Saturday, 18 February 2012

Persian Fire, Rubicon and Millennium by Tom Holland

As a keen amateur dabbler in the short story area and having stumbled over the corpses of several fizzled out novels, advice that is often lobbed in your general direction is to Read, Read, Read… read other authors, let other authors amazing skills ooze into your pores and by osmosis you will be at least enthused if not influenced to write better.

Sod that. Much as I like fiction, what I usually end up reading is narrative history. I respect writers in this area because they combine both;

1) The painstaking effort in the meticulous research required to build their book, balanced with-

2) Being actually able to write, be compelling, tell a story, without actually making it up or losing the determination to get to the end of the project.

These are two very different skills, they almost pull at each other, opposing forces, so if an author can achieve both, seemingly effortlessly, then this makes for a good book.

And Tom Holland really hits the spot in both areas. I’ve read approximately 2.9(!) of his books so far (I’m just coming to the end of Millennium) and I have to say all three books are excellent, the others being Persian Fire and Rubicon. There’s a fourth on the way too.

My well thumbed copies of Tom Holland’s books. Guaranteed to make you appear to be erudite and wise when visitors appear and you lean against the bookshelf they are housed in, your other hand ruminatively holding the pipe you are slowly puffing on.

To keep you on your toes, he also inserts a little fact or reference to make you smirk along the journey, to perk you up, some humour to go along with the hardships, glory and despair of the realities of conquest and war. Stuffier authors might consider these facts unnecessary or lacking in historical worth, but for me, they paint a picture. Of what the goss’ was back in the day. Of what people were saying, this is just as important as the actual facts to me, to get to grips with the psychology and motivations of the protagonists, their contemporaries and enemies.

Examples, from memory, Greeks looking down on the Persians as effeminate as they wore “trousers”.

Or where he cites (in Millennium) one of the stories of how Sweyn Forkbeard assassinated his own father Harold Bluetooth to take the Danish crown, through shooting him “square between the buttocks with an arrow” as his old man was “squatted down behind a bush for the purpose of emptying his bowels”. Which may or may not have been the way it actually happened, but brilliantly enlightening that someone saw fit to spread this rumour about back then!

To someone who had a wholly vocational education from the age of 13, who is only catching up on the arts and history I would have thoroughly enjoyed as a kid, it’s also educational without being patronising. There’s a childlike wonder when I consider the origins of words. Like “ostracised” coming from the Greek “ostraka” meaning the broken pieces of pottery on which voting Athenians would scratch the name of their choice for expulsion from Athens, a kind of inverted voting system, which clearly the classically astute producers of “Big Brother” studied deeply in the development of their TV programme :)

Or as covered in Rubicon, “decimation”, the ugly way the Roman’s would punish a failing army, by randomly picking every tenth man and having him executed in front of his comrades. How terrifying. And how this possibly could lead to a rally in their morale or improvement in their fighting ability I have no idea. But this is another thing Holland expertly points out. How people thought in that period was significantly different to how we think now. Modern morality is built upon an Abrahamic foundation, whether you are religious or not. The Romans, Greeks and Persians seemed unencumbered by such “trivialities” as compassion or forgiveness. Sure, they loved and they grieved, but their motivations were different to ours, as Holland himself states in the preface of Rubicon:

The Romans, it goes without saying, existed under circumstances – physical, emotional, intellectual – profoundly different from our own. What strikes us as recognisable about aspects of their civilisation may be so – but not always. Often, in fact, the Romans can be strangest when they appear most familiar. A poet mourning the cruelty of his mistress, or a father his dead daughter, these may seem to speak to us directly of something permanent in human nature, and yet how alien, how utterly alien a Roman’s assumptions about sexual relations, or family life, would appear to us. So too the values that gave breath to the Republic itself, the desires of its citizens, the rituals and codes of their behaviour. Understand these and much that strikes us as abhorrent about the Romans, actions which to our way of thinking are self-evidently crimes can be, if not forgiven, then at least better understood. The spilling of blood in an arena, the obliteration of a great city, the conquest of the world – these, to the Roman way of thinking, might be regarded as glorious accomplishments. Only by seeing why can we hope to fathom the Republic itself.

In that vein, my favourite of his books, Persian Fire, explored the vast differences between modern and ancient peoples, but also the vast differences between Greeks and Persians, and finally the vast differences, the bickering in-fighting and wars between the Greek speaking peoples themselves. A Spartan was as different to an Athenian as he would be to a Persian. There seemed to be a deep mistrust.

