Fiat Lux.

It looks like I still have more  to say about Florence. This time I’m thinking about chandeliers.

Like these two delicious confections from the Porcelain Museum in the Boboli Gardens.

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It amuses me that they both have wonky not to say defective light bulbs despite their swanky abode! It seems appropriate to give the view from the window of this room; a veritable Tuscan paradise.

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But I found a rich source of chandeliers and chandelier spare parts in the homelier environs of the Sant’Ambrogio flea market.

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Not such salubrious surroundings!

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Indeed, this fellow in the red shirt looks positively shocked by the juxtaposition of chandelier and rusty old garden table.

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Perhaps this one doesn’t strictly count as a chandelier, but I like the fish scale effect.

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And this one reminds me of the collected hooves of some glass herd of deer.

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There was an infinite variety; how I wish I could have  brought one (or two) home with me. And there was no shortage of spare parts!

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Some of them look almost like a  type of delicate armour or ice sculpture.

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And others resemble delicious sweets or even parts of a bouquet.

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Glacier mints?

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Coffee and peppermint.

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Actually the above look a bit like something I was once given as a laxative when I was about to give birth.

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Are those frozen peas in the background?

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Good enough (mostly) to eat!

 

I’ve been wanting to work in glass for ages; and  a ceramic chandelier would be possible if the frame were sturdy enough, I think.

Let there be light indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Plant on Plant Parasitic Action.

This is probably the last (or nearly the last) post about my time in Florence. I think I’ve just about squeezed it till the pips squeak!

But I thought I couldn’t let it go without writing about yet another interesting plant that I found in huge quantities growing by the Arno (which seems to be a veritable hotbed of vegetable parasitism.)

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This is the European dodder or cuscuta europaea; a rather attractive plant that wreathes it way through others with delicately spiralling tendrils. It looks quite inoffensive at first sight. What possible harm could it do?

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Well it’s dodder by name but not by nature. There is nothing weak or failing about this particular marvel of nature. Those dainty tendrils twirl around the stem of their host plants and probe into their vascular systems, stealing their water and nutrients. The dodder is a very clever and successful plant. After germination it has very limited resources and unlike other plants it cannot photosynthesize, so it must very quickly find and attach itself to a suitable host. It’s not surprising therefore that the dodder has an amazingly efficient host – location mechanism.

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Dodder uses airborne volatile organic compound cues to find their host plants; it could be said that they literally sniff out their favourite food. In  an experiment, dodder seedlings were observed to exhibit ‘positive growth responses to volatiles released by tomatoes and other favoured species – the tiny plantings send out tendrils in that direction. Apparently  they particularly fancy a nice tomato although they’ll put up with others plants if they have too. In the picture above they are infesting a wild geranium plant.

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There were great swathes of dodder all along the Arno. Many plants wore it like a toxic feather boa. I’ve seen it growing in the UK, but it was always much smaller and insignificant.

In Italy it seems the Day of the Triffid is not just a nightmare fantasy.

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Pleionexia

It has suddenly occurred to me that although I bang on about pleionexia (and have already made several posts about it) I have never yet defined what I mean by it nor posted any finished pictures of the piece. It’s still a work in progress, but here goes.

My artistic research led me to Harry Berger’s Caterpillage. In this elegant and witty book Berger deconstructs the traditional interpretation of insects and other small creatures in seventeenth century paintings that until recently ‘have traditionally been interpreted as agents of decay, underscoring an abiding sense of transience, slow yet unavoidable.’* Instead Berger argues that vanitas iconography is the ‘McGuffin of still life’ and that is a distraction from rather darker meanings in the paintings; below the exotic food, flowers and valuable gewgaws ‘lurk untold narratives about the production and distribution of foodstuffs, about corruption, oppression, and slavery’**

Berger prefers the term rapacitas – he considers the caterpillar a signifier for greed, rapacious appetite and ‘the shadow of pleionexia that falls across the embarrassment of riches in the time of tulip mania.’*  This neatly coined sentence happily brings together the titles of two very successful books on the Dutch seventeenth century which both deal (albeit slightly differently) with the flourishing economy and accompanying desires of the Netherlands during that period.

