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.
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.
After a week of golden sand it was time to explore inland. It has long been an ambition of mine to take the trip from Colombo to Kandy, the capital of the central province of Sri Lanka, and to continue further to Nuwara Eliya, often described as the ‘Champagne of tea’. The train journey, reputed as one of the most beautiful in the world, did not disappoint: pale coloured houses give way to dense jungle, which opens up to epic mountain vistas.
This was something of a school trip as all the artists based at Sura Medura were keen to eye Kandy.
Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya
We spent the first morning in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. The history of the gardens dates as far back as 1371 when King Wickramabahu III ascended to the throne and kept court at Peradeniya. Palm lined avenues, bamboo forests, flower gardens, and an area hosting memorial trees planted by such diverse guests as The Prince of Wales (not Charles but Albert Edward, son of Queen Victoria, later to become Edward VII) and Yuri Gagarin, (the first human to journey into outer space). In the orchid house, specimens abound.
The yellow bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris) which is native to Sri Lanka, is covered in carved graffiti.
It was the trees that captured my attention most forcefully. The jack fruit hanging off this one were not only beautiful, but also made sense of a batik design I had seen earlier in the morning. The large fruit nestled and hugged by their mother trunk.
I don’t know what these trees are but they look almost like they are formed of plasticine.
This is a famous tree: a Giant Java Fig whose broad canopy needs to be supported by metal struts.
If you stand underneath some of these trees, you see a fluttering of black shapes.
They wobble and broaden and then take off. They are flying foxes (Pteropus giganteus) otherwise known as the fruit bat. This colony in Peradeniya numbers around 24,000. They feed on fruit and nectar and contribute to pollination, seed dispersal, crop protection, and elimination of various pests.
A day trip out of Kandy is Sigiriya. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, Sigiriya is a unique and extraordinary landscape city, created in the 5th Century AD by order of King Kashyapa, embracing a 200 meter rock and its surroundings. It is a kind of nature driven architecture, comprising buildings, pathways, terraces, ponds, paintings and sculpture. Yes, Kashyappa built his kingdom on top of this rock. It has to be one of the most impressive palaces in the world.
A seemingly endless series of steps take you from the pleasure gardens at ground level up to his private chambers at the top.
The architecture works in harmony with nature. This giant boulder arched gateway is an example.
The royal city is often carved into the pre-existing stone. An audience hall (top right) is created on a flattened summit of a boulder. The main seat at the southern end is carved out of the living rock.
These cheeky chaps have made the trees of Sigiriya their home.
About halfway into the climb, a sign sensibly advises that only the sober should continue. It is an extremely vertiginous route at times, and it’s not hard to imagine that there must have been many fatalities in the creation of this rock kingdom.
Before the way opens to the summit, a giant pair of lion’s paws signal the grandeur and foreboding of the inner sanctum. Archaeologists conclude that once the head of the lion would have sat above these sharpened claws and that you would have literally been walking into the mouth of the lion were you to attempt a visit to King Kashyappa at home.
At the top, the views are monumental. After the climb, even more thrilling than they might otherwise have been. I found myself in wonder and awe, and also somewhat jealous, of a long dead king.
Cave Temple Dambulla
The Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, another World Heritage Site, is the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. There are a total of 153 Buddha statues and over 2,100 square metres of murals. Prehistoric peoples would have lived in these cave complexes before the arrival of Buddhism.
Relatively recent (early 20th Century) colonnaded porches give way to the ancient caves.
Behind a narrow entranceway, you glimpse something…
…which turns out to be Buddha’s reclining thighs. I wouldn’t describe myself as a spiritual person but I found this first, more modest cave, extremely moving. The space is very confined, dimly lit, and almost entirely taken up by the reclining figure. You are clearly in the presence of a giant – both literally and metaphorically. It is impossible to have the entire view. You must navigate him as if he were a landscape.
The gold and ochre painted feet glimmer in the half-light.
The other caves might be more impressive in terms of grandeur but it was in this first one that I felt a bodily reverence. Nevertheless the other caves are each as spectacular in their own way. The image of the Buddha repeated again and again.
The walls and ceilings are painted in extremely beautiful patterns: geometric, floral, human. The design follows the natural curve of the cave and it is almost as if a gust of air has been caught under a billowing cloth.
Sigiriya and the Cave Temples were my highlights but they were by no means the only things we saw. Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was also an exceptional experience. One of the holiest places in Sri Lanka the temple complex is built around a tooth of Buddha, which was saved from his cremation pyre and carried secretly in the hair of Princess Hemamali across the Gulf of Mannar to Sri Lanka for safe keeping. Beautiful as it was, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic could not quite live up to the story of its inception, which for me, is where the magic lies.
Feeling somewhat over-stimulated it was time to remember my reason for being here, and so I focussed on trying to find the perfect cup of tea. Now it was time to say goodbye to Kandy and to my fellow artists-in-residence and to head off on my own into the heart of tea country.
Ceylon Tea Museum
Located in a former tea factory in Hantane, just outside of Kandy, is the Ceylon Tea Museum. I had read mixed reviews but was determined to judge for myself.
The building itself was worth it. Most of the original factory structure has been maintained. Walking through the wooden shuttered walls, vented floors, across internal balconies and bridged partitions, is already enough.
The main ground-floor exhibit is of historic machinery. Each piece afforded its own space, like the sculpture hall of a European museum.
I wasn’t really prepared to be interested in the cogs, wheels, pistons, and levers, but (not least due to the repeated colour palette of red and green) I found myself intrigued.
To get a sense of how all this machinery functioned in a working factory, I turned to a miniature. This model tea factory was built by the apprentices of Colombo Commercial Company (Engineers) Ltd, for the Centenary Commemoration Exhibition in 1967 (1867 was the year of the first commercial tea planting in Sri Lanka) and is a replica of Imboolpitiya Tea Factory.
