I never seem to get bored of revisiting Japan. It’s as if the airport terminal itself calls ‘O kaeri nasai’ (‘welcome back’) as I step off the plane and into immigration. Even after the long flight, arriving at the unreasonable hour of 4.30 a.m. into Haneda, I feel childishly excited about the fortnight ahead. After dumping my bag at the hotel it is still only 5.45 a.m. What should I do for the eight-and-a-half hours before I can check-in? Well there is one thing that you can only do very early in the morning and that is to visit the largest wholesale market in Japan – Tsukiji – where the ocean has deposited its contents into polystyrene containers on markets stalls, down a labyrinth of small alleyways. I had been here once before, in 2008, and I was a bit nervous at ruining what was a marvellous memory with a less good experience. On top of that, I had heard that the authorities were much more strict about letting tourists into what is a vital trading area for restaurants and shops across Tokyo. But with nothing else to do, I decided to risk it.
Tsukiji is the size of a small town. It is separated into two main areas: the Inner Market (Jonai Shijo) and the Outer Market (Jogai Shijo). The Inner Market is the wholesale market for the professionals, and that is where the fish auction takes place. The Outer Market retails some of the produce sold in the Inner Market. Trying to make myself invisible, I tiptoed into the Inner Market as modestly as I could.
I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way but I was keen to see for myself, once more, the amazing variety of sea creatures. Stacked high were boxes of sea urchins, which have to be eaten very soon after harvesting. They are terribly expensive.
These look to be freshwater eel (one of my favourites) but I’m not 100% sure. There are so many varieties ands sub-species on display, you realise very quickly how little you know.
After they have been auctioned, prize tuna are transported on trollies to waiting vans of restaurants, shops and hotels.
Some of the tuna are cut on a bandsaw before transportation. This is not a job for the careless!
Tsukiji is not laid back at all. It is very busy and fast-paced. Little transportation trucks zoom around the place at top speed and you really have to watch out that you don’t get run over.
After about 20 minutes walking around the inner sanctum, I was (very politely and with repeated apologies) shown a sign by a security guard which read in English: “No general admittance until 9 a.m.”. Apologising in return, I left for the outer market where there are several restaurants. There I had my first Japanese food of the trip. A sushi breakfast with chawanmushi (a savoury egg custard – delicious!) and miso soup with prawns.
Food is a very important part of any visit to Japan and I was craving the tastes for which I have become somewhat familiar. On leaving Tsukiji, I saw a market holder selling Japanese chestnuts. ‘Kuri’ as they are called in Japan, flavour all sorts of different dishes, both savoury and sweet. Perhaps above all else, this is the thing I miss most.
In Nikko, just by the Kegon waterfall (see below) I tasted huge chestnuts that were prepared in a giant pressure cooker that looked a bit like a torpedo.
I also tried ‘kuri monaka’ for the first time: sweet chestnut and chestnut paste sandwiched between layers of crispy rice cake. It is almost as if the rice becomes a kind of pastry.
It would take too long to give a full breakdown of all the delicious things I tasted in Japan but here are a few highlights. One place that I always try and visit in Tokyo is Daikokuya Tempura in Asakusa. I have only ever had one thing here: tendon, which is tempura over rice with a special ‘house’ sauce. The batter is somehow crispy and chewy at the same time.
I also ordered a plate of Japanese pickles.
No problems finishing that.
Daikokuya also have possibly the best phone number in the world:
After a couple of days in Tokyo I headed south-west for the island of Kyushu. I then slowly worked my way back up north-east. The train journey from Tokyo to Nagasaki was extremely fast and extremely efficient but nevertheless took the best part of a day, with two changes. I needed to store up on provisions. One of the ‘ekiben’ (eki = station / ben = bento, or lunch box) that I took with me was this herring on rice. It was delicious. Very lightly marinated in a kind of vinegar with an extraordinary melty skin.
Once in Nagasaki I had to try the famous regional dish ‘champon’. Nagasaki was for a long time the only trading point between Japan and the rest of the world and it has soaked up international influences. Champon is a kind of Japanese version of a Chinese noodle dish. Unlike Japanese ramen, the noodles are cooked in the soup, so they are very flavoursome.
Other Nagasaki treats are the famous steamed dishes served at Yossou, which has been making chawanmushi (yes it’s that savoury egg custard again) since 1866. The present building dates from 1927 and is lovely.
The classic menu is the ‘twin steamed dishes’, one chawanmushi (on the right) and another of shredded omelette, ground beef and tiny shrimp over rice.
Another bowl cleaned.
In Fukuoka the thing to have is Tonkotsu or ‘Hakata’ ramen. (Hakata was once an independent town and is now a district of Fukuoka.) Tonkotsu ramen usually has a thick, cloudy white coloured broth made from boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours, which suffuses the broth with a hearty pork flavour and a creamy consistency.
In Kyoto, right next to my hotel, was a taiyaki stall. While there are some shops in Europe that sell taiyaki (frozen, or oven baked) there is nothing like the real thing. I had been craving this taste and I had 4 taiyaki from this stall in 2 days. Delicious. Taiyaki literally means ‘baked sea bream’ but that only describes the traditional fish shape and not the taste. They are basically sweet waffles filled with various fillings. The only ones I am interested in are the ‘original’ ones that have red bean paste inside, made from sweetened adzuki beans.
And while in Kyoto I also revisited the famous soba noodle restaurant Honke Owariya. First opened in 1465, Owariya has preserved and promoted traditional Japanese tastes for 528 years! Soba are thin buckwheat noodles served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in a hot soup. As it was the end of the season for Kyouyasai seiro (Kyoto vegetables), that is what I opted for.
And after that very refined and delicate taste something more hearty and meaty. I went to an ox tongue restaurant. Tongue is not for everybody but this is something that my mother used to give us as kids and that we used to love but that nevertheless I never buy or cook.
A very nice typo in the English menu ‘Lady’s Set’. The meat is not thick or thin but ‘think’.
Heading north to Nikko one famous local speciality is yuba, which is the skin that develops on top of tofu as the soy been milk is boiling. The skin is taken off and used separately. Here it is rolled up and served in a dish of hot udon.
I travelled to Nikko with my friend Goh. He arranged for us to stay in two different hot spring resort hotels where the dinner is included as part of the package. These ‘kaiseki’ are multi-course dinners where you have a little bit of lots of different things. The meal in the first hotel was served in our room, ryokan style. As we were relaxing in the hot spring baths our room was prepared, and when we came back the meal was spread out before us. After eating they take everything away and lay out the futons.
