Joshua Sofaer


Flower Power

My journey around the North West included a trip to Gallery Oldham, where I had the chance to view, amongst other things, some amazing plant models.

The collections are in-between casings as the historic building is being renovated, so these accurate giants are mostly crowded together in their vitrine garden. Here a close-up of the Nasturtium shows the craftsmanship. They are one of my favourite flowers. They both look at taste great and I remember them eating them when playing outside as a kid.

They are in fact made from a papier-mâché base, with other materials added to give detail and texture: wood, paper, cotton, rattan, cane pulp, glass beads, feathers and gelatine. They are then painted with oils.

(Clockwise from top left.) Mignonette, Narcissus, Snowdrop, and Poppy.

(Clockwise from top left.) Nasturtium, Potato (who knew?), Brendal Hemlock and Wild Cabbage.

Goosefoot or Fat Hen.

The models were crafted in the late 1800s by Robert Brendel and his son Reinhold in Breslau and Berlin. They were made as teaching aids in a time when flowers were especially seasonal and macro photography did not exist. They were purchased by the museum in the 1920s with a bequest, for the edification of the people of Oldham.

Heather. (Yes, I too thought it looked like a tulip.)

Erm… sorry… I didn’t make a note of these.

Common Horsetail, said to be the oldest living vascular plants, related to plants that were in the Carboniferous period, 359 million years ago, and still causing gardeners a headache as they stubbornly persist!

Green Winged Orchis.

Wild Pansy.


As with the other models, Iris would be the pride of any catwalk.

Pattern Demands

Today I have seen beautiful things.

I spent time this morning in the archives of Bolton Museum and viewed two amazing early 19th Century pattern books while researching a project across the 10 districts of Greater Manchester. (It’s already hard to lump these diverse and individual places together under one banner.)

The first is a costings book, used to send samples and prices from Peel, Yates & Co., Church Bank printworks to Peel’s Manchester warehouse (1813 to 1822). The second is a designer’s letter book, which records requests and feedback on designs from managers across the Peel business network (1806 to 1813).

Opening the first page of the costings book the depth and intensity of the colour of these fabric samples, which are over 200 years old, is amazing.

The first pages are gridded neatly (by hand, obviously) and samples cut in neat squares. There is something overwhelmingly satisfying in the ordered difference of these swatches.

Even the dye transfer across the page is beautiful.

Some of the patterns are astonishingly fresh, even ‘modern’.

These designs (above and below) could almost be from the Italian design ‘Memphis’ movement of the 1980s, which has recently seen a resurgence. One of my favourite pattern designers, Nathalie du Pasquier (now mostly working on equally interesting paintings) has seen her designs in textiles of the Danish homeware company Hay, amongst others. I can’t help thinking her work has an antecedent in these books.

This grey abstract cloud pattern has a 3D effect similar to those of the Op Art of the 1960s.

The designer’s letter book is perhaps even more startling for the range of organic patterns that sometimes feel almost like looking down a microscope.

This page especially feels like something from a cellular study. The notes here are full of favourable comments, “this is good”, “very good” etc.

These designs were, however, found, “too large” and “too fantastical”.

The designer who kept this letter book is not named but as textile researcher Philip Sykas points out in his wider study of pattern books in North West England, it gives a fascinating insight into the constant push for innovation in calico print design more than two centuries ago. The demands on the designer are often comically contradictory, requiring something “completely new” that is nevertheless adapted from previous good selling designs. I was left thinking that there is nothing completely new and that somehow everything has been done before.

Sniffing out £10,000

In 2015 I created the Arthole Cockle Medal for Live Art Philanthropy. It was an attempt to see if it was possible to initiate a one-off award of £10,000 to an individual artist, with no pressure on outcomes, supported by private giving.

It worked. The first recipient of an Arthole Artist’s Award was Marcia Farquhar.

What I hadn’t quite prepared myself for was the enthusiasm, dedication, and prolongation, of the philanthropist of that first award: television executive Gary Carter. Not only did Gary agree to fund the award in its inaugural year, it was his suggestion that the scheme should continue, and that new donors, new ‘medals’, new philanthropist dinners, and new awardees should be found.

And so it was that I found myself in the Live Art Development Agency study room last November, pushing dental grade alginate up the nostrils of Alex Mahon, Chief Executive Officer of Channel 4 television.

Gary invited Alex to a mystery dinner. He told her that she would be invited to make a philanthropic bequest. He didn’t say anything more.

Artist Brian Lobel, who had appeared in (and won) Channel 4’s ‘Come Dine With Me’ was the chef for the evening, alongside his fellow reality television episode mate Naana Mora.

Alex arrived with Gary at the Live Art Development Agency offices in Bethnal Green. She was given a crash introduction to Live Art by Lois Keidan and CJ Mitchell and then I asked her if I could make a cast of her nose. I had expected her to have some questions about this, but she simply said, ‘Yes’.

I explained the process and asked her to lie down on the couch. Although I have made many many casts of noses, I have never before been so determined not to make a mistake. I had written down all the measurements of the various powders and liquids despite knowing them all off by heart from years of experience.

