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Entries in small things (61)


Samurai ningyo

Ningyo: samurai tradition has been celebrated on May 5 since 730 AD, originally called Tango-No-Sekku (the first day of the horse). During the Edo period of 1600-1868, the celebrations and displays by the samurai class were elaborate displays of weapons and combat; the first samurai dolls appear at the end of this period, at the beginning of the Meiji era.  The Bata Shoe Museum has a samurai doll, a ningyo much like this one, that dates from 1870.  The samurai as a military class had sidelined the emperor to figurehead status, a situation that lasted 'until 1868 when the Meiji emperor was restored to power'.  It is interesting that Bata's ningyo was created just two years later, valourising the tradition of a class that had just been demoted and its right to carry arms abolished. Originally it was only the samurai class that commissioned ningyo, however, as Japan embarked upon a long modernising process of industrialisation, they came to stand for 'pure' Japanese character and became generalised and idealised.

Samurai protected farmers: the strong protect the weak, and in turn the weak will serve the strong. This theme (according to an essay by Timothy Mertel) appears symbolically as the tiger and bamboo: the tiger protects the bamboo grove from predators, and the bamboo camouflages the tiger's lair.  This is the major tenet of Japanese feudal society.  

Our man, above, has been a fixture of my life forever, can't remember when he wasn't there – it might have been a wedding present for my parents. His sword is in a tiger skin sheath. The armour is, I think, from the Kamakura period (1185-1333): lacquered plates laced with silk and repoussé metal mounts. I'm taking this description from Mertel's piece, so far it all fits.  I've never known anything about this small figure until today.  He is wearing rather lovely cream silk jacquard bloomers.
The Bata Shoe museum describes the shoes thus: 'These samurai shoes are called tsuranuki. They are made of bear fur, which symbolises the intrinsic ferocity, strength and courage of a samurai warrior.'   

Ningyo bodies are straw with carved heads and hands covered in a crushed oyster shell paste which is then burnished and painted.  My fellow has the most delicate pale blue gloves embroidered with flowers.  His face is quite fierce, and is a particular samurai of legend, the details of which I cannot find.  

The armour: it is very interesting, and it was the flexibility of the dragon skin ceramic discs that reminded me of samurai armour: metal plates that were laced together so they moved and didn't inhibit action. 


the free wheelchair mission

free wheelchair mission's inexpensive wheelchair project

One of the critiques of things such as keepod is that access to information technology isn't a straight line to water purification, for example.  Hardly a critique I know, but I did read it.  However, there has always been a pragmatic streak in people that allows them to figure out problems and solutions – it used to be said of fellows from Saskatchewan farms that they could fix anything with wire and binder twine, a gross gender stereotype no doubt, but not a bad one.  Kids growing up on isolated farms in the early 20th century were innovative, practical, used to doing a lot with very little.  

Of course today one can look on the web to see how to fix something, but often that seems to be the blind leading the blind: just because there is an app for that doesn't mean you can actually fix the wheelbarrow wheel.  

This wheelchair costs $77.91 to manufacture and deliver.  Anyone who has dealt with our medical system and CSA approved wheelchairs knows that 'proper' wheelchairs run to thousands of dollars, and my god they are ugly. And they weigh a ton.  (Ah well, just looked up the cost of a wheelchair and you can get one for $245 at Costco.  Clearly my experience is out of date.  Gosh, here is the EZee Life™ Economy for $150.  Whatever.)

The Free Wheelchair Mission was started by a biomedical engineer in Californa who developed this wheelchair as 'a basic design at an extremely low cost to reach the highest number of disabled impoverished people in the shortest possible time'.  He uses component pieces already being manufactured in high volume, perhaps for something else: mountain bike wheels, plastic garden chairs, nuts and bolts, casters, all manufactured and flat-packed with cartoon-like instructions in China and sent off in containers to sites in need.  

Jens Thiel, in 2010, had a website loaded with photos of monobloc plastic chairs used in strange ways – I wrote about them at the time.  Thiel's site has disappeared unfortunately, but this designboom entry will do.  Is the plastic chair the cheapest and most easily found seat for a wheelchair?  Probably, but it also has a look that is not medical, which is perhaps more important.  It is a chair first, with wheels.  This seems important somehow, that one sits in a chair rather than a dark complex piece of disability kit.

Increasingly, sitting here in one of the G8/G7 countries, I feel locked into technologies that are complex, dark, inaccessible, expensive and not very nice looking.  There is a revolution going on that does not extend to the society in which I find myself. 