The following night the dinner at the second hotel was even more delicious. Here we went to a small private dining room. This sounds kind of exclusive but actually everyone has their own little room to eat in. The menu went something like this:
Five assorted appetisers (I can’t remember them all but they are on the central tray in the picture below. You can just make out a tiny persimmon (or ‘kaki’) in the middle that is in fact a flavoured egg yolk. You can also see something that looks roughly like a sweet chestnut in its prickly shell but is in fact an entirely edible chestnut flavoured savoury.)
Pungently cooked lotus root
Sashimi of trout, shrimp and yellowtail
Yuba (soy milk skin), taro, aubergine with shrimp and kidney beans
Nikko local pork shabu-shabu (thinly sliced meat that you briefly cook in boiling water)
Mizuna ohitashi (Japanese mustard) with sesame
Chawanmushi (it’s the egg custard again!)
Soup with a crab ball, mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley) and yuba
Dessert with wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionary) and fruit
It looked and tasted beautiful. There were a lot of dishes to clean and it took some time and it was entirely delicious.
The following morning you return to the same private dining room for breakfast.
All the dishes were Japanese, apart from the bacon and eggs (!) which you cook on your own private oil burner. Personally I found the inclusion of this western style dish totally unnecessary (as I did the mini beef stew the night before) but it seems to be somehow a nod to foreign guests.
Of course I did more than just eat. There were a few places that I was particularly keen to visit on this trip. As already mentioned, Nagasaki was once the only trading point for the entirety of Japan. It is a fascinating story. In 1636, in order to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan, a 15,000 square meter artificial island was constructed by order of the Shogun, on which the Portuguese were interned. In 1639 when Portuguese ships were banned from Japan by the National Isolation Edict, Dejima became uninhabited for a short time. Two years later in 1641 the Dutch East India Company Trading Post in Hirado was moved to Dejima. During the long period of isolation, which only ended 218 years later in 1859, Dejima was the only way in or out of Japan and it was from here that limited imports and exports took place.
Dejima is the setting for the 2011 novel by David Mitchell, ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ which follows the story of one Dutch trader who came to Japan to make his fortune. It is a highly evocative introduction to the history of this tiny island.
Although the surrounding sea has now been reclaimed and forms part of the new Nagasaki harbour, in recent years there has been a drive to restore and recreate the buildings on the island to how they were in the early 19th Century.
The island was heavily fortified and ingress or exit without permission was a capital offence.
The interiors are a mixture of European and Japanese style, that nevertheless somehow hang together.
I was particularly interested in the karakami designs. A technique originally brought over from China during the Heian period, karakami is Japanese paper that has been printed with woodblocks. The beautiful thing about karakami is the imperfections in the repetition. As each section is printed individually, no two are exactly alike. (Although karakami still adorns traditional Japanese buildings there is only one karakami shop left in Japan. It is Karacho in Kyoto, established in 1624. They are still printing from some of the ancient woodblocks.)
Another interesting pattern in Nagasaki was this trompe-l’œil bollard painted directly onto the road. From the driver position it looks real!
And on the subject of driving, what about this petrol station for an ingenious solution to the inevitable problems of manoeuvring in small spaces: put the petrol pumps on the ceiling.
And it was in a car that my friend Kyo took me to the top of Mount Inasa to watch the sun set. In the space of 30 minutes we saw the day turn to night in a dramatic diorama below us. This is the famous ‘Issenmandoru no yakei’, the 10 million dollar view.
Then we took a trip to the least aptly named place on the planet: The Supreme Paradise (surely it would be possible to sue for false advertising), one of the big pachinko halls on the outskirts of Nagasaki. When we had met earlier in the evening, I had asked Kyo what he had been doing and he replied that he spent much of the day playing pachinko. Although I had passed many pachinko parlours before, and maybe even stuck my head in the door, I didn’t really understand what it was all about. As far as I was concerned you might as well throw your money into the slots in the drain guards as throw it into a pachinko slot. “It’s my medicine,” Kyo said. “OK then,” I replied, “let’s go and taste your medicine.” Well, I can honestly say that I had all my preconceptions confirmed and then double underlined, in bold, in CAPITALS. The deafening noise of metal balls dropping through the machines is only marginally better than the rancid smell of cigarette smoke that pervades the vast series of aisles of similar looking machines. You put your money in a slot. Metal balls fall through the machine. Sometimes you win more balls. Sometimes you win less balls. Balls can be exchanged for money or prizes. More often than not (of course) you lose. Well, judge for yourself.
One of the highlights of my trip to Nagasaki was the visit to Hashima, more commonly known as Gunkanjima or ‘Battleship Island’. I had heard about this island when I was a resident artist at ARCUS in 2008 and was extremely interested to visit it. Up until very recently trips to the island needed to be arranged in stealth with a local fisherman but since it was put on a list of tentative industrial sites that might be given World Heritage status, limited organised tours now take place.
Hashima lies about 19km from Nagasaki harbour. Coal was discovered there in the early 19th Century but full-scale mining did not begin until 1890. As the amount of coal being excavated grew, so did the population. The island was enlarged with some land reclamation and the first concrete high-rise buildings in Japan were built in 1916 to house the residents. At its peak 5,300 people were living on Hashima, which gave it a population density 9 times greater than that of Tokyo at the time. As the demand for coal fell, so did the population and in January 1974 it was closed for good. In April the island was depopulated and left to the elements.
Hashima was recently featured in the James Bond film ‘Skyfall’ as the hideout of the bad guy. Despite this global audience, I was the only westerner on the tour and the tour-guides scrambled around in a cabin on board the boat to find an English information sheet.
Actually it was touch and go whether or not the tour I had booked would go ahead because of an incoming typhoon. Although we got very wet towards the end of the trip, it went on as planned and I was extremely glad.
Before you land on Hashima you make a brief stop on Takashima, which is the location of Mitsubishi Mining Company’s main coalmine, the extremely tiny but sweet coalmining museum, and a model of the Battleship Island. Unfortunately the entire talk about the island which centred around this model was in Japanese. I caught the odd word and was so impressed with myself for deciphering something (oh, that means ‘school’, and that means ‘hairdresser’, and that means ‘pachinko’, well done Joshua) that any attempt and making sense of them was lost.
Then the boat takes you to Hashima itself. It really does look like a battleship from the distance. I had a very powerful sense of wonder and awe arriving there. It really felt like a point on a pilgrimage and almost certainly somewhere that I was visiting for the first and last time.
Although you can’t wander around the abandoned buildings and your route is severely restricted, you do walk around a bit and have a chance to see up close the magnificence of neglect. It also gives you a strong sense of what it must have been like to live as so many people in such a small place. Whole families lived, worked, studied and were entertained on this tiny rock.
Another skeleton of a building that I saw in Japan was the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, more commonly called the Atomic Bomb Dome. The former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall has been kept as close as possible to exactly how it was the moment after the impact of ‘Little Boy’ at 08:15 on 6th August 1945. The terrible beauty of this monument serves as a powerful and modest reminder of the horrors of atomic warfare. I visited the Peace Museums in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima and found them both extremely disturbing and important. To be honest I have not given all that much thought to nuclear proliferation but visits to both these museums underlined the absolute necessity to work towards disarmament.
