Thursday, November 27, 2008

Consider a few statements about painting, particularly a couple of articles written about 'Carte Blanche Vol. 2' at MOCCA (see images of the work here):

Sarah Millroy from the Globe and Mail says about medium-specific exhibitions, "How are you supposed to respond to such a show? Just go and have fun?" and "Have we really learned anything here?", then says "Painting, with its deep roots in the past, can still take our breath away, a charged site where physical material and intellectual intent magically fuse", sounding as though she is starting to warm up, but near the end of the article she says "The RBC's first prize went to the deserving Vancouver artist Jeremy Hof, whose layered plaster-and-paint work is incised with concentric squares...a picture that relies on some revered Canadian precedents: Garry Neill Kennedy's conceptually based diagonal-layer paintings of the seventies, and also the Thick Paintings of Eric Cameron, begun later in the same decade", bringing to light a bit of a preference it seems, then she says "it would be nice to settle down and start looking carefully at the pictures we make, tracing those connections and deepening our understanding of where we sit today", as if she'd forgotten to do this while looking at the work.

While Terence Dick at says of the exhibition "There are no big conceptual gestures here (except maybe Iain Baxter&’s snowy TV sets), just lots of colour and things to look at", while not going into what these 'big gestures' might ideally be, he also says "My favourite works are those that maintain the representational space of the canvas and then fill it with images only paint makes possible", in a more balanced critique.

I recommend listening to the 'Conceptual Painting' podcast at Frieze magazine. Described here, the podcast explores statements such as "It makes no sense to melodramatically invoke the "end of painting" (or any other medium-specific practice for that part) when the continuous emergence of fascinating work obviously proves apocalyptic endgame scenarios wrong", and the idea that "the social and political dimension of Conceptualism has been discussed, but often only in apodictic terms, not acknowledging the humour, the wit, the existential, emotional or erotic aspects, as well as the iconophile, not just iconoclast motives, that have always also been at play in the dialectics and politics of life-long conceptual practices."

Also, take a look at the comments/conversation (on the show and on painting) between Leah Sandals and Wil Murray here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ghent, Belgium - Day 1

The taxi driver who picked us up at Ghent St. Pieters station had a gruffness that clashed with the techno music playing in the background (in fact every café or restaurant or taxi we were in played vapid techno or classic American rock). It was morning so there was enough light to see the (much more contemporary) shops and apartment buildings lining the streets. I had this thought that Ghent would be a lot more guarded than Bruges.

Our hotel had a lower lobby and an upper lobby with a ‘parlour’, where stern clerks in hairstyles from the 1940s checked us in and told us we should leave our bags out in the open (to be stolen; bah!) as our room wasn’t ready yet. The ‘parlour’ was a kind of makeshift museum wherein everything seemed as though it were there for the benefit of tourists who preferred generalizations rather than anything unique and interesting. Businessmen resembling actors from 'Three Colors White' filled most of the ‘parlour’ (another link to Kieslowski - the elevators in this hotel were like the ones I've seen in the Warsaw-based 'Decalog' series; for about two people only, you open the elevator door as though it were a closet), and after spending some time looking at the map, our room was ready after all. We dropped off our bags and went back out into the rain.

Across the street was a restaurant called “Cookin’”, which served as a handy landmark for finding the way back to the hotel. On the 20-minute walk to the Historisch Centrum, the only thing that really felt guarded was the cold and drizzly weather; otherwise Ghent felt roomier and approachable (unlike London). There were signs everywhere pointing us in the right direction, and soon we were facing streets that ran alongside St. Bavo’s Cathedral, St. Nicholas Church, the Ghent Belfry, and the Gravensteen Castle.

A note about navigation: in Bruges, finding the way to particular spots and then back to the hotel was based on finding the phonetically-inventive street names, which were usually placed clearly on the sides of buildings, similar to London. The same sets of streets became part of our daily language as we searched and recited them over the course of the day. In Bruges they were streets like Mariastraat, Dijver, Simon Stevin Plein, Oude Burg, and Hoogstraat. In Ghent these streets were Zuidstationstraat, Vlaanderenstraat, Sint-Baafs Plein, Koren Markt, and Hoogport. In Antwerp we found streets that sounded like sleazy celebrities, but more about that later.

We found a lunch café called ‘Exki’, which was a chain across Belgium and had gourmet food in an affordable, relaxed cafeteria-style setting. You could get huge Belgian sandwiches (with long, narrow bread filled with vegetables and the kind of cheeses that would be incredibly expensive in Canada), pastries and cakes (incredibly good; nothing dried up or pre-packaged), amazing soup, etc., etc. The only thing was that most of the seating was upstairs, and we had to carry trays of soup up two flights. Also, the seating felt like a kind of doll house, and most people's knees were up near their chin.

