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who we are


Cy Twombly (1929-2011)

Cy Twombly. Leda and the Swan (Part III), 1980. Oil on reverse of an artist's proof on handmade paper. 64.7 x 50.3 cm

Cy Twombly, died Tuesday at 83.  I had a note about him last fall  in the context of artists' lists.   Tacita Dean made a film about him recently, Edwin Parker (2011) showing all this summer at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.
Of all the artists of the 1960s, Ad Rheinhart's black canvases, Rauschenberg's dense messy collages, Frankenthaler's stains and Morris Louis's pours plus pop and op art – all exploring the carrying capacity of the canvas surface, Twombly was the most calligraphic, the most like writing and drawing: no erasure of the hand here.
The early work was so delicate, it seems to get louder and in a way angrier with each decade.  Young man's work in these two pieces.

Cy Twombly. Untitled 1970. Distemper and chalk on canvas. 70.5 x 100 cm


summer solstice wreaths of Latvia

from the archive of Adolf Cops. Camp Sidabarene, Milton, Ontario. Celebrating summer solstice in the 1950s. Solstice, or Jani, is still celebrated each year in Sidrabene.

Zile Liepins wrote in On Site 24: migration about a summer camp at Milton, Ontario, built by Latvians who left Latvia in the 1940s, emigrating to Canada.  This was in the context of a larger discussion of Latvians who stayed, dreaming of life somewhere not Latvia, while in Canada, especially at the summer solstice, they dreamt of the Latvia they knew.  The picture, above is from Zile Liepins' family, taken in the 1950s and shows the wreaths of wild flowers the women wear for the solstice.

This video, below, is from Latvia, taken in 2006 and shows the making of the wreaths – flowers for women and oak leaves for men, accompanied by much singing, singing, singing, which is also what they are doing in Zile's photo. 


Queen Meda's wreath

The Queen’s wreath found in the antechamber of the tomb of King Philip II of Macedon and associated with his wife, Queen Meda. gold, 80 leaves and 112 flowers surviving, circa 310 BC, 10.2'"diameter

A real crown: The Queen’s wreath – a gold myrtle wreath found in the antechamber of the tomb of King Philip II of Macedon

This is from an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford (until 29th of August, 2011): Heracles to Alexander The Great: Treasures From The Royal Capital of Macedon, A Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy and is a collaboration between the Asmolean and the Royal Tombs at Aegae.

There are no images on the Ashmolean site, but an amazing and extensive collection of photos and maps can be found here, posted by Elisabeth Carney.


Virgil's muse

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. The Reader Wreathed with Flowers (Virgil's Muse), 1845. 34 x 47 cm. Louvre, Paris.

This is the painting for July on my calendar: Corot, The Reader Wreathed With Flowers (Virgil's Muse).  A realist portrait of a mythical subject: how tenderly it is painted.  Can one imagine going outside to read a bit, wearing a delicate circlet of ivy on one's heid?  well no, but why couldn't we?  Why couldn't we wrap our brows with cool leaves?  a garden crown.

Virgil wrote Aeneid (29-19BC), a bloody legend about Aeneas's travelling wars from Troy in what is now Turkey, to found Rome by way of Carthage, just outside what is now Tunis.  It starts with an invocation to the Muse:

I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,
long suffering also in war, until he founded a city
and brought his gods to Latium: from that the Latin people
came, the lords of Alba Longa, the walls of noble Rome.
Muse, tell me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity,
how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive a man,
noted for virtue, to endure such dangers, to face so many
trials? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?

ah.  It was Juno's fault.  We mortals are simply blown hither and thither by a quarrelling pantheon.