A more patient model could not be imagined. Alex reclined at the perfect angle and breathed through her mouth for the duration of the casting process. I nervously pealed it off her face and was relieved to see a near perfect mould.

Lois and CJ left. Alex, Gary and I sat down for dinner. Brian and Naana served food.

Salmon Chips, Kale Chips, Casava Chips with Dips
Prawn Consommé with Dumplings
Jollof Chicken with Rice
Chocolate Espresso Cake & Halwa Ice Cream

(The revelation for me in this menu were the salmon chips. These twice-fried slithers of fish were crispy, chewy, and melty all at once.)

Over dinner we discussed live art, the difficulty of getting funding that was not outcome driven, the concept of the Arthole award, and I showed some of my nose related works to Alex.

Gary and Alex were enjoying the oddness of sitting in a library full of images, books, and resources at the margins of culture and being the extra special guests at this private dinner. All of us were enjoying the cocktails and the free-flowing wine that Gary had brought. Although I was more or less on my best behaviour it was easy to be a little irreverent with these two.

After dinner Brian and Naana were invited to the table and we screened a clip from the episode of Come Dine With Me in which they were featured. Alex realised that she had somehow been part of an extension of one of the programmes in her own schedule. She was full of questions about their experience on the show.

And then Gary popped the question: would Alex like to endow Arthole 2, an open ended bursary to the value of £10,000, a self-determined year-long research and artistic development programme that will have a significant and lasting impact on their practice, and on wider contemporary culture in the UK. As donor she would receive a gold false nose of her own nose, produced from the cast we had made earlier in the evening. Alex thought about it for a few seconds, and turned to me. “Can I have the nose in a box?” she asked. “Absolutely,” I responded. “Then, yes,” she said. We all hurrahed.

No Shortlists

Sadie Edginton reports back from Joshua Sofaer’s workshop for socially engaged artists and commissioners.

On November 30th 2018 I was a participant in Joshua Sofaer’s workshop ‘No Shortlists’, a three hour session commissioned by Axisweb’s programme ‘Social Works?’. Here are my reflections on the process in reference to the term ‘validation’ in socially-engaged art practice.

We met just before 2 pm in the activity room of 73 Mildmay, the extra care facility where Joshua and I share a Cubitt community studio. We pay a subsidised studio rent in exchange for four hours volunteering in the care home every month.

I went into the pink activities room on the ground floor to find a few women sitting around a long table surrounded by heavy pink velvet curtains. We introduced ourselves, commenting on the pinkness of the colour-coordinated interior and the warmness of the room. It was very warm. When the others arrived, altogether there were nine of us there, four people representing art organisations, four socially-engaged artists and Joshua Sofaer, artist and facilitator for this event. The artists were Amy Pennington, Elsa James, Juan delGado and Sadie Edginton (me). The organisation participants were Cara Courage from Tate Exchange, Emily Gee from Heart of Glass, Elena Gifford from Festival of Making, and Dimity Nicholls from Cubitt Education.

Workshop participants sit around the table. Drawing by Sadie Edginton.

After introductions, Joshua explained the premise of ‘No Shortlists’. He put the artists’ names into a bowl and pulled them out one by one, matching us to the four institutions. We were reminded that ‘every artist had been nominated by someone else in the room’. It was like a secret Santa, each institution bringing an artist and starting a project with a different artist. I was matched with Cara Courage from Tate Exchange. Next we were due to go off for a chat, present our work for 20 minutes and ‘workshop together towards the goal of creating a new piece that will go on to be fully commissioned.’

Earlier in the day, I had written ‘I am interested in this idea of ‘principles of validation’, how do we validate socially-engaged art practice? Is validation read differently from institution to institution or between artist and commissioner? How does the structuring of the commissioning process validate different art practices?’

Looking at my notes from before the session, I can see that I felt frustrated with the commissioning process. I am sure it was related to a recent experience that was drawn out over a few months that ended with no commission. This is not unusual in this sector. I hoped that this workshop would give the artists an understanding of the nuts and bolts behind the decision-making and hopefully make institutions aware of the precarity that artists face when bidding for work.

Cara and I went up to my studio on the second floor of the care home where we sat and talked for an hour and a half at my desk. The conversation flowed easily and we seemed to share an appreciation of the issues surrounding collaborative practices. Here I was speaking to someone who was interested in my work, rather than critically examining it and that was already a validating experience.

I couldn’t help but compare the conversation dynamic to tutorials from my recently finished masters course. I am used to being in situations where socially-engaged practice is misunderstood, as it still is by many tutors and educational institutions. For this reason, a few preconceptions continue to hold back practice development in this area. One is the confusion with ‘community art’, another is that tutors assume the artist is not clued up on the ethical dilemmas involved with participatory practice and get distracted by debating these. Often valuable time is wasted in those preoccupations rather than getting on with discussing what the artist is doing with their practice. But in ‘No Shortlists’ we were able to cut to the chase, as it was established that all involved had a specialist knowledge in this area beforehand.