I loved staring into the tiny rooms and imagining tiny people operating the tiny machines. It also gave me a practical insight into the processes of withering, rolling, breaking, oxidisation, drying, and grading that I have read about and heard about so many times. And of course I had a giants-eye-overview of a tea factory layout.
There are another 4 floors in the Ceylon Tea Museum, a whole floor of tea sales, a whole floor of tea rooms, and 2 other floors of oddities. Here is a picture of ‘The Oldest Tea Packet in Sri Lanka’ from 1944. I know it doesn’t seem that old. That’s part of my interest. This massive industry which is so vital to the Sri Lankan economy and that has also spawned much of the tourism, which is also an integral part of its economic plan, is relatively recent.
The Oldest Tea Packet sits in its very own bespoke vitrine on a wooden column.
James Taylor, the Scot widely revered as the ‘father of Ceylon tea’ has his own special room.
He has his own relics that are afforded internment. The bulb of his pipe:
And then, very oddly, this broken baby plate, with tea themed nursery rhyme, labelled, ‘A plate used by James Taylor’.
If the fairies came to tea,
How very jolly that would be,
They’d say ‘Hullo’, I’d say ‘Come in’,
And then the fun would all begin.
Taylor died in 1892 at the age of 57. The plate was illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964). Attwell produced a series of designs for children’s chinaware for Shelly Potteries, who first commissioned her in 1926. Oh. Should I mention this to someone?
Another spectacular train journey (although admittedly I was standing in an unbearably crowded carriage for the first 2 hours) weaves its way slowly up hill, south, passing in front of Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka at 2524 meters. Everywhere you look the stepped terraces of tea plantations fan out over the contours of the landscape.
Nuwara Eliya, sometimes known as Little England, and Sri Lanka’s highest town, was almost entirely created by the British. Before tea, there was little there. It has a municipal green area (Victoria Park), a golf course, boating lake, racecourse, and a collection of colonial houses and hotels.
It was in one of these old colonial buildings, whose foundations were laid in 1892, that I was to board. I lucked out on Air B&B with possibly the nicest man in Sri Lanka: Asela Shirin, who was born into this house, lives with his wife and children, works for a pharmaceutical company, and rents out rooms as much for the interest of international connections as for the possibility to supplement his income.
We laughed together as I pointed out the circularity: the British come to Nuwara Eliya, they exploit the land, they create a town, Sri Lanka becomes independent, Asela’s grandfather buys the house which was handed over by the British government to the Sri Lankan government, and Asela rents out rooms to the British, who come to look at the tea plantations. Asela described his house and the town itself as a “gift” from the British. I thought this approach to colonial rule generous. But then my own grandfather, born in Burma, the son of an Iraqi immigrant, would often refer to Pax Britannica, despite the fact that the British were sneering at his father’s thawb (the commonly worn ankle length Arabic tunic) and their desire to be naturalised as British citizens.
A woman who kept a stable that supplied the racecourse modelled the bungalow in the English style. Asela represented his role as owner as “maintenance”. Indeed many of the original features where left intact. I guess not quite original but I did particularly like these resin light switches.
Immediately on leaving the house you are in the tea plantations. They are everywhere. Portions of land belonging to different estates are marked onto cut out signs on living trees.
You can pluck tea – 2 leaves and a bud – with a rest period of a week. Evidence is everywhere, both of a bud ready to pluck…
…and one that just has been.
There is a looming crisis in the Sri Lankan tea industry. In the 19th Century the British exploited the land and imported cheap labour from India to pluck the tea. This brought economic success, first to those British Colonialists, and then, on independence, to Sri Lanka. Ceylon tea is so good because it is plucked by hand. It is by limiting the harvest to 2 leaves and a bud that quality is maintained. No machine can do this.
‘People were brought in from South India to work on the plantations and were confined within the structure, creating a pool of ‘residential labour’ which was totally dependent on the management for all aspects of their lives. […] Considerable changes have taken place in the estate sector since independence as a result of direct, targeted policies and as a response to national changes.’ The Estate Workers’ Dilemma: Tensions and Changes in the Tea and Rubber Plantations in Sri Lanka, 2008 p.xi
One major change is that all Sri Lankans’ are entitled to free education. As the sons and daughters of tea pluckers become educated, they may or may not want to continue the work of their parents. The pool of inexpensive labour for the tea plantations is diminishing. The consequence: machine plucking will need to be considered. If machines are used, the quality of the tea will be in jeopardy. This could potentially decimate the tea industry. One solution: pay more for tea. Make plucking more attractive.
Early in the morning of my second day in Nuwara Eilya, I took a bus through dizzying hairpin bends, the 20 km to Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre. Although everyone still refers to it as ‘Mackwoods’, the lease was recently bought by another big tea manufacturer: Browns.
The factory lies in the most idyllic of settings. A waterfall flows into a stream that passes through a valley of tea plants, each bush at its regulation height, ready to be plucked.
Inside I was offered my very own tour and could see in practice all the processes I had memorised from the machines and models at the Ceylon Tea Museum in Kandy.
All tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. It is the treatment of the leaves that creates the type of tea. At ‘Mackwoods’ they make orthodox Ceylon black tea. The tea is plucked as early in the day as possible. It is brought into the factory and laid out in large troughs. There it is left to wither for 14 hours reducing the water content and starting the process of oxidisation.
The withered leaves are then funnelled down a chute to a machine roller where they gently pass over a series of rotating soft wooden spines that twist the leaves without breaking them.
Leaves are then rolled again, this time breaking them into smaller pieces, releasing tasty chemicals. They are then spread out on trays at controlled temperatures to oxidise. The amount of time leaves are left to ‘ferment’ affects the taste and strength of the brew.
Tea is then dried to stop the fermentation, and graded. Leaves pass along a jiggling conveyor belt and various sized bits fall through different holes.
Tea is then packaged and sent off to auction in Colombo.
