Before I start dancing about architecture, let me preface this by saying that it was Liverpool being dubbed “European Capital of Culture” that took me there. But what does that mean exactly? There is The Beatles’ history and the Liverpool football team, and I had heard about hooligans up there.

What I found was a lot more than just art in the eye of the beholder. The city itself is undergoing renovation: lots of construction everywhere, like a Renaissance masterpiece being restored. But it is impossible to walk a few blocks without running into a few free art galleries, a sculpture hanging from a building facade or grand city parks and invitations to live music.

Considering it is a small city, geographically speaking, it has a lot condensed in the city centre and by the waterfront. The theme that stitches the city’s spirit together: Liverpudlian pride. The locals care about their artists and preserving their culture, more so than in many more “non-capital” cities I have seen.

The accessibility of culture, the fact that it is free and it is everywhere, motivates the production and consumption of art, if you can call it that – art can be appreciated without being consumed in the commercial sense of the word.

By democratizing art, it also makes the average person into an artist, making any message, emotion and any medium legitimate and equally worthy of being curated, displayed or performed.

It is a tricky feat to attempt. New York City offers art to the masses by having free outdoor concerts and operas. The operas in Central Park end up attracting the uptowners (excluding Harlem), who are more educated and radically different from the crowds that flow into Manhattan from other boroughs for street parades. Trying to cater Opera and the Guggenheim to the masses is like feeding caviar to the hungry homeless.

Sydney does it in a smart way with the Sydney City Festival, where live music, raves, dance performances and theatre take place simultaneously in the opening weekend, giving the audiences so much latitude to find what is right for them, but also enticing them to see what is going on five blocks away, and maybe then developing an appreciation for something they would not otherwise seek.

Liverpool engages all Liverpudlians and magically creates mass appeal to the otherwise scholarly subject. My journey began at the Liverpool Art Prize, where everything was thought-provoking. I immediately started pondering on that argument over purposeful art versus ars gratia artis. This was definitely brilliant and subversive. It was not art created just because. Having been the finalists of a long running contest between local artists, these geniuses had aimed to shock, emote, engage and involve the viewer. Particularly the works of Gareth Kemp and Imogen Stidworth: while the former appealed to me visually, and for handling one of my favorite subjects, snow, in a clever context, the latter was a study on communication and the making of meaning. You will think, “now how can snow be such an interesting subject?”. Anything can be, if the artists manipulates it, not just records it. But snow is fleeting, if you think of the quality of the matter, the air pockets between twigs of ice that can quickly break or melt. Art, like snow, is never static. (I warned you I was going to dance about architecture)

Think of Matthew Barney, my favorite artist. A lot of his sculpture work, i.e. The Cabinet of Harry Houdini, which I saw at the Guggenheim, is appealing because of the medium, the use of petroleum jelly and glasslike shiny coatings that make it inviting to the eyes and the touch. It is his manipulating of the subjects and the context in which he depicts them that make it special.

Onto to the Tate Liverpool, a more traditional range of art works are on display, from well established legends, from Degas to Warhol. The main differentiator in the experience is seeing the work of late artists compared to the fresh and politically charged work of the living authors. The museum has a survey dubbed “The one that spoke to me”, in which the viewer is asked to single out the one piece that, well, spoke to them, and to tell why. They all spoke to me so before I went insane from the voices in my head I headed to the next point along the Albert Dock tour…

The Beatles’ Story! – where I learned a lot more from Mersey beats than from where Lennon and Paul went to school. It allowed me to draw a parallel between what was going on culturally in the late fifties and early sixties. The changes that spanned across about a decade are a testament to how film influenced music, and how both of these influenced the more traditional visual arts. Talking pictures and movie soundtracks paved the road to rock n’ roll, and eventually punk, metal and, dare I say, the notion that soup can could be art.

A friend who joined me on this trip argued that contemporary art is not art if you cannot immediately recognize the artist’s unique and extraordinary talent. She reckons that if anything is not original, beautiful and meaningful, it is not worth calling it art; i.e. anything that can be reproduced is useless. “A child could have done that, I don’t get it, this is not art at all.”, says Jessie. Point taken, a lot of people feel that way, and I will not dismiss their claim as ignorance before giving due reason to refute it.

