Friday, 30 April 2010

Off topic

I don't usually post about what I'm reading, but over the past 6 months I've fallen back in love with YA fiction, and like anyone who's full to the gills with dopamine, I feel the need to talk about my loved one.*

Sometimes you open a book and the voice grabs you on the first page and doesn't let you go until the last. These three are like that:

Patrick Ness The Knife of Never Letting Go (the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy)

A good fantasy (I've reclaimed that word too) writer creates a world that is totally believable. Todd Hewitt's world is a settler colony, where humans have beaten the indigenous population into submission, but somewhere in the war suffered a terrible loss. As a result, there are only men in Todd's world - men whose Noise, their every thought, is broadcast for all to hear.

Rebecca Stead When You Reach Me

A slim, perfect book about love, death, friendship, being 12, and time travel - and a love letter to Madeleine L'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time' to boot.

I ordered Stead's book through the public library after finding out it was the winner of last year's Newbery Medal. When I picked it up and saw the big print, I felt disappointed; I'd been excited, but thought that even with my growing passion for children's and YA novels, this was going to be too simple. It wasn't. Stead gradually reels out and satisfyingly ties up (but not too tightly) a complex story with a minimum of verbiage.

Margo Lanagan Tender Morsels

If The Knife of Never Letting Go is dark at times, Tender Morsels is midnight. An often unsettling re-telling of the Grimm story of Rose-Red and Snow-White, this is some of the best writing I've read in years.

When Neil Gaiman spoke at Wellington Town Hall earlier this year, the thing I was most struck by were his comments on CS Lewis.

Like me (and many, many fortunate people) Gaiman didn't get the Christian references in the Narnia series until quite late in the series (me, I had to wait until my born-again uncle told me). He observed, sweetly, that as a Christian allegory, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was obviously a bit of a failure. He felt instead that Lewis crammed into TLTW&TW all the things he loved from Christian, Greek and other mythologies.

The next few books aren't quite as astounding as the ones above, but each has, in Gaiman's sense, a Lewisian aspect.

Lev Grossman The Magicians

I'm not usually a fan of the 'Like a mixture of X and Y with a dash of Z' although I would make an exception for Luca Turin, who described a perfume as embodying the child Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller didn't have. But the reviewer who described The Magicians as the missing link between the Narnia books and Donna Tartt's The Secret History was on to something.

As soon as I read the opening page of 'The Magicians' I felt like I was reading along to a New Romantic soundtrack, all cutting observations and floppy fringes. Brilliant and unloved, 17-year-old Quentin Coldwater is still secretly yearning for the imaginary world of the British 1930s fantasy series he read as a child - and still covertly re-reads - to be real. Quentin would trade in his real existence for a magic wardrobe any day. And then it happens.

Scott Westerfeld Leviathan

Philip Pullman had daemons - Westerfeld has a alternate world where Darwin didn't just figure out evolution - he also invented genetic engineering. As a result Europe is poised on the brink of an equivalent to World War I, with the cultural lines drawn between the Clankers (the Austro-Hungary alliance which has developed a mechanical culture) and the British Allies who power their society with genetic splicing. Occasionally clunky writing (and terrible terrible fake swearing) is overcome by the sheer awesomeness of this vision.

Frances Hardinge The Lost Conspiracy (alternative title: Gullstruck Island)

When I read Elizabeth Knox's YA duo - the Dreamhunter books - I felt she'd failed to provide a sufficiently detailed, sufficiently strange alternate late-colonial New Zealand. The books just didn't have that lushness of imagination, that wealth of detail that you sink into, that The Hobbit or TLTW&TW have.

Hardinge is not short on invention. In fact, this book is relentlessly, overwhelmingly inventive. As an adult reader I felt occasionally overladen, but have you ever heard a kid who loves reading complain about a book being too long, or too full of remarkable things? I can't actually even begin to tell you what the books about - try the link above instead.

*Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle - first read when I was in my early teens - remains one of my favourite books. Writing that sentence reminds me of the part in the book when Thomas tells Cassandra that he knows Rose is not really in love with Stephen, because she never talks about him - people who are in love stop going on about the object of their affections. I Capture the Castle is, of course, a classic coming of age tale, and on reflection, that's the thread that binds all six of these books together.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Formalism two ways

To find Robert Heald's new gallery, you turn off Cuba Street into the Left Bank Arcade, and then head towards the light.