‘This workshop wants to flatten the hierarchy’, Joshua had written in the project introduction, but did the concept work in practice? Certainly, institutions hold the power in their relationship with artists; they are able to choose who they work with and how they work with them. Artists are often in a position of uncertainty; we generate creative material before the point of offering up a proposal and then it can be rejected after a series of communications back and forth. In the typical scenario, this conversation would be the equivalent of the interview stage, where the artist would be carrying the pressure of competing for the commission. Many practitioners would feel uneasy in the interview, as of course there are no guarantees. But imagine if the uneasiness was suddenly removed and the work is guaranteed to be yours! By creating the ‘No Shortlists’ format Joshua has done just that, removing many of the barriers for socially-engaged artists.

Sadie and Cara talk about socially engaged practice. Drawing by Sadie Edginton.

When we were talking it didn’t feel exactly like an interview so that changed the atmosphere of the conversation. It felt informal and relaxed, I was able to be more honest. Where I normally check myself, here I felt comfortable to disclose. I was able to share critical reflections on other projects and explain the benefits of particular institutional approaches for artists. We returned downstairs with an understanding that this was the beginning of a conversation towards something happening, with an eye to meeting up again in January at Tate Exchange.

The others returned to the pink room with new collaborations forged; Amy will have a commission with Festival of Making as part of their Art in Manufacturing strand; Juan is going to visit Heart of Glass in St Helens to begin discussing a potential collaboration; and Elsa is going to have a mini-residency with Cubitt Education over the upcoming months.

The workshop allowed me to meet artists who were able to work full-time through their socially-engaged practice. There is nothing more validating than seeing examples first-hand of what you want to achieve. It was inspiring to hear of how Amy had produced her own self-initiated project the ‘Mildmay Collective’ in 2015 in this very building. The workshop experience was adding to a growing realisation that I could continue to develop my practice in this area.

Did the workshop lead to more awareness of socially-engaged art? Although the workshop itself did not specifically increase awareness of socially-engaged art with members of the public, it introduced all involved to a range of approaches to working with artists and organisations. Connections were forged between the four nominated artists and four organisations that will lead to more instances of socially-engaged art being created. This will create more moments between artists and a range of audiences and therefore more awareness of socially-engaged art practice. The workshop was a starting point, allowing an understanding to grow on both sides of the issues practitioners face, as well as making a space for new ways of working to emerge. Perhaps this will come to challenge the hierarchies in the commissioning process in the future and become a blueprint for organisations to take more risks in commissioning experimental art practices.

Sadie Edginton, December 2018


Artist Participants
Amy Pennington
Elsa James
Sadie Edginton
Juan delGado

Organisation Participants
Cara Courage, Tate Exchange
Dimity Nicholls, Cubitt Education
Elena Gifford, Festival of Making
Emily Gee, Heart of Glass

Joshua Sofaer

The Pacifier Tree

When I mentioned to my friend and colleague Roberta Mock, that I was in Copenhagen, she responded: “I’ve only been there once but thought it was an amazing place (the tree in the park where children leave their dummies!).” This got me intrigued.

Asking around my new Danish friends it seems the Pacifier Tree (or Suttetræet) is almost as much a part of everyday life as the tooth fairy or Santa Clause.

There seem to be several (maybe even many) such trees around Denmark, but the focus for the dummies in Copenhagen is a grand tree on the north-east path of Frederiksberg Have, a park a little east of the centre of town. Such is the status of this tree (it is after all only a tree) that it is marked on Google Map alongside Copenhagen Zoo, Frederiksberg Palace, and the Storm P Museum. People need to know where it is.

Approaching the tree in the late afternoon, on a rare day of blue sky, the coloured streamers, ribbons and plastic baubles, glitter off the branches, votives to an unknown spirit.

This is the place where pacifiers go to die. Or at least, it is the place they are offered up to the tree, in one of the first ritualised rites of passage for children of Denmark. The pacifiers are given to the tree at the moment when parents consider a child too old, or overly dependent on the plastic nipple. They are handed over as a way of bridging the world of baby and of emerging individual.

As Ellen Friis, one of my hosts said, recalling the moment she and her husband Henrik took their 3 year old daughter to the Suttetræ, “She could tell that we were taking her sacrifice seriously.”

Many of the strings or bags of pacifiers have notes attached to them. ‘Dear Pacifiers, I love you but now I’m a big boy’, ‘Hi Santa. You can have my pacifiers if I get a present. I’m not using them any more’, ‘Dear Pacifier Tree, here are my pacifiers. Take good care of them.’ The subject of address in each of these examples (written by the parents) is different: the pacifiers themselves, Santa, the tree. It’s clear that there aren’t really ‘rules’ about how this should work.

Each November, when the trees are prepared for winter, the gardeners strip the tree of a year’s worth of pacifiers. So if you want to see the tree laden with pacifiers the best time of year is probably mid-autumn. I was aware that I was only looking at less than one-third of a year’s worth of tributes.

