Saturday, 17 January 2015

IT'S CLEVER, BUT...

Contemporary art is such a testing thing... You look, you try to pocket your prejudices and open your mind, hoping to comprehend: neither wanting to to be fooled into pretending to see the Emperor's New Clothes, nor wanting to be the first to giggle at his nakedness in case there is a greater profundity to the nudity than at first meets the eye...

Such moments are not uncommon at the wonderful Venice art gallery, Punta della Dogana, the triangular-shaped building that separates the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, Venice...  


The gallery, part of the Palazzo Grassi art collection is officially described...
As a center for contemporary art, the former customs house of the city presents exhibitions of works from the Pinault Collection, the institution that supported the transition of this masterpiece of architecture, so emblematic for the city, from its eminently commercial function to port of contemporary art and ideal venue to share it with the world.
Currently on show is Untitled by David Hammons (2008). 


The catalogue explains...
Hammons covers the canvas using garbage bags, as if the painting needed to be obscured in order to work its magic and thusly function as an art object. Ironic reference to the mechanisms of how art is perceived, this work actually evokes one of the artist’s main themes and inspirations: the street, street people, street life.
'Thusly'? Hmmm...

Rudyard Kipling's 'Conundrum of the Workshops'...
They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart,
Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks: "It's striking, but is it Art ?"
The stone was dropped at the quarry-side and the idle derrick swung,
While each man talked of the aims of Art, and each in an alien tongue.

The tale is as old as the Eden Tree - and new as the new-cut tooth -
For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth;
And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart,
The Devil drum on the darkened pane: "You did it, but was it Art ?" 

Click here to read the whole poem

Monday, 12 January 2015

THE MAGICIAN'S HOUSE

I can still remember the day I first read that address on an envelope that dropped through my letterbox one day in the Kentish village of Chislehurst: '10265, Cheviot Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90664'.

With all the unfettered confidence and temerity of youth, I had written a fan letter to my literary idol, that master of science-fiction and fantasy, Ray Bradbury and he had replied...

For some years I only knew it as an address on the many envelopes that followed the first: envelopes containing long letters and short notes accompanying cuttings and clippings, theatre programmes, flyers for shows and – eagerly awaited every year – Ray's Christmas poem...

Envelopes often embellished with Ray's highly individual line in benign postal monsters... 


Then, the first visit (to interview Ray for a BBC radio series I was making) and the curious feeling of looking at the mailbox with its five-digit house number and thinking that this was where all my letters had been delivered...

Inside, it was a miraculous opportunity to see where Ray lived and dreamed and wrote his fantastical tales of spacemen, dinosaurs, freaks and small, insignificant ordinary people with huge, unexpected, extraordinary dreams and obsessions...




Painted the yellow of Dandelion Wine, the house was an extension of the man: it was the place where he crafted novels, short stories, plays, essays and poetry and it was crammed full of Bradburyness: his own books, of course, but those, too, of the writers and artists he loved, and then, all those paintings and pictures: animation and comic-book art and the work of two of his favourite artists: the mysterious Gothic or futuristic visions of Joe Mugnaini (who illustrated so many of his books) and stunning landscapes by Eyvind Earle, also known as the man responsible for styling Disney's most stylish animated feature, Sleeping Beauty. Not to mention all the toys, trinkets, trivia, nick-knacks ad geegaws...

Ray Bradbury in his basement writing den  in 2008. Photograph: Dan Tuffs/Getty Images 

I went there many times and spent many hours talking books and films and wild notions, and I took friends there who wanted to meet the Illustrated Man and the Martian Chronicler.

I would usually come bearing some addition for his library, a book of Piranesi prints or Victorian fairy art or an exhibition catalogue from his favourite London haunt, the Sir John Soane's Museum: a fantastical building that was featured as a sectional engraving on Ray's letterhead...