It's exciting to see a new dealer space open, especially when it's with a show of a new (or not-well-known-in-the-market) artist. Patrick Lundberg's altered found pieces make for a subtle but interesting inaugural exhibition - they're works that grow on you, that reward taking some time to observe. I'm looking forward to seeing more work by artists who so far I've only really had the chance to follow online.

A visit to the Adam Art Gallery to see the Anthony McCall show that closed over the weekend was less fun. If Lundberg's formalism is somehow warm and personal - a record of action, a kind of archaeology - then McCall's felt more coldly cerebral, a well-produced technical spectacle that somehow manages not to be at all affecting.

In his review, John Hurrell observes that on visiting the show "you realise that the online documentation of McCall’s sculptural work often looks slick, as if digitally tidied up and possibly a little bland." He goes on to say that "accidental components" bring an "unanticipated richness" to the experience.

I don't think these components - such as the fog machines - were in the least accidental, and I'd actually apply Hurrell's first sentence to the way I felt about the whole show. In an age where so much is technically possible, I sometimes feel it's getting harder for artists to distinguish what they do from other visual productions.

I don't think I'm arguing about hand-made versus digitally or mass-produced here, but more pondering how artists can continue to make objects or create experiences that stand out to you in a way that other things (or 'not-artworks') don't.


Patrick Lundberg, installation view, Robert Heald Gallery, 2010. From the Robert Heald Gallery website.

Anthony McCall, Installation view of Breath (The Vertical Works) at Hangar Bicocca, Milan, 2009 (Photograph: Giulio Buono). From the Adam Art Gallery website.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Late at the X Gallery

"Late" nights - as opposed to extended opening hours - have become a feature of public programmes in New Zealand, with the Auckland Museum's well-regarded (and well publicised - hat-tip to that team) LATE at the Museum series perhaps being the best known.

This article from the NY Times offers an interesting perspective on the proliferation of after-hours events. Writer Chloe Veltman observes:

... a similitude often prevails: D.J.’s spinning electronic music, talks, art-house movies and the indispensable cash bar. An artistically satisfying after-hours event goes further than simply throwing together quirky attractions, like a modern-day version of a Victorian fun fair for young professionals. To stand out, the programming should make the art on display come to life in ways that are not necessarily possible when visitors are walking through exhibition halls during normal hours.

... Connecting evening events with the museum’s broader programming and aesthetic may not be a goal for all institutions. Some are more interested in creating fluid, abstract experiences that play on visitors’ desires to flit among a variety of attractions rather than deeply engage with a single idea. The trouble is that this approach tends to amplify the programs’ social aspects over the art. The events might bring in more young people, but they often don’t galvanize hearts and minds.

My first reaction was: yeah, deep engagement! I agree. And then I began to think - well, what's wrong with making our museums and galleries into social spaces that people use for all kinds of reason, not just for learning about and connecting with collection or exhibition items? What's wrong with me just dropping in for a cup of coffee and twenty minutes' free wifi, or a glass of wine and a gossip? If I don't "deeply engage" am I somehow a visitor failure?


A nicely apposite extract from the Guardian's Q&A with Nicolas Serota to mark the 10th anniversary of Tate Modern:

The past 10 years have seen an explosion of interest in contemporary art. Has art primarily become a form of entertainment?

No, but I was looking at something the other day that reminded me that, in the mid-19th century, Charles Eastlake, director of the National Gallery, spoke to a parliamentary select committee about how he kept seeing people in the National Gallery having picnics. He found it extraordinary that they had come in for reasons other than looking at art. The same kinds of complaint are made about people at Tate Modern. But they are here. They are finding out about themselves, they are looking at art – maybe out of the corner of their eye – but they learn something and come back. And that is all that really matters.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Artfest - a reprise

A few weeks ago I blogged about Rhizome's Seven on Seven event - a hackathon that paired artists and technologists to create something new in a short amount of time, and then present it at a public event.

The event took place over the past weekend. Rhizome has some photos up from the presentations, and promises video to come. The New York Times wrote up the event, as did Artforum.

The project that interested me the most was the collaboration between artist Tauba Auerbach and artist/engineer Ayah Bdeir. They proposed a moiré-pattern sculpture, which would reconfigure itself only when the room it's displayed in is empty - when someone enters the room, the sculpture freezes. I kind of dig this twist on interaction, where the lack of interaction creates movement and results in mystery.

