Archive for the ‘art’ Category

I took this photo about twenty years ago. I’m not brilliant at organising my photos, so I’m not totally sure where this is. I think it’s Genoa. Well, it sits between photos taken in Florence and others taken in Genoa and it looks a lot more like Genoa than Florence to me. Either way, it’s definitely Italy.

What I love about this photo is that isn’t static. You know I’m a great fan of “becoming not being”. I love the concept of the constantly changing, every evolving, moment. I love the experience of the present emerging from the streams of the past, and fashioning the possible futures in every lived moment.

I have many photos of paths, and when I look at a path, I feel pulled towards it, to go exploring and discover what lies along that path…..not just where the path might lead, but what I might find as a follow that path. This street adds another level of dynamism, in my opinion, because of the steps. The steps entice you to climb, or to pause, and look back to see where you came from.

The first thing I notice in this image are the two people, a woman wearing a white shirt, and striped skirt, carrying a bag in her right hand, and a young man, dressed in black, hands jammed into both pockets of his not quite full length trousers, his black dog keeping so close to him that at first I didn’t even spot the dog was there! Both of these characters are heading towards the archway, but haven’t quite got there yet.

Above the archway is a statue of, I presume, the Madonna. Her gesture catches my attention. It looks as if her arms are positioned to hold or caress an infant, but there is no infant there. So I see her, I interpret her gesture as caring, and I see a void, a space waiting to be filled? Maybe that’s one of those half glass of water events – is she preparing to care for a child, or has she just lost one? Either way, I find the statue surprisingly emotional. Well, that’s what art can do.

The next thing I notice is that this seems a residential street, with many apartments in all the surrounding buildings, each painted in, what is for me, the typical colours of the North of Italy and the South of France (more Italy than France). I see the washing hanging out of one of the windows, and, again, I’m on the Med…..at least, that’s where I remember seeing washing hanging from the windows of old city apartments.

So, I don’t just feel physically drawn to move up or down this stepped, narrow street. I feel my heart stirred. I feel my curiosity provoked. I feel the rising of my desire to hear what stories these people have to tell.

This might, at first, seem like a static, urban landscape shot, but, pretty quickly it becomes something which declares and demonstrates life and movement.

It provokes the movement of curiosity, of wonder, of the heart.

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In this pandemic much has been said about “the economy” as if there is such an entity. What are the critics of Public Health measures talking about when they talk about “damage to the economy”? Profit? Well, a lot of Tory cronies in the UK are sure making plenty of profit, so I guess it’s not “profit” as such, it’s some business profits. Probably what most people think about are the shopping and hospitality sectors of society, as shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels and so on have had to close to reduce the spread of the virus.

As best I understand it this is a false choice – you can’t choose either the health of the population or the health of the economy. Both affect each other, and probably you can’t have a healthy economy if your population is sick.

But there’s another whole aspect of life which has been hit hard by this pandemic and the measures taken to reduce social contacts – culture. Now, what is “culture”? Well, I mean all of the “arts”, from performance arts, to expressive arts, from music concerts to gallery exhibitions, to dances, theatre and cinema. And more besides.

I took this photo in Florence almost twenty years ago. It’s the kind of scene you can see in many cities around the world. You could say, it’s just an entrepreneur making a living drawing portraits in the street, but this image tells us more than that. Look at that crowd. They aren’t all buying drawings, or paying to have their portrait painted. They are enjoying witnessing the act of creation.

We humans are, amongst other things, profoundly creative. We apply our creativity to our daily lives, with our problem solving, our aesthetic choices, and our own, individual acts of imagination and expression. Here in France you can find fabulous examples of “wall art” in caves, deep underground. That art goes right back to palaeolithic times. There is no way humans have ever been content to merely survive, to simply invest in getting shelter, food and drink. We have always needed culture. We have always needed visual arts, music and dance. We have always needed storytelling and songs. In fact, I think that need for culture – both personal and shared – is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

I suppose that during these lockdowns we have shifted our creativity and culture online, and that’s great, but it isn’t a replacement. My hope is that the online expansion will continue and will feed into the physical/social world of museums, theatres, cinemas and concert halls once this is over.