When I started to write these posts, in 2009, the second posting was about the Jiko stove, which I'd seen on the Shell/BBC World Challenge, an annual competition of solutions to problems in parts of the world without services, especially electricity and clean water.  There were rafts of efficient and safe braziers designed that would minimise the amount of fuel used and the smoke emitted; there were ingenious water purification solutions such as the Jompy where a water pipe ran through the stove and purified the water in the process.  There was the Sudeepa, a beautiful little glass jar with a screw on lid and flattened sides used as an oil lamp that if knocked over would not roll.  2009, the invention of devices was in full throttle.   

Gradually the Shell/BBC World Challenge changed from solutions, such as prosthetic limbs made from melted down pop cans, to something more entrepreneurial, so that now there were cooperatives that made things, such as baskets out of telephone wire, or ottomans from crochetted plastic bags, or honey from collective bee hives, that needed the competition money to get such things to market, especially foreign markets.   Projects such as these are the staple of the Thousand Villages stores, and recently, Holt Renfrew's oddly disjunctive charity-based product cabines full of interesting small things, bangles and satchels from places like India or Ghana.  

There was a shift from products to solve local problems to the marketting of local products calibrated for conscientious westerners.  World Challenge stopped running.

Now, in 2014, five years later, the most revolutionary products are technological: how to get the still developing world hooked into global systems and this is happening with lightning speed: the underbanked, 50% of the world, increasingly use mobile payment networks such as M-Pesa, a mobile network moving quickly through Africa, Afghanistan and India. The fellow living in a street market selling stuff to tourists isn't paid in cash, but through his mobile phone.  Would I know how to do this?  uh. no.  

Keepod is an IT project, developed by Nissan Bahar and Franky Imbesi in Tel Aviv.  It loads a USB flash drive with an Android 4.4 operating system that then uses any kind of discarded computer whose hard drive has been removed as a temporary facilitator.  They have separated the hardware (simple mechanics and can be shared with many people) from the software (individual and portable). This is, so far, running in Kenya – pictures of lots of children with their keepods on a cord around their necks.  In an interview, Bahar and Imbesi said that within minutes children were posting images to facebook – it isn't that the knowledge of the rest of the world is lacking, even children know what they can't do, it is the equipment that is lacking.  This is quite different from one laptop per child which requires literally millions of computers.  This requires millions of USB drives which Bahar and Imbesi feel can be sold at $7 each: $5 for the drive, $2 for the program, loaded and upgraded locally at a keepod point in a market – a new small business.   

The keepod is the latest solution to what is ultimately an equalisation of access, and is actually more nimble and sustainable than anything I see around me. 


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


christmas cakes

Puza Mandla fruit cake

It is a curious struggle to be on the right side of history.  Someone once mentioned that if everyone in France who said after the war they were in the Resistance actually had been, the war would have been much shorter.  
Something like this is happening in South Africa: evidently almost everyone was a Mandela supporter, for decades, even during apartheid.  Had that actually been true, he wouldn't have been on Robben Island for 27 years.  

The Robben Island Christmas Cake Story: depending on the source, either Mrs Brand, the wife of a warden on the political prisoner's wing, made a cake for the political prisoners each Christmas from 1985, continuing even when they all were in parliament, or Laloo Chiba, a fellow detainee, made the cake from 1978 on.  

Now, this recipe is structurally unlike anything I've ever encountered, ever.  I need a chemist to tell me how it works: a bread pudding (bread torn up, sprinkled with currants and cocoa powder) made in a round biscuit tin, but instead of eggs and milk to make it all stick together, you use puzamandla.  Puzamandla is drink made of sorghum, corn meal and yeast, so it is fermented, like sourdough starter or injera.  It was part of the Robben Island food rations, but in a very weak version.  Anyway, you pour puzamandla over the bread and raisins, let it sit 6 hours then put a plate on the top and a brick on the plate to press it all down for another 6 hours.  It isn't cooked.  It was a terrific treat.  

And for those of you who watch cooking programs, make sense of this, the new South Africa: 

Anel Poltgieter has messed around with the recipe a bit, baking a bread pudding.  But the real recipe is Laloo Chiba's from Anna Trapido's 2009 gastro-political biography, Hunger for Freedom.


piecework processes

Lorraine Pettway, born 1953. Medallion work-clothes quilt, 1974, denim and cotton/polyester blend, 84 x 68 inches.

