I arrived back from southern India in April, head filled with glorious images and experiences of a country which already had a special place in my heart, I had visited India 23 years ago. With that original trip still vividly remembered, my recent journey was full of comparisons and thoughts on transformation, culture, creativity, history and the changing face of modern India.
One memorable highlight was the ‘Kochi-Muziris’ International Art Biennale in Fort Kochi, Kerala (which opened in December 2014 and had its closing ceremony in March 2015). This creative project ticked all my boxes – contemporary art, a local narrative, community involvement, diversity, education – but what made it really engaging for me, and a model that I feel has unique appeal, is that this wide ranging creative programme was set within several redundant, culturally significant and historic spaces. Temporary and improvised exhibition spaces had been created to present site-specific, locally thematic work. There was a clear synergy between the architecture and the artwork which reinforced the story of each element in the mix. Thus inspired, I bought the programme and the stylishly folded route map to all of the stunning, sometimes crumbling, venues and started walking.
‘Whorled Explorations’ – the theme of this second Kochi-Muziris Biennale, to which the artists made personal responses – is steeped in the notion of ‘Genius Loci’ (roughly translated as the spirit or atmosphere of place). “Kochi was a protagonist in the emerging global narrative in the 1500’s, at the same time that the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics was making ground-breaking suggestions about where humans were located in the cosmos. The 85km area of present-day Kochi is home to fifty-four diverse communities and thirteen different languages. Once, nearly five hundred years ago, this diversity was compressed within the 5km Fort Kochi area, “a magnet for mendacious spice traders, sailors, soldiers of fortune, savants, scholars, carpetbaggers, mendicants and priests from the farthest corners of the world: Portugal, Holland, England, China and Rome”. Echoes of their presence remain in everyday life around Kochi – in its architecture, its food, its monuments and culture. Myths, memory, history, fact, factoid, past and present continually collide in Kochi, which was a deliberate, considered choice as a site for the Biennale. As it provided the opportunity to place ‘cosmopolitanism’ in the terrain of history and the chance to examine the ‘poetics of human imprint’ on nature, history, ecology and world politics through the prism of the Kochi experience”. quote from an article by Sunil Mehra for the Biennale magazine.
The Biennale was co-founded by Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, and the Artistic Director for 2014-15 was Jitish Kallat. It involved 94 artist from 30 countries exhibiting for 108 days across 8 locations including Aspinwall House, Vasco da Gama Square, Pepper House, Durbar Hall and CSI Bungalow, each loaded with memory, meaning, metaphor and history.
Bharti Kher – Three Decimal Points / of a minute / of a second / of a degree
“The 315-year-old residency of the Dutch Army Commander, today known as the CSI Bungalow, is just off the southern tip of the Parade Ground. Its acreage overrun by bramble and weeds, towering trees and flowering bushes, it exudes a melancholic air of rundown gentility. The 20-foot ceiling, imposing entrance doors and stately windows bear mute testimony to a grander, more spacious time. A Sylvia Plath line plays like a drumbeat in my head….empty, I echo to the last footfall…”.
The programme included: the Students Biennale (35 institutions, 120 young artists, 15 young curators); an Artists Cinema; a Children’s Biennale; a History Now talks and seminars programme; a cultural programme featuring traditional artforms of Kerala and including contemporary theatre events, movement arts performances and music concerts; Arts and Medicine projects; the Pepper House Residency programme – an international residency opportunity for artists from all disciplines to work and collaborate within a studio space; and Collateral – an exhibition programme involving international contemporary artists, young emerging Indian artists and the public.
Benitha Perciyal – The fires of faith
Bijoy Jain – Tar Studies
Gulammohammed Sheikha – Balancing Act
Sahej Rahal – Harbinger
Seeing the Kochi-Muziris Biennale reminded me of feelings evoked by a visit to the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke on Trent in 2013. I had loved seeing contemporary ceramics displayed amongst the often ruined spaces of the redundant Spode Factory. Architectural salvage had become part of the exhibitions, old doors were used as display tables, artists had responding to the surroundings and created new work including temporary installations inspired by the history of the industry and the historic fabric of the buildings.
