Monday, November 6, 2017

Russian installation artists point out that "Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future"

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have known about the left-behind people for a long time; in the case of the installation that is the title for this huge exhibition, it refers to some trashed abstract paintings left on a siding as a train takes the "good" Soviet artists, the realists, away to a summer holiday camp and away from their dingy surroundings. The Kabakovs are a partnership made in the common experience of living through the endless, dark days of the Soviet Union. They base their installations on films on the idea of freedom and escape, using the Kafaesque labyrinth of Soviet life and thought processes with which they grew up and are always present in their work.
It's a relief to go to a show that isn't based on money, desire or possession, there is nothing of the art market, the international art scene, there is nothing to sell and there is no hype involved in the huge exhibition at Tate Modern. The Kabakovs are true outsiders in their refusal to become a part of, or victims of, the Totalitarian regime in which they lived. They have relentless retained their independence and fantastical ideas to create work of such humanity and integrity, the like of which we rarely see any more.
One of the most moving works is indeed a labyrinth, a long, winding, badly lit passage with frmaed photos from Ilya's mother's albums on the walls; there are images of Soviet statues, impressive buildings, snowy parks and no portraits of people, no friends, no people laughing over shared meals, they are all "correct" shots of the worthy, the bleak and the faceless. These are accompanied by extracts form her autobiography describing the horrors of her life, trying to bring up a child alone in a cruel and judgemental society. At the end of this walk, as the photos start to repeat themselves, is an empty broom cupboard with an unseen man, Ilya, singing in an endless loop on the other side of the door.
Ilya worked in secret in a studio in Moscow for thirty years; he was not an official artist and therefore had to scrounge his materials; with nowhere to display is work, he and a small group of friends used to meet occasionally to discuss their work in secret in their apartments. He supported himself as a children's book illustrator while he worked in an attic studio, alone for all those years. I have never been moved to tears by an exhibition but the thought of an artist working in complete isolation for such a long time, while living in mind destroying and appalling circumstances, but all the while maintaining the hope of escape, made me weep.
Several of the instillations are about life in Moscow's communal housing blocks; one model in particular stands out, a ladies and gents toilet fitted out as apartments with lamps, bed, table, chairs, all the knick knacks of a life in miniature to make the point that life in  a communal apartment block was like living in a toilet.
The man who Flew into Space From his Apartment is an installation about a man who did get away; a bed in a small, dusty room, walls covered in Soviet hero posters, a harness of straps and springs lying empty on the bed and a huge hole in the plaster ceiling where our man has blasted himself out into the stratosphere, and freedom.
One of the rooms in the exhibition is a series of albums made up of drawings, each album revolves around an imaginary character, often lonely and isolated artists, with their imaginary friends. They live in brightly lit, well decorated apartments, completely the opposite of life in Moscow at that time. They tell their stories and of the fantastical ways they have invented to survive their circumstances, in much the same way that Ilya did.
It's not surprising that in their ideas of freedom the Kabakovs have made angels central to their escape fantasies; the last room depicts people at the top of very tall, unattached ladders, holding up their arms to be picked up and rescued by angles. Angels and flying are their perfect metaphors: they are stateless beings, free and without borders. Emilia emigrated to the US in 1973, Ilya followed in the late '80's, so that in the end they both followed their dream of escaping the rigours of Soviet life and became free to express themselves how, where and when they wished.
"Ou life consists of our work, dreams and discussions. We are lucky: we manage to transform reality into fantasy and permanently stay there" Emilia Kabakov

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Written for Richard Leplastrier on his 70th birthday