Although I was glad to have visited this gruesome history I was also pleased that I could leave it behind. From Hiroshima I headed up to Kyoto for a couple of nights. The historical sites in Kyoto are perhaps the most extraordinary cultural places I have ever been to. This city of temples, palaces and gardens, teams with World Heritage sites that surprise and amaze. On this second trip to Japan’s former capital however, I was interested to take a more relaxed approach and to try and get a sense of the modern day city.
As I was walking along the Kamo river I spotted in the distance some movement in a window on the opposite bank. I steadied my camera and zoomed in…
…and closer, until I could make out that this was the famous geisha house in Pontocho dori. Five geisha were entertaining just one single man. These places are notoriously expensive even just for a cup of tea so goodness knows how much this was costing him.
It was completely engaging and I stood there watching for nearly 40 minutes. I even walked over the bridge and onto the embankment so that I could pass directly underneath the window for a closer inspection. It all looked very seductive and yet they seemed to spend a long while dancing and singing a kind of party game. Not so much traditional dance or playing the shamisen but more, well, something you might imagine at a children’s birthday. (Perhaps after all this is simply beyond my cultural comprehension.)
For the final days of my trip I headed north to Nikko, Japan’s huge national park that spreads over four prefectures. As well as the incredible scenery there are famous shrines and temples, including Nikko Tosho-gu, the Shinto shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The main buildings you see today were completed in 1636. Some critics consider the decoration ‘too Chinese’ and gaudy and not really in the traditional Japanese style. It certainly is much more ‘bling’ than any other temple I have seen in Japan.
More typical for the Japanese, perhaps, is the fact that amongst all the gold and ornament, one of the most famous of the myriad of carvings, is this extremely modest life-sized sleepy cat, which rests on a lintel above a gateway.
The shrine to Ieyasu is away from the main temple complex and for many years was only allowed to be visited by the Shogun himself.
Above the former stable, monkeys play, including the three wise monkeys that hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil. They are very cute.
Close by is the Rinno-ji temple complex which includes the Sanbutsudo (Three Buddha Hall). When we first saw this weird prefab building in the temple complex, Goh and I were a bit confused. Then we realised that this new structure was built around the Sanbutsudo while it is being restored. It was extremely interesting to step inside. What we learnt is that on discovering termites in the wood, the authorities had to act swiftly to preserve this ancient monument. You can go inside to see the process.
They have deconstructed the building tile by tile, slat by slat, and pin by pin. They are checking and treating each piece of wood and then laying it all out like the most complex of 3D puzzles. Once the preservation has finished, they will then reassemble it all. It was incredible to see, and brilliant that they let the pubic in to witness some of what they were doing.
These temple complexes are located in the most beautiful surroundings of picturesque nature.
And at the same time all the sites are extremely popular with tourists. Mostly Japanese tourists. Hoards of them. One of the most famous of nature’s gifts to Nikko is the Kegon waterfall. By far the best way to view it (but at the same time equally irritating) is to queue for the elevator which takes you down to a viewing platform. It felt a bit weird to be queuing for nature but nevertheless it is worth it.
The viewing platform takes you directly in front of the falls. Somehow it is possible to ignore all the people around you and to focus your attention on the sound, smell and site of the water dropping nearly 100 meters as it exits from lake Chuzenji.
Another place of interest in Nikko is the Tamozawa Imperial Villa which was built in 1899 as a country retreat for Emperor Taisho. It is also where the current Emperor Akihito was evacuated as a prince during the Second World War. After the war it was neglected but was restored in 2000 and opened to the public. It is one of the largest remaining wooden buildings in Japan. Although much of it is beautiful it is actually quite an odd mix of Western and Japanese styles; many of the rooms are carpeted in pretty hideous European patterns and there are incongruous chandeliers hanging in simple wooden beamed spaces. The building itself is however, an evocative labyrinth of corridors and rooms and the surrounding gardens make it feel like a very special place.
Part of the pleasure of writing this blog is that I get to remember the sights, sounds, tastes and sensations of the places that I go. It is always also a compromise because so much is left out. I am hungry to remember it all. I know that many of my Japanese friends find their country a difficult place to make the life that they want for themselves. It remains for me, however, one of the most intriguing and enriching places I have been. Simplicity and sophistication coexist.
The bad thing about visiting a sister that lives in Rome is that 2,000 years of history pass you by and you end up focusing on the domestic: mostly eating. The good thing about visiting a sister that lives in Rome is that 2,000 years of history pass you by and you end up focusing on the domestic: mostly eating.
Born on my 5th birthday, my younger sister and I have always made an effort to spend 1st August together. This year was no exception. The difference was that she had just moved home and was rolling around in her oversized Roman appartamento which badly needed some furniture.
Spending your birthday traipsing around furniture shops in 39 degree heat is perhaps not the most pleasant of days but I was very happy to be of help and to be fed Italian food from a few of Esther’s favourite haunts.
There is something extremely satisfying about having your ‘baby’ sister, who you used to piggy back around the playroom, take you to an Osteria and order you her suggestion in fluent Italian. At Le Mani in Pasta we both had the Vernaccia. Vernaccia refers to the white grape used in Tuscan wine, in which the pasta is cooked with truffles and pancetta. Absolutely delicious.
After that we went for a walk along the river and had a granita from the famous riverside stall. I chose melone.
Another iced treat the following day (our actual birthday) was at my sister’s local gelateria, Tony’s, where as well as gorging myself on some creamy fruit flavoured ices, I picked up a couple of spoons for my ever-growing collection of disposable ice-cream spoons.
Here is a small selection of said collection, arranged as a colour circle:
One thing that I noticed were the number of ice-cream deserts in freezers in Tony’s: ice-creams on sticks covered in chocolate, ice-cream balls, profiteroles, things that looked a bit like buns but that nevertheless had ice-cream in them. Well, it’s an incentive to return!
In the evening we went to the local pizzeria, La Gatta Mangiona. I know that these don’t look particularly impressive but even this Neapolitan style family run restaurant in a residential part of Rome achieves a taste which far exceeds anything that I’ve had outside of Italy.
It’s amazing that a simple dough base with tomato puree can be so tasty.
The rest of the time on this super short 2 night trip, we ate at home. Mostly we consumed fresh fruit and vegetables bought at the nearby market, San Giovanni di Dio. Everything is very seasonal, which means that nothing is ‘forced’ and therefore far more flavoursome.
In the tour around the furniture shops of Rome, I did get to see some interesting city sites. This covered piazza has the most incredible roof.