The 1840s: Nash was building in London, Ingres painting in Paris, the Irish famine occurred and Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre.  Georgian elegance and French empire neoclassicism were about to be pushed aside by a rough gothic realism.  Corot is sited between neoclassicism (mythological landscapes and gods) and impressionism (actual landscapes and people drawn from real life).  Virgil's muse is a rhetorical figure, but the painting of her is of a very real, serene woman, her foot firmly places on the earth, her broad forehead wreathed in ivy.  In the language of flowers, a Victorian conceit, ivy indicated both endurance and fidelity – there is something about Corot's muse that is as solid and as still as a rock.  


oh Canada

covers all the angles I think. 


rivers and borders

International Joint Commission map of the Souris River Basin

The Souris River is flooding Minot, North Dakota.  On the CBC news a Minot resident blames Saskatchewan for this, 'they should have done something'.  The Souris eventually joins the Assiniboine, after it crosses the border again, back into Manitoba.  The Assiniboine flooded earlier this spring and will perhaps flood again.  Winnipeg also keeps its eye on Fargo, North Dakota, on the Red River.  The Assiniboine joins the Red in downtown Winnipeg.  In the 1996 Red River flood Winnipegers blamed Fargo for not better controlling the river flow. 

BC Treaty Commission. Statement of Intent. Traditional Territory Boundary, Sliammon Indian Band.The 49th parallel is an abstract political division that serenely ignores topography: global mathematics trumps geophysical realities.  Before the US Survey, before the Dominion Grid, before enlightened Europeans started to delineate territory in this seemingly empty-ish land, there were aboriginal territories: precise, negotiated at their borders by treaty, surveyed orally in a metes and bounds system.  
Sliammon First Nation territory clearly is topographically based: it controls the watershed on the western slopes of the Coast range, the waterway and fishing beds of the inland passage and the opposite beach, securing the whole width of the strait.  Fresh water systems, food, sea borne transportation capacity, security: these are the things that boundaries delineate. 

 Arid Region of the United States, showing drainage districts. Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana-MissoulaThis 1891 map of watersheds in what was called the arid regions of the western United States shows a division of land that could have been a series of small states, with control over their own water resources and all the potential agricultural and animal resources a watershed contains.


Pre-contact North American cultural areasOr, looking at a map of pre-contact cultural zones in North America, one can see how there is a huge territory that controls the Great Lakes.  Another has the whole western watershed of the Mississipi, another group the eastern side.  The Great Divide separates the peoples of the watersheds that go to the Pacific from those of the plains: the north to Hudson's Bay, south to the Gulf of Mexico.  The boreal forest is one huge cultural group, as is the high Arctic. 

Topological environmental divisions as political territories: what a novel idea.  One could only blame oneself for mismanaging one's resources.


delicate landscapes

Georg Gerster. Orchard in Jordan, 2004

Clifford Wiens, grand old man of Saskatchewan modernist architecture, did a campsite on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Maple Creek, that looked like this orchard.  I stayed in it in the mid-80s and all the trees were thin and weedy, indigenous species such as poplar and aspen, saskatoons and willows.  The layout was like a miniature version of the Dominion Grid, each camp site a section.  It was enchanting, so deeply rooted in a historic organisation of land, so proud of prairie trees that flutter in the relentless wind, so very orderly and in its way, unsentimental about what is needed when one pulls off the highway after a long day of driving. Strangely I seem to have forgotten completely the heroic concrete entry pavilion that usually represents this project:

Trans-Canada Highway Campground Maple Creek, 1964. Photo courtesy OFOF Clifford Wiens and John Fulker.

In 2001, driving back from Halifax, I tried to find it, actually to camp in.  This after a whole day of driving across Saskatchewan and finding the network of small towns that had existed just fifteen years before completely gone, and this campsite abandoned.  The trees were tall and untended, some had fallen, one ripped off my radio aerial as I drove in thinking I might stop there anyway.  But it felt haunted, a tragic failure of provincial pride.  A most uneasy site.   It had been a small thing, approached with a brave sort of rigour.


building a forest

Colour-infrared image of Sudbury region using Landsat imagery from 1987. Vegetated areas appear in reddish in colour where urban/disturbed areas are green. The yellow boundary represents the study area for vegetation change detection and approximates the municipal boundary of the City of Greater Sudbury.

I heard this story on the news a while ago, but it took a while to figure out the keywords necessary to find it again.  In the lunar landscape that is the old Sudbury nickel mines and smelters there has, over the last 40 years, been a massive tree planting program, however because the soil is so acidic and toxic, there is no forest floor – that blanket of leaf mould, seeds, bugs, little animals, lilies and orchids, wild flowers, birds, from which new trees grow.  