Leaving the factory, I head for the tearoom. Surrounded by the gardens from which the tea was planted, nurtured, plucked and prepared, I had the perfect cup of tea.
I have been nominated by LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) to be artist in residence at Sura Medura in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. I will be researching the production and consumption of tea.
It was a Scot, James Taylor, who in 1867 supervised the sowing of the first commercial seeds of camellia sinensis, the evergreen plant from which we make tea. 2017 marks the 150th anniversary. And even after only a few days here I have witnessed the iconic status Taylor has here, amongst tea industry folks.
Sura Medura, which translates as ‘heavenly place’, was born out of tragedy. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, sometimes known as the ‘Boxing Day tsunami’, affected 14 countries, caused major destruction, and killed hundreds of thousands of people. It devastated much of the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. Neil Butler (artist, curator, surfer) who has had a relationship with Hikkaduwa for many years, asked the local community what he could do. They told him to set up an art centre. The residency scheme is part of his programme of work. I am one of 5 artists currently visiting on a rolling programme.
Until the dedicated building is completed, artists visiting Sura Medura stay at Sun Beach hotel, which sits, as the name would suggest, in the sun, on the beach. It is one of many hotels along the treacherous Galle Road, which stretches 125km from the capital Colombo, to the Dutch colonial port city of Galle. On the west side of the Galle Road is the ocean, on the east is the jungle. It’s quite a polite jungle here, somewhat tamed by the villas and more modest homes that are scattered among its narrow concreted pathways, but it gives you a sense of what might lie beyond.
You don’t need to look very far to see why Sri Lanka has a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful islands. Flowers frill, spike, and pleat their bright colours on a background of rich green leaves.
Those same leaves are used to particularly stylish effect in this woven wall-blind-door system, which wrestles the unruly natural world into a practical and pleasing thing.
This picturesque ‘jungle convenience store’ had an extremely charming set of balance scales.
And then there is the beach: miles of golden sand and surf. Hikkaduwa is a ‘surfer’s paradise’ and that is one of the main draws for Neil Butler. I admit to not really getting surfing. In New Zealand last year I gave it a go and found the 5 second exhilaration of cruising the wave too small a pay-off for being battered by the board, the rip tide, and the salt-water assault. Neil says you either let it go straight away or become an addict. He also explained that part of the hippy culture that has become synonymous with surfing is about a respect for the ocean, an understanding of global tides and currents, the physics of the wave, and learning to be in tune with the white-capped swell. This has given me a better appreciation for what surfing might be: not so much an attempt to control nature but rather a way towards better understanding it.
My trip to Sri Lanka however, is not about the water that rolls out of the ocean but rather that in a teacup.
After China and India, Sri Lanka was for many years the third largest tea producer in the world. (It has now been overtaken by Kenya.) More than 1 million people are involved in the tea industry (5% of the population). Tea is responsible for 2% of GDP.
Tea is the stuff of social chitchat and of international wars. Tea is at once a very English thing and at the same time ‘foreign’. It is an example of how international connections and trade routes have made England ‘English’. Tea challenges the common sense assumptions about nationhood because it is an immigrant culture that has been assimilated and transformed. It is immigrant to both Sri Lanka as a non-native crop, and the UK as our favourite drink. Tea troubles the politics of identity. It is also a refreshing drink.
I want to explore some of the contradictions inherent in tea (from tea garden to pot). Travelling from the ocean at Hikkaduwa to the mountains of Kandy, mirroring the journey of the seeds that were planted 150 years ago. Tea operates on the social level between two individuals chatting over a shared pot of tea, and on the global scale of major nation defining industry.
Although there is more surf culture than tea culture in Hikkaduwa, tea is everywhere in Sri Lanka. At the local ‘wholesale and retail’ merchant, Golden Lanka Tea, the signs appeal to customers in Sinhala, English, and Russian. (There are many tourists from Russia in Hikkaduwa.)
I order my first 100g of tea from the famous Nurawa Eliya region, often referred to as Sri Lanka’s ‘champagne of teas’. The owner delved into a massive sack with a scoop and measured it out. She scores 101g on her first attempt. She deposits the contents into a simple foil bag and secures it with a heat seal. It cost 150Rs, about 80 pence. In conversation, I express some basic knowledge of tea varieties, regions, and preparation methods. She gives me a bunch of samples. “Try them and come back when you’ve decided which one you like,” she says.
Along the road is the supermarket. It is wide-aisled and pristine, though no less interesting than Golden Lanka Tea, albeit for very different reasons. Tea is the most expansive section.
It is packaged in an amazing array of boxes. Elephants feature widely.
Of particular interest were these oddities. Tea caddies carved out of coconut shells in the shape of monkeys and bunny rabbits. I think it would be safe to say these are seeking to appeal to the heart of the tourist market rather than a local, or a tea connoisseur.
And the cultural appeal is often very targeted. What is essentially the same tea, is packaged either as authentic Sri Lankan…
…or perfect for that English breakfast… oh, or, erm, that Finnish breakfast.
This is especially interesting to me because it seems like ‘evidence’ of the slippery way which tea is somehow performing nationhood and belonging.
For my own part, I chose to save my life. Although Sri Lanka is known for its ‘red’ tea, or what we know as ‘black’ tea in England, 1982 saw the first production and exportation of green tea. It has struggled. Green tea is marketed as a medicinal product. Nowhere could this be more explicit than on the packaging for this Paradise Farm Organic Green Tea. A blazing typeface proclaims potentially fatal diseases: cholesterol, strokes, cancer, gastric, diabetics. ‘SAVE YOUR LIFE’, the helpful label proclaims, ‘with Organic Green Tea’. How could I resist?
