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Entries in material culture (127)


RCAF colours

H M the King inspecting aircraft, Thorney Island. Lambert & Butler's Cigarettes: Interesting customs and traditions of Navy, Army & Air Force. 1939, set of 50.

The RAF uniform was designed in 1920: capacious pockets, belted, long, deep vents, well-proportioned: it made everyone look tall. The service dress, above, remained unchanged until the 1960s.  All the Commonwealth air forces: the RCAF, RAAF, RNZAF, RSAAF had the same uniforms, nice smooth dark grey-blue worsted, unlike the scratchy army, evidently. The caps were quite amazing: they unfold to make a balaclava of sorts.

RCAF tartanThe RCAF tartan was invented in 1942, supposedly on PEI, probably at the Summerside base.  The CO of the base, nameless in the DND account, designed the tartan using red, blue and black pencils.  I like this very much: ordinary pencils were black graphite; red and blue leads, often in one pencil, were traditionally used in accounting, so the colours come from just general office equipment.  How very modest, to work within the limitations of one's desk.

Although one can buy the above muffler from something called Heritage Brands, the image on the DND website is more how I remember it — more like a pencil drawing:

The Air Force Tartan, August 15, 1942


Alesia II


Bernard Tschumi. Alesia Museum, Burgundy, France, 2011.

This Tschumi drawing of Alesia looks like a Roman bracelet flung onto the ground a long time ago, grass and weeds growing through it.  There is something about this project that keeps raising these images of decorative precious adornments.

Bracelets, Roman Britain, buried in the 5th century AD, now in the British Museum. 
Found at Hoxne, Suffolk in 1992. Alongside approximately 15,000 coins were many other precious objects, buried for safety at a time when Britain was passing out of Roman control.


Tschumi's Alesia

Bernard Tschumi Architects. Alesia Museum, Burgundy, France 2011

Bernard Tschumi's interpretive centre for the battle of Alesia, 52 BC, where Julius Caesar's army surrounded Vercingetorix's Gauls: the site, in Burgundy, has this building referencing Roman wood fortifications, and will eventually have a second stone building up a hill, referencing the besieged Gauls. 

The battle was actually a long freeze: Caesar's troops circled the base of the plateau with 18km of 4m high fortifications, blockading the garrison of 80,000 soldiers at the top.  Vercassivellaunus, Vercingetorix's cousin attacked the Roman fortifications with 60,000 men, but Caesar's forces held the line.  Aside from the delight in typing the wonderful names of the Gauls, it occurs to me that these were very large armies, in modern terms the size of the Canadian Forces in total.

Caesar's eventual victory marked the end of Celtic power in what is now the territory from France and Belgium to northern Italy.

The exterior screen of Tschumi's Alesia museum is wood, the shape and pattern bring to mind the Greek key meander tiara of Alice of Battenburg: there is something both victorious and celebratory about this circlet sitting on the Burgundian plains.  Its pattern puts the screen into motion, it dazzles.  

Tiara of Princess Alice of Battenburg, circa 1903, her marriage to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark.

From their fortress the Gauls could see the Roman encirclement, which would have been nothing as solid as this single-point museum, thus the museum roof has been turfed as a displaced ground plane to indicate the original view from the Gallic heights. 
The roof planted with trees and shrubs is also a reminder of helmets with leaves and branches stuck into a netted cover as camouflage: a military strategy as old as war and still in use.

Image from from the Axis Reenactment Forum, where hot battles rage over reenactments that put Italians into German camo and vice versa


making a kilt

I did this once.  It was quite hard.


signs of patience

Calgary, August 2011

Someday, when you have lots and lots of time and absolutely nothing else to do, and a great bag of finishing nails you know you will never use, you can make a number plate for your garage like this one.


the MacLean's method

The MacLean’s method of handwriting. 
H. B. Maclean, Victoria, c. 1921. Developed in Victoria by educator H. B. MacLean between 1921 and 1964, the MacLean method was used across Canada as the official handwriting method in schools, particularly in the Maritimes, parts of Quebec, Manitoba, and BC. Sources
Text: Shirley Cuthbertson’s “H.B. MacLean’s Method of Writing” in BC Historical News
Photo: Allan Collier Collection

It all looks very odd now, but this is how I was taught: pages of O's done moving your whole arm sliding over the desk with ease.  Practice makes perfect, and perfect was entirely without character or identity.  When I looked at Jack Layton's wacky little fillips on his highly legible signature – well, this was usually  the only place that individuality was added (much later in life than elementary school) to this relentless, flattened commercial script.  

One could completely change one's writing style, especially if one went into architecture where you either did drafting printing for the rest of your life, or went to some sort of arty italic calligraphic script.  But now, most people don't write at all, except blurted little shopping lists or illegible signatures at the bottom of a VISA bill.

Writing is like drawing, something we don't often do much either these days, preferring to cobble images together with Illustrator and Photoshop – activities that engage a completely different part of the brain than drawing, on paper, with a curious instrument holding either ink or graphite, in the hand. 


june loves geoff

Tiny, tiny message, pencil on brick, seemingly indelible. 

