Tuesday 30 March 2010

So Eric Gill, Ernest Rutherford, and a Soviet physicist walk into a bar ....

I'm currently joyfully immersed in Mark Oliphant's Rutherford: Recollections of the Cambridge Days. Apparently I have turned into the kind of person who reads about particle accelerators over breakfast. I'm okay with that.

Having knocked off a bio of Marie Curie, Brian Cathcart's The Fly in the Cathedral (about the 1932 splitting of the atom under Rutherford's direction at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge) and Richard Reeves' short bio of Rutherford in recent weeks, I've now got sufficient grounding that I either recognise and at least semi-understand the scientific bits of the book, or can choose to let bits like this wash over me and then return to the story

Ratcliff was a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, where he had rooms. ... He was as fascinated as I was by questions of generation of a e.m.f in a circuit when either there was no change in flux through the circuit, or there was no cutting of lines of magnetic flux by a moving conductor, and invented a number of models to illustrate the duality of the problem.

Anyway. The seventh chapter of Oliphant's memoir is titled 'The Crocodile', and it's about a fascinating little slice of Rutherfordia that's touched on in the above books.

Pyotr Kapitsa (or Peter Kapitza, as he was known in Britain) was a Russian physicist who went to work under Rutherford at Cavendish Lab in 1921. Rutherford took a paternal interest in 'his boys', as he called his research students (Oliphant beautifully describes his use of the term as fond, with a touch of arrogance - Rutherford was well aware he spearheaded one of the most talented and productive groups of research scientists in the world) and he and Kapitsa appear to have been especially close.

As with many of his boys, Rutherford assisted Kapitsa by securing funding for his research*, and in the early 1930s a grant was obtained for a new building to house Kapitsa's work on magnetic fields, the Mond Laboratory.

Kapitsa designed the new building, and in recognition of Rutherford's patronage he commissioned Eric Gill (he tossed up between Gill and Jacob Epstein, who he considered to be "the leading sculptors in the modern school" in England) to produce a low-relief plaque featuring Rutherford's profile, and an engraving of a crocodile - Kapitsa's nickname for Rutherford - on the exterior of the building.

Gill rocked up in a brown monk's habit and completed the works under the cover of a tarpaulin. And then, as often happens with a public commission by a modern artist, uproar ensued. The crocodile seems to have been well received, but the plaque was seized upon by some members of the College, who felt the nose was too "Jewish".

Rutherford declined to take part in the following debates, wisely disavowing any ability to make judgements on modern art. Kapitsa wrote numerous letters to Gill, describing how he had had to "fight hard and give lectures on Modern Art and its meaning and explain such elementary things as the difference between a photographer and an artist" - to which Gill replied:

We had a visit from Hughes last week and he told us about the fracas over the Rutherford portrait. I am extremely sorry about it - especially, indeed practically only, because it has been such a nuisance for you. I am very grateful indeed for your championship. Hughes told me that it was all because some people, infected by the Hitler anti-Jew stunt, thought I'd given Rutherford a Jew's nose. Of course that's all nonsense. As I told Hughes, the striking feature of the Jew nose is not its bridge but its beak. A prominent bridge is rather Roman than Jewish, and these classical people ought to have been pleased. What a lot of frightful balls it is.

In the end, Rutherford advised Kapitsa to go to his colleague and friend, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and 'lover of modern art' for a deciding opinion. While Bohr had reservations about making a judgement based on photographs rather than an in-person viewing, his statement that the carving "looks to me most excellent, being at the same time thoughtful and powerful" helped Kapitsa win over the Building Syndicate (and, presumably, the gang of young men who'd threatened to hack the plaque off the building).

I can't find a copy of the plaque in question online, which makes me wonder if it has disappeared (I'd love to know). But the Crocodile is still flourishing

I think the thing I find so fascinating about this story is that I found it in a physicist's memoir; and not just a mention, but 13 pages, stuffed full of primary material. I love the idea that someone who hasn't really looked at art since high school (as I haven't really thought about physics since nearly flunking it in 6th form) could get accidentally immersed in a case study of British anti-Semitic feelings in 1930s Britain and disputes in modern art, when they thought they were meant to be reading about early work in nuclear physics. It's accidents like this - or fortuitous, marvellous overlaps - that delight me.

