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32: weak systems

On Site review: other ways to talk about architecture and urbanismContains things you will never find anywhere else.

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Tuesday
Feb042014

Anselm Kiefer: Wilder Kaiser, 1975

Anselm Kiefer. Wilder Kaiser, 1975. Watercolour and acrylic on paper; 6 3/8 x 9 1/2 in. (16.2 x 24.1 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art 1995.14.11

Because I was thinking about Keifer after thinking about Gerhard Marx's grass and mud drawings of Johannesburg, I came across this drawing he did in 1975 of what the Met describes as 'the limestone massif of the Kaiser mountain range in northern Tyrol', the Kaisergebirge.  The Wilder Kaiser is one ridge, the other is lower and rounder, the Zahmer Kaiser. Somehow, living next to the Rocky Mountain Range, and driving back and forth 1100km to the coast through this range, the Selkirks and the Coast Range, a range of two ridges seems rather European.   

Nonetheless, and that is irrelevant, Keifer's Wilder Kaiser is a gesso crag in a watercolour sea.  Evidently he worked from a map and included a bit of cartographic information for Predigtstuhl: 2083m.  

Because the next issue of On Site review is on mapping, and because it was -26 this morning and it is a tad chilly about the edges here, this particular drawing appeals.  Keifer's mapping shows the limits of perception: either what you can see or what you want to know, both necessarily limited.  The size of the subject, here a mountain, has nothing to do with the size of a map, or a drawing, or a thought.  The name stands in for the range, the gesso peak for one of the individual peaks in it.

Conventional mapping flattens a complex and emotional world to a flat sheet, coded to illustrate topography, and imposing an equivalence on all information that is distinctly misleading.  And yet it is so pervasive it has us running around on the surface of the world as if we were on charts, and as if we are incapable of holding opposing thoughts and perceptions in our heads.  Yes Predigtstuhl is part of the Wilder Kaiser, but yes too, it is separate from it.  For this we need artists.

Friday
Jan312014

Boyle Family earth casts

Boyle Family. Rock and Scree Series, 1977. British pavilion, Venice Biennale 1978

Part of the Boyle Family Manual for the Journey to the Surface of the Earth: 'The objective of this Journey will be to make multi-sensual presentations of 1000 sites selected at random from the surface of the earth.  Between August 1968 and July 1968 blindfolded members of the public selected these sites' [by throwing darts at ever larger-scaled maps until a 6' square was found].

1. Take the actual surface coating of earth, dust, sand, mud, stone, pebbles, snow, moss, grass or whatever hold it in the shape it was in on the site. Fix it. Make it permanent.

The rest of the instructions, 6' core sample, film pan from the centre and a 100-frame film of the site, and a study of 'the effect of elemental forces' on the site were always less captivating than the casts of the site itself.  This was done with frames and plaster lifting the surface material with it when the cast was removed.  
There were more instructions for dealing with plants, animals, people, filming them, taking samples, but it was the cast that was the enduring gallery material. Accompanying texts found on the Boyle Family website are impenetrable streams of consciousness, a barrage of words working their way into description.  There is a review by J L Locher, which one suspects was written by Mark Boyle himself as it is so similar to all the other writings on this site.  But what of it, this is a body of work that started in the 1960s and continues still, this recording of the world.  

Such a conceptually simple frame produces simple objects: 6' squares of ground and it is these themselves that invite speculation, rather than the process.  They are notes from the earth, unconnected to any discernible narrative.  The squares of ground are not linked by resource-extraction, climate, cost or beauty; nationalism, history, productivity or location.  They are microscopically complex, conceptually reflexive and this is what is so interesting, that this work shared the unemotional approach to process of Sol Lewitt, in Boyle's case with the complicity of the earth, and that makes all the difference.   

Thursday
Jan302014

Gerhard Marx: Johannesburg, 2012

Gerhard Marx, Garden Carpet: Johannesburg [1], 2013. Plant material, tissue paper with acrylic ground on canvas board, 120 x 180cm Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Gerhard Marx, a South African artist, seems interested in the underpinnings of the commonplace, in this case the map of Johannesburg which becomes reinscribed with the surface materials of Johannesburg.  Not quite geology, more dirt, as if the gleaming towers and freeways of the modern city are just this: dirt, roots and grass, the map itself scratches on the ground.

