AND: The Workshops in People’s Homes program is launching in just under a month. It’s been nearly a year since your first visit to Cumbria with the AND team. What was the inspiration for this new work in Cumbria? How has the project changed or developed from that first trip? What are you most excited about?
Joshua Sofaer: Travelling around Cumbria last year and meeting residents, I was struck by the number of people who were using their home as the site of creativity and as their business base. Perhaps this is something to do with the non-metropolitan, rural, and sparsely populated nature of the county. Homes serve a number of different functions: living space, studio, office, and store. People were also incredibly hospitable, inviting us in for tea, encouraging us to try a local speciality, and sharing their stories with us. It’s both enriching and humbling to be a recipient of that kind of hospitality. It puts you in an attentive and generous mood yourself. It makes you give respect and pay attention. That’s what Workshops in People’s Homes is really about: finding a way to create community through shared experiences.
In many ways the project has remained true to the initial proposal. We wanted 10 workshops in 10 homes, and that’s what we’ve got. I was looking for an emphasis on storytelling, insomuch as whatever the workshop is ostensibly about, they are still as much about meeting individual workshop facilitators and stepping into their home, as they are about learning a new skill.
What I’m most excited about is becoming a participant in the workshops myself.
AND: Your work seems have moved from performance to participation in the past decade. Can you tell us more about your process of art making through participation and collaboration? And is there a particular reason or significant work that inspired you to start working in this way?
Joshua Sofaer: I’ve been making artworks for over two decades, and it’s true that in the first decade my output was largely a kind of solo performance. I think that was a rite of passage for me. I suppose the truth is that I became exhausted with myself. Now, I’m still interested in stories, only not so much mine. What I’m doing at this point may seem quite different but there is continuity. It’s just not my story anymore; it’s the story of those that I meet. And in the same way that I found that first decade of making work about myself very useful in terms of understanding my own identity and my own place in the world, that’s what I have tried to offer, or facilitate for others. So it’s a flip side of the same coin. I’m also genuinely interested in what other people have to say about their experiences.
AND: From observing the development of the project we can see how communication and coaching skills, and your own generous approach to sharing these, play a major role in the development of these types of projects. Can you tell us more about how and why these skills play an important role in your work?
Joshua Sofaer: I fell into coaching almost by accident and I wasn’t prepared for how transformative I would find it, and what it enabled me to do in terms of holding the space for others to speak, both personally and professionally. We can all benefit from these skills, and I think we should move, as a society, towards a ‘coaching culture’. Coaching skills are invaluable in participatory art settings, when asking people to go on a collective journey while maintaining their own independence and answering their own needs.
AND: Working with other people in this way can be complex, with a lot of unknowns, meaning you and the project format need to be flexible and responsive to the participants. Can you talk about some of the challenges and rewards from working in this way?
Joshua Sofaer: The challenges are the rewards insomuch as you are asking people to go on a journey with you and you are offering them permission to do something they might otherwise not do. Some requests that I make of people can at first appear a bit bonkers. The reward is that people take that permission and run with it. I believe in the transformative potential of art practice. It’s a phrase that’s bandied around a lot but I still believe it. These kinds of participative projects aren’t for everyone but if someone makes it their own they can find it immensely satisfying. One of the specific challenges for me in Workshops in People’s Homes has been trying to find a common way of engaging people with a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds. Some of the workshop leaders are very experienced facilitators and for others this will be the first time they have done anything like it.
AND: Is the move away form performance a deliberate one, or something you will return to?
Joshua Sofaer: Performance still underpins pretty much everything that I do. In fact I would like to make more large-scale performance in the role of director and facilitator. It’s true that I’m not so interested in making solo performance work myself right now. I do get asked to do it occasionally, and I’m in the luxurious position of being able to say ‘no’. When I’m offered a commission, I think: ‘Do I really want to do this?’ That’s an amazingly privileged position to be in. It’s not that I won’t ever personally perform again, but I’m not seeking it out.
AND: This is not the first time that people’s homes have become the site of your work (Opera Helps, Tours of Peoples Homes, etc.) Can you tell us more about why the place of ‘home’ continues to be a source of inspiration or a site for your work?
Joshua Sofaer: The home is in many ways positioned as the opposite of the institution. There are the museum, or the art gallery, or the theatre, or the opera house, and then there is your home. You go between the two. You leave your home to go to the gallery and you leave the gallery to go back to your home. I think we’ve reached an understanding at this cultural moment, that everything is ‘performative’ and that art could be ‘anywhere’ and by offering the home as a site of art, you emancipate art from the institution. It’s not that I don’t believe in institutions, I do. I love art institutions. I love spending time in them, and I love working in them. At the same time, I would like to flatten the hierarchy between the home and the institution as the site of art. In fact I would like to flatten the hierarchy across the creation, appreciation and interpretation of art in general.