Many of the cathedrals we found in the Historisch Centrum were closed or we couldn’t find out what they were called. One of them had onion towers and another seemed as big as a planet. We found a town hall and made a joke about the one in Bruges (we went in there to ask where the Memling Museum was, and the clerk was so bored and exasperated and she said basically that we shouldn’t bother her with touristy lameness but that we should go back to the train station and find the ‘Informaton Booths’).

In St. Nicholas Church, more amazing than the paintings and sculpture (reminding me unfortunately of ‘Ghostbusters II’) were the patches of restored ceiling where you could see original painting, as well as the weird Virgin shrine wherein she looked like a huge mud sculpture topped with a porcelain head. The Ghent Belfry wasn’t as narrow a climb as the Belfry in Bruges, and had an elevator, but even so, we got lost and found ourselves having to walk around the whole building a few levels up with no grille to keep us from leaning out. The original iron dragon which had once perched atop the Belfry was on view inside, and it looked like a cross between an enormous kuckoo-clock creature with clumsy stiff tongue, and an early aeroplane that doubled as a cauldron. He looked really serene, as frozen creatures often do, even while sticking his tongue out as if regurgitating it. The day was quite cold and so was the inside of the Belfry, and so when we were almost to the top we rested on soft orange seats and watched a video (intalled for our resting/viewing pleasure) about how to forge a bell (this is SO interesting, particularly how they have to pack it with some kind of clay, heat it with volcano-heat, cover it with toxic substances, clean it, and install lettering as if decorating a cake) and how to play the bells using a ‘keyboard’ that you had to hammer with your fists, much worse than the organ in ‘The Goonies’.

(earthen Virgin)

St. Bavo’s Cathedral is mainly known for its housing of Van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ (there were many 'mystic lambs' in Belgium), but really it should be seen for its gargantuan, neverending interior and vast catacombs. The Cathedral’s main floor had cavernous halls and ceilings and cathedrals-within-cathedrals wherein if you were traveling with someone and wanted to hang back to see an inner room, they wouldn’t be able to find you again. I wasn’t allowed to take any photographs, but in the catacombs people were snapping away. These were mainly smaller rooms with tombstones and alters, but also more early paintings, spooky corners, and mummy-like figures up on the wall. There were also many glass vitrines full of ceremonial religious garb and ridiculous cathedral-shaped chambers for invisible relics. There was a yawning or yelping dragon statue in a dark corner that I didn’t photograph well, but he had the same sereneness and nausea as the Belfry dragon, which I appreciated.

(spooky corner)
(wooden or wizened?)

(Gravensteen Castle)
(canal near Historisch Centrum)
(buildings along the canal)
(unknown building with onion towers)
(streets in Historisch Centrum)
(swollen shop)

The Gravensteen Castle was closed by the time we got to it, and we didn’t have time to visit it the next day, although I’m sure it would have been amazing to see. The weather was clearing up so I was able to take photos of some of the weird and beautiful buildings we passed, including a swollen Gaudi-like shop. That evening we watched ‘The Weakest Link’ and ‘The Descent’ (a wonderful Halloween movie fest was going on), and listened to the whooping and screaming motorcycles in the streets outside.

Here is something somewhat related that I found just now - A History of Dutch Comics! Some pretty good samples: 1,2,3.

(Ko Doncker; image source)

Continue to Part VIII - Ghent - Day 2.

Go back to Part I.

Spending the last four days with a post-root-canal-infection has felt like I’ve lost more than a week (do all Capricorns think losing time is unforgivable, or is it just me). Waiting the two days for the antibiotics to kick in involved waves of pain-hours wherein I managed to invent ceremonies of distraction, which does work but only if you mix it up – watching crap acting but cool special effects in a TV drama such as this one (actually watching it through was next to impossible, but I switched off between listening to it like a radio play and becoming hypnotized by the subtitles, which I left on even during the English scenes), taking long showers, and cleaning the house for five minutes. Some people might line up their distractions in a photogenic arrangement of misleading calm, although the Kieslowski films would’ve worked too, but not the hot rum. On the third day my computer crashed (not dead for long though), which has forced me to back up my files properly and come to my senses - switch from vacuous TV to Ingmar Bergman films.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"the very gloom seems to shrink back in confusion and respect"

I spent a wonderful Monday afternoon with Alasdair Gray, he in a supernatural podcast form. In fact it was the only wonderful afternoon I've had since I've been back from the trip. Which says more about podcasts than afternoons. I need to look into Alasdair's work after hearing his talk; I feel as though I've found another Joseph Cornell (in fact I think their birthdates are very close).

