Friday, July 1, 2016

Walking on water Christo style

My colleague Matteo Volonté was on a quick visit to his native Lombardy earlier this month and managed to catch the extraordinary art event of the Christo installation on Lago d’Iseo. We had a chat this week when he got back. 

Julian Bickersteth: How did people get there, given the crowds? 

Matteo Volonté: You could get there by many modes of transport. You could go by train, car, bike and boat. The access to the piers is in Sulzano near Iseo. The village of Sulzano is very small and could not accommodate many vehicles, so designated car parks scattered on the outskirts of the lake were used and shuttle buses collected visitors to take them to the piers. People also walked from nearby villages.

JB: How is it constructed? 

MV: The piers were made of cubic barrels made of polyethylene and joined together like a puzzle and connected with large polyethylene screws. It was covered with approximately 100,000 square meters of synthetic fabric and anchored to the bottom of the lake with ropes and concrete blocks.

JB: What did it feel like walking on? 

MV: I believe Christo said it felt like walking on the back of a whale. The movement of the lake gives definitely life to the piers. Someone else said it is like walking on the water. Certainly being so close to the water gives a wonderful effect.

JB: Was it deteriorating? 

MV: When I went to visit the Christo installation, it was just a few days after the opening. The apparent condition of the fabric was fine. In areas, staining began to appear particularly at the entrance of the piers and where the fabric was covering the roads of the villages. Leaf litter and floating tree branches were depositing along the edges of the piers, but it’s something that should be expected. I did notice at the end of the day, towards the exit, in some of the steep alleyways of Sulzano village, that the fabric began to tear, particularly along the seams. That was because of the friction of the visitors attempting to climb up the hill.

Enjoy Matteo’s beautiful pictures.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Qatar cultural matters

Abu Dhabi tends to get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to museums in the Gulf due to the astonishing cultural precinct being created on Saadiyat Island (see my past blog post on the subject).

However, just across the water Qatar is seeking to culturally emulate their Gulf cousins. On the collecting front they have chosen to buy the world’s second and fourth most expensive artworks to date. (Respectively, Paul Cézanne’s "The Card Players" for c.$250 million and Pablo Picasso’s "Les Femmes d’Alger” for $179.3 million.) And they have also been using ‘starchitects’ to good effect.

So far they have an I.M. Pei designed Museum of Islamic Art, which opened in 2008 and a Jean Nouvel National Museum being built. The former is a truly beautiful building, set on a spit of reclaimed land with lush landscaping. Whilst to me the interior competes with the artefacts on display, which is always a temptation for starchitects, the overall museum experience there is a very satisfying one.

Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar 
(Photograph: Museum of Islamic Art website)
Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar
(Showing interior competing with display of artefacts)

Half a mile away the National Museum struggles. Designed around the concept of the desert rose, the building opening is already two years late and it looks way off completion. Beautiful as it may end up being, clearly the nature of a structure where there are no straight lines is taxing the builders, not to mention the exhibition installers, once they can get inside. But the big disappointment for me is that, whereas the Museum of Islamic Art is well positioned away from other buildings and set in gardens, the National Museum is squashed between a bridge and high rise development, an aspect that the artist’s renditions fail to include.

National Museum of Qatar
(Photograph: Qatar Museums website)

One other highlight of Qatar is Richard Serra’s extraordinary and, dare I say, somewhat bizarre 'East-West/West-East' installation. It takes about an hour driving west from Doha to reach and comprises of 4 vast weathered steel plates set into an obscure valley in the desert, aligned in an east west direction over 1.6km. Serra’s impetus for creating this piece is well detailed in the New Yorker.

'East-West/West-East' by Richard Serra
(Photograph as published in the New Yorker)

How successful this desert installation has turned out to be is debatable. Serra had hoped that ‘people will either walk or drive to the pieces’. The former is not only impractical but in Qatar conditions, downright dangerous. And sadly, where the latter is happening it seems only for the pastime of applying graffiti. Interestingly, Serra’s hope of the weathered steel turning to a dark amber is not being realised in the desert conditions, an issue which is the subject of a technical paper at the forthcoming IIC Conference in LA in September on the conservation of contemporary art.