Homes are also places where, hopefully, we feel comfortable and relaxed. We set the rules, albeit within the confines of our resources and the law. We are also curious about going into other people’s homes. It’s always fascinating to visit people’s homes, and to experience different ways of living. The home is about comfort but it can also be about adventure. It is both entirely knowable and continually new.
AND: Finally, if you could deliver a workshop in your home, what would it be?
Joshua Sofaer: I think it would have to be something to do with my collections. I have a lot of collections in my home. I have collections of disposable ice cream spoons, airmail stickers, Polaroid photographs, postcards of the Mona Lisa, flipbooks, Finnish bread tags, photo-booth portraits, fake noses, to name just some of them. Although I occasionally use these in public artworks, really they belong in the domestic space of my home, where they are stored and displayed. So I think I would do something with the domestic collection.
Seoul-Incheon International Airport is one of the largest and busiest airports in the world. Since 2005 it has been rated the best airport worldwide every year by Airports Council International. (It has also been listed as the world’s cleanest airport by Skytrax.)
On the return from New Zealand the layover in Incheon offered a much appreciated rest. Although those of us continuing to the UK the following day were put up in a very nice hotel over night, there is plenty to do in the terminal building itself. The airport has its own golf course, private sleeping rooms, an ice-skating rink, a casino, indoor gardens, and a Museum of Korean Culture.
On the main concourse of the shopping arcade a string quartet play live Western classical music. Elsewhere Korean janggu drum and daegeum flute are played by musicians in hanbok (traditional Korean dress).
On my way to find a good source of kimchi to take home, I was met by a recreation of a Joseon period royal progression.
I felt a weird kind of doubling when, jet-lagged, tired and in between time zones, I witnessed this parade from a different age. For a split second, I imagined that perhaps I had arrived at a place where two time zones could exist together. It was simultaneously magical and ridiculous.
New Zealand, or Aotearoa as I have come to think of it, using the Māori name – the land of the long white cloud – is both familiar and foreign. Arriving into the Auckland summer from the UK winter is a sort of time travel. The seasons speed up. For the first few days it was not just the weather that was confusing me; I had a kind of existential panic: what am I doing here?
My trip was an opportunity to research the long history of pre-colonial performance in Māori visual culture, under the auspices of a British Council and Arts Council England fellowship: the Artists International Development Fund. From the outset, my hosts Auckland University and Auckland War Memorial Museum had warned me that it is both difficult and potentially discourteous to simply drop into an investigation of Māoridom. With a lived experience and history of racism and oppression, tangata whenua – the people of the land – are necessarily wary about outsiders coming over to ‘study’ them. There are also taboos against sharing knowledge with strangers. As Cleve Barlow states in Tikanga Whakaaro, his book which explains key concepts in Māori culture, ‘I have pondered for a long time as to how best to disseminate this knowledge to others without revealing too much (as I was taught in my own training), but still being able to offer a useful basis from which others could achieve greater understanding.’ [p.xvi]
It was certainly not my intention to pursue some sort of anthropological investigation, to appropriate, or even to fully understand Māori ritual. As much as anything I was interested to see how Māori culture operates alongside, without and within, contemporary pākehā (foreigner, white New Zealander) culture. A starting point for the research was to consider the pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony), whakapapa (statement of ancestry and belonging), and haka (war cry and celebratory). These ceremonies and rituals are what are superficially familiar, and in the case of the haka, internationally exported, but in terms of their rationale and context they are by no means familiar to those who have not spent time on a marae (the space of Māori community).
It was a good time to be in Aotearoa New Zealand, as discussions of national identity were everywhere.
The 1st February was Auckland Anniversary Day, a controversial commemoration, celebrating as it does the arrival of William Hobson, later the first Governor of New Zealand in the Bay of Islands in 1840. For the first time this year a dedicated Māori Festival ran alongside the regatta, funfair, circus and general merriment on a hot bank holiday weekend. Tāmaki Herenga Waka Festival maintained a separate identity (and a separate venue) to the other activities of the day. There was no attempt to conjoin cultural celebrations.
There were wood carving workshops, traditional healing, classes in the use of medicinal plants, food and craft stalls, and both contemporary and traditional entertainment on the main stage.
To a casual observer it may have been easy to dismiss the festival as a kind of historical cultural performance of the kind ‘put on’ for tourists at Auckland War Memorial Museum. At the museum I had sat in the auditorium feeling slightly uneasy at the 30 minute ‘Māori Cultural Performance’, which is staged 3 times a day for visitors. The performers appeared to relish the opportunity to share their music and performance traditions and they did so with skill, gusto and humour, but in the museum setting, robbed of any wider context, it was difficult not to be reminded of the way in which museums and collections have made a fetish out of human display, and reduced the ‘other’ to exotic savage.