Alasdair says ceremoniously-cheerfully "next please!" for each changing of the slide, and gave a hilarious explanation about not actually using others' criticism of his work within his work, but instead he'd composed the 'hatchet job on my work' himself, and had done it better than any critic could do, 'in fact, cheaper!'. There are many points of horrible noises caused by his coughing or sneezing etc., after which he says astounded "I had no idea scratching my head would produce such a sound!"

The Guardian on Alasdair:

"There's much of Gray hinted at in that first 1958 sentence - art, childhood, playfulness, fantasy, struggles to please a father, longing for the female ideal, a certain unapologetic Scottishness of idiom - but Lanark contains a universe more: a preternaturally bleak vision of a parallel Glasgow (named Unthank), thwarted promise, science, pain, nature, theology, sex, politics and postmodern suicide, to name a few of the minor themes found on the average page. You read Gray in the way you visit a great gallery: occasionally anxious to get out of a snaking side-passage, but only because you know there's another thumping big idea around the corner. And afterwards you press it urgently on friends but fail signally, as I am doing here, to explain with any degree of concision just why they should read it."

"He could no sooner give a simple soundbite than limit his writing to haikus. The digressions come 10, 15 minutes long, peppered with apologies. 'Why did I go into this? There was a main point somewhere I was using this to illustrate.' 'Sorry, that's another example of a small matter I wished to refer to expanding into a monologue.'"

"And while he talks, he harrumphs, wheezes, laughs mid-word, turns tail on his own sentences, lets his voice soar to soprano level, mimics accents, stresses odd words and, a few times, offputtingly enough, begins to quack. It's like the Goon Show, or trying to get a precocious child to tell a straightforward story. Appropriately enough, I later come across another quote from Burgess, back in 1984, when he is comparing Gray to Joyce - 'Certain innovative writers have to avoid becoming fully adult in order not to learn the drab world's fear of innovation.'"

Monday, November 17, 2008

double trappist sleepless / a better bad night

(image source)

from writer Bryan Appleyard:
"People who rarely or never have a bad night cannot imagine what real insomnia is like nor do they have any access to the strange brotherhood of insomniacs. To us each night is a threat or challenge and each day is defined by the exact quality of the rest we achieved the night before. In fact, a bad night's sleep is not necessarily a prelude to a bad day; I often find the resulting dreamy, detached condition rather better for my work that the excess of energy I get when I sleep well. I suspect others find both conditions irritating which could explain the faint but distinct air of exasperation that surrounds me wherever I go. The trick is - or at least my current tactic is - to go with the sleeplessness. I don't do anything, I just let my mind wander. This seems to make the night a friendlier place. Indeed, I look forward to entering this liminal state. It makes the night seem very long, though not as long as when I decide to eat breakfast at 2 am or try to do my VAT. Anyway, as you will have guessed, I had a bad night which is annoying because I am about to have my photograph taken. But I don't mind. I feel, as I am sure most insomniacs do after their better bad nights, untouchable."

I think there are some wonderful pains to be had and soothed after a night or two of trying but not being able to sleep (extra-sensitive skin, and extra-susceptibility to cathartic even if bludgeoning film scenes, based on going to see the new James Bond yesterday afternoon), and the sleepless nervousness and extra-taskmaster mode makes for a great co-moralizer after a trip to another planet. I'd heard about how travel can allow a person to realize how much they can live without, and how much of what they think they need to rely on is just wasted energy. Traveling also reveals how easy it is to be face to face with impossible-seeming places and people. My first night home, the first thing I realized I'd missed was typing, writing, the space it immediately opens up, the endless meditations upon the texture and physicality of thoughts and words and images. Almost two weeks later, what had become normal, settled for, resigned to these three years post-undergrad are no longer things I have to graft upon the squirming and the complaining body and brain, and they've become a lot more clear and not merely the dead weight of others' stern and cold warnings, but are the results and possibilities of my own decisions. I'm thinking about J.D. Salinger's exasperation with and then wonderful lack of consideration for the silent audience ("I fully intend, from time to time, to jump personally on the reader's back..."), and the lucky few post-undergrad who live among people who can challenge their ideas and thoughts daily, not just monthly, or yearly, and not as a burdensome obligation or as a bored 30-second window of performa-speech.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bruges - Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Memling at Sint-Jan’s Hospital, and the Belfry

On the way to the Memling Museum at Sint-Jan’s Hospital, we found the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk). I was most interested in the baroque wooden pulpit and the “tombstones of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold”, particularly how monstrous the pulpit seemed in the dark (the interior of the church is lit by natural light from windows – or no light if the weather is bad – and masses of candles), and the delicate, pointy features of ol' Mary and Charles. This church had many inner-alters, each including paintings, sculpture, walls of grave markers, and several suggestive furnishings for visitor contributions. “Heavenly rays” were massive golden spikes, upper walls revealed rows of doors leading (possibly) nowhere, and medieval tombs and their painted interiors could be viewed beneath the floor. I loved those inner alters of wizened saints, walls full of grave markers, and perching Death.

