Monday, 24 April 2023

London Trip

DC and I have just returned from a week in London. It was a week of culture and rest. We saw some physical theatre, two plays, four exhibitions, a country residence and a converted power station and attended a concert. Each one was illuminating and well worth the effort to visit and on more than one occasion I was prompted to write a blog post. So, here I'll try to remember the thoughts and feelings and write them down.


The place - Pain and I by Sarah Hopfinger

DC enjoyed this physical theatre exploring the landscape of pain but I found it thin, unimaginative, repetitive and dull. Performing naked Hopfinger attempted to explore the multidimensional landscape of pain but for me she barely seemed to point in the direction of the field let alone explore its realms. I could write paragraphs on this subject exploring my own limitations to hold pain as just pain without letting it become suffering and muse at the wonder of sentient beings trying to make their way in this world but I'll leaving it there. Suffice to say that for me Hopfinger failed to build a bridge over the seas of amorphous, shifting, modulating, vibrating, heavy, light, pressure, heat, cold, subtle, gross, and on and on... coming and going presentation of pain to being and the creative pulse. But since others seemed to like the performance it begged the question - was I missing something?


The Courtauld Institute- Peter Doig, C├ęzanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Van Gogh

The presentation of works in this exhibition was quite something to take in. Doig's work isn't particularly to my taste but the juxtaposition of the works brought seeing in to focus. This visit was the start of an unplanned journey through impressionism and we found ourselves looking at seemingly countless great and famous works. Definitely some 'dudes' there! And it would be on Thursday that further resonance would come through as we visited the Berthe Morisot exhibition. A feeling of quiet digestion must have been with me as we became exhausted with looking and moved back towards the fresh air. But not before a quick look at some works from the Bloomsbury Group... ah, the feeling of people looking at the world with serious eyes and asking very pertinent questions.


The Design Museum -Ai-Weiwei-making-sense - I might sum this exhibition up as impressionism with Lego and the scale of human making and destruction. A fascinating collection of the artist's work. His Lego version of Monet's Water Lilies really demonstrates the power of the optical effects the pointillists were using - you can see the colours interacting to make each other vibrant. Sobering are his pictures of the destruction of village homes to make way for skyscraper city blocks in a fast developing China. Development driven by an autocratic government which will tolerate no dissent. And other of Weiwei's works comprising a vast number of Sung dynasty ceramics also brought strongly in to focus for me the shear extent of human production - changing the earth's resources into things we then throw away... frightening... At the entrance to the exhibition was the ideogram for Wu Wei - effortless action. This 'concept' points to harmony, doing just what life is asking of us as it is asked without pushing, grasping or trying too hard yet not shirking from what is needed. I could write much about how I've tried to bring this to my 'off the cushion' meditation in daily life and both failed and risen to the 'challenge' but that's a whole other post! 

Streamed a movie in the evening - Master Cheng (2019 movie)

I enjoyed this gentle film and it resonated softly with thoughts floating through my mind about how I'd like to be living. DC wasn't particularly impressed with the film and thought it 'weak'. True it isn't a great work of cinematic art but it has a warmth. Sometimes, it isn't the great, inspired, talented artist who reminds us of ourselves, it's just a nice simple feel good film. Although I admit in our case that's not going to be a Hollywood production.


Eltham Palace - The Courtauld's 'country' residence. We both loved this house. I think it's a skilful blend of different architectural language from very different times and the feeling in the Art Deco interiors is modern, dynamic, forward looking and alive. It's a house clearly designed for entertaining and I recognised that although I loved it as a public space I'd find it challenging as a home. Apparently in practice, once the times changed and keeping staff in service became impossible the Courtauld's found it impractical. The house was designed for pre-war society and the ethos of the Art Deco movement - modernism and luxury was to take hold not just of the rich but of the aspirations of the general population post-war. A land fit for heroes had been promised after the first world war, after the second it remained a promise to be fulfilled but this time things would be different... And so the 1930s are an interesting time to consider and a period that would return for consideration in our visiting on Wednesday at Battersea Power Station...


Welcome Collection - Milk

We both found this a problematic exhibition. Whilst there can be no doubt that milk production comes with a lot of environmental, animal welfare and ethical issues this exhibition presented a distorted view of the story of milk production and consumption. Mixing issues of racism and clearly aimed at trying to move the Wellcome Collection away from its arguably paternalistic, white, western history and thus address colonialism in some way, the curation is biased, fails to recognise the genuine issues of cross cultural poverty and hunger and the valuable contribution of milk in our diet and the wider landscape. It is an unskilled, hectoring and clumsy narrative presenting a picture of milk consumption as driven by unscrupulous parties with no genuine aspiration to help feed a historically malnourished demographic. Much work is required to address the environmental and cultural issues around food production in this now all too clear crisis we face. This exhibit fails. Explaining why, as DC said as we discussed our response to the exhibit, would require a whole essay.

Park Theatre - Snowflakes

Strong, tense script and performances. Pertinent in these times of populism and social media. I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this play and was concerned that it might be too violent and dystopian. But it was well worth the effort to go see it. A reminder that truth, justice and civilised society require consideration of complex issues in a collectively recognised, challengeable, compassionate and accountable system open to all parties. A reminder to value ensuring the law meets our needs for justice.


