Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Walking With the Green Man

Nottingham is world-renowned; everywhere you go you can mention this East-Midlands city and people will have heard of the legendary Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. Whether through books, films, television or oral tradition, almost everyone is familiar with the tale of this heroic champion who, along with his motley band of avengers, stole from the rich to give to the poor. However, the modern municipality is much more than a mythical historic site where tourists wander in search of the merry men. Although the presence of the man in green is conspicuous, a vibrant and celebrated community of artists and entrepreneurs also call Nottingham home.

There are half a dozen decent galleries scattered throughout the city centre and more on the outskirts, as well as a host of studio complexes providing space for less established artists and those up and coming in various media. But it isn’t just traditional forms that occupy minds in this wonderful city, nor is this metropolis trapped in its own past, people here are aware of the need for continued evolution in the manner and variety of arts presented.

From spontaneous street performance to dusty alleyway bookshop poetry sessions, from struggling painters temporarily occupying vacant buildings to urban dance musicians releasing their home-grown sounds on independent labels, from iconoclastic conceptual art to experimental theatre and cutting edge cinema showing films from around the globe, Nottingham is a place that embraces the existence of the avant-garde.

On a recent visit I was fortunate enough to meet with friends for lunch on a couple occasions as well as take in some of the local culture and global art on offer in this energetic city. The architecture acts as time machine as one strolls around taking in the sights of a thousand years. Being transported through the ages on an afternoon amble one sees Greco-Roman facades in reconstruction and Victorian terraces that sit alongside Tudor buildings and medieval castles. Like a bizarre jumble of episodes from a travel series the visitor to Nottingham can wander through history simply by walking around the downtown area.

Postmodern architectural structures sit comfortably beside Edwardian shops and ex-council dwellings cuddle up to pre-war mansions now divided into student accommodation. Stately homes and rolling parkland exist just down the street from thriving commercial districts with kebab shops and ensconced next to bargain-bin charity outlets and upmarket fashion boutiques: all the major franchises are here too. Nottingham also has a network of trams that operate throughout the pedestrianised urban area.

Stopping in at the new Nottingham Contemporary Art Museum and Gallery I sampled the lunch fare before going on a tour of the current exhibits. I was impressed with the food and so very glad to touch base with a beautiful and talented friend. Meandering around the various halls I was able to explore the exhibitions at leisure, enjoying both new and archive work.

Naturally, the main attractions were the enormous gallery pieces by the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. My initial reactions haven’t altered much over the past 6 weeks since I walked through the fuselage of the huge American spy plane, stripped to its essential elements and strung with stuffed bats.

In my opinion the piece is more political than artistic, more an attempt at dramatising an episode in Sino-American relations than presenting any unique thoughts on the matter. The bat is meant to represent good luck in China, whereas in the West it is often feared, and supposedly the original plane, which collided with a fighter jet over Chinese airspace, had a bat painted on the tail fin. So what? This is a reference to an actual event. So what? It is really big. So what?

It didn’t cause me to think anything new or leave me feeling moved in any way – is that because I just don’t get it? Or, is it that the details of the diplomatic response to the ‘crisis’ are retold in diagrams and notes within the plane, making me wonder if it is simply trying to teach me something about the history of this event rather than touch me with the resonance of its own original power? It felt more like Chinese state propaganda than intelligently conceived art.

Ping’s superbly realised depiction of the Leviathan swallowing Christ on the cross and the seven little Buddhas that were strung from a fishing line held by an angel was a playful and yet frightening piece of work. However, it doesn’t offer any new or boldly artistic ideas. Yes, the world is caught between a mystical vision of potential as revealed through religious experience, and the economic and pragmatic reality necessitated by daily life in a global consumer society. The tension is evident here and I liked the piece as an allegorical statement of the social contract, but it is after all a subtle reworking of a c.1180 etching by the nun Herrad of Landsberg in her book The Garden of Delights.

Another Huang Yong Ping piece I found wanting for artistic content was Construction Site, the model of a minaret tilted at missile delivery angle surrounded by canvas screens.

The partitions are based on those used during the renovation of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and is apparently intended to suggest the changes structures and religions themselves go through over time as people and their cultures change. Interestingly, the minaret appears to be a replica of those on the Blue Mosque across the square from the ancient Christian cathedral (now a museum) rather than the massively-domed original tribute to wisdom, a fact not everyone will notice.