To finish off the story. In 1934 Kapitsa went to Russia to attend a conference, amongst other things; he had returned to Russia several times since 1926. However, on this 1934 visit his passport was confiscated, and he was told he must stay and work in Russia. Rutherford wrote, appealing 'in the interests of science' that Kapitsa be allowed to return to England; according to Rutherford's early biographer A.S. Eve "To this the Soviet Government made the sagacious and fair retort that of course England would like to have Kapitza, and that they, for their part, would equally like to have Rutherford in Russia!".

Eventually is was decided that the Russian government would purchase Kapitsa's experimental equipment from Cambridge, and that the Cavendish Laboratory would not compete with Kapitsa's new Institute for Physical Problems. Kapitsa wrote to Rutherford in 1936 (again, quoting from Eve):

After all we are only small particles of floating matter in a stream which we call Fate. All that we can manage is to deflect slightly our track and keep afloat - the stream governs us!

*Only ever modest amounts. Rutherford seems to have a horror of asking for or receiving large amounts of money, fearing that discharging the obligations incurred would begin to direct the research undertaken, rather than the problems themselves. In addition, he seemed to be attached to the rapidly becoming obsolete practice of table-top physics, roaring that he could do experiments in the Arctic if he had too.

Friday 26 March 2010

The case against Flash

In her article Why can't the world's best architects build better websites Alissa Walker picks up on one of my pet peeves about 'creative' websites (this goes for you too, certain major art institutions)

Architects are the original interactive designers. They're skilled at creating navigable structures. They specialize in designing rich experiences for their users. But if architects designed their buildings the way they designed their Web sites, they'd all fall apart.


Most architects' sites rely on an animated technology like Flash. While this is perfectly appropriate for some interactive experiences, is not what you want to be using if your site is--like most architecture firms' sites--a long list of projects that you want to be easily searchable. Flash sites often rely on gimmicky navigation using images and rollovers instead of simple, clickable text. And in general, a Flash-based site can't generate a URL for each separate page. So say you do end up finding the project you were looking for--you're not able to index or email it. This is when you find yourself saying things like, "Click on projects, then roll over the little museum icon, then click Michigan, then click on the floating image in the white square..." Can you imagine giving the same kind of directions inside, say, a building?

It's a great piece. Go read it.


Art lovers will be relieved to know that Shane Cotton is "not a member of a criminal gang".

Thursday 25 March 2010

My So-Called Life*

My Life as an Object is one of the more interesting social media/museum outings I've seen in a while.

Each week, a collection item from Nottingham City Museums and Galleries is 'brought to life' through a social media channel. First up was a Raleigh Chopper with its own Twitter stream; this week it's Tea at Englefield Green, a painting by Paul Sandby, which has been opened up for collective story-telling on Flickr.

The project has been commissioned by Renaissance East Midlands (an organisation that supports museums in the East Midlands region of England) and is delivered by Rattle, with the redoubtable Frankie Roberto at the helm. (You can see his write-ups on the Chopper and the painting on his blog)

What I like about the project is its focus: time-bound explorations of single items. It's a canny project-based approach which could be continued, but could equally be abandoned.

People might object that the Chopper only had 53 followers, or that the painting only collected X comments and Y notes, and does that all seem worth the effort? To which I'd respond - how much effort went into that floortalk that only 12 people attended? And was that a waste? Genuine enjoyment on the behalf of the people taking part in the activity, and genuine enjoyment and learning on the behalf of staff seem more important to me than raw numbers.

