Monthly Archives: September 2012

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My friend sent me a letter the other day. True to her haphazard, artistic and lapsang-drinking form, she had enclosed it in an envelope crafted by her own hand out of a scrap of magazine and 70s sticky tape, which she had made because she had ‘run out of envelopes’, as a scrawl on a white patch of the magazine print indicated. My family were perplexed and intrigued by this deformed rectangular package that was lodged, damp, in our mailbox. It was the microdot ‘I love Frankie’ on the envelope lip that gave it away as a few words cobbled together, homemade and decorated by biro doodles, just for me.

The letter lived up to its exterior as two pieces of crinkly A5, frayed at the edges as she had torn them hastily from her notepad. They were etched  in a familiar script and embellished with pink highlighter borders and red squiggles. Parentheses mirrored perfectly her rambling speech, capitals dramatised her statements and a hand drawn map of her summer travels gave a personality and vitality to her words, an immediacy, that transported me in a moment to her university room and evoked that faint scent of lapsang, of course. I felt privileged that with me in mind, she had formed a little puddle of ink into something to be read and re-read with that same sense of the present even in future years to come.

That is what is so sacred about something written by a pen. It is the autograph of a dear one whose lines and grooves you can trace in the page. Yet more importantly, it lasts. Compare it to the cursor. The tiny blinking line begins its life with such instability. It can create poetry just as quickly as it can be destroyed by a ctrl+a sweep of blue and a tap of the delete key. Something typed can be rewritten, tweaked, edited, re-coloured, emboldened, italicised, underlined, inflated and deflated. A document on a computer is not a forever, but rather a maybe, always able to be mutated and perfected as the creator’s whim takes. Blogging itself is defined as adding new material to, or constantly updating a forum where opinions are recorded. But the edit button is never out of reach.

We do not have this same editing mentality as we hold a pen between our fingers. Inking on a page can be covered up by scribbles, smudged by water, but never fully erased (assuming of course that there is no dramatic period drama style tableau of flushed faces and letters thrown on fires.)

Our modern age of flux is perhaps very well suited to this changeable way of cataloguing experience.  As society evolves, what seemed the present suddenly becomes the past, and the way we communicate ideas and opinions needs to keep up as society edits itself. We are both private and public creatures. Composing a letter to someone on a few crisp sheets, perhaps spritzing them with fragrance and paperclipping on a photograph is for me a very personal way to share myself with another. Yet the internet allowing me to share myself that little bit further is what amazes me about the written word. People want to read and write in a way that allows them to edit, develop, alter and evolve their opinions to suit the rapidly changing society around them.

Not only can an online personal presence take you down unexpected career avenues, as @mashable Mashable Business’ article ‘Students, Here’s How to Kick-Start Your  Personal Brand Online’ demonstrates, but this constant sharing of information transforms the internet into a community. It is a very human organisation that connects like-minded people. The web takes the little blinking cursor and elevates it beyond its clinical black and white flicker, transforming it into a modern Hermes that carries messages across a digital landscape. Just like letters and postcards, blogging and article-sharing maps out for writers and readers the exotic places that their opinions are reaching, assuring them that their voices will never be lost in translation.





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From Russia with love?

‘You can’t ask why about love’.

This is the catchphrase for Joe Wright’s new vision ‘Anna Karenina’, which is his third collaboration following ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Atonement’ with Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley. Much like the velvet hues, sombre snowfall and shadowy onion domes that embellish the website, the film is a visual and textural delight. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s work is masterful. A dazzling array of sumptuous furs, crushed satin, marble ballrooms, Siberian hay meadows and pristine topiary mazes collide to create the rich canvas behind Tolstoy’s famous love story, carrying moments along when the young actors seem overwhelmed by the gravitas of their tragic roles. The film effectively condenses the epic into 130 minutes of Imperial Russian glamour and decadence, conveying the stifling duties of the multitude of society’s ‘princesses’ to glitter more brightly than any other.