When new roads are hacked out of the wilderness, such as the twinning of the Trans-Canada highway through Banff National Park, first the forest is logged, then bulldozers come and shovel and grade the top metre of ground into road bed.  All the little seedlings and mice die instantly.  

What Sudbury is doing is removing mats of ground cover and top soil from nearby road construction sites and placing them in the reforested areas that lack that essential floor that sustains a biodiverse ecology.

Pictures show the depth of these mats as about 4".  Is that enough?  Is the soil still toxic underneath?  I'm sure someone has figured all this out otherwise the project wouldn't be so extensive, however it does make one realise how very thin the skin is that supports life.  It also questions the expectation that it will be technology that reconstructs the toxic landscape of the oil sands: cutting and laying turf is not high technology.  It hardly even low technology.  Plants and insects are perhaps more powerful agents in reconstruction than we realise.

Land Reclamation 1978-2008. City of Sudbury.

City of Sudbury Re-Greening Program

there is a short video on this CBC report of the programme:


beautiful annabelle lee

This has been sitting on my desktop for ages, waiting for a suitable day, which never seems to come.

so today it is.


Rare earths mining

BBC. 16 June 2011.

This clip advertising BBC's power of Asia month, is not embedded here.  Click on it to go to the BBC site where it will open automatically. 

As our dependence on plastic supports oil extraction, so does our dependence on electronic devices support rare earth extraction.  Plastic and cell phones: they are everywhere in the world – no place too remote, too untouched, too undeveloped.


books on holiday

R. de Salis, photographer. London Library book on vacation. August 2007, Morea, Greece.

Now here is a nice project.  This enigmatic photo is of a book from the London Library, written by Patrick Leigh Fermor who recently died.  The book is his 2003 Words of Mercury, which I gather in 2007 Fermor took on holiday to Morea in Greece.

In 1933 Fermor walked to Constantinople, carrying Horace's Odes and the Oxford Book of English Verse.  During WWII and in the SOE he was posted to Crete and conducted wholly novelistic underground operations eventually made into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde.  This is a kind of British life I'm not sure exists much any more – or at least isn't heroised in quite the same way as it was throughout the twentieth century.  

Books on holidays: a chance to fade in the sun for a bit, a break from the dim stacks.  And books do travel: a friend who had done his three year sentence at the University of Manitoba for his BES took a year out working on a fishing boat off the west coast.  He arrived in London to start at the AA, carrying with him a Laurence Durrell book borrowed from the Vancouver Island Regional Library branch in Tofino.  As my father was the director of this regional library system and used an honour-based borrowing system for all 30 branches (you didn't have a library card, you just signed your name; he came from a Patrick Leigh Fermor world) the arrival of this book in my one-up one-down in South Kensington was completely magical.  I doubt it left London, Tony certainly didn't. 

The book had returned to its site of publication, better travelled than most people.


Urbanbees: Fleur de sel

Urbanbees. Feur de sel, 2011. Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens Photo JM-1102

This year's International Garden Festival at Les Jardins de Métis includes Fleur de sel, a salt garden by Urbanbees, an international group which includes Farzaneh Bahrami who wrote on the use of public space in Tehran in On Site 25: identity, and Enrique Enriquez who wrote a meditation on exile in On Site 24: migration

Enrique describes Fleur de sel in a pitch for On Site 26: dirt – 'a contradiction thing that came to my mind using a material that it is considered for landscape designers as the first enemy for plants. But salt is a simple tiny material that can speak a lot about our maniac cleanness in the society we live in now.'

Going to Extremes is a Channel 4 documentary series running on Knowledge where Nick Middleton, an Oxford geographer, travels to the hottest, coldest, wettest, driest environments with particular cultures that have evolved, survived and even thrive. Last night Middleton went to a region called Dalloi in Ethiopia, once a sea which as it dried left a five metre deep crust of salt.  It is mined, hacked out in concrete-like slabs, loaded onto camels and walked out – a two day walk to the nearest source of water. 

It will be interesting to see how Fleur de sel at les Jardins de Métis fares over the summer. It will be in situ from June 25 - October 2, 2011, through rain storms, high humidity and dew.  Will it turn to a hard crust as happens with my lovely pink salt from Afghanistan, sitting in its salt cellar on my table?  Will it stay like sand?  Is it Morton's Salt: 'when it rains it pours', a slogan I heard all my life and only just got?  Will it create an eco-system of its own over the three months?  We shall wait and see. 