I was one of Richard's victims. Well that's what he called me/us, I prefer to think of us as punters in one of the most memorable experiences of my life in what turned out to be a very unusual, but totally satisfying way of building a house. A very beautiful, inexpensive, bespoke house about five miles out of Bellingen in The Promised Land, beside the Never Never River on some land that Peter and I had bought.
It started off when we went up to stay at Richard's house at Lovetts to talk about the project. I think it was winter because I remember getting out of the Japanese bath and drinking a lot of red wine to keep warm; before I fell through the floor and standing on the cold, hard ground asked him if he did that to all his clients. It was a kind of architects test that later turned into architects inspections when he came to visit us and we hid all the knick knacks and polished the dog.
Like all good stories this has several parts and first there was the road trip to get to Bellingen in our old ute - GQD 602 - nearly God, but not quiet. We were going to stay in an old tin shed on the land with the appropriate bedding, kitchen and cooking stuff, and Richard's thin yellow paper and drawing board to work on the house. Architect's base camp. As Peter and I had spent four years in a hippy training camp in South East Queensland, without power, water or phones this adventure seemed pretty normal. I suppose I thought that all architects did this kind of thing - living in a shed with the clients for two weeks while designing a house.
I think it must have been October 1980 or '81 when we set off north. I know it was October because I saw a Regent bower bird beside the river and those elusive birds are only to be seen at bower building time, in October. Taking a few days to get there we drove around looking at a lot of buildings, details of buildings and uses of wood. The most impressive structure was the old steelworks in Newcastle, the huge old rusty, steel buildings beside the blue Pacific with no sign of life was like a science fiction movie set, relics of some past civilisation. It was a very privileged education in looking at the way things are put together, something I'm still grateful for to this day.
I didn't realise what Richard had in mind for us then - industrial? hippy shack? boat?
One of the things we all agreed on was a modest way of life, which the building was going to reflect, as well as sitting in the landscape just so. I think Richard nearly fainted when he saw the bare paddocks with some rusty wire sagging across them. There was nothing to build the house into, beside or around, whatever was constructed was going to stick out like dogs bollocks.
We set up camp in the three sided tin shed which faced away from the road and the mountains; living quarters was a platform furnished with a big low table with a swag on either side and a Kamado BBQ. The land consisted of twenty seven acres with two bare paddocks between the road and the river, no trees at all, and after crossing over the river an enormous bare paddock. So the house was to be in the bare front paddock, facing the mountains, the Dorigo escarpment, with a telecommunications spire/lightening conductor on top. It was a spectacular view going up three thousand feet of nearly untouched rainforest; sometimes you could see red cedars flowering, trees that the timber getters hadn't been able to reach.
The first thing that Richard did was give the clients something to do - we were set to measuring the paddocks, tierra, know your dirt, get a feel; it was fun with a huge old tape measure but that only took a morning. Then he thought of something else to occupy us which was to build a model of the land, it was grass and some casurinas along the river bank; on a huge board we made something that looked like a five year olds version of a paddock, I'm embarrassed to think of it now. Later when Richard dropped his perfect little model of our house into this mess it looked real and quiet brilliant.
In the meantime, while he was kneeling at the table working on the drawings and we were shambling about trying to look busy, or going into town to check out the locals, the Westerley got up. Now this is a very annoying wind even if you're not trying to do detailed work on yellow tissue paper, after a couple of days we decided the only thing for it was a pipe, red wine and discussions.
During discussions I remember being somewhat shocked when the materials for the house were being finalised: tin and masonite for outside, caneite inside. i used to paint on masonite when I was at art school, and caneite came from that stinky factory beside Glebe Island Bridge. How could you make a house from this stuff? Then there were the canvas panels in the off the peg masonite doors, didn't Richard know that it got cold up there?
