Category Archives: Art & literature

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More fiddling about with themes, and as an unexpected result (since WordPress erases any custom banner images when changing theme), a new banner. This one is a detail from David Burdeny‘s “Five Icebergs, Weddell Sea, Antarctica” (2007). The Canadian photographer’s ability to capture the sublime character of sea and ice is redolent of the great nineteenth-century landscape artists. Browse his site and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m fascinated with the quality of light and the spatial immensity the ocean possesses. I have an enormous reverence for feeling so small in the presence of something so vast, where perspective, scale, time and distance momentarily become intangible. My photographs contemplate that condition, and through their reductive nature, suggest a formalized landscape we rarely see. The glory lies not in the act of this removal or reduction, but in the experience of what is left – sublime experience located in ordinary space: a slowly moving sky, the sun moving across a boulders surface or sea foam swirling around a pylon.

– David Burdeny

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In the keep of the tree

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

Plants, it is well known, have a remarkable ability — born, perhaps, of their immense patience and gradualism — to physically merge themselves with elements in their environment. Ivy will bind fast to brick, beans will curl around poles, and trees… well, consider the iron-eating sycamore of Brig o’ Turk, a village in central Scotland near Loch Lomond. The tree, well over a century old, stands next to a disused smithy and over long years has subsumed numerous metal items that had been discarded against its trunk or hung on its boughs: items including a bridle, a ship’s anchor and chain, and a bicycle, the handlebars of which are the only part still visible.

Not only is this ability a tribute to the adaptability of plants, but it also provides a particularly moving example of nature’s role as a keeper of time. In the same inevitable way that grass pushes through the cracks of unmaintained asphalt, or a lover’s heart carved into an oak will deepen and slowly scar over, the sycamore in Brig o’ Turk reminds us of the transience of our material possessions, and, of course, ourselves.

All of which provides me with a credible excuse to introduce some beautiful verses on that very theme, written by 25-year-old poet-to-watch Robert Selby (who, as you’ll see from some of the poems on his site, particularly “The Leaving of the Institutions”, has a fine sense of man’s relationship to nature — or should I say, of nature’s relationship to man).

The Sycamore

********************
Up the narrow road beside the tea-room
and you pass an iron-eating tree… (Gazetteer for Scotland)

********************

The black-faced smithy’s boy of Brig o’ Turk
propped his bicycle against the sycamore
before his final shift at the clanging hearth,
soon to head off for war to escape the bore
of pouring coal into the firepot’s girth.
Proud of his young apprentice, the old mentor
drove the new recruit homeward on his dray,
so the bicycle remained in the keep of the tree.

As the smithy’s boy made corporal and set sail,
the sycamore began a cruelly slow advance.
As bugles called from shires their lonely scale,
the bicycle was raised on a timber lance.
When the smithy’s boy died at Passchendaele
and the village darkened in remembrance,
the sycamore drew about the bicycle,
clutching to its bark the spokes and saddle.

Long since the blacksmith sold off the yard,
since war ended, resprouted, withered again,
and the Trossachs became a National Park,
the bicycle protrudes still, a man-made limb
mimicking new growth, the ribbed handlebars
waiting for the smithy’s boy to reclasp them,
to pull free the frame and tour off, roadworthy,
the cast-iron memorial in the skyward lee.

– Robert Selby (Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2008)

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Time enough for tweets


One hundred and forty characters is not a lot of text. It’s maybe twenty words if you write like George Orwell, maybe fifteen if like Mervyn Peake, and a good thirty or forty if you know text message shorthand. Even if you do, it’s not exactly War and Peace.

As Jeet amusingly hinted, is Twitter yet another signpost in the ongoing decline of the modern attention span?

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A garish white light

There come moments in the lives of writers when the words that they use everyday seem suddenly and wholly inadequate to the tasks to which they have been set. Moments when every turn of phrase, every carefully-planned construction, fails to capture and convey the desired meaning, leaving the writer with a gnawing fear that perhaps his or her mother tongue was not built to communicate important things at all, but merely to serve as a low-cost mechanism for establishing and cementing interpersonal bonds. One never loses the ability to talk about the weather, somehow.

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A land of bards

The contemporary Western image of Somalia was forged in 1993, when American special forces and U.S. Army Rangers fought an overnight battle in Mogadishu with the militia of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, resulting in the loss of 18 American soldiers and the wounding of 73 more, and the deaths of up to 700 Somali militiamen and several hundred civilians. The battle was described in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999), and retold in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film of the same name. Say the word “Somalia” and you’ll summon visions: of the half-clothed bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by dancing crowds, of thin young men in dungarees manning heavy Soviet-era machine guns mounted on the back of Nissan pickup trucks, of emaciated civilians waiting in line for food. Continue reading

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To Lawren Harris, from Wang Hui

Nerke, Greenland, by Lawren Harris

Nerke, Greenland, by Lawren Harris (1930)

It sold for nearly $2.1 million dollars, that little oil painting shown above. Only 12 by 15 inches, the work came to the art world’s attention a few months ago, when a Vancouver woman decided to have her collection appraised. The painting by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris had been given to the woman’s father, commercial artist Gordon Davies, by Harris himself in the 1930s, and it had remained in the family for more than seventy years. Interestingly, the piece itself is merely a sketch for the painting “Greenland Mountains”, which was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1936, mislabeled, and subsequently turned into a 1967 stamp celebrating the Canadian landscape. The Danes must have been very proud. Continue reading

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Just like Ulysses, but about book illustrations

Arabesques from a 16th-century Koran

Arabesques from a 16th-century Koran

Written by Sydney-based “PK” (the P standing for Paul, the K being of unknown origin), Bibliodyssey is a blog devoted to the collection and display of the visual culture locked away in old books and only now being made available digitally by libraries and archives around the world. PK’s range of interests is stimulating and broad, covering the decorative arts of the late medieval Islamic world on one day, and the eerie but fascinating illustrations of 20th-century Louisiana artist Caroline Durieux on another.

Visit it. Bookmark it. Enjoy it.

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