The modern pacifier as we have come to know it, developed in line with the discovery of new materials. In 1900 New York pharmacist Christian Meinecke patented a baby comforter with the teat, shield and handle design. But the practice of giving babies something for them to put in their mouths is almost certainly ancient. In 1506 Albrecht Dürer painted Madonna with the Siskin which clearly shows the infant Jesus holding a tied cloth pacifier. A spoonful of sandy sugar, flavoured meat, or other such chewy edible, is put in the centre of the cloth and it is then tied into a cloth sphere.

When I was toddling around in the mid-1970s I don’t think the research was in on the potential hazards of using pacifiers, and we were not given them. We did however have other non-edible things to chew on, including iced plastic rings, rusk biscuits (somehow I can still remember the milky dry taste) and of course, our own fingers and thumbs.

What I love about the Pacifier Tree is that it is a coming together of an informal collective agreement, a kind of contemporary folklore by citizens to help smooth the passage of their loved ones through life. It places value on psychological care through an imaginative leap.

It is also hauntingly beautiful.

The Honour of the Nose

A commuter’s ride away from Copenhagen, across the Øresund Bridge, is Sweden. It was with a glow in my heart that I boarded the train, not to Malmö, the usual destination of a Swedish day-trip out of Copenhagen, but to Lund, a little further down the line.

My Skandinavian nose tour continues at Nasoteket in the Akademiska Föreningen at Lund University. Yes, amazingly, there are TWO Nasoteks with less than an hour’s journey between them. “Specially deserving” individuals are given the honour of having their nose cast and installed in a wood panelled frame. The Lund University Nasotek was opened in 1987 by Swedish comedian Hasse Alfredson who conceived the idea and whose nose is No.1 of nearly 200.

Here is Hasse with a copy of his nose cast, together with Håkan Westling, vice-Chancellor at the time.

In a happy coincidence, as I wandered through the town after visiting the Nasotek, I stumbled across an exhibition celebrating Hasse’s life. It was put together a little hastily but was informative nonetheless. Born in 1931, Hasse died in September 2017, just 3 months before my visit to Lund.

Hasse Alfredson and Tage Danielsson were a comic duo who established AB Svenska Ord (Swedish Words Ltd.) in 1961. During their 24 years with the company they produced revues, films, recordings and books. The exhibition mentioned in passing that the Hasse & Tage humour was probably not to contemporary taste (well, we can imagine) but that nevertheless they were a national institution.

I also discovered that Hasse’s original idea for the Nasotek was much much more ambitious. In 1986 he described imagining the noses fixed to the ceiling of the Small Hall of the University, where they gradually would form a stalactite cave.

On the one hand the Nasotek is grand in a wonderfully ridiculous way, and on the other, it’s just on the wall in the student café, opposite the kitchen hatch. My own personal preference would be for a more salubrious position within what is actually a very very grand building.

The settings themselves are, however, very well designed. Nose casts are displayed in angled mirrored frames so that you can see the profile of the nose as well as the front.

A names of recipients are given in gold print on framed wooden slats. The awards are made by the Academic Society, Nasal Committee. More information (in Swedish) can be found here.

At number 61, I noted the inclusion of the nose of Tycho Brahe, the 16th Century Danish nobleman and renowned astronomer, who lost a part of his nose in a sword dual. Clearly this was not taken from life… so I’m wondering how they made their cast.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a Danish nobleman known for his accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations. Well known in his lifetime as an astronomer, astrologer and alchemist, he has been described as ‘the first competent mind in modern astronomy’. His observations were some five times more accurate than the best available at the time.

On 29 December 1566 Tycho lost part of his nose in a sword duel with fellow Danish nobleman (and his third cousin), Manderup Parsberg. Tycho had earlier quarrelled with Parsberg at a wedding dance and the two ended up resolving whichever issue they were quarrelling about, with a duel. Although the two were later to be reconciled, the duel two days later (in the dark) resulted in Tycho losing the bridge of his nose. For the rest of his life, he wore a prosthetic nose, said to be made of silver and gold, kept in place with a paste or glue. In November 2012, Danish and Czech researchers, after chemically analyzing ‘a small bone sample from the nose’ from the body exhumed in 2010, reported the prosthetic was ‘made out of brass’.

Just underneath the Nasotek is a rather sad looking pine vitrine, with another 3 dozen or so nose casts of the latest people to be ennobled into this select group of honoured individuals. I hope the case is temporary and that the University will commit to the full wood-panelled-angled-mirrored frames for all recipients!


As part of my residency in Copenhagen I am experimenting with porcelain in the workshop of ceramicist Christian Bruun. It is hard to imagine a kinder or more patient mentor.

Christian has been working with clay since he discovered the ‘clay room’ in kindergarten. His output loosely falls into four categories: creator of hand thrown functional ware, designer of large-scale planters, teacher, and collaborator with craftspeople in Vietnam where he makes giant decorative pots. “When I sit and do nothing I regard myself as an artist,” he jokes.

The separation between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ has always been fraught, at least in the West. Even when he is producing objects that serve no direct utilitarian function he has come to expect that they will be regarded as lower status. “Working with clay, we are always aware of the hierarchy, because we are at the bottom.” He cites the huge discrepancy between the value of a Picasso painting and a Picasso vase as an example. “It was never like that in Japan,” he says. Perhaps painting has been offered so much status in the Western canon because of its service to religious iconography, and therefore is seen as closer to God. Perhaps it’s just easier to put something on your wall.

