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Entries in material culture (127)


hand prints

Bridal mehndi

The fingerprint, the handprint, somehow we feel they make us unique.  However, nothing is like the henna designs on hands, arms and feet found at a Muslim wedding.  I think the picture above is a traditional Pakistani design, a tradition that has exploded across cultures, subject to fashion trends, co-opted by all and sundry as a kind of temporary tattoo.  Arabic designs look to me more like Victorian lace fingerless mittens.  Modern fashions seem to tilt towards floral sprays scrolling away over the body. 

There are zillions of mehndi sites.  The one the picture comes from (above) gives us a look at the extreme decorativeness of Pakistani, Indian and Arabian wedding jewellery, saris and mehndi: ornate, elaborate, fanciful, arduous to produce, signs of great attention and no doubt wealth.

It is all about the hand, our interface with the world, the holder of our fortunes.  The good luck khamsa of Morroco, below, is at once a handprint, a mehndi hand and a hand held up to warn off misfortune.

Morrocan khamsa charm


more identity

Yves St Laurent. Fingerprint necklace, 2011.

Well, what have we got here? 
Issues of identity are in the air. 



Alabaster windows, San Paolo fuori le Mura
, Rome. 13th Century

Alabaster windows – a search for images has taken me to some very odd tourist sites, but never mind, these windows seem quite wonderful.  This is the tradition from which Sigmar Polke drew, adding colour from stained glass traditions.  Before glass there was alabaster, before church windows as text.  



Laurence Whistler

Laurence Whistler. Engraved windows at St Nicholas Church, Moreton, DorsetLaurence Whistler, 1912-2000, younger brother of the more well-known Rex Whistler, was a glass engraver who, over 30 years, engraved all the windows of St Nicholas Church at Moreton in Dorset.  This church is also more well-known as the place that T E Lawrence was buried in 1935. 

The church itself is delicate, built in 1776 in a Georgian form of Gothic, it was hit when a German bomber jettisoned its load, blowing out all the windows. The engraved windows are equally delicate, like frost patterns.  There is little florid glory in these windows, but much that is elegaic. 

The double readings that one gets through engraved glass renders the world outside the church as the backdrop to all that is held within the Church.  Like Sigmar Polke, who said 'I can accept the power of nature as religious' Whistler, in dreary postwar Britain broke away from the stained glass tradition which screens the world but allows in a redemptive light. After two world wars and the loss of two generations of artists, to pursue the stained-glass tradition redemptive polychromed light must have felt, to Whistler, unreasonably bombastic.  Thus these windows, which ask little of the congregant other than to register a pale, persistent nature-based faith. 

The Whistler windows, ca 1950-80. St Nicholas, Moreton


the Jompy

David Osborne. The Jompy water heater.This was one of the entries into the Shell World Challenge last year.  It is very clever: a flat coil of hardened aluminum alloy, like a flat skillet, that sits between the fire and the cooking pot.  What looks like a handle is attached to water, cold or contaminated which circulates through the coil, is heated and comes out of the other end of the coil hot and boiled. 

Although in use in South Africa, Kenya and India, in theory it is the same as the hot water on demand burners which are slowly replacing the elephantine hot water tank that lurks in most basements.  The Jompy is much more minimal however, and consequently more adaptable to different conditions and uses. 
David Osborne, a plumber and gas fitter from Troon in Scotland was on his honeymoon in a water-challenged part of Africa and figured out this inexpensive way of boiling water with fire already doing some other task such as cooking food. 

The website, is a bit cumbersome, but all the information is there, plus various videos, including the World Challenge introduction

David Osborne. The Jompy in demonstration in Kenya by Celsius Solar's enthusiastic representative, Kalfan Okoth, just reminding everyone that this is a Scottish product.


Sarajevo Survival Tools 

Isak Albahrij's Oven, 1992.The Sarajevo survival tools project is both an exhibition and a virtual archive of the tools, implements and re-inventions from the Sarajevo siege of 1992-1996. 