At the Tāmaki Herenga Waka Festival however, it was not the same. For a start the audience was different. Friends, family and neighbours, had come to support Te Waka Huia performance group. On at least one occasion, a member of the audience sang a lengthy response from where she had been watching, and those on stage stood patiently waiting for this unplanned but not quite unexpected intervention to finish.
The song and dance were entertaining and enjoyable but to someone (like me) who doesn’t speak Te Reo Māori, it was very difficult to understand what they were singing and dancing about. This shifted dramatically when the the group leader, came to the front of the stage and vehemently protested the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) agreement that the New Zealand government was committed to signing in the following few days. He talked passionately about his belief that the TPP threatened Aotearoa New Zealand sovereignty and the rights afforded to Māori iwi (tribes) by the Treaty of Waitangi. He then announced that the Te Waka Huia had created a new protest haka, which they then went on to perform.
It was an forceful form of protest, full of emotion, and it also made clear that any casual understanding of the haka as a historical cultural performance, was untenable. The power of the moment was undeniable.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was signed on 4th February, against a backdrop of mass protests in the streets. Auckland is an extremely diverse city, perhaps a bit ghettoised, with communities sticking together separately, but at the protests it really did seem like the population was represented. Māori writer and political commentator Morgan Godfery commented, “Personally, I haven’t seen Māori society this politicized in at least five or six years.” One of the main grievances is that the Treaty of Waitangi states that the government must consult with iwi before entering into international accords, and this did not happen. (Other concerns, shared by many, include corporate companies being given the right to sue the New Zealand government under the investor-state settlement clause, which many fear would result in big business being able to hold states to ransom, and profit being put ahead of national decision making.)
Waitangi Day, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 followed on two days later on 6th February. Although it is the national day, it is a day that has been marred in controversy since the treaty was first signed. There are differences in the English and Māori versions of the treaty, which has led many to conclude that the Māori chiefs were subject to fraud. Indeed not all chiefs chose to sign the treaty in the first place. The treaty has been observed or ignored by successive governments since its signing, but in 1975 the Treaty of Waitangi Act gave it contemporary legal standing.
I spent the morning of Waitangi Day on the Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei marae at the open invitation of the community. Marae are on private land and it is common for there to be open days, where people are welcomed. These events are treated with formality and respect, in a similar way to an interfaith dialogue meeting.
The time-honoured protocol sets out a series of customs and rules. The pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony), includes the karanga (welcome call), whaikōrero (formal speech-making), and hongi (salutation of the pressing of noses and foreheads). After reading and discussing so much about Māori culture it felt both an honour and quite emotional to be welcomed onto a marae.
The difference between looking at a whare whakairo (carved ancestral house) and pataka (store house) in the museum close-up, that are being painstaking restored and the one at the centre of the Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei community, is like the difference between the dinner service mounted on the wall never to be used, and the plates you eat your off.
Both have value in different ways.
The current Prime Minister John Key has faced direct and personal protests on Waitangi Day, over several years. This year was no exception. Denied his usual speaking rights in protest at the TPP by the Ngapuhi Te Tii marae where the celebrations usually commence, Key refused to attend.
Key was also widely ridiculed for what many saw as an opportunistic and self-aggrandising attempt to change the New Zealand flag. Throughout my time in Auckland, there was ongoing consultation, debate and reporting about changing the flag ahead of the second referendum in March 2016. Alternative versions of the flag were seen flying on masts around the country.
Although many of the people that I spoke to agreed that it was inappropriate to have the Union Jack on their flag, they also felt the way the process of change had been handled was at best messy and at worst simply a way for Key to try and assert his own legacy. In the end the people voted not to change the flag. For many the real change that needs to happen is for the country to ditch the UK monarchy and become a republic. (What would happen to the Treaty of Waitangi, formed as it is between the ‘crown’ and the ‘iwi’, if Aotearoa New Zealand were to become a republic, I’m not sure.)
My impression over these weeks was that Aotearoa New Zealand is a politically active democracy with opportunities for public debate and an accepted convention of disagreement and dialogue. But as more than one of the many people I met told me, “It’s not normally like this. You’ve come at a very particular time.” It was extremely lucky, given my research interest, that there were these public conversations during my visit. It meant that the ‘performance of nationhood’ floated to the surface of social interaction.
Before I left the UK, I was invited to participate in a group show at the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi in West Auckland. Knowing that my time in Aaotearoa New Zealand was going to be taken up with my project, I wanted to create a work that I could easily export without it reducing the time I had for my research.
The title of the show was ‘They Come From Far Away’, and I decided to take that literally. What does it mean for an artist to be shipped in from across the world and to enter into the aesthetic, artistic, intellectual and social complexities of a different land? My ongoing investigation into the anatomy of the nose, led me to a particular interest in the Māori hongi – the pressing of noses and foreheads. So I created a ‘golden hongi’: a gold-plated double false-nose, cast from my own.