And I might need my life saved, because I have been getting some sharp electric shocks from my tired computer charger cable. In fear of both the shock and of being in this garden of Eden without the ability to check my emails (erm…), I decided to take the 2 hour train journey to Colombo to try and find a replacement. The picturesque image of the tracks stretching north through the jungle belies the reality of the most extraordinary theatre of the train. Next time I shall attempt some discrete documentation. Hawkers, buskers, beggars, inspectors, clergy, lovers, families, and workers, pass along the gangway in a constant flow of human activity. It was an extremely filmic and rapidly changing world that passed in front of me. I barely turned my head to look out the window, and at 160Rs (about 85 pence) one of the best value experiences of my life.
Arriving at Colombo Fort station I was immediately accosted by a plethora of tuktuk drivers and after some failed haggling, I agreed the price. (“You may have paid 160Rs to get from Hikkaduwa to Colombo but there were 3,000 people on that train. We will be crossing to the other side of the city. It will take half an hour. Just you and me. I am a licensed driver!” Fair enough.) We were on our way to Future World, one of the few official Apple product resellers in Sri Lanka. This first experience of Colombo was of my tuktuk driver’s bun and the heady taste of carbon monoxide. I felt I might as well have been sucking a car exhaust as though a straw.
I was however safely deposited at the relative serenity of Future World where the authorized technician told me there was nothing wrong with my cable charger. In the euphoria of having successfully found the shop and in the suspicion that he might be wrong, I allowed myself to make the purchase anyway.
As I was in Colombo with a few hours to spare, I decide to further my research, and walk the 20 minutes to the Sri Lanka Tea Board.
The public face of the Sri Lanka Tea Board is tea sales, where you can be assured that the ‘Ceylon Tea’ symbol of quality means what it states.
Here you can buy a full range of Ceylon Teas, from the everyday to the exceptional.
A sign on the wall asserts the ‘DIVERSITEA IN SPECIALITEA’ and indeed the regional variation of tea taste resulting from the land in which the gardens are planted is, by all accounts, unparalleled for such a small land mass.
I had not come to buy tea. Instead, I make my way around the side of the building to the office reception. The first sight that greets you is an enormous bust of pioneer tea planter James Taylor. (It’s difficult to tell from the photograph but his head and torso reach up to the height of an average man.) A sign reads, ‘It is to him that Ceylon Tea owes its worldwide fame.’
The most welcoming of receptionists asks how she can help me, and on the presentation of my business card and my request, she calls up to the Librarian. Skirting round the building a bit further I come to a sign marked ‘Analytical Laboratory’. This is the action end of the Tea Board, where the quality of Ceylon Teas are established and checked. It is also the site of an archive.
A little overwhelmed by the volume of titles, all on one subject, I skim the shelves for something that might be useful. This may only be the first of several trips but I want to make the most of it.
I stumble upon an explanation of the way in which the plantations historically operated almost as tiny surrogate states.
‘In structural terms, the estate sector was developed under the colonial administration as an enclave separated from the rest of the economy due to the plantations depending mainly on foreign entrepreneurship, immigrant labour from South India, and either imported or reinvested capital. They cultivated just one important indigenous resource – land suitable for cultivation of tropical tree crops. This land was cheap and plentiful.’
[Snodgrass, D.R. (1966) Ceylon: An Export Economy in Transition p.4]
This further promotes the idea that tea sits at a cultural intersection, oftentimes one that is painful. It also complicates the Tea Board’s assertion that Ceylon Tea is ‘…a product of Sri Lanka and no other origin’. Of course it is a product of Sri Lankan land, but not Sri Lankan land alone. The seeds that grew the plants on this soil came from Assam. They traveled as part of a global network of trade routes, commercial exploitation, and colonial power.
One the way out of the building I pass the Tea Tasting Unit. Wafting from this humble door is the wonderful smell of fresh, perfectly brewed tea. It is overpowering: floral, malty, fresh, and alive.
People have been combing it, cutting it, styling it, dying it, covering it up, extending it, and shaving it off, since the beginning of recorded history. It clogs up our drains, smells pretty awful when set alight, and lasts longer than our flesh. I am, of course, referring to hair.
Curly or straight, buzz cut or ponytail, our hair is one of the primary signifiers about who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Historically, particular hairstyles have indicated rites of passage into adulthood, denoted piety, social status, and even been reserved for specific people. There were all kinds of rules in the Japanese warring period about who could wear what kind of topknot. Often overlooked in the maelstrom of personal identity issues is the fact that hair is also a natural material used by crafts women and men to make stuff. Most commonly, of course, these are hairpieces or wigs, and in the Horniman Museum anthropology collection alongside a number of wigs, there are also objects that are not wigs, that use human hair for decoration.
As the anthropology galleries are shut for renovation, it was back to the stores, where Helen Merret, Collections Officer, had very kindly laid out some objects that I was keen to see, on an archive table.
This is a mid-19th Century man’s wig from Fiji in Western Polynesia. ‘Ulumate’, literally translated as ‘dead head’ were worn for a number of reasons: to cover natural hair loss, or heads shaven during mourning. They were also in some instances a ‘badge of office’ for men with specific tasks to perform. Human hair is woven into coconut fibre strands.
This sperm whale ivory and human hair necklace, or lei liho palaoa, is from Hawaii. Literally a whale (palaoa) tooth (niho) necklace (lei), these distinctive pieces of jewellery were worn by both male and female chiefs. It is likely that an entire head of hair went into making the intricately woven braids that form the body of the piece. They are especially rare because Hawaiian people did not hunt whales. Only drowned, beached, or washed up whales could provide ivory for niho palaoa lei.
The whale tooth has been carved into the shape of a licking tongue.
And the detail of the braided hair, tied together with twine, is extremely satisfying.
This ceremonial hat or helmet is from India, possibly from the Naga culture. It is made with thin cane strips that have been woven in the diagonal. The plume of dyed red hairs has been identified as ‘possibly human’.
It really is a gorgeous object. The inside shows the deftness of the intricate twill.
