Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Travel’ Category

From 9 to 5 to adventure in Costa Rica and Nicaragua

cloud heart Costa Rica.

Last September I took the freelancing plunge. With a successful start to working for myself, now almost a year later I’m in Costa Rica and Nicaragua volunteering for a sustainable development charity. From steep hikes to reach the remotest areas of Costa Rica to meet indigenous communities to stargazing in the clearest of skies in Nicaragua, it’s been far-removed from day-to-day life in Bristol.

But with all these new things going on, I’ve neglected this blog for too long… Now I want to play catchup, and share travel stories, cultural encounters, and new projects, as I’m no longer tied to the 9-5 rut.

Currently I’m based in Turrialba under its eponymous volcano – a beautiful, lush spot in the clouds of the Central Highlands of Costa Rica. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing updates on my volunteering adventures and travels.

Hope you can join me…

Couture in Colour: Abraham’s silks in Antwerp at the Fashion Museum

Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Balenciaga… you may know their haute couture designs, but how much do you know about the fabrics that give body to their creations?

On a recent visit to Antwerp’s fashion museum, I learnt a little more about the luscious fabrics that give couture its colour. The Musée de Mode’s (MoMu) latest display is ‘Silks and Prints from the Abraham Archive: Couture in Colour.’ This fashion exhibition combines beautiful fabrics hanging like works of arts, key haute couture pieces and photographs from the Abraham Archive – a Swiss silk company, whose work is intertwined with couture from the 1930s onwards.

Haute couture and Abraham Ltd

Abraham Ltd meant nothing to me before attending the exhibition. The origins of this Swiss silk company can be traced to 1878, but it was not until after World War II that it became an international fashion heavyweight. In the 1930s, Abraham was run by Gustav Zumsteg, who mingled in the artistic environment of 1930s Paris with the likes of Georges Braque, Marc Chagall and Alberto Giacometti, and famous fashion designers, including Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and Yves Saint Laurent. This creative atmosphere influenced his designs, helping to position him as one of the top fabric suppliers to haute couture designers.

swatches of Abrahams fabric

Abraham archives interactive swatch files

Prêt-à-porter from the 1960s ushered in a new era for Abraham Ltd; as the demand for high quality silks diminished, they adapted to the high-end ready-to-wear market. In 1995, when the firm’s collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent ended, Abraham’s time was numbered. The company may have closed in 2002, but they left behind an extensive archive of textiles, sample books and fashion photographs telling a vibrant story of twentieth century extravagance and couture.

Christian Dior and Abraham partnership

Dior’s New Look, with its luxurious and excessive fabric contrasting with war-time austerity, was a perfect match for Abraham’s high quality silks, and thus an important fashion partnership was born in the 1950s.

Dior exhibit Fashion Museum Antwerp

This sweet, but nonetheless grown-up, Dior cocktail dress exemplifies the 1950s silhouette and style. Abraham’s flower print, “Apricotine” could hardly be more aptly named.

Dior orange dress

Yves Saint Laurent and Abraham

Yves Saint Laurent met Gustav Zumsteg at Christian Dior’s funeral in 1957, marking the start of a working relationship and lifelong friendship. The red and black silk satin dress from 1985 was the stand-out piece for me, with its bustle and large exotic flowers spreading across the fabric.

Yves Saint Laurent dresses

Balenciaga and Abraham

Balenciaga also came to Abraham for fabric, in particular for gazar (a crisp, sheer, plain-weave silk cloth), which was a speciality of this silk manufacturer, and was perfect for Balenciaga’s sculptural creations.

Fashion Museum Antwerp Balanciaga and monochrome display

Balanciaga black dress in the centre

Balanciaga blue dress Fashion Museum Antwerp

Fabrics everywhere

Fabrics weaved throughout the exhibition providing, not just a pretty backdrop to the fashions on display, but literally the material for them. From checks and animal prints to monochrome, from matte to sheen, a wide range of Abraham textiles, textures and patterns were on show.

monochrome fabrics hanging

Monochrome fabrics

Checked fabric fashion museum Antwerp

animal prints - fashion museum

Fashion Photo from Museum of Fashion Antwerp MoMu

Luxurious fabrics hanging Fashion Museum Antwerp

Flowers, and in particular roses, were a recurrent motif in Abraham’s designs, from traditional bouquets to more abstract, larger patterns.

Roses fabrics

roses catwalk

Fabricand shadows Fashion Museum Antwerp

Luxury shines through these heavy, glittering cloths. The high production costs of such fabrics meant that they were often the preserve of haute couture.

Luxurious fabrics Fashion Museum Antwerp

Givenchy and Abraham

Givenchy, whose fashion idol was Balenciaga, also collaborated with Abraham Ltd. Givenchy has become synonymous for dressing two stars in particular: Audrey Hepburn appeared in Givenchy on screen, for instance in Sabrina (for which costume designer Edith Head won an Oscar), and Jackie O wore one of his designs to JFK’s funeral. The yellow evening dress and cape below is from 1973 in silk gazar, and the similarities in shape between it and the blue Balenciaga dress (pictured above) are apparent.