The open, fly wired bathroom was not a problem because we were going to have a wooden Japanese style bath with its own boiler, and I knew from Lovetts how toasty they were. Richard was the only person ever brave enough to dice with his heart by going straight from the bath to jumping into the winter cold Never Never.
One evening early on we leapt about in the light of one of the amazing electrical storms the area is famous for, when the sky and the valley were sizzling, they used to happen at dusk usually - drinks time. So he positioned the big fly wired deck at the front of the house facing towards the tower/lightening conductor on top of the hill, like a big ship heading towards land. So for the next few years we'd have drinks while watching the live entertainment fizzing about, often very, very close.
Away from the mountains the river was sometimes low and slow, and sometimes a raging, mad thing. There were steep, fragile banks mainly held by privet and casurinas. Many towns in Australia had turned their backs on their rivers and had no use for them. Richard used the Never Never in a minimal way, but scary if you didn't like heights. He made a wooden walkway and platform that went straight out the back of the house and looked down about twenty feet into the river. It was supported on two huge poles wired into the top of the bank, so that in a huge flood it would all just wash away, like a skink's tail dropping off at bird attack.
The washing away of fence posts and small structures happened a lot on the Never Never and I ended up very grateful for this seasoned wood arriving at the door. After Peter left I used to go out and chain saw up the washed up wood to feed the hungry fire monsters - the slow combustion stove, the pot bellied stove and the bath stove.
From the skink I used to issue orders to my dog, lizzie, to go and see of the feral cattle. But the best time out on the deck was a picnic with the fireflies just an arms reach away as they danced above the river.
The kitchen was mainly a huge Blackwood table that a friend of Richard's made, in the heart of the house Richard used to scrub it when he came to stay, never commenting on the fact that we never touched it. The taps in the kitchen and bathroom were brilliant, I still miss them - made from a piece of curved copper pipe, they had a Nylex garden hose fitting on the end so you could unclip them and put a hose on instead - wash the place out, put out a fire, whatever.
But all this became apparent later, for now there were the drawings and the model and the council planners. I forget what Richard told them to get the plans approved, maybe things weren't mentioned, maybe there were large chunks of the house missing. Whatever, the plans were approved and we were off.
Finding a builder was interesting, there were several around who thought that massacring two thousand year old timber and leaving bricks exposed was the height of cool. Richard somehow found a very unassuming, clever man called Henk Mulder, who's parents had come from Holland and settled out west. He'd not only built his own ultra light plane (and crashed it) but was used to making do with whatever was about, like using ten gauge fencing wire for nails. So now we were set - the plans were approved and we had a builder.
In between having a good time - I refer to the photo of Richard lying on a rug looking very happy - drinking lots of wine, smoking and talking, talking, we were invited to dinner by the couple who'd sold us the land.
As our washing facilities were the Never Never we probably looked pretty shabby, but we were good company. Richard had to leave the room shortly after we arrived because the hostess of the long red finger nails served him Tom Yum soup made with powdered coriander. I joined him after confessing that my current work was a painting of the then foreign minister fucking a pig. They certainly didn't forget us and we were never asked back.
We all went back to Sydney and our various camps and the house came to be built by Henk and his crew, with the three of us going up every now and then to talk through the details. I remember thinking how big the house looked when the timber skeleton was up, and how amazing it was going to be to live in. we moved in my thirtieth birthday, June 15th 1952, and the perfume of the new house and new wood is till with me.
A year or so later Richard made me a separate studio, if anything more beautiful than the house. I feel heartbroken when I think of that great space that was all mine, for years I used to dream of putting it on the back of a truck and taking it away somewhere to a different reality, stealing it.
The main house was a boat, when the roof and side panels opened and shut it sailed through hot summer days. The people up the hill said it looked like a factory, so it was industrial. And it was a hippy shack that had a very low carbon footprint. But really it was a jewel, made by Richard with enthusiasm and integrity for us to live a good life in. But that's another story.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Local man, local materials