The date is uncertain, listed in the catalogue as ‘before 1949’. It looks barely 70 hours old, let alone 70 years.
Perhaps the quirkiest thing in this little human hair line-up is this man’s costume tail, also from India, possibly from the Angami, a tribe of the Naga people. It would likely have been used in a ceremonial dance. It was donated to the museum in 1916.
This piece inverts the way in which we use materials from animals to adorn our bodies. Here it is human hair that goes to make us become animal. A cane loop at the top of the tail allows it to be strapped to the body.
Close up you can see the plaited basketry and way the human hair has been woven into the cane.
I am using my residency at Horniman Museum to take inspiration for a series of false noses, and I have wanted to make one that uses human hair in this ornamental way. For the last 30 years, I have kept my mother’s ponytail, which she had woven into a secure weft when she decided to have a short hairstyle.
My plan is to use this hair to make a hairy nose. I carved a form out of oak onto which to mount the hair.
The next step was to look for a wig maker who would take on the task of knotting a nose wig. (Actually, my initial plan was to see if I could do it myself but the investment of time and money into a wig making course proved a bit too much of a stretch for a one-off hairy nose. Of course, if I were to make a series of hairy noses, it might be a different matter.)
Founded in 1899, Raoul is the oldest wig-making company in the UK, and was the first to offer wigs through the NHS in 1949. As it is so labour intensive, a lot of knotting is subcontracted to countries with cheaper labour costs, but Raoul does almost everything in-house at its studio in Paddington, London. Their client list is long and illustrious. Up until her death in 2002 they made the hairpiece for the Queen Mother.
The odd thing about a wig maker is that their customer base exists at polar ends of the spectrum of human need, from desperate people who have lost their hair when their life is in jeopardy from illness, to someone needing a period ‘do’ for a play or film shoot. I was a little apprehensive about approaching them for a nose wig but I shouldn’t have worried. Liz Finan, who owns and runs Raoul reassured me. “We love a challenge and anything a bit different.” So there we were in one of the private client rooms discussing how to best make a wig for my oak nose with the ponytail my mother had cut off when I was still a teenager.
Even for those of us with a full head of hair, these protein filaments growing out of the follicles on our scalp are a cause of emotional instability: of satisfaction, of upset, at the very least of bad hair days. This emotional instability has to be increased dramatically if you are in the position of loosing your hair, or you have a condition that means you simply don’t grow any. Liz has set up Raoul to be as much like a normal hair salon as possible, with the kind of public shop at the front that you would expect on any high street. A series of private client rooms sit down one side of a central corridor, at the end of which is the studio, where the making happens.
The basics of wig making haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. You need hair, something to knot it onto, and a hook to do that. Most of the tools fit in a little box. The things that take up room are the client files showing precise colours and styles, and the head blocks.
And then it’s a case of knotting in the hair, one or two strands at a time. It requires precision, skill, and focus.
The first step on the way to making my nose wig, was to undo the wefted ponytail of my mother’s hair, without breaking it, and keeping the length. As I peered over her shoulder Liz, confidently inserted a thread picker with the precision of a surgeon, and soon the coil unravelled.
Four hands were needed at times, to safely untangle hairs that were caught around the securing wire.
Liz then handed over the hairs, let loose after 30 years, to Anselme Bonson, known to her Raoul colleagues by the pet name ‘Pressy’. She whips the hair against a hackle, a board that looks like some sort of medieval torture machine, and which Liz said could well be as old as the business. This process combs out the hair while leaving behind the short ends, which are no good for knotting.
And then there we have it: an untethered lock of auburn hair ready for knotting.
A few days later I returned to meet Karen Werther, the woman who will be doing the actual knotting. A net cap has been made following the shape of my wooden form, and, as there are not generally wig blocks in the shape of noses, the same structure was created out of plastic film stuffed with tissue paper, to give a solid but pliable body to knot into. This was then mounted onto a more conventional canvas block as a base to work on. So we were in the rather surreal situation of looking at a large nose shape pinned to the top of a head.
And then Karen was off; one hair at a time. “She’s an extremely neat knotter,” Liz says cheerily.
So the hairy nose begins to take shape. It is painstaking work. I drop back in some days later to check up on the progress. It’s not hard to see why wig making is an expensive business. It takes a long time.
The effect is already uncanny as I see my mother’s hair take a new shape.
I return to Raoul to pick up my nose wig. Karen proudly knots the last few hairs.
There is still plenty more to do before it becomes the object I want it to be but thanks to Karen, Liz, Pressy and the team, the hard graft has been done. As Liz says, “What’s left is for you to personalise it. You can style it the way that you want. You could braid it one day and curl it the next.” I leave Raoul my head full of possibilities for nose wig styles.
My personal opinion is that all people can be divided into two categories, those who collect, and those who do not. As a collector myself I am interested in people who collect. Frederick John Horniman (1835-1906) was a collector in the Victorian tradition and on an epic scale. It is of course his collection that forms the bedrock of the Horniman Museum.
In what used to be the main reception of the museum, but is now the staff and goods entrance, perched on a pedestal, is a bronze bust of Horniman.
Nobody seems to know much about it. My hunch is that it was created at the same time as the building, which opened to the public in 1901. It fits too perfectly into its nook to be a later addition. One option is that it is the work of sculptor Frederick William Pomeroy (1856-1924). Pomeroy made a bronze bust of Horniman’s daughter-in-law in 1898, and also a memorial tablet for the museum. I’m still in pursuit of some solid evidence that confirms or contradicts this theory. (If you know something, get in touch!)
As part of my residency, and in tribute to the man that endowed this fantastic museum, I want to create a Horniman false nose. And what could be a more fitting material for a tribute, than gold? After discussing my plans with the conservation team, writing method statements, and making patch tests, I was given the go ahead to make a cast of the nose and moustache area of the bronze bust.
Ready for your trim sir?