(painting detail insie the church)
(inner alter)
(Death's hand)
(doors leading nowhere?)

The Memling Museum was located nearer to our hotel, and on the way we found a school for the dramatic arts for children, several chocolate/waffle shops with nicely gory bats in the windows, and a creepy candy store with too many versions of the same brand of candy where children were having tantrums in the aisle.

(chocolate shop and bat)

A woman inside the Memling Museum was very determined to guide us back outside, where we were to go “left, and left!” to walk around the St. John’s (Sint-Jan’s) Hospital grounds, mainly closed, which conveniently led into a street bulging with touristy shops and cafes. Inside the Memling Museum, we learned that we were walking around the original sick-bed wards, illustrated by Jan Schilder Beerblock (I like the bed in the aisle with candlesticks all over it, and the ‘ambulence’, of which a real version was available to see in the museum), but none of the actual beds were still there. The museum was filled with many works by Hans Memling of course, as well as paintings and photographs devoted to nuns (both past and present), and display cases full of random relics and old medical instruments. Small easels were placed here and there for children, wherein they could enjoy colouring book pages featuring cartoony versions of St. John the Baptist and his severed head, the St. John's Pharmacy, and a detail of some sick beds, complete with a pox-sufferer, a smiling couple in bed, and several attending Nuns. The back of each page gave a small explanation of each picture in stern, yet graphic language.


After lunch, I lined up around 3 pm to climb the steps of the Belfry. They only let in 70 people at a time, as the 366 steps (no elevator) up the very narrow staircase could not safely hold more. There were about four platforms for resting on the way up, and the climb was extremely fun and creepy as the higher I went, there was hardly anywhere to put my feet going in either direction, and I constantly had to flatten against the wall to let people past who were coming back down. Little kids were getting creeped out, and people were complaining loudly. At the top there were four windows covered in grille looking down upon Bruges, flattening the town and giving it that tower-view softened, squished appearance. Also, the bell went off, making everyone quite deaf, but I was on the way back down by then. I think they were trying to play ‘Oh Danny Boy’.

Continue to Part VII - Ghent, Belgium - Day 1.

Go back to Part I.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bruges / Brugge, Belgium

Our hotel room was cramped but weirdly comfortable with its tiny sinking mattresses, lockable wardrobe, and Dutch TV. The view from the window revealed apartments, shops, and two posters of a rather flash nun, and the word ‘Mariastraat’, the name of our street. Old men in tailored-looking coats and berets went by in bicycles, and a yawning, half-robed man lurched out of his apartment window and frowned in a gaping way straight towards me across the street. He looked a bit like John Bock; mainly his bugged-out eyes.


The breakfast room in the hotel had the appearance of elegance even while our room upstairs was on the shabby side. A toaster sat on a nearby bureau for all to use, and we were given a basketfull of pastries, and freshly boiled eggs. We were also given instant coffee; you can’t fool us. A large decorative-Picasso-esque painting hung on one wall, with one of those scribbly anguished cartoony faces as an afterthought upon squatting furniture-bodies.

(the hotel's breakfast room; image source)
(our hotel room; image source)

The hotel had given us a handy map showing where our hotel was, and we located some of the main buildings we wanted to see – the Belfry, the Church of Our Lady, the Groeninge Museum, and the Memling Museum at Sint-Jan’s Hospital. We were able to find the Groeninge Museum eventually, but mainly wandered into chocolate shops, tea rooms, the Tintin store, and by accident we found the Church of the Holy Blood.

(a chocolate shop near our hotel, featuring a chocolate T-rex, its spine covered in stoic ducks, rabbits, pigs, bears, and hook-nosed heads).

But first the Groeninge – by getting lost we eventually found the museum by entering a kind of inner square surrounded by moss-covered towers, mini canals, and grave stones. The only visual references I could come up with were the filmed locations in Werner Herzog’s ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’, which was set in a Bavarian town. Unlike London, I had no previous visual collection of a factual-fictional Belgium. In a nearby museum (most museums were under the sub-name ‘Brugge Museum’) we purchased entry tickets to the Groeninge and found a sudden exhibition dedicated to Gunter Brus. Mainly an archive of performance photographs, the exhibition included his prints, images of which I had found a few years earlier when looking for an image of ‘Nosferatu’ by Rainer Fetting. These prints resembled the alien-vampire of ‘Nosferatu’ as well, but also of the pinched-nostril bat-faces of Germanic demons; Brus’ creatures looked over-exposed and wrung-out, like many cinematic demons in the silent film era.