This leads me to a few concerns I have when I look at the project so far. Staff from Nottingham City don't seem very involved in what's going on. The Chopper was voiced (really well) by a hired writer; there aren't comments from identified staff members in the Flickr stream (although admittedly it's early days). Nor can I find any trace of the project on the Nottingham City website, and the online activities aren't linked to from the collection items (although god knows I know what an easy request that sounds like, and how hard it can be in practice).

In fact, when you start picking things apart, there's still some work to do in tying all this back to Nottingham itself - for example, putting the name of the work and the artist, and a link to the collection record, on each image on the Flickr stream - or noting whether it can be seen in real life.

But perhaps I'm being too literal and a little premature. As Roberto notes
this project is all a bit of an experiment. You could consider it a small-scale prototype. It’s not being widely promoted or marketed, instead the aim is to test some ideas, and see what works.

This is one of those few projects where it’s okay if things fail. Which is liberating and exciting in equal measures.

And how refreshing is that?

*Please don't take the post title as a slight on the project. It's just that it made me think of the short-lived TV show which I loved, but am too scared to revisit in case it doesn't live up to my memories.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Ada Lovelace Day - three scientists

March 24th is Ada Lovelace Day - "an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science".

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), the daughter of Lord Byron and a prominent figure in English society, has over the past few decades become known colloquially as the 'first computer programmer', by virtue of a group of notes she wrote on Charles Babbage's analytical engine, the last of which included an algorithm for the computation of Bernoulli numbers.

I have to admit, I read a biography of Lovelace earlier this year which brought down my uninformed, but very high, opinion of her. In fact, I found her kind of irritating (I know, I know, I'm an awful person).

So for Ada Lovelace day, I'm going to pull out three women who I've greatly enjoyed learning about this year, and recommend a couple of books if you're interested in finding out more yourself.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

German-born astronomer who worked alongside her brother William in England, first as an assistant and increasingly in her own right. She identified numerous comets and celestial bodies, and worked on several important astronomical catalogues. The Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal in 1828 for her work on a catalogue of nebulae; the next woman to be presented with this award was Vera Rubin in 1996.

Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science is a fantastic book and contains a very good chapter on the Herschels' work; Michael Lemoick's The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos expands nicely on this.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Polish-born physicist whose painstaking work in France lead to the identification of radium and polonium, the coining of the word 'radioactivity' (and articulation of what that meant), and contributed to the use of radiation in medical therapies.

Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the first person to be awarded two Nobels (despite the committee's prevarications).

Barbara Goldsmith's Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie is an interesting and well-written introduction to Curie's life and work.

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Austrian-born physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear fission, initially at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin and later - as one of the numerous scientists who were forced to flee Germany with the rise of Nazism - in Sweden.

Despite working closely with Otto Hahn and others on the development of the theory and experimental proof of nuclear fission, she did not share in Hahn's 1944 Nobel Prize for this work.

I'm in search of a good bio on Meitner at the moment - suggestions are welcome.

UPDATE: Since posting this, I've had several recommendations for Ruth Lewin Sime's Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics.

Tuesday 23 March 2010


Did you know that there isn't a page for 'hackfest' in Wikipedia? How can I explain this concept without that essential resource?

Quite easily, really. A hackfest is like the technology equivalent of a working bee. People come together in a certain place over a certain period of time and apply their skills and enthusiasm to improving or creating something - usually, in terms of code. See the DigitalNZ hackfests as an example.

The New Museum is running a version of a hackfest, where 7 artists are being paired with technologists for a day to make something.

It's an interesting idea, but there are two things that are a bit of a shame:

  1. You can't seem to watch the pairs work (usually, people can wander in and observe these kind of things). Instead, they're presenting their work at an event at the New Museum on 17 April.
  2. Tickets to the event start at US$75 for a student/artist* discount, and rise up to - wait for it - US$350. Yowzers.

*When I saw this, I wondered if New York has an artist ID card, and, if so, whether it gives you discounts on the subway.

Friday 19 March 2010

O for Awesome

The Art Handler Olympics, being held on March 21 in New York, will test the skills and determination of the "unrecognized backbone of the art industry".

