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.
For the last two weeks I have been on my annual trip to Fredrikstad in the South-East of Norway to teach at the Norwegian Theatre Academy. I’ve been doing this pretty much every year since 2007 and it’s the one piece of ‘regular’ teaching that I maintain.
Standing at the urinals in Rygge Airport, I was greeted by this chewing gum and sanitary grill chap. Fellow passengers were unimpressed as I reached for my camera.
Norway is a very long country and you are never very far from the coast. Fredrikstad is in the bottom right.
The Norwegian Theatre Academy is a small school. There are only ever two years at a time. Students study under ‘acting’ or ‘scenography’ (although there is a lot of blurring of boundaries and in many ways it is akin to an art school training in the UK). The entire group of 3rd year actors that I have been teaching comprises 7 students. Their resources are exceptional. Courses are taught in English. Modules are often delivered by a slate of international visiting artists. As there is a strictly limited series of recreational activities in this quiet city, especially in the long winter months, students work hard and form strong bonds.
During my time here, we have been thinking about ‘audience’ and students have been encouraged to explore, examine and create innovative ways of working with audiences. This has included the discussion of performance ethics and personal limits in stagecraft. Here Maja Clemensten Hansen responds to the question of whether or not she would kill an animal during a performance, a pet shop goldfish in hand. She didn’t. The fish was returned to the shop.
The students have been setting each other challenges, which they accept or refuse. Performance experiments that explore what is risked when an artist meets an audience.
I am staying in a small apartment about 2 minutes walk from the Academy. Located in the roof of a barn conversion, my temporary home is on land that was owned by Edvard Munch’s Aunt. Apparently, when he came to Fredrikstad during what turned out to be influential years, Munch stayed in the ‘ginger bread’ building just across the yard.
More immediate to my local environment, is the fact that my next-door neighbour really, really likes Coca Cola.
Given that they pay you 1 krona for every aluminium can that you return to the supermarket here, she is hoarding quite a lucrative stash. The cigarette butts might fetch less.
I know it is really puritanical to publish this photo on my blog but it is so genuinely strange to me that someone would not empty the ashtray at their own home. I find myself drawn to it as a kind of cultural oddity.
The Academy moved to a new building last year. It was purpose built. The spaces are great but I still have a soft spot for the old site in Gamlebyen, the old town of Fredrikstad, which is built on an incredible star-shaped island and is one of the oldest surviving fortified towns in Europe.
The most convenient way to get there as a pedestrian, is by ferry across the River Glomma (the longest river in Norway at 598-kilometres with a drainage basin that covers a full 13% of the country). I decided to go back for a stroll there on my day off. Twilight on the water. There was always something that gave me a kick by arriving to work by boat.
Last Saturday I took the (expensive) 1 hour 15 minute train journey to Oslo and spent the day with the former Head of Acting, Camilla Eeg-Tverbakk and her family. In the centre of town, in view of the Royal Palace, some guy was creating one of his own.
We took the tram up into the mountains to witness and partake in some sledge action.
It was good fun but freezing. Camilla and Per Gunnar’s ridiculously cute son Viktor had pronounced earlier in the winter, “I like summer”. I found myself agreeing.
Suetomi, named after the chef, is a ten seat counter restaurant (with additional private dining room for six) in a side street in Azabu, Tokyo. It would be easy to miss. A modest 30cm sign with the name and ’3F’ is all that indicates you are in the correct place. The building itself is not impressive; a grey concrete tower, which looks from the outside, like any other residential building in the area.
I had been here once before. My friend Nozomu Takase (advertising executive and man about town) had taken me here as a treat in May. Now it was my turn to treat Goh Ideta, a belated birthday present and as a thank you for hosting me on this brief trip (part business, mostly pleasure). Like so many places in Japan, without the introduction, I simply would never have known it existed.
Arriving at the restaurant is pretty much like arriving at the door of an apartment. The space inside is small but carefully decorated. You walk along a skipping stone corridor past the private dining room on the right and into the ‘main’ space: a room of about 4 meters square with an L-shaped bench of unvarnished pale wood at which you sit and behind which stands the chef. Presumably this is Kasumicho Suetomi.