My plan was that a wooden packing crate would stand in the Te Uru gallery, the kind used to transport art and precious objects across the world: to export culture. My head would comically poke out of a hole cut in the wooden case. Strapped to my face would be the ‘golden hongi’, a double sculpture of two noses touching.
This golden hongi is not the warm touching of flesh, of nose and forehead together. It is a cold metallic offer, waiting for the perfect fit, a Cinderella hongi, perhaps. My aim was to press questions about cultural appropriation and the role of the artist in international exchange.
But having actually been welcomed onto a marae myself, having experienced the pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony), whakapapa (statement of ancestry and belonging), haka (war cry and celebratory), and having pressed my nose and forehead along a line of 20 or so members of Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei, I became increasingly unsure and uncomfortable about my plan. On the one hand I remained clear about my intentions. On the other, I was unsure about how the piece would be (mis)read. I felt uncomfortable representing a living tradition of a marginalized people, albeit that the representation was itself trying to raise questions about misrepresentation through meaningful engagement. I perceived a gap between my intention and the potential reception by an audience.
In the end I decided not to show the ‘golden hongi’. Instead I had a single golden nose that I had made sent express from London. The gold nose is at once a kind of protective armour and an ornamental piece of jewellery in a precious metal that is nevertheless still comical. Peering out of the packing crate, as if just shipped in from abroad, I still hoped to press questions about international cultural exchange, while purposefully making myself a comic curiosity.
In a way, my self-censorship – the removal of the ‘golden hongi’ – is symbolic of what I discovered from my research trip in general. I have left with more questions than answers about what it is possible to ‘know’ about another culture. I’m also not sure exactly how I can ‘use’ what I have learnt. Perhaps there will be no direct outcome but I have made many connections to the people and land of Aotearoa New Zealand and contributed to my thinking about the role of performance in the production of identity and nationhood.
In the words of the narrator of The Bone People by Keri Hulme:
‘I salute the breath of life in thee, the same life that is breathed by me, warm flesh to warm flesh, oily press of nose to nose, the hardness of foreheads meeting. I salute that which gives us life.’
(First published 1984 by Spiral, Wellington. 2001 by Picador, p.321/2)
Deoksugung (Deoksu Palace) just opposite City Hall, is one of the ‘Five Grand Palaces’ of Seoul, inhabited by various royalty in the 5 century long Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). The changing of the guard is reenacted for tourists. This is quite different from the changing of he guard at Buckingham Palace, which however archaic and for the benefit of visitors, is nevertheless the actual changing of the actual guard. At Deoksugung actors play the part.
The musicians are real enough and I loved the piercing sound of the double reed taepyeongso, which you can imagine as a very very loud oboe.
For the most part, however, the beards were stuck on.
This was my first full day in Korea and my first introduction to the plethora of hats in their social and cultural history.
The guy on the left here (another stuck-on beard) is wearing a ‘Samo’ (translated simply as ‘official hat’) which was a formal hat worn with the normal-duty uniform by government officials from the late Goryeo period to the late Joseon period. Over 500 years and it never went out of fashion!
Here is one in a glass case in the National Museum of Korea.
And here, rather beautifully, is the ‘hat box’, or rather the ‘case of official uniform, official belt, official hat’. You put your uniform in first, then your belt, and your hat on top of that. Closing the lid everything fits perfectly.
On scrolls in the National Palace Museum, you can see lines of rather comical officials, parading around on various duties. The ones at the back are wearing Samo.
This is a portrait of Bak Mun-su (1691-1756) a Royal Secret Inspector, famous for protecting the Korean people from corrupt royal officials. No doubt he deserved his Samo.
In the National Folk Museum (one of my favourite museums in Seoul) there is a recreation of a traditional upper-class Joseon period wedding. The groom here seems to be wearing a Samo but without flaps (flaps indicated rank). The bride is wearing a Jokduri (women’s ceremonial coronet) which is the formal bridal hat worn during the Joseon period.
In the background several men are wearing wide brimmed Heungnip, a formal hat made of horsehair, worn when conducting rituals.
At the 10th Anniversary Special Exhibition of the National Palace Museum, a series of Royal Portraits are exhibited. Many of them have been damaged over the years, but are nevertheless considered, if not quite sacred, then kinds of national treasure. (There were plenty of ‘intact’ portraits but I actually preferred the imperfect half visible fire and water damaged ones.) In this portrait, the King can be seen wearing a Heungnip with a very high cap, so that the brim sits almost on top of the head.
Here the King is wearing an Ik Seon Gwan, which was reserved for royalty.
That is also the hat worn by King Sejong the Great (reigned 1418-1450) in the 9.5 metre bronze statue in central Seoul. King Sejong the Great profoundly affected Korean history with his introduction of hangul, the native phonetic alphabet system for the Korean language. Prior to its introduction, Korea adapted a version of Chinese characters but it was cumbersome and difficult to learn. Hangul is supposed to be one of the simplest and most effective alphabets in the world, and transformed a largely illiterate population into a literate one.
