30 April 2010

Banksy Pays For Stealing

Banksy, urban graffiti artist and all round legend has just made himself even more legendary.

His new film, Exit Through The Gift Shop shares its name with a little known band from London.

The artist, it seems, did not want the band and the film getting confused with each other.  So, he made them an offer they just couldn't refuse.

One can only assume that they are now very, very happy.

Chris Jordan takes up this remarkable story.

The Museum of Islamic Art

It isn’t often that a building stuns – literally.  However, this is the case with the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the capital of Qatar.  Traditional Islamic architecture meets the twenty first century to spectacular effect.

Nothing is done by halves here.  Even the palm lines entrance (and entrancing is perhaps the right word) fills the visitor with expectation.  Sublimely designed by IM Pei, the museum opened its doors to the public less than two years ago.

The building is, as you might expect, heavily influenced by ancient Islamic architecture but its design is unique and there is simply no other building like it on earth.  Certainly as a museum of this king it was the first in the Persian Gulf and its sheer size alone, over forty five thousand square meters, is a testament to the ambition of its designers.

Sabhia al Khemir became the founding director of the museum in 2006.  A globally renowned Tunisian writer she is also expert in Islamic art and is best known for her work in bridging cultural divides and creating dialogue between the great civilisations of the world.  Certainly the Museum of Islamic Art (or QIA as it is known) is an incredible talking point.

Image Credit Flickr User websterkate

The idea that contemporary Islamic culture is inward looking was contradicted from the word go by the invitation to IM Pei to be the chief architect of the project.  The Chinese born American considered by many to be a master in his field was gently coaxed out of retirement to design the building.  Most agree he has done a stupendous job. You may know him for, among many other projects, the glass pyramid outside the Louvre.

One of the first things that Pei did was to politely decline all of the proposed sites for the museum.  This building – if it was to stand – had to stand alone.  Doha happens to have a corniche – a waterfront promenade which is paralleled by a road.  Perfect.  So it was that it was eventually built on a sixty acre island off the corniche.

But what lies within?  Surely something so spectacular on the outside must only be something of a disappointment on the inside.  chacun à son goût, of course, but this is not the case with this particular building – whatever your own taste, disappointment is hardly the word.

The foyer itself is a grandiose mix of marble, steel and glass.  As with the exterior the hard edges of modernism combine sublimely with the curves of traditional Islamic design.  Now, look up...

From one of the upper levels, the view down is just as staggering.  Just as the architecture is both traditional and progressive, so are the ideas behind the museum.  Although built with the children of Qatar in mind primarily, the museum’s aim is to educate people about Islamic art and indeed the heritage of the Islamic world in general.  What is often a misunderstood culture and history can be seen here and the visitor is, by being enabled to study the past then in more of a position to understand the present. 

In fact, the whole place is a mathematician’s dream.  The idea of the place is to give the visitor not only access to a wonderful and invaluable series of art works but to allow them to journey through time and across cultures, religions and eras.

Even the cafe has its own unique appeal. Oh, yes.  There are the exhibits to...

Once you are done gasping at the architecture you may want to turn your attention to the exhibits.  Here, too, you will not be disappointed. The museum is host to a significant collection of art which go from around the year 600 CE to the nineteenth century.  There is something for every taste, from precious metals and stonework to glass and textiles.

Image Credit Flickr User zenat_el3ain
An important collection of manuscripts, spanning over a thousand years of Islamic literature is a fascinating glimpse in to an ancient and literate culture.

Times of both war and peace are represented here.  This hugely important museum is little known outside of the Islamic world.  Perhaps we should help spread the word?

You may also like: Give Earth A Chance

Over at our sibling site, Ark In Space we have this quite remarkable piece of film.  It doesn't really matter whether you wholly agree with what Greenpeace are trying to achieve (and more notably how they go about achieving it) - however.

This must surely be difficult to disagree with on virtually all and any level.  After all, who out of us wants to see the earth uninhabitable for the next generation?

The use of hands as fields of corns and waves is particularly cool here, as is the soundtrack.  Greenpeace often use shock tactics to get their point across - but this is peaceful and (almost) sublime in its message.