Givenchy evening dress in yellow gazar

Givenchy dress black and green

The Givenchy piece above from 1987 is made from Abraham silk in crêpe de chine falconné imprimé. Although the puffball feature would probably be best avoided by almost everybody, this dress with its 1940s silhouette stood out for me (perhaps a nostalgia trip to the 1980s and reminiscent of a dress that my Mum wore and loved).

Kronenhalle

Towards the start of the display, this sweet table-for-two tableau greeted visitors. It represents Kronenhalle restaurant, a Zurich institution with a guestbook of the big names of the time across the spectrum from politics to art. Gustav Zumsteg helped his mother, Hulda, run the business and used the restaurant to house his growing art collection. His artistic connections helped in designing the restaurant: Alberto and Diego Giacometti designed lamps and other furnishings for its bar which was designed by Robert Haussman.

Kronenhalle Zurich at Fashion Museum Antwerp

Before Pinterest…

Long before Pinterest, the pleasure of preserving memories and aspirations was played out through cutting out and sticking in scrapbooks. On display were twenty scrapbooks from between 1947 and 1996 creating a picture book history of fashion, textiles and Abraham Ltd. 

Scrapbooks at Fashion Museum Antwerp

The Abraham Textile Archive is housed at the Swiss National Museum. Abraham Ltd began archiving professionally in 1955 preserving 50 years of creativity, and I imagine this collection would be invaluable to fashion students and designers now.

Fashion Museum Antwerp Musee de Mode MoMu

I would recommend an Antwerp adventure full stop, and if you do, check out the Fashion Museum (MoMu). “Silk and Prints: From the Abraham Archive: Couture in Colour” is on until 11 August 2013.

Antwerp Adventure: a weekend in photos

For a birthday / bank holiday treat recently I headed off to the Belgian city of Antwerp. Apart from some top tips from Twitter friends, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised at this stylish, friendly and laid-back city. I hope you enjoy exploring Antwerp with me now via some of my snaps …

Central Station Antwerp

Train station meetings do not always live up to their Brief Encounter romantic expectations, however after arriving at Antwerp station from the Eurostar, I had a perfect rendezvous with my loved one. After being apart for a week, he appeared at the top of the steps in the magnificent Central Station. We missed our chance to run in slow motion into each other’s arms, but it was memorable nonetheless.  This nineteenth century fin de siecle station alone almost makes a visit to this Belgian city worthwhile. 

Antwerp central station

Antwerp station ceiling

Markets 

Markets tend to give a good flavour of a city’s character, and Antwerp has its fair share. We made it to Vrijdagmarkt, where locals were auctioning their goods at low prices, and we felt more like spectators than participants.

Antwerp market.

Chocolate has to be sampled in Belgium, so we had a post-market hot chocolate stop…

hot chocolate

Antwerp vintage shopping

Still in Vrijdagmarkt, there’s a a rather cool vintage clothes store called My Ohm, and home to a good selection at reasonable prices. I tried on a gorgeous evening dress from the 1970s, which fitted perfectly. The owner’s sales technique was direct, “just get it.” And I did … well it was my birthday.

Ohm Vintage

Another store that we came across was Jutka and Riska, which was a combination of new and vintage fashion.

Jutka and Riska

Antwerp fashion 

Antwerp is a fashion trendsetting city, and to capitalise on this growing reputation, you can go on a fashion tour. (Please let me know if you’ve been on it… ). I’m more of a vintage gal but if you prefer designer stores, Antwerp has it covered too. In the 1980s, the world took note of the Antwerp Six (Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee). Dries Van Noten‘s store is housed in the beautiful building below.

Dries Van Noten shop Antwerp

Couture in Colour: Silk and Prints from the Abraham Archive is the current exhibition at the Fashion Museum – Momu in Antwerp. And it was lucky for us, as I really enjoyed seeing sumptuous fabrics and couture dresses up close by Dior, Yves San Laurent and Balenciaga. I’ll save any more for a blog coming soon…

Fashion Museum Antwep Momu

Retro in the streets

I just couldn’t resist snapping  this glamorous shop dummy which brought to mind Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend somehow, and although the male dummies below should have been incongruous, they looked right at home in the street.

retro shop Antwerp

Male dummies

My boyfriend sniffed out quite a few vinyl record stores including Chelsea (pictured below).

vinyl record store

Whether jazz music is your thing or not, I’d recommend heading to the De Muze. Like all good jazz bars, it’s almost standing-room only on a Saturday night, but after a little wait we climbed the windy stairs to secure a table on the top floor, and there was no entrance fee. Sorry I’ve no pics, but visit their website for aural treat…

Museums: Culture Darling MAS here…

Although it’s me who works in marketing, my boyfriend took the opportunity for some free publicity for this blog. Perhaps he should have chalked “Culture Darling MAS here”, which covered some products in the MAS gift shop, shorthand for the Museum Aan de Stroom.