AHO includes events like The Static Hold ("Can you just hold that up so I can see what it looks like?") and competitive hanging with extra impediments. This reinforces my feeling that Art Handlers are Oarsome.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Silent listening

This morning I read an article by classical music critic and historian Alex Ross* that got me thinking about my re-visit this weekend to Janet Cardiff's The Forty-Part Motet at City Gallery Wellington.

In the piece, Ross tracks the history of audience interaction/shows of appreciation at classical music performances. In the 18th century shouting your admiration whenever seemed appropriate was quite okay - today, clap at the wrong time and you're likely to get ssssh'd. Ross writes:

Perhaps it is unnatural to expect utter stillness in a public space. We may be imposing habits of home listening on the concert hall. Seated before our stereos, we've grown accustomed to brief bands of silence between movements. This may explain why resistance to the Rule subsided rather quickly. Increasingly, individuals gathered in one place to have solitary, inward experiences. Where listeners were once swept away by music, they now spoke of music sweeping over them, like an impressive weather system over which they had little control.

During the applause debates of the 1920s, the pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch said, "It is a mistake to think you have done your part when you buy your tickets." There ought to be more give-and-take between performers and audience, he is saying. Passivity is too easily mistaken for boredom. Performers, for their part, overdo the detachment. American orchestral musicians appear to have taken classes in how to show no emotion whatsoever – with the occasional exception of a slight smirk during the composer's bow or a flicker of a smile during the soloist's encore. Music is an art of mind and body; dance rhythms animate many classics of the repertory. But in modern classical music, the body seems repressed.

To recap Cardiff's work for a moment. 40 speakers are strung in a rough circle around the perimeter of the gallery space, broken into small groups. The speakers, supported by black stands, are roughly at head-height. The audience stands, mostly, within the circle, in which there are placed two benches.

From each speaker issues the voice of an individual Salisbury Cathedral Choir chorister. Cardiff recorded the choir performing Thomas Tallis's 1573 composition Spem in alium, pinning a microphone to each singer's front.

As you stand within the circle you first hear the speakers warming up and chuntering amongst themselves. Then the singing starts, and as different parts of the choir sing (the piece is written for eight groups of five voices) the sounds wash over you, advancing and receding depending on where you stand. It is beautiful, and moving. People stay in the room for longer than normal. People start crying.

When I'm in The Forty-Part Motet, my attention tends to be focused less on my own reaction to the music than covertly studying what the other people in the space are doing. The Forty-Part Motet is a strange half-way point between attending a public live performance and listening to a recording privately.

On the one hand, you can do things you normally wouldn't do at a live performance - like stand with your ear right up against the 'mouth' of a performer, shift around the space to track the music, walk in and out halfway through, or listen to the same thing over and over. The conventions of passive listening are broken.

On the other hand, you're a member of an audience that's jointly participating in a time-bound experience of listening to a recording. You can't help but notice each other as you listen to the recording. You share little smiles of complicity, or pretend you didn't actually just make eye contact. You can't help but see how people react, and think about how people might be watching your reaction. This isn't how we normally listen to music either.

What I would love is for - just for one hour, even just one performance - for the speakers to be replaced with live singers, and be able to watch how people behave then.

* I don't know much about music, but I think Alex Ross is awesome. Check out his Unquiet Thoughts blog on The New Yorker site.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

iPad opportunities 2

I wrote last week about my first idea about how how the visual arts world could use the iPad, looking at a new publishing model for Art New Zealand. That post has a bunch of introductory stuff about this three*-part series.

2. A mega-magazine for art lovers

Our arts institutions are busily pumping out content, print and digital: Te Papa's blog, City Gallery Wellington's new little room guides, Christchurch Art Gallery's 'Bulletin', Auckland Art Gallery's 'Reading Room' journal, the video produced for the Venice Biennale shows in 2009, not to mention endless catalogue essays, some of which make it online as PDFs, some not.