25 April 2010

The Madness of Messerschmidt

Take a look at this startling tin alloy bust.  It is called A Hypocrite and a Slanderer.  When do you think it was created?  Five years ago? Ten?  It certainly has the air of something very modern – almost Damian Hirst without the diamonds (as it were).  Would it surprise you to learn that this magnificent head was made almost two hundred and fifty years ago?

It is the work of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt a German-Austrian sculptor who was born in 1736 and who is most famous for his fixation with and reproduction of heads.  Not just any heads of course – these are busts that are twisted, the features writhing almost in an attempt to escape the face.  There is more than a little irony in the fact that the mental illness which produced these contorted images of the human face look so modern.  They say as much of our time as they do of Messerschmidt’s state of mind.

Messerschmidt grew up in the household of his Munich based Uncle, Johann Straub, who was also a sculptor and who became the young Messerschmidt’s first master and artistic mentor.  In 1755 he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and like any young artist of the time sought out patronage from the high and mighty of his times.  He worked at the imperial arms collection and created representations of the then imperial couple as well as religious works.

By 1769 he had begun to produce the severe heads for which he would be mostly remembered, influenced by Roman republican busts but with an oddity which removed them from the norm.  From the early 1770s he started work on the heads that you can see here – startling and discomfiting portrayals of wildly twisted and contorted features.  The Vexed Man appears above and he truly does look troubled. What caused this explosion of bewildering creativity?

It seems that at the same time Messerschmidt began to suffer both from hallucinations and from paranoid ideas that he was a victim of evil spirits determined to destroy him and his art.  These busts of facial distortions (mostly self portraits) would become an all-consuming project.  To ward of these spirits he would eventually create sixty four self portraits which were ordered in to a specific (and to him, scientific) system which he hoped would help him and others with similar afflictions.

His situation came to a head in 1774 when he applied for the position of leading professor at the Academy (where he had been a teacher since the late 1760s).  Far from getting the promotion he expected and desired he was barred from teaching altogether.   The Chancellor of State, Count Kaunitz felt compelled to write a letter to the Empress explaining why this had happened.  Messerschmidt’s state of mind was referred to as a ‘confusion in the head’ in this letter.  Whether it was schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or another condition will never be firmly established but many art historians believe this to be the case.

Messerschmidt moved back to his home village of Wiesensteig and stayed their till his death (with a sojourn in Munich where he waited in vain for a commission).  This was effectively a retirement but he continued work on his character heads. He was visited in 1781 by the noted German author Friedrich Nicolai whose diary account of this encounter is the only document written at the time that discusses the sculptor’s mental and physical state.

Nicolai discovered that Messerschmidt had been suffering for years from a digestive illness that some think may have been Crohn’s disease.  The twisted faces were the result of awful pinches he would inflict on his rib area in an attempt to alleviate the terrible discomfort he felt.  We might call it art therapy today but the busts in marble and bronze were to template himself for future medical study.

Messerschmidt told Nicolai that he felt he had angered the ‘Spirit of Proportion’ who it was said guarded the knowledge of universal balance which he was trying to express in his work. The spirit would come to him in the dead of night and inflict endless and humiliating tortures on him, which inspired one of his head, The Beaked, above. Messerschmidt died two years after this meeting.

Excluded effectively from society by the powers of the Academy, Messerschmidt died in isolation, labeled both antisocial and unreasoned.  In a way it preserved the dominant artistic ideologies of the time but Messerschmidt’s hyper real portraits have survived the centuries.  Perhaps he truly was mad but if so it was accompanied by its twin, the madness of inspiration.

Image Credit Wikimedia 

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Over at our sibling site, Ark In Space, we have a feature on the rather peculiar quoll.

You may not have heard of the quoll.  However, do not suspect they are a creature of invention.  These small marsupials are native to Australia and Papua New Guineau and – as you can see – they are extremely appealing to the eye.  

This is an Eastern Quoll fawn. The tribe (that's a rank between family and genus) that the quoll belongs to also contains the much better known Tasmanian Devil.

Image Credit

24 April 2010

UK Hits 1GW Milestone for Offshore Wind Farms

This week two new offshore wind farms opened in the UK, creating a milestone for renewable energy in the country.  The new farms mean that for the first time the United Kingdom has now installed a whole gigawatt's worth of them.  In terms of homes that means that over seven hundred thousand homes can now be powered purely by the wind.  There may be many million to go but this is most certainly a step in the right direction.