It’s about personal taste and economic leverage on the gallery owner’s part or the art buyer’s desire to choose something that not everyone will appreciate, thus making it all the more scholar and exclusive. It also boils down to the essays written about the artwork that dissect and overanalyze the elements of the piece, the medium, the stage which it represents in the evolution of that artists’ style and so on. To put it bluntly, abstract contemporary art is often bashed, especially the kind that curates a pink neon beam across a room (seen at the Tate Modern in London). But to compare it to the Seventh Art, this is like me saying that a Will Farrell comedy is a movie, but not a film. The truth is that anything recorded on celluloid or digital video IS a film and that anything displayed properly and arranged by anyone is, indeed, art. Democratized and devilishly simple.

We wrapped up the weekend in Liverpool at a Pub near the train station, where I was hoping to discuss the upcoming Liverpool Fashion Week. Before I could delve into that, I got into another philosophical conversation with my friend about people-watching (e.g. much like I did in Edinburgh, taking in the characters that crowded this place from a writers’ vantage point). My friend wanted to sit by the window, to watch the streets buzzing outside, and from there I couldn’t see the room properly. The beauty of looking to the interior of a place instead of looking out the window is the same as that of looking within oneself (consciousness, inspiration, ripples of emotions from earlier sensorial experiences), instead of being a spectator to the world on the outside. They both have its merits, but there are places that encourage you to turn in either direction.

To end this posting on a more superficial note, alas, one that actually makes sense: Liverpool is having its first ever Fashion Week. It is being funded by private investors and featuring local designers, as well as local real Liverpudlians as models. The efforts are being driven by WAGs, who of course are the cultural celebrities du jour.

Liverpool’s “capital” status is not something that they have to live up to at all. It was well deserved, it outweighed my expectations and it is something that could live a dent the size of Merseybeats on the history of European culture.

Posted by Kaz, filed under

. Date: March 13, 2008, 12:46 pm | 1 Comment »

25  Feb
Scottish Excursion

There is a phenomenom, some kind of synchronicity or other that I am sure someone already labelled and overanalyzed but I still get a huge kick out of it.  It’s when you buy a book randomly at an airport and, by coincidence, the main character gets a hanging toenail in the first ten pages, and you also get a hanging toenail by tripping on the lion-shaped metal foot of the medieval four-poster bed at the hotel that same night.  Say you trip on the cumbersome and sharp-edged thingie before you get to the page about the character getting his toenail clipped off, so you couldn’t have possibly subconsciously caused it.

I am sitting in the cloistered courtyard within Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, sipping sweet potato curried soup.  The toenail hurts.  The book is at home so I am alone in my pain and am forced to write.  There are families with kids and really old ladies sitting besides me.  The rain is subsiding and the sun is peaking out.  Through glass, I watch the tourists cross the square towards the two-story buildings of “really-old” rock.  If I was JK Rowling or Sir Conan Doyle I could tell you the exact colour and shape of the towers (they’re the pointy kinds) but besides not having a thesaurus, my inspiration is clouded by the renovation marquee covering parts of the buildings.  Ugly metal poles, blue nets.

Earlier, I marvelled at the Royal Honours at the castle: crown, sceptre, sword and Destiny stone, amazing jewels, sitting in a glass box under extremely low lighting, in a tiny vault room.  These are objects that have been used in many Coronation Rituals for many centuries, and that at one point were lost in a box, completely “misplaced” and forgotten, tucked away from the world’s fascination and awe.

You somewhat understand how power goes about corrupting people when you take in the effect that such objects have over any innocent bystander.

The grandeur of the encrusted sword and the sheer history of the otherwise common piece of stone that so many Monarchs have sat upon at the moment of their coronation impress even the most jaded holidaymakers.

If I was a historian, anthropologist or even a gemologist, I could put a measure to how much greed these object have generated since they were forged.  Understandably, they were coveted by wise men and fools alike, who watched these objects bestowed upon infants who inherited the throne at a young age through no fault of their own.

Stepping outside and heading to St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in the Castle, I was still so dazed by the surrounding towers that I tripped on a cannonball.  Who leaves a freaking cannonball lying around?  Note to self:  when roaming Scottish castles watch out for artillery debris sitting on the cobblestones in front of 11th Century chapels.  I got that one down.  I’m ready for the climb up Arthur’s Seat.