This is a quilt made from work clothes.  Rather than linking the image to the original site, it is linked to a larger image where one can see the size of the squares that make up the colour blocks.  Blue chambray work shirts (usually from J C Penney, but Sears did them – each brand slightly different in detail and fabric) faded to this pale sky colour in the sun, leaving darker patches underneath the pockets and at the bottom of the sleeves which were usually rolled up.  They disintegrated across the back and at the elbows.  The pieces in this quilt would have been from shirts patched and mended until they could be mended no more, leaving the tails, the cuffs, collars and pockets.

Like any sort of piecing activity: dry stone walls, broken tile mosaics, quilting, each piece in the pile of material becomes intimately known for its colour, its shape, its peculiarities that allow it to fit into a greater whole.  Each piece is considered, set aside, reconsidered elsewhere, set aside and finally used in precisely the right place. In this process all the pieces become characters in the larger narrative that is the quilt, or the wall, or the floor.

This is also a process whereby the weak, the broken and the otherwise unuseable become strong.  Worn out fabric, easily torn, is stitched through a cotton batt layer to a backing cloth, so that it has no stress on it: strain is taken collectively by the batting, the stitching and the backing.   

What these pieced surfaces look like is an entirely different discussion.  Of course each piece is chosen and placed to make a beautiful surface.  But it is not by design, rather it is by detail at the scale of the fingers and the needle, and this is where the Gee's Bend quilts part company with modern quilting as supported by the contemporary quilting industry of patterns, books, new 'vintage' cottons, fat quarters and all the rest.  

I would say, not being an African-American from Alabama with a history of slavery, poverty and the church, that we could read these surfaces as conversations between each piece of fabric and the woman assembling and stitching the pieces.  And like conversations they are unpredictable, idiosyncratic and emotional.  They switch direction mid-stream, they are sometimes angry. They can sooth and they take a long time.   

Loretta Pettway, born 1942. "Lazy Gal" -- "Bars," ca. 1965, denim and cotton, 80 x 69 inches. All images: Tinwood Media


Nelson Mandela

18 July 1918 - 5 December 2013: a twentieth century life, in all its cruel outlines, and where this turned out to be training for political grace.  

1966: Mandela sits and sews inmates' clothes in the yard of Robben Island prison


Richard Wentworth: making do

Richard Wentworth Caledonian Road, London, 2007. Lisson Gallery, 2013

Richard Wentworth has been photographing tiny interventions in the inadequate way our urban world works since 1973.  A boot holds a door open, a small dog is tied to a heavy shopping bag: one cannot leave without the other – that sort of thing.  This photo, of intercessionary bricks on a set of stone steps is, of course, completely baffling.  Can it be that it simply pleased someone to do it? It renders the capacious steps dangerous; it makes the bricks beautiful in their variety.  

Kemnay Quarry, 1939Above is a 1939 photograph of Kemnay Quarry on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms.  We are looking at, according to the description, grey muscovite-biotite granite, a 122m deep pit and a pile of tailings at the top.  In the foreground curbstones and setts are tidily stacked. 

We are very used to monolithic surfaces that pour onto our streets and sidewalks, are flattened down and then harden into great impervious sheets of grey, where every street becomes a culvert.  The re-examination of permeable paving for all sorts of reasons, water management and urban forestry being the main ones, could lead us back to the hand units: bricks, setts, cobbles and paving slabs, except that such systems are labour-intensive.  Modern processes increasingly point in the direction of automation: the macro-scale of production and results, something almost guaranteed to increase the number of desperate little solutions to uncongenial habitats.


Enrico Scaramellini: Wardrobe in the Landscape

Enrico Scaramellini, Wardrobe in the Landscape. Northern Italian Alps, 2012. photo by Marcello Mariana.

Scaramellini says, 'Great is the land, the landscape: small is the place, the space.'
Plans and beautiful photos of this house set between two barns are on dezeen: it appears to borrow a room on the second floor from the adjacent barn, and the house flares slightly to the back, but the idea of a house as a door and a window is completely magical – a child's view of the world.



Ruth St Denis on the beach, 1916. NYPL digital gallery Image ID: DEN_0543V

This is Ruth St Denis dancing on the beach in 1916.  Unlike classical ballet where energy flows off the body in smooth waves, St Denis, who changed dance radically with Ted Shawn in the 1920s, flings off energy from her body but then snaps it back with a tweak of her wrists.  