Who has been named June since 1946? Geoff spelled the English way. The J and the G as taught by the MacLean's Compendium of Penmanship.  This on the side of Sevenoaks Court, a commodious brick mansion block in east Calgary. 

Where do these impulses to speak the hidden in public come from, these declarations of selfhood?  This one so small and so easily overlooked, but so permanent. 


auto courts

T U Auto Court, Cache Creek, BC. postcard, late 1930s.

Auto courts preceded the motel, or motor hotel of the 1950s, and followed rough and ready camping with a car in the 1920s.  They weren't always out in nature, like campsites are today, rather they generally in town: in Nanaimo the U-Court, still standing but as very low-income rental cabins, was right off the Island Highway in what is considered today to be the inner city.  
They were individual little cabins with a central building for laundry, exorbitant groceries, toilets.  I've stayed in many over the years from Nova Scotia to California.  A famous one, the 2400 on Kingsway in Vancouver, is being embedded into an area redevelopment plan, as is McMorran's Auto Court in Cordova Bay, a fairly toney part of Victoria.

McMorran's Auto Court, Cordova Bay, Victoria, BC. 1939 postcard. City of Calgary Archives. M001201. Plan for the Sunshine Auto Court on Elbow River, 1940
This drawing (click to enlarge) is of an auto court on the Elbow River right by the Exhibition Grounds, now the Stampede. It had it all: gas pump, store, tent space, trailer bays, cabins single and joined, lots of play space, sunshine and, of course, the beautiful Elbow River. 

There were many auto courts lining MacLeod Trail, eventually joined up to make little motels – the last demolished just a couple of years ago. This is too bad.  I once was put up in an auto court in Austin, Texas which had been transformed into a boutique auto court.  The central parking lot was a pool and garden, the cabins had become terribly elegant. 

Americans do this kind of nostalgia for their romantic mid-twentieth century past so very well.  It is all one with wearing faded levi's with a $2000 blazer – the Ralph Laurenisation of a nation's recent history.  For striving cities such as Calgary, history is something to be eagerly erased, as if the intimacy of the auto court for travellers in a big city is somehow too close to a less affluent past.


promises of 1957

unnamed fridge, circa 1950

from Thomas Lux, New Poems.  Mariner, 1999

Refrigerator, 1957

More like a vault -- you pull the handle out
and on the shelves: not a lot,
and what there is (a boiled potato
in a bag, a chicken carcass
under foil) looking dispirited,
drained, mugged. This is not
a place to go in hope or hunger.
But, just to the right of the middle
of the middle door shelf, on fire, a lit-from-within red,
heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
shining red in their liquid, exotic,
aloof, slumming
in such company: a jar
of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
full, fiery globes, like strippers
at a church social. Maraschino cherries, maraschino,
the only foreign word I knew. Not once
did I see these cherries employed: not
in a drink, nor on top
of a glob of ice cream,
or just pop one in your mouth. Not once.
The same jar there through an entire
childhood of dull dinners -- bald meat,
pocked peas and, see above,
boiled potatoes. Maybe
they came over from the old country,
family heirlooms, or were status symbols
bought with a piece of the first paycheck
from a sweatshop,
which beat the pig farm in Bohemia,
handed down from my grandparents
to my parents
to be someday mine,
then my child's?
They were beautiful
and, if I never ate one,
it was because I knew it might be missed
or because I knew it would not be replaced
and because you do not eat
that which rips your heart with joy.


fiat 500: 1957

 another little bit of Italy on this sunny August day:

 So nimble, so little, so clever.  The irony is that Fiat now owns Chrysler, which in 1957 was doing this:


I think I'll take Italy.



My house was built in 1929.  When I got it the back yard was lawn from picket fence to picket fence.  It is now stuffed with biomass: apple trees, carraganas, roses, raspberries, peonies - the prairie gardener's friend, lilacs, little pieces of lawn for the dogs.   Still, and this is after 30 years of a lot of digging for vegetable patches and for moving things around, one cannot stick a fork in the ground without turning up a marble.   
Not surprisingly, given that playing marbles mostly involves shooting marbles into holes in the ground, many are lost, only to turn up decades later clutched by roots and earthworms.

Of those found in my yard, some are quite old, a couple are clay, most are well worn. When I was little, crystals were really special but now, with my collection of back yard marbles, I quite like the china ones – the ones that look like china rather: white glass with fat slashes of colour. I suppose if one was a marble archaeologist one could date them, but I think the marble playing heyday started to wane by the late 1960s.