The Spode pottery once employed over 1000 workers. The first British Ceramics Biennale in 2009 was apparently the first time that many workers had returned to the site since its closure the previous year. The project is forward thinking – £10,000 is awarded to a participating artist to develop their contemporary practice. The 2013 programme included: the ‘Award’ Exhibition of Contemporary British Ceramics; ‘Fresh’, showing the work of recent graduates; a community engagement programme creating opportunities for visitors to explore and experience clay; a Film Room; and Exploring Spode, a series of site-specific commissions / installations and a related residency programme.
Both of these inspiring and exciting projects, one in India and one in the UK, are closely connected in my mind and noteworthy for me as they both celebrate and draw on cultural heritage while using this as a catalyst for new, innovative work which in turn is amplified by being shown in an historic setting.
I have loved my recent travels around Sri Lanka: the people; the countryside; the food and the wildlife, are unique, rich and amazing. However, I have struggled to cope with the country’s everyday urban spaces and contemporary architecture, which are often (in my opinion), poor quality and ugly.
Perhaps born of: cost restrictions; self-build; lack of planning controls; knowledge of design and a shared locally-based architectural form? Crude, generic functionality seems to win out over design and vernacular style. I imagine that economic prosperity and development in Sri Lanka will mean a lot more of the same with architectural heritage and any ‘Sense of Place’ generally forgotten.
Of course there are gems of contemporary architecture and impressive old (and colonial), buildings to be seen, but you have to search hard. In rural areas it’s a joy to see vernacular buildings made of earth, timber and palm, but in most small towns the rush for concrete in its crudest form is disappointing.
During my struggle with all this I bumped into (and was uplifted by), the work of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. I subsequently visited his former home in the classy suburbs of Colombo and his beautiful country retreat ‘Lunuganga’ on the Bentota river.
(images from Bawa’s Colombo home and office)
Bawa (1919-2003), was an advocate for the use of vernacular materials and form. His work a fusion of internaitonal modernist design and local knowledge. Many reviews claim that Geoffrey Bawa was one of the foremost Asian architects of the 20th century. After travelling and living in Europe his architectural training was in England. A disciple of Modernism who also established a working partnership with Danish architect Ulrik Plesner who was a student of Scandinavian design.
In Sri Lanka, Bawa soon realised that pure white surfaces weathered badly and flat roofs were no good in a monsoon. Shortages of imported materials like glass and steel encouraged him to look to indigenous solutions. He began to soften Modernist style and enriched it with traditional materials. In Sri Lanka’s tropical climate his buildings could be, in part, open to the elements, utilising natural ventilation and light. Bawa’s buildings are often designed around existing landscape features including trees and in his work locality and the site dictates the design.
“we have a marvelous tradition of building in this country that has got lost. It got lost because people followed outside influences over their own good instinct. They never build right through the landscape… You must run with the site, after all, you don’t want to push nature out with the building”. Geoffrey Bawa
I suspect that Geoffrey Bawa’s impressive work, influence and legacy will only be enjoyed by a minority in Sri Lanka.
Parliment House Colombo
Kandalama Hotel Dambulla
Jetwing Beach Hotel Negombo
FULL CIRCLE – AT BIRK CENTRE PARK – HERNING DENMARK
At the end of my four month trip to Scandinavia I can look back on a journey filled with spectacular and inspiring experiences. In particular I will remember the many occasions on which I’ve been impressed and inspired by the way that culture, community, art and design seem central to public life, especially in Denmark.
In the last few days of my trip I visited Birk Centre Park, ‘The White City’, in Herning, Jutland. As the publicity says, “Birk Centre Park is known internationally as a unique area where art, architecture, landscape, education and business interact in an exciting way. In the 60’s the textile industry in the area developed rapidly, key companies founded a new creative way of thinking by merging their industries with art and education. The architecture of the factories inside and outside made art and culture a natural part of the workers’ everyday life”.