Culture Darling MAS here

The MAS Museum is part of a recent riverside redevelopment in the Eilandje or “little island” area of Antwerp. The building comprises boxes in brick-red sandstone piled neatly on top of one another like children’s play things with curved glass in between. Over six floors, the museum tells the story of Antwerp past and present, but as this is a port city its story incorporates the local and the global.  There are four permanent exhibits – Metropolis, Power, Life and Death and Antwerp as a Port city drawing on the museum’s collection of 470,000 objects. As this collection is so vast, the majority remains in storage. However, they made a feature of this by revealing their processes in a “visible storage” exhibit so that we could see how the objects are looked after by the team. This type of innovative curation continued throughout giving the museum a slightly off-centre appeal.

MAS

 

MAS entrance from outside.

The Winnie the Poohs are piled high as part of the exhibition about Antwerp as a port city, representing the trade in  illegal goods.

MAS museum pooh exhibit

The impact of Napoleonic rule of Antwerp from 1794 to 1814, when the city gained influence as an important military post was the focus of another exhibit. Many objects, featuring the French ruler, were displayed, such as pocket watches and the pipe featured below.

Napoleon pipe MAS museum Antwerp

‘Home Call’ was a interesting exhibit about globalisation, juxtaposing life for the Kasana in Northern Ghana with the lives of migrants in Antwerp, the second largest immigrant group in the city after Moroccans. Home Call means death in Ghana, a return to the ancestors, and whilst children used to announce the death in the streets, now posters are distributed. The home call posters were fascinating, displayed on lightboxes above our heads, which was fitting as there is a belief that the dead remain in the roof of their house. You can read more about this exhibition from the curator, Ann Cassiman.

Ghana exhibition Antwerp

Artist George Nuku combines traditional Polynesian sculpture with modern materials, such as polystyrene and plexiglass. Here he explains about the origins of the Haka dance.

Aboriginal art Antwerp MAS Museum

At the bottom of the MAS museum, Time Circus have transformed a disused crane into an urban garden, and we could see someone tilling the crops whilst making our way up to the top of the building.

MAS-garden

Bitter Zoet  – land of honey at lunchtime

When your museum-treading, fashionable feet are worn out, head to Bitter Zoet, a lovely cafe in the t’Zuid area of Antwerp. Its quirky, retro style is matched with a friendly, laid-back vibe. I think I may have had the most delicious baguette ever via the introduction of honey as a spread.

Bitter Zoet Cafe Antwerp

Boerentoren – the original European skyscraper

Just around the corner from our apartment was Boerentoren or the KBC building, one of the tallest in Antwerp. This art deco building by Jan Van Hoenacker, is often thought to be the first skyscraper in Europe.

Antwerp skyscraper

Also up high were these religious icons on the buildings throughout the city.

Christian sculpture on building Antwerp

Building in central Antwerp

In contrast, there were signs protest throughout the city…

Occupy Antwerp

rusty doors Antwerp

On our last day in Antwerp, we headed to the Photography Museum (FoMu), which is well-worth a visit for any lovers of the medium, and again we were lucky that their current exhibitions were fascinating; from dressing like a wild beast to the power of the camera, this museum deserves a blog post of its own…

Photo Museum Antwerp FoMu

Have you ever been to Antwerp? I’d love to go back soon, so please share your tips and thoughts on the places I’ve shared.

Bohème Sauvage: back to Berlin 1920s style

The time is 1926. The place, Berlin, and the atmosphere smoky, bohemian with a touch of big band swing and burlesque. Absinthe is being sipped at the bar by a distracted cabaret dancer, whilst a speakeasy gangster cavalierly gambles Reichsmarks away, and a young flapper shimmers with delight as all eyes follow her to the dance floor… We’re at  Bohème Sauvage , a night of fun for vintage lovers in Germany. Actually before you read on, why not get in the mood and tune into Radio Dismuke?

I was invited by my 1920s-loving friend for her fortieth birthday to Berlin with six others with Bohème Sauvage on the agenda for a night of dress-up, dancing and who knows what else in a vintage playground. The support acts of swapping accessories and styling tips, washed down with deliciously authentic Russian vodka, were almost as much fun as the main event.

Bohème Sauvage is a postmodern mash-up of periods, styles and locations: bohemian Berlin of the 1920s, the Belle Epoque Paris of Toulouse Lautrec, burlesque and Moulin Rouge, and the American thirties with speakeasies, jazz clubs and gangsters. Whether we were dancing the Charleston, foxtrot, swing, waltz, tango, mambo, rumba… it hardly seemed to matter. As the website says:

“Bohème Sauvage does not try to copy this era; authenticity is not the highest aim… It is made for people who enjoy to express themselves, who like to dress up and wear costumes, who like playing with identities and basically for everyone who is open for experiments and adventures.”

