Creativity/Serendipity Tag

At the (not mentioned in our Lonely Planet) temple, we find heaven and hell. Ten kilometres or so outside the city of Da Lat is a fabulous Buddhist temple complex. It takes the ancient traditional art form of mosaic making, and uses it artfully to decorate the concrete structure. (Breton is the Vietnamese word for concrete, borrowed from French. It is used liberally in every context from city to farm, as the nation expands and grows upwards.) The curved surfaces of broken china – often with delicate roses or tableware – are tessellated into patterns to form brightly coloured three-dimensional dragons, demons, clouds and birds. It is a wonderful visual feast. Buddhas are halloed by neon mandorlas. There are giant bells to ring and plastic welcome mats. In typical Vietnamese fashion, there are street food sellers, shops selling elaborate Tolkein-esque furniture, huge marble statues, communist party posters and corners for mops and detritus. Under the giant Buddha covered in dried flowers there is a gift shop selling marble knick-knacks where an unexpected opening leads to a visual representation of the ‘hell realms’. I am not a Buddhist scholar, so my understanding is limited, but these realms represent metaphorical states of mind created by ordinary human suffering. In turn, the causes of suffering are generally covered by hatred, greed or ignorance/delusion. In this context I get the impression this is a more literal hellish representation of the torture that follows vices of the flesh. Theology aside, the display is a ghoulish romp through the underworld. Demons torture souls, skeletons eyes bulge with red lights. It is a spooky feast of horrific delights that is designed to make even the virtuous squeal.

Oxford old and new co-exist like parallel worlds. I feel how Lord Asriel and Lyra took shape in this city, where the ‘Schola Metaphisicae’ is only a short walk from the Modern Art Museum. It is a place where ideas are currency. Wren and I take a conversational journey of ideas from death to art and back again via welding. We enjoy animals and patterns in the tapestries of Kiki Smith. “How imperative it is at the moment to celebrate and honour the wondrous and precarious nature of being here on earth,” says Smith. Wren and I speak of the need to follow subtle impulses in order to manifest creative ideas in our unique ways. We met through a shared enquiry of metaphysics. (A philosophy which examines the nature of reality and the relationship between mind and matter.) Today Wren shares an invocation from the 7th Dalai Lama, which inspires me. “Help me to make myself into a jewel, able to satisfy all the needs of the world, able to manifest as best suits each and every occasion.” Later I head off to look at repositories of fossilized ideas and values. These lurk under the scent of formaldehyde, dust and mothballs at the Natural History Museum. With another friend, I see ‘Performing Tibetan Identities: Photographic Portraits’ by Nyema Droma at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The young modern Tibetans portrayed find identities constructed through work, sexuality, what they choose to do, alongside more traditional cultural identities. Finally, a conversation in the Eagle and Child introduces the study of architectural decay and the world of academia. As I return to London, my head is full of ideas.

“What makes you shape and reshape yourselves so brightly from so much pain and suffering?” asks Charlotte Salomon in her own words, in her extraordinary exhibition ‘Life? or Theatre?’ at the Jewish Museum. This is part of the collection that was found after the artist’s death in Auschwitz. Painted over two years in hiding in France 1940-1942, it was kept safe by a friend and re-discovered after her death. The artist challenged herself “to create her world anew out of the depths.” Conceived as a therapeutic autoethnographical work, she invites us into her personal and family drama. It also reflects the history of a German-Jewish girl, in Berlin during the 1930’s; running up to the racial violence known as ‘Kristallnacht’ – the night of broken glass in 1938. (Autoethnography connects the originator’s work to the wider political and social context.) Charlotte Salomon’s story leaps from the pages of loosely painted images. Using only the 3 primary colours plus white, she mixes them to create sombre depictions of her family life with elegant red, blue or yellow outlines and later more urgent, bolder pictures. They were conceived alongside writing and relate to pieces of music. Inspired by her former music teacher and lover, she explores ancestral grief through the creative process. ‘Life? Or Theatre?’ is her therapeutic reclamation of the tragic set of personal circumstances that happen to her, simultaneously with the persecution of Jewish people. This exhibition shows over 200 small paintings, which begin with detailed frames telling the troubled history. As she delves deeper into the process, the images become more dynamic and the gouache streaks onto the pages, reflecting her own complex internal landscape. “I became my mother my grandmother in fact I was all the characters who appear in my play. I learned to travel all their paths and became all of them.” Like story boards, and pre-figuring graphic novels, she takes us step by step, back to childhood and her mother’s suicide and the events that follow. A final shocking revelation comes in the letter written at the end of the process. She finds a way to move through trauma and re-connect with living, “One can be resurrected – in fact, in order to love life still more, one should once have died.”

This miniature fairy tale house, red with a pitched roof, (but missing the white picket fence) is a tiny library. It rests on the corner of Rushmore and Powerscroft Roads. There is room for perhaps twenty books. It regularly holds a mix of children’s picture books, adult fiction and the odd non-fiction tome for anyone to take. The Little Free Library movement sprung up in the US, and sells kits for anyone who wants to start their own. I deposited a shamanic self-help manual. As I passed later I watched young man with dog-on-a-chain take out a novel. The day after I found myself chatting with older-man-few-teeth. He was just returning two books, and a real advocate of the little library. Mis-judging them both I wouldn’t imagine either as avid readers. I was peering in to see if the Shamanic guide was journeying yet, and was happy to see it had gone to a new reader. This week I have felt dismayed by the proliferation of social media and sound bite culture at the expense of critical thinking and the longer attention spans needed to explore themes more deeply. I love the really accessible opportunities for random reading that this service provides. I couldn’t find a UK map, but there is a Facebook page as they pop up around the UK.