There are now eleven offshore wind farms in the UK, with the one pictured in the marvellous photograph above off the coast of Prestatyn in North Wales.  That is over three hundred turbines with another 4GW's worth in developmental stages.  A little maths means that three and a half million homes should be powered by offshore wind farms in the near future.

Now, there is just the little matter of the new nuclear power stations that are being planned to sort out...

Image Credit Flickr User Richard0

Scarecrow Recession

Used for millennia to scare birds away from crops, the scarecrow is finding times as tough as we are and many have lost their jobs over the last year.  However, the scarecommunity is now undergoing something of a twenty first century renaissance, if not remodelling.  Here we expose the alternative careers that many modern scarecrows are adopting to make ends meet. Are they still up for the job or has the scare gone out of them?  Judge for yourself.

In recent years the scarecrow has lost its human shape and has been replaced by things such as shimmer ribbons or automatic noise guns - and the old scaremongerers have found little or no new employment. This notwithstanding, the art of the scarecrow is not lost and many would agree that it is important to keep this aspect of the countryside going.  All the same, many of the scarecrows themselves have had to opt for second jobs (to judge by their clothing at least).  For some, new found success has come with their new careers - for most success is mixed. And one or two have tried just a little too hard.

A scarecrow can be really modern and with a little imagination and some paint - and that can only increase the chances of alternative employment, surely? They still come under a host of different names, however, which leads to confusion, resentment and occasionally anti-scarecrow demonstrations among the human population.  Even in the relatively small United Kingdom, names abound such as mommet, hodmehod, murmet and bwbach in the Welsh speaking parts of Wales.  In Scotland they perhaps have the most inventive name for them – tattie bogle – which derives from Scottish Gaelic for the old man of the rocks.

Times are hard and some scarecrows have taken up employment which require an altogether different dress sense than previously.  Sometimes it really doesn’t where you find yourself – it is important to keep up appearances. There are a host of other names for them. You might know your local scarecrow as a mawkin, shuft, nuffara or bogeyman but they were all designed to do one thing.  That is to save the crops in your garden or field from the marauding birds who want a lazy lunch rather than to forage.  Some have taken to becoming accountants and lawyers but have discovered that people are already scared enough of them.  Back to the fields.

A number of scarecrows have tried their hands at being rap artists, not to the greatest success or acclaim but you can't fault them for giving it a go.  Perhaps they had heard that there are even scarecrow festivals as far afield as Japan and the US and thought that they would take advantage of that.  Back to the drawing board, chaps.

Some scarecrows have fled to far flung parts of the world in search of a better life and employment prospects.  Sometimes they don't quite find themselves in a perfect place, which is a shame.  They then find themselves having to wait for a return to their country of origin in the truly dreadful scarecrow relocation camps where conditions are hard and rumors of scaretorture are rife.

Sometimes there are escapes from the camps and a bold scarecrow makes a bolt for freedom.  In many cases the scarecrows have found that they have to live a life of crime and scarepiracy is not uncommon.  Many scarecrows would not have turned to crime if they had been given a proper chance of redeployment by an uncaring and mostly hostile human population.

The history of the scarecrow goes back many hundred years - they were, for example, mentioned in the novel Robinson Crusoe and they have been referenced in many pieces of literature and have appeared in a number of movies over the years.  They are still barred, however, from most award ceremonies connected to the arts. One section of the scarecommunity, nevertheless, has decided for that their future was in the arts.

Scarecrows and modern art may not sit comfortably with each other at first but it is rumored that Tracey Emin and Damian Hurst are interested in employing these guys for a short period of piece work.  There are even plans for Bono of U2 to release a charity single in support of them.

Others still have found that keeping close to the countryside is a good way to get work that is similar but not exactly the same as they are used to - and in this case retraining is minimal.

Many have found, however, that complete reinvention is necessary.  Whereas the maxim you are what you eat may not hold completely true, many have found that you can't be what is eaten - not for long at any rate.

Others have realised that a complete change of career path is not essential. You can still scare, without it having to be crows.  The last two in our collection have realised that scaring humans is perhaps the best way to ride the recession and come out of safely on the other side.