As the birthday girl loves the 1920s – the decadence, the androgynous looks, the Louise Brooks do – we all dressed in clothes of that era. And where better to celebrate the style and culture of the twenties than Berlin. Between the two world wars, despite being wrecked from defeat, for a brief time the city was a cultural and intellectual capital of Europe, a Bohemian centre, with intellectuals and artists from all disciplines (including Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Christopher Isherwood, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Otto Dix) making the city their home. Rainer Metzger in Berlin in the 1920s goes as far as arguing that Berlin at this time was the nearest to capture the Modernist idea of art and life becoming one.

Caberet photo - two women dancing.

With a creative surge in the arts from cinema to cabaret and a more relaxed attitude to sexuality, in retrospect the post-war mood was about enjoying the transience of the glitter now. The Charleston, the shimmy and the foxtrot were hugely popular and Metzger says, “there was a strong desire to lose oneself in the rhythm, and to let one’s body react to the syncopation and feelings engendered by the beat.” This was the time of androgynous dressing, Josephine Baker making top billing at the Femina-Palast, or at the Troika, in Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” where girls dance behind gauge, assignations are set in motion via the telephones lined up on the dancing hall, and dancers stream with sweat. Indeed, the decadent Sally Bowles, not anticipating the rise of Fascism to come, is the Berlin of our popular consciousness. The Cabaret element is alive at Bohème Sauvage with an Emcee character hosting the entertainment, including a burlesque dancer and a female three-piece band.

The mix and match attitude to vintage dress-up suited me as I love wearing vintage clothes without pandering too much to period detail or authenticity, and I enjoy the experience of dress-up rather than a particular period or scene. As Ted Polhemus says, “…sampling and mixing diverse, eclectic, often contradictory elements into a unique, personal statement.” Part of the pleasures of this event undoubtedly was being admitted and thereby told that we had dressed the part – although not necessarily “authentic” (I was wearing a 1920s style dress via the 1980s). Subtle dress code boundaries were prescribed on the website:

“…quite apart from any modern clothes such as jeans, t-shirts, sneakers etc, kitschy, glitzy and tasteless carnival costumes, plastic products, flashy wigs, pink feather boas and all of the time from 1880 to 1940 are obviously not appropriate. We appeal very specifically to your sense of style and aesthetic.”

Admittance depended on your (sub)cultural capital which cannot necessarily be learned – you either have that sense of style or you don’t. Even if you’ve bought your ticket online, we’re told you can still be refused at the door (but you will get a refund to soften the affront to your sense of style). During the night, we all commented on how wonderful everyone looked – all shapes and sizes, a range of ages – and how pleasurable it was that there seemed to be a group affinity and that people had entered the spirit of the party. It almost felt like a ‘scene’ but was more like a shared affinity with people who would place themselves outside mainstream culture ranging from weekenders to those who have a vintage lifestyle.

Bohème Sauvage was created by “Miss Else Edelstahl” who started hosting private 1920s salon parties in 2004, which have now has grown to monthly gatherings at large ballrooms across Germany. Ours was held in Meistersaal in Berlin, a prominent artistic venue in the 1920s.  We were attending Bohème Sauvage as it was being incorporated into to the mainstream, being mentioned as a not-so-secret travel tip. This decade is in, in, in with the hotly anticipated Great Gatsby and top designers picking up on the styles, not only for women but in menswear too, which will be highlighted in the vintage store and filter to the high street. There may be people who think that Bohème Sauvage has become less authentic, filled with “tourists” like our group…

It was not just in fashion terms that people could express their subcultural capital but also on the dancefloor. We were too late for the dancing lessons at the start of the evening to help people learn the Charleston, swing or foxtrott. I loved dancing (and waltzing very badly) but also enjoyed watching the couples swing, spin and twirl round the floor. As there were language barriers, I am not sure how many people were taking on particular roles or characters but it certainty felt like an environment where you could do this without fear of being laughed at, in fact it may add to your subcultural capital.

Dance card (Tanzcarte) Boheme Sauvage, Berlin

A 1920s revival may be of the moment with its echoes of economic, political and cultural uncertainty, and the sense of decadence and shifting gender roles is perhaps more appealing than certain recreations of the 1950s with more secure home-making attire and lifestyle. We could all fritter the hyper-inflated Reichmarks at the mock casino and drink and dance the night away as if all was lost. There may have been a whiff of decadence, but of course it’s played out within safe boundaries. However it was glamorous fun, and my inner flapper certainly enjoyed being released.

Anyone else been to Bohème Sauvage? Do you enjoy dressing up in the clothes of a particular era? Are you part of a vintage ‘scene’? Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

Look out for a blog about my flapper outfit but for now here’s a taster of the party…

Books I’ve mentioned…

Isherwood, Christopher, (1939), Goodbye to Berlin, Vintage: London

Metzger, Rainer, (2007), Berlin in the Twenties: Art and Culture 1918-1933, Thames & Hudson: London

Polhemus, Ted, (2010), Street Style, PYMCA: London.