The words “Laconic” and “Spartan”, in popular use today, stem from the behaviours of the residents of Laconia, of Sparta, built for war, with their economy of words, unsympathetic to weakness, to their own children, wearing nothing more fancy that a red cloak wrapped round their shoulders (when they earned the fighting right). A red cloak, a symbol of athletic power, of skill in battle, that struck fear in kingdoms and city states from near and far. I’m generalising, but diplomacy wasn’t something they considered worthwhile investing in. They were insular and warlike.

The Athenians on the other hand, seemed duplicitous, full of intrigue, making bargains and deals, loving a bit of old chit-chat, philosophising and speculating. This “democracy” they had invented seemed alien to all outsiders that would witness it. Dangerous, worthy of being crushed in case it caught on (of course it was only elite men who got the vote). After all, a hero could become a villain overnight and be cast from Athens, based on some tenuous slight or perceived mistake. Shockingly, even Themistocles ended up ostracised, that hero of the Persian wars with his “wooden walls”. But being a fickle Greek, he ended up working for the Persians as a special advisor on Greek matters. Being of Hellenic stock myself, I can picture him being flattered by the interest, coyly turning his bull neck, a one time enemy becoming a trusted confidante. I hate to use this analogy, but I will anyway :) … Like football managers in the modern era, you were only good as your last result in ancient Athens.

And the Persians, with their splendour, their armies from all of their nations, the real Empire of the day, gigantic compared to the flea that was Greece on the fringes of their borders, nipping at the thick golden hide of the ever hungry Persian beast. Persia’s seemingly benevolent King, making nothing more than a demand of “earth and water” (in the form of gold levies and soldiers) from the nations he conquered, letting them maintain they culture and ways of life as long as they maintained a loyalty to him. They absorbed the interesting aspects of the conquered cultures rather than destroying them, but were happy to destroy if the subjugated nation ended up too meddlesome. The Persians had seemingly been delivered a disservice by the crowing Greek chroniclers in the aftermath of their setback at Thermopylae and defeat at Platea, dismissing them as barbarians but Holland gives them an even handed assessment. It’s interesting in a modern context, had the Persian’s conquered Greece, would modern people be looking at Democracy as some quaint old folly, long since disposed in the dustbin of antiquity? And in the context of fledging democracies today, is it better to live safely and with relative wealth under a tyrant, on the understanding that you give complete subservience and don’t have an opinion. Or do you opt for the dangers of the chaos and danger that comes with that fledgling democracy? I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to make any assumption as to what hardships the people of Iraq or Libya (and even the poor and unemployed within the old Soviet states) are going through now or when they lived under dictatorship, or what decision they would make if given the choice to go back to what they had. But it leads to an interesting consideration.

I have very fond memories of Persian Fire as I read it on my honeymoon, which I shared not just with my wife, but with Themistocles, Leonidas, Cyrus, Darius, the Oracle at Delphi, Xerxes, the enslaved Helot underclass and the horsemen of the Medes. As I read it, on our hillside cottage in St Lucia, I’d occasionally take a sip of some cocktail, or watch a hummingbird flit around the lush flowers. It was a beautiful week.

Holland gives a history of Sparta, Athens and Persia, sets the scene. It’s a quite amazing story, considering the majority of Greek states chose to (seemingly wisely) side with Xerxes and his gigantic army. And yet, two distrustful, diametrically opposed Greek states, sharing only a language, Gods and heritage, formed an alliance with a clutch of other Greek cities, to defend or be crushed against their common enemy. Luck played its part, but from a historical context, it seems almost miraculous that these small armies and navies (Athens had no real maritime history at that point but made a huge investment to train and create one based on the Oracle’s “wooden walls” advice and Themistocles belligerence) could defeat the power house that was Persia.

I have to say, it’s one of my favourite books, fiction or non-fiction.

My final point is that this probably isn’t one of my better blogs, it’s a bit stilted. It’s because I’m having to research and quote and try to avoid naive conjecture which means it doesn’t flow very well. It just shows, even with the books sitting in front of me, I’m just not very good at detail *and* entertainment. I don’t think I could write narrative history without resorting to embellishment (I even did it with Themistocles making flirty eyes at the Persian’s above!), outrageous lies, or losing all faith and giving up.