For several years I had, somewhat romantically, assumed that this was actually 10265 Cheviot Drive, until the day when I stumbled into the Soane Museum and realised my error. It was a misunderstanding that – when confessed – gave Ray considerable amusement!

Sometimes my gifts would be highly personal: a book of my own, perhaps, or recordings of BBC radio dramatisations that I had made from his stories. Always, I would leave with a copy of a something by Ray – it might be his latest novel or collection of stories, or, possibly, a vintage limited edition of a pamphlet, broadside or poster...

I loved visiting this house and when Ray died in 2102, I was saddened to think that I would never again call at 10265, Cheviot Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90664.

Then, last year, when the house went on the market for $1.5 million, I found myself wishing I might win the lottery in time to bid.

But yesterday... Oh, yesterday, I learned from Mark Evanier's blog, News from me, that the house is being torn down so that the purchaser can build something new...

And who is responsible for this unthinkable deed? According to Variety magazine, the owner of the plot of land that was once the Bradbury house is the avant-garde architect, Thom Mayne

Mike Glyer's File 707 has this sad eye-witness report:
There was no ceiling overhead. The dining room wall is now the dining room rug. The living room is the only place that’s remotely intact, but its floor is littered with twisted metal and broken glass.
So–– the temple of ideas, the workshop of words and the emporium of magic has fallen to the bulldozer of progress.

For myself – and for many others – deeply treasured memories of the big yellow house at 10265, Cheviot Drive will remain in tact and unassailable...

...and yet, I am deeply grieved.


Would you like to take one last look around...?

If you can bear to view them File 707 has posted photos of the wreckage.

When Ray died, I posted this tribute to our friendship: Farewell to the Martian Chronicler which includes that first letter I received from Ray in 1974.

Photographs by Brian Sibley © 2003

Saturday, 10 January 2015

PRIESTLY PRESENTS

It's amazing what you can find on-line!

I discovered a site devoted to tasteful gifts for members of the clergy.

There were...


...and...

...and this obviously essential necessity of priestly daily life...


Well, when your Virgin Mary Pill Box is empty what else can one do?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

PARTING SHOTS

Yesterday's farewell to La Serenissima...



As the Italians say: "Ciao e a la prossima volta" or "Bye, until the next time..."

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

CLOCKING-ON

David and I first came to Venice in 1998 and from that year until our visit in 2006 we never saw one of the city's most celebrated landmarks: the Torre dell'Orologio, the ornately decorated Renaissance clock tower that stands on the north side of the Piazza San Marco.

Built in the 15th Century, the tower features a carving of the Lion of Saint Mark, a statue of the Madonna and Christ Child, a vast clock face marking 24 (not 12) hours, the moon phases and the houses of the zodiac and is surmounted by a huge bell on which the hours are struck by two hammer-wielding Moors scantily clad in animal skins.


For the first eight years of our visiting Venice, the clock was under wraps for restoration and we saw this extraordinary edifice for the first time in 2006 when the scaffolding finally came down. But it was a couple of years later that we got to witness a special feature of the clock that is only ever seen twice a year...

During Ascension Week and on the Feast of Epiphany – today – the panels to the right and left of the central statue, which normally display the hour and minutes in Roman numerals on giant revolving drums, are removed and replaced with doors that, every hour (from 9:00-5:00) open onto the balcony allowing elaborate automata figures of a trumpet-tooting Angel and the gift-bearing Magi to process before the Virgin and Child, tipping their crowns as they pass.

Here they are in action at 1:00 pm today...


The performance today went a good deal smoother than our first memory of clock-watching in 2008... It was raining at 9 o'clock when the Wise Men and their Angelic Companion made their debut appearance and apart from a lot of bedraggled pigeons and a handful of disinterested caribinari, David and I were the only witnesses to the event; which, as you will see from our video that day, is probably just as well!


Today is a public holiday and here in Venice, as in all Italy, Epiphany is still commemorated and is a vital part of the celebrations (at least as far as the children are concerned) since it is the day signalling the arrival  La Befana – a female counterpart of those Santa Claus/Father Christmas/St Nicholas characters who feature in the Northern European and American Christmas festivities...