Despite having used the alginate and plaster bandage technique literally hundreds of times to successfully cast faces (most recently on the life mask of another Victorian and Edwardian collector, Henry Wellcome) the process failed. Perhaps I had been over cautious about what materials to use, not wanting to affect the patina of the bronze, but still, I thought it would work. The alginate can sometimes ‘go off’ but the batch seemed fine to me. Anyway, for whatever reason, possibly the cold temperature of the bronze, it wouldn’t release without tearing.
I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty embarrassed. After all the efforts to secure the permission and cordon off the area, I felt a bit incompetent. Luckily for me Lindsey Bruce, Exhibitions Officer, and my main point of contact at the museum, was unperturbed. “We will make it happen,” was her refrain.
It was back to the 4D model shop in Whitechapel to see what other casting agents I could safely use. Armed with a pack of Gedeo Siligum, a silicone based moulding paste, I returned to the museum to run a test on a bronze scrap. It seemed fine, and Julia Gresson from the conservation team, gave me the go ahead for a second attempt.
Poor Frederick looks a bit miserable having his nose cast.
This time, success! A very good cast that also picked up some dirt, which must have gathered up his nose over the years. Once the cast was off, Julia gave him a good clean.
Taking the mould back to my studio, the next step is to make a wax template. Yes, I know this looks like a school project gone wrong, and yes, that yellow stuff really is Play-Doh. Play-Doh is a great way to build up the sides of a wax mould. It’s cheap, washes off easily, and can form a tight seal.
After a couple of hours leaving the wax to cool and harden, I stripped back the Play-Doh, and removed the mould. The Horniman nose and moustache wax template stands proudly before me.
Now that I had at least one good wax copy, I made a plastic polymer version from the same mould as an insurance.
The next step was to take the template to a metal workshop to have it copper electroformed. Electroforming is a process that builds up a metal surface through electrodeposition. Because wax is not conductive, the area to be electroformed has to be treated chemically with a conductive layer, something like a metal paint. The technical term for the template is ‘mandrel’. The mandrel is then put into this crazy electrolytic bath with a copper solution in it. The copper crystals then slowly form around the conductive pattern.
A couple of days later I returned to the metal workshop to collect the mandrel. The wax is now covered with a beautiful layer of copper.
To get rid of the wax, I simply popped the thing into the oven (130 degrees Celsius for 40 minutes) and let the wax melt out through a wire grid into an aluminium take-away carton.
Back in the studio, I cut out the shape I wanted, following the natural line of the moustache, punched out the nostrils, and drilled some holes for the thread ties.
This is the final shape.
Then it’s back to the metal workshop for the golden jacket. The copper nose-moustache-combo has to be polished and thoroughly cleaned. The first bath is just washing-up liquid and water; the second running water; the third acid, in which you can see the dirt fizz away!
Then Mr Horniman’s nose is plunged into a bath of gold. In fact, it is just gold dust in a solution, and the process of gold plating is similar to that of electroforming, only much quicker. I tried to distract the technician, asking questions for as long as possible, so that an extra thick layer of gold would make its way onto the surface (only joking). In reality, it’s only a few microns deep. If you rough handle gold plate, you will see what’s underneath.
And there we have it. One gold Horniman nose and moustache.
However, I’m not sure it’s quite finished yet, and I want to give this nose some kind of totem, that makes it more of an object worthy of the taxonomic principles that not only form Horniman’s collection but also which that collection helped to create.
There are several species to which Horniman lent his name. This happened when entomologists were invited to survey Horniman’s collections. Although Horniman did go on big world travels later in his life and brought crate loads of stuff back to the UK, most of his early collections were purchased through intermediaries. Someone goes off to Africa and collects a bunch of specimens, brings them back to London, and Horniman buys them at auction, for example. He would then welcome experts to look at what he had amassed. Specimens include a moth, Eusemia hornimani, (now Heraclia hornimani), a true bug, Tesserotoma hornimani, and the ‘Horniman beetle’, Ceratorhina hornimani (now Cyprolais hornimani), from Cameroon, described by naturalist and explorer Henry Walter Bates in 1877.
Perhaps the most beautiful species named after Horniman is the ‘Horniman Swallowtail’, Papilio hornimani, known only from the northern forests of Tanzania and the southern hills of Kenya. As Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural explained to me, it was identified by Victorian entomologist W L Distant in 1879, when he was looking through Horniman’s vast collection of butterflies.
This is the original specimen that Distant ‘discovered’.
As an aside, if you’ve ever wondered how all those Victorian insects were pinned at just the right height, Jo showed me the entomologist’s ‘Pinning Stage’, a metal block that is used to set the specimens and their labels at a consistent height on the mounting pin. You pin the specimen, pick which height you want, and push the pin into the stage. By using the same hole each time, the specimens will always be at the same height.
Here is the defining Papilio hornimani on its original pin, with two labels beneath the butterfly.
Although almost always it is the open wings of the butterfly that we see pinned up, because they are traditionally seen as the most pretty, the reverse side, which is, I suppose, more commonly seen in nature as the butterfly sits on vegetation, have their own muted beauty. The Papilio hornimani is made up of soft dusty browns, greys and creams.
As you might expect, over the years, the Horniman Museum has acquired many examples of its lepidopterous namesake.
Where does all this fit into Horniman’s gold nose? Well, I’m thinking of giving him a Swallowtail nose ring, in the spirit of anthropology. I have drawn out the shape and will soon laser cut a piece of 0.5mm steel, which I will then have plated in gold, to match the nose.
Horniman fell in love with Japan (as in fact, have I) and so I have ordered a length of ‘kiki himo’ (literally ‘gathered threads’), 100% silk braid made by craftsmen in Uji, Kyoto, which is being sent over from Japan, as the string to tie on the nose. Soon I will be able to reveal Nares hornimani. Watch this space.