Tom Holland however, is an expert, so really, you should go and buy his books and take my word for it :)

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Art by Animals, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

I popped into the Grant Museum of Zoology, a compact little treasure trove I hadn’t ever visited before. It’s part of a group of museums which is part of University College London. The museum itself is, I would guess Victorian, all wood panels and cabinets in a single room, filled to the brim and all the way up the walls with specimens and skeletons of various living, rare and extinct creatures. I wrote a Haiku about my visit in my other blog. Charles Darwin was a one time resident in Gower Street too and there are blue plaques aplenty dotted around this academic hub.

At the moment, there is a temporary exhibition on Art by Animals. Here is a short clip from UCL summarising it.

Animal Art is a fascinating area and the museum has not just displayed the pieces by Primates and Elephants, but provided some background to the (possible) thought processes that accompanied the creation of them and speculate as to the development of art from our primate ancestors. From the subconscious/abstract/impressionistic to when art became more representational in our history.

It truly is interesting. I’m not going to get into any debate as to “what is art?”, I’m just a hairy, low slung assed, bow legged primate myself, my interest was imagining what the thought process of the animal was. Were they enjoying what they were painting? Or was it purely (as possibly exhibited by the behaviour of the Orang-Utan in the clip) just a ploy to ensure they get a treat? Was it free associating? Were they making definitive choices on colours to use? Is the aesthetic quality important to them? And most exciting (to me anyway!), are they trying to represent something?

The museum itself talks about the “What is Art?” question in some of the exhibits, for example the Bowerbird, creating one of the most achingly beautiful structures in the animal kingdom to attract a mate. They then lovingly fill it with similar coloured items stacked together, such as iridescent beetle shells or flowers or even blue plastic bottle tops. Is this art? How did this behaviour evolve? Well, probably not art I guess, but work of this nature inspires us to make art in its honour and feeds into the question of Primates. When our ancestors witnessed something they didn’t understand, of this nature, which made them fearful, astounded or think about more than the desperate need to survive, did they then take a step further in their thinking, to worship celestial beings and Gods and make them want to honour these deities themselves through the creation of art? Apologies for the hack anthropology! But shit like this does keep me awake at night!

image from bbc website

The first piece of art I saw made me gasp, the fact it was made by an Elephant staggered me. Beyond the obvious motor skill, the hand(trunk)-eye coordination in making the painting, there was another question. Was it possible for an Elephant to directly represent still life through paint on a canvas? Were they inspired in any way to do this? This opened up a whole ream of possibilities, how intelligent are Elephants? How sensitive or emotional? And do they appreciate and take comfort from art?

(painting by Boom Mee)

Unfortunately, the Elephant is guided, as it states in the clip, his or her handler manipulates their ear like a joystick, to get them to paint something they, the handler want represented. Does this make the art inauthentic? I don’t think that matters, especially if the Elephants are not mistreated in their training and the art itself is sold to raise money for Elephant charities, it just shows that an Elephant has incredible skills in translating commands from touch, into making an image. So it doesn’t diminish it’s interest value for me.

So, onto the primates. The below is a painting which forms part of the exhibition, by a chimp called Bakhari at St Louis Zoo. It’s a finger painting. Interestingly they exhibited it upside down in the Museum! Or is the photo upside down? Did no one think to ask Bakhari as to which way up he wanted it?

(by Bakhari)

In terms of expressionistic value, I really like this. There was also an exhibit of a Chimp’s hand which was used to introduce the marvel of the London Zoo based Chimp, Congo, who even had his own exhibition at the ICA in the 1950s! Three Spanish giants of modern art also had a role to play in Congo’s artistic career;

- Dali who exclaimed “The hand of the chimpanzee is quasihuman; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!” when witnessing one of Congo’s canvasses.

- Picasso, who secured one of Congo’s paintings as he loved it so much.

- And Miro, who on hearing that Picasso had an original Congo painting, wanted one for himself, which he then swapped for two of his own drawings!

The fascinating article is here and below is a short clip with the great Anthropologist/Zoologist Desmond Morris on his experience of showing Miro round London Zoo when the artist was a venerable man.