Yet whilst we may not be able to ask ‘why’ about Anna’s tragic decisions, we can certainly ask ‘why’ about the choices Wright made with set. Perhaps the most interesting and ultimately most impactful aspect of the film is its unfolding within the confines of a theatre. Actions develop both on stage and off stage. The claustrophobia of shadowy corridors and tangled ropes builds on the crucible-like feel of the plot, culminating in Anna’s dismounting a train before her final tragic performance onto a platform that becomes the rafters of a theatre full of waxwork models. It is not just setting that is theatrical, but gestures also. The opening moments in which Oblonsky has his face shaved has a farcical Sweeney Todd-like ambiance. Such absurdities continue; Levin and Kitty’s love declarations are played out between them as a game of painted children’s alphabet blocks. Princess Betsy’s party with the tableau shots of seated belles and tightly choreographed fanning seems more like a musical or pantomime than a pivotal scene for the lovers. To an extent, the omnipresence of the theatre infuses the film with melodrama that has the potential to make the final moments all the more devastating. There is something inauthentic about the theatricality that cleverly evokes the insincere and shifting nature of the society that Anna must find acceptance in.

The glamorous heroine

Yet for me it is the innovation of the setting that ultimately proves to be the film’s undoing. The sense of fantasy as the plot evolves detaches the spectator from the true significance of specific moments. The first dance between Vronsky and Anna plays out in a tightly choreographed crowd contorting with a ballerina-like elegance. Yet the effect of this is that the sense of scandal surrounding their ballroom frolicking, as well as Kitty’s overt pain and chagrin, is lost. Similarly, Vronsky’s tumble from his horse as it races across the wooden stage,  coupled with Anna’s shrieking from her plush box left me feeling more bewildered than it did empathetic. The issue lies in the layering of perspectives; film and theatre are both forms of artifice and both require the audience to suspend disbelief. The problem with Wright’s ‘Anna Karenina’ is that we are continually detached by our awareness that not only are we watching a film, but within this performance we must also respond to theatrical display. Unlike similar works that make use of the dynamics of theatre, such as ‘Moulin Rouge!’, the characters are not aware that they are actors in a production. Theatre is their only reality.

Vronsky’s horse race amidst the theatre setting

Thinking about Brecht’s theories on theatre seems appropriate at this moment. His ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ promoted overly self conscious theatre to divorce the spectator from feeling empathy, whilst encouraging them to remain critically engaged so that the experience becomes more thought-provoking. Alongside this, Gestus, meaning gestures, something Wright’s production is particularly rich in, were emphasised as important in the process of alienating the audience and increasing cynicism. Perhaps Wright desired a more unusual way in to Tolstoy, and whilst we should celebrate films that are willing to experiment, the effects the theatrical setting had on my empathy was surprising. Anna’s death in its backstage and clinical waxwork surround seemed so surreal that for a moment I wondered if what we were seeing was merely the product of her bruised and paranoid mind. Her death is of course foreshadowed by the gruesome loss of a random rail worker testing the wheels of a train at the start of the film, and yet perhaps a more natural setting of ice, coal and clanking metal would have pervaded the moment of Anna’s death, the tragic climax of the film, with what it needed to move me instantly. As Peter Bradshaw in his Guardian review points out, creativity has affected the film’s pathos.

Kitty spells out her emotions through childhood games

The film certainly entertains. However, its promise to explore the capacities for love and feeling in our hearts is unfulfilled, as it left my own more cold and detached than I expected or desired. Perhaps we can ask ‘why’ of love in Anna Karenina’s world, and the film is certainly worth seeing if not just to explore spectator psychology and ask ‘why’ of our own emotional response.  With just a bit more snow and ice, this would have been a much warmer film.