Katie Holten: drawing trees

Katie Holten. Paths of Desire.  Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 2007.  mixed media, dimensions variable 

Katie Holten, Irish artist, currently in THE MODERNS, an exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.  Writing it up for the Irish Times, Aidan Dunne explains her thus: her work is generally informal and slightly alternative, looking to patterns and connections outside the mainstream. It is, in other words, rhizomatic – in the words of cultural theorists Deleuze and Guattari. Holten’s piece spreads and grows in the manner of a plant species finding a niche and expanding exponentially in a new slice of terrain – as tidy an encapsulation of a rhizomatic practice as ever read.  As with plants, some terrains are congenial, some hostile, some roots are hardy, some tender.  To be an artist is almost by definition to be hardy.

This video shows something of how and why Paths of Desire, above, was constructed.


Giulio Petrocco


Giulio Petrocco, photographer. Juba, 2011Giulio Petrocco  took the photographs for Joshua Craze's article on Juba, South Sudan in On Site 25: identity.  Petrocco is an Italian photojournalist who places himself in dire and dangerous circumstances: see for example, his work from Sana'a, the Yemeni spring which becomes progressively more violent, or a curious site: a neighbourhood in Queen's which was built on a swamp and was a mafia dump.

 Through Petrocco's lens the third world seems to exist anywhere there is struggle.  One wonders if the first world is a definition of sleep walking with plenty of rights and lots of food.  

He keeps a running commentary on his blog What I Learnt Today.

Joshua Craze is an essayist based in Juba, Southern Sudan. With Meg Stalcup, he investigated counterterrorism training in America, which was published by the Washington Monthly.  Now maybe I am a naïve first world sleepwalker, but I found this study really upsetting – not that there is terrorism and counter-terrorism, but the massive distortions of identity and affiliation that can get one so easily killed.  His piece for On Site wasn't quite so dismaying. It was about South Sudan, new country, no identity other than tribal groups which have animals as totemic markers.  There was a perhaps spurious plan to rebuild Juba, the capital, according to a plan the shape of a rhinoceros, the totem of the current power group, the eye being the seat of government (and no doubt a great site for future protests – a Tahrir Square in the making).  Frankly, I thought it looked reasonable as a plan.  As reasonable as any other kind of abstract diagram upon which to base a city. 

The distance between this idea and Juba's reality as shown in Petrocco's images is indeed vast, but the plan is so hopeful, so clean, so deceptively simple.  For something of the complexity of this area see Craze's piece on Abyei in The Guardian.

Proposal for the rebuilding of Juba, South Sudan, 2010.



Christopher Adams: natural selection

Christopher Adams. Natural Selection. Installation view, 2011

Natural Selection
Hosfelt Gallery, New York
23 June - 29 July
from the blurb —

Adams' art considers the concept in biological speciation called adaptive radiation, in which a pioneering organism enters a relatively untapped environment, reproducing profusely while differentiating rapidly and extensively.  At the same time, the organism never departs too dramatically from the original form.
Each of Adams' pieces starts with a common structure and evolves into an ornate form.  Some are broad and brightly-colored, others are mottled and shrunken or morphologically reduced.  Some appear floral, others cephalopodal, and others have no identifiable counterpart in nature.
Christopher Adams has a degree in organismic and evolutionary biology.


Pedro Gadanho: Casa em Torres Vedras

Fernando Guerra, FG+SG, photographer. House in Torres Vedras, Portugal, by Pedro Gadanho

Another package of beautiful photographs from Fernando Guerra in Portugal: Casa em Torres Vedras by Pedro Gadanho.  This is a nineteenth century house with a massive renovation that owes a lot to utopian visions of the 1970s: plastic, colour, capsules, re-inhabitation where modernism bumps up against plaster mouldings, pre-fabrication, James Bond and Star Trek done by Zefferelli.  There is a kind of sentimentality here, not for a pre-modern costume drama past, but for a pre-cynical view of the future.   