(a print by Gunter Brus)
(near the Groeninge)
(near the Groeninge)

Upon approach, the Groeninge introduced itself with ridiculously square shrubs covering the left side of the outer entrance. Inside, a super-sleek modern security desk checked tickets, collected coats and water bottles, and gave blunt instructions about how to wear hand-bags (“in the front! In the front!”), as if trying to help us avoid pickpockets. They also had audioguides, which I ignored (I ignored them in London as well) because I didn’t feel like paying the rental fee, and because it seemed suspect to be given specific backstories on only some of the paintings. Within the gallery, I was suddenly faced with the oldest paintings and sculpture I had ever seen up close. Unlike London museums, these paintings did not have ropes to keep viewers from getting too close, so it was a new dimension of ravenous looking, rather than a mostly ravenous looking kept in check by the glare of a glass pane and a cordoned-off area of rope. The Groeninge was also considerate enough to provide folding chairs for people to take with them throughout the museum. My favorite paintings were by Jan Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Frans Pourbus, Jan van Hemesssen, Pieter Pourbus, Jan Provoost, Gerard David, Philips Galle, Jan Rombauts, and Hieronymous Bosch.

For lunch, we found a tea room across from one of the canals and saw a basic Belgian menu for the first time. Filled with fish, rabbit stew, mussels, beer, waffles, and croques (grilled sandwiches). I had a Croque Monsieur, the fanciest grilled ham and cheese sandwich ever, with a kind of rose sauce and cheese.

By the time we found the Markt, we only had time left that day to visit the Church of the Holy Blood (practically next door was the famous Belfry featured in that overrated British mob film involving people jumping out of the top of the tower). With no photographs allowed, what I remember about the church is its main colors of black, gold, and red, its huge main room, and a room off to the right where visitors could line up, touch a glass tube holding the infamous relic, be blessed, and take communion. I also remember a priest wiping the glass tube, maybe with a cloth and windex, after every visitor. I felt an instinctive aversion to the idea of joining in a religious ceremony that was so rigid, not to mention public. No simple crossing of the forehead and kneeling while wearing polka-dot kerchiefs in ‘Nights of Cabiria’.

The Belfry admission to the steep climb to the top had closed at 4 pm, and it was around 4:30 when we found the way in. The Tintin shop and a nearby bookshop were still open, and in that order, we realized the overpriced trap of the Tintin store and went to buy our own copies in the bookshop (which had several English sections). Nearby but also closed was the Salvador Dali museum, which looked like a mini theme park. The Markt was lined with expensive restaurants (menus and prices were right outside each outdoor seating area), which we found over the course of our stay were the only restaurants that stayed open past 6 pm. We had an overpriced dinner of waterzoi chicken and double trappist beer, and picked over the menus again and their use of the word ‘slagroom’ (whipped cream).

Continue to Part VI - Bruges - Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Memling at Sint-Jan’s Hospital, and the Belfry.

Go Back to Part I.
found articles:

'Write Here Write Now' by Amy Fung:

"The isolation of writing, especially arts writing, where the mantra “art critics have no friends” is beyond humour, the sense of solitude is deeply exacerbated by a region already isolated from a larger arts dialogue occurring nationally and internationally. Arts writers are not writing not out of public service, but engaging to take part in the greater cultural dialogue that feeds into the entire system of a community, a city, an economy and an identity."

"Looking back, I feel I have written about a lot of artists and exhibitions because nobody else was willing to—in fact, that’s exactly how Prairie Artsters began. New voices are being added to the mix and we are looking beyond our past legacies, and I’ve continued to question why I do what I do. I know I am now adding to a multiplicity of voices that need to grow and speak with and against one another, but for the community to flourish, we need even more voices to bring in new perspectives and challenge existing ones."

DEAD HEAT - Ben Davis on Berlinde de Bruyckere:

"the subterranean current of mischievousness in de Bruyckere. Start, for this, with Takman and Marthe, two human forms de Bruyckere based on observing models in her studio (the titles are the names of the models), twisted into improbable positions. Both have, instead of heads, manes of tree roots that cascade down to the floor, inexplicably. The spectacle of her headless humans transforming into trees offers a note of fantasy that cuts against those ponderous "weighty universals" that otherwise might smother the whole endeavor, even if it is pulled off in a fairly pokerfaced way. Human reality is, after all, about more than being nailed to the cross of some bleak, universal condition -- it’s also about imagination."