A few more horsehair hats. On the left is a Sabanggwan and on the right a Jeongjagwan, a three-storied hat. Both from 18-19th Century.
And I’ve thrown this one in but I don’t know what it is.
Back in the Folk Museum and we can see some hats of the less wealthy, including this hardcore rain gear.
And these beautiful straw hats which are amongst my favourite.
Here are ‘Three Koreans’ in hats in a print from 1934 by Paul Jacoulet (1896-1960) a French woodblock artist who was known for a style that mixed traditional Japanese ukiyo-e and techniques he developed himself. Born in France, Jacoulet spent most of his life in Japan (right through the Second World War, where he survived in the countryside by raising chickens and growing vegetables). He must have made this after a short trip across the Sea of Japan.
In the National Museum of Korea there are some very early examples of pretty splendid headgear: crowns, diadems, ornaments.
These gold diadem ornaments for the Baekje queen feature symmetrical scrolling vine patterns and flame motifs. They were most likely attached to a silk hat worn at official ceremonies.
And here are a similar set for the king, only his have spangles! One of the Three-Kingdoms of Korea, the Baekje ruled the South West of Korea from 18BC to 660AD.
Wearing this thing on your head must have caused quite a stir at court.
This gilt-bronze cap is of a type normally found in the tomb of rulers. A current reproduction proposes how it might have been cushioned on a red silk lining.
Another gold cap from the Three-Kingdoms period is this 5th Century Silla example, composed of several gold plates engraved with symmetrical patterns. Experts suggest that it would have been part of a larger ‘crown ensemble’, again probably on some kind of silk base. It looks so contemporary to me. More like something from modernist abstraction than a 1,500 year old hat.
And then there are the crowns themselves. The stories of the people they adorned maybe lost but it is easy to imagine the impact they would have had.
This gold crown, excavated from Geumnyeongchong in Gyeongju is decorated with standing ornaments made in twig and antler shapes, symbols that mediate between heaven and earth.
And from the Hwangnam-daechong Tomb in Gyeongju, this Three-Kingdoms 5th Century Silla designated National Treasure: A gold crown with ornamentation in the form of tree branches and deer antlers attached along the headband.
It really is a beautiful and impressive construction.
Hats were clearly a sign of status in Korea. This has, of course, been the case all over the world, with crowns, laurel wreathes, mitres and so on, all of symbolic significance. Personally I haven’t seen such an array of headgear in other historical cultures as I did in Korea. Only a tiny proportion of which is represented here.
I leave you with this 19th Century portrait of Buddhist Monk Cheongheo Hyujeong (1520-1604), commander of the monk army during the Imjinwaeran, the Japanese invasion of 1592. His extreme piety and humbleness is depicted by the complete lack of hat. His bald head a symbol of his duty to the nation above his personal ambition.
Seoul is freezing. It’s well below freezing. Today it is -15 degrees celsius. In these temperatures even the trees and the ground need to wrap up warm. I have seen these kinds of winter wrappings before in Japan, although I’m not sure I ever saw the ground itself wrapped. There is a kind of perfect meeting of utility and aesthetics in this practice. The bare trees are made accidental sculpture. (Perhaps not so accidental.)
Metal pegs and a lattice of ropes keep matting in place, giving an almost button-upholstered effect.
Rows of pots have straw hats on.
Dead plants protect living ones. In a country where ancestor worship has been a fundamental part of the culture, this seems very fitting.
‘A House for Essex’ created by Grayson Perry and FAT Architecture is unlike any other kind of art experience that I have had. One of a series of houses built for Living Architecture that you can rent outright, it is nevertheless different from the other buildings insomuch as it is a kind of total artwork, a narrative conceit that you can inhabit.
To rent ‘A House for Essex’ you need to enter a ballot with your preferred dates, hope that your luck is in, and then pay upfront. You are then sent a bunch of paperwork with a considerable list of rules, an inventory, and links to local sites. The house is on the edge of Wrabness, a village on the Stour estuary.
It is a kind of fairytale. Like a matryoshka doll, or a series of nesting tables, the structure fans out in a series of repeated shapes that grow in size. Both outside and inside are decorated by a series of tiles which depict details in the life of Julie Cope, the woman at the centre of the fictional narrative, which is the ostensible reason for the building’s existence.
‘A House for Essex’, we are asked to imagine, was built after Julie’s premature death (she was knocked down and killed by a motorbike courier delivering takeaway curry). It is a tribute by her husband Rob, sited a short distance away from their shared home. A kind of contemporary Taj Mahal, the house then is a love token, albeit by a man who never existed, for his fictional late wife. Apart from her unusual death, Julie Cope’s life is ordinary. Born in Essex in 1953 we learn that she fell into a relationship with Dave and for want of a better plan she became pregnant, giving birth first to Daniel and then to Elaine. Dave has an affair and the two split. Later she enters University as a mature student, meets and falls in love with Rob, and becomes a social worker.