As for Congo’s work, unfortunately they aren’t on display in the Grant, but I have to say there seems to be a deliberate method to Congo’s art, it was certainly worthy of his own exhibition in my opinion. I would be delighted if I owned one too! And the story of Congo’s work outselling Warhol in a 2005 Christie’s auction made me laugh, Congo had the honour of being the first non-human to have their artwork auctioned at such a prestigious establishment.

(wikipedia image)

As a final note and going back to the question as to whether primate art can be representative and not just abstract expressionism, this little note, cheekily secreted in the description by a painting from another gorilla made my jaw drop (in that unique ape jaw style). A gorilla, who could use sign language, when asked what his painting was of, signed back that he’d painted “Apple Running” – Apple was the name of his pet dog. So was this truly a first? A breakthrough in understanding what goes through a great ape’s head when he paints or when he thinks? That he was actually representing a concept in his art? I find that incredible.

Art by Animals continues until March 9th 2012.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

David Shrigley, Brain Activity, Hayward Gallery

At first I thought it was a mistake, it was a great surprise when the team at the Southbank Centre invited me to the Press Viewing of David Shrigley’s Brain Activity exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. But it turns out they read my blog and enjoyed it. I was most flattered and grateful!
So, David Shrigley. Let me begin by sharing an anecdote with you, how I first got introduced to his work. Well, like many other people, it was through a greetings card. Here is the image.

I bought it as a birthday card for a friend of mine a few years ago, she now has it pinned to her desk at work, she loves it. The birthday message squashed inside now meaningless compared to the fun moral conundrum of the drawing itself. It certainly talked to me.
Look at the decisive strength and self assurance of both the dignified Paladin and the monstrous attractive power of the horned Devil person.  The “Good” figure is righteous, unflinching in his belief, honourable, the guy (or girl) you want on your team. I just imagine his (or her) face is equally expressionless as the helmet which covers it. He/She hands out loaves of bread to the poor and fights dragons. Perhaps a bit boring, but utterly reliable. The “Evil” figure is a tower of naughtiness, the guy you want to go drinking with, he just exudes self indulgence. A night out with him would be dangerous, but great fun, assuming you don’t lose a limb or your soul along the way. He’s thrusting his hips in your general direction, he’s saying “Raaaar! I’m full of sex!”
What does that leave? At the end of the line is the figure who represents those who aren’t sure, who are hedging their bets. The mournful sagging hairy tits of the undecided. Neither terrifying or worthy of respect.
My other blog has a Haiku about this very piece of work.
I accept that this might not be a proper arts critics interpretation. I quite liked this soundbite from Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian “Shrigley is having a go at the infantilising anthropomorphism currently sloshing around daily culture”. What?! I have to say that made me laugh almost as much as Shrigley’s brilliant, darkly fun, creative art. It’s something to do with chimps dressed as babies right?
I’ve said it before in other posts, but art (for me) should provoke a reaction. Should draw you in. Enjoying it is then a bonus. And Shrigley’s art is most definitely enjoyable, captivating, clever and silly. It made me smile and laugh aplenty too.
The idea of taxidermy is something that puts me off usually, but Shrigley pulls off a gentle take on it. Even when confronted with a squirrel holding its own severed head, a cute dog holding up a sign reminding people that he’s dead or a headless ostrich, you can’t help but go “awwwwwww”. The work, even if you miss any irony, is great fun. Do you need to intellectualise it? Of course not. You can just take it at face value and get that childlike rush of enjoyment when confronted with something cheeky or silly or most wonderfully… secret! Like the stuffed snake like fabric creatures wedged in the cavity between two walls and only visible through a tiny peephole in the plaster board. (Sorry I spoilt the fun of you discovering that for yourself).

Nutless, 2002, Taxidermy Squirrel and Tree Stump.

I’m Dead, 2010. Taxidermy Puppy, Wooden Sign and Acrylic Paint
The exhibition follows 4 themes. Death, Misery, Characters and Misshapen Things. Which is in itself and without any explanation needed, awesome.
The exhibition showcases Shrigley’s diversity of skills, whether it be sculpture, taxidermy, paintings, photography, animation or his ubiquitous drawings with their laconic funny narrative.
This one made me chuckle – lots. It’s taken from a funny angle as it was high up and I’m only little.

And it’s a treat to get a whole gallery room of them. Here is a small selection, I particularly liked “Too many humans, not enough robots” and “Shot for wearing shorts”

Oh, and this one, this one is fab! And ever so slightly unnerving.

