Category Archives: Art(s) and Architecture

Stockholm Syndrome

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I visited Stockholm last week, confirming my suspicions that Sweden is the glacially cool epicenter of Scandinavia.

Small and easy to travel, the city’s medieval architecture unfurls like a fairy-tale town in a children’s pop-up book. The temperature was a brisk subzero, but I couldn’t appreciate the sights or fresh air on my first day. Instead I was plodding along feeling hopelessly lost.

I had set out early that morning for the Royal Palace, blissfully unaware that Stockholm’s museums and shops don’t stir till 10 or that my iPhone (and by extension my Google maps) would go temporarily AWOL.

Freezing and slightly frantic, I suddenly had no idea where I was. I couldn’t see a street name and even if I had found one I can’t read maps. So I walked. I walked down the river past clusters of boats towards a beguiling Renaissance castle. This had to be the Palace I told myself. Surely I was in Gamla Stan? A signpost confirmed just how geographically challenged I was: this was Djurgården, two islands beyond my destination.

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I decided to start at the rustic castle I had followed down the river, pushing my way through a large door into the rectangular hall of the Nordic Museum.

A remarkable building with a collection to match, it featured a temporary exhibition on the role of stripes in Swedish culture. Gimmicky, yes, but very intelligent, it was a lot of fun and a solid introduction to the city’s cultural heritage. Afterwards I braced myself for the cold once more, turning my back on the city’s ABBA Museum in favour of the Vasa ship.

A solemn presence against the Stockholm harbour, the Vasa Museum is a one-of-a-kind structure designed to look like the 400 year-old Vasa ship salvaged from nearby waters. Despite its imposing masts and steel roof, this charming building integrates seamlessly with its harbour surroundings.

Inside, Vasa’s all-encompassing education centre was outstanding: blending six floors of interactive history and culture, it created a rich, faceted view of this remarkable ship and its passengers. The Vasa itself is displayed in the central hall, its high stern and oak timbers glimmering on glass surfaces while several of the ship’s passengers are meticulously recreated using scientific reconstructions.

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The following day – and several cinnamon buns later – I visited The Modern Museum, trudging up-hill through snow in search of some Swedish avant-garde.

A spectacular site met my pilgrimage: four contorted sculptures by Alexander Calder stood in stark relief against the grey Skeppsholmen sky. Beyond these stood the museum whose austere glass shell shielded the city’s preeminent collection of modern art.

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Presented chronologically, the permanent collection drew parallels between Swedish art and the European avant-garde. Moving seamlessly from the turn of the century to the inter-war years, it displayed photographs, prints and painting by neue sachlichkeit artists including George Grosz and Max Beckmann, creating a clear trajectory across the different cultures and countries.

A Futurist and Kraftwerk installation ran alongside the permanent collection, underlining a century-long fascination with industry, mechanics and the potentials of the machine.

Meanwhile, in the basement, Marcel Duchamp’s silly, conceptual artworks were concentrated in a custom-built space, his surrealist contemporaries lining the walls and Luis Buñuel sound bites drifting from nearby video cubicles.

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Of course I visited other sights while in Stockholm: I finally made my way to the Palace and its accompanying museums; had what can only be described as a bucket of hot chocolate; did the Architectural Museum; found Acne Archives, and ate a fancy geometric Semla in bed, slathering whipped cream over my face like a recalcitrant little kid. But it’s The Photography Museum that stands out as my final highlight.

Several exhibitions ran simultaneously at this museum but the Elliot Erwitt show caught my eye. Erwitt’s images were eloquent but juxtaposed and imbued a one-liner quality. I took out my phone to snap this would-be romantic scene of Paris. Definitely the first photo-bomb, I thought.

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Girl Crush: Helen Steele

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Originally published by Image magazine: http://www.image.ie/Real-Women/Girl-Crush/Helen-Steele/ 

So, what do the Danish supermodel, Helena Christiansen and the inventor of the wrap dress, Diane Von Furstenberg, have in common with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi? A shock of white-blonde and pink hair plus a duck farm in Monaghan, it seems.

No, no, neither the Prince nor Helena has gone punk or signed up to Big Brother in rural Ireland – but what a weird and wonderful changeup that would make. Nope, what this lot have in common is their shared interest and collection of the Irish abstract artist (who last year added Fashion Designer to her CV), Helen Steele.

And before you say it, we’re aware that a punk called Helen who lives on a farm sounds like an oxymoron.

Indeed, maybe we’re reading into her punk sensibilities a bit much, but with funky hair like hers and an abstract, print-oriented fashion label carried by twenty international stores plus a past pinned-down as the front-woman of a punk group, let’s just say she’s more Courtney Love than Simply Red.

So, other than her client list being almost as varied as her biography, what makes this lady and her label, Helen Steele, different from the rest? Well, this stuff is art. Literally.  Steele explains, “[My plan was always] to put into practice what I do on canvas in the studio onto fabric… The process always starts with the paint.”