And the walls are painted with elaborate rococo style motifs. This was a new discovery for Esther too, and we haven’t yet worked out where exactly it was.
On the way to one store in Via Panisperna there was this ‘hanging garden’ effect running across the street. Interesting.
And in Mercatino Usato, Monteverde, which as far as I can gather is a shop where people go to sell things they no longer want to other people who might want them, I bought this great ceiling light (I had been looking for something like this for ages) for an amazing €8! (My sister did get some furniture for her barren apartment as well.)
In my last blog posting I mentioned staying in the extremely evocative surroundings of Villa Eläintarha in Helskinki, the restored 19th Century wooden building, part museum part artists accommodation. This past week in Turku, a morning to spare, I decided to visit Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum. To be honest, I had never heard mention of it before and had no idea what to expect.
Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum is an amazing collection of 200-year-old wooden cottages that stand on their original sites. You wander around the streets and are transported back in time. Some of the buildings date to the 1780s.
In 1827 The Great Fire of Turku destroyed two-thirds of the city but the Luostarinmäki area remained intact. When the city authorities decided to create a new town with fire safety at its core, Luostarinmäki was condemned and abandoned. It lay dormant for nearly 80 years before a plan was put in place for its preservation.
The cottages were restored and turned into craft worker’s homes and workshops, often furnished by master crafts people. The Handicraft Museum opened to the public in June 1940.
Wandering through the streets time is reoriented and it is very easy to imagine what it would have been like generations before. There are many so called ‘living museums’ around and they can often feel a bit crude and theatrical but Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum has managed to strike a very even balance between heritage, preservation and recreation.
One of the most interesting parts of the experience of visiting are the details of the wooden architecture.
There is a tendency to over-control the aesthetic at times. Everywhere you look could be a page from a glossy ‘shabby chique’ picture spread from an interiors magazine.
But the old worn surfaces, especially of the wood, are extremely inviting.
This is a nice contraption. It’s an angled mirror positioned at a window, so that the ‘curtain twitcher’ can see who is coming down the lane without having to press their nose against the glass.
It is perhaps the examples of traditional Finnish building techniques and use of timber which are most seductive. Inside the the cottages there are also wide-ranging displays of crafts and skills from lithography to tobacco rolling. Here is the Glovemaker:
One of my favourites was the studio which took responsibility for the interior decor of all the Luostarinmäki cottages. Pigment ground to make paint and stencils cut. Part of the concept of the museum is that the upkeep is made with traditional skills made on the site. So they weave the cloth and make the clothes that they will ultimately wear. Here the stencil designs and paints will be used for the upkeep of the rooms.
Almost everywhere you turn there is something interesting to look at.
Here the traditional Finnish bread is strung on poles underneath the rafters.
I particularly enjoyed the textile designs, again all handwoven on site.
Each space is illuminated by the natural light that creeps in through the window. These beautifully glazed frames demand the spectator to look anew at the world outside.
“It’s been such a wonderful summer in Helsinki this year.”
“Was it on Tuesday or Wednesday?”
Well during the end of May and beginning of June the joke was on the joke, as Finns basked in uncharacteristically hot weather. Bright skies and blistering sunshine in the 20s. There were a lot of ‘once before’ worn clothes on the streets of the capital and plenty of cut-off jeans, as citizens tried to adapt their wardrobe to the Mediterranean weather. “We fought hard for this with a fierce and long winter,” one of my hosts cries, while another, hand on sweating forehead laments, “I had to take Wednesday off with a migraine; it’s just too hot.”
I am here in Finland for two entirely separate but happily neatly consecutively scheduled events. The first week in Helsinki I was facilitating a workshop for professional artists, which explored different ways to work with audiences. The second week I took a train west to Turku for the New Performance Festival. Tomorrow I am presenting a, erm, new performance.
While in Helsinki I was staying in a very interesting place.
Villa Eläintarha was built in 1889, and is one of the surviving Linnunlaulu timber houses. The building enjoys protected status by the National Board of Antiquities in Finland. Since 2000, the City of Helsinki Cultural Office has maintained the villa as a residence for foreign artists. The ground floor is open to the public as a permanent exhibition of an upper-middle-class home from the late nineteenth century. So basically it’s like living in a ‘museum of the olden days’, which I have to admit is a kind of long standing fantasy of mine.
There isn’t a huge amount of difference between the ‘period’ rooms in the museum and the ‘artist’ rooms above. So here you see the period living room and bedroom:
And here you see the artist’s communal living room and my bedroom:
The renovation has been done sensitively and in some parts they have left the original painting right next to the newly restored, as a kind of ’before and after’.
The main staircase is painted with trompe l’oeil wooden paneling and plaster work.
This staircase only goes as far as the first floor. To get up to the top floor you need to go through a little side door and use the servants’ staircase, where the wooden walls are exposed, and the balustrade is far more simple. Actually I much prefer it.
This is how it looked in the early 20th Century.
And here is the original owner, the very handsome Oscar Blum.
The city bought the property in the 1990s. It had been derelict for sometime. They understood that it was important to register the architectural heritage of the city and to preserve and protect at least some of these old 19th Century buildings. It was carefully restored but at first it was unclear exactly what to do with it.
Since 2000 it has operated in part as a museum and in part as accommodation for visiting artists.
When you ask people in Helsinki where they would like to live, a wisecrack response is often, “In a villa. In the centre of the city. With a view of the harbour.” Such properties have almost all been demolished to make way for apartment blocks. Those that remain are really only for the super rich. It was a privilege to be able to stay in one for a few days. And here is the harbour view from the balcony.
Another amazing wooden building in Helsinki is the Kampii Chapel of Silence located in the Narinkkatori square, one of the main downtown thoroughfares. Designed by Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola and Mikko Summanen of K2S Architects Ltd., the Chapel was built as part of the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 programme. It is intended to be a place where people can have a moment of silence away from hectic and noisy city centre. I first read about this new building in an inflight magazine on some journey or other and I was keen to take the opportunity to visit it. I had understood (as it happens incorrectly) that it was a kind of secular space for quiet contemplation. Although it is partly run by the Social Services Department of the City of Helsinki (I love that Social Services would consider this a worthwhile investment) its activities are also determined by parish unions. Although religious symbolism is low key, it is there, and while no church services or holy events will be organised, regular ‘moments of prayer’ are planned. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that what I had taken to be a wonderful non-religious space, is ultimately a place for Christian worship.
It is still a very interesting space. Stepping inside, the sparse Finnish interior is flooded by natural light and the sounds of the busy city centre are left behind. I had heard that it is often busy with tourists, rendering its initial purpose somewhat ineffective. For the first moments of my visit however, I was splendidly isolated all by myself.
