned would be happy to receive comments on the matters discussed above. The editorial team wonders, incidentally, whether information about the promotion of Lewis to the rank of inspector in his own right, complete with his own sergeant (not educated in Newcastle) has reached Wickerstaff, tucked away as it is deep in the heart of the Derbyshire countryside.

Thanks to F.W. who submitted the quiz picture of the Spanish civil war heroine La Pasionara. Her immortal words were, ‘Non passaran!’ Location of the statue: Glasgow.

The Blog is taking a summer break and plans to return in the Autumn. Late correspondence on issues concerning Open Source and the implications of Caroline Lucas’ resignation from leadership of the Green Party will appear in Blog 33.

Happy holidaying!