What I had not really thought about was how much physical labour there is for a ceramicist. Lugging around bags of clay, kneading, stacking kilns, shifting giant pots. Christian describes how his body, and those of his colleagues, are worn out from years of pushing, pulling and twisting on joints and muscles, made harder by the reduction of their lung capacity from inhaling ceramic dust.

I had also not really thought about how much engineering is involved. To keep pots the shape you want them, to exert some control over the vagaries of heating something up to 1350 degrees celsius, to stop things breaking or sticking together. A recent commission Christian is working on is for a series of giant planters for the new Architectural Association building in Copenhagen. The pots are massive. They all have to be the same size. They all have to maintain a good round shape. And… the client also stipulated that they should be on wheels. An ingenious solution was to knock out the bottom of the pot and replace it with a steel clamp mechanism on casters.

It has long been a desire of mine to spend some time with clay. Despite working with all sorts of sculptural materials it has been many years since I twisted open the tie, pealed back the plastic, and dug out a fistful of fine-grained earth.

The workshop is a paean to possibility. I want to try everything. But my time is limited and I have a project in mind. Of course I’m not going to become a ceramicist in two months, and that certainly isn’t my intention. I want to think about the lives the noses in the Nasotek might lead, when the doors of the Glyptotek museum shut for the night. And I want to imagine that in porcelain.

And while I work on my noses, Christian and the other users of his workshop, many of whom attend his weekly throwing class, are spinning the wheel to make vessels, which slowly dry out on racks.

One thing I probably won’t be experimenting with is glaze. The boxes of powders are extremely tempting but I have to keep my unglazed noses to the grindstone.

The glaze samples are displayed on tabs of fired clay and hang on a board. Even in themselves they are extremely satisfying.

I tag along with Christian as he makes the four hour drive from Copenhagen to Herning to collect some pots which have been in an exhibition. On the way we stop at Guldagergaard, the International Ceramic Research Center in Skælskør. They offer artist residencies, educational programmes, studios and exhibitions. Christian was one of the founding members of the organisation and uses the wood fire kilns here two or three times a year.

The main reason we paid them a visit was to see the amazing way in which Eglė Pakšytė, a former Kiln Technician from Lithuania, decided to create the glaze samples. Christian knew I would be extremely excited to see the hundreds of press moulded dog noses that she made to demonstrate the variation of colour and effect. This project of accumulation represents hours and hours of work. As well as making the noses, Eglė has carefully annotated which nose is made of which clay, what glaze was given to it, which kiln it was fired in, and where in the kiln it was positioned.

Created in order that ceramicists using the facilities would better be able to determine glazing techniques, a highly utilitarian proposition, this collection is nevertheless full of resonance. Repetition and difference are key motifs in art practice. She offers them with absurdity and imagination. Christian and I continued our conversations about the place where craft meets art, triggered by the status of these wonderful ‘glaze samples’ that for me at least, could not escape the label ‘art’ even if they had wanted to.

I’ve heard many art critics and academics define art as anything that the artist designates as such. For my own part I’ve always considered art as being something in the eye of the beholder and I haven’t really cared whether people have thought of what I do as art or not art. I’m more interested in what it does than what it is. As we walked out of Guldagergaard I caught sight of the clay waste bin, where unusable, overworked, or dried out clay is dumped. Caught in the low Nordic light coming through the window, I couldn’t help but think that these scraps too had their own integrity and that their step towards art was close.

It was very exciting to open a kiln for the first time in my life to see my own scraps. My early experiments with porcelain. I want them to feel like lost pieces, ruins that once belonged to something else, barely recognisable scraps that nevertheless stare up at you. Odd little things that may, or may not, be art.

Not Suitable for Exhibition

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is an art museum in the centre of Copenhagen, and where I will be spending part of my residency here in Denmark, at the invitation of Live Art DK (and thanks to the Danish Arts Foundation and the Danish National School of Performing Arts Further Education).

Jacob Jacobsen set up the Carlsberg brewery in 1847 and named it after his only son, Carl. Carlsberg has the Danish meaning, ‘Carl’s mountain’. As an adult, Carl set up a rival brewery, the ‘new’ or ‘Ny Carlsberg’. (Father-son rivalry gave way to reconciliation and the two breweries were amalgamated on Jacob’s death.)

Carl was a very wealthy collector and his foundation, the Ny Carlsberg Foundation, built the Glyptotek to house his collection, for benefit of the nation. (Glypto-, from the Greek root glyphein, to carve and theke, a storing-place.)

The museum philosophy, from the beginning, was that it was a place to wander, to stroll around, rather as if in a garden, and to learn afterwards. This idea is built into the fabric of the building with an impressive Winter Garden at its heart. A glass covered dome lets light into a central courtyard where the leaves of Mediterranean plants brush marble limbs.

Interesting vistas abound. Around one corner I spied a selection of busts that looked remarkably similar to each other.