Once again I found it difficult to grasp any profound intent beyond the obvious, and have decided the artist, and perhaps the various curators (the piece was first shown in Istanbul in 2007) think that with Islamophobia a concern in the wake of recent historical events (as well as the connection Nottingham has to the Crusades, with noblemen engaged in warfare in the Middle East even in the early 13th century), the apparent is enough for most people to accept.

The minaret was centrally located in the huge new gallery space, in a dimly-lit room where Wael Shawky’s film exploration of the geometry of the Dome of the Rock was playing on a side wall. The work by this Egyptian artist is meant to draw similar comparisons of change and structure as Ping’s obscured minaret/missile, drawing upon the location and purpose of the sacred architecture of the Islamic shrine.

I get the impression both these artists feel Westerners need to be educated in ‘other’ ways of thinking and perception. Perhaps this is true of many people in the West, but surely art, if it is to have deeper resonance than mere educational purpose has to expect its gallery-going audience to come to the work with some knowledge of history and culture or at least an openness to the emotional sense of play.

Finally, as if to beat us over the head: the elephant in the room. It is life-size, or in this case, death-size model of an Indian elephant. Splayed across the floor of a room that is also occupied by a replica Chinese street stall, the elephant is a reminder of international market forces that endanger life on the planet – even those giants that fill us with awe and wonder. Prosperity leads to happiness they say, but it has costs, and the loss of life in the pursuit of ambition is another side affect of the business of today’s expanding global economy.

As well as being a major player on the path to industrialisation, this part of England has a history of brewing beer and Burton-upon-Trent, once home to many breweries, still has a couple of the larger ones churning out fine beers and quality ales. Marston’s ales are on tap in many local public houses and well worth trying if you’re in the area. There is also a large Coors factory in the town, and many microbreweries survive in the surrounding hills.

The first known brewery in the region was started at Burton Abbey in 1002 AD after the monks discovered that imbibing processed beer was safer than drinking the local water. 

When the Trent and Mersey Canal opened in 1770 the local brew was able to be transported nationally and became a huge success at home and abroad.

The railways were the next important step and when the Midlands branch opened in 1839 many of the breweries built their own lines to slot into the national network, with Bass owning the largest private railroad in the country. In 1880 there were over 30 breweries recorded in the town of Burton alone. I regularly enjoy a pint or two of locally produced refreshment in the village I usually visit whenever in the UK, and I’m already looking forward to my autumn trip to sample the latest barrels.

I was fortunate enough to have mostly sunny days on my visit back to this region, and I took advantage of the unusually fine weather to get out and about.

Pretty parrots and pleasant pubs sit comfortably alongside calm canals in Nottingham. Derby, it’s neighbouring Midlands city just a short train journey away hasn't really made the most of its river, the Derwent .. the old town was calling though and I had a couple stops to make there before hitting the airport.

One of my favourite landmarks in Derby is Ye Olde Dolphin pub, opened in 1530; it retains the traditional character from the age it was built and people still sit in the back garden under the shadow of the cathedral at lunchtime to nibble cheese and onion sandwiches and sip pints of their best bitter.

Although Derby has its new Westfield shopping mall and Nottingham too has indoor amenities, the flurry of activity in the sunny streets in both places was an indication that on the best of days most people still appreciate the atmosphere that accompanies the natural progress of external spaces. Unfortunately, with the super-structures of engineering that modern shopping facilities now are the mythologised culture of taking from the rich to give to the poor has been replaced with a new attitude, that of wealthy conglomerates bombarding the majority of the people with advertisements for mass-produced consumer goods that supposedly bestow status on the possessor, and the so-called upwardly-mobile attaching ever greater significance to these objects.

These products are often made cheaply in China by under-paid workers, to prop up a failing capitalist system of supply and demand.

As Huang Yong Ping points out so evidently in his art, the continuance of this life-style leads to deprivation and death for more people (and animals and other life forms) than it benefits.

In light of current events in England, with the robbing hoodies (remember the present prime minister suggesting ‘hug a hoodie’ in pre-election speeches?) rampaging through city streets, looting and burning indiscriminately and collecting electronics and expensive trendy shoes in the worst consumer fashion while being confronted with the modern-day sheriffs and their contemporary methods, methinks the Robin Hood of the olde fable, who lived in the green woodlands of the forest with his noble band of outlaws and fought for justice, would be most displeased.