On this campus style site today Modernist buildings, once textile factories, house students of TEKO, Scandinavia’s biggest Design and Business School for Fashion and Lifestyle. The Innovatorium places entrepreneurs alongside business support teams and this contemporary building is part of a larger, stylish business park. Other key elements in this creative mix are HEART – Herning’s museum of contemporary art which is along side The Carl-Henning Pedersen and Else Alfelt’s Museum (founder members of the international COBRA art group in 1948). The University of Herning has more than 3000 students on the site studying business and engineering subjects. Birk Centre Park is full of green spaces, it has a sculpture park and the biggest public art sculpture in Northern Europe – the gigantic Elia, designed by award winning Swedish-Danish artist Ingvar Cronhammer.
The Carl-Henning Pederson and Else Alfelts Museum
Elia – Ingvar Cronhammer
One of the most striking things about the museums and art galleries I’ve visited in Scandinavia has been that they almost all have really impressive education spaces, creative learning is clearly valued and well provided for, a core part of the offer, not an add-on. This is nowhere more true than at Birk. Visitors of all ages are involved in creative projects, young people can join ‘COBRA Junior’ and there is free access for children under 18 years of age. HEART museum runs a creative programme involving 20 local schools, each partner recognising that ‘Art can be a catalyst for learning’.
I watched a group of parents and children with education staff at HEART and was forcefully reminded how powerful this type of work can be when it is well facilitated and well resourced. The group were looking at the work of Svend Wiig Hansen, a heavy weight of the Scandinavian art world (1922-1997). His work is expressive, abstract and challenging “innumerable human bodies driven by the forces of nature”. I have no idea what the teacher was saying to the group but they looked transfixed. They eventually disappeared into the education room and re-emerged later for a public viewing of their art work. I was really struck by its quality – what the group had achieved in a short time was simply stunning.
Svend Wigg Hansen
It took me back as my career began in museum education. I understood then and still do, that art and culture are unique catalysts with the power to deeply engage people of all ages in learning and decision making. In all of my work over the 25 years since – which have taken me far away from museum/gallery education into urban regeneration, community engagement, public art and public realm design – I’ve remained convinced of that ‘truth’, have sought to always apply it in my projects, and have been an advocate for it at every opportunity. In those few moments at HEART, witnessing the skill with which those parents and children were taken through a creative learning process, the quality of what they produced, their absorption and the pleasure they took from the experience, it was a joy to be reminded where and why my own work started.
NORWEGIAN NATIONAL TOURIST ROUTE – TURIST VEGAR:
My last post in August (The Steilneset Monument), described an inspiring visit to Vardo which I discovered while following my first Norwegian Tourist Route in Varanger, NE Norway. Impressed with this project and keen to experience as many of the designated routes as possible (during this first trip to Norway), I have followed a few others which have included: Awe inspiring landscapes; climbs to remote mountain plateaus; stunning ocean views and often ‘white knuckle rides’ along single track roads with multiple hairpin bends.
Along the Tourist Routes there are many view points and service buildings with innovative modern architecture and art which certainly enriches the travelling experience. The routes encourage visitors to explore out of the way places and learn something of the local history and culture. I wanted to share some other of my highlights with you.
THE ISLAND OF SENJA – ROAD NO 862 – (LAUKVIK TO GRYLLEFJORDEN)
Walkways enable all visitors to access the edge of the coastline with long views to the mountains, there are designated parking area and state of the art toilets. Disability access is fundamental with wide paths leading to projecting architectural platforms, hanging over huge drops with stunning views.
THE ISLAND OF ANDOYA – (ANDENES TO STRANDA)
We followed one tourist route across the Islands of Senja, catching a ferry across to a second route on Andoya, then linked with another route across the Lofoten Islands.
GEIRANGER / TROLLSTIGEN – ROAD ROUTE 63 – (ANDALSNES TO LANGUATNET)
The visitors centre at the top of the Trollstigen / The Trolls Ladder. Each element site-specific and inspired by the surrounding natural context, a light touch on the surrounding landscape. On top of the visitors centre the first shard has a roof terrace accessed from the second.