Before leaving this accidental theme of wooden architectural constructions, I thought I would share the amazing wooden scaffolding for a new bridge here in Turku. Apparently the old bridge failed and this new one is being built to replace it. As I understand it, the final thing will be concrete. Before they pour it, an extraordinary wooden mould is built. The support struts are incredibly sculptural, creating a beautiful geometric pattern, that will, alas, be lost.
Pattern is a big deal here in Finland and nowhere is this more apparent than in the epidemic of Marimekko products at every turn. It actually starts before you even get here. On the Finnair flight, your cup of airplane tea is served in a Marimekko branded paper cup with matching serviette in a contrasting colour.
Despite its ubiquity, I have to say that I have a lot of retinal energy for the brightly coloured block patterns so reminiscent of the 1960s and 70s. My trip to the flagship store in Pohjoisesplanadi was a bit like a pilgrimage.
Stepping into the fabric room produces a rush of blood to the head as I get the same thrill of ‘potential’ as when entering a good stationery shop or art supply store.
My own recent ‘textile’ project, has been the creation of my costume for Object of Love which will be shown at the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art from tomorrow. I have hand sewn over two-and-a-half-thousand (written out in full for dramatic effect) gun metal jump rings onto a body stocking, secured the knots with textile glue and then attached over two-and-a-half-thousand hand dyed cable tidies, one to each jump ring. When I embarked upon this Sisyphean task late last year, I thought it would be nice to have ‘something to do with my hands’, being as I was, overburdened with administration and concept making. I hadn’t quite imagined that it would take quite so long.
I attached the last cable tidy yesterday evening. This afternoon I delivered the costume to the gallery. Tomorrow I shall put it on in a giant glass box and invite member of the pubic for a one-to-one coaching session to resolve the troubles of their heart.
Having finished teaching the workshop in Taipei, and with the help of my hosts, I arranged a week or so of travel to see some of Taiwan beyond the capital.
Hualien is the biggest city on the east coast and the base to explore the famous Taroko National Park and the extraordinary Taroko Gorge, a 20 km stretch of marble walls that soar above the Liwu River. It is awe-inspiring scenery that feels somewhat like stepping into at Chinese scroll painting. Suddenly those brush marks that I have seen in museums and coffee table books began to make sense.
The river flow has licked the most amazing forms into the marble canyon walls, revealing the mottlings and streaks in such a way that at times it is almost as if the rock becomes the water that formed its shape.
Temples, monasteries and shrines occasionally punctuate the green velvet mountains.
Indeed there is poetry everywhere, even in the rest stop cafes.
There are also reminders that the road you travel on, the Highway, was hard fought. In fact the history of the whole park is one fraught with strife. It is named after the Truku aboriginal tribe who called the land their home before being ‘resettled’ when the area became of military importance during the Japanese occupation. When ROC was established, the building of the Highway was seen as being an important aspect of national security. It was also a way of occupying 6,000 ex-servicemen every day for 3 and a half years. Photographs of the perilous conditions they faced are mounted on boards at key viewing points. This all happened in living memory. The Highway was completed in 1960.
The Eternal Spring Shrine was built to commemorate the 226 workers who died.
There are also glimpses of the only pathways that existed before the building of the Highway: steep and narrow, casually paved.
After Hualien I travelled to Tainan in the southwest. Former capital and Taiwan’s fourth largest city, Tainan is famous for its food and its temples. There are hundreds of outlets for both.
Some spectacular, some tired, almost all of Tainan’s temples that I visited seem ‘domestic’, insomuch as they form a part of the daily life of citizens. Although there was no objection to my cultural tourism at all, I was almost always the only person snapping pics. Most people had come to pray or to seek advice from the gods.
Religion is present everywhere in Tainan. There are small shrines in almost all shops and the burning of offerings (usually paper standing in for money) is common on pavements throughout the city. From what I understand (which after all isn’t much!) there are three main religious traditions: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism (there are also Christian churches throughout the country). Confucianism, which was abandoned in mainland China in 1949, thrives in Taiwan. What is interesting about it is that there aren’t any gods. Confucian temples are more like ancient universities for the study of moral codes, rather than places you pray. There are no images of gods. Instead you worship the word, in the form of inscribed tablets.
Old and new sit side by side very happily in Tainan and this symbiosis can be seen especially evident in Shennong Street, where hip cafes and galleries adjoin odd little pre-digital work spaces where people beaver away at, well at what I’m not quite sure.
One of the surprise highlights in Tainan was Angpin Tree House, which is located port side, some distance from the centre of the city. One hundred year old banyan trees have overrun the former storehouses of Tait & Co., a former British trading outfit. Instead of demolishing this ‘redundant’ architecture, the city authorities have built a series of walkways over and around, so that you can see the trees and the buildings merge into this one organism. It is very simply done but wonderfully so. This is one of the best examples of heritage preservation that I have seen.
Back in the centre of town I stopped off for a midnight foot massage at one of the famous 24 hour stores. To describe it as ‘agony’ wouldn’t be quite right but it was pretty hard work. It was worth it. I felt the weight slip away and was hopping about light footed for the next couple of days. This ‘massage’ is really reflexology, the idea being that you can tell the health of the internal organs by various pressure points on the feet. My therapist didn’t seem to show any alarm.
The food continues to be an adventure. When I have been in Japan I have been caught up in the food culture and very much enjoyed and participated in the national discussions about where to get the best ramen noodles or pork cutlet. I could not have imagined there would be another county so concerned with food. Well Taiwan is. People discuss food all the time and eating is a not just a necessity but a pastime.
During the days of the workshop in Taipei, my hosts took me to the famous Michelin starred Din Tai Fung. After a starter of bitter melon to clean the palate, the dumplings arrived.
These perfect Pork Xiao Long Bao (small steamed dumpling) have 18 folds, the number which, after numerous tests, have proved to be the most efficacious for dumplings of this size.
My personal favourite, the Angled Loofah and Shrimp Xiao Long Bao, where the hot silky cucumbers mix deliciously with the prawn. You can just see the green and orange shine through the dumpling here.
I can’t remember if these are the Steamed Fish or Chicken Xiao Long Bao but anyway they all slipped down a treat.
This vegetable accompaniment may not look all that promising but was in fact a highlight. Stir-fry spinach with Bean Curd Sheet, cooked in Xiaoshing, a fortified wine which tastes a bit like Port or Madeira.
And to finish a dessert of crispy cake with taro or black sesame. I could have eaten it all again immediately.
The various night markets also continue to be a source of amazing flavours. This white sausage looking thing is not in fact meat but rice. It’s used as the ‘bun’ base for a kind of hot dog. It is split open, stuffed with vegetables, sauce and ground peanuts before being wrapped in clever polythene and paper package that you twist to push out the next bite. It was, once again, delicious. The crispiness of the outside of the rice bun, and the chewiness of the inside, absorbs all the flavours for a fantastic snack.