Although my current home is a fair hop from the UK’s Midlands, a piece of me remains in this beautiful and culturally exciting part of the country. I will forever return with a smile and hug for the people I know and care about, and to visit the exhibitions that open so regularly here, sure that there are always stimulating things to do and see. There are people I miss and hope to see again soon, and places to go I haven’t yet been, but that is the journey of life, to keep us travelling toward the things we anticipate in great expectation with a hopeful spirit and to build on those true friendships we’ve made on the road to happiness and fulfilment.

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Even though Robin Hood is a Nottingham based character, who may or may not have actually lived in the manner described in folklore - he might have been a Crusader returned from the Middle East to find his lands stolen by King John (he who was eventually forced to sign the Magna Carta into law) or a lowly thief elevated to saintly status by an angry populace, his declared lover Maid Marian is supposedly buried in Essex. By clicking the link you can read a poem I wrote about Robin and Marian with its only slightly obscure cross-references to a wonderful long-time friend who lives nearby and first took me to visit the landmark.

Poem: In Little Dunmow Church

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

Swimming with the Fishes

Several of last summer's language project students returned this year for additional lessons and I had the pleasure of hosting one of them at my place for a few weeks .. one day we decided it would be more beneficial to hold the lesson on a boat - after all, what's the point of learning a language if you don't have access to ordinary activities in which to employ those new skills ?.. while we were out in the warm blue Aegean we took advantage of the opportunity to go scuba diving ..

It was nice to have company, even though it meant I was doing a lot of additional cooking (though I'm fairly used to that as certain people will know) and using ingredients I wasn't particularly familiar with preparing - but that meant I was learning too .. according to my colleagues we were probably eating out every night: not true! Every other night maybe .. Although my student has returned to Istanbul now, I'm sure we'll be seeing each other again ..

Anyway, it's been another hot summer of sunshine every day, which, when not teaching or entertaining, has presented plenty of opportunities for swimming and walks along the beach as well as the obligatory history trips and a couple of wild rides across borders that took me far beyond the Edge of the Map ..

Hopefully I'll have the chance to share some of the excitement and adventure with you soon ..

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Monday, August 01, 2011

Knossos .. Gnosis!

The road goes on and on in a winding course through life .. but where do your paths take you .. what have you learned on your trip .. what does the journey mean to you .. and if we ever meet again, what will you teach me?

Minoan culture was the epitome of Western thinking and society over 3500 years ago. Strategically situated in the centre of the world, the crossroads at the dawn of recorded civilisation; an age when mythological creatures and fabled characters from historical dramas roamed the earth, when the rituals of kings and chiefs demanded obeisance from slaves and tradesmen and the daily reality of continued survival against the elements was paramount in the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

Crete was home to many of the most fabulous heroes from stories now mingled with folklore in a web of operatic complexity. From Hercules to the Minotaur, from Icarus to Aphrodite this island has been the setting for a hundred epic tales of magic and mystery, and more than a few stories of love, betrayal and the tragedy of heartbreak – so, it’s no wonder I was attracted to the island!

At the time that their art, stories and architecture was peaking Moses had yet to lead his people through the desert, the Buddha had not been born and it was to be another 1500 years before anyone would hear of a Caesar. Based on the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean, they were situated at an intersection of history where advancements in technology and ability were giving opportunity to form a cohesive society through acquired knowledge, and they certainly created a lasting impression.

It was the early days of state-organised agriculture, shipbuilding, and massive construction projects to fulfil the ambitions of sovereigns and employ the masses and exacting stonework was still using bronze tools (with regular iron use still a few hundred years away). However, our ancestors had learned to use the knowledge they gained from one thing and apply it to another. Locked in a constant struggle for supremacy of thought through the creation of a meaningful society these masters of the known world with their architects, craftsmen and poets carved a culture that we wonder at to this day; and the crowds do come in their thousands to marvel.

Palace of the Gods

The grand palace of Knossos, while ostensibly designed by Daedelus (he of the wax and feather wings) to house the king, was purposefully built as demonstration of the potential of the era of those old gods. It stands today as a living testimony to the discoveries and vision of renowned explorers and archaeologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Sir Arthur Evans, the distinguished British archaeologist, was the first to uncover the secrets of this majestic palace near Iraklion, the modern capital of the island, making his reputation in the process. Although much of the contemporary placement of the structural elements, and the reasons he devised for the various components of the building are debatable in light of new evidence, his work is indisputably perceived as a mastermind of organised scientific research.