The exhibition meanders around the gallery and even outside it. I felt like my cat does when she explores a new space (usually a box, a superb box with turny bits and other rooms), that sense of big eyed, forward pointing eared wonder that only a cat can really do a good impression of. (human’s just shouldn’t).


The exhibition is also a sensory treat, with aural stimulus, even in the lift; and from various animations. One, of a sleeping man twitching and breathing uncomfortably is projected over a stairwell in what looks like the fire exit. My favourite however is this one. Try not to smile at the marching squares!
Again, let’s not over analyse the message about belonging and fitting in here, or something. Just enjoy it!
The photography I also thoroughly enjoyed. “River for Sale”, a photo of a sign placed in a body of water was great as were others in the series.
And a set of black and white photographs, 20 of them, which when displayed together made a big impact. I haven’t shared images of these, you’ll just have to go to the exhibition and see how flippin’ brilliant it all is!
A big chunk of a gallery room is taken over by an insectoid alien landscape. It’s very compelling, looking at all the little embellishments and details, twisted and formed in metal.

And this giant, specially created for the exhibition, he’s probably 12 – 15 feet tall. I love his labels! Anatomically accurate.

I found the detail in the next piece quite fascinating. The little Edward Munch scream face was a great touch too. The title made you think too, what’s in those spaces where we don’t often look? “The Contents of the Gap between the Refrigerator and the Cooker, 1995”

Shrigley himself was present, to do a little talk with the curator Cliff Lauson and pose for pics with his creations. I felt so sorry for him as the photographers made him stand next to his headless ostrich. He’s tall, so cruelly and not even subliminally they made him stand next to it. “That’s right, crane your neck, be more ostrich like, go on!… Lovely!” click click click. “Smile… bit more leg, that’s it” click click click “hands on hips, turn round” click click “coy look over the shoulder” click click, I could go on embellishing this scenario but I fear where my imagination will take me. But they did treat him like he was in a glamour shoot… a little tiny bit. It wasn’t something that came naturally to him. He was kind of awkward, like some of the elongated characters in his drawings, an eyebrow slightly raised in tolerant annoyance.
The talk itself was very interesting (the Q&A was sadly too short and he was mobbed by proper journalists afterwards so I couldn’t ask him any questions). What I found fascinating was his description of the creative process, how his paintings, specially made for the exhibition and occupying a whole wall, were many more in number, he disposed of three quarters of them before putting up the rest for selection. Which meant he made 150 paintings of which over 100 were disposed, ending up with only perhaps 30 on show. He was also (good naturedly) annoyed with the curator that his painting “shit” didn’t make the cut. I would have certainly like to have seen it. But what was interesting is he wouldn’t let anyone into his own criteria for selection, those that were disposed, would stay disposed. He couldn’t let anyone else into the editing process. “I don’t want to go there” he said decisively.

He described his artistic process as having something in common with Beckett (who he admires) “Tell people less than what they need to know”. The economy of narrative is important to him. He talked of his time at University (he got a 2:2, just like me) and how he was fortunate in that he is from a generation (in his early 40s) where he got a grant and had their fees paid without the huge debt students rack up now. And how, as a poor grad on the dole, he pushed forward his drawing as in the absence of a studio this was the easiest way he could work his art. I also liked his humility, he bears no grudges to anyone who judges the quality of his art, but he appreciates the great honour of showcasing his work at somewhere as prestigious as the Hayward. He’s a quiet likeable man, but you can see he’s got a mischief about him too (threatening to hack the hacks with his bronze swords on the wall in the adjoining gallery room if they were mean about him) and of course this humour pours out of him into his work.

The Bell, 2007.
With regard to the humour, the piece of work I enjoyed most was the gravestone (2008). In itself it is funny, but I imagined the process of commissioning  a gravestone carver to make this work for him (I assume he conceptualised it and asked someone to make it). Of course funerals and all the bureaucracy and business dealings around them is quite a sobering experience. Those who work in the trade could be blasé about it all, it’s their job after all, but I respect that they always appear to be “in the zone” to offer the utmost respect to the grieving relatives they deal with every day. I imagined the conversation.. “You want WHAT on the gravestone?” this made me feel happy, the absurdity in this symbol of death. I hope whoever carved it saw the funny side too. Life’s too short right?

David Shrigley, Brian Activity is on at the Hayward Gallery until 13th May 2012.