Naoshima – Japan’s art island

Naoshima bath house

Where have empty houses been transformed into perception-altering installations, art museums grow from the natural surrounding and giant pumpkins sit by the sea? On Naoshima, Japan’s art island, where even the bath house (pictured above) is a work of art.

Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan exemplifies the way art can be used to regenerate a community in economic decline. Depopulation and pollution threatened the residents’ livelihoods, when in the late 1980s private investment intervened to revitalise the island. The CEO of publishing corporation, Benesse, worked with the Mayor of Naoshima to drive economic regeneration by displaying his own private collection as well as commissioning site-specific architectural projects and art installations, involving the local community.

Honmura art project

Honmura Fishing Village

Honmura is a small fishing port on Naoshima and home to the Art House Project, a group of abandoned residential buildings and shrines transformed into works of art. Kadoya, the first art house created, features ‘Sea of Time ’98’ by Tatsuo Miyajima comprising LED counters set to different speeds by residents of all ages, illustrating shifting perceptions of time as we grow older.

Charred cedarwood sidings cover many of the buildings adding a beautiful colour and texture to the town, and this renewal of materials is theme of the island as art is created from the decayed and unwanted.

Burnt wood at Honmura art project, Naoshima, Japan.

Go’o Shrine, a reworked Shinto shrine features a glass staircase leading from an underground passway to the worship hall representing heaven and earth.

steps at at temple Honmura art project.

temple at Homura art project

Also built on the site of a shrine, Minamidera contains James Turrell’s “Backside of the Moon”. Visitors are led into the room in complete darkness (we got lost and I sat on somebody…). Then as your eyes adjust to the lack of light, shapes start to appear playing with our modes of perception.

Delica neon sign at Honmura art project, Naoshima.

Haisha (photographed above) was the home and office of a local dentist in a previous life. Rather than demolishing these vacant houses, the artists transformed them into something new, often in collaboration with the people of Honmura. Located in residential areas, these site-specific pieces are embedded into the community. The artist Shinro Ohtake designed this house, using his scrapbook style with a montage of cuttings on the floor and a neon-lit Statue of Liberty simulacrum squashed into one its rooms.

Naoshima Bathhouse – I♥湯 or I love Yu

Refreshing, relaxing and a new cultural experience for me, one of my favourite things to do in Japan was visiting to the sentō or bath house. I♥湯 or I love Yu, the Naoshima bath house, again designed Shinro Ohtake, is a play on words with ‘Yu’ phonetically meaning hot water in Japanese.

I love Yu bathhouse sign

As in Honmura, the art work is placed at the centre of the community and the space of the bath house aims to foster cultural exchange between tourists and locals.  Although this is a more touristy experience than other bath houses in Japan, the interior space is worth experiencing to see this artist’s scrapbook style. And how often do you get the chance to get naked and wash yourself in an art installation?

I love water bathhouse Naoshima.

I love Yu is a cultural collage as you can see in the image below as various tiles from different periods and styles are juxtaposed. A tiled image of a female diver surrounded by jellyfish and an elephant statue look down on bathers, whilst peering down to the bottom of the bath, you can catch glimpses of pop cultural images through the shimmering water. This scrapbook-style adheres to the decay and renewal theme of the island with old fishing boats, a plane cockpit and empty picture frames recontextualised on the outside of the building becoming art rather than junk.

Tiles on the Naoshima bathhouse

Ohtake uses a mix and match postmodern style culminating in the kitsch 1970s influenced female silhouette framing the bath house entrance.

Lady symbol for the Naoshima Bathhouse.

Benesse House Museum 

Architect, Tadao Ando’s vision is integral to the Naoshima Art Project creating the Benesse House Museum and hotel, designed to fit into its surroundings, not just in order to preserve the beauty of the island coast, but also to use the interaction of culture and nature to create art. Interactive works such as Kan Yasuda’s ‘The Secret of the Sky’, allows the viewer to lie on a curved stone seat and gaze upwards with the modern concrete of the building juxtaposed with the blue sky or starry nights.

The Benesse Art Gallery shows works by big names, including Warhol, Rauschenberg and Hockney, but a piece that resonated particularly with me was Yukinori Yanagi’s ‘Ant Farm Project‘. It critiques our discourses of national identity by allowing ants to live in the flags of national states so that they symbolically create patterns without borders. In the cafe, our relationship with television is questioned by Nam June Paik’s ‘Sonatine for Goldfish’, where a goldfish circles and circles a vintage set. Bruce Nauman’s work 100 Live and Die with his trademark neon signs flashes combinations of words about life and death, from tragedies (‘young and die’) to the mundane (‘sleep and live’).