I have another hope, which is that this pandemic might have raised our awareness of the importance of creativity and culture, that many people will be shifting their priorities and values from consumption and “running the rat race” to relationships and creativity. Because if that happens, then the future could look very different from the past.

I think art is important. It nurtures us. It sustains us. It deepens the meaning of our lives. It enhances the quality of our lives…….even when we are, apparently, not paying attention to it……..

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During this pandemic our horizons have been drawn closer, our worlds have become physically smaller and our social worlds have either diminished completely, or have been translated into the virtual world of messaging, video calls, and emails……something which can be enriching, even vital, but which still seem second best to the physical-social world of shared time AND space, and, especially of touch.

It’s a time where there’s a sense of collapsing into ourselves, of withdrawal, and of separation. Which is one of the reasons why this image is particularly appealing to me today. It reminds me of the fact that in Nature there are cycles and seasons. There are times, for example in the winter, when creatures and plants withdraw into themselves, hibernate, go dormant, on in old Scots “courie in“. In other words, there is a time in Nature when it makes sense to fold inwards, to snuggle, to curl up. But the appearance of a first crocus plant in my garden this week reminded me that there is another season around the corner – Spring – and that in the Spring time we see the opposite direction of movement…..a shift towards expansion, reaching up and beyond, of unfurling and unfolding.

I chose the French word “epanouissement” for my word of the year this year…..it means to flourish, to open up, to unfurl, in the way you see a plant move from the phase of a bud to a fully opened, multi-petalled blossom or flower. So I think of that word as I look at this fern unfurling.

I don’t think this unfurling motion is something we need to wait for. It’s not just that we are in winter and spring is around the corner (if you live in the Southern hemisphere, of course, you are in summer, and it’s autumn that’s just around the corner!).

No, I think that every day we can find a way to tune into this unfurling – this expanding, developing, growing, shift from potential to realisation. One way I try to do that is to deliberately choose two activities every single day – one activity of learning, and one of creating. Because I think learning and creating are our two most fundamental ways of growing and developing.

I have had a love of learning all my life, and my curiosity and appetite for discovery and understanding has only grown over the years. It utterly delights me to learn something every day. Amongst my learning activities I do language learning. Every day I learn a little French and/or Spanish. It’s become a habit (I use Duolingo to embed that habit) and I do it formally, following exercises, and informally reading in French, every day. I’m just a beginner at Spanish but I’ll move on to reading Spanish soon. I’m always learning other things too. Questions pop into my head as I live an ordinary day, and I pursue some of those questions online, using wikipedia, blogs, youtube, podcasts and articles.

I also love to create – for me that’s primarily photography and writing – but playing music is part of it as well. Well, in the creative areas of life, I find there is also always something more to learn – whether that be at the piano, on the guitar, on the computer, or in writing exercises.

So, I think unfurling happens all the time for we, humans. We just have to choose to become aware of it and give it some time and attention.

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I think this skeleton of a leaf is beautiful. For me it reveals the often hidden, or difficult to see structures which underpin reality. But what it does most is make me think about the two forces of the universe….

The flowing force – the energies which vibrate throughout the entire cosmos. And the structuring force – which gathers some of the flowing forces together to make patterns, shapes, forms and objects.

I like this way of thinking. It’s definitely not new! The yin and yang forces of Chinese thought are sometimes described as “active” and “passive” and I can see how that relates to “structuring” and “flowing”. Others translate these forces into “masculine” and “feminine” and while I do love the ancient myths and legends, the rich symbolism of art throughout the ages, a lot of people find it difficult to apply gender to these forces, and, sadly, once you add in hierarchies and male-dominated culture, then the “feminine” seems to lose out to the “masculine”, so, for me, thinking of the “flowing force” and the “structuring force” is more helpful.

Clearly we need them both to be working in harmony, or in an “integrated” way with each other if we are to have the reality which we experience.

One of the key books I read which helped me understand these concepts was “The Crystal and the The Dragon” by David Wade. I highly recommend it. He uses the crystal as the symbol of the structuring force, and the dragon as the wild, flowing force. But “the universe story” as described by Thomas Berry in “The Great Work” is a brilliant, engaging, description of this same idea. Thomas Berry calls them the forces of “wildness” and “discipline”.