Gerhard Marx, Garden Carpet: Johannesburg, detail. Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Tuesday
Jan282014

Rodney Place: art and revolution, 2012

Brett Murray The Struggle, 2010 Silkscreen 100 x 70cm Edition of 22. Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Something to think about: the artist, after the revolution.  We are so distant here in this snow-muffled northern country, the end of apartheid so abstracted, that Mandela's gracious processes of reconciliation have effectively buried the bodies.  

However, on the ground in South Africa the revolution continues to play itself out.  It was announced today that Mamphela Ramphele has become the head of the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition to Jacob Zuma's ANC, which is perhaps a different animal than the ANC of the struggle.  Ramphele was Steve Biko's partner, her cred is enormous, as an activist and as a now wealthy mining executive, doctor and World Bank director.  

Rodney Place in a 2012 essay about the place of the artist in post-revolutionary times, speaks about the relativism of the word 'freedom'.  In the balance between control, as seen in the limits of how and how much the artist can speak, and actual freedom historically charted in other revolutionary times, control has all the weight: the more weighty the control, the more rapier-like the tiny artist must be.  But only if the artists are up to it, and for this, they must be uncorruptable, immune to such things as  fame, market, comfort and the refuge of apoliticism.  Ha.  

The occasion of this essay was Brett Murray's 2012 exhibition in Cape Town, Hail to the Thief II, a collection of vicious satirical pieces that rant on the venality of current South African political culture.  The exhibition evidently was the site of public protests against such a critique, and it was to this that Place's essay responds.  

Revolutions betrayed are tragic, no less so in South Africa than in North Africa and the Middle East.  The Arab Spring has turned into a geography of proxy war on a dozen fronts.  Rodney Place excoriates artists who, as he says,  'want revolutions but we usually prefer being left alone to make art.'  Can art be the gun?  A romantic idea; when it happens it reveals polarities covered by other more pervasive mythologies. 

Thursday
Jan232014

more flight paths

Murder of Crows from Dennis Hlynsky on Vimeo.

Dennis Hlynsky, who teaches at RISD, has a number of these small films on his website. His post, 'murmuration of starlings' outlines how he does it all technically.
After watching these videos for a while you start to recognise slow hops from wire to wire and swift flashes across the sky.  Presumably each trail is visible for the same time in these films – clearly some birds are lazy little laggards. Or maybe just tired.

data in data out from Dennis Hlynsky on Vimeo.

Wednesday
Jan222014

un autre monde, 2014

Flight data provided by FlightStats

This is an interactive site about 100 years of aviation.  Click on the image to go to the whole site: there are various pages, graphs, historic photos and projections, but the most magical is the world shining with route paths. 

Tuesday
Jan212014

Le monde au temps des surrealistes, 1929

Variétés - Le Surréalisme en 1929 Print, Illustrated book, photomechanical reproduction, letterpress 25.2 h x 17.8 w cm National Gallery of Australia

'Le monde au temps des surrealistes', published by Breton in 1929 to show the parts of the world important to the surrealists: the places, named by country, tend to be those with aboriginal art, the operative word being original.  Thus Europe, the United States, sites of a kind of universal western culture and product, do not figure.  

Jean Claire, in an essay on surrealist anti-materialism and non-western art, mentions the universalising tendencies in Europe at the time: the rise of Hitler's Volk, the appeal to Italian nationalism.  Politically the surrealists worked against synthesis, coordination, cultural coherence; masks and arcane rituals appealed precisely because they didn't understand them — they couldn't be appropriated by bourgeois culture.  

This is an 80-year old anti-globalisation map.  It is also the opposite of anthropology that seeks to understand the non-Western world.  The surrealists did not want to understand other cultures, it was important that there were other cultures. Can that be said, eighty years on?  As a child, David Bailey had read about Nagaland – a very obscure part of India on the Burmese border, and had always wanted to go there.  He went, eventually, in 2012 and found kids with iPhones and jeans and the elders living a thousand-year old life in their heads: when they go, it will go too.