'Wounded visionaries' - "The first world war is seen as a modernist watershed, the moment when artists lost faith in narrative and embraced nihilism and fragmentation" by Ana Carden-Coyne:

"The complexities of victory and defeat also shaped the symbolism. At the 1920 Berlin Dada fair, the savage cruelty of war featured in Otto Dix's War Cripples (1920) and George Grosz's Grey Day (1921). Prematurely aged men, amputees and grotesque mutilations formed the Weimar artists' attack on the glorification of war and the myth of bodily sacrifice. The "new objectivism" offered biting commentaries on humanity, devoid of emotions and fleshy sensations: Heinrich Hoerle's Monument to the Unknown Prosthesis (1930) sacralised prosthetics and presented the next generation as faceless machines. While for Sigmund Freud, whose three sons were drafted, science had lost its "passionless impartiality" as gasses and shells delivered a new degree of viciousness, he also saw man becoming a "prosthetic God"."

"At one end of the cultural spectrum were objectified bodies; at the other were ghosts rising from burial grounds, as in Abel Gance's film J'accuse (1919) - where soldiers' bodies formed those damning words..."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

St. Pancras Station, London, Brussels Midi Station, and Bruges, Belgium

We learned that we could take the Eurostar from St. Pancras Station to Brussels, and we spent the morning taking trains from Horley. St. Pancras Station is larger than Victoria Station, and is really cold since all outer doors and platforms are open. The station is filled with shops and cafes, most of which seem really high-end, including a Champagne bar on the top level. The ticket office informed us that it was a children’s holiday and that there weren’t many tickets left, so we had to buy a First Class ticket one way, and a Second Class return. We tried to situate ourselves and find directions to the Eurostar platform ahead of time. St. Pancras had a Marks & Spencer, so we parked in front of the store with other travelers and ate chicken sandwiches and fruit.

When it was time to find the platform, we had to go through French customs and a baggage scan, both which were a lot less testy than Gatwick airport. Once we boarded our train, our seats had baroque orange cushions and a folding table, which we used to play travel Scrabble. Around us were businessy types surrounded by strewn papers and miniature bottles of booze. A stewardess resembling Russian Cate Blanchett kept bringing the drinks cart around, effectively dissolving the tense atmosphere. Lunch was a miniature cheese and salad plate with pastry and a tiny bottle of wine. We barely felt the tunnel and it wasn’t long until we were looking at French countryside in the fog. Announcements on the train were in French, Dutch, German, and English, but any signs were only in French or Dutch.


2 ½ hours later we were in Brussels Midi Station, wherein a large image of Tintin met us by the escalator. Our Eurostar tickets gave us two free train tickets on the regular train service, but we had to find the ticket office anyway to avoid wandering around baffled by the pictograms and missing information otherwise unhelpfully telling us where to find a train to Bruges, where our first hotel was booked. We had a Belgium guidebook, which sarcastically described the Brussels Midi station as bafflingly cryptic. In this station, as in London, immediate trains were listed on the schedule monitors, but not later trains, so we finally found the right platform by asking some nearby tourists from England. Our train was a bizarre double-decker with an interior like a plastic worm.

(image source)

The ride to Bruges was wracked with anxiety as we still couldn’t be sure if it was the right train until the French and Dutch announements mentioned ‘Brugge’, about half an hour later (only after annoucing all the stops in between). We couldn’t see any of the countryside from the windows as it was already dark. Bruges/Brugge station was pretty huge, but looked like it had been built in the 1970s with rust reds, browns, oranges and greens, so reminded me of a Greyhound station. The toilets were guarded by old ladies who wanted 40 cents (not Canadian) for entry, and we didn’t have any change and all the cafes and shops were closed, so we found a taxi and headed to our hotel.

There is a short film by Jim Jarmusch in his collection ‘Night On Earth’, about a taxi driver (played by Roberto Benigni) who zooms around Rome at night looking for fares. Our taxi driver indeed zoomed around the cobbled, narrow streets of medieval Bruges and made it seem like a much more hectic place than it really was. Our hotel room was in a winding, tower-like building and had tiny beds with mattresses that were very soft and sunken. The largest thing in the room was the dark wadrobe, which had its own lock and key. Belgian TV, or what looked like a basic cable set of channels, consisted of only talk shows and soap operas, with two channels of British and American TV with Dutch subtitles. What made this great though was that all commercials were French or Dutch, and their rapid-fire tones of advertising were full of sounds and annunciation that sounded like a mixture of Swedish and German. Here are some samples – 1, 2, 3.

Continue to Part V - Bruges / Brugge, Belgium.

Go back to Part I.

London - Victoria & Albert Museum

As many of the galleries I visited were collosal and palace-like, the V&A seemed like an entire universe within itself, and I was unable to visit all the exhibitions and all the rooms within rooms in the day I had. Someone was playing ‘Careless Whispers’ on saxophone in the tunnel leading to the Victoria & Albert museum.