It is similar to what one sees in some of the drawings of Patkau Architects in the 90s: a retaining wall shoots across the plan and then, when normally it would subside with a sigh into the ground where the topography finally meets the level, the Patkaus would crank the end and all the energy of the weight behind that retaining wall would jerk back toward the house.

It is a powerful ploy, no less in dance than in architecture, to embody resistance.  What was Ohm's Law?  resistance = voltage/current?  This is the problem with going with the flow, no voltage, no resistance, no energy.  Things change when energy is interrupted.


not a dogfight, a seek and destroy mission

The above image was on Vintage Everyday last week: they post images without much explanation, but a lot of their material seems to come from Life magazine files, and this image was in a set with what appeared to be US WWII pictures.  So, what are these planes?  A Messerschmidt and a Spitfire? not quite, according to various aircraft spotting posters.  So, while I think the rounded wings could be a Spitfire, the other stick-like plane resembles nothing I can find in either German, British, American or Japanese aircraft recognition manuals. It has a strange tail.

However, on the way to discovering that I know nothing about aircraft, I found a wonderful site: Collect Air, Friend or Foe? Museum, vast and detailed with everything one would want to know about aircraft recognition models, manuals, diagrams, board games, playing cards, cartoons, kits.  For example, below, pocket recognition models at 1:432.  How did they pick that scale?

1:432 plastic "pocket" recognition models, manufactured by Cruver, 1943 to around 1993.Nonetheless I still haven't been able to find the plane that looks like it is constructed out of steel strap.  But, life is short; must move on.


22.02.2012: Tim Atherton has identified the stick insect as a V1 flying bomb.  See his comment to this post.



Cigarette cards: little pieces of cardboard meant to stiffen packages of cigarettes when they came as 5s and 10s in paper wrappers.  They were done in series: this from one on sporting dogs, where they all look tremendously noble, demonstrating perfect form.  As we all know, dogs sometimes look noble and often look muddy, tatty, wet and full of burrs.  

Bewick, in his Birds of Britain, 1797-1804, captured the sometimes manic look spaniels can have when faced with a bird within reach.  Genes kick in. 

Landseer, the well-known Victorian artist who painted lachrymose set pieces of man's best friend looking soulful and human, did this lovely sketch of a dashing spaniel.  This one is so true. 

E H Landseer, Running Spaniel. drawing. n.d.


CEF formation patches

3rd Canadian Division, 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade flashes, WWI. Player's Cigarette Cards, 2nd Series, No. 120.

These were the badges worn on sleeves and berets, painted on trucks and on signs identifying the units.  They had to be readable at a distance and when found on a body lying in the mud in a trench, so they couldn't be too fussy.  The Division patches of the Canadian Expeditionary Force followed a simple ordering system: the square colour block indicates the division, the brigade is the colour above it, the shape above it indicates the battalion.

3rd Division, CEF. 1914-1918

All very tidy in the diagrams, what they looked like on the uniforms is somewhat more makeshift.

85th Battalion, 4th Canadian Division, formation patch


wood matches and plastic lighters

The remains of an albatross © Photo: Chris Jordan -

Went to buy some matches yesterday, looked all over the supermarket, none to be found.  Asked, told that all 'smoking paraphernalia' was over in the gas bar.  Trudged through the slush to the gas bar, asked for a box of matches: what a strange request.  The girl had to find a ladder to get them from a locked top shelf.  I could buy two huge boxes or ten little boxes, no the packages can't be divided.  
I said, this is winter, we light candles and kindling; matches aren't smoking paraphernalia, they light fires.  Here is the answer: people use disposable lighters or, for candles, those long butane filled wands.  

Which is better for this world, a match made of wood or cardboard, or a lighter made of plastic, metal and lighter fluid?

Midway Atoll is located in the North Pacific Gyre, one of five floating continents of plastic litter and chemical and organic waste.  Midway is an albatross colony: pieces of plastic, about the size of disposable lighters evidently look similar to squid, the main component of an albatross diet.  This plastic is eaten and then regurgitated to feed albatross young.  Who die.  The corpse decays and as it was stuffed with plastic, a tidy collection of matter incapable of decay is left on the beach.  

Plastic never goes away, it just gets smaller and smaller and thus is ingested by smaller and smaller animals.  Who die.  And while we seem to be able to sample the debris in each of the oceanic gyres, there is so far no solution for its collection.

The photo above is by Chris Jordan, who has made a film about Midway.  I heard about it on Radio Netherlands' Earth Beat a few weeks ago. 


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. 



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.


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.


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.


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.


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