Seige, whether by war as in the 3-year seige of Leningrad or by sanctions as in the last forty years for Cuba or by environmental disaster as is now unfolding in Japan, means a lack of everything: food, water, medicine, fuel.  It shouldn't be that total deprivation makes people creative, but it does. 

Sarajevo survival tools run from the watering can made out of a cooking oil tin delivered as humanitarian aid,  to a sat phone left behind by fleeing UN workers and quickly appropriated.  There is a double-barrelled rifle, minimal in the extreme, and a hand crank flashlight made out of a bicycle lamp.  This isn't a return to primitive technology, many of the materials are taken from electronic equipment and re-engineered with considerable sophistication.  However, even making an oven out of an aluminum drum results in an object that sustains life and therefore is necessarily beautiful.

Isak Albahrij's Oven, 1992.



Azzedine Alaïa, 2008


distressed fabric

  Joseph Beuys. Felt Suit, 1970. Felt, 1700 x 600 mm sculpture Tate Collection T07441Shelley Fox and scorching fabric reminded me of Beuys's use of felt: distressed fibres for one reason or another, aesthetic or metaphoric.  The material of construction is changed in some way, not just the form. 

As architects we tend to use material as it comes to us, at most the colour changes.  A long time ago , so I don't even know if it was recorded but the idea was a powerful one and so persists, Wally Mays, a Calgary sculptor, built a wall out of warped 2 x 4 studs.  It curved, it leant, its form was entirely dependent on the natural tendency that thin pieces of wood have to bend.  It was a lovely thing.

Joseph Beuys told the story often of his winter rescue in the Crimea during WWII by nomadic Tatars who covered him in fat and wrapped him in felt: felt was protection, life-giving, dense and felted with meaning. 
Shelley Fox found the qualities of fabric burned in machinery, something that could normally cause the operator his job, gratuitously more interesting than perfect production.  Somehow the materials are given a history of making, a history of use, a social and cultural history that, if one wanted to deconstruct them, simply add more layers of meaning to the form such fabrics make.

There appears to be an interest in both abraded material and form – Oikos  and Jellyfish, the theatres made of scraps and pallettes as examples.  I wonder if this is a harbinger of an architecture interested in material processes and a collaborative understanding of materials which might lead to a different understanding of a building's deep context.


Nicole Dextras 2

Nicole Dextras. Nylon-arm-dress-light, 2010

Some new work from Nicole Dextras.  On her website she talks about this winter ephemera series, garments frozen in ice, as an investigation into 'nature’s capacity for stability and its capacity for flux: ice is imbued with this sense of duality, the work questions whether such pairings ultimately exist in symbiosis or in contradiction'.

All garments exist in both symbiosis and contradiction with the body, climate, weather, time.  Symbiosis in that we support garments, we are their armature.  Contradiction in that garments have all the immanence that has long preoccupied Peter Eisenman.  That immanence is autonomous, auto-directed. 

Nicole Dextras's deconstructed pieces of clothing never lose their identity, no matter how dispersed they become.  Caught in ice, they appear fugitive, but they really aren't.  They are surprisingly vivid, even durable.  


Barbara Johnson

Barbara Johnson. Album of Styles. V&A Museum.

Barbara Johnson lived between 1738 and 1825 and kept a record of everything she had ever worn with drawings, swatches of fabric and notes.  This is the span from Handel's Serce to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, i.e. in that vague past that we never seem to synchronise.  

If you go year by year on Wikipedia for Canada, in 1738 it didn't exist, but smallpox had reached the prairies, and La Vérendrye was still working his way downstream from what would be Winnipeg.  Primitive, very distant.  By 1835, Canada still didn't exist, but the Irish poor had started to arrive.  By 1830, a flu epidemic hit many of the first nations in BC: the Fraser Canyon people disappeared completely. 

Meanwhile, Barbara Johnson, a member of a genteel class in a well-developed country was recording the nuances of seams and structure, textiles and line, and writing her own biography in dress.  As I write about Barbara Johnson, I also wonder whether we mark our lives against a greater history, or if our own identities are really charted against the sweaters we have loved.  Mine, and I still have it, a dark camel ribbed poor-boy like Françoise Hardy's – if you think this is an obscure reference, it actually encapsulates a very rich little era of no historical account at all. The history is that Pearson went to the States and called for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam.  Both were equally identity-forming, one is known by everyone, the other history is mine alone.  Perhaps the purpose of work is not to speak, to demonstrate, to lecture, but is to sychronise such disparate histories.  