Kusama on Naoshima

After visiting the Kusama retrospective at the Tate Modern in London this year and with her work inspiring a fashion collection, I was looking forward to visiting her iconic pumpkin statue.

Kusama's pumpkin with light stream.
When we arrived at our accommodation, I couldn’t believe that we could almost swim up to the yellow and black dotty pumpkin. Kusama’s red and black pumpkin is one of the first things that you see as you arrive and leave Miyanoura port. As in the residential spaces of Honmura and the communal bath house, the viewer is able to get very close to the art works and interact with them.

red and black pumpkin top.

Red and black pumpkin by Kusama at Naoshima.

For more Kusama photos, check out Kusama: seeing and wearing dots, my previous blog post.

Visiting Naoshima

On our stay, we slept in a yurt mere seconds away from the sea. How relaxing to listen to the sound of the waves and watch the natural glow of jellyfish.

Our yurt on Naoshima

You can find out more about visiting Naoshima on Benesse’s website and I would recommend Naoshima Tsutsuji-so Lodge as a place to stay. There are regular buses from Miyanoura port to the Benesse House but it is not actually very far on foot (around 30 minutes) or by cycle.

There is art everywhere on Naoshima, even these little frogs are placed to add colour to an industrial building along the coast road to Honmura.

The architect, Tadao Ando also designed two galleries that we didn’t have time to visit – Chichu Art  Gallery, which is mainly built underground so as not to detract from the natural landscape, and a gallery devoted to the work of Lee Ufan. So we have an excuse (as if we needed it) to return.

Fancy taking a trip to Naoshima now? If you’ve visited already, please share your experiences. Are there any other art islands that you’d recommend visiting?

Seeing and wearing dots: Yayoi Kusama, fashion and art

I came face-to-face with artist Yayoi Kusama in Omotesando Hills in Tokyo…

Kusama model Louis Vuitton Shop Tokyo.… that is a model of the octogenarian artist who is now window dressing across the world. Kusama with her signature dots has become Marc Jacob’s muse for his Louis Vuitton collection.  Her art, which has never been confined to the gallery, has taken over the department store, and a few weeks ago a pop-store appeared in Selfridges in London designed as her iconic pumpkin sculpture.

Kusama-inspired Louis Vuitton fashion collection

Kusama is not the first artistic collaboration for Marc Jacobs, previously working with Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Marakami but this is the most extensive, including sponsoring her Tate Modern retrospective earlier this year. This exhibition showed her extensive creative output over a 60-year career and the breadth of media, from sculpture, drawing and paintings to installations, performance art and fashion.

As one of the most recognisable female “celebrity” artists in the world with fashion as part of her artistic repertoire, it is understandable that designers would want to collaborate. Indeed the meeting of art and fashion is not new from Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist creations to the postmodern circularity of Campbell’s soup creating paper dresses à la Andy Warhol. Before the Louis Vuitton collection, Kusama had put her name to other commercial products such as lip gloss and, as a popular artist, her work is embossed on scarves and bags, perhaps more for tourists than high fashionistas.

Art, fashion and commerce had already combined for Kusama back in the 1960s. With financing of $50,000, the Kusama Fashion Company was established with her clothes on sale at 400 stores across America, including Bloomingdales. Her range was designed for the sexual revolution – dresses with circular cut-outs and holes in the breast and rear, and some designed for more than one person to party. Just as in her other artistic output she tried to eradicate the boundary between self and other through fashion. In her autobiography she says that her stock was in demand from the Jackie O crowd and that, “All the clothes I designed and produced were, of course, decorated with polka dots”. The  images below illustrate the dots in her sculptures, taken in Naoshima, Japan.

Kusama dots closeup.

Kusama red and black pumpkin.

Kusama dots

The Louis Vuitton collection is all about the dots too. After a nervous breakdown as a teenager, Kusama has lived with psychological trauma and has been in a psychiatric hospital since the 1970s of her own volition. During hallucinations, she says that dots multiply covering her field of vision threatening to overwhelm her. Her art has been therapy to help control these feelings and she puts the viewer firmly in her hallucinatory world, often in the domestic setting. In one of her installations, children are invited to stick brightly coloured dots in a white room – the blank canvas.  When you visit the Louis Vuitton website, red dots flash before your eyes and so a consumer of fashion, you’re positioned in Kusama-land.

I first entered Yayoi Kusama’s head in Copenhagen’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. “Gleaming Lights of the Souls” could only be entered two by two. Immediately the queue added to the aura of the experience and anticipation at seeing in the box. Inside, we found a hall of mirrors with water on the floor and dots of lights that sparkle off into infinity. The installation made me feel slightly off-balance, wanting to reach out but fearing slipping. Perhaps I wasn’t given into Kusama’s art process where she tries to understand her place in the universe through “self-obliteration”.