Whatever the metaphors, symbols and words you find work best for you, I think it really helps to understand and be amazed by the reality of every day life, if you raise your awareness of these two fundamental forces.

Try it, and see what you think…..

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Stone circles, dolmens, single standing stones, cairns and burial mounds…….I have a fascination for all of these objects. There are a lot of them in Scotland (like this one at Lundin Farm) and there are a lot in France.

I was born, grew up in, lived and worked in Scotland. I emigrated after I retired from the NHS in 2014. I now live in the Charente, near the town of Cognac….a small town with a big reputation, not least due to the spirits made and exported around the world from here.

I had an intention to come and live in France for a long, long time. I wanted to live at least a part of my life in a different culture, a culture fashioned in a different language. I feel this move has widened and deepened my experience of life. But I don’t feel I’ve lost my Scottishness. It’s fascinating to live that weave of two languages, and two cultures. It really does give me the sense of an enriched, enhanced life.

I think we humans all share the same small planet. We all breathe the same air, drink water from the same water cycles, eat food grown in the same biosphere. Frontiers are artificially drawn lines on the globe. We all came from the same nomadic first tribes. We are all descended from the same first humans. When I come across these ancient neolithic structures I feel connected…..connected vertically back down a family tree to the past, and horizontally around me to everyone, and everything, else currently sharing planet Earth with me.

There’s an old classical spiritual exercise about standing back from your immediate surroundings. You can think of it in the same way as looking at the world once you’ve climbed a hill. You can think of it in the same way as those images from space which show our blue and green planet spinning slowly. When you look “from on high” then you get a different perspective. You see something whole. You see something inter-connected. You see the flows of clouds in the atmosphere, the flows of water in the oceans, and you realise you are a small, but unique, individual in a much greater whole.

Well, I think something similar happens when you encounter a stone circle. I’ve often had the sensation that I feel different inside the circle from what I do on the outside. I don’t mean that in any spooky way, but I just mean that the action of stepping inside one of these ancient structures, created surely with immense effort by men and women with rudimentary tools, lets you have a different perspective. You can feel connected, not just to multiple generations of ancestors, but to those deep currents which run through every human being – the desire to create, to interact with what is around you, to make something new, something special, to make a work of art, a work of the spirit, a work of quality.

We human beings don’t just survive. We change the world as we live in it. We create the world as we live in it. We discover and we make meaning. We create experiences, and the opportunities to have experiences, for ourselves and for others.

What kind of world are we creating now? What experiences are we making for ourselves and for others? What opportunities to enhance and enlarge life are we making and seizing?

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I reckon one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is the importance of context. There’s a huge tendency to “abstract” elements from reality – to take things to pieces and examine the pieces; to reduce the whole to a selection of parts; to consider only a single episode or moment in a life story; to pull a single thread from the entire matrix and try to follow just that; to measure what can be measured and disregard the rest. This tendency to “abstraction” is coupled with a tendency to “generalise”, so all is labelled, categorised and filed away; to give precedence to the “average”, the “norm” and the “typical”, over the “individual”, the “specific” and the “unique”.

Our left hemisphere is the champion of all that. Abstraction, labelling, categorisation and generalisation are at the heart of the way it engages with the world. All that can be useful. It can help us to “get a grip”, to “grasp” things, to make predictions and exert some control over the future (at least in small ways for short periods of time).

But it isn’t enough.

Throughout my decades of work as a doctor I interacted with people one-to-one, one after the other, always encountering a unique human being in a specific situation with a particular life story. I never saw two identical people in two identical situations with two identical life stories.

To make a diagnosis, to achieve a better level of understanding, and to establish a personal bond with each patient demanded that I brought my right hemisphere into play. I had to seek the connections, make connections, discern the meaning from the contexts, the contingencies and the uncover the unique, singular story. Only by doing that could I understand this person, in this situation, at this point in their life.