Shelley Fox

Shelley Fox. Installation, Fashion at Belsay, 2004.

Shelley Fox was one of the fashion designers invited to an exhibition at Belsay Hall, Northumbria in 2004.  She took a small anteroom, typically with a 15' ceiling as Belsay Hall is an early Georgian house.  It was built between 1810 and 1817, but so badly afflicted by dry rot by the 1970s that it was made structurally sound and then left as an empty shell.  This is why it is used for art installations, one of which is Fashion at Belsay Hall

Shelley Fox lined the walls of this small room – well, not so small, it looks about 10 x 10m and has both a beautiful sash window and a large fireplace – with bundles of white cloth representing the sheets, towels, dust covers, pillow cases, undergarments, shirts, night gowns and night shirts that went through the laundry of a typical country house with its small army of servants. 

The appearance of bundles of white cloth is transgressive: this material in this form would never have appeared upstairs.  It all had to be transformed: washed, bleached, dried, starched, ironed and folded before it could leave the nether regions for the rooms occupied by the family.  We seem to have, today, more interest in the processes of running a large house, than the occupants of the houses themselves, which over the centuries have been so very well documented. 

Shelley Fox was interviewed for Fashion Projects issue 3.   It is an interesting interview as it is not so much about fashion, but about the processes of making things, of burning cloth, of adjusting and readjusting a garment as the body underneath it changes over time.  Much of what she says is about accommodation of accident and change and the shifting of perception.  It goes way beyond frocks.


lists and letters

Juta Savage letter to Dorothy Weiss, 1984 Oct. 6. 1 item : ill. ; 36 x 43 cm. Dorothy Weiss Gallery records, [circa 1964]-2001 (bulk 1984-2000). Archives of American ArtJulia Kirwan put together Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Archives of American Art from the Smithsonian collections.  There was an exhibition of all the lists in Washington through most of last year and there is a book, published by Princeton Architectural Press.

This is a case where even a shopping list has a kind of rivetting assemblage of marks on the page.  Juta Savage's collection of teapots above is not only a letter, but also the working out of variations.  The hand is an automatic extension of the eye and mind.  This is, all artists will tell you, why they are such good snooker players. 



Mrs. F. L. Bridgeman to Fanny West, December 15, 1837. F775 (1837-10) Archives of OntarioWhen paper and postage were expensive.
The eye follows the logic of the marks: a case where the overall appearance is at odds with the details.  



Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, on the access road to Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Newspaper Rock is a curious mound, an erratic in the manner of Uluru – a mound projecting from a sandstone wall, covered in petroglyphs that range in age from 2000 to 100 years old, made by a number of groups from the Anasazi to the Navajo.  I saw this first in the mid 1980s on a driving trip to the four corners where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet, in a single point.  A surveyor's dream.  

In those days the American landscape was completely graffitied.  At the time in Canada highway crews painted over all the tags beside the road with carefully matched rock-coloured paint, so in contrast US highways were very noisy with much crude writing. 

Newspaper rock seemed of a piece with all this drawing on stone; an even array of mark-making.  We have given over our ability to make drawings to a variety of professionals.  We don't write any more, everything is typed, we don't make little drawings much: graphic design and photography is so pervasive.  Graffiti on the side of railway cars is the only thing in my environment these days that is personal, hand-done, anarchic. And this is something of a shame.   We should all spend the weekend with a pencil in hand, making lots of little marks on paper.  It would be very interesting to see what it is that we actually draw. 