'East-West/West-East' by Richard Serra
(Showing weathered steel corrosion not occurring as planned)

Quite how the rapid development of all the new museums in the Gulf will play out remains to be seen, but Qatar is ensuring it plays its part.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Palmyra and clickbait

Reporting on cultural heritage impacted by conflict is never an easy matter. After the outrage of the death of Khaled al Assaad, director of antiquities at Palmyra, last September I wrote a blog to highlight the level of destruction that Isil was causing but decided in the end not to post it since it might impact on conservation work we were undertaking in the UAE and on the staff we had there.

However, at least Palmyra is now recaptured, and it's good to share a few links on what is happening. Firstly it appears that despite the images of destruction beamed around the world, the broader archaeological site has been largely spared, with the site’s majestic amphitheater, rows of columns and other iconic ruins, whilst laced with explosives by Isis, ultimately spared.

As an interesting adjunct to my concerns about publishing my blog earlier in the year, there is a great article in The Art Newspaper by Jason Felch and Bastein Varoutsikos on how we should respond to the images of destruction of cultural heritage. Their principal point is that the images of destruction are 'clickbait' that play into Isil's hands every time we repost them. "It is Isil’s ability to marry ancient iconoclasm with modern clickbait that has spread their appetite for destruction so far and fast. And it is our fascination with sharing their snuff films on social media that make us complicit in their crimes."

Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Photo: Daniel Lohmann 
The Art Newspaper, 7 April 2016)

More broadly, the latest bimonthly News in Conservation published by IIC (International Institute for Conservation) is dedicated to the issue of the destruction and illegal trafficking of cultural heritage. It provides a great overview of the issues and the wide spread nature of this ill, from Timbuktu to Croatia, from Syria to Israel and Egypt.

As Peter Stone, the author of one of the articles and current head of UNESCO's Blue Shield program told me in January, the thing that changed interest in the UK in what Isis was destroying (and the will to do something about it) was their destruction of places that were so famous that even the blinkered public school educated British bureaucrats had heard of them.

To that end, Boris Johnson's Facebook posting on Palmyra and the desperate tragedy that is now Syria, along with the broader European refugee crisis, is worth reading. 

Palmyra may be safe for the time being, but we must not forget that the UN reckons nearly 300 important Syrian sites have been destroyed, badly damaged or looted since 2011, including 24 completely wiped out.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Big Boys at Te Papa 2

As a supplement to my last blog post 'Big Boys at Te Papa' on the Museum's 'Gallipoli: The scale of our war' exhibition and my comment about the reported NZ casualty numbers, interesting research has just been published, which confirms that the real rate is about half what had been stated (see the Te Papa blog for more details). 

I had certainly come to a view that the casualty rate of 93% would have been emblazoned on the minds and psyche of every New Zealander if it were true. But what it has thrown up is that there were in fact casualty rates of this level in the First War. The Newfoundland Regiment went over the top at Beaumont-Hamel in the Battle of the Somme, on that fateful day of July 1st 1916, where 30,000 men were killed or wounded before breakfast and 60,000 by the end of the day. The Regiment went into action 753 strong and only 68 answered the roll call the next day, a casualty rate of 91%.

The effect of such a loss on the local community must have been cataclysmic.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Big Boys at Te Papa

I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few WWI commemorative exhibitions around the world in the last couple of years, but none as powerful as Te Papa’s 'Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War' exhibition in Wellington.

Designed and built at a reputed cost of over $8 million by NZ film wunderkind and Weta Workshop founder, Richard Taylor, the set and prop designer behind the Lord of the Rings epic. This is a hybrid between a film set and a museum exhibition. The immediate reason I loved it is the stunning 5 times life-size figures that dominate the space in every way. They are masterful creations, the detailing simply awesome using every tool in the film set maker’s kit. 

But what I found most refreshing was the approach to the narrative. Instead of objects neatly labelled in showcases with storyboards on adjacent walls, every available wall space is plastered with text and photos in a highly accessible and readable way. You don’t need to work through all of it, as there are lots of individual stories, but at the same time a continuity of narrative, based around the real stories of the over-size figures, holds it all together and draws you on. One bloke survives a death sentence at a court martial (for falling asleep on duty) only to turn up later in the exhibition being killed in action four days afterwards.

Why did I find it more emotional than others I have seen? It’s very personal, it only tells the Gallipoli story from landing to evacuation, and it brings home better than any of the other exhibitions the devastating impact of the War on so many families in such a small country.