Many of the world’s most ancient and colourful frescoes adorn the walls – though most are now copies, with the originals in the Irakleon or British museums. However, the sense of grandeur remains. The famous blue monkey and octopus reliefs (that I first saw in books at university while taking a course in Greek archaeology) occupy the same room, though whether they did in the days of the King Minos is open to discussion, and will perhaps never be known.

The throne room may not have been a place for meeting the ruler. It could have been a sauna or even a bathing room, with its deep pool surrounded by painted columns. The small-scale ‘throne’ surrounded by paintings of feminine creatures suggests a ladies chamber rather than a place for the king to meet dignitaries or execute justice.

A Load of Old Bull

The bull is a recurring figure in ancient literature and religion and has been associated with the Cretan version of the Sun God. Mithras, the main challenger to Christ in the first couple centuries of the modern era was often represented as slaying a bull. Ba’al, the opponent of Judaism in Mosaic times was a bull – as depicted in the Old Testament as the representation of a ‘golden calf’. Ushi-Oni is a bull headed creature from Japanese mythology while the Mesopotamians had Shedu, and most will have heard of the centaur, a variation of the half-man half-bull with a horse’s body and man’s head though it is occasionally portrayed with a bull’s body.

The massive mural of the bull that sits atop the hill is an enduring symbol of the sacredness of this beast and the myth of the Minotaur that once roamed the labyrinth beneath the palace. The beast was the offspring of the king's wife Pasiphaƫ and a white bull. Aphrodite had caused her to fall in love with the bull after it was presented to Minos from Poseidon as sacrificial offering that he kept instead of slaughtering, thereby incurring the wrath of the gods. Daedalus built a hollow wooden cow that Pasiphaƫ hid within to enable her to copulate with the bull, subsequently giving birth to the monstrous Minotaur.

Although there are engravings and paintings in other locations and times of Pasiphaƫ suckling the Minotaur as a calf-child, in Cretan accounts the creature was soon imprisoned by the king and regularly appeased with sacrifices of young men and unwed girls from Athens due to a contract with Aegeus the king of Athens (accounts vary from every year to every 3 or even 9 years), after Androgeos, the son of Minos, was killed on an expedition to the mainland city.

However, one year a handsome young man of extraordinary skill named Theseus (the son of Aegeus, for whom the Aegean Sea is named) came calling from Athens and the daughter of Minos, the princess Ariadne, took a liking to him and his foreign ways. When he chose to face the challenge of escaping the maze without being gorged in order to win the hand of the princess, she was determined to ensure he succeeded. Secreting a ball of string in his pocket she gave him the means to find his way back through the labyrinth once he had fought the fierce creature.

However, as with all great Greek myths tragedy follows success. Theseus had promised his father that if he beat the Minotaur he would be flying a white sail upon his return, but in his excitement at having defeated the bull-headed monster and won the heart of Ariadne, he forgot to erect the sail.

Aegeus, watching for his return saw the ships from a distance and seeing no white sail assumed Theseus dead. In despair at the loss of his son he flung himself from the cliffs into the sea in a deliberate act of suicide. In retrospect it would have been sensible to be certain, and perhaps this is part of the moral – that hasty decisions can be regretted, however the typically intricate plots of Grecian myths often rely on these sudden extreme deeds.

The Way Back to the Future

Too often in our age these fabulous stories are not told from parent to child, nor are they taught in school they way they were only a couple generations ago. Without the skilled technical apprenticeships past generations were afforded, or a foundation in classical studies the English education system has become pointlessly mired in government established teaching methods and wishy-washy course studies. Greek, and particularly Latin, along with history and geography, were required subjects when I attended high school, however now there seems to be so much emphasis on civics and citizenship, sex education and anti-bullying behaviours that there simply isn’t space in the curriculum for ancient languages (the building blocks of grammar and key to understanding etymology), geography or the history of myths and origins of belief systems.