While the narrative is radically unremarkable, the treatment is not. The house is a series of ‘reveals’. Hidden doorways in the tiled kitchen wall…
…lead through to a double-height chapel-like space.
The chandelier that hangs above the space is the bike that killed Julie. (It is also the mount for disguised CCTV cameras which are focussed on the artworks which are worth thousands. Fair enough.)
The room is full of Perry’s work and is, at the same time, an artwork in itself. The larger than life-size figure of Julie (as a kind of secular saint) dominates the space. There are also two large pots, the type for which Perry is perhaps most well-known, which also depict key moments in Julie’s story.
The narrative unfolds most literally in two large tapestries, which face each other. The first depicts Julie’s birth, childhood and young adulthood.
A narrative poem in the form of a booklet left on the kitchen table, presents the tale. You go between reading and looking. Details emerge. Julie is holding a bunch of flowers, presumably from an apologetic Rob. The card reads: ‘I am so sorry’.
The other tapestry depicts scenes from Julie’s later adulthood and her untimely death.
A map charts key locations in her life journey across Essex: Canvey Island, Basildon, South Woodham Ferrers, Maldon, Colchester, and Wrabness.
We also see her sprawled out, dying on the street in Colchester not long after having a drink (of Chenin blanc), the motorcycle courier beside her, her council lanyard tumbling to the front of the frame.
In the bedrooms two further murals dwarf the rooms; double portraits, first of Julie and Dave, probably on their wedding day.
It’s pretty incredible to get up so close to the artwork, and to wake up with it too.
I particularly enjoyed lingering my eye on the 2D representations of fabric. There’s some kind of weird duality when one textile depicts another.
In the other bedroom Julie is with Rob.
In a premonition of his sadness to come, Rob is crying. And you can study that tear for as long as you like.
Walking through the bedroom closet takes you out through a mirrored door onto the balconies in the main space.
There are several playful features: reveals, secrets, conundrums, that are never overly tricksy. One particularly enjoyable space is a mirrored corridor that is reminiscent of another home museum: Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln Inn’s Fields in London.
What is important to convey is that you are living in this space for as long as you have rented it. You do domestic things: cook, chat, play games, cuddle up, do a poo, have a bath. And the domesticity of your actions mirrors those of Julie’s ordinary life. Yet it is all presented in such a way that you slip in and out of the fiction and the celebration of the quotidian in all of us. It’s difficult not to celebrate when you are having a bath in this:
And stepping into the garden you are reminded of your own mortality. Somehow it manages not to be macabre.
Outside is Julie’s tomb. A fictional character, in a fictional grave.
And then you say goodbye to Julie and you say goodbye to ‘A House for Essex’. It is unlikely that I will ever stay there again. It is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of a thing. A magical journey into a building, inside a story, through the eyes of an artist, that puts the heart into the everyday.
Claire Antrobus interviews Joshua Sofaer about how his work as coach and his work as an artist interact.
What first attracted you to train as a coach?
A large component of what I do as an artist is speaking with people and I was looking for a way in which I could become more useful when listening to other voices and creating contexts for those voices to be heard. At the same time it would be true to say that I was initially skeptical about coaching. I think that was the result of preconceptions that I had about therapeutic language, which in fact coaching avoids.
After the RD1st course, what other coach training or research have you done?
In terms of formal training, I did the Clean Coaching with Emergent Knowledge distant learning course with The Clean Language Centre. Clean Coaching with Emergent Knowledge is a highly structured approach propounded by David Grove, and is a useful tool as part of a coaching skills kit. Apart from the methodological approach, it has made me very aware of how clean (or not!) my language is.
Regular co-supervision and The Coaching Lounge are important ongoing peer learning methods; places to share and gather ideas and to ask questions.
In terms of thinking about how a coaching approach might apply to larger groups, I found Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology extremely useful. (I had been to a number of sessions advertised as being ‘open space’ but it was not until I read the whole book that I understood and could implement the process effectively.)
At the moment I’m reading Let Me Tell You a Story by Jorge Bucay, which I have found helpful in thinking about what can be achieved by having a clear symbolic or metaphorical picture of a situation.
How do you use coaching now in your work?
There are three main ways in which I use coaching in my work.
The first is a conventional coaching relationship with a client: what could be called ‘clear coaching’.
The second is as part of my long-standing practice as a facilitator and mentor, where I have found coaching invaluable as a way of enriching creative processes for artists and makers: what could be called ‘peer-to-peer coaching’.