Which brings me to my one gripe. The final storyboard identifies the NZ casualty rate as 93% of those who landed were killed or wounded. An asterix beside the number leads to a footnote along the lines of ‘still to be verified'. I was so struck by that astonishing number that I went hunting. Two minutes on the web led me to the 1919 official history, 'The New Zealanders at Gallipoli', in which British General Sir Ian Hamilton wrote that a total of 8556 New Zealanders landed on the peninsula – of whom 7447 were killed or wounded, a casualty rate of 87% (not 93% but still staggeringly high). A minute more and I was at the official NZ Government’s WWI centenary site where David Green, Historian at the Ministry for Culture & Heritage, explains that through erroneous counting the real New Zealand casualty rate was 53%, similar to that of the Australians whom they fought alongside.

I’ve raised this with Te Papa and they have advised that research is still being undertaken, and they hope to have the final number clarified shortly. But don’t let that stop you visiting a great exhibition. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Conserving the Contemporary

Conservators from around the world will be gathering in September in LA at the biannual IIC (International Institute for Conservation) congress. IIC congresses always have a theme and this year it is Contemporary Art with the catchy title of 'Saving the Now: Crossing Boundaries to Conserve Contemporary Works'. As the Congress will also be run in association with INCCA (International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art) it promises to at least address if not resolve a few of the major issues that conservators of contemporary art grapple with.

Conservation of contemporary art doesn’t sound like a main stream subject, so it was good to see it addressed in a recent New Yorker article by Tom Lerner, entitled 'The Custodians: How the Whitney is transforming the art of museum conservation'. Ostensibly about the Whitney’s new conservation space and its head conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the reflective and perceptive article cuts to the heart of the debate by:
  1. Questioning why something that is contemporary needs conservation 
  2. Demonstrating the challenges that the complexities of the materials and methods of fabrication of contemporary art create for conservators, and 
  3. Showing how conservation is in Lerner’s words "deeply curatorial, as conservators choose which aspects of a work are presented and how"
Mancusi-Unagaro at work
(Photograph as featured in 'The Custodians')

He comes to the latter conclusion through observing Mancusi-Ungaro at work, during which he discusses:
  • The problem of materials. Where medieval and Renaissance painters had intimate knowledge of their pigments and what would last, post war artists went to the hardware store not the art-supply shop for their paint, using mass produced materials never intended to last. And that’s only the paint, i.e. before considering the plastics, rubber, poor quality paper etc. used with it.
  • The issue of replication in art. Mancusi-Ungaro heads a replication committee at the Whitney which includes curators, archivists and a lawyer which determines how a work of art (or part of it) should be replicated when it cannot be restored in the traditional way. Examples might be a motor or lights on a kinetic sculpture or a digital tape for an audio installation.
  • Non-traditional methods of conservation. Lerner cites Mancusi-Ungaro’s work on Rothko’s Harvard murals where the original colour had faded right out beyond repair. She developed a series of coloured light projections which when thrown on the canvases retuned the works to their original colours – though, as Lerner questions, is this conservation or a multi media installation?
Luckily, Mancusi-Ungaro is giving the Forbes Prize lecture at the IIC Congress in LA, so we should hear more on this challenging issue then.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Protest Art – The Conservation Perspective

Our favourite non-artist Banksy (i.e. his real identity is unknown) has been busy again with his satirical art, this time painting in his distinctive stencil style a Les Mis themed image on a wall near the French Embassy in London criticising the use of teargas in the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais. Whilst widely reported (see this article in the Guardian and this one in the Metro) the story and images in the Daily Mail report interested me most as a conservator.

Banksy’s images are always vulnerable to being graffitied, overpainted or destroyed as they are invariably:
a)       Protest art
b)       Painted on unprepared and often temporary surfaces

Sometimes that destruction is inadvertent - As described in this Sydney Morning Herald article, Melbourne’s city street cleaners did a fine job painting over one, and this in a city renowned for its street art!

More often it is an active process by the authorities being satirised to remove it. In the London instance the artwork came with a QR code which linked to a tear gas attack in the Calais refugee camp on 5th January, one which presumably the French Government were not over-keen to have publicised, hence their quiet word to their British counterparts to cover it up ASAP. 

The irony is that the British authorities claimed they were rushing to cover it up to preserve it, the same argument the French authorities had taken with murals Banksy had painted in the refugee camp itself. Which is where the Daily Mail images are interesting, because it is clear both from the article and the images that the first way they attempted to preserve it was by ripping it to shreds with a crowbar, not a method which comes readily to mind in my toolkit of preservation processes.