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If you’re looking for a city pervaded by art, the search ends at Venice. On a recent trip with my boyfriend we were amazed by what the more hidden areas of the city had to offer. As well as the famous sites such as the gold mosaics of the Basilica and the pastel pink Palazzo Ducale, complete with endless state rooms and its famous golden staircase, we found art in the most unexpected places.  On our way back home to the airport we took the water bus from St Mark’s to Piazzale Roma and enjoyed views on both sides of the river of unnamed marble palaces, gothic balconies and a building adorned with golden mosaics in a style not too distant from the great Basilica itself.


St Mark’s Basilica


An unnamed building on the canal with similar mosaic work

For the locals, this is what they see on the way to work. But for tourists, the views of these buildings randomly dotted around the city are inevitably accompanied by a flurry of camera shutters and remarks of awe. It is what we stumbled upon by accident that proved the most breathtaking, and we have much to thank @GuardianTravel for, with John Brunton’s article ‘The Venice that most tourists miss’ in prompting us to look beyond the crowds and mask stalls. For example, a meander through the most shambling and dusty backstreets took us to the beautiful Miracoli church, made entirely of pink and green marble both inside and out, perched haphazardly on the water’s edge. What is to the locals a functional building became for us a work of art in the grand gallery that is the city of Venice itself.


The Miracoli church’s marble facade

This made me think back to my last blog post ‘Home is where the art is’ as it seems that Venice has satisfied my wish to have art all around me as a piece of everyday life . Yet we found the most innovative art in terms of style and location not in Venice’s tiny backstreets, but in its most famous landmark, St Mark’s Square. To celebrate the Biennale of the city’s architecture, a duo of artists (Swiss Julian Charrière and German Julius von Bismarck) built a ‘bird trap’ on a Copenhagen roof to capture the iconic ‘rats with wings’ that clutter the city’s square. Yet they were trapping these birds not to rid the tourist centre of vermin, but rather, surprisingly, due to the artistic potential that these birds displayed. The pigeons were painted along a conveyor belt and released into the square, adding sparkling jewel hues to the monochrome mass of feathers.



Aside from the ethical issues surrounding the painting of animals, I was left pondering whether these birds that we typically regard as pests can ever be elevated to something artistic? As an art form, the pigeons are dynamic and nomadic. Decorating the living body with paint infuses the colour with a new dimension of vitality and brightness. Yet arguably, these painted pigeons are rather like an inked up human. Bright colours and intricate designs can be beautiful on paper, but when transferred to skin most spectators cringe a little at these oh so permanent embellishments that are very often the product of youthful impulse later to be regretted. Perhaps then there is something a little tasteless about these dazzling pigeons?

Yet, what the artists have done so well is to keep the pigeons few in number, so that in the throngs of visitors and birds, they remain elusive. The eager tourist can then feel a sense of triumph and exclusivity when they manage to snap one of these living canvasses amongst the grey mass that undulates across the square. Indeed, body art used in a special or symbolic way has a beauty far above the ink patterns of the average street-side tattoo parlour. Maori body art Ta Moko is centred on a method of carving the skin with albatross bone tools and was historically inspired by the tectonic landscape of New Zealand. By imitating the scarification of the volatile topography on their own faces, the Maoris’ Ta Moko typifies living art.


The traditional chiselling method and design of Ta Moko body art

Through this, the practice of inking the skin increased in artistic value by acting as an interpretation of the beautiful and rugged landscape. This form of body art is so important to the Maori people that they seek to keep it unique and authentic to their culture, and the group Te Uhi a Mataora has been formed in New Zealand to help protect this cultural hallmark. The exclusivity of the body art preserves its appeal, and in a similar way, the joy of finding one fuchsia pink bird in an ashen crowd elevates its artistic status, surprising us and encouraging us to reconsider our notions of where we find art. It seems vital to look for art in every corner. Otherwise we might miss out on a beautiful moment, just as a sudden flutter of wings as St Mark’s clears may leave us disappointed with just a single turquoise feather.


A green flash in a grey crowd

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