There is no menu, simply a choice of prices, which you have agreed at the time of booking (well in advance). Lunch is either Y5,000 (£41.50) or Y10,000* (£83) if you sit at the counter.
The taking of photographs in such and intimate space is inappropriate (you sit next to fellow diners as close as on the Tokyo trains) but I did have a notebook to hand in which I jotted down the tastes of this nine course feast.
I would run out of superlatives too quickly, so will stick to simply describing the food.
grilled Japanese potato (ebi-imo)
salt roasted gingko nuts (speared on pair of pine needles)
dried mullet roe (karasumi) in a rice paste (mochi) sandwich
decorated with a fallen red Maple leaf
Of particular interest here was the bright orange karasumi, which looks something like a dried apricot but tastes of caviar. The chewiness, sandwiched between the melting mochi worked particularly well.
shredded signora mushrooms (maitake)
with mochi rice
and grated yuzu citrus peel
A little bit like a risotto but with a very clear flavour. The yuzu adds a kind of sour mandarin twist to the savoury mushroom taste.
consomme with sea bream
and mild spring onion (kujo-negi)
with shredded yuzu citrus peel
Next to the sour citrus and the sharp spring onion, the fish tastes almost sweet.
sashimi of tuna
with fresh horseradish (wasabi) and soy sauce
sashimi of sea bream
with sudachi citrus and salt
perilla (shiso) sprouts
After the cooked sea bream, then you have it raw. The taste with the citrus and the salt makes this fresh cut of fish even fresher, as if it has literally just been pulled from the sea.
simmered radish (daikon)
with fried tofu (oage)
and wilted chrysanthemum leaves (kyo-kikuna)
The chrysanthemum leaves are slightly bitter and so draw out the sweetness of the stock (dashi) that the daikon has been cooked in.
grilled hilgendorf saucord (nodoguro)
with Japanese mustard (mizuna)
and shredded fried tofu (oage)
This fish sounds like a principle of chemistry. I had never heard of it. It was barbecued on a charcoal grill in front of you, so tastes slightly smokey.
shredded champagne crab (matsubagani)
Sweet and sour. A dressing with a small amount of vinegar and some kind of citrus.
pickled turnip (kabu)
cherry blossom shrimp (sakura-ebi)
with Japanese rice and Szechuan pepper (sansho)
miso soup with tofu
This is really the ‘filler’, which they leave until the end. They want you to stay a little bit hungry so that you savour the tastes for the duration of the meal.
You can have as much shrimp rice as you want. I had thirds. The rice had continued to cook on the sides of the clay pot it was served from, which meant you got more crispy bits the longer you ate.
Japanese persimmon (kaki)
Fresh, cooled and perfectly ripe with a delicate perfume.
* Just in case you were wondering which ‘price’ has been described.
36 formal meetings
51 different people
1 radio interview
1 public presentation
…my work as Thinker in Residence at Performance Space has come to an end. It’s been fascinating and I shall write it all up somewhere else but it’s not really in the spirit of this blog to be preoccupied with work.
Regular readers will be aware however, of the longstanding preoccupation with things banana. Well this week I experienced a new addition to the catalogue. It’s the love child of a foam banana and a Milky Way: The banana whip Milky Way.
This Mars treat is only available in Australia and even here it is hard to find. After a chance encounter at the checkout of a convenience store, I went in a vain search for another stockist. Eventually I had to retrace my steps in order to repeat the experience.
It’s not for the purists amongst you. There isn’t really any chocolate or any banana. But for those (like me) that love a bit of fake banana, this really hits the spot. Bite into the soft outer coating and through a bright yellow light mouse of fake banana and then let the whole thing rest at the top of your mouth for a good minute as you suck in the sweetness.