The next question then is from a conservation point of view - what part of the artwork should be conserved? To my mind the crowbar damage is now part of its story, namely how the artwork was responded to, but the view could be put that this is damage that needs repairing.

Luckily I can report that this and other Protest Art issues will be the subject of a major dialogue at the forthcoming IIC Congress in LA in September 2016 entitled “Umbrellas, Gas Masks, and Post-it-Notes: Considering the historic and conservation challenges of objects created for social protest”. The dialogue will be in the form of a discussion between those who create the art and their intent for it, and those who promote it, collect it and protect it. As the blurb for the dialogue states:

“Historic events of the past years have highlighted art as a creative means of social expression to current events as well as an impactful tool used during social protests. Whether to express solidarity, such as Je Suis Charlie, or to promote political freedom for the activists in Hong Kong, disobedient art has found its presence in the world of artistic expression. The impact of disobedient art on cultural perspectives has been tremendous and the historical significance of using art to inspire and promote these events is gaining in popularity.”

There will be lots to discuss. Make it to LA if you can.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Seen any missing sculptures?

It is a truism often cited that the period of 30 - 50 years after creation is the time when any artwork or building is most at risk of being destroyed. It has lost the novelty of being new and fallen out of fashion but has not yet entered into that hallowed world of being anointed with heritage status. Great art and buildings tend to transcend this dangerous period, but that leaves an awful lot of our artistic and architectural output which is vulnerable. Some of this of course deserves a quick and timely departure, whether due to poor design or materials that would never last. 

So it is not surprising to read that Historic England, formerly part of English Heritage, have complied a list of lost, stolen, sold or destroyed public art works made anywhere between the Second World War and the 1980s. Some we know about, such as the Henry Moore bronze Reclining Figure stolen from the Henry Moore Foundation's estate in 2005 worth £3m, which was melted down and sold for £1,500 as scrap metal. 

Henry Moore's Reclining Nude (Photograph: Henry Moore Foundation)

Some are the victims of political correctness. Countless figures of Lenin have been dismembered since Glasnost. And closer to home, Sydney is the beneficiary of a fine seated figure of Queen Victoria, which had been removed for political reasons from Leinster House in Dublin during the Troubles and, after languishing in a council depot in Dublin for many years, was transported to Sydney to take pride of place outside the refurbished Queen Victoria Building in the 1980s. A similar discussion is going on right now about the figure of Cecil Rhodes on Oriel College, Oxford. A current Rhodes scholar no less (talk about biting the hand that feeds you) is leading the campaign to have his statue removed on the basis that Rhodes was responsible for genocide.
Queen Victoria Statue, Queen Victoria Building, Sydney

Some have only just survived, Mary Kayser's 'Dragonfly' in Canberra being a case in point. Created in 1989 (so it doesn’t even reach 30 years before it was disdained), it was deteriorating badly, obscured behind trees and about to be destroyed. The ACT Government commendably decided it was worthy of saving, and we were commissioned to restore and relocate it to a prime site on Lake Burley Griffin.

Mary Kayser's 'Dragonfly' - Obscured behind trees

Mary Kayser's 'Dragonfly' - Restored and relocated

But then of course if you want to avoid the angst as an artist of having your creation destroyed you can do what Bert Flugelman did and bury the art work in the first place so no one can get to it. As part of an arts festival in Canberra in 1975, Bert participated by burying his artwork made of six polished aluminium tetrahedrons, remarking that if he explained why he was putting the piece underground “the whole point would be lost”.

Now there’s both an artistic statement and a pretty foolproof way of ensuring your legacy survives!

Bert Flugelman with his sculpture 'Earthwork' (Photograph: David Perry) 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Flying boats and the way to travel by air in the 1950's

There was a time after the Second War when civilian aviation relied heavily on flying boat travel. No need for runways, just find a convenient strip of water (preferably not too choppy) and in can come the sea plane. Nowhere was this more enthusiastically embraced than in the Pacific, and I have just spent the last three days in New Zealand preparing conservation plans for two survivors of this era.

These are the Short and Harland Solent flying boats that flew the Coral Route between NZ, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Whether they were actually a plane that could float, or a boat that could fly (and does it really matter, though they were all formally launched like a ship), these extraordinary machines as large as a two storey house still have the capacity to thrill.