And that was because they were. These are all busts of Carl Jacobsen and his wife Ottilia by a range of different early 20th Century sculptors. Collecting these together in a single display appeals to me enormously. Repetition and difference, ‘having the set’, and lining them up, are key attributes of the ‘collector type’. (It is said that there are two types of people: those that are collectors and those that are not.) These principles of display carry throughout the museum. The most basic tenant being displaying on a straight line.

I opened the bottom drawer of a cabinet and came across Carl’s death mask. I suppose it makes sense that the ‘not-art’ would be relegated to a bottom drawer but it also seems somewhat overly apologetic, given that this was cast from his actual body.

Up some steps from the Winter Garden, the pathway opens out into the colonnaded Central Hall, an impressive (though bordering on stage-set artificial) neo-classical structure, which houses original works from ancient Rome.

Beyond the Central Hall are rooms which display marbles from antiquity. Again, the arrangement is orthogonal. Take a look at this company of heads.

Rumour has it that this exhibition is currently subject to review and a plan is afoot for a more contemporary set of display principles. I can see why they might want to try something else, and at the same time I can’t help but feel the unremitting use of the set-square has its own uncompromising attraction.

Although perhaps the stars of the show are from ancient Greece and Rome, the Glyptotek also has an important collection of 19th Century sculpture and painting, as well as a collection from ancient Egypt. Whether Degas ballerina or Etruscan tomb figure, the straight line display prevails.

I was reminded of, and somewhat experienced, The Artist’s Despair Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins, as graphically depicted by the 18th Century painter Henry Fuseli.

And although I was aware that most, if not all, of the works would have been painted in bright colours when they were originally in situ (and there are ‘recreation’ reminders dotted around), it is almost impossible not to be seduced by the way in which time has knocked these marble shapes about.

Strolling through the galleries casting your eyes over these rows of heads, every so often one will turn its neck to face you and return the gaze.

But while most of these heads can see, more often than not they cannot smell. Noses are remarkably absent in the antiquities of Glyptotek. It is possible to see whole lines of noseless portraits.

And it is this state of noselessness, that I have come to poke my own nose into.

Restoration of antiquities is an ever evolving discipline. The rights and wrongs alter with vicissitudes of curatorial approach and the archeological record. Many of the faces in Glyptotek that do actually have a nose, are the result of restorations, of replacements that someone (often an important artist of their day) have made many many hundreds of years after the original was lost. At Glyptotek, the nosejobs that have survived are left ‘obviously’ stuck on, without attempting to disguise the fracture, in order that we can recognise that they are replacements.

Up until the middle of the 20th Century the fashion was to restore ancient marbles. Complete pieces were considered more aesthetically pleasing, and were worth a lot more money. Arms, legs, and many noses, were carved as replacements. Ideas changed, and ‘authenticity’ at all costs, meant undoing a lot of the work of previous restoration teams.

At Glyptotek, one of restorers was instructed to remove the noses (several ears and a few locks of hair) from a range of busts. This he duly did, and he stuck up the noses he had removed to the wall of his workshop. Seeing this collection of disembodied appendages, the curator couldn’t resist putting them on display. And so the Nasotek entered the halls of Glyptotek.

It is this case of noses that I am interested in thinking about. What is the status of this collection of disembodied noses? How were they picked? What might they do now that (like the nose that left the face of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov in Gogol’s famous short story) they have left the face of their former masters?

Exhibited on either side of the Nasotek are two busts of Emperor Commodus (161-192). The first shows him as a young man. Rust has severely effected the stone. It was caused by an iron pin that was used to secure a new nose. The nose has now been removed, but the damage from the rust cannot be corrected. A label underneath states: ‘Not suitable for exhibition.’

The other bust of Commodus has the whole front of the face sliced off.

You can see the chisel marks where a restorer has dug into the ancient marble in order that the new prosthesis will adhere. It’s pretty disconcerting.

Again, the label under this one states that it is ‘…not worth exhibiting’. (I like this tension between showing and not showing and the obvious struggle that the curatorial team have had between aesthetics and education. I like very much that they have put these busts on plinths and then told you they are not worth exhibiting. I also want to say that these portraits of Commodus, with his rusty rosacea, or his flat chiselled face, are for me, somehow more aesthetically interesting than those where he is better preserved.)

In the centre of the Nasotek, about a meter or so away from the chiseled ruin, there is the nose, eye and forehead that a sculptor of the modern era created for the flat-faced Emperor. It has its own beauty and integrity. It has a life of its own.

By the light of the silvery moon

The ancient walled city of Pingyao in Shanxi province in China has a history dating back 2,700 years. Somehow it has resisted both natural and manmade disasters and is now the best-preserved walled town in the most populous country on earth. It is a World Heritage site, a tourist magnet, and home to 50,000 residents.

Having spent days in the domestic minutia of the Chinese epic masterwork ‘Dream of Red Chamber’ and hours watching Chinese historical dramas, I wanted see if I could time travel inside its 6,000 meter perimeter walls.