THE NORWEGIAN PUBLIC ROADS ADMINISTRATION – NATIONAL TOURIST ROUTES
“There are still roads that are not merely designed to get you to your destination as quickly as possible. The National Tourist Routes are beautiful drives (or cycle rides), with that little bit extra. The routes are carefully selected by the Norwegian Public Roads Administration and each route has its own history and character. Our job is to make sure the routes are adapted to travellers needs. We do so by building car parks, furniture, paths and service buildings (WC). Bold, innovative art and architecture is a unique feature of the National Tourist Routes of Norway. This is a long term project, we are currently working on both large and small scale projects from Varanger in the north to Jaeren in the south. Welcome to memorable journeys”. See www.nasjonaleturistveger.no for more information and an e-book with all the background and route details.
SOGNEFJELLET – ROAD ROUTE 55 – (LOM TO NES)
This route climbs over a spectacular mountain plateau which is often covered in snow. Snow poles Norwegian style.
AURLANDSFJELLET – ROAD ROUTE 245 – (LAERDAL TO STEGASTEIN)
Some of this route is closed at the moment but I managed to see the first section which takes you up to a high view point. We camped our van for the night in a parking area next to some great facilities, loos with large windows overlooking the fiord. A van arrived at 8am with staff to clean the loos, water the flowers and empty the bins – Impressive.
THE STEILNESET MONUMENT:
I arrived at the Steilneset Monument on an overcast and gloomy Sunday evening. Already slightly unnerved by my arrival in Vardo (Norway’s easternmost town), as this involved a 3km trip through a challenging, grey and steep road tunnel under the Barents Sea (which connects Vardo to the Varanger Peninsula in Finnmark). It was 6.30pm, I had the place to myself and in Vardo the church bells began to toll. I’d come to see a stunning and highly atmospheric art and architecture collaboration which commemorates 91 local people who were accused of witchcraft and sentenced to burn at the stake.
The Steilneset Monument is the work of artist Louise Bourgeois and the architecture Atelier of Peter Zumthor and partners (project architect simon Mahringer). The memorial comprises of two separate buildings. One an installation by Peter Zumthor, a 125m-long wooden structure framing a fabric caccoon which contains a narrow walkway,1.5m wide, which is lined with small windows, one for each victim of the witch hunts. The second adjacent structure is a square black glass room that contains the work of Louise Bourgeois. “This room contains a central chair on which an eternal flame burns, the fire is reflected in seven large oval mirrors, placed on metal columns in a ring around the seat, like judges circling the condemned” (Wikipedia). Commissioned in 2006 and opened in 2011 Louise Bourgeois died in 2010 and her contribution to the project titled ‘The Damed, The Possessed and The Beloved was her last major installation. The Memorial was jointly commissioned by the town of Vardo, the Varanger Museum and the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (developed in association with the National Tourist Routes of Norway).
The site, on the edge of the ocean was striking on a cold and grey evening. The church bells (just my timing), added to the atmosphere. The wind was blowing and intensified the sound of the burning flame, certainly theatrical. The scale and robust feel of the black glass room is impressive, the central fire reflected around the walls through which you can see the Barents Sea. The adjacent, timber and canvas corridor (reminiscent of nearby fish drying racks) is a total emotional surprise. You enter via a ramp to face a black wall, your eyes adjusting to the dark interior, then turn to face the narrow walkway where 91 dim light bulbs hang beside 91 small square windows. Next to each window a text filled banner, one for each victim of the witch hunts.
THE WITCH TRIALS:
“Finnmark is a region of Norway which was long known to medieval Christians at Ultima Thule – the end of the world – and legend has it that the road to hell was small, unpaved and set out towards the Varanger Peninsula, presided over by devils and dark knights. After paganism was outlawed the Scandinavian kingdoms were intolerant towards anyone harbouring anti-christian tendencies. Witch finding took a hold in the 1620’s, 135 ‘witches’ were accused in Vardo and 91 of them burned alive at the stake” (The Rough Guide To Norway).