The three main collections at the Horniman Museum are: natural history, anthropology, and musical instruments. As part of my residency, I’m planning to make a series of false noses which respond to these collections. This gives me the opportunity to engage, to some degree, with all aspects of the museum.
The Music Gallery has the tricky task of creating a ‘no touching’ visual display of what are foremost sonic objects. Unusually for a museum there are many opportunities to play instruments that are in the handling collection but the core pieces need to be protected. The room contains floor to ceiling glass cases packed with musical instruments that emerge from the darkness.
It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. You have to peer through the reflections and focus, in order to separate out each individual instrument from the mass.
Despite being more or less a flat display in a series of long cases, the feel is incredibly three-dimensional. Instruments are positioned and different heights and depths.
They are arranged in classification, for example this collection of concertinas folded and clipped back but ready to spring into action.
Many of the instruments, like this 3 valve compensating cornet, seem to hover in mid air, as if the musician had suddenly disappeared and gravity forgot to take hold.
Objects are not collected solely for rarity or value. This popgun (c.1990) categorised under ‘Plosive aerophones’ is exactly the kind I had as a child. It was great to see it there amongst the wind instruments, sitting right up front.
Across the Horniman Museum, but perhaps especially in the Music Gallery, the object mounting is exceptional. The curatorial team work closely with the technical staff to coordinate the display.
At the moment the African Worlds Gallery and the Centenary Gallery which housed the anthropology collection are closed for a major refurbishment. A new World Gallery and Studio will open in 2018. The anthropology collection is among my favourite at the Horniman Museum, so I miss being able to walk through these galleries on my weekly visits. However, I’m very curious about the plans for the new presentation and particularly in how the objects will be mounted.
In the Music Gallery, iron rods, barely visible from the front of the case, hold the instruments in a shaft of light. You have to look at an angle and do some visual gymnastics to pick out these batons.
From the side of the case you see just how intricate and numerous they are. Each one devised and created specifically for the instrument it holds.
You don’t have to just imagine the sounds, as most of them are available on an interactive audio-visual screen which corresponds to the display. Here are some conch shell trumpets, played on the Admiralty Islands and by the Maori people in Aotearoa New Zealand. In the second of the two shown below, notice where the hole is. It would have been side blown.
This 17th Century French flageolet is displayed with its adorable case.
And this beautiful porcelain ocarina from Meissen in Germany. (On the top left of the photograph you can see an ocarina made by Guiseppe Donati, the former Italian brickmaker who invented the instrument.)
I’m particularly interested in the wind instruments and to think about the craftspeople who made them. Here are a pair of Nigerian whistles.
I’m also interested in the way some of the instruments are shaped and decorated to represent other things. This vessel rattle in the form of a killer whale, for example. (The Bellabella people, Vancouver Island, Canada before 1892.)
Or these two sonaja, vessel rattles, one with a cowboy head and one with a devil head, from Celaya, Mexico.
Or most brilliantly these fantastic hand clappers which are from XVIII Dynasty Riqqeh in Egypt, making them about 3,500 years old. Amazing. To have a pair of hand clapping clappers seems like an entirely contemporary post-modern idea, and yet here they are from an ancient civilisation.
Seeing so many musical instruments together allows you to explore the variety of shapes and materials used. This Native American rattle from the Great Plains of South Dakota is strung with spent cartridges. What were the bullets shooting, I wonder?
This mid-20th century Nigerian side-blown horn has an impressive twist.
I love this woven bell thing but I’m not actually sure what it is. I’ll investigate further on my next visit.
A clay figure of a satyr playing the auloi, probably from provincial Greece, in the first or second century AD, offers evidence for instruments that no longer exist.
Other objects aren’t musical instruments in their own right but form part of the musicians kit. And this polishing mop is particularly handsome.
What to make of all this? Well, I’ve set my heart on creating some kind of false-nose-nose-flute. I went to the Horniman library to do some research. The librarian, Helen Williamson introduced me to the holdings. There has always been a library as part of the Horniman. The original collection was formed of about 10,000 objects and 2,000 books. The library tells the story of the museum and follows the collection as it has grown under the auspices of individual curators, their predilections and areas of expertise.
The current library is housed in a grass roofed building next to the museum and holds approximately 30,000 books. It is open to the public on the two days a week that Helen works (generally Monday and Tuesday) but is mostly a reference collection for the curatorial team.
Dotted around the shelves are individual books or series of books that have yellow labels sticking up from their pages. These are the volumes that formed part of the original collection of Frederick Horniman.
Helen showed me this one inscribed by Frederick Horniman, and his wife Rebecca, to his father John Horniman (the tea magnate who originated the wealth upon which the Horniman collection is founded).
I found a few references to nose flutes, including an illustration of one made of a jaguar bone (figure ‘e’ below) from British Guiana. I also listened to a CD which included some nose flautist recitals on the fangufangu nose flute from Tonga. The recording was from 1978 and the CD notes made it clear that with the introduction of the guitar and the ukulele, the Polynesian nose flute traditions declined.
I also read about the toomerie and the poongee, which are nose flutes used by snake charmers in India. The thing about the nose flute is that you are creating the sound while breathing through your nose. It somehow feels connected to the breath in an organic way.
So, now I’d like to give it a go at making some kind of false-nose-nose-flute and I have discovered a whole online nose flute culture as a result. A key resource for those minded to explore the potential sounds their nasal passages could induce, is noseflute.org which focusses on the contemporary iterations of the instrument. It’s well worth a browse. From there I discovered the Boccarina, a contemporary mass produced plastic design by a South African ceramicist, Chris Schuermans. They are very affordable, so I ordered a couple. (The next edition, the Boccarina Pro, is currently in prototype phase.)
I am not a musician (by any stretch) but I wanted to give this a go. So here, with some trepidation, I offer you Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. I have not managed to create a nice sound but it’s the first step in my foray into nose flutes.