Going during the National Day holiday week, which celebrates the founding of the PRC, and during which an estimated 100 million Chinese travel, meant encountering the most extraordinary crowds imaginable. It was like trying to squeeze the Hogmanay celebrations on the Royal Mile into a camper van. But what we quickly learnt was that the tourists, who were mostly on day trips, and exclusively Chinese, stuck almost entirely to the two main shopping streets.

Turning down a side street you quickly escaped the hoards. Staying for a couple of nights, we could experience the Ming dynasty layout in the early morning and late evening, almost uninterrupted.

We stayed in Zaibiechu Inn Leifu, a recently refurbished converted traditional courtyard mansion that had once belonged to a bank manager.

Pinyao is famous as a historical centre for banking. In the Qing dynasty there were 20 major financial institutions in the city, 50% of the country’s total at that time. You can still visit Rishenchang, the first Chinese bank, and if like me, you forcefully suspend your disbelief, as you stare through the doorways and windows into the waxwork chambers, you can almost travel back in time.

Pinyao is a marvellous antidote to the skyscrapers and factories of the major industrial cities of China. Around each corner is a threshold, vista, or surface begging to be photographed; rendered more beautiful by the layer of fine red earth particles and coal dust which kiss every facade.

Decay, or rather the continual struggle to resist decay, lends a beauty. The city carries its history in its flakes and patches.

It is not a museum by any means. It is a living and working environment for many.

A traditional family run shoe shop, now in the hands of the fourth generation, try their best to maintain the old handmade skills despite the competition from machine fabrication.

The balloon man wheels his trolly towards the crowds. In amongst the ‘minions’ (the Universal Pictures 1.4 billion US$ grossing animated movie) are some more traditional koi.

Those koi appear in ponds and basins around the city, and in architectural details as well, like this beautifully carved banister.

Walking the city walls gives another perspective: one of splendour and simplicity. The yellow tiles of rooftops, the modest courtyards of private dwellings.

The colours are generally warm and muted, working on the complimentary orange of the brick and the blue-grey of the slate and stone pathways. The reds and yellows of flags and lanterns decorate portals and stretch between buildings.

These flags with their traditional ‘double luck’ characters indicate that a newly wedded couple have been welcomed to this home.

What I will remember most about Pingyao is something incredibly intimate. On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Moon Festival, a night long associated with courtship and matchmaking, as we sat in the courtyard of the 400 year old mansion, and as the clouds parted to reveal a full round silver moon, I got down on one knee and asked this handsome fella if he would spend the rest of his life with me.


Since my last blog post three weeks ago, the pace at Sura Medura has changed. My fellow artists-in-residence and I have been trying to process the abundance of sensory and cultural experiences that we have had and to think how they might influence or direct our work. This time next week we will have made our public presentations, I will have travelled 8,700 kilometres, and will be drinking my ‘souvenir’ Ceylon tea in my flat in London. The world seems simultaneously so vast and so small to me right now. It’s somehow extraordinary that the waves will still be lapping the sands of Hikkaduwa as I take the Piccadilly line from Heathrow.

The focus these days has been very much on developing ideas and co-creation, at the same time we have managed to fit in short trips. Just down the road from Hikkaduwa is Ambalangoda, the centre of the mask making industry, and the location of the Ariyapala Mask Museum. Masks are a big thing in Sri Lanka. Historically they have been used in dance and drama but also for ceremonial and even ritualised medicinal purposes. The tradition is kept alive by the tourist industry but occasionally you will see one of the good fortune masks mounted on the side of a house. Some of the cobra demons, from the Raksha Kolama parades and festivals are considered by some as effective deterrents of evil spirits. The one above is Gurulu Rakshaya.

The most prominent demon in the Sanni Yakuma, the ritual exorcism for the sick, is the Kola Sanniya mask. Offerings are made to the demon in a ceremonial performance at the house of the sufferer.

Before the demons arrive, the 12 Pali come to clean the space and prepare the site for the ritual. I was very much taken with their big mouths and exaggerated noses.

The masks are made from the wood of Cerbera odollam, commonly known as the kaduru tree. The kernels of the tree are highly poisonous, and have been used in both suicide and murder cases across the areas of Asia where it is native. Some people refer to it as ‘the suicide tree’. I don’t know if it is ironic or fitting that the masks carved from this tree have been used to try and cure people. The wood is strong but very lightweight, making it suitable for masks worn in dance.

I wanted to try my hand at working a piece of this wood, thinking about adding to my collection of false noses. Although it is easy to cut it doesn’t behave like wood I am used to. It’s more like cutting a very tough vegetable than whittling a piece of wood. Perhaps it’s better to leave it to the experts.

In a dance studio across the road from the Ariyapala Museum we see masks lying around. These well-worn fellows look to have given long service. Their romance was somewhat tempered when the dance mistress explains that they are mostly used in tourist performances.