Heinz Richardson is a local man, he grew up in the area, went to Dr Challoner's and played cricket on Barn Meadow as a boy, a playing field he now looks out on through his bedroom window and where he still wields a bat from time to time. After many years of successful architectural practise in London Heinz has returned to his roots in Amersham, having thought many years ago that he had left for good.
When Heinz and his wife Jenny were looking for land to build a house designed for and by themselves, the last place they expected to find it was at No19, Mill Lane; having searched the countryside from Kent to Oxfordshire, they looked at a bungalow on the corner of School and Mill Lanes one day in the snow in 2010. It was a peaceful, quiet day with no traffic, a robin flitted around the house inspecting the property with them, and they fell in love with the East/West site which would give North and South light and amazing potential views from an upper story.
Their bid for the house was successful and they spent several years in the bungalow designing a super sleek modernist house to take full advantage of the site, plans that were rejected by the council. After a redesign the plans for the house now standing were submitted, a low energy, contemporary home; these plans  were also rejected, a rejection that was larded with some extremely unhelpful comments and small town thinking. But their appeal six months later, heard by an inspector from out of the area, was successful. In the meantime, Heinz, in despair at his house ever being realised, had agreed to be part of a three month cycle ride across America, from Portland, Oregon to Portland Place in London, home of the RIBA, to raise money for charity. The charity for whom he rode is in support of Article 25 of the UN which states that every human has the right to shelter; the light, almost nothing bike that has travelled so far rests on its stand in House 19, like a sculpture.
All this put the plans for building the house back again, but eventually work started on the award winning, carbon neutral home. The first thing to notice when walking up to the front door is the surface of the driveway; with a smooth, grey, pebble
like finish the material acts as a giant sponge, with rainwater that falls on the roof going into the rainwater harvesting tanks beneath the courtyard and the rest soaking into the ground. No rainwater goes into the drainage system.
There are several remarkable things about the house: the carbon neutral aspect, the way in which the house is aligned to the landscape, the local materials used, the attention to detail and the aesthetics, all combining to create a calm and peaceful place to live and work.
No fossil fuels are burnt in the house; the building is air tight with triple glazing, half metre thick walls, photovoltaic panels, a ground source heat pump and earth ventilation. What this last entails is a vent in the garden with a pipe running underground for 120ft beneath the house, so that the earth warms the air to 12 degrees. This air then comes out of vents in the house supplying constant, warmed fresh air, even in the cupboards. The overall effect when walking in is of a perfectly regulated, fresh environment with no ambient noise; traffic and planes become a remote memory. Heinz's local roots are on show in the flint work on the house which was inspired by St Mary's Church and the many flint cottages in the area, the idea of stained timber cladding on several outside walls was taken from the traditional black painted barns of Bucks. The slowly rusting corten steel window surrounds reflect the iron ore traces around the edges of the flints.
Looking at the house from the outside the effect is to make the building recessive in the landscape, nestling in amongst rapidly growing, airy birch trees.
From the inside looking out, the perfectly aligned and framed views grab the attention, walking into the house at the end of a white hall and living space is a large plate glass window onto the garden. All the windows in the house are single sheet glass, so the landscape is never divided up into little squares. Walking further into the house one wall is double sliding glass doors onto the garden, with an overhang designed to let light obliquely in the summer, with more direct sunlight in winter. The glass walls have sliding western red cedar panels to be used in very hot or cold weather, or to secure the house.
The master views are upstairs though, directly to the church one way, to the hills and trees on either side of the valley the other. The three bedrooms all have framed views of trees and countryside. The concept of living either inside or outside is blurred at No 19 and perfectly suited to our climate; being able to view an uninterrupted landscape from a warm and comfortable interior is a liberating experience, the weather becomes an experience to be watched rather than some thing to be endured and ignored.
The details are astounding, like a slat of clear glass at eye height at eye height in the small annexe shower room so that anyone washing can look out onto the garden; and the numerous cupboards hidden into the walls; and the vents just under the roof to let out hot air after a stifling day. The tall, structural chimney sports a satellite controlled clock that can be seen from the meadow, for cricketers and parents collecting children from school.
The elegance and beauty of the house is expressed through the lines going across the building: on the entrance doorway is a six inch wide line through the flint wall of very thin flints laid face on, as in a cross section of layers of thin pastry, hence its name: galetting. The other line is inside, a low, black shlef with a glass fireplace at one end, which continues outside into a black topped box for garden tools.
The garden is pleasing and functional, with the spoil from the foundations of the house turned into a two tiered grassy bank for sunset viewing and outdoor performances and the pocket sized wildflower meadows providing enough pollen to run a beehive. A huge corten steel fire pit is for loitering outside on cold nights or watching from inside. a small courtyard beside the entrance with pale grey pebble ground cover and a Japanese maple in the centre has the Zen like quality of quiet contemplation.
House 19 is a very different house for Old Amersham, heinz has been able to take advantage of all the most contemporary technological innovations and blend them into a lifestyle that is both aesthetically pleasing and a comfortable home. I left floating on light and a decision to seriously declutter my home.


Saturday, June 24, 2017



                                                                   THE VIEW
                                                    Landscape Photographs at
                                               Margot: House: Gallery from July 1st
                                             127 High Street, Amersham, Bucks HP7 0DY

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Peter and the Chinook

Painting from 1977 depicting Peter in our vegetable garden in Yandina, Qld
Now hanging in the Fryer Library Reading Room, UQ, Brisbane