An old woman riding a broomstick through the air at night, La Befana, wears a black shawl and carries a sack of sweets and gifts which she leaves in the stockings that the children hang up for her. She is covered in soot because – like Santa – she enters the children's houses via the chimney.

Children who have not been good during the year, receive (instead of sweets) bags of ashes or a lump of coal – nowadays, black sugar-candy!


Because she's a good housekeeper, Befana always uses her broom to sweep the floor before leaving. It is polite to leaves out a small glass of wine for La Befana, together with something to eat - just as Santa gets all those glasses of milk and mince pies...

One Christian legend (similar to the Russian tale of Babushka) tells how La Befana was visited by the three Wise Men, seeking directions as to where Jesus had been born. The old woman did not know, but – being a homely, house-proud soul – she gave the travellers shelter for the night.

The following day, the Wise Men invited La Befana to join them on their quest, but she refused saying that she was far too busy with her housework. Then, too late, she charged her mind and went off in search the the Wise Men and the Christ Child, but was unable to find them. So it was that – to this very day – La Befana is searching for them still and, on her travels, leaves toys and candy for all the good children she finds.

Italian children are warned that if they ever see La Befana they'll receive a thwack from her broomstick: a typical adult ruse to keep youngsters in their beds on Epiphany Eve while parents are distributing sweets – or coal – and sweeping the floor.


To mark Epiphany – and the arrival of La Befana – a regatta is held in Venice every 6 January, with veteran gondoliers (in witchy drag), rowing up the Grand Canal to a finishing line at the Rialto Bridge.


Traffic on the Grand Canal comes to a halt and everyone crowds the fondamenta on either side of the Canal. A giant stocking hangs down from the bridge to mark the winning post and great excitement attends the race and the presentation of the special Befana-emblazoned pennants (left) that are the prizes while everyone – especially (right)  little old Italian ladies – get on with the really serious business of enjoying hot chocolate, mulled wine and sweet flaky biscuits called (in the Venetian dialect) galani...


HAPPY EPIPHANY!


Monday, 5 January 2015

THE STREET MERCHANTS OF VENICE

One of the curiosities (or, depending how you look at it, irritants) of daily life in Venice is negotiating a passage down the narrow streets (or 'calles') when the street sellers are busy on their unauthorised – in fact, illegal – pitches. I have been, perhaps, more conscious of their presence this visit as David has trundled me along the crowded walkways in our borrowed wheelchair.

We have seen many such sellers over the years, touting mostly cheap toys: squashy gel-filled creatures that can be thrown on the floor, flatten and then slowly reform; rotary things that can be tossed up in the air and spiral down with sound and/or light effects; or dancing cardboard cutouts of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

By far the most serious trade, however, is done by the African bag sellers who travel into the city daily on the water buses with bulging bl ack bin-liners stuffed with repro (or, to be direct, fake) D&G, YSL, Gucci, Prada and Armani handbags which they sell outside the shops bearing those very names!


Despite posters discouraging tourists from buying these phony goods...


...their trade never diminishes and whilst they relocate the moment a policeman comes into view, we have only ever once seen the officers give chase. So the turning of blind eyes may indicate some further, dubious street-dealing is going on...  

But, this year's most lucrative trade is, undoubtedly, in 'Selfie Sticks', the gadget that once and for all eliminates the need to try and focus your camera-phone if your arms aren't quite long enough and forever ends the tentative request to complete strangers to take your and your Significant Other's photo...  

The sellers are doing a brisk trade and Selfie Stick photography is the thing to be doing...





So, Facebookers can now look forward to even more shared snaps – with just a bit more background in shot –– perhaps!!

FANCY FOOTWORK

Venice – with its often perilously uncertain terrain of wonky and cracked flagstones and frequently flooded streets – is, bizarrely, the best place for buying outlandish footwear.