Afghan war rugs

Rug, Afghanistan, 2001-2007. L88cm x W64cm. knotted pile; plain woven; wool, fringed. T2008.1.38. Gift of Max Allen, Textile Museum of Canada.Unravelling the Yarns: War Rugs and Soldiers is an exhibition of Afghan war rugs from the Fyke collection at the University of Calgary, on now at Calgary's The Military Museums. 
There was a similar exhibition, Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan at Toronto's Textile Museum of Canada in 2008. A different collection, but the same kind of carpet: traditionally woven but, as Max Allen said in his curatorial essay for Battleground: 'Afghan weavers depict on their rugs what they see and what matters most to them. And so over three decades of chaos, the customary images of flowers have turned into bullets, or landmines, or hand grenades. Birds have turned into helicopters and fighter jets. Landscapes have filled up with field guns and troop carriers. Sheep and horses have turned into tanks.'

They are not rare, and although the Unravelling the Yarns notes by curator Michelle Hardy seemed to suggest that they are a form of tourist art, some of the carpets are so similar to pre-conflict carpets in their graphic form that they do appear as a personal, narrative recording of war where grenades look like flowers. 

Others are like small posters, often with the world trade centre, maps and much block printing. Or they are careful and accurate depictions of AK-47s.  One can see these as using woven traditions to make souvenirs of war, notations of the tools of war that have blasted traditional landscapes into irrelevance. 
Image on the cover of Made in Afghanistan. Rugs of Resistance, 1979-2005. Calgary: University of Calgary, Nickle Museum, 2995


Sami runic drums

Jeffrey Vallance. Sami drum, 2005This is a version of a Sami drum, made by someone in California tutored by a Swedish artist.  At first glance I thought it an interesting array of marks, modernist that I am, and thinking of the metal shutters in Portugal.  However, I saw a little surfer, and a helicopter and then I read the article about it here.

It is still visually interesting, but not quite as interesting as a real runic Sami shaman drum.  This might be a misguided search for authenticity, but here is a drum from the Schøyen Collection of Oslo.  It is a copy of a drum that had been confiscated in 1837 and now resides in Germany. 

Sami Shaman's runic drum with a central sun with four rays, a number of gods and goddesses, a Sami grave, a Shaman and his runic drum, a Sami camp with tent, dog and reindeer fence, a boat with a mast, fisherman with boat and net, a Sami hunting bear, a wolf, birds and the church of the Holy Ghost. MS in Sami on reindeer skin, Karasjok, Norway, 2005, 1 drum (runebomme), 47x31x9 cm, 45 symbols and glyphs by Berit Marie Kemi, with a drum hammer of reindeer horn with cloth head.

Oh no.  Another indigenous people plundered for a museum.  When will total repatriation of such artefacts, which aren't actually artefacts but are living things, happen?  The justification for ethnographic museums is much the same as the justification for zoos: protection of species endangered by habitat loss.  Well, yes, one of the greatest losses for indigenous peoples is the loss of their medicine bags, their totems, their drawn narratives, their spoken languages, most of which are sitting somewhere in archives in Europe.

Meanwhile Sami drums are being made in California. 



44 Great Ormond Street, London. 1740Fearsome thickets of iron railings protected houses in the London squares: a precise division between the private and public, the anarchy of the public domain and the owned.  Most of these were taken down in World War II in a drive to collect scrap metal to build tanks.  There is much discussion on WWII forums about whether the railings were ever used: they had a high carbon and sulphur content evidently, and so not that suitable for re-use.  The urban consequences were significant, all those taut blank Georgian façades without their delicate filigreed bases appear quite obdurate.  The six-foot transition between public and private that was negotiated by the railings, now takes place, abruptly, at the door itself.

Typical prairie city streets, even in the early 1980s, were completely fenced.  There was the street, then the boulevard, then the sidewalk, then the fence, then the front yard, then the door.  Calgary pickets in the 1920s and 30s when my fence was built came from the Sarcee Reserve, a three township block of land that runs from southwest Calgary 18 miles deep into the foothills, heavily forested.  Now known as the Tsuu T'ina First Nation they do other things, such as casinos and golf courses.  But earlier they supplied the whole city with firewood and fence pickets. 

Pickets aren't that available anymore.  It is easier to cut them yourself, but not as efficient.  And impossible to get some of the more elegant shapes, curved, punched and notched – doilies for the front edge of the property.  

picket fence culture. 11th Avenue, Southeast Calgary.


another measure of extinction

Anti-body snatching railings, 19th century England.