Battersea Power Station - Lift 109 and the halls converted to a shopping mall

Stepping into the 1930's turbine hall and boiler house with their Art Deco ceramic tiles I was almost immediately moved to the edge of tears. And it is this which was my main muse for this post. Here we see celebration in the decoration and form of the building. The enormity of designing, constructing and operating a power plant on a scale capable of providing 243MW of electric power which would be transformative in making viable a standardised, national electrical infrastructure was clearly embraced. The station was design to be built in two phases with the second phase expanding capacity to a total of 400MW. The largest of the generators were the largest in Europe at the time. Government had in the 1920s realised that multiple small scale power plants operating for specific loads all at different voltages and frequencies could not support the national electrical infrastructure that it was becoming apparent would be required. A major investment in the future was required. What is celebrated is this investment. And it is moving. Whilst the intervening decades have obviously seen terrific strides in power engineering the step change that stations like Battersea represent remains impressive and the faith in human ingenuity, effort and attainment is (for those that appreciate what they are looking at when they see those Art Deco tiles) a powerful reminder of a major component of our nature. As someone who has studied power engineering and has insight into the scale of the energy that is being harnessed, its capability to do not only useful work but catastrophic damage, the complexities involved and the sheer human effort required I could hardly not be moved. And so it was fitting that the interior of this an industrial building, should have been decorated as celebration.

We wandered around and tried to get a sense of what had been achieved in converting the abandoned building in to what it now is. Passing through the more prosaic phase 2, 1950's parts of the building I noticed a 66kV 1950's switch. A considerable piece of engineering. Sat on a low plinth and isolated from any real context it stood there as a reminder for anyone who knew something of what they were looking at, of the powerful forces which were once marshalled in these halls. A small plate gave a very brief description. Most folk would, I guessed be left not much the wiser. Wandering back through the 1930's areas towards lift 109 - a lift installed in one of the reconstructed chimneys - all the while filtering out the shopping mall which now fills the spaces, I tried to get a sense of what had been where and what we now were looking at. There are some enormous structural columns and I was trying to look through the complex of original and new steel and masonry to determine the scale of the works to bring this building back to life. Sadly the very limited presentation of the site's history isn't particularly illuminating and I noticed that I was starting to feel that the whole place had a slightly... what was it...? We got to the entry to lift 109. I noticed a large light fitting made to resemble turbine blades. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be a missed opportunity to revisit the original celebration. The entry to the lift is through a naff sound and light show, the glass lift rises through the chimney and emerges into the London sky. There is at this point something of the wow factor at standing in a glass dome which has popped out of the top of a chimney and looking out at the vista. Time up there is short though. Too short, and before one can really take in the skyline and the development below which Battersea has become, the lift descends and you are discharged back to the mall. DC and I both felt insulted and I felt there was insult to the original designers, constructors and operators and to the designers and constructors of the redevelopment. A tawdry money extraction system has replaced was once was celebrated as some of the best of what humans can do.

Exiting the mall and looking out over the development it is clear that a skilled team have saved the building and the contemporary architectural input and engineering is to be given credit. Given the number of failed attempts to develop the site it is important to recognise what has been achieved. It is just a shame that some of the space, and there is plenty space, has not been utilised to educate and celebrate as would be fitting of any great work.

One of the other threads running through my mind during the visit was that of my father's part in the construction of power plants in the 1970's and 1980's. He was a fitter at Parsons' Heaton works. CA Parsons invented and produced steam turbines which drove ships and then electricity generating plant. His works at Heaton produced turbines and generators which were installed in power stations across the country. Dad worked fitting the large rings on to the shaft of the turbine. These rings held the shaft and the blades and were fitted by heating them so they would expand. Woodruff keys were inserted to hold the rings in place against rotation. This is precision engineering on a large scale. Dad's in his 80s now and is increasingly becoming frail. The works at Heaton are now long gone and where the UK once led the way (as in so much of engineering) we are now beholden to overseas companies. The celebration so evident at Eltham and in phase one of Battersea has been swept away by crass consumerism so many times in so many places in the UK over the last forty-odd years. The decline of UK heavy engineering is a complex and difficult picture and one open to numerous interpretations. Here in London, standing on the site of a former world leading power plant, looking at the redevelopment with its green roofs, wondering about the engineering services supporting the new buildings and what activities are taking place within the spaces, considering the shifts we must make to more sustainable energy systems and looking at the ever growing skyline supported by London's financial services sector one sees quite clearly the vastly different impact those forty-odd years have had. Here there is money, likely as not a lot of it being laundered, elsewhere in the UK there is devastation. And within communities in London there is devastation too. One can't but wonder where we are going...

Barbican - LSO, Half Six Fix - John Adams, Harmonielehre.

In the evening we attended the above concert. It was to be conducted by Sir Simon Rattle but he was recovering from Covid and so Jonathan Stockhammer stood in. He gave an introduction to the piece and then conducted the full three movements. It was thoroughly enjoyable and a great antidote to the mix of feelings which the Lift 109 experience provoked.


Dulwich Picture Gallery - Berthe Morisot (and a quick look at some of the Dutch masters)

This exhibition reconnected us with the impressionist theme of our trip. It was well curated and the juxtaposition of Moisot's work with that which had inspired her was informative. Emerging from the exhibition into galleries displaying works from the Dutch masters was also illuminating. I'd lingered in the early parts of the Morisot exhibition and by the time I reached the end of the exhibition I'd run out of capacity. Emerging into a different style of painting and specifically to the bright depiction of light and its illumination of objects refreshed my capacity.

Park Theatre - Animal

A play about a 25 year old gay man with cerebral palsy navigating sex and relationships. A well observed, funny and heart warming play which the audience thoroughly enjoyed. Plenty of lines which gay men will appreciate and an accurate and amusing depiction of gay hook-up app encounters! We emerged from this play with a sense of the vibrancy and dynamism that life is all about. 

And somewhere amongst all that, eating in, eating out, travelling by foot, bus, tube & train and sorting wifi heating controls where we were staying DC and I compared our responses to what we we'd experienced and mused on how the London skyline keeps changing and getting higher. It was a week of culture and some much needed rest.


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