Then you have all the money and energy being put into digitising our public art collections. There's a better job being done here to aggregate content - to whit Matapihi and Digital New Zealand - but there's room, I think, to take this available stuff, throw it into a grid, whip together a quick intro or hooky narrative, and boom: a photo or art essay is born.

With not-too-much effort, this could be aggregated into one place - preferably, beautifully presented, and with an editor who balanced coverage and maybe commissioned or wrote the odd piece. Sure, it wouldn't be 'objective' or 'critical' coverage - but it's good stuff that's scattered around the web at the moment.

Add to that a regional exhibition guide - I'm rather taken with the work for Art Month Sydney 2010 - and you have an interesting and useful, easily update-able, nation-wide voice for the arts in New Zealand.

*Or more, if I come up with more ideas

Monday 15 March 2010

Learning from my actions

I'm working on my first project that involves a touchscreen interactive at the moment. It's got me thinking about how a person learns to work a system with their hands.

You know how people stand at street crossing repeatedly hitting the cross button, even though (a) it only needed to be triggered once (b) hitting it more doesn't make the green man show any faster and (c) it's really bloody annoying?

I'm like that with web sites and services that are slow to respond. I click - nothing happens - I click again - and again - and then something happens - and then I'm not sure which click triggered it - and then I'm lost. Image magnifiers are classic for this - the time taken to serve up the image creates too great a lag between action and consequence, and without a loading graphic, you can't be sure anything is happening. So - click - there you go again.

I had an experience like this in a gallery over the weekend with a touchscreen interactive. I turned the sound off (because I don't like intruding on other people in the gallery) and pressed things and moved things. I could successfully 'close' things and move elements round on the screen - but I couldn't tell to what end. Possibly the sound was essential, but there was a prominent 'sound off' option. In the end, I couldn't tell who was at fault - me, or the machine. Most likely it was me.

So what I've been thinking is a very simple thought. To successfully manipulate a system that's new to you, it needs to give you prompt and quite obvious responses.

Today on Pippin Barr's blog I came across the procedural drawing tool Harmony. He'd used it to draw the face of god ....

Harmony is an online drawing tool that uses algorithms and the HTML5 'canvas' attribute to contruct an image that is a bit more than - and a bit more surprising than - what you're doodling with your mouse on the screen. Or, as Barr puts it, "What that means in practice is that you draw, and it kind of fills things in in interesting ways around your drawing."

Playing with Harmony, you learn from your experiments. You learnt that fat movements draw sketchy lines, that often die out, that slow delibrate movements build darker lines, that bringing lines closer together causes them to reach out to each other. You learn (because there is no undo, only clear) not to rgret your mistakes too much. Or perhaps you learnt to be more careful, if you want results like these.

Friday 12 March 2010

Web muster

When Janet Cardiff's The 40-Part Motet moves out of City Gallery Wellington, I want the zebra finches to move in ....

Brooklyn Museum loads heaps more items to its online collection, includes nifty ways for users to tell how well catalogued an item is

Still have to read the article, but love the lay-out: Books in the Age of the iPad

United States Postal Service does the Abstract Expressionists (HT Walker Art Blog)

Monday 8 March 2010

Beautiful things

In the past week, I've seen a number of beautiful things, so I thought I'd share them here.

In my feedreader this morning I found Duane King writing about Japanese design company Nendo's Fade-Out Chair. The feet of the wooden chair are made of clear acrylic, confusing the distinction between the end of the chair and the beginning of the room it's placed in - look for it in a white cube near you soon.

Digging into Nendo a little I found Switch - a simple lamp, with a beautiful feature - to adjust the brightness of the light, you swivel the lampshade. I find this simple idea entrancing, and I think if I had one in my home I would never stop playing with it.

Over the weekend, I dropped into Te Papa to see the installations of Judy Millar's and Francis Upritchard's Venice Biennale works. Millar's work was a little cramped, but still physically affecting, and the huge shapes certainly make you look at painting in a different, more sculptural, way.