Fake things with sweet tastes could also be a description applied to many of the sites on offer at Manly. I took a ferry there last weekend. In 1787, Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy left England with a fleet of ships to establish a colony in New South Wales. He was to be its first Governor. While exploring Port Jackson, Phillip was impressed by the “confidence and manly behaviour” of a group of aborigines in the northern reaches of the harbour, and called the place “Manly Cove”. (I love this. All naming should be like that.)
Today it is full of people surfing the sea, punching balls on the beach, or drinking beer in the bars. Manly pursuits prevail.
And this is surely the only place in the world where it would be both geographically and anatomically accurate to be labelled a ‘Manly Lifeguard’.
I took in the view and left.
A view I stayed longer with (for 360 degrees in fact) was from the Orbit Bar atop the 1967 Harry Seidler building in Australia Square.
At the brilliant suggestion of Sydney based artist Barbara Campbell, she, Daniel Brine, Jonathan Cooper and I, sat in very comfortable seats drinking a variety of expensive cocktails and eating warm nuts on a rotating platform with fabulous views across Sydney as the sun was setting. (For those people who were encouraging me to do the famous bridge walk: you don’t get to drink cocktails on that and it costs twice the price of my selected Lime and Ginger Gimlet, Nero Sangue, and The Burning Monk.)
We spent far too long giggling about the fact that we were on a moving circular disk 47 floors up. It has always been a fantasy of mine to dine in a rotating restaurant and although we only drank, it was somehow even better that way.
Day turned into evening and after 2 hours we were back to where we started, only it was darker outside.
Unfortunately everywhere we tried for a bite to eat afterwards was closed and we ended up with a burger and fries in Hungry Jacks on George Street. It was a real fall back down to earth.
Another fantasy, though more recently acquired, was the desire to see inside the concert hall of the Opera House, and not just to see but to hear something stirring. On this, my last night in Sydney I treated myself to Mahler 2: Resurrection, a gigantic work performed by Sydney Symphony and conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, from which I have just returned.
After you get past the bun fight in the foyers (there are just so many people going to so many different things) you must then resist the temptation to purchase a Sydney Opera House Barbie (oh yes, really).
Then you enter the hall, in one of the giant sails. I had selected to sit in the ‘organ gallery’ behind the orchestra so that I could get a good view of the hall and take this photograph for you.
It meant I got a lot of percussion but I like that.
The piece is epic and with the most extraordinary finale. French horns and timpani off stage answer those on stage. A chorus of singers and two soloists are used sparsely but with pathos. I found myself deeply moved by the wall of sound and the ultimately uplifting and affirmative ending.
And now I must go to bed. Tomorrow I travel to Japan, a country which I think about a lot and that I am getting to love even more, each time I go.
I took a long weekend off and a one and a half hour plane journey to Melbourne. Almost certainly I wouldn’t have made this trip had it not been for the fact that I had been invited to stay as a guest of my friend Andrew Carcelli, who I had not seen for 16 years (or heard from for 15).
As my one personal connection in Australia, I did a little Googling to track him down and an email to his former employer was happily forwarded.
In 1994/5 Andrew was travelling around Europe, and we met behind the bars and in the private dining rooms of the ENO (English National Opera) at the London Coliseum, where we were both working. It wasn’t long before we were close friends and that four of us (Andrew and his girlfriend Gitte Hansen from Copenhagen, Ben Zühlcke, now long standing friend of mine, and I) were all living in a one-bedroom flat in North Lambeth (a flat I was later to tenant and eventually to buy).
It was a heady summer. We were all just over the cusp of adulthood. It was pretty much a case of anything goes.
Andrew returned to Australia and in those pre-email days it wasn’t long before we forgot to be in touch.
I flew out of Sydney on the 11 o’clock flight on 11.11.11, a fact that was not lost on the Virgin Australia ground staff team member as she giggled her way through the boarding announcement. It was not lost on me either, being as it is, a fitting time for reflection and remembrance.
Standing at the gate of Melbourne Airport it was difficult to look at Andrew and see a decade and a half of change. It seemed like 16 weeks had elapsed rather than 16 years. The real change came when we arrived at his home, and I met his partner Tara and their two children, Maya (7) and Luca (4).