Tauba Auerbach, Untitled Fold Painting XII, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 254 x 190.5 cm. Image from
Presentation by Tauba Auerbach and Ayah Bdeir. Photo: Nick Hasty. From the Rhizome website.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Eric Gill plaque of Ernest Rutherford that Russian physicist Pyotr Kapitza commissioned for the Mond Laboratory at Cambridge University in the early 1930s.

My blog post was a retelling of Chapter 7 in Mark Oliphant's Rutherford: Recollections of the Cambridge Days , which told the story of the controversy that surrounded Gill's portrait of Rutherford, after members of the faculty decided that the nose was too "Jewish".

I noted at the time that while I could find images of Gill's second work (a scraffito of a crocodile - Kapitsa's nickname for Rutherford) online, there were none available for the Rutherford plaque, making me wonder if it had disappeared.

A friend took up the cause, spoke to another friend, who spoke to another friend, who went out with a camera - the end of product of which being that I can now very happily present the following:

With thanks to Anthony Fox for the photographs, and Nat Torkington for the connections.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010


I just noticed that the tabs I have open for my lunch-time reading from the Guardian site bear a striking resemblance

Friday, 16 April 2010

Not always the answer

I was just reading this piece about the renovation and extension of the Bach Museum in Leipzig, and this paragraph caught my attention:

Alongside the original sources is information on methods and techniques used in Bach research. Visitors learn about Bach's penmanship, as well as the paper and ink he used. The display even explains how to date a Bach manuscript. But what makes this museum unique is the interactive approach it takes to the teaching of its subject matter. A giant tabletop touch screen displays various documents that can be explored, dragged and manipulated, or—for younger visitors—simply broken up into puzzle pieces.

I'm working on a touchscreen interactive at the moment, and I thought hey, that's quite a nice idea - images of collection items turned into puzzles on a touchscreen, which individual visitors and maybe even groups can play with.

And then I caught myself. Why transition a perfectly sound mechanism - the jigsaw puzzle - from the physical to the digital experience?

You're not gaining anything (apart from the fact that the puzzle pieces won't get munted or lost) and it will cost you a lot more than printing cardboard puzzles, or even doing something a little fancier, like printing on Lego. And you're losing the tactile pleasure of puzzle solving.

Although I'm employed in a digital role, I often find myself arguing for non-digital ways of achieving a desired outcome. It sounds contrary, but it's the right thing to do. My advice is, when you're thinking about creating something new:

  • start from what you have (collection items, stories, a theme)
  • move to what you want people to get out of the experience (to learn something? to contribute something? to fix something?)
  • think about the space you're putting whatever this thing is in (this might include the web)
  • and then think about tools and media.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Lost in the transition

In my adult life, I have attended exactly two plays. I openly admit to this piece of philistinism. I find being acted at a little scary, and I have trouble suspending belief sufficiently to sink into the story.

That's why I found Roberta Smith's review of Red, a play about Mark Rothko currently being staged in New York, rather strange. Smith struggled with the play because although it's set in Rothko's studio, it didn't accord with her 20 years of visiting artists where they work.

As inexperienced as I am, I kind of feel that's a little bit like saying that Broadway Boogie Woogie doesn't look like a live jazz band. Theatre is artifice. That's the point.

For a comparative opinion, take a look at Stephanie Zacharek & Jerry Saltz's review-duet: a theatre and an art critic take on Red.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Teh internets: teh problem AND teh solution

In a post today Jonathan Jones comments on Tyler Green's experiment to see which artworks come up first when you type famous artists' names into Google. Jones writes:

Google, then, is populist about art, and tends to point users towards iconic masterpieces. Is there any downside to that? Actually, no. People (critics, curators, "experts") make too much of obscure knowledge and over-refined erudition. Art's greatest hits are often the greatest works, full stop; if you want the basics about Picasso, a glance at Les Demoiselles d'Avignon will tell you a lot of what you need to know.

What's more worrying is the lack of correlation between the immense online archive of art and the even more immense reality. Because so many works can be found online, there's a danger of forgetting how many cannot (not to mention the inadequacy of a picture on your screen compared with the real thing). A student can't really research a dissertation on art from digital sources alone, however tempting the illusion. And there lies the real vice of Google.