Evidently, iron railings around graves, one of which I found in a small Nicola Valley cemetery last summer, come from the era of 19th century body-snatchers and grave robbers in England.  Freshly buried bodies were regularly dug up to sell to medical schools for dissection.  Relatives would watch over the grave at night until the body had deteriorated to the point it was not worth digging up –two to three weeks. 

This is all on the Jane Austen website, 19th century social practice arcana.  So many traditions migrated to Canada leaving their particular histories behind: we are left with inexplicable material objects.  In terms of fenced graves, it was the wealthy that could afford such a fiercely protective display.  Where this occurred in the little Nicola Valley cemetery, there were two grand iron-fenced graves and then half a dozen less grand graves surrounded by wood picket fences.

The body-snatchers weren't in evidence here, but wealth was.   Granite gravestones are shockingly expensive, if you've ever had to get one.  They probably always were.  Added to cast iron fencing, it was quite a display.   I'm not sure that the dead are concerned with display, however the precision of a picket fence gives the dead some privacy and some propriety: a defence against obliteration.

St Michael's Cemetery, Nicola Valley, BC


Rosalie Gascoigne and typography

Rosalie Gascoigne. Magpie, 1998. sawn wood on wood, 55 × 54cmIt is summer, nothing is urgent, I feel a great need to stick with Rosalie Gascoigne this week.  I think about type a lot.  I wasn't trained as a graphic designer, rather I was trained as an architect in a time and at a school when graphic design was part of the tools of the trade.  Stencils, hand lettering, Letraset, those bars with the attachments for the Rapidographs that traced perfect sans-serif letters with rounded ends – pre-computers one was very busy with one's hands, one's pens and inks. 

Graphically, Kurt Schwitters said it all: subversive, obsessive, beautiful work from scraps of paper, fragments of words and letters and then he built his merzbau – subversive, obsessive, beautiful rooms full of scraps of wood painted white.  It was always about assemblage for someone trained as I was, and that is still how I see much of the world, from cities to buildings. 

However, I have just re-read an article in Eye 64 from 2007 by Jason Grant about Rosalie Gascoigne and her use of type.  Assemblage is almost incidental for him: he calls her work 'stammering concrete poetry' and asks 'Why, when typography is the assertive visual feature in Gascoigne's most emblematic work, it is never really paid much attention?  It is like discussing Picasso without African art'.   This is a typographer speaking clearly. 
What Grant does do is present Gascoigne's assemblages of pieces of signage, printed wooden crates and scraps of wood as something beyond the concrete material surface of the works. They respond to what he calls the 'fallout' of post-structuralist literary theory of the 1980s: dislocation and disruption, migration and fragmentation.  Because of this, her work is at home with the 'diffused hierarchy of interactivity where the linear conventions of written language are undermined by internet, email, hypertext and SMS'.

Well, perhaps.  They are this, and they are assemblage.  They are graphic, and they are visual fields.  They are found materials, and they are intentionally crafted.  They speak of an era when pop bottles came in wood crates stencilled with red 7-UP letters – Grant says that when Gascoigne died in 1999 her favourite materials were disappearing in favour of printed plastics.  Her work uses the materials of the mid-20th century, and she rejects the inherent nostalgia of the discarded object.


Rosalie Gascoigne

Rosalie Gascoigne, Party Piece, 1988. retro-reflective road signs on plywood, 108 × 83.5cmRosalie Gascoigne's first exhibited her work in 1974 when she was 57.  She was just of the age to have completed a BA at Auckland University before the war started after which she found herself a New Zealand war-bride married to an Australian astronomer and living in a remote scientific community north of Canberra.  Her work is made of salvaged materials, notably, road signs and packing crates, and later, construction lumber such as formwork, cut into thin slices and assembled as flat pieces.   

For all the robustness of the raw, salvaged materials, the precision with which they are cut and trimmed is incredibly delicate.

Roslyn Oxley 9 shows a wide range of her work on their website.

Rosalie Gascoigne. White City, 1993/94. wood on craftboard 110.5 × 108cm