 

P1020244Pleionexia (the spelling may be incorrect but no one exactly knows how Ancient Greek translates into English) : the desire to consume or have ‘more’; also the need to be bigger, better, superior than others. It means never being satisfied because one aspires to complete and immortal self-sufficiency, even if that means draining the world of power, wealth, pleasure and being. Pleionexia also has a defensive aspect in a society whose members are aware of competing with each other and taking from another before someone takes from them. It might be described as a model for capitalism. Nowadays we would probably use the word ‘greed’ as a simple definition for this complex concept; but the idea of pleionexia was known in the Ancient world. Plato argued in the Republic (359c) that it is natural for every creature to pursue self-advantage, ‘strive to have more’ (Georgias, 483c) and to ‘overreach others’. (R, 344a).P1020242

My sculpture examines this compulsion which has been known throughout history. I confess (unwillingly) to an unpleasant fascination with this repellent fact of life. The sculpture uses organic/natural imagery arranged in hierarchical structures to examine themes of greed, desire and consumption.

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The metaphorical use of hierarchy echoes my fascination with taxonomy – I seek to make flesh the tiered and logical progression of an evolving idea.

* Berger Jr, Harry. Caterpillage, Reflections on Dutch Seventeenth Century Painting. (Fordham University Press 2011) p22. Berger’s critique of Dutch vanitas paintings interprets the image of a caterpillar as one of rapacity, destruction and ‘disordered desire’

**In ‘Still Life and Trade.’ Julie Hochstrasser argues that the paintings leave untold the ‘disturbing truths about the acquisition of the various objects they picture’. These ‘troubling complexities’ (which include Dutch colonialism and slave trade) are described as ‘absent presences’ which are ‘glossed over in these elegant renderings’.

***Berger, Ibid.

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An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles.

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J.B.S. Haldane (a British geneticist and evolutionary biologist) was  asked by a group of theologians what he had learnt  about the Creator from the study of creation. Haldane, an atheist, is alleged to have replied “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.”

He actually wrote “The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, and perhaps more, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are actually more numerous than the species of any other insect order.” *

Well whatever Haldane said or wrote, I definitely have a massive fondness for beetles – I have worn a silver scarab round my neck for over thirty years and one of my earliest memories has to do with a delicious glass case full of metallic sheened beetles that stood on the mantelpiece in the assembly hall of the Froebelian School that I attended as a very small child. I would take any opportunity I could snatch to have a good look at them. If I could I would have stolen the case; I suffered from pleionexia even then.

I remember someone told me that the great big green monster that held pride of place was called a “Green Buzzard” and for years I believed that was its real name. I now know that it was probably a Rose Chafer, a relatively common beetle that can be found in the UK.

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The beetles in the first picture are from la Specola – that treasure house of delight in Florence. The one pictured above is from the D’Arcy Thompson Museum in the University of Dundee. I spent a merry month on a placement with the University Museum Service and the best thing was the run of the museum storehouse – how I loved it!

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The D’Arcy Thompson museum is a shining jewel in the dark heart of the Carnelly building, which used to house the medical school but now is an annex to Life Sciences. I love the anarchic way some of the exhibits are displayed – this Cadette beetle is not the only creature housed in an old cigar box. Note the use of Elastoplast and pins to hold the test tube in place!

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In the storehouse many of the specimens are the worse for wear. Bent pins litter the stained base of the display boxes. Beetles have lost their antennae or (in some extreme cases) their whole body.

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Little does it profit this stag beetle to have huge mandibles when it has nothing to use them for.

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And this bizarre melee of beetle body parts reminds me of Dr Seuss and his ‘Tweetle Beetle Bottle Battle’.

 

 

Let’s have a little talk
about tweetle beetles….

What do you know
about tweetle beetles?
well…

When tweetle beetles fight,
it’s called
a tweetle beetle battle.

And when they
battle in a puddle,
it’s a tweetle
beetle puddle battle.

AND when tweetle beetles
battle with paddles in a puddle,
they call it a tweetle
beetle puddle paddle battle.
AND…

When beetles battle beetles
in a puddle paddle battle
and the beetle battle puddle
is a puddle in a bottle…

…they call this
a tweetle beetle
bottle puddle
paddle battle muddle.
AND…
When beetles
fight these battles
in a bottle
with their paddles
and the bottle’s
on a poodle
and the poodle’s
eating noodles…

…they call this
a muddle puddle
tweetle poodle
beetle noodle
bottle paddle battle.

from “Fox in Socks” by Dr Seuss.

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I had already done my own take on Dr Seuss and his beetles, but it seems that I have not done with Coleoptera yet. I cannot blame la Specola (I’d like to but it’s too deeply entrenched a habit).