Arguably, it's the art world's job to get more (and better) information about art online. For a terrific example of how this can be done, see the IMA's blog post on their project to encourage documentation of Indianapolis's public artworks, Wikipedia Saves Public Art.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Easy on the eyes

One of the questions I love to ask in interviews is "What's your favourite website and why?".

It's a slightly less daunting question than "What's your favourite book" because somehow, websites don't divide into high and low (or "so bad it's good") categories.

When people are talking about their favourite sites, I'm listening to what they're saying about the freshness of the writers' voices, or the perfection of the information architecture, or how the search seems to have better results than any other site they use, or the way the design makes them feel.

When I think about this question myself though, I often get a little stumped. I spend much of my time on Twitter (where I get flicked out to specific pages on websites, but rarely move further through them) or immersed in my feedreader, where the content is stripped of all design and UX consideration, and is just about the information and the voice.

So asking the question of others made me ask it of myself. Here's where I got to.

The Guardian website (before they changed the homepage, creating four-column, uncategorised mayhem - why, Guardian, why?) always makes me feel like a saner and more intelligent human being. Their arts & books coverage is great, I'm forever being tempted into Comment Is Free, and the information architecture sets my mind at ease.

ArtsJournal is consistently the fifth thing I review in the morning (5th, you ask? The list looks like this: Twitter, work email, personal email, feedreader). It's not about the design (in fact, I always flick to the diehard view) it's about the curation. It's like every day someone smarter and more worldly than I is pointing me in the right direction.

Thinking for a Living gives me that clenched-chest feeling of love. I don't care that it's actually a little hard to navigate, I just think it's beautiful. Especially this. I also subscribe to this awesome feed.

Hoefler and Frere-Jones. Inside every web and every art person I know, there seems to be a little font-head trying to get out. Sure, I like H&FJ's fonts just fine, but to be honest, if you put them in a line-up, I dunno if I'd be able to pick them out. What I love though is the way they talk about type. And the grey.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Drawing conclusions

Sometimes it's nice just to go see a simple, solid show. Drawing Conclusions at the Dowse is one of these - significant works from the collection by Hotere, Peebles, McCahon and Walters are paired with preparatory and related works.

I'm a bit of a sucker for these before-and-after exhibitions, and the 1947 McCahon painting of a Hutt Valley landscape The caterpillar landscape is a good example of this (I'm too damn scared to use images from that website, so go have a look for yourself). A related work shows a land/sea-scape hovering in a lozenge above the caterpillar hills; in the oil the lozenge is whited out in thick pigment, making you want to grab an x-ray machine and see what went wrong under there.

The oil was gifted by McCahon in 1980; it had been shown in 1948 at the Wellington City Public Library in an exhibition organised by Ron O'Reilly. The accompanying watercolours were donated in 2000 by Nan Stubbs, a colleague of O'Reilly's at the Library: she purchased them from another late 1940s show at the Lower Hutt Municipal Library.

The show as a whole has a double purpose. On the face of it, it's a show about how artists work. On a more pervasive level, it's a show about how public collections grow over the years, nurtured by relationships between staff, artists and patrons. The wall labels avoid hammering this message home, but the story's there if you're looking for it.

On the same day I saw the rather wonderful architecture show Long Live The Modern, toured by the Gus Fisher Gallery, but it's since closed. I can't find out if it's touring further, but if it pops up in your neck of the woods, go see it.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Web Muster

The IMA releases TAP (its exhibition interpretation tool for mobile devices) as open source software, and explains why you should use it

The MIA has a glorious Flickr set you should check out; portraits of its staff, with short & interesting interviews. A simple, cheap, and engaging idea.

The Smithsonian is running an 'online conference' called Problem Solving with Smithsonian Experts that you can take part in for free. Twelve 50-minute sessions are being run over 4 days; I'm wondering if I can motivate myself into getting up at 6am to take part in How do we grasp the vastness of the universe?

Thursday, 1 April 2010


For your Friday viewing pleasure, via Duane King on the lovely Thinking for a Living, Christoph Niemann's Abstract City, a series of illustrations in the style of Google maps

Something about these drawings - the pleasure of the visual mash-up, perhaps - resonates with my growing fondness for Pippin Barr's drawings and cartoon strips on stimulus/response