I was rubbish at playing marbles, never really got the game.  It was also the new postwar era of marketting toys to children: bolo bats, hula hoops: cheap toys with built in obsolescence.  Marbles, clearly, are indestructible, subversive anti-consumer products. Their only problem was in getting lost.


chat noir


I seem to recall that the paper sleeve this came in said it was le chat méfiant, or perhaps just méchant, whatever, it is meant to keep birds off the fraises.  Bought in Paris, it has hung in my yard for 30 years. It doesn't work that well, certainly not against magpies who are proving very adept at clipping off tomatoes this year.  It now hangs in the front window to prevent sparrows from braining themselves as they try to fly through it.  


mediterranean blue

The thin papery string used to tie up elegant little boxes of pastries about 20 years ago in Barcelona. It always matched the packaging and the signage in the shop itself.

The tape is actually ten fine threads wide, held together with a thin wash of starch – a really simple product, so important to the sensibility of the city.




circa 1975. 

ref. historic connection between France and Russia.

Jean-Pierre Leaud in a Shaggy Dog, a particularly irreplaceable shetland sweater worn in Paris in the 70s.

Jean Eustache's La Maman et la Putain of 1973.

no cares.




Clearing out my garage I found a box of stuff from 1984 when I first set off teaching, throwing everything in the house into either the basement or the garage before I rented it out.  Some boxes never bear looking at, but sometimes they surprise.  

I found 5 Brasso tins,  2 Silvos, a bottle of blueing and a box of starch.  I must have been an obsessive housekeeper at one time.  This Brasso tin appears so heroic, imperial, brave; nothing like the version we get now.  I would have bought it at the corner store, Chinese-run, pressed tin ceiling, next door to the Inglewood Café, Chinese-run, pressed tin ceiling, both found in every neighbourhood and every small town in western Canada.   The corner store today is Suzie Q's beads, and the café is the Spice Road Merchant. Such are the perils of gentrification, and we can't buy a quart of milk in this neighbourhood unless it is organic and $5/litre.

Brasso was made by Reckitt and Colman in Montreal.  Colman was the mustard company and Reckitt was the starch manufacturer.  How do I know such things?  They are just there in my childhood memory of household packaging.  It is curious when one finds that such artefacts look so old, from some other historic era.  1984 wasn't that long ago, it isn't as if this tin was from the 1920s, but somehow I don't think the design had changed much – there is a British Empire feel to it.  

The knurled lid is a nice touch.  There is a whole industry reproducing such tins – a Restoration Hardware sort of product, making our domestic lives more interesting in this era of photoshopped and illustratored graphics.  I doubt the repro tins come with Brasso in them. 


Eduardo Paolozzi: lil dolink

British Museum Press, 1985

While I was looking up the history of the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh yesterday, I found it contains a large number of works by Eduardo Paolozzi, who was born in Leith in 1924.  Italians in small Scottish and Irish towns — it is a culture that includes Paolo Nutini, born in Paisley, a third generation of Italian-Scots and hopefully more accepted than those of Paolozzi's generation who were interned at the start of WWII.  Paolozzi's grandfather, uncle and 446 other internees died when the ship taking them to internment camps in Canada was sunk by a U-boat.

However, Eddy Paolozzi, maker of collages, dense works of many layers, assembled the Krazy Kat Arkive, thousands of items that represent popular culture, the machine age and the iconography of the hero, and gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It is all of a piece with his collages: assemblages that act as archives, illogical collections of diverse things assembled within a certain era.  He once was given free rein in the Ethnography Museum in London, to take things from the collections and to curate an exhibit from them, in which he intervened with material of his own.  I saw this – it was in the mid-1980s, with an accompanying book, Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl.  Not dissimilar to Picasso's discovery of artifacts at the Trocadéro in Paris in 1907, it is the kind of appropriation of cultural  property that can't be done today; the material culture of the world is not curious material for the making of European art.  

But there is an enchantment in looking at things that through one's own ignorance are pure sensual form without a cultural reading.  Lost Magic Kingdoms was perhaps the last instance of this, not that Paolozzi was unaware of cultural meaning, but he was a sculptor whose work used component parts according to different rules.  Krazy Kat rules.  

George Herriman. Detail of a Sunday page in which Ignatz, disguised as a painting, hurls a brick at Krazy Kat who interprets it as an expression of love. Published November 7, 1937


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.


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.


telling stories

Women at the Ndebele Cultural Village, Loopspruit, Gauteng, South Africa 1999

I was looking for a picture of handprints used as decoration around the doorway of a mud brick house somewhere in Africa, stuccoed and painted by women.  Clear in my mind, can't find the image anywhere.  

On the way, found plenty of information on Ndebele house painting. This is a case of cultural coding that describes family values and histories passed down matrilineally (as the women did the house painting) that was completely opaque to the colonists.  It is like having great billboards for resistance movements in a covert language that is, in the meantime, very decorative and so considered harmless.   Also probably considered benign as it was smiling women doing it.

So many forms of cultural expression were banned in the colonial era if there was a hint of subversion to them or if they simply were not understood: the outlawing of the Salish potlach – something threatening about power and property there, the outlawing of sati – undue sacrifice of Hindu women to their husbands, outlawing of Blackfoot initiation dances – violent and frightening.  Many of these things go underground and reappear as entertainments, living on often as performances for tourists but still speaking, under the radar, to those who understand what they really mean.

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