It was Upritchard's work that really surprised me though. I hadn't really cottoned on to it via the installation photos from Venice - too ornate, too hard to make out amidst all the flounces and peeling paint. Put into a neutral space however, the work seemed dense and heavy, in a good way - distilled. And maybe I've been reading far far too much fantasy recently, but these little dancing outcasts gripped me in a way I didn't expect. Also, the tables are beautiful. Just saying.

Next, flavors.me. This is a very simple tool that lets you build a splash page to pull together your activity across the web - I've experimented with pages for myself and for work, using the basic templates.

Unlike me, some people have done some stunning work with the available options, showing how constraints can be very productive. The beautiful thing here for me is the interface you use to create and update your page, one of the simplest and most convenient I've come across. I particularly like the way you can drag the design panel around the screen as you're working, watching the page update with each change you make.

Finally, I read Rebecca Stead's When you reach me in one gulp yesterday. It's a book about love, death, time travel, being 12, and Madeleine L'Engle's A wrinkle in time. It's a slim book, and a taut story - every action, every word counts towards the reveal at the end. Hugely recommended.

Image of Francis Upritchard's Save Yourself from the Te Papa blog, photograph by Michael Hall.

Thursday 4 March 2010

iPad opportunities 1: A new life for Art New Zealand

Over the next week or so I'm hoping to get out a series of three or more* posts on possibilities I can see for the visual arts world to use Apple's iPad in their in-gallery and publishing work.

Apple describes the iPad as a 'magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price'. Smart people who I've heard talking about it suggest that it's the killer product that will bring your dad and grandpop into the world of mobile devices, and will potentially tip us into a whole new phase of online publishing. There's screeds and screeds of commentary on the device; the Guardian has a good round-up. So let's run with the idea that the ipAd is going to skae things up for a couple of posts.

Magazine publishing is a place where I can see the iPad fitting into my life. The argument for magazine publishing on the iPad is that it's likely to hit the sweet spot between an enjoyable reading experience (beautiful design, large, well-lit screen, improved interface for browsing and page turning) with portability and enhanced opportunities for advertising (an ad that plays a movie, or that links you straight to the relevant offer on the company's website) and bonus lower cost.

Here's my current magazine reading situation:

I have a subscription to the print version of the New Yorker that I am unlikely to give up. This subscription has great value to me. I read nearly every article. It fits into every bag I have. Looking at a ratio of weight to interest factor, a print copy of New Yorker is the best thing I could take with me on a one-day trip to another city.

On the other hand, I have a subscription to the print version of Idealog. Although I only really enjoy a couple of the articles, and find the advertorial annoying, I have it because it was offered at half price on Twitter, and $20 a year is apparently what I'm happy to pay for this content.

Everything else I either read online (if I want the information right now) or rent from the Library at 50 cents a copy (if it's for recreational reading). Wired is one of these cases - and they've already announced that they'll be publishing to the iPad in the northern summer.

Would I change my habits if I had an iPad? Would this take the place of the haphazard online and borrowed reading? Possibly, especially if, as some predict, the iPad triggers a new wave of niche or limited-life serials.

1. A new life for Art New Zealand

Art New Zealand, to my mind, is the kind of niche publication that should be eyeing up the iPad.

I might once have had a subscription to ANZ. We certainly have a huge back-run at home, but once you hit number 100 it starts to get a little sketchy. Either ANZ gets more valuable in hindsight, or my interests are largely historical (I was a heavy user of back issues while studying), or the content doesn't ring my bells any more. I think this last is most likely. There are various blogs and websites I can follow to get more timely reviews or updates as to what's on show, and the longer format writing is only occasionally of interest to me.

But I still think I'm part of the target market for intelligent (but not theory-laden) art writing. I was, for example, an avid reader of Art World Magazine, the Australian art publication that unfortunately went under last year, and never protested at the cover price.

It's important to bear in mind that ANZ is hardly a large corporate endeavour. Rumours of its demise or sale circulate regularly. I have absolutely no inside or official information, but I just wonder how long it will be able to continue on the way it does.