My favorite displays were the portrait miniatures, the medieval sculpture (sample 1, 2, 3), and the tudor/Elizabethan rooms. From balconies I glimpsed the tomb effigies and some of the Russian and Japanese rooms, but my poor feet forced me into the café before the museum closed. The portrait miniatures were almost the most incredible paintings of the entire trip. There is an almost terrifying sense of self-sufficiency to them and the detail is exquisite. A nearby information monitor was explaining some of the painting techniques that would have been used, particularly the creation of little troughs so that the paint wouldn’t bleed into other details. Portraits as ghosts was a formal sense heightened in the V&A galleries. Not portraits that are haunted, but which are very present and thick enough with history to be both exhumed relics and watchful residents.

(tomb effigies)

('The Holme Family' by an unknown artist)

My favorite paintings were by Nicolas Hilliard, Jeremiah Meyer, Isaac Oliver, Levina Teerlinc, Alfred Chalon, Samuel Shelley, Richard Cosway, Jeremiah Meyer, Edward Miles, Richard Collins, John Hoppner, Susannah Penelope Rosse, Peter Oliver, Samuel Cooper, Gilbert Jackson, Sir Thomas Lawrence, and Sir Peter Lely.

Other beautiful oddities were the Dacre Beasts, 'The Holme Family', 'My Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman', 'Hill Denny, Son of Peter Denny of Spaldwick', St. Nicholas Crozier, an Altarpiece decorated with scenes from the life of St George, and this 'Virgin and Child'.

(the Dacre Beasts; image source)

Continue to Part IV - St. Pancras Station, London, Brussels Midi Station, and Bruges, Belgium.

Go back to Part I.

Monday, November 10, 2008

found: Jean-Louis-Marie Alibert, Pepon Osorio, Fort

(image source)
(image source)
(image source)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

London - National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery were very easy to find, both near Trafalgar Square. On mint-colored walls in enormous rooms within rooms, heads seemed propped up by stoic Victorian growths of collars and throats. Other faces had beards like cultivated shrubs or sci-fi rashes. Statues wore uniforms and boots made of the peeled bodies of beasts. Here and there, a visitor would be posted in a corner with an easel, sometimes making the arm stretched out with thumb as measurement pose. My favorite paintings were by John Hoppner, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Richard Rothwell, Sir Thomas Lawrence, George Cruikshank (a print rather than a painting), Sir Henry Halford (a drawing), Patrick Branwell Bronte, and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by an unknown artist. The NPG Café felt like an aquarium of fog and glass as its light came from a length of windows in the ceiling. I ate something very much like this.

At the National Gallery, after finally getting that the Sainsbury Wing was a separate building altogether, I saw the exhibition ‘Renaissance Faces’, which included the painting originally from Bruges which originally led me to decide to visit Belgium. Of the gallery and exhibition, my favorite paintings were by Giorgio Schiavone, Bronzino, Carravagio, Eugene Carriere, Chardin, Paul Delaroche, Durer, Jan Van Eyck, Gainsborough, Jan Gossaert, Goya, Hans Holbein the Younger, Joos van Cleve, Pietro Longhi, Rembrandt, Rubens, William Turner, and Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun.

Continue to Part III - London - Victoria & Albert Museum.

Go back to Part I.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

London - Gatwick, Horley, Victoria Station, Tate Britain

When I had the foreign currency I ordered from the Bank, and when I saw non-enhanced snapshots of Belgium on flickr, I started to feel that I was going to a real place. The trip was planned based on the shortest flight into London and the nearest city in Belgium by Eurostar, so London for three days, Bruges for three, Ghent for three, Antwerp for three, and back to London to catch the flight back to Calgary. I’d decided unwisely to leave Brussels as a day trip near the end, as the train from Belgium back to London was at the Brussels station. But more about that later.

We (me and 'M', short for Mom) arrived at Gatwick airport around 9 or 10 am England time. My first impression was of the intense organization of the airport in terms of how it looked and functioned, but in contrast to very human things like a backed-up toilet fuming into the passport-inspection room, and the extreme sullenness of the inspector who stamped my passport. I wasn’t able to sleep on the flight so I was zombified as we caught a shuttle to our hotel in Horley, a suburb outside of London. We were able to leave our bags there and we walked to the nearest train station, about a 15 minute walk. I was exhausted but startled by an intense feeling of being an “annoying tourist”, as I imagined people were sneering and eyeing us as we passed shops and cafes. We took the train to Victoria station, a main station in London where many, if not all, lines pass through. On the train there weren’t any available seats, and for the 20-minute ride we were able to see other suburbs with their ancient houses and stone chimneys and Victorian factories and amazingly-strewn backyards like h.p. Lovecraft foliage from outer space. In some of the tunnels there were stone alcoves in darkness like the doorways for lurking Nosferatus. I’m pretty sure we passed the same ‘gasworks’ structure as filmed in Cronenberg’s ‘Spider’. On another day in nearby seats, some locals were pointing out the ‘London Eye’ to a man with a heavy Southern accent.