Fried squid is chopped up and mixed with a sauce of your choice.
This is goat.
And erm, duck parts. I was reaching my culinary limit here. Piles of duck heads, necks, tongues, offal and so on, sit next to cakes made of pigs blood. You select the bits you want and the chefs fry, steam, season and package in a human cookery chain.
This is duck tongue. As a kid I loved ‘beef tongue’. It was always a real treat. But well, there isn’t so much meat on a duck tongue and it’s difficult to slice nicely. You also have to contend with the jaw bone (or whatever that bit at the back is).
And duck neck.
A bit of a soft relief from the hardcore were these fried sweet potatoes and yams. Yummy.
This is a typical Taiwanese desert of shaved ice with various sweet bean and tofu accompaniments.
Steamed buns with pork or beef mince inside. Very comforting.
A giant handmade spring roll.
These fried little fish with peanuts were very tasty.
Dumplings in soup. Spicy vegetable and seafood.
In Tainan it seemed like the entire city converged on the unbelievably huge Friday evening night market. It was heaving with people.
This clam omelette was very good indeed, although I wasn’t entirely sure about the sweet red sauce that they pour on at the end. In general Taiwan likes things sweet. In Tainan especially, sugar has historically been seen as a sign of wealth.
And this woman behind her glass screen is stuffing a chicken wing with rice (yes, I know it looks like a leg but that’s because it’s on a stick). The rice absorbs the flavours and fat from the meat making it all succulent, rich and tasty, like the best English Sunday roast.
This man is making ‘animal cakes’ which are something between a drop scone and a pancake. When I mentioned to my Taiwanese hosts that I had tasted these they asked which shapes I had tried. When I replied that they were all the same mixture, they looked aghast. There is a tradition from childhood about which you preferred and then what you would eat first, the head or the tail. Actually the different shapes do taste different because thinner bits of a shape are crispier and fatter bits are more doughy.
And if none of that takes your fancy then how about this plate? In Tainan you can go into a ‘fruit cafe’, where they chop and serve you a plate of delicious fresh fruit. I’d love that in London.
And the final word goes to this glass of kumquat and lime juice with soda water. It took me sometime to find all the flavours. It was a remarkably complex drink, touching all the different tastes on the tongue: sweet, sour, bitter, salt. Extremely refreshing …and once again, delicious.
I have loved these three weeks in Taiwan and hope there will be an opportunity to come back. It is already under discussion. Next stop: Hong Kong.
In the urban sprawl of Taipei, the electricity and telephone exchanges that can be found on every street, are painted, almost without exception, with mountain (and occasionally floral) scenes in a uniform palette. The quality of draughtsmanship varies dramatically, as does the treatment of detail. The subject and the colours never waver. Despite the fact that they are everywhere in the city, when I ask about the ‘public art’ treatment of these municipal containers, people have to remind themselves of what I am talking about. It seems the citizens of Taipei are accustomed to the sight of them to the extent that they no longer see them.
Who decided that the electricity and telephone exchanges needed this makeover? Who are the artists that are employed? How was the decision as to what should be painted on them made? What about their upkeep? (Of the hundreds that I have seen in the last week and a half none have been defaced and all are in ‘good condition’.)
I’m sure there’s a project in this: The Taipei Electricity and Telephone Exchange Container Painting Archive perhaps.
On the one hand they are kind of horrid as individual pieces of ‘art work’ but as a collection they are mesmerising. I find myself on the look out for the next interpretation and am keen to see if I can identify the hand of a particular painter. Does anyone know the history of these things?
Taipei is surrounded by mountains. The city sits in the Taipei Basin, bordered by Xindian River in the south and Tamsui River to the west. To get a better view of the geography I took the fastest elevator in the world up to the top of Taipei 101 which was the tallest building in the world from its opening in 2004 until the Burj Khalifa overtook it in 2010. (It must have been a bit dispiriting for Taipei that Dubai unveiled its plans in the same year they opened 101.)
The speed of the lift is pretty incredible. Before you have time to take more than a couple of breaths, you are at the top. I arrived at about 5.30 pm, so that I could watch the sunset and the twinkle of the city lights and they were switched on in cars, apartments and street lamps half a kilometre below.
Peering over the bars at the Outdoor Observatory Deck on the 91st floor, felt like a kind of paralysing of the view out of the airplane window on arriving into a city. It was at once both familiar and strange.
I was itchy to step into these mountains that I could see in the misty distance and so the next day (the last day before my workshop commenced) I took the MaoKong Gondola, an amazing 4 km long cable car ride across the mountains from Taipei Zoo to the tea plantations of MaoKong.
What is so brilliant about what would already be an amazingly scenic journey, is that you can opt to travel in a glass bottomed cabin. As the gondola climbs above the velvet covered mountains, you feel like you have entered the bamboo forest duelling scene from Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, where Mu Bai and Jen fight it out flying over the tops of the trees.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I still get a childish pleasure from traveling in cable cars. I think the view from this crystal cabin was probably my favourite yet.
When I arrived in MaoKong, it was like stepping into the image from the previous day. There was Taipei 101 in the distance, towering over Taipei.
Taiwan is not a country. It is an island (albeit by far the largest and most populous) of the Republic of China. No, not the People’s Republic of China that we think of as ‘China’ in the West, but the ROC.
The strange and often troubling history of Taiwan is something that I knew next to nothing about before being invited to work here. I knew that it had been colonised and occupied by various ‘powers’, the Dutch and the Spanish (as Formosa), the Chinese, and the Japanese, but what I didn’t know is that when the Communist Forces took control of mainland China in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the ROC resettled its government in Taiwan. There is still (in principle at least) a territorial dispute between ROC and PRC with both countries claiming the other is illegitimate. Given the political impasse, most of the world switched diplomatic recognition from ROC to PRC, so that not only is Taiwan not a country in name, but it is also not recognised as a country by any other that opts for the PRC as the ‘true China’.
The much exalted (though still controversial) man who brought the ROC government (and the best pieces from the Imperial collection of Chinese art) to Taiwan, was Chiang Kai-Shek, whose giant Memorial Hall occupies a central location in Taipei. Officially opened in 1980 on the 5th anniversary of the death of CKS (as he is abbreviated), it has a twin set of 89 steps, to mark his living age.
As this scale model shows, it was with a combined tribute to both CSK and ‘the arts’ that the propaganda tacticians of the late 1970s built both the National Theatre, and the National Concert Hall in the same giant square. Every time the Taiwanese go for cultural enrichment they are reminded of their former leader.
Although ‘modern’ these are the largest examples of classical Chinese architecture in the world.
It is a popular place for outdoor ‘rehearsals’ by young theatre and dance troupes.