I got thinking about all that again this morning as a I looked at this photo. I mean, at first glance it’s a photo of someone in traditional Japanese dress. At second glance they are standing in front of a statue of Hume, the Scottish philosopher, dressed as a classical Greek scholar. Well, there’s a combination you don’t see every day! I have seen lots of people in traditional Japanese dress, but mainly when I’ve been visiting Kyoto. Not in Scotland. I’ve walked down the High Street in Edinburgh countless times past this statue of Hume

Only once did I see someone wearing a kimono, standing having their photo taken next to it.

So it’s the context of these two figures which makes this photo what it is. Either character by him or herself might tell a different story. But seeing them together here is a sort of “satori” – a “kick in the eye” – it makes me stop, take note, and reflect.

It inspires me to reflect about the importance of contexts and connections, of juxtapositions and synchronicities. And it inspires me to reflect on the two great traditions of philosophy and thought – the Eastern, Taoist/Confucian/Shinto/Buddhist with the Western, Enlightenment/Rationalist/Greek and Roman.

That’s an incredibly rich source of inspiration!

Follow your own special way through the thought chains and connections which unfurl, unravel, and open up before you when you look at this.

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One of my most favourite sculptors is Anthony Gormley. Many years ago he created one of his works in London, placing his distinct iron casts of a man standing on various roof tops around the city. It caused quite a stir as several people thought they could see real men who looked like they were about to jump from the heights. I never saw it that, thinking more of Wim Wenders’ angels in Wings of Desire (or the City of Angels, American remake of that classic) where you could see the angels sitting or standing high up above the city watching down on the people below. At the same time as Gormley placed these figures around London he had an exhibition in the South Bank Gallery and that’s where I took this photo.

One of his works in the exhibit was a large glass box, the size of a whole room. The glass box was filled with mist, so dense that you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. You could walk around inside the box, dimly making out other visitors who appeared and disappeared continuously in the thick mist. As you walked around the box on the outside you could make out the occasional figure temporarily appearing in the midst of the mist as they walked around inside the box. As I passed someone reached their hand up to place it on the glass, and as I snapped the photo, I noticed the glass wall was reflecting one of the figures high up on a roof outside the gallery.

That lucky moment gave me this image which has kind of haunted me ever since. As I look at it again today, in the context of this surging wave of the pandemic and trying to cope with yet another month of sundays in lockdown, this image seems to have a new meaning and a new poignancy.

It makes me think of this world we are all living in now, hidden behind invisible barriers, or, sometimes, all too visible ones! How we are connecting by email, texts, zoom calls and so on, but how we can’t quite reach out and touch anyone else.

I know that this will pass. Everything does. Nothing remains the same. And maybe this experience of “distancing” which we are experiencing is giving us the opportunity to become more aware of what’s really important to us. Maybe, like me, you’re finding that you are deepening relationships with even more communication that you “normally” do. Maybe you’re making new friends, encountering the kindness of strangers in other lands. I guess I’m saying, it’s not all bad. But I don’t mean in a way which would dismiss the challenge and the struggle.

What better can we do today, tomorrow, and the next day, but reach out and tell our loved ones how much we love them, and extend the hand of kindness to strangers?

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I’ve read before that one of the major differences between Japanese and English garden design is that in Japan the emphasis is on what the garden looks like from inside the house, whereas in England the garden is designed from the perspective of the observer actually in the garden.

I think that’s probably an over-simplification and as with pretty much all generalisations it should be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, here’s an example of a Japanese garden. I took this photo form the interior of a temple, and you can see that the garden pulls your attention towards it. Not only does the window seem to create a frame for a beautiful picture, but the wooden flooring leads you out of the room towards the fence inviting you to enter the garden…..but only to the edge.

Maybe that’s partly where this idea comes from that the aesthetic in Japan is to create the experience for the observer standing just a little bit outside of the garden.

But, now, look at this next photo, which I took during the same visit to the same garden.

This isn’t a garden just to be looked at from the outside. Look at these winding paths, the stone lantern, the opening between the trees, the well trimmed low shrub, the grey rocks. This is all absolutely begging you to get out onto that path and experience this garden as it unfolds around you! This is a garden to be experienced from the inside of the garden itself.

How do I reconcile these two views and these, at face value, conflicting sets of design value?