The third is as a way of engaging with participants in my art practice. I suppose there are two different strands to this. One is about giving participants a voice in the work, and the other is as a form of art practice itself. For example, to give you an idea of how I have used coaching as a way of giving participants a voice, I directed a staged version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion for Folkoperan in Stockholm in which I replaced the biblical narrative with filmed interviews with the singers and musicians about the core themes of the Passion: forgiveness, guilt, pain, loneliness, fear, love. Coaching became a vitally important way to ‘hold the space’ for the singers and musicians who chose to share their personal stories.
St Matthew Passion (as Matteuspassionen) for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2014. Directed by Joshua Sofaer. Photo by Markus Gårder.
To give an example of how I have used coaching as a medium in arts practice itself, in a piece called Object of Love for the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum in Finland, I created a structure where I offered 25 minute coaching sessions to members of the public in the art museum. Sessions took place in a large soundproof glass box. I wanted to see how an explicit use of a coaching in an art context might function. These conversations could be witnessed but not heard. People on the outside of the box could see the coachee undergoing some kind of change. I was interested in how levels of seeing might affect the coaching session. I wear an elaborate costume that covers my face. I wanted to become a symbol or a figure, rather than someone to whom the coachee would look for reassurance. The aim was to be an object that precipitates or moves the coachee, rather than a figure of authority, or a reassuring, validating presence.
Object of Love by Joshua Sofaer. Wäinö Aaltonen Museum, Turku 2013. Photo by Hannu Seppälä.
My experience was that this structure offered permission to audience members to become coachees and to feel free to share. Some of this seems paradoxical: the public setting somehow stimulated a feeling of security. The soundproof glass box encouraged focus.
How would you describe coaching in your own words?
Coaching is a process through which an individual or group is supported to achieve personal or professional goals. It is centred in the objectives that are brought by the coachee. It is future and action focussed.
What have you found most challenging about coaching?
Despite having become aware of how spoken and non-verbal language is so full of bias and has the capacity to lead others, I still find it challenging to keep my own communications as clean and bias-free as I would want.
What have you found most useful about coaching?
Coaching has made me much more mindful of how I listen and elicit responses from others. As a dialogic tool it has influenced my personal relationships as well as my professional relationships.
What has surprised you about coaching?
I think what surprised me at first was that to be a productive coach you do not need to have disciplinary expertise or subject specific knowledge in the coachee’s area. The process does the work.
Are there any new or more ways you want to use coaching in the future?
It is important for me to continue with all strands of my coaching practice: ‘clear coaching’, ‘peer-to-peer coaching’, and coaching in my art practice. Most immediately I am working on a UK tour of a piece called Opera Helps. Members of the public apply for a ticket with a problem. Opera singers then go to their house and listen to the problem. When the problem is in the air, the singer selects an aria from the classical 19th Century repertoire and sings it directly in the person’s house with a pre-recorded professional backing track. When you are in the audience of an opera you bring your own life. You are hoping that some magic will happen on the stage and that you will leave somehow better for the experience. By locating the interaction in people’s homes and making the problem the reason for meeting, paradoxically, people listen to the music more acutely.
Opera Helps (as Operahjälpen) by Joshua Sofaer for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2012. Photo by Markus Gårder.
It’s very interesting to work on active listening skills with opera singers, who have trained for so many years honing their singing voice; and extremely humbling to experience up close the power of their song.
I am in Turku in the south west of Finland working with Mikko Sams, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Aalto University. In brief, we are exploring what happens in the brain when you accept alternative realities in fictional stories. This is what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, a phrase which has been both useful and critiqued, because you don’t really suspend your disbelief but rather hold together your belief (of the world of the fiction) and your knowledge that it is not reality, at the same time. This is the phenomenon that is at the heart of theatre, perhaps of all art. Discussing, reading, and writing with Mikko has already been a fascinating journey, attempting to chart unknown territory, and we both hope that it will continue after our first ideas sharing next week.
Mikko had talked to me about Turku Cathedral as a building he loved before we had even arrived in the city. Once we were here he reiterated his feeling for the place and encouraged me to go. Although I have worked in Turku several times before, I had never been inside. Encouraged by Mikko, I went in.
Turku Cathedral was consecrated close by the bank of the River Aura on 17th June 1300. Although it has seen its fair share of enemy attacks and fire damage, it has been rebuilt 6 times and carries its architectural layers in an honest and dignified way.
There are many things to like about this building. It is both grand and simple, epic and intimate. It is the religious centre of the country and plays an important part in its history. It is Finland’s main cathedral and its major national shrine.
On entering for the first time I looked up to the left and there, to my delighted surprise, I saw a ship sailing through the air.
I later learnt that this is a votive ship; a tradition common across the Scandinavian countries. These models, sometimes called church ships, are generally created and given by seafarers and ship builders. Votives (from the Latin votivus, meaning ‘promised by a vow’) were given in return for safe passage through a perilous journey.