So - why switch to online publishing? First, there are cost savings. Obviously, no more print or distribution costs. No more storage costs. On the iPad, the number of colour pages required won't matter, because they won't cost more - so your mag looks better (loads of big, juicy, zoomable hi-res images of artworks). Design and layout costs may be reduced; I reckon companies are likely to spring up who will do what Wordpress themes do for blogs and Newspaper Club does for newspapers.

But where will the money come from? Almost all the advertising in ANZ currently is by galleries - many of whom have websites, and who would presumably benefit from being able to link through (especially those whose exhibition programmes aren't locked in in time for print deadlines).

Some content could be offered free; deeper content (maybe introduce quarterly auction reports?) could be offered at a subscription cost. Or - don't charge any reader. Offer benefits alongside the content, but working with advertisers to do cool stuff. Brighter minds than mine will be at work on this.

Of course, Art New Zealand is only an example of an existing publication that could turn iPad. John Hurrell's CNZ-funded reviewing blog (currently being redeveloped on a different platform) is another. And then there's the publications that don't exist yet - the most exciting contenders of all.

*Three being how many ideas I have right now. You never know, I may find some extra ones along the way.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

The participatory museum

Links to Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 blog are pretty frequent on Best of 3, and many people working in museums and galleries got a first-hand opportunity to soak in Nina's enthusiasm and knowledge last November when she visited New Zealand to speak at the National Digital Forum.

Now you can really sink yourself into what Nina advocates with the publication of her book The Participatory Museum: "a practical guide to working with community members and visitors to make cultural institutions more dynamic, relevant, essential places."

Appropriately, Nina offers loads of options for accessing, buying, and discussing the book - see them all on The Participatory Museum website.

Monday 1 March 2010

Of nymphs and nereids

On Saturday I dropped into Hamish McKay's to see Seraphine Pick's latest show, 'Pocket Full of Rainbows'.

As Over the Net have already observed, Pick's major survey show (created by Christchurch Art Gallery, now on show at City Gallery Wellington) doesn't seem to have thrown the painter into a state of existential crisis (as can happen when an artist sees their career tidied up into chronological slices and didactic wall panels). Instead, 'Pocket Full of Rainbows' suggests that Pick has sailed through the experience, and burst out the other side.

Musical themes and tropes - from heaving crowds to Elvis leaving the building - flow through the show. A trip to America in the past two years - which, if I recall correctly, included a long roadtrip - appears to have informed the imagery*. In this sense the work at Hamish McKay's develop the subject matter that emerged in the most recent paintings included in Pick's survey show (see the right-most image on this page), but with a different lightness and beauty.

I've always been most attracted to Pick's less intricate, less heavily built-up paintings, and to her delicate and suggestive watercolours. The paintings in 'Pocket Full of Rainbows', each accompanied by a large watercolour sketch displayed in the gallery's wood-panelled 'den', are in this style, full developed but still full of light and air.

The title work of the show (above) captured me in particular. A pale-skinned, bare-breasted woman is held up, triumphant, by a blurred crowd at an outdoor concert - it's an utterly contemporary work which, seen from a distance, melts into waves of Lalique-like blues and greens.

It might be shades of A.S. Byatt's 'The Children's Book' coming over me, but Pick's joyous nude had me thinking of Pre-Raphelite paintings of girlish nymphs - until you get up close and see the smeared faces of the crowd.

The painting has a green pin on it. I hope it's there while one of our public institutions is getting the acquisition papers signed off. Pick's show is on until 11 March - don't miss it.

*The pink nudie suits are the odd ones out here. I don't know how to stretch my metaphor to include them.


Seraphine Pick, Pocket Full of Rainbows, 2010. Image from the Hamish McKay Gallery website.

J.W. Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896. Manchester Art Gallery.

Herb and Dorothy

Megumi Sasaki's documentary about New York art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel is included in this year's World Cinema Showcase. It's showing in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin between late March and early May.