Whether you have read Homer’s Odyssey, seen some of the comedy/tragedy plays of the famous ancient authors or simply enjoyed watching the Adventures of Sinbad, you will have an idea of the mythology and history of this island paradise. Familiarity with the tales of Zeus and Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis, Talos, the man of metal who guarded the shores, Aphrodite and Daedalus, the designer of the palace who was interred due to his part in the bull affair, and his son Icarus who flew too close to the sun on his wings of wax during their escape, brings a real sense of appreciation for storytelling.

Once encountered, these tales give children a feeling of wonder while stimulating their imagination, and these magnificent sagas have historically played a part in our understanding of morality, relationship development and acquired wisdom – teach these stories and we can potentially eliminate so much of the anti-social behaviour that plagues modern schools, for it is the lack of connection with intelligent literature and art and no tangible link to history and social mores that causes youngsters to seek other outlets for expression. It isn't surprising to learn that the highest levels of teenage alcohol consumption and pregnancy are in the nations that have dissolved classical studies and removed vocational and technical courses from their link to advanced education.

The chronicles of heroes such as Hercules and Achilles and epic poems such as the Iliad teach us about ourselves and provide valuable insight into our own history and culture. Many of the stories in films and books released today are simply variations and retellings of the original ancient narratives but are simply perceived as temporary distractions. Without these fables we are a shadow of what we were, we become trapped in a present without substance, a life that exists without reference to its own wondrous evolution. We formed these narratives in universal metaphors that still retain a magical quality resonating with significance, and we would do well to return a portion of the education of our children to the importance of considering the traditional arts of their past, a history we now deny them.

Understanding where we came from and how we think about relationships with each other and the world about us is as important today as then. Even if we reduce everything to scientific fact, as humans we still crave anecdotes that amuse, enchant, beguile and entertain, for we are the story. We are the narrative of life as it slowly unravels like the ball of string to lead us home from the travails of everyday life to realise our dreams, and without the thread of a tale how can we understand who we are and how we arrived?

All of Life is Magical

The truth is that there are no ancient mysteries and no hidden knowledge. No magic words or symbols that unlock vast untapped potential in the spirit world have been shrouded in secrecy; the revelation is all around us, the natural environment and the human mind disclose all potential, accompanied by an organic and innate experience of self. The clues are here for all to see, if only we would open our eyes and realise what it all means.

All the wisdom of the ages is available to anyone willing to explore the world within and outside, for the created world is merely an extension of our capability to produce tangible structures from ideas that begin as formed thoughts – even science must recognise the truths inherent in the narrative, for we are the sum of our parts and not exclusively reflexive beings. One simply has to trust the trip and explore the farthest reaches of potential to understand that all knowledge is within us and accessible by connecting with others through a shared experience of open minds.

We struggle against ignorance with the search for philosophical and mathematical reality; with scientific examination of the physical world and spiritual exploration of our inner experience people are discovering the vastness of space, the microscopic organisms and enormous complexities that populate the cosmos and of course, the infinite expanse of mind.

It is a story that will never end and it is our responsibility to give credibility to potential and consideration to all life that we share this universe with, both in the past and the future while remembering that we live here and now in the present, and the present is a gift.

Open that gift and share it with the world – for as the future relies on the past we all depend on the shared wisdom of the ages to remind us where we come from. If we don’t know that we surely can’t say where we are going. Let’s keep that knowledge of ancient humanity alive, for they were we in ages past struggling for truth in a confusing world. As we too search for a way to make sense of the world today we need to remind ourselves of those myths and stories we created to inform and transform our sense of identity, and hopefully we can ensure an enlightened future paradigm guided by wisdom and knowledge of self: a complete self, living in reality but enthused by the narrative of dreams, aware and responsible for our place in this world today.

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I've been too busy over the past couple months to complete the changes to the Blog I'd hoped to make but was encouraged to at least post a couple articles I'd written but not published .. so, here's one of them - I thank you for reading. Minor apologies for the preaching, but with the freedom to teach culture and language one earns abroad the more narrowly focused the education system in the UK appears to be - oh, how I despised teaching secondary school there with its stifling and pointlessly exam-based curriculum that has reduced knowledge to a set of job-based criteria and teaching culture to unrelated over-simplified rituals and ethics devoid of explanation. University degree courses in England are wonderful for specialisation and expertise in one field, but useless at creating links between the various liberal arts and human sciences that are necessary for a well-rounded base of knowledge. Teaching courses and education generally suffer because of this tunnel vision. I am ever grateful for opportunities discovered in other places.

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