Saturday, November 30th 2013
We set out to see a couple of exhibitions today. Photography was not allowed in either of them so I can show you only incidental pictures taken along the way. We first passed through Marylebone on our way to a third exhibition which we did not actually manage to see, the gallery being closed on Saturdays. Our fault: should’ve checked opening times first!
We stopped to look at the Marylebone Council House which is currently undergoing refurbishment. I was slightly intrigued as I had formed the possibly erroneous impression that only in the North did they call “Council House” the building that serves the purposes of the town or county hall. This building, which was put up during the years 1914-20 as the then Marylebone Town Hall, came to be renamed Westminster Council House when council boundaries were redrawn.
In front of the building are two rather splendid white lions. I understand these were completed in 1919 but I do not know the name of the sculptor. Both lions have a noble bearing, enhanced by their up-tilted heads, and a mythic air conferred by the Art Deco styling. One of the lions was damaged a few months ago by a stupid act of vandalism but has been well restored. On the same occasion both were cleaned and now glow with a pristine whiteness. (Before and after pictures here.)
Next, we travelled up the Finchley Road to Arkwright Road, where the above imposing building stands on a corner. It was built as a public library in 1897, as testified by the usual memorial stone citing the names of the Council worthies involved, presently obscured by a tuft of pampas grass in the front garden. Today, however, it is Camden Arts Centre, a venue for various artistic activities, including a rolling programme of exhibitions.
What I take to be the original main entrance is no longer used as such. One would have reached it by a flight of steps (the Victorians were less concerned with “accessibility” than we need to be today), at the bottom of which we find this hefty wrought iron boot scraper, eloquent witness to London’s once muddy streets. A very workmanlike production, it now needs cleaning itself. A coat of paint was once applied to it but is now peeling off, giving it a very dowdy and neglected look.
As we were unable to take photos of the exhibition, I will say little about it. It goes by the childishly pretentious title We at Camden Arts Centre are Exceedingly Proud to Present an Exhibition of Capable Artworks by the Notable Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress. The topic is slavery and racism in the Southern States of the America. This is, of course, a serious and important matter, the history and experience of which has blighted, and continues to blight, the lives of black people in the US and elsewhere. It deserves continuing serious attention and Walker’s exhibition has received critical acclaim. Unfortunately, I did not find it as good and as well produced as the critics apparently do (or do not dare not to do). I found it crude and stereotypical, lacking the human resonances necessary to engage the viewer’s emotions and sympathies. Nor did I find Walker’s preferred medium, paper cut-outs, artistically compelling.
When you visit the Camden Arts Centre, you should also visit the cafe and the garden, the cafe because they provide tasty and unusual cakes, and the garden because this is a pleasant environment in which to sit or stroll and also which contains a changing selection art works with which you can interact. Called Taking Root, this is a “project” based on appropriately highfalutin ideas but, more importantly, a good way to engage children (and “children” of my age and any age, for that matter) with art.
The idea is to follow a path or “trail”, though at this time of year, with the vegetation dying back, such a trail is harder to distinguish. Not that it matters, as you can as well drift from object to object and interact with them as you see fit. Hidden behind bushes is this object that I call “mirror tree”, as there is no identifying label. Another name for it might be “Retrospective” because the mirrors are rear-view mirrors (rétroviseur, in French).
Two bells hang among branches, one small, the other substantial. Where do they come from? The larger one has a string attached to the clapper so that you can ring it. When you do so, it emits a pleasant and long-lasting note.
I don’t know what this hut or shed contains (if anything). A nearby board bears the legend “To know that some things go out, and other things come in” and tells us that the sum of £3,500 “Includes delivery within Greater London and technical assistance for installation.” Further, we learn that “This art work was commissioned by Camden Arts Centre in 2013, one of a limited number of artists’ beach huts. Proceeds from its sale will support Camden Art Centre’s artist residency programme.” Intrigued? Then ask in the bookshop for more information.
This slab of metal in the shape of an ash leaf and bearing the words “ELM”, “THRUSH”, “BUTTERFLY”, “BEE”, “STARLING”, “SPARROW” and “ASH”, is provided with a mallet so that you can strike it, whereupon it resounds with a gong-like tone. Perhaps I should just say what is written on the accompanying board:
This interactive work is based on a
leaf taken from the ash tree in which
it hangs. Commissioned from Aaron
McPeake it is a meditation on the
decline of, and threat to, a number of
species of flora and fauna which
were abundant when the artist was
Cast in bronze and specially
callibrated with the Whitechapel
foundry, this leaf can be struck by
Visitors using the hammer provided.
There are a number of other bells
hidden around the fringes of the
(The word “callibrate” is mis-spelled in the original.)
By now, I was so attuned to spotting art works among the grass and leaves that when I saw these red branches, I assumed that they were yet another piece of art. But are they? Or are they plants? Did an artist sit and perform the tedious work of painting every branch red or did they grow thus by themselves? Well, of course, they are obviously natural plants. Or are they…?
We headed south again and returned to Marylebone. Close to the bus stop is the strange art gallery called Ambika P3. You might easily miss its understated door but for the exhibition notice posted above it. The gallery is in a subterranean space underneath a building currently occupied by Westminster University, a labyrinthine space which would make a splendid underground car park but seems in fact to be used for storage. The gallery itself is hard to find unless you know where it is and, for this reason, as you enter, you encounter a guide who directs you thither.
The exhibition is entitled Victor Burgin, A Sense of Place. It ran from November 1st to December 1st but if you missed it this time, you might be able to catch it somewhere else. I’m sure it will reappear. The blurb on the Web page tells you about the exhibition. Photography was not allowed in the exhibition itself but they did allow us to take a general view.
The photos were arranged in groups. Sometimes the grouping was obvious (e.g. grouped by place or time sequence), sometimes less so. The photos were accompanied by snippets of text. I don’t know who wrote the unascribed bits of text (some pieces were quotations) but these mostly read like excerpts from stories or novels by a pompous and self-important author. In most cases, the text seemingly had nothing to do with the pictures though no doubt there was some connection in the mind of the artist. I became bored with the stilted text and looked at the pictures. Some were interesting, some banal. All were technically competent (as you would expect) and all were in monochrome.
I have to say that I regard black and white photography as what we had before colour became available. I do not understand the obsession of modern photographers with monochrome. There is a belief that it is somehow “artistic” in a way that colour is not. The rationale for this escapes me entirely. Then again, I do not go in for “art photography”, a category which I do not believe actually exists. I accept that people can do art with photography, in the same way that they can do art with stones, lumps of wood and pieces of scrap metal, but not that there is an “art photography” whereby you point your camera at something and the result is “art”. I will admit, though, that the subject is complex and that it is quite probably that now I have said all this, something will come along to change my opinion. How exciting would that be?
By the time we emerged from the subterranean labyrinth, it was becoming dark. On the other side of the road, Madame Tussaud’s was becomingly illuminated in blue. Incidentally, the dome that appears darkly on the left used to house the Planetarium. This closed in 2006, apparently (I didn’t realize this until Tigger told me), and the accommodation is used by the waxworks museum for its own purposes. These days, for a visit to a planetarium you will need to go to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
We walked through the churchyard of St Marylebone. Today, in common with many inner city church grounds, this has been turned into a garden. On Saturdays, the Cabbages & Frocks market is held here and was still active. The stalls were ablaze with lights under the trees, the ground between them strewn with fallen leaves.
All over town, the Christmas lights have reappeared. They make a pretty and a reassuring display in the damp, cold darkness of the winter evenings. They are a concession to our subconscious yearning for sunlight as well as an expression of civic pride.