Look up Naga people on wikipedia, one finds a struggle for statehood, a desire for autonomy, the predictable results of colonisation – that insistence that all peoples come under some central authority that they then have to spend much blood and many years to undo.  The surrealist map of the world isn't an exercise in sentimental preservation of innocent cultures, rather it can be seen as a map of the post-WWI periphery.  The south consists of islands and archipelagoes: a metaphor, contradictory, for the surrealist movement itself. 

Monday
Jan202014

Paul Nash: Wittenham Clumps, 1943-4

Paul Nash. Wittenham Clumps, 1943-4. oil and pencil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 29 3/4 inches. Tate T04157

The Tate catalogue entry says this sketch is one of Nash's rare unfinished paintings that he saved, then goes on to point out what it wrong with it: the curved shape in the centre is too large for the sun or moon, too precise for a cloud, probably the beginning of a parachute; abandoned as unsatisfactory.  But he didn't paint over it, so it must have said something to him worth retaining.  

The trees on the top of the hill he had painted in 1914, revisiting it in the mid-thirties and again in the mid-forties.  The trees sit like a fort on the rise, or pillboxes, or gun emplacements: this was the middle of the war. Was it possible to view a landscape after two wars as anything but strategic terrain? Was this painting left unfinished as the curved shape had entered the painting as an unwelcome visitor?  Nash was a surrealist: the curved shape doesn't have to be anything other than some harbinger of dread.  Perhaps he couldn't go on with it.

It reminds me of Man Ray's Observatory Time, a painting done in the 1930s where Lee MIller's lips float in a mackerel sky, and used here in 1936 in a photocollage of nude and chessboard.  There were no rules, however lots of people still try to tell us what things 'represent'.  They represent nothing accessible, but they do tell us things.

Man Ray. Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936Very curiously, Paul Nash has come my way twice recently.  One contributor to On Site review 31: cartography + photography, Robin Wilson, found us through a post I'd done on Nash (the surrealism of ordinary things) in 2010, and Will Craig is writing a piece on the contradictions of modernism and nationalism as found in Paul Nash's work.  The time must be right to look at Nash again. 

Friday
Jan172014

Wang Shu: Geometry and Nature, 2011

Wang Shu's lecture when he was Harvard's GSD Kenzo Tange Professor in 2011.  Almost two hours, it shows the difference between someone who is deeply embedded in a culture with a thousand-year old relationship between landscape and occupation, and our immigrant multiculturalism, dislocated from any sort of visceral understanding of either the past or landscape, and easily captured by ephemera.  

Clearly he is distressed by the last twenty years of extreme development in China; traditionally there were no architects and planners, just builders within a system of landscape and landscape interpretation by poets and scholars.  It explains Wang Shu's practice completely: he is not an architect, he is Chinese. 

Thursday
Jan162014

Wang Shu: Ningbo History Museum, 2008

Wang Shu, Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, China, 2008. Photographer: Fernando Guerra, Project 679, FG+SG fotografia de arquitectura

Wang Shu, Amateur Architecture Studio, Hangzhou, Zhejiang.  When most of China seems to be the playground of capitalist architectural excess: an excess of ambition and money, the new China seemingly free of inhibiting content, we have Wang Shu, whose statement of intent on his website reads:

I design a house instead of a building. The house is the amateur architecture approach to the infinitely spontaneous order.
Built spontaneously, illegally and temporarily, amateur architecture is equal to professional architecture. But amateur architecture is just not significant.

One problem of professional architecture is, that it thinks too much of a building. A house, which is close to our simple and trivial life, is more fundamental than architecture. Before becoming an architect, I was only a literati. Architecture is part time work to me. For one place, humanity is more important than architecture while simple handicraft is more important than technology.
The attitude of amateur architecture, - though first of all being an attitude towards a critical experimental building process -, can have more entire and fundamental meaning than professional architecture. For me, any building activity without comprehensive thoughtfulness will be insignificant.


Ningbo History Museum is built from tiles, brick, concrete and stone, salvaged from other buildings, sites of collapse, rubble: each piece comes with a fragment of history and unrepeatable form, giving an elasticity to its use: fit is unpredictable but follows very old techniques.  There is a patience both to assembly and to the concept as a whole: the building evolves from its materials.  