Click here to see some earlier fads and fancies (not to mention fantasies!) and then enjoy what are, I think the most sparkly shoes imaginable...



Should I inquire about the price, d'you think?

And, talking of shoes...


Sunday, 4 January 2015

THE ARMY OF GOD

At sunset, a battalion of saints and angels stand guard upon the facade of the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute...


Saturday, 3 January 2015

SANDWICHED IN

Now THIS is what I call a sandwich...


...or, as the Italians call it, a tramezzino.

Constructed from very soft bread minus the crusts, tramazini are capable of holding generously-portioned fillings of prosciutto, cheese, tuna and olive or, in the one sampled above, egg and crab.

Tramezzino are said to have been invented in 1925 at the Caff├Ę Mulassano di Piazza Castello in Turin as an alternative to English-style sandwiches. Today, apparently, the bar offers forty varieties of tramezzini. Here, in Venice, and all over Italy, these inexpensive and deliciously satisfying snacks are available in bars to busy Italians (and scurrying tourists) as an accompaniment to a swift espresso or a more leisurely Aperol Spritzer.

The word tramezzino was invented by Gabriele D'Annunzio as a substitute for the English word "sandwich", being easier (for Italians) to pronounce and – whilst a neologism – it is  a completely Italian term since "tramezzino" sounds like "in-between", with the addition of the diminutive suffix  "-ino".

Diminutive they may be, but as my old gran used to say: "Good things come in small packages!"

Of course, if you want to eat tramazzini at Gran Caffe Quadri in Piazetta San Marco you will pay twice as much (at least) for the privilege of having half the stuffing –– depending on your definition of being 'stuffed'!! 

 

Friday, 2 January 2015

PEAKE OF PERFECTION

If there's anyone who hasn't had their fill of the combined forces of Yours Truly and David Warner (through the recent dramatisation of The Once and Future King) you can now indulge in another of our joint enterprises, The History of Titus Groan...


This six-hour series was based on the trilogy of novels: Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone...


...written by the extraordinary author, artist and illustrator, Mervyn Peake...


The production also drew on elements from Titus Awakes, a fourth volume written by Peake's widow, Maeve Gilmore, and posthumously published in 2011 with an introduction by myself...


Luke Treadaway (below left) played Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan, reluctant inheritor of the dusty, shadow-filled, ritual-obsessed fiefdom of Gormenghast.

David Warner (right) played the mysterious artist whom Titus encounters on a small island in the English Channel and who seems to know all about the young Earl's life – in and out of the crumbling stronghold of Gormenghast – and, more than that, has knowledge of his destiny...


First broadcast in 2011, The History of Titus Groan features a great cast with an especially remarkable performance from Carl Prekopp as the villainous Steerpike, here seen 'scaling the walls' (that's radio acting for you!) of Gormenghast...


Rather surprising for a four year old repeat, Radio Times selected it as 'Today's Choice' which, I guess means, it's not bad!


The Radio Times art is by artist and illustrator, David Lupton. You can see more of his work on his blog and on his website.

Here are the times of all the episodes to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra: 

Episode 1: Titus Arrives – today @ 10:00 and 15:00; tomorrow @ 3:00

Episode 2: Titus Inherits – Monday 5th @ 10:00 and 15:00; Tuesday 6th @ 3:00

Episode 3: Titus Discovers – Tuesday 6th @ 10:00 and 15:00; Wednesday 7th @ 3:00

Episode 4: Titus Departs – Wednesday 7th @ 10:00 and 15:00; Thursday 8th @ 3:00

Episode 5: Titus Abroad – Thursday 8th @ 10:00 and 15:00; Friday 9th @ 3:00

Episode 6: Titus Alive – Friday 9th @ 10:00 and 15:00; Saturday 10th @ 3:00


To log on the BBC iPlayer, click here, and to read more about the production on the BBC website, click here

And, below, spot the writer with members of the brilliant cast.