Inside the Memorial Hall itself, there are huge photographs of CSK and his family, with entirely flattering descriptions of all that he did. My particular favourites were the giant glass vitrines allotted to his dress: his slippers, vest (for when it is cool in Autumn, the sign helpfully informs us), and his neatly folded handkerchief. In a way, this folded linen square on its outsized pedestal begs questions about the value accorded to material culture that I have been pressing in my art practice over the last few years.
On the way out, you have the chance to see CSK himself, stuck ‘in exile’ at his administrative desk.
I am in Taiwan for a few weeks to discuss the possibility of a new commission here, run a workshop with local artists, and to give an artist talk. According to one banner, at least, I am ‘the’ talking artist.
If I am to develop a work for Taipei, then I am keen to understand the city better. There is certainly plenty to see an do. Of vital importance for any single traveller (by which I mean unattached rather than simply traveling alone) is Xiahai City God Temple. It may be small but it is one of Taipei’s most venerated places of worship, mainly because of the Matchmaker God who is believed to find you your ideal partner in less than six months.
A constant stream of (largely) beautiful young women shake incense vigorously in front of a 43cm high image of an old man with a beard. I made my request silently.
In an adjacent room the Wife Goddess is left pretty much without disciples. She blesses marriages. Perhaps the Matchmaker God is doing such good work that there is no need for any further blessings. According to my guidebook, the temple claims that 9,316 couples got married in 2008 alone thanks to the Matchmaker God’s help.
Outside you can hydrate with a cup of cupid’s tea. The translation is unambivalently confident.
Xiahai City God Temple is located on Dihua Street, a series Chinese Baroque style shops and houses many of which survive from the 1920s. Pharmacies, delicatessens, grocery stores, many selling things I found completely unidentifiable.
I had mentioned to my host that I was keen to try Taiwanese tea. Juan Chin took me to Wistaria Tea House, a historical centre of liberal education and debate, which also sells the most delicious tea. We tried several types prepared in different ways.
Accompanied by this delicious mung bean cake, which had just the right level of sweetness and glutinous texture.
The food in Taiwan is famous and rightly so. It brings together the best of flavours from its colonisers. In this great back street restaurant in Ximen (where the dishes are washed outside), I had the most amazing hot ‘silk’ cucumbers in clam sauce. Really delicious.
What is more, if you choose to eat Chinese style food you can pretty much pay as little as you want. This meal of vegetable and won ton soup with cold cucumbers in garlic and chilli cost about £1.60.
An amazing source of inexpensive foods are the night markets which are scattered across the city. These come alive just as the sun is setting shortly after 6 pm and are busy until nearly midnight. Although small, some of the stalls are nationally famous, like this one where you select the food you want to eat, put it in a colander, give it to the chef, who boils it in their renown soy soup, and gives it back to you to eat.
This guy is making noodles, scraping thin slices into his pot from a giant lump of dough.
I have not yet tried the ‘pigs blood on a stick’ which is being sold from this bamboo steamer but apparently it is delicious. They certainly weren’t short of customers.
Many of the stalls looked like little theatres, and I enjoyed just looking at the actors as they played their part in the night life of the city.
And if none of that takes your fancy, then there is always Dr. Pasta.
The joke goes like this: If it’s snowing on midsummer in Tromsø, then you know it’s going to be a late spring.
Well ‘summer’ is not far off and it is snowing in Tromsø. Already now, in early May, the sun is not really setting. It pops below the horizon just after midnight only to emerge less than an hour later. By the end of May, it won’t set at all and there will be 2 months of unbroken daylight.
This was the view outside my hotel window at midnight on the day I arrived:
Situated at 69 degrees north, Tromsø is 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle at the tippy top of Norway. Sometimes described (perhaps exaggeratedly) as the Paris of the North, Tromsø boasts the northernmost University, brewery, and cathedral, amongst other things. There really isn’t all that much further north to go. The population is about 70,000.
I am here as part of the performance festival Vårscenefest, to give a presentation and workshop. The hotel that I am staying in is a converted hospital, initially founded by the ‘Grey Sisters of the holy Elizabeth in Breslau’. It is modest but comfortable in the heated-bathroom-floor Norwegian way. One big advantage is a remnant of its relatively recent hospital days: the hospital bed.
I have spent a bit too much of the light evenings fiddling with the buttons, trying to ascertain the perfect leg lift to raised head ratio. To be honest, I am a bit concerned about going back to flat when I get home.
My room also has what must be the only ever piece of hotel art that I have ever, even remotely, coveted. In fact, I don’t want it, but I am quite, erm, charmed by it. This is a first. Stitched figures do their thing across its broad canvas.
Tromsø is an island. On my Sunday off, I walked across the long bridge to the mainland and took the cable car to the top of mount Storsteinen, 421 metres up.
On the viewing platform at the top there are spectacular views of Tromsø and the surrounding mountains.
All of a sudden there was a snowstorm. It was as if some giant hand was painting out the scene from left to right. Here it is moving in.
And then everything was just a grey-blue-white. You could barely see a few metres in front of you.
On the top of the mountain there was a strange white-on-white-on-white going on with some kid’s snow sculpture.
So I decided to go to the cafe (follow the stuffed snow cat thing) and wait for the storm to clear. Which it did, almost as quickly as it appeared.
Walking back into Tromsø town, I passed the Ishavskatedralen, the Arctic Cathedral. Built in 1965 it is a architectural landmark for the area, visible from all over.
It sits in contrast to the Tromsø Domkirke, the world’s northernmost Protestant cathedral and Norway’s only wooden cathedral, built in 1861. The wood carving is lovely and refreshingly crucifix-free. The building overwhelmingly reminds me of the church in every wooden toy town I had as a child.
Another extremely pleasing wooden structure, is this tiny shop selling bric-a-brac. It’s possibly the cutest shop in the world.
As I walked back over from the mainland, the Hurtigruten was slowly making its way into dock, sounding its deep horn. The Hurtigruten makes its passage along the miles of Norwegian coast from Bergen in the south west, to Kirknes at the north east. I had taken this ship on the short voyage from Bodo to the Lofoten Islands where I was working on a project in 2008, and was absolutely amazed by the beauty of the Arctic islands. It’s a luxury tourist trip but also vital daily transportation for people and things in these remote areas.
If you get the chance to visit the islands in the north of Norway, then do. It is absurdly expensive here (I’ve never paid so much for a bread roll in my life) but the pay-off is spectacular scenery.
It’s a bit childish, I know, but there’s something really nice about being met at the airport by a driver with your name scrawled on a board. I do nothing. I say nothing. I give myself over to your expertise and let you transport me to my destination.