There are masks for sale at every spot a tourist might stop in Sri Lanka. I wanted to bring one home but the ‘tourist selection’ was nothing like as exciting as those I saw at the Mask Museum or in the superlative Martin Wikramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture in Koggala (no photography allowed unfortunately) which had an extraordinary range of beautiful historical masks. So I decided to ask one of the craftsmen to make me one not readily available. I opted for the Kadu Paliya mask, the final of the 12 Pali, who completes the preparation of the space before the demons arrive. He is unique in having a deconstructed face of elements that are separately articulated. He also has a thinly disguised penis nose.

Despite the inevitable creep of plastic and synthetic fibres, there is still a strong industry in Sri Lanka that uses its natural resources in a sustainable way. This is not just as a result of heritage tourism, as in the case of the use of kaduru wood. Coconuts are abundant, and the fibrous material found between the hard internal shell and the outer coat is used to make coir rope, or weaved to make mats.

Close to Hikkaduwa is the village of Donanduwa. Inside a very non-descript pastel yellow warehouse, with no signs to tell you what lies inside, is a coir factory. It was like stepping back in time.

Giant spindles, turn the coir rope ready to be woven. The mat itself is strong and coarse. It is probably more familiar to you than you might at first think possible. Ikea uses coir for many a rug, and often doormats are made from coir.

Here two guys are weaving giant lengths that are then sewn together to make the floor covering in cricket practice nets. It is backbreaking work.

In the corridor giant rolls of coir matting stand proud.

On a boat trip around Donanduwa Lake we saw a number of fenced off areas close to the bank. The fibrous husks of the coconuts are soaked here to swell and soften the fibres, making them easier to process.

I would love to bring home a cricket pitch sized coir rug but I don’t have a cricket pitch sized home. However, I did make use of an afternoon after we had given artist talks at Colombo University, to visit Pettah Market. A world of stuff is for sale across this sprawling neighbourhood of stalls and shops but I headed for textiles and specifically a street of trimmings. At the behest of Tsai-Chun Huang, the costume designer for a project I will be making in Hull this summer, I was in search of geometric embroidered edging. The choice was overwhelming.

One very weird video call later, in which I had attempted to display thousands of samples in the frame of a smart phone, I left with 33.5 metres of geometric embroidered edging, and barely a dent in the costume budget.

Taking advantage of the fact that Hikkaduwa is close to one of the foremost whale watching sites in Sri Lanka, Ross Whyte and I decided to take the journey along the coast, south, to Mirissa. Rising very early the following morning a tuktuk picked us up and dropped us off at the harbour. Tourists from around the world lined up to board about 8 indistinguishable vessels, almost certainly all having paid a great variability of prices for a similar experience.

The colours of the morning light on the sea seemed to have an added intensity, as the last fishing boats returned to land with their haul. Then the whale watching boats take over, travelling out for about 45 minutes to a likely spot. And then we wait.

And wait.

The skipper takes a call on the boat radio and a shout goes up. One of the other boats has spotted a whale. We zigzag across the waves, passengers straining over the side for a glimpse.

A grey mass floats on the surface of the ocean. It rolls forward and down. As the tail flips the passengers gasp. There is a strange recognition in this. You are looking at something you know, for the first time. The tail flukes are so much part of our collective imagination that when you see them, it has the same effect of looking at a photograph of a loved one taken before you knew them. It is both familiar and strange.

They are extremely majestic and wondrous but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. Much has been written about the polarity of exploitation and conservation of animals in Sri Lanka, especially of elephants. My thinking about the whales was, as fellow artist-in-residence Mary Genis put it, ‘‘at least they have the ocean”. However, chasing the whales across their natural habitat and surrounding them with a collection of tourist boats in order to peek at their tail, felt somehow less honest than if we had been hunting them for their meat. Several years ago working in Lofoten, the archipelago of islands in the very north of Norway, I was invited to dinner by a local colleague and was served whale meat. It tasted like a very meaty tuna. It was delicious. It seems to me there is a lot of hypocrisy about the life of some animals over others. I’m not an advocate of hunting whales for their meat, I think it totally unnecessary, and likewise, it would seem, I am not an advocate of whale watching either.

Back at Sun Beach I have been developing some proposals for artworks that arise out of my research into Ceylon tea. I have also been working with the other artists to create a collaborative piece that we will show this coming Friday. One thing we have been experimenting with is long camera exposures and drawing with light. We are hoping to create a mass-participation night-time light image with the audience. I have very much enjoyed working with my camera in this way and the playfulness of creating images on the beach in the evening. Here is a group portrait of my colleagues: Lewis Sherlock, Zoe Katsilerou, Mary Genis, and Ross Whyte.

To be honest, I was not particularly looking forward to being thrust together with strangers on a beach on the other side of the world. It seemed too much like a reality television format. But above everything it has been the shared experiences with these guys that I have found most rewarding during my time here in Sri Lanka. We have bonded through discovering things together: the country, its culture, working methods, each other. There have been moments of incredible tenderness, of vulnerability, of solidarity.

Tipsy from a long after dinner cocktail, Zoe, Lewis, and I, run down onto the beach. They strip naked and dance in the sea. It might look like the stage of Sadler’s Wells but it is in fact a 30 second ‘exposure’ on the edge of the Indian Ocean. I like the photograph for itself, but what I really like it for is this moment of magical shared abandon.