Upstairs a massive flight deck had a pilot and co-pilot with a navigator and radio operator behind and the all-important flight engineer who sat in front of a vast console of dials and levers, spending the whole flight moving fuel between tanks to keep the plane trimmed.

Behind them was a galley with a full cooking oven and a food lift to move food between floors and a cabin for 20 passengers. Downstairs were a further 18 travellers in three cabins plus a ladies powder room and gents toilet. This was luxury travel of a kind not seen again until Etihad introduced showers on their 380s, though I suspect the noise and vibration levels were rather different with four enormous prop engines just outside the window.

And of course landing on water though convenient has some inherent hazards, not least steering in high winds and a strong swell without a rudder. Pilots had to be adept seaman as well as aviators, resorting at times to using sea anchors thrown out each side by crewman to be able to reach the mooring buoy. Then the buoy had to be caught by a crewman leaning out of the front of the aircraft with a boat hook. Not much fun in a rough sea, the record apparently being 37 attempts before the buoy was finally secured. You can see why they did not land at night.

What makes the collection at the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) unique is that they have alongside the Solent, the military version known as the Sunderland. Gone are the internal luxuries and in their place instead a stripped out airframe bristling with depth charges and guns (nicknamed 'flying porcupines' by the U boat crews, who were their primary prey). There are only seven of these aircraft left in the world and to have these two civilian and military examples alongside each other is an amazing experience.

Currently, both flying boats are in the process of restoration, but they will shortly be on display in MOTAT's aviation display hall. Throw in a Lancaster and a mosquito bomber which sit alongside them, and any trip to Auckland should include MOTAT where even a moderate aviation enthusiast will come away enthralled.

In reality, although the 1950's was the prime time for these graceful birds, the Second War had already killed them off due to so many airfields being established and the design of planes that could carry much larger loads. By the late 50s the pressurised Constellations were taking over with twice the number of passengers at twice the speed and half the cost, to be followed shortly thereafter by the first civilian jets, the Comets.

A rare relic of a brief period in aviation history.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bowie, ACMI and the Verbaliser

I’ve finally cracked my long standing inability to understand song lyrics – I’ve discovered most of them are nonsensical anyway! This revelation comes courtesy of the V&A’s exhibition on David Bowie currently showing at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Federation Square, Melbourne.

From the early 1970s Bowie conceived of an idea of mixing random phrases together mostly taken from short news clips. He co-authored a smart piece of software known as ‘the Verbaliser’ which rearranges words to make this happen and create some of his lyrics. I think the technical term is ‘cut-ups’ and it’s a technique that went on to influence Kurt Cobain's songwriting. I guess we would call it a mash up these days, but one of the highlights of the exhibition for me was hearing Bowie talk about how he used words in this way. 

Whilst this is not an exhibition I would have rushed to see based on its subject matter, I came away having thoroughly enjoyed it and seeing Bowie in a completely new light as an extraordinarily creative person. It’s slick and well presented, with a clever Sennheiser audio system (headphones are provided as part of the ticket price) that responds to where you are by playing songs and information relevant to what you are viewing. There’s a great review at Sadly, I understand Sennheiser is not interested in replicating the system for other exhibitions.

This is all part of a big V&A push into Australia with no less than three of their exhibitions currently touring, David  Bowie is…. at ACMI, Undressed at the Powerhouse, and soon the Queensland Museum and Bendigo Art Gallery and Inspiration by Design currently at the State Library of NSW and soon to be at the State Library of Victoria.

ACMI is a bit of a hidden performer in Australia's cultural sector. It's been around now for over ten years in its current location, though it actually dates back to 1946 as the Victoria State Film Institute. In 2013 it attracted over 1.15 million visitors. That's an impressive statistic, and based on the current offerings it deserves to do well, and can only play a bigger role.

This is going to be significantly helped by the recent appointment of Seb Chan to a newly created role of CXO - Chief Experience Officer - a position he takes up this month, returning from 4 years in New York at the Cooper Hewitt, where he was the Director of Digital & Emerging Media, and the lead player in the development of their new interactive pen (see my blog from June 2015 for more information). Listed in 2009 as amongst Australia’s 100 most influential people (see my blog from January 2009), Seb is not going to sit quietly in his new role. Watch the ACMI space!