This last week I have been in Stockholm for the rehearsals of a new work, Operahjälpen (Opera Helps) with the Swedish opera company Folkoperan. The idea of the piece is straightforward. You apply for a place with a problem and we send an opera singer to your home. The singer will listen to your problem, suggest an aria, and then sing to you. It is a pleasure and a privilege to work with these musicians who have spent hours upon hours, year after year, training their diaphragm and larynx to produce this magical sound. The power and intensity of their voices, especially in the close proximity of domestic space is overwhelming and I have trouble keeping my emotions in check. Perhaps more than any other piece I have made, I really feel that I am the ideal audience member of this work.
I have a small apartment in Södermalm, the south island (of the 14 islands that make up this incredible capital, which is equal parts city, park and water). Södermalm, formerly where the ‘workers’ lived, is now the trendy ‘Shoreditch’ of Stockholm. Every second shop is a Swedish design or interiors shop. In Götgatan (which I pronounce as ‘yogurt garden’) a neon sign puns the command STOCK HOME, an instruction which panics the mind into considering the inadequacy of one’s own décor. The reflection of the electric blue crucifix in the window of this shop provokes the consideration that design really is a second religion here.
On my morning off there was one shop that I wanted to go to: Svenskt Tenn. Founded in 1924, Svenskt Tenn employed the architect, designer and artist Josef Frank, who made a series of incredibly beautiful textile designs that still feel fresh, vibrant and seductive, decades on from their initial creation. The shop, which has just been refitted, is half museum, half showroom. Many of Frank’s designs are mounted on the wall.
The fabric is wildly expensive. Smartly dressed women place orders in hushed voices. Assistants unroll bolts of cloth, taking heavy shears to section of material.
When pressed with what I might do with half a meter my imagination failed me, so I gave up. Not far from Svenskt Tenn is the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum), which houses the Swedish collection of design, textile and folk craft.
I wanted to see an exhibition of ‘Skolslöjd’ (school handicrafts). Sweden was the first country in the world to make ‘craft’ a school subject in the 19th Century. Hundreds answered a public call for examples of ‘slöjd’ and the resulting exhibition showcases everything from hammered metal spoons to embroidered napkins.
More interesting than the items themselves were the giggling middle and late aged museum visitors who chuckled to each other, pointing out a slightly lopsided pair of wooden bookends or a knitted tea-cosy, and recalling their own ‘slöjd’ successes and failures.
A nice touch on the giant iron door handle of the museum was a ‘slöjd handle warmer’ so that you didn’t have to feel the cold metal against your skin.
Wandering back to Folkoperan for the afternoon rehearsal, I popped into an eclectic boutique and found this lovely trompe l’oeil mask by the Swedish student designer and illustrator Ebba Forslind.
It’s like being in a David Lynch or Coen brothers movie.
My motel room (Culver City Travelodge) is just like the stakeout motel rooms of crime thrillers, with its own front door off a common balcony. It’s got several ‘room dividers’ for you to hold your breath behind, trying to avoid the immanent shootout.
The television is the size of a dining table. (I read on a bus shelter advertisement that Americans watch an average of 13 years of TV in their life.)
I arrived into LAX after a reasonable flight from Heathrow, having taken a risk on seat 33K. Bulk head. A little extra legroom but this is where bassinettes are fitted. The screaming infant was on the other side but it still required my most zen-like ‘letting go’.
Everyone told me: you will need a car. Even after the first day I could see that this was wise advice. However, I wasn’t looking forward to driving an automatic for the first time, on the wrong side of the road, in a hire car, in one of the most traffic heavy cities on the planet, in the dark, tired from an 11-hour sleepless journey. I couldn’t believe it when I was presented with a Nitro four by four SUV, hilariously described by some online retailers as ‘compact’. It feels like I’m driving a small bus.
There is no induction. They just tell you which lot the car is in and that the keys are in the ignition. It was already completely dark by the time I got there and in the unlit carpark I was at a loss even to find the, erm, light switch. I had to keep opening and shutting the driver’s door for 20 seconds of illumination in order to try and locate the relevant controls. But after a jolty start and a kind (although rather loud) explanation from some random guy that my jerking was probably due to the fact that I had my foot on the emergency break (it’s not a clutch Joshua, this is an automatic car) I managed to follow the sat-nav to aforesaid motel.
I’m in LA for just 5 nights. The main reason is to visit The Museum of Jurassic Technology and interview the Founder Director David Wilson for a research project I am making into artist leaders. As the conundrum of its name would suggest, The Museum of Jurassic Technology is something of an anomaly. How to describe what it is? Well, from the outside it looks a bit like a, well, I’m not sure it looks like anything much other than itself. Here it is:
Located in the historic Palms district of Culver City, Los Angeles at a the busy intersection of Venice Boulevard and Main Street, this easy to miss exterior hides a tardis of expertly detailed glass fronted vitrines, holographic film projections, audio guides and scale models. The themes are diverse yet connected (the connections are themselves part of the wonder to be untangled and discovered). Memory, the history of the museum, miniaturisation, the common man, the wonder of discovery, the art of science: a particular favourite of mine was the authoritative film on the life of Hagop Sandaldjian who developed an innovative method for the ergonomics of violin fingering and was a miniaturist in extremis. The film is screened next to several of his ‘sculptures’, which include a detailed anatomically accurate figure of Napoleon in the eye of a needle. You can only view it through a microscope.
You are never entirely sure of what you are looking at. In this way The Museum of Jurassic Technology proselytises the value to be found in doubt, and asks us to question institutional authority more generally. But this is not a museum of fairytales. It is not depicting fiction. It’s more that fact is always presented, in Wilson’s own words for describing the museum itself, as more of a “grey area”.
For nearly 30 years David Wilson has been adding to the museum displays with painstaking dedication and has developed an international following. It has the same status in the museum (and art and science) worlds, as cult movies do in film. It was a pleasure and a privilege to talk with him and the fulfilment of a long time aspiration to visit his museum.
(If you are interested in finding out more about The Museum of Jurassic Technology, then get hold of a copy of Lawerence Weschler’s 1995 book Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. It is amusing and accessible. It still feels fresh and remains in print.)
Five minutes walk from The Museum of Jurassic Technology are The Culver Studios, where some of the greatest films of all time have been shot, including Citizen Kane and Gone With The Wind. Although its umpteen ‘stages’ are still used for shoots, as I walked past, it was the studio building itself that seemed to be the star of a giant film rig, with enormous camera crane.
Today, my one and only full ‘day off’, I decided to leave Los Angeles by the famous Highway 1, through to Malabu (home to half of the Hollywood A-list) and up the coast to Santa Barbara. It’s amazing that in just 45 minutes on leaving one of the most urban of all conurbations in the world, you can be in wilderness. This hurriedly taken photograph by the side of the road is unfortunately a poor representation of the scenery, which is epic. The Pacific is on one side and Los Padres National Forest on the other.
Oh, and I forgot to mention 21 degrees. Back to scarf and hat tomorrow.