Indeed, her methods sound somewhat in keeping with Jackson Pollock’s paint splatters – all chance and chaos – except the outcome is far more psychedelic.  “Myself and my team propel layers of multi-coloured paints into the air with the aid of wind machines, leaf-blowers and chainsaws. We ground the busier bright prints with little bits of black and blue, and then use mad fluoros to balance that out. We then film the process, taking stills from the footage and creating our prints from this. The print dictates the shape of the garment.”

Perhaps most significantly, Steele describes how she picked each colour with colour therapy in mind, adding, “To me, what I am creating is a work of art that you can wear.”

So, whoever quarrelled that fashion couldn’t be art, or said that a good outfit wasn’t a legitimate pick-me-up for when you’re feelin’ blue, Helen Steele would beg to differ.

One-hundred years of Grand Central

In University I studied History of Art and Architecture and in my final year I took a course on architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the essay questions I received in my second term (and avoided answering) was something horribly convoluted (despite looking marvellously simple) like, ‘Is a building just a building?’

Had I stuck with that question (instead of taking the easier option and arguing something-or-other on Frank Lloyd Wright), it probably would have resulted in some very questionable defence, which, when broken down, was about as concrete as ‘I’ve tasted real butter and I can’t believe it’s not real butter’.

Anyhow, now that I’m out of college and not being marked out of 70, I thought I might as well take a light-hearted stab at that question, with Grand Central Terminal (the station’s proper title!) in mind.

This month, Grand Central, located in New York City’s Midtown, turned one hundred. Externally, the building is a stunning example of American Beaux Arts Classicism, while the station clock, which faces onto 42nd street, is the world’s largest example of Tiffany glass (according to Wikipedia). More significantly however, Grand Central consolidated train use and travel as a very central part of modern American life.

New York City has forever been the backdrop to countless films and TV programmes, including Sex and The City, Girls, Gossip Girl and The Sopranos – let’s not forget Medow’s undergrad years in Columbia. But where New York’s been a backdrop, Grand Central’s been the film-set where some of the best-known scenes in celluloid history were made.

There’s Carey Grant fleeing New York in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest; Al Pacino running, ducking and firing a gun on an escalator, trying to dodge thugs and make a train to Miami in Carlito’s Way, and the beginning of Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin’s friendship in ‘80s classic, Midnight Run.

So, is Grand Central simply a building? Technically no, because it’s a train station, too, (remember!) But I’d also argue that it’s one of the most remarkable film-sets on earth.

Rabble-rousing on O’Connell Street

Some time towards the end of last year I saw Tom Murphy’s “A Whistle in The Dark”, a DruidMurphy production staged as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. The story centred on an Irish emigrant, his English wife and the Irishman’s dysfunctional family, all of whom had come to stay and none of whom showed any signs of leaving. But “A Whistle in The Dark” wasn’t a family vignette. It was a magnifying glass hovering over a combustible situation and shining a spotlight of white heat. It was insidious like a family argument and by the end I wanted to stand up, walk in and tell everyone to just STOP.

I was thinking about “A Whistle In The Dark” recently as I walked down O’Connell Street. In one of Whistle’s many heated scenes, a family member trying to talk up Dublin exclaims, ‘O’Connell Street is the widest street in the world!’ That line provoked giggles from the audience and circled the family’s ignorance and insecurity with a thick felt pen.

Of course, O’Connell Street is not the widest street in the world; it’s the widest street in Ireland. I walk up O’Connell Street most week mornings, then down again that evening. My trip starts at Daniel O’Connell and ends at Charles Stewart Parnell. And between these two figures stands (amongst others), The Spire, Jesus in the box, and, my favourite, Big Jim Larkin.

(image via bangortobobbio.blogspot.com)

George Bernard Shaw famously described Jim Larkin as being the greatest Irishman since Charles Stewart Parnell. Sadly, if a statue’s appearances were a measure of greatness, then Parnell’s legacy would presumably be about as inspiring as a bowl of rice. What’s more, Parnell’s outstretched hand – historically a sign of excellent oratory skills – now looks slightly fascist, as though he were half attempting a Heil Hitler salute. It’s only a coincidence but it’s an unfortunate one all the same.

Jim Larkin however, erected some 68 years after Parnell in 1979, by Oisin Kelly, is a life-size bronze stationed on a 4.5 metre granite plinth. The statue, which is modelled on a photo of Larkin addressing a crowd on O’Connell Street in 1923, captures a variety of emotions: his wide-set stance and high-flung arms electrify him, as though he has reached the end of an invigorating and rabble-rousing speech. But the statue also has a sense of jubilance about it, as though some hundred years after the Dublin Lockouts (a century this August!), Larkin is celebrating a truly historical victory.