When one thinks that the Great Leap Forward only happened in 1958, the Cultural Revolution  in 1966 and the economic reforms in 1978, it is possible that Wang Shu is reclaiming China's deep past — not historicism, but a sophisticated historical thinking.  

Wang Shu, Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, China, 2008. Photographer: Fernando Guerra, Project 679, FG+SG fotografia de arquitectura

Tuesday
Jan142014

the silence of the labs

Silence of the Labs, Fifth Estate. CBC 12 January 2014.

Lyndon MacIntyre on the closing of environmental research labs across Canada, 45 minutes.  Science in support of particular policy decisions okay, such as the oil sands. Science that studies pollution, deep arctic history, health of people and waters – no longer deemed important.  

As Neil Young is saying this week, 'we are trading the integrity of Canada for money': close the libraries, fire the scientists, forget researched anthropological history: throw money at the War of 1812 and the Franklin Expedition, two British projects, the first before Canada was even an entity, the second a failure.  The Museum of Civilisation becomes the Museum of History as seen through the lens of Canadian war, something one would think was already covered by the Canadian War Museum.  Subsequent problems of contemporary wars such as the suicide epidemic of ex-Afghanistan veterans, the cutting of veterans' benefits -- these things are not easily rewritten as our glorious war record, so forget them.

What kind of country have we become? 

Monday
Jan132014

the air that I breathe – Abdulnasser Gharem: Flora and Fauna, 2007

Flora and Fauna by Abdulnasser Gharem from Installation Magazine on Vimeo.

I would say this tree had been pollarded, pleached and trimmed. 

Friday
Jan102014

Pleaching

Pleached hornbeam: Carpinus betulus

More ways to make a tree not look like itself.  Pleaching, more or less, is where a hedge is elevated on bare tree trunks, to provide shade or privacy while leaving the ground plane free.  How it differs from pollarding is that branches above a certain point are bent and interwoven, much like an espalier, so that the individual crown is lost, and all the crowns work together to form a solid whole.  

Invariably, the images for all these ways of using and reshaping trees come from Europe, and Britain in particular, from classic avenues to agricultural hedges.  Space is tight, people are close, edges must be maintained, land marked.  It is almost a form of manners, necessary to the functioning of civility.

But we don't do it that way here.  I live in an old inner city neighbourhood with a picket fence.  Twenty years ago, the entire street had picket fences, one by one they have been removed, and new infills don't do fences at all.  It seems a suburban kind of thing: no front fences, your front yard bleeding out onto the road, little delineation between private and public realms.  But nobody uses their front yards anyway, so perhaps it doesn't matter.  Prairie city hedges tend to be the ubiquitous caragana which can take a good four feet off each side of your lot, eight feet sorely missed.  I've never seen one such hedge pleached; however, my hedges are now on notice: pleaching ahead.  

We seem strangely reluctant to shape nature – is it a North American new city thing?  Simply planting something is enough, then we let it go.  Our relationship with trees and bushes is quite laissez-faire until the tree becomes annoying and it is chopped down altogether.  What a relationship.  I like you till you become too big then I'll kill you. 

Thursday
Jan092014

Pollarding

Pollarded willows

More ways to torture trees. Coppicing was for woodlands where new shoots are easily harvested, springing as they do from ground level. Pollarding is similar except that the original tree trunk is cut off at 8-10 feet high.  This was used where the land was used for grazing and new shoots at ground level would be grazed off.  
Stobbing is when you cut a tree off at head height and so do not have to use a ladder.  Ancient practices these, all meant to control the height of a tree to lessen the shade cast by a large canopy, to structurally strengthen the tree by reducing the proportion of canopy to trunk girth, or to provide easily accessible building materials.

Both coppicing and pollarding are finding new life in permaculture management of biomass, but pollarding's longer history is, like coppicing, that of harvesting even, small-diameter trunks off an existing and vigorous root system. This is incredibly ugly looking in the winter – massacred stumps, and when in leaf, extremely formal, pollarding being one of the methods used to control avenues of trees in nineteenth century gardens.  When you think of it, it is rather like turning tree trunks into pilotis: the open ground plane, buildings floating above. 