This votive ship was made by Åke Sandvall and presented to the cathedral by the Turku Ship Master’s Association in 1968. It replaces an earlier model that was destroyed by fire. It depicts the barque, or sailing vessel, named Turku after this city, a whaling ship that sailed the Pacific.
On the first occasion I entered the cathedral and gazed up at her prow it was dusk. The light was behind her and there was a kind of haze in the air. At first I failed to see the iron hooked batons from which the model hangs and it seemed to be floating there in the half-light. It was a fantastical moment of make-believe.
Depending on where you are standing in the nave, this little Turku peeks around pillars, sails off in the distance, or over your head.
What I found is that I could ‘will’ myself into erasing the iron hooked batons, even after I knew they were there. Perhaps it was because I now knew, and no longer needed to ‘fact check’ how the thing was defying gravity, that I could decide to ignore them, to the point of their disappearance. This is the willing suspension of disbelief, the poetic faith, that Coleridge was writing about. And it is this very phenomenon of slipping in and out of it, by chance and by will, that Mikko and I are investigating.
If you have the opportunity to visit Turku Cathedral, perhaps you would like to test it out yourself.
I am visting Seattle to talk at Seattle Art Museum about The Rubbish Collection, a public participatory project which confronted waste, and to my simultaneous delight and disgust, I have happened across a public participatory project which does a similar thing: The Market Theater Gum Wall in Post Alley underneath the famous Pike Place Market.
Around 50 feet of wall up to 15 feet high and in parts several inches thick, is covered with chewing gum and bubble gum that the public have stuck up there. The collective DNA on this wall is overwhelming. It really is an event of both beauty and revulsion to see (and smell) this amount of chewed gum in one alleyway.
People have been sticking their gum to these walls for more than 20 years. It’s not entirely clear to me how it all started but apparently after a couple of attempts to clear it all away, the building occupants have given up and embraced their mint, fruit, and cola flavoured exterior.
As the person responsible for putting Una White’s Name in Lights, I was pleased to spot this rather more ad hoc version: your name in gum.
Some parts of the wall don’t look so fresh. They are beginning to form new micro-ecosystems.
It is easy to see why it has been designated a tourist attraction. People coo and yelp in equal measure. I don’t remember the last time I encountered something that managed to be so wonderfully charming and repulsive at the same time.
I miss Taiwanese food. Working on Night Market Theatre last autumn and being surrounded by beef noodles, fried squid, barbeque corn on the cob, rice buns, slow cooked pork (to name only a few) treated my palette to an abundance of tastes for which I am now yearning.
You can imagine my excitement when I saw a new Taiwanese eatery opening around the corner from me in Lexington Street. Bao, which is Chinese for ‘bun’ is the latest in London’s craze for international street food. Initially a stall at Netil Market in Hackney, Bao opened its first restaurant in Soho earlier this month.
The queues have been forming everyday. With the takeaway service not yet up and running, there was no alternative but to stand in line.
Bao is small and beautifully designed with wood lined walls and cute little cubbyholes. You sit at a table, around a counter, or at the window. As in many Taiwanese restaurants, you are given a slip of paper menu, on which you write the number of dishes that you want to order. We ordered: scallop with yellow bean garlic; beef soup with braised daikon radish; eryngli mushrooms with fermented century egg; Taiwanese fried chicken with hot sauce; classic pork bao with peanut powder; fried chicken bao; and 2 Taiwanese ‘Gold Medal’ beers. The dishes were small. The scallop was one single scallop. The soup a small bowl. The tastes were very good.
By far the most delicious to me was the ‘classic bao’. Meltingly soft shredded pork in perfectly soft bun, with sweet peanut powder and a soy based sauce. My ‘expert’ dinner companion agreed that it was great but felt the addition of cinnamon was not authentic.
These small plates did not come cheap. At £43.88 (that’s 2,045 New Taiwan Dollars) and not quite replete, this is not the street food of Hualien, where you would pay a quarter of the price. It is, of course, cheaper than return flight to Taipei and they do have an incredibly cute logo.
In the same week as trying Bao, I had the opportunity to go to lunch at Ho-ja in Goldhawk Road. Ho-ja is an informal Taiwanese owned and operated restaurant in the heart of West London’s fabric-selling district. No queue here. They also have disposable placemats with illustrations of Taipei streets and Taiwnese ‘things’.
We ordered a fried chicken burger, a beef burger, beef noodle, and chicken with glass noodles. Although the burgers are not really traditionally Taiwanese, it would not be unexpected to find an enterprising stallholder in a night market making and selling them.
The buns were not as soft as at Bao but the portions were much more generous. The beef noodles were the highlight for me. Perhaps most of all I have been missing Mr Gu’s Beef Noodle Stall at Zhiqiang Night Market and although I would take his over these everyday, the taste was enough to remind me, in a good way, what I was missing.
Ho-ja is considerably cheaper than Bao, with more calories at half the price. I will happily visit both again for a taste of Taiwan in London.