Oisin Kelly’s figurative statue was the second and last commemorative statue to be erected on O’Connell Street in the twentieth century, only preceded by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Charles Stewart Parnell. But unlike Parnell, where each little detail from his pulled jacket buttons to the loosely hanging and creased trouser cuffs are delineated; these intricacies are virtually overlooked in Larkin’s case. Funnily however, the exclusion of these minutiae makes the statue’s impact more effective over all.

There’s a timeless maxim that goes, ‘show not tell’. Jim Larkin lacks any pernickety details, for example it’s difficult to attribute any kind of age to the figure or tease out the kind of shirt he might be wearing or whether his trousers have pockets. Yet the hollowed out apple-size hole for the mouth; the cut-away hollows-for-eyes, and the hands, which morph into jacket sleeves and evolve into a loose garment that flaps outwards and articulates a body in motion at the height of an electrifying speech are more significant and telling than any ruching of fabric or button detail.

Public art is about engaging people in a sense of ‘place’. In secondary school I often found history tedious because without modern resources like YouTube, the subject seemed depersonalised. Oisin Kelly’s Larkin however is provocative and reiterates the power a stationary object can have in unravelling great scenes from the past.

There is a plaque included on Larkin’s plinth, which reads: The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.” One hundred years later, that quote combined with Larkin’s gaping, howling mouth, still stands to remind workers to free themselves from the tyranny of their employers.

Palmerston Park: A Dickensian Design

Chinese Whispers: a game in which a message is distorted by being passed around in a whisper.

Last month I saw Lenny Abrahamson’s third directorial feature What Richard Did. It starred Jack Reynor as the titular character Richard and offered an intense psychological portrait of a depressed teen with a jealous streak who inadvertently kills a classmate.

In an article for The Irish Independent, one journalist wrote, “The film is primarily based on a 2008 novel by Kevin Power called Bad Day in Blackrock but the real inspiration will be obvious to anyone who has opened a newspaper over the last 12 years.” Inevitably I suppose, this was how the film was constantly marketed both in print and by word of mouth; it was about the guys who killed Brian Murphy.

Several days later I was on the bus and heard two strangers discussing the film. As they chatted and touched on the movie’s climax – what Richard did, exactly- they referred to the film’s murder scene as having taken place in Blackrock, a fair assumption given the constant real-event spoiler alerts and Blackrock-centricity that surrounds the public’s perception of the film.

They were however wrong. In fact the scene in question took place only ten minutes away from my house on Palmerston Road in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines.

I was thinking about this recently and decided to take a trip to Palmerston Park, which I rarely visit despite its close proximity.

Walking through the park, the diameter feels smooth and even and, for me at least registered as being probably rectangular or even square. Hours later I crosschecked this on a map and was surprised to discover it’s far from even. In fact it’s more of a crescent.

The park was opened in September 1894 and excluding the modern inclusion of a children’s play area equipped with slides and swings Palmerston Park has remained unchanged in the hundred years since it was designed. In fact it is a perfect example of a Victorian recreational park designed for all seasons and intended for all people.

If the park appears to mirror Stephen’s Green somewhat, this is because the landscape gardener William Sheppard designed both. Both use the same geometric and formally laid pathways while the pond in Stephen’s Green resembles the pond in Palmerston Park.

Occasionally when I’ve mentioned the pond, people have responded and said that they have no recollection of a pond, but it’s there, nestled at the base of a mound and marked with large limestone blocks and a waterfall. The only minor difference is that there is no water in the Palmerston Park pond. Instead it’s now used as a dumping ground for bark and debris.

On the west side of the park and facing onto a staid lawn is a red brick shelter, very much a period piece, bedecked with brick string coursing beneath the eaves, roll-moulded corners and prominent plinths.

The shelter’s interior is of glazed white tiles while the double pitch roof is made using terracotta tiles. The gables meanwhile are finished in a half-timber Tudor-revival style, similar to the nearby Tramway House on Dartry Road.

For me however, my favourite thing about Palmerston Park are the benches: across the park are cast iron timber benches whose legs and frame are moulded so as to look like the gnarled bark of a tree.

My other favourite detail – shared by pretty much everyone – is the pathway that cuts across the park and goes from Palmerston Road toward St. Philip’s Church. Now, in late October, this pathway surrounded with Gothic railings and finished with steel arches and hanging lanterns is covered with a mixture of crispy autumn leaves as well as the wet golden kind.

For a city that boasts more parks per square kilometre than any other European capital, Palmerston Park is unique: it is virtually unchanged and reflects, in conjunction with the surrounding Victorian properties, the ideas and ideals of Victorian architecture and recreational park design.

It’s also probably the only park in Dublin where you’ll have genuine problems spotting a mongrel. In fact I’m pretty certain I have yet to see one non-thoroughbred.