Clearly Lisbon of the 2010s is the Barcelona of the 1980s.  Its architects seem particularly free to break from any kind of deference to any kind of thing.  Although Guerra's photographs strip out all signs of inhabitation showing just the abstract space and surfaces – this in itself a high modern tradition – this folio led me to Gadanho's blog, shrapnel contemporary: completely exuberant, messy, articulate, provoking, graphic, self-serving, terrifically interesting.

Gadanho's discussion of the Casa de Carreço (below) is a brilliant little text about making architecture: a miniature manifesto, and all the more powerful for its throw away form.

Fernando Guerra, FS+SG Photography. Casa de Carreço, Portugal.


face hand camera | rock paper scissors

Richard Hamilton Swingeing London. 1968-9 Acrylic, collage and aluminium on canvas. 848 x 1030 x 100 mm. Tate Collection T01144


the open hand of chandigarh

This comes by way of Reza Aliabadi, of atelier rzlbd.


souvenirs: opening borders/opening objects

Sofia Isajiw. A plate from the Veselka Restaurant, New York.

Opening Borders/Opening Objects is an online curated exhibition from the University of Western Ontario: little information on it, such as who was the curator, just a map showing where the contributing artists are from and where they live now, a really interesting curatorial statement and a list of artists that link to a souvenir they chose to explain.

'Opening borders' refers to Bourriaud's 'fertile static on the borders between consumption and production'.  It questions the modernist view that artistic production somehow has an authenticity lacking in objects of consumption – souvenirs, tourist rubbish, reproductions, things from WalMart, or any sort of market anywhere.  Opening Borders/Opening Objects presents often mass-produced objects of little obvious inherent meaning as embedded in a number of very personal factors: who chose it, where was it, where does it live now, what memories does it trigger, what were the circumstances of its first sighting, what is it?

Opening Borders/Opening Objects also places the artist in the twenty-first century as among the most mobile people in our societies: they travel a lot.  They come home.  They bring things.  They give things away.  They get gifts.  What aesthetic or cultural values reside in these objects? for this isn't about money, rather it is about indifferent objects that conjure other worlds, other times, other places.  

There is a good reference list with the curatorial statement: a defining discussion of material culture theory in 2011.

The exhibition will be online from May 1, 2010 to August 30, 2010

Victor Trasov. An S-Bahn ticket from the Berlin of the DDR. Jamelie Hassan. A Syrian glass jug.


Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan: the illustrated dictionary of received ideas

Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan. The Illustrated Dictionary of Received Ideas.

Gustave Flaubert. Dictionnaire des Idees Reçues
A dictionary of received wisdom: misguided, banal, what everyone thinks and never questions.  In 1852 Flaubert wrote 'It would be the justification of Whatever is, is right'.

Jorn Barger in 2002 did an analytic reorganisation of the dictionary into broad categories such as 'things to make fun of' (Philosophy: always snigger at it), things to thunder against' (Whitewash (on church walls) Thunder against it.  This aesthetic anger is extremely becoming). 'Things to pretend (Illusions: Pretend to have had a great many, and complain that you have lost them all).

The kind of person, or people, defined by this dictionary of admirable philistinism is familiar to anyone who has ever read a British novel about the class system but to find it so sharply defined in France is surprising when most of what we know of France is Proust (one must claim to have read it, a long time ago though), Sartre (did him in university – brilliant), de Beauvoir (unrequited lover/feminist – really responsible for Sartre's success) — this is catching, this received wisdom stuff. The clichés come so easily, they must be just below the surface.

Anyway, wouldn't have known about Flaubert's dictionnaire if I hadn't heard about Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan's ongoing project to illustrate the dictionary.   They hold public drawing sessions, one of which was at Artexte last October and another is today, June 1 at the Art Gallery of York University.   They've built a special desk to do these drawings on, taken from Flaubert's last and incomplete book, Bouvard and Pécuchet, so we are looking at a large project, part performance, part book making, for there are books, small, that come out of this – one is published by Artexte (edition of 150, $40), others in smaller editions from other venues

Flaubert on what everyone knows about architects: Architectes --- tous imbéciles.
--- oublient toujours l'escalier des maisons.

Gareth Long and Derek Sullivan. Illustrated Dictionary of Received ideas. here- Antiques: Are always of modern fabrication. Antiquities: Commonplace, boring.