1913: pollarded elms, ten each side, on the avenue to Christchurch Priory, Dorset. They succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease and were felled in 1975. The local history article from which this photograph has been taken seems to think it a good thing, the avenue masked the architecture of the priory, which now sits baldly on its bare lawn. No one cared to replant the avenue. Local history societies have a lot to answer for.

Wednesday
Jan082014

Coppicing

Coppiced lime, Dunwich Heath, England.

Why do I feel I need to know about coppicing?  Because trees grow, often in the wrong places in a small yard, and one must do something about them or they will take out your foundation.  

We are a country of forests and timber, most of which goes for dimensional lumber and pulp.  However, in countries with hardwood forests, ancient forests that have cohabited with centuries of settlement, forests are managed.  

Coppicing is where a single-trunk tree which normally would fractally divide and subdivide from tree trunk to twig, is cut off at the base allowing shoots to sprout from the still-living roots.  These shoots differ from the original tree trunk, in that there are many of them, they are thin and straight and, because of the vigour of the root system, literally shoot up without dividing.  Then they are harvested, which is interesting, as there was, and is, a need for straight pieces for rails, poles; whippy shoots for wickerwork: this is using wood without re-shaping it in a mill.  

A coppiced tree can last for centuries, perpetually young if harvested regularly with none of the shoots actually allowed to mature into a full tree.  I'm sure there is a rather brutal metaphor there, if one cared to work it out.  It is a dying practice, the need for hop-poles and thatching spars sadly diminished.  Ray Arnatt once showed me his car from the 1920s he'd brought from England when he emigrated, which had a wooden frame and was sheathed in painted canvas: the frame was bentwood, like bentwood chairs, steamed into shape.  This would have been coppiced wood, probably ash — strong and inviolate, the integrity of the whole cross-section of a tree complete.

In comparison, our clear cut treatment of softwood forests seems shockingly impatient.  It is a habit we do not investigate, perhaps because we don't inhabit our forests with any kind of intimacy, they are a hinterland to our cities or our agricultural territories, a backdrop we don't know very well.   Aboriginal peoples knew the forests well, they had those centuries of cohabitation, but the proportion of people to trees was low.  There were many trees they did not know individually either.  

But we have the tools and technology to harvest full trees and make them into any kind of shape we want – it is a luxury of excess product and we are profligate with it.

Tuesday
Jan072014

Elizabeth Jane Howard: 1923-2014

Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman, ca 1950A photo of the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard with Robert Aickman in 1950 or so, co-writing a book of  stories, We Are For the Dark, published in 1951.  

Elizabeth Jane Howard, who died on the 2nd of January at 90, was known for her precise delineation of English domesticity during WWII, and secondarily for her middle career marriage to Kingsley Amis whose loud reputation completely swamped hers.  Hilary Mantel said last week that Howard had been unreasonably sidelined as a writer of small domestic dramas – after all, even Hamlet is about families.  
The twentieth century was alternatively liberating and repressive for women: suffrage achieved, access to education allowed, professions opened (a very tiny bit); one could get there, but one couldn't get ahead.  

I thought I'd re-read the Cazalet books, four published in the 1990s, and one published last year; the Calgary Public Library, one of the largest in the country, has just two of the series, not the new one and many versions in large print, indicating that someone has deemed Elizabeth Jane Howard as reading for elderly ladies.  How can one break into such an obdurate mindset?  And why, I ask, in 2014 should we have to?

Friday
Jan032014

a jewel in Ethiop's ear

Amharic music of Ambassel, by Bahiru Kegne. 

The comments on the YouTube placement tell of a lonely Ethiopian diaspora who hear this music directly in their hearts.  Another video of terrible audio quality, low resolution, moves one to tears in some sort of empathy.

More at www.ethiofekade.net/Ambassel

Monday
Dec302013

el nido de las horas

George Herriman, Tic Toc. click on the image for a large version.

Tuesday
Dec242013

gentle light that wakes me

Ian Drever and Duncan Chisholm, live, terrible audio, not much to look at, but a beautiful piece for Christmas week. 

all the best to you all.

The Gentle Light that Wakes Me, written by Phil Cunningham.

2008 Orkney Folk Festival.

Monday
Dec232013

Christmas, rough

Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

should be accompanied by the Pogues:

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