This particular piece of luck talked to me at the car boot. I paid £2, erring on the side of caution. I feel very lucky. I try to keep this luck in mind, and to be thankful for it. Displays of gratitude can make me feel uncomfortable, like saying ‘grace’. I love the American tradition of ‘thanksgiving’ meals, but they are bound in a complex heritage of oppression and religion. But more and more I feel the need to offer my thanks to the foods and other things that nourish me. I need to say thank you in a simple private way. Martin Prechtel encourages us to “feed the holy”, to make offerings and give thanks to nature, to the elements, to the ancestors, to all that is greater than us. I increasingly feel nurtured by the unseen, and I light a stick of incense to offer thanks and well-wishing to all who support and guide me as a personal daily ritual. In San Francisco’s Café Gratitude, each dish on the menu was served with a different earnest affirmation. “You are beautiful”, drawled the server with each coconut pie. It antagonised the cynical and made me blush. However, an authentic cultivation of gratefulness expands my sense of connection with all that is. The challenge is to walk the line between grateful and smug. “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude” (A A Milne). I am following Piglet’s example and making more room to saying thank you.

One diagram might chart the spectrum of creative work between Fuller (see previous post) and the print-makers of North Korea. Fuller describes life as an artist as “a curse, a compulsive problem”. He paces, researches and explores his subject working over long periods in isolation to create extraordinary ‘maps of the mind’, which synthesize the aesthetics, culture and geography of places. At the other end of the spectrum are the print makers from the DPRK who work as part of a team, follow rules that cover subject, style and load references within each image. Art production is structured within a studio system. The highest level of attainment in this system is ‘People’s Artist’. Nicholas Bonner is a lively cultural ambassador, both informative and entertaining. He conveys the philosophy behind these idealized images. As Kim Jong-un states, “Revolutionary art awakens people to the truth of struggle & life & inculcates in them rich emotion & verve”. Bonner explains some of the meaning behind the dynamic, vibrant, yet often visually lyrical wood and lino cuts. He also shares some of his experience of the humanity of the people in the DPRK and the everyday life that these prints portray.

A physical map of my day would be linear from Hackney to South Kensington and back. You might add in the place I thought I was going, (Alexandra Palace) and the place I wanted to go (Sandown Park to see Amma). A map of the human interactions of my day would look more like a bee’s flight path with hotspots for pollinating conversations – serendipitous meetings with inspiring people including Shelly and Rachel Rose Reid. Another representation might include my visual preoccupations, ideas or beliefs. The golden arm and hammer is a symbol of the God Vulcan and of industry (gold-beating in particular). Under this hammer and muscular arm (echoing a revolutionary stance) in the V&A precious metals hall I meet Fuller. We mingle amongst a cornucopia of crafted metal objects including a literal silver bath-sized cornucopia then the crowd move to the pub. A map of my conversational journey with Fuller starts with art disciplines, eddies through artists’ rituals, books to inspire, meanders through places seen, lingers in destinations and possible futures. Later I check out his beautiful stylized portrayal of Pyongyang’s architectural landscape which revolves around its key landmark – the Juche Tower, central to DPRK philosophy.

I stand outside on the street looking into the Hart Club, which is full of the colourful, bold portraits painted by Paul Wright. He portrays his favourite characters from the comedy programmes and soaps he loves. “The work was cheeky and interesting,” says Stephen Wright (no relation) about Paul’s work. They began a creative working relationship, laughter being a key ingredient. “It was a two way experience,” reports Stephen, “Paul helped me to loosen up”. This exhibition has come into being through a collaboration between the Hart Club (who champion neuro diversity in the arts), Submit to Love Studios (part of Headway, a charity working with people who have experienced brain injury), Stephen Wright (working as artist in residence), and Paul Wright (artist with brain injury). Helen who works alongside the artists describes Headway Hackney as having “a Yes! Attitude”. She invites us to think outside our current mindset. “What would it mean for your life if you were very dramatically changed, with loss of self, loss of identity?” I had spent the afternoon with someone struggling to come to terms with exactly that – a sudden change in the entire landscape of their life. “Art practice is a way of living with uncertainty…and turning that into something magical,” says Ben of Headway Hackney. Their inclusive mission with service users is to foster “meaning, the opportunity to be valued, food and love, to have a place in the world; in short, trying to be human.”

Mick and Tony walk together in a big circle from their first meeting in 1986. ‘Fascinating chap’ Tony wrote in his journal in Melbourne, Australia. Signs change from one to two walkers. Mick, Tony and I find conversational ‘snaps’ – eldership, podcasts, colonisation, land and place. As Mick describes it, we explore the “zeitgeist connectivity overlaps” in the lines that stretch across the earth between us. Making the shift from I to we, from singularity to synergy, global alliances happen. Artists, travellers, activists are coming together face-to-face and sharing ideas. Like the historical silk-road, London is a thriving centre of creative culture. Right now it is the centre of my Venn diagram. People from many different communities are gathering here and pollinating ideas to seed and grow when they return home.

For the last thirty years, the British have been schooled in the art of festival culture. We have learned how to sustain ourselves despite the weather, to self-organise, to party, to de-centralise, to entertain, to collaborate and to communicate. This is a significant moment when the old established order meets the new paradigm head on. The new picks up the woolly thread spun in the 60’s, weaves it through the creative practices, spiritual teachings and digital expression we have experienced in recent counter culture and made it child-friendly. In this moment a child sits on top of the lion. This child is the future.