“My desire was to predict and measure infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots – an accumulation of particles forming in the negative spaces in the net… I wanted to examine my own life. One polka dot: a single particle among billions. I issued a manifesto stating that everything – myself, other, the entire universe – would be obliterated by white nets of nothingness connecting astronomical accumulates of dots. White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness.”

Fashion is sold more in terms of the drive for self-expression than self-obliteration. The Kusama persona and her style became an intrinsic part of the installations as she was self-consciously photographed in front of her sculptures in similarly patterned clothing so that the distinction between self and world dissolves. In advert for the Louis Vuitton collection below, the model stands in for Kusama and the dots of the clothing merge with the background.

Kusama raincoat Louis Vuitton

Department store art

The visual merchandising of the collection takes lessons from Kusama’s work. In her autobiography she says that “my work is a means to heal myself from psychosomatic illness. As a category of art, therefore, it did not relate to the social establishment or to fads. My art was not of the department stores window variety, where you are constantly changing the display to conform to the latest fashion – Action Painting today, Pop Art (or whatever) tomorrow.”

However, in the shop windows, we can see reproductions of her work which would not look out-of-place in the gallery, although we may read them differently there.

Kusama shop window.

Flowers recur throughout Kusama’s work from her first sketchbook of worm-eaten peonies to later psychedelic sculptures with eyes at their centre. In her early visions, she says that:

“I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.”

The scene below reminds me of an Alice in Wonderland set, with the oversized shoes and purses evoking Kusama’s distortions of scale in her later sculptures.

Kusama bags and shoes

In the 1960s, Kusama held one of her Happenings at the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in New York’s Central Park. At these events, hippies from the protest movement became a naked canvas for Kusama to paint them in dots. The rain-mac above from Marc Jacob’s collection is a playful nod to these performances as the dots almost look painted on the skin.

“I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, who went through the looking-glass, I, Kusama (who have lived for years in my famous, specially built room entirely covered by mirrors), have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom. You too can join my adventurous dance of life.”

In the 1990s Kusama created a series of pumpkin sculptures, including the one photographed below in Naoshima.

Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin Naoshima inspiration for Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton.

As with the flower motif, pumpkins have recurred throughout her work from early Nihonga paintings in her late teens. She says that she “was enchanted by their charming and winsome form… its solid spiritual balance.” In the Louis Vuitton collection, the pumpkin sculptures are transformed into sweet little bags and keying chains.

Fear of phallus fashion

Fashion, art and psychological obsession are again evident when she uses repeated phallic symbols as a way to work through her associated fears. In the image below, the phallus-filled cream-coloured shoes evoke a nightmarish wedding. In a similar style of repetition she created macaroni pants which illustrated her disgust of overeating and the mass-produced American food which contrasted with post-war Japan austerity. Sex and food seem inextricably linked to the fashion industry with its commodification of the former and the perfect female body starved of food, not through economic dependency, but desire for an idealised shape.

Kusama Fashion Company

This critique of mass-production becomes mass-produced as fashion albeit luxe fashion in the phallic tentacle shapes in the Louis Vuitton window display.

Kusama phallic window display

Get Kusama fashion inspiration

If like me, you only look at designer fashion and prefer to buy vintage, it’s still easy to join the fashion dots with one piece. In fact, if you make clothes, cutting out a circle or two in a summer dress (I don’t recommend in the breast or bottom) could look striking. However, perhaps it’s more “Kusama” to find your own statement “dots”. Here’s footage from one of Kusama’s happenings which almost parodies itself but contains beautiful images including one of the artist on a horse covered in dots.

What do you think about the Kusama and the Louis Vuitton collaboration? Please share your thoughts.

Awa Odori at Tokushima: dancing in the street

Energy and elegance take to the streets of Tokushima each August for the Awa Odori. This summer, we were lucky to be able to join over one million people to enjoy Japan’s largest dance festival.

Awa Odori is one of the most famous celebrations which makes up the Buddhist Obon festivities where people return to their home towns to welcome the dead’s brief return to Earth.  The streets in Tokushima on Shikoku island are filled with people of all ages dressing up and dancing together from 12 to 15 August.

Dancing in the rain 

On arrival at Tokushima, we were greeted by the first rain that we’d seen in Japan throughout the two weeks of our travels. We were told that the dancing was in the balance and they would make a decision at 5pm…

But as soon as we drifted into the streets of Tokushima it was clear that the dance was on.

Woman dancing at Awa Odori in Tokushima

Women and men dance at the Awa Odori Festival.

We did not realise that the Awa Odori would be the same repeated dance from each troop or ren. Rather than being dull however, the repetition was enthralling. Before the end of one performance, we were cranking out necks for the next ren to come along, picking out the subtle changes in the movement. Hours passed without us noticing…

Man dancing at Awa Odori in Tokushima, Japan.

A man carrying the lantern at the Tokushima Dance Festival.

Woman dancing Awa Odori in formation, Tokushima, Japan.

What are the origins of the Awa Odori dance? 