If you got through that, well done. And if you want to hear the Boccarina being played really well, check out Will Grove-White’s great nose flute cover of The Beach Boy’s classic, God Only Nose.
For the last quarter of 2016 I am lucky enough to be artist in residence at the Horniman Museum.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens was established by Tea Trader and philanthropist Frederick John Horniman, who began collecting objects, specimens and artefacts ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’ from around 1860.
The collections of this wonderful museum are held in four main categories: anthropology, natural history, musical instruments, and the gardens. My plan is to use the Horniman collections as inspiration to create a series of false noses. There are many places to look. The most obvious is perhaps the anthropology collection: dance, devil, carnival, and ‘ugly’ masks. Equally, I could turn to the natural history collection: the spoonbill’s beak, the paleomastodon’s nascent trunk, the nine-banded armadillo’s curled protective shell. Less obvious, but no less inspirational, is the collection of instruments: an orchestral horn false nose, a concertina false nose, of course the nose flute already exists.
I collect false noses. I have hundreds of them. Most are human noses, but I also have witches noses, clown noses, animal noses, and other oddities. I even have a plug nose and a socket nose.
In 2013 I showed a series of 452 self-portraits wearing my false nose collection at the Wellcome Collection in London.
The thing about this collection is that there is a rapidly decreasing pool of noses to collect. As cosplay becomes commodified and the means of costume production more affordable, people are dressing-up more ‘authentically’. The false nose, alas, has probably seen its day.
In an effort to try and add to my own collection, I have started making false noses myself. I have made painted noses, papier maché noses, brass noses, clay noses, cardboard noses, crochet noses, and gold noses. I have recently started a digital Nose Museum on Instagram.
Bang slap in the middle of our faces, the nose is often overlooked. There are odes to beautiful eyes, sonnets on the perfect shape of lips, hair practically has a strand of literature to itself. The nose, however, is often cut off. The nose has a rich narrative potential for the absurd, the comic, the mysterious and at the same time, the entirely knowable. We all have a nose after all. As Dr Seuss reminds us, ‘They grow on every kind of head’. For example the moose above, whose giant nostrils sniff out from under a tyvek sheet, or this great crested grebe poking its beak out of its puppet theatre archive box.
As my introduction to the Horniman Museum, Lindsey Bruce, Exhibitions Officer, took me on a trip to the collections store in a semi-secret former school building in South East London. It is here that many of the hundreds of thousands of objects that are not on display in the museum are kept. The annual acid-free tissue-paper bill must be enormous. It’s nice to see a recently accessioned lute lounging on some pillows.
You can imagine the scene. Corridors of boxes, strange shapes undercover, colour-coded labels. Helen Merrett, Collections Officer showed us around.
This is the room where textiles are stored, rolled up under canvas, their hidden treasures all the more enticing for not being seen.
Spears from the Solomon Islands each have their own specially cut storage mount inside an archive drawer.
Mummies lie, not quite in state, their coffins inside coffins, another layer added to their mummification. Scribbled on the side in marker pen, is the weight of each box: 56kg, 106kg…
“What are those?” I say, pointing to some amazingly long single piece wooden struts. “Mongolian yurt poles,” Helen replies in a matter of fact tone.
A rather pouty Mars ignores our gaze as Helen lifts the dust sheet aside. It is unclear whether he’s attention seeking (‘About time too! I’ve been ignored for too long.’) or genuinely annoyed for having been disturbed.
A sample box is removed from a shelf. Inside an exquisite sharkskin covered chopstick carrying case. ‘What else is in this place?’ I wonder to myself.
An armoured mannequin stands ready for display at a moment’s notice.
There are ominous reminders of the experimental history of museum conservation. Warning signs of toxicity sit alongside accession labels.
It struck me that one of the pleasures of touring the collections store is that you don’t get to see everything. As opposed to the museum where access and interpretation are at the forefront of curators’ minds, here the objects are constantly escaping you. The more you see, the more you realise what you aren’t seeing. The pleasure of this ‘not knowing’ is also contingent on the fact that the general public don’t get this access. There is some satisfaction in recognising that you are in a privileged position, and equally discomfort that it can’t be experienced by more people.
Helen handed over to Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural History and we delved into some taxidermy.
Everyone I have met so far at Horniman loves their job. Jo is no exception. You can see the fire in her eyes and hear the delight in her voice, as she opens a box of say, disarticulated lizard skeletons.
This is the skeleton of an owl. The bones around the eye-socket are like a stone setting for some precious jewel.
Jo pointed out these ‘nose bags’ that are tied around the mounted skulls of different beasts. Although it looks like they are feeding, the bags are actually to capture the odd bits of fine nasal bone that might might fall off.
No such bag is required for the magnificent nose of the warthog.
Noses are, quite naturally, to be found everywhere in the natural history collection. It was quite overwhelming. This ‘twice prepared’ cutie, which the collections staff call Patches (to Jo’s cheery disapproval) is quite something. Possibly a teaching aid from the 1930s he evokes the cuddle instinct, revulsion, and wonderment all at once.
Here are some rather startled puffins.
The term ‘taxidermy’ comes from the Greek ‘taxis’ (meaning arrangement) and ‘derma’ (meaning skin). When the derma hasn’t had its taxis, it is a ‘study skin’. These are gutted birds that have then been filled with cotton wadding to give them some volume. They were used as specimens for the study of the plumage rather than anatomy. They have a melancholy beauty, the colour of their feathers bleeding through the polythene sheaths.
Many have their original labels; this one is from 1897. The handwriting is something to be admired. Part of the preservation of these objects is now necessarily also the preservation of their particular archiving over the years.
Jo opens another drawer. There in the centre is a box of beaks. For a collector of noses, this was something of a magic moment. A hastily scribbled note sits on top: ‘Not catalogued’. Clearly this box of beaks has not been considered of prime importance. Up until now.
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.