The rain over Edinburgh is intermittent. I’ve now climbed Arthur’ seats in a fortunate window of space between clouds. At the top of the climb the light was shining through a minor slit between clouds directly over St. Margaret’s chapel in the castle (and probably all the cannonballs that I couldn’t see from here)
As I descended the steep path (covered in treacherous rolling pebbles) my iPod went dead. To understand how this felt, just bear in mind that I am not the kind of person that is daunted by altitudes, speed, darkness, enclosed spaces, challenges or long distances to cross. I’m not daunted by solitude or the unknown. By I am daunted by silence. The second the music goes off I panic and look around. I cant hear the wind blowing or the rain falling, they’ve gone still. The other people within sight are too far above me or too far below, little sillouettes like Plato’s shadows on the walls of the cave. I reach for my phone and thank God that I have reception. I dial maniacally and tell people how ecstatic I am to be in Scotland, I let the human voices warm me to the core and relieve the weight of this place’s history off my shoulders. In silence, I’d feel the weight of the stories of a thousand people that walked this path before me, in times or war, sickness or cholera.
It’s dusk and I follow my friends’ advice and pick up the pace to get out of there. I throw a couple of rocks down hill and it feels good to hear their sound rolling down. My silence phobia is at bay. It would be a great idea for Pfizer or someone to diagnose it and come up with a fancy name for it and pills that can cure it. They would sell it alongside those prescribed for Restless Leg Syndrome. “Restless Soul Syndrome” or Sonoromaniac. I picture groups of “us people” having “meetings” to cope with our strange dysfunction.
At any rate, I pass by Holyrood House again and see the old ladies falling asleep on their chairs and spilling their tea. The clatter of china breaking is like music to my ears.
I walk back up the Royal Mile towards Deacon Brodies. The pub is a couple of hundred years old, the source of inspiration to the writing of Jekyll & Hyde. So appropriate. Successful and seemingly average people with strange phobias triggered by historical energy on Arthur’s Seats surely will suit the mood.
At Deacon Brodies, an anthropologist or sociologist with an interest in clashing cultures and pop pulp, or post-modernism would have a field day. I don’t have a field day, just a glass of wine and a laugh. They are playing Steppenwolf and there are about ten men in kilts standing by the bar. I remember Oktobeberfest and all the Germans dressed in Liederhosen and whatever the other traditional Bavarian outfits are called. The chatter in the room gets louder and I catch bits and pieces of the conversations in the vicinities. They mention the Six Nation football match that is on at half five. Some girl called Julia has broken off an engagement. Older men speak of betting…
There was a bartender in New York, Willian Fitch, who was really an undercover writer, who didn’t need the money from the bartender gig. I remember him telling me about the amazing conversations he struck with innocent bystanders who became inspiration for characters later on.
The men in kilts are staring at me, they are so charming and remind me of Axl Rose running around on stages in his Kilt and heavy boots.
When you find yourself in Scotland, remember to have a good look at the North Sea, go to the water before you hit the watering hole.
Then allow yourself to consider the history behind every rock, every book, bag pipes, hardworking people, heroic knights and monarchs.
Life is very vibrant in young countries, especially in beach towns, like Rio or Sydney, where the colors of the landscape and the weather make for the dazzling effect. And in those kinds of environments you feel like the one making history, recording moments of your existence as groves on the ground; leaving a legacy for posterity.
In the countryside of Brazil, in the Planalto Central, or in the Australian outback, or even on the sand dunes along Sagaponack in the Hamptons, one can feel like the maker of techniques and civilization. (God Bless Lewis Mumford) Those are not virgin grounds, but definitely still in their infancy compared to Edinburgh.
This Scottish air smells of drawbridges, forged metal made into swords, whiskey, blood, sweat and tears. If that sounds depressing, it is soon redeemed by the thought of queens who died of a broken heart after their husbands died in battle. Edinburgh is romantic: the handcrafted articles, the street markets, the gardens, the fabulous restaurants, the bagpipe players outside the Churches, the Writers’ museum and the knowledge that so many world-renowned characters were born right here.
I head to the airport thinking of how fortunate I am to have seen “the world beyond New York”.

Posted by Kaz, filed under

. Date: February 25, 2008, 8:49 pm | 1 Comment »

25  Sep
Away with Words

Paragliding Every trip starts with a thought. A simple thought that one dares to voice. Another person agrees with. It soon turns into a game of calendar crossword and budget juggling and as soon as the credit card digits go through you know you are really going. You write e-mails telling your contacts or trying to make new ones at the destination. Departing is always a function of finding the right words to map out your take-off and landing. When you get to a place you have never been to, and one that is very different from your own surroundings, you find you are out of words to describe it. The ineptitude of your own vocabulary makes you feel as though you are unworthy of journalistic depictions of this journey, which has certainly been made by so many others before.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by Kaz, filed under

. Date: September 25, 2007, 3:55 am | No Comments »