And not or“.

Here’s some of the true genius of Japanese aesthetics, in my humble opinion…….a resolution of polarities to create something greater than either of the poles can achieve by themselves.

This is a garden created to be beautiful and inviting from inside the temple, AND to be beautiful and inviting once you are in the garden itself. Both of these experiences are so memorable, and dovetailing the two perspectives into one takes the entire visit to a whole other level.

I find this incredibly inspiring. It inspires me to connect to, to seek out, and to create, beauty. It inspires me to break down the artificial boundaries between perspectives – to bring the view from outside the garden into the view from within the garden. It inspires me to create curiosity and intrigue as well…..because don’t you just want to walk along that path and have a closer look at those rocks, that shrub, that stone lantern? Don’t you just want to walk along that path and “bathe” in that gorgeous forest of colour? Don’t you just know in your bones that this is the kind of thing which is “good for you”, which will nourish your soul, stimulate your body and your mind, enrich your life?

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There’s a Roman site about an hours drive from where I live. I visited it earlier this year during one of the times we weren’t in lockdown. These three photos show you the three main parts of the site. First on the left is an amphitheatre. The guide says this kind of amphitheatre was used for performances, like plays and music, not like the different sort of amphitheatre they made elsewhere for gladiator fights. In the middle is the remains of a temple. Look at the extraordinary shape of it! Again, the guide says, it’s thought there was a Celtic temple on this exact spot before the Romans constructed theirs. On the right is one of the baths in an enormous complex of baths. You can sort of make out the floor level of the bath, and below that the area where they lit the fires to heat up the water. It’s an astonishing building with several different baths, each of which were apparently heated to different levels.

One of the things that astonishes me about this site, apart from just how big it is, is exactly which buildings were constructed and what they were constructed for – primarily you’ve got the cultural space of the amphitheatre, the religious space of the temple and the social/health space of the baths.

Now contrast that to a modern “High Street”! Or one of those rings of shopping malls orbiting a town or a city!

I look at this and I wonder…..is it time to shift our priorities? To put culture, spirituality and health at the centre of our societies and communities? How might that change our experience of life?

What do you think? I’m not wondering here about re-creating a copy of what the Romans did…..I’m wondering about what a contemporary or into the future equivalent would be if we picked up on some of those core values…..creativity, spirituality and healthy sociality. (is that a word? “sociality”? well, I hope you know what I mean!)

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I love a blue sky. There’s something incredibly uplifting about seeing blue filling your whole view from horizon to horizon. But of course, not many places in the world see blue skies like that every day, and those which do, tend to suffer from a lack of clouds and, so a desperate lack of rain. So, it’s not that we should want blue skies every day. There’s a lot of wisdom in the observation that we need contrasts, that we need the dark to appreciate the light, and the light to appreciate the dark. There’s a Scandinavian wisdom in plunging into the snow and ice when you step out of a sauna!

I understand the need for these opposites and contrasts. But that takes nothing away from the joy and delight in what is….right here, right now.

Today the weather forecast is wrong again. I went to bed expecting to have a day of rain when I woke up, but instead I’ve woken up to a blue sky. I can see white clouds making their way across the low horizons, and maybe they will spread and bring rain later, but, for now, I’m enjoying the blue.

Perhaps that’s why this particular photo caught my eye this morning. You see these gloriously faded, distinctively blue signs all over France, but especially in the South. I’m no expert in colours but there is something about this particular shade of blue which evokes a whole culture for me. It’s the colour of France, the colour of the Med, it evokes memories of cafes and bars, of village squares and tables under spreading plane trees. It evokes vineyards, fields of sunflowers and hillsides of lavender. It entices me to buy a bottle of Rosé and a small bag of olives.

Amazing what a colour can do……

So, here’s my challenge for you today – find a colour somewhere – in the sky, in the garden, on your bookshelf, on your wall, in your closet……just find a colour that attracts you, that brings you joy, that stirs your heart and lifts your spirits, and allow your mind to recall the times and places that colour evokes, allow your mind to re-create those moments of beauty and happiness. Allow yourself to bask and bathe in those experiences for a little while. I have a hunch, it’ll do you good.

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