“The witch-craft trials here took place towards the end of the period that saw persecution of ‘witches’ all over Europe. What is known about the Finnmark witch-craft trails mainly derives from court records of trails heard in local courts. Use of torture was common, including the ‘water ordeal’ when the accused person was thrown into the sea with his or her hands and feet bound. Water, which was considered a sacred element, was thought to repel evil, the suspects rising to the surface and floating was an indication of guilt, sinking was a sign of innocence. Most of the death sentences were passed in so-called panics, meaning that one trail led to another in rapid succession. The Steilneset Monument emphasises what is individual for every person who was executed. Each woman and man is named and correct historical information about these persons was made available to the project team”.(Varanger Museum Guidebook – Memorial to the Witches burned in Finnmark).
Example of a text banner inside the larger structure:
Brought before the court a Vardohus Castle on 26 April, 1621
Accused of practising witchcraft
Was told she would be spared torture if she confessed at once, but pleaded innocent
Was subject to undergo the water ordeal – floated like a bob
Convicted of practice of witchcraft
Sentenced to death in fire at the stake
(Married women, aged 57, denounced by seven women, all in goal under charges of witchcraft).
After visiting the monument I cycled around the town, it was really quiet (being Sunday evening), I saw some amazing and inspiring things. Since visiting Vardo I have done a bit of research to find out more about the regeneration project and its arts and cultural element. As this is my ‘line of work’, I could see that successful things were happening, the project website (below) gives loads of detail on this on-going project. I could see parallels with one of my more recent commissions in Fleetwood (Wyre MBC), where Sea Change funding partly enabled the building of The Rossall Point Marine Observatory (Studio Three Architects, Liverpool) and the partial restoration of Marine Hall Gardens (BCA Landscape, Liverpool – Sea Change funding ended with the current recession along with other cultural regenerate funding).
Many buildings in the town have been restored and those awaiting repair are sites for temporary artworks. The Slippen, which Varanger museum aims to restore is where boats were brought out of the water for repair. There is a current need for this facility to be restored and hopefully heritage funding will help.
The regeneration of Vardo is on-going through a partnership which includes local people, Vardo Restored and the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Fund. The Vardo Restored website is really interesting and shows examples of completed and future projects. Community Involvement, Heritage, Art, Architecture and Culture are at the centre of what is happening. “People enhance assets purely by communication”, Heidi Kuernvik, Husegarden.
HISTORY OF THE DOWNTURN:
During the 1980’s the collapse of the fishing industry and the downsizing of the public sector led to decline. During the period 1980 – 2000 the population of Vardo halved due to unemployment and there was a general exodus due to pessimism, leading to the decay of buildings and infrastructure. Morale was bad and the town had a bad reputation.
A NEW OPTIMISM:
Cultural life is currently flourishing, there is a reported feeling of optimism and well being. Financial support from the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Fund has helped the restoration of key historic buildings (One of the best preserved towns in the region, when so much pre WWII architecture has been lost). Tourism is increasing, there are new jobs and new infrastructure (school, leisure and cultural centres). Vardo has a development strategy and early restoration and regeneration successes have inspired local people, civic and community pride is being restored.
I’m very pleased that some random elements brought me here and that I currently have a Wifi connection on this remote peninsula so that I can share my thoughts with anyone who may be interested. Lesley Fallais August 2014
www.nationaltouristroutesnorway.com (national tourist routes in Norway)
CREDITS: Thanks to my creative collaborator and friend Jane Revitt who alerted me to the work of Peter Zumthor in Norway. Jane sent me a link to an article in Icon Magazine about another of his projects –
http://www.iconeye.com/architecture/news/item/10837-peter-zumthor – Janes partner Christoph Wagner had interview Zumthor recently. Due to open in 2016 – Peter Zumthor has been working on a cluster of museum buildings that lead to an disused Zinc mine in Almannajuvet Norway. This commission is also along one of the 18 Norwegian Tourist Routes.
A series of images collected in Lappland, endless variety of Lichen and mosses which cover the forest floor and cling to boulders.
I have visited a few heritage museums in Denmark and Sweden, totally loving the reconstructed dwellings were you can see authentic room settings filled with objects. Most are from the 17th and 18th Century in a world pre plastics, were most things are hand crafted from natural materials. Form and Function, beautiful and useful objects. The museums are very inspiring, for me its also the patination, the aged surfaces, colours and the abstract qualities of careful placed objects.