When I took part in #ArbroathTemplate,  a residency by Bob and RobertaSmith hosted by Hospitalfield, beetles crept in.

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And I’m still drawing them in preparation for a series of ceramic pieces.

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Apparently you can take the girl out of the beetle, but you can’t take the beetle out of the girl.

What is Life? The Layman’s View of Nature, p. 248: JBS Haldane 1948

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Voices from the Kiln Room

I use ceramic materials because they can have a uniquely lustrous and satiny appearance, and they are often the most appropriate medium to serve a particular concept. I love the way clay can be bent into any (almost) shape I desire.

I am, in fact, totally infatuated with the medium – I even like the ‘chink’ that it makes when it clinks against itself.

And then there is the curious alchemy of putting an object covered with powder like a sugar bonbon into the kiln and twenty four hours later finding it has turned into a magical object with a glaze as smooth and cold as a pumpkin rind.

Some days I literally run to the kiln room.

But there is more to the mysterious process than physics and chemistry. The kiln room itself has its own music and stories. I started collecting the messages that students left for the technician*.

I stuck them in my sketchbook.

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I was fascinated by the different ways that students used these tiny scraps to leave a message and, unwittingly, said something about themselves.

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And I keep remembering chance conversations in the kiln room with people I had never met before (or since) that seemed very important. It seems that there is a dialogue there that deserves a second thought.

There is something about a kiln room that has a magical quality not unlike a stable tack room. When I was in love with horses (as if I’m still not) there was more to it than velvet noses and controlling a strong body with my skinny thighs. I liked the nuts  and bolts of it; saddles on metal racks, bridles hanging to be cleaned, bits and stirrups arranged in stricttaxonomic order, lead ropes woven into bullion knots and hung like bunches of technicolour sausages.

So it be with the doings of firing ceramics.

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In the same way that I liked the organisation of tack and harness (and its smell) I love the daily processes and appurtenances of ceramics.

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So I find something very sculptural about things as simple as kiln furniture – the lovely oatmeal shelves and stilts, apparently dipped in creamy milk; and there is something truly delicious about toasty home made props with charcoal wires.

I always said that ceramics is an awful lot like pastry making.

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Stillage from DJCAD kiln room (most of this is not my own work). there is poetry in the piled up or carefully arranged pieces waiting to be transmogrified (there really is no other word)!

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But looking at the work waiting to be fired makes me ponder about the stages in my own work after all. I make my larger sculptures in modules – this has become a practical issue, I do not want to waste time on a sculpture that may ultimately fail so I make them in stages with replaceable units.

I think the Sevres factory sometimes used the same principle.

 

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This is “Mother Goose’ at an early stage – you can see the holes which will later receive the other goose necks.

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I made vertebra shaped rings to attach the tubes to the funnels.

 

At a later stage I assembled part of it and then decided these funnels were not working so I thought again.

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I reworked the funnels (slip cast in white earthenware) – I could do this because the sculpture was being made in modular form so it was really easy to make changes to it without wasting too much time.

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Ceramics is a cruel mistress – you are literally put to a trial by fire. That is its magic and its agony.

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A new regime has come into play at DJCAD.

We have to use these little wooden plaques. Neater but not so personal – those little bits shown are part of an (as yet) unfinished piece Fontana delle Scimmi – that is part of my Boboli Personality project.

I’m not sure if I like the new regime (or my sculpture for that matter)!

Talking of notes – sometimes I write them to myself and later wonder what they mean. Like this one.

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think it must be something to do with my inquiline sculpture; the clue is in the rose hip.

 

*Sean Kingsley is the wonderful ceramics technician at DJCAD. None of the work shown here would be accomplished without his support.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Grapes of Wrath

On one of my forays along the Arno I came across a creeper that was covered with what I described to myself as “lumpy leaves’. So lumpy in fact, that at first I thought they were berries.IMG_0108

On closer examination I realised that it was a wild grape vine, and that it was suffering from a type of plant gall infestation. Now I’m ( but actually, on reflection, not really)  ashamed to admit to a previous interest in galls.  In fact, I’ve been a member of a recherché little web forum devoted exclusively to these intriguing micro beauties for more years than I care to think about.

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These warty little excrescences are caused by the Phylloxera aphid. Each one of them contains a large number of pale creeping tiny insects with formidable sucking mouth pieces.