(Horley station)

Finding the ‘Underground’ at Victoria station is easy when you know where to go, which can be said about everything on this trip, and the usual mode of searching is signs, then wandering, then trying an information desk, then asking random people. Using a guidebook and a ‘tube map’, we decided to try to find Tate Britain, and luckily it looked like we only needed to take one train line. Once you know that, its easy following signs to the right platform and confirming the right train by the lists of stops everywhere. Before you get towards your platform, you have to put your ticket into a machine that feeds it back out and lets you go through a turnstile, but a lot of people were getting their tickets stuck so there were always people waiting around to help. The underground platforms have a distinct and very heavy smell (probably enhanced by my exhaustion), evoking the line from ‘Withnail & I’ – “like the inside of a lung, self-sustaining”. The trains seem perfectly rounded and indeed tube-shaped, and the seats have upholstery like the funkiest 1960s/1970s movie theater carpets.

Trying to find the right way to Tate Britain at the Pimlico stop involved clunkily staring at a map while wind blew it this way and that, and luckily someone walked over to help, saying that we merely needed to go left down the street a ways and we wouldn’t miss it. I don’t know what I was expecting in terms of where and how major museums would be situated, but I was surprised to find that everything was really close together and really easy to find, particularly walking distance from the train. Next door to the Tate Britain was the new Chelsea College of Art & Design, and there was an immediate sense of surprising and easy proximity to places that otherwise seemed galaxies away. Because we were so zombified, we had tea about ten times and spent the first hour or so in the Tate Britain café where a man in a Doctor Who coat struck up a conversation about Belgium (as it was glaringly obvious that we were going there, maps everywhere). In contrast to our sorry state and wilted clothes, everyone sitting or walking by looked not only amazingly composed but otherworldly, other levels of dress rarely seen in person, and no one seemed to be at all vulgar or frumpy. Children and teenagers were dressed in tudor coats, jeans, and sneakers. Women were in stoles and capes and high-heeled boots and had accents from the softest to the thickest. A man resembling Ricky Gervais offered us free tickets to see the Turner Prize exhibition.

The most interesting piece in the Turner Prize exhibition was Cathy Wilkes' piece, which seemed, in my tired level of perception, to be about excrement. Runa Islam's piece about the sound of glass and ceramics was cool and hypnotizing. I spent the most time in the Francis Bacon exhibition. It’s surprising to see whole families and entire generations at an art exhibit, which is something I’ve never really been a part of. My notes on Bacon are thoughts to be stretched later like “mouth very clear”, “black velvet painting”, “Degas sleeves”, “areas of clearness and ‘action’”, “autonomous areas of texture”, and “hairy muscles”. An enormous collection of his paintings, the exhibition involved about ten rooms, including a collection of his reference material (I liked the collection of Eva C and ectoplasm). A kid about sixteen walked by in another tudor coat and I recognized my own profile but in a shrunken, more Richard Ashcroft form. Before the museum closed, we were able to see mainly the collection of paintings from the 1300’s to the Victorian period. William Blake, George Gower, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, and William Turner stood out most, particularly because I was able to finally see how they were painted.

Back at Victoria station, finding the train back to the hotel involved standing watching several monitors list trains presently arriving, rather than possibly arriving in the near future. Train schedules (as opposed to tube schedules) were nowhere to be found. Finally Horley was listed on one of the trains and we boarded our train, sitting with Londoners who looked just as exhausted as we were. A twenty-something in the seat across from me held a long conversation on the phone about meeting someone in Purley, while the whole time painfully massaging his head with both hands. Frighteningly, an announcement on the train kept saying that this train would divide in half at one of the upcoming stops, cautioning passengers to make sure they were in the right half of the train for their destination. Luckily the divide was only for stops after Horley, but this announcement would continue to haunt trains back to the hotel for the rest of our London visit. Back at the hotel we watched EastEnders, CSI (‘double cheese’ Miami), and an intensely gripping (I say sarcastically and sincerely) British medical drama about a woman with throat cancer wherein there was no sentimentality or synth soundtrack, but instead long shots of grisly surgery and Patsy Kensit being miserable. Dinner was take-out meals from Marks & Spencer, and breakfast was provided by the hotel, resembling this, but without the beans.

Continue to Part II - London - National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery.

Friday, November 07, 2008

found: Frans Pourbus, Henry Robert Morland, Susannah Penelope Rosse

found: Quentin Matsys, Hans Memling, Schilder Jan Beerblock

found: Frances Croker, Giovanni Francesco Caroto, Pietro Longhi