Of the various encounters that Andrew arranged for me over my three-day visit, special mention has to be made of the trip to Hanging Rock. This was an unexpected treat, as I had no idea that it was driving distance from Melbourne and if I had thought about it would be the very place (perhaps in the whole of Australia) that I would choose to visit.
Hanging Rock, the place where “history and mystery meet” (that is according to the Macedon Range website) was made internationally famous by Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, and Peter Weir’s subsequent film Picnic at Hanging Rock. Geologically it is a mamelon: a rock formation created over 6 million years ago by the eruption of thick lava through a narrow vent in the bedrock. As the lava is not fluid, it does not flow away; instead it congeals around the vent, forming a small hill or mound on the surface. The outflow from successive eruptions forms additional layers on top, and the resulting pile of layers stand over 100 metres above the surrounding surface. As Hanging Rock’s magma cooled and contracted, it split into rough columns. These weathered over time into the many pinnacles that can be seen today.
The film Picnic at Hanging Rock (Australia’s first international hit) tells of the disappearance of three girls and one of their teachers from Mrs Appleyard’s private boarding school during a disastrous picnic at the rock on St Valentine’s day 1900. It was released in 1975 and I must have watched it when it was first broadcast in the UK in the late 70s or early 80s. I will have been no older than 10. It made an extremely powerful impression on me. So much so in fact, that I remember, despite being an extremely reluctant reader at the time, I picked up the book (possibly from my elder sister’s shelf) and worked my way through the 200 or so pages, desperate to try and untangle what had happened to Miranda, Irma Leopold, Marion Quade and their mathematics mistress Miss Greta McCraw.
It was with the same sense of curiosity that I searched through the shelves of Melbourne’s second hand bookshops to find the identical edition that I had read nearly 30 years before. I am quite certain that some of you will recognise the cover.
Perhaps it is best left to Joan Lindsay to describe the site that meets your eye as your carriage enters the plain on which the rock stands.
While they were talking the angle of vision had gradually altered to bring Hanging Rock into sudden startling view. Directly ahead, the great volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. The three girls in the box seat could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at a distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue sky.
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lyndsey, (Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1977 ) p.19/20
As the vertical facade of the Rock drew nearer, the massive slabs and soaring rectangles repudiated the easy charms of its fern-clad lower slopes. Now outcrops of prehistoric rock and giant boulders forced their way to the surface above layers of rotting vegetation and animal decay: bones, feathers, birdlime, the sloughed skins of snakes; some with jagged horns and jutting spikes, obscene knobs and scabby carbuncles; others smoothly humped and rounded by the passing of a million years.
We climbed the tarmac path, past the warning signs.
It really would be too dangerous without some intervention, especially in today’s litigious culture. There is at least one plaque to a fallen child.
At the top, I was a bit concerned that Luca’s bravado jumping was testing all our catching skills. The ‘safety features’ are actually very minimal and it was remarkably easy to enter into the mystery once more.
As Tara unwound the tale to seven year old Maya, the child’s ‘what?’, ‘when?’, ‘how?’, ‘why?’ interrogation, allowed us all to re-examine the facts as they have been presented.
The place is definitely special. A giant’s petrified spew in an otherwise flat landscape. The faces of rocks stare back at you.
No wonder so many people fear it as a dangerous place. It certainly is atmospheric.
Although we had already eaten, I forced down an orange ice-lolly, just to have had a picnic at Hanging Rock at the same place that Miranda had eaten the fruit jelly, just ahead of her misadventure.
The trip took me back beyond the fifteen years since I had been in contact with Andrew to a time fifteen years before that, as a child in Edinburgh, and the development of my own imagination.
Enough of the rock.
Back in Melbourne, Andrew took me to the State Library of Victoria. If ever books were ready for the opera, it is in the ornate buttressed balconies of the La Trobe Reading Room.
One the plane back to Sydney, the abstract expressionist sunset, the picnic at Hanging Rock, especially after last week’s Klimt leaf, got me thinking once more of how nature imitates art.