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I don’t normally think of myself as squeamish but this cross section of the gall made my flesh creep. I took some of the leaves home and pressed them in a sketchbook, now I wonder how many I unwittingly brought home.

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The Phylloxera aphid caused devastation to vineyards in Europe between 1800 -1900. Thousands of families lost their livelihoods and many vineyards had to be rooted up and burned. The aphid is capable of parthogenesis (reproduction without a sexual partner) and its complicated life cycle makes it very difficult to control. Imported by accident from the USA, it ran rampant through France and, to a lesser extent, Italy.

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This feeble little creature injects a poison into the roots of the vine which stop it healing after the aphids have sucked its life juice. They lay eggs into the leaves which cause the irritation that forms the warty lumps. Each gall is filled with the ‘nymphs’ which later crawl down into the roots of the vine and suck away merrily. The only treatment was to uproot all the affected vines and burn them.

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At that time, modern insecticides were not available and stringent measures were necessary. Later, the parasite was controlled by grafted original vine species onto new rootstock. The aphids could not attack these resistant species and the original old grape strains were protected.

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So the vine that I saw along the Arno was a wild strain that has persisted long enough to both escape and at  the same time, be infected by, this pernicious parasite. I hope that it cannot attack modern Italian vines because I do like a nice bone dry Gava.

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And one of the joys of Florence was the discovery of the vino sfuso shop! A hundred and twenty years ago Punch magazine thought the threat was funny enough to print a cartoon about it.

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I’m inclined to think they hadn’t realised how real the threat of losing wine production in Europe was at the time.

These days there would be a massive grant from an organisation like the Wellcome Foundation devoted to finding a solution!

Pip pip!

 

*The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck – still one of  my all time top ten reads.

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The Lake of Lettuce

I found this exquisite  pond (one of a matching pair) in the back garden of La Specola. It was alive with frogs which were hard wired to dive to safety every time I tried to get a photo!

I’ve always had a huge fondness for stagnant water, duckweed and the like; far too much of my glittering youth (not to mention recent dotage) has been spent peering into the green depths and dibbling for tadpoles.

I think this delectable little pool might well be called a ‘lake of lettuce’.

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I haven’t finished blogging about my time in Florence but recently other things have been on the top of my mind. However, yesterday, I read something that brought it right back into focus with its talk of lettuce lakes.

I Take This Land by Richard Powell is set in the Florida Everglades during the period 1895 to the 1940’s. It is an epic account of the larger than life pioneers who brought the railroad to southern Florida and developed the land, frequently devastating the environment and the species which lived there. The theme, of environmental concern, is of course as urgent now as when the book was written.

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It reminded of the beautiful egrets that fish along the Arno and nest in a colony just below the Ponte della Grazie. My landlord told me that they had disappeared from the river when he was a boy, but since the city has cleaned up its environmental act they have returned.

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The egret is used as the symbol of the Aubudon Society (named after the artist John Aubudon who painted the picture above). The bird was almost hunted to extinction for its beautiful white plumes which they grow during the breeding season; not only were the birds killed, but the chicks were left to starve. The plumes fetched a high price on fashionable ladies’ hats.

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In I Take This Land one of the main characters is driven to raise money by hunting the egrets on a ‘lettuce lake’ called Lost Girl Swamp.

“An egret glided by, alighted on its nest and fanned out its wedding plumes, weaving a pattern of white lace….he lifted the shotgun and aimed at the bird that had just alighted.

It had been a world of quiet beauty. The roar of the shotgun brought ugliness to it. Echoes clanged off the trees like the iron shouting of a fire gong….above the egret nest a few feathers drifted, and the neck of the bird dangled over the edge like a stained white rope.

A twitch of the finger had brought him three or four dollars. A man could sweat all day coaxing life from the soil and not make that much. Killing paid better.”

Pleionexia made flesh.

By the end of the day the egret hunter has raised nearly five thousand dollars’ worth of plumes and “no egrets were soaring above Lost Girl Lake. Instead, from miles and miles around, the vultures were gathering.”

Grim reading. Of course, the egret has made a triumphant comeback, both in Florida and in Italy. That is why the Aubudon Society has used it as its symbol. But the evocative description of the birds and the ‘lettuce lake’ brought me back to Florence.

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And you can buy an identical water lily in a plant shop adjacent to Santa Maria Novella station!

 

 

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