There are a few theories on the origins of the Awa Odori with Awa being the old name for the Tokushima prefecture and Odori meaning dance. The one that seems most prevalent is that it was invented during the celebrations on completion of a new castle for the Lord of Awa in the sixteenth century. During the party, revellers’ inebriation caused them to stumble back and forth with their arms moving in the air.

women at Awa Odori on the streets of Tokushima, Japan

The dress defines the dance

The women’s traditional costumes were stunning, notably the striking amigasa (semi-circular hats) which were so eye-catching as the women moved in unison. Yukata (summer kimonos), beautiful obi often containing fans, and geta (wooden sandals) were also part of the show. The kimono restricts movement encouraging a graceful dance as participants stretch upwards on tiptoes in formation with the triangular hats forming patterns as they dance down the street.

Women's hats, Awa Odori dancers, Tokushima, Japan.

Wooden sandals or geta dancing.

Women dancing at Awa Odori in Tokushima, Japan.

Women in traditional hat at Awa Odori.

Whilst the kimono-clad women are choreographed to reach upwards, the men move down in a squatting motion with much more freedom. Many women and children took on this dance too and dressed in the men’s costumes of happi jackets, shorts and split-toed socks. The men wear the scarves around their heads which are tied under the nose and the women wear little scarf crowns.

Man dancing Awa Odori, Tokushima, Japan.

Women in Awa Odori men's dress at Tokushima, Japan.

A woman dancing in traditional dress at the Awa Odori in Takushima, Japan.

Only fools don’t join the dance…

The lyrics, “Odoru aho ni miru aho; onaji aho nara odoranya son son!” rang out across the city. In other words, it’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches; if both are fools, you might as well dance!

So throughout the event, freestyle dancers from the crowd joined in. This beautiful woman in the blue and white yukata with green obi was sitting just along from us and I was pleased to catch her on camera as she joined the dance procession.

Dancers from the crowd join the Awa Odori.

The beat is created by shamisens, gongs, taiko drums and flutes.

Woman playing the shamisen at Awa Odori Tokushima, Japan.

“Yattosa, yattosa” was called out throughout the performances. This is a hayashi kotoba call and response pattern stays in your head long after the dance has ended.

Woman at Awa Odori in traditional costume.

How to join the Awa Odori dance festival

If you’re in Japan from 12 to 15 August, I’d highly recommend checking out the Awa Odori. If you want to stay in Tokushima itself, you need to book accommodation several months in advance. When we looked a month before, we had to widen our search and stayed in Takumatsu, just over an hour’s train journey away. There are other Obon dances around Japan, including the second largest in Tokyo. You can also get in touch with the organisers in Tokushima and join the fools’ dance! If you’ve been to Tokushima’s Awa Odori or know any more about the traditions behind the dances, please feel free to comment and share your experiences.

I’ll leave the last note to the performers…

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Painting by house numbers: a Jubilee getaway

As a Jubilee getaway, we switched street parties and bunting for tiramisu and dinner for two under the stars. Destination: Lake Orta in Italy. Relaxation and more relaxation were top priority with our only decisions being what to eat, drink and read next… and whether to go back in the lake for another dip.

The Painted Houses of Legro

Miasino, a sleepy village, was perfect for our unwind/reading catch-up/unplug holiday. It was high on the hill and so each day we walked off the previous evening’s Italian feast al fresco with a one-hour walk down to the lake. We started to notice that house murals were a marked feature of the area. The mural’s hero below reminded of me of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Although I think I got my films mixed up, I was on to something with the cinematic theme.

Gone with the Wind mural

The murals make up an open air cinema, with the inspiration coming from Italian film and television, especially those set in the Lake Orta area.  Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story in 1950, Miso Amaro (De Santis, 1949) is an Italian neorealist film, produced by Lux, the well-known film production house.

Amaro Film Poster

The film centres on a low-level criminal couple who try to hide out by disguising the woman, Francesca, as a peasant worker in the rice fields in Northern Italy. The title – Bitter Rice or Bitter Laugh – is a pun on the subsequent plot of murder, love and robbery.

Even if you don’t understand Italian, here is a groovy dancing scene from Miso Amaro, which illustrates the tensions between characters.

There were many other murals in the town but their big screen influence was not as easy to identify as with Miso Amaro. The stories of the famed Italian children’s book writer Gianni Rodari, born on Lake Orta, are also supposed to feature but I didn’t see any that correspond to what little I know about him. An allegory of class struggle, his most famous story is Cipollino (or Little Onion), where the onion fights the injustice in the garden.

Singer mural in Legro

Two murals in Legro

As we dragged ourselves up the hill to our apartment from the lake, desperately looking for an excuse to pause for breathe casually, this mural keep us distracted. What exactly is going on in that boat?

Legro Mural - Man and woman in boat The modern cinematic murals complemented the more traditional Christian frescos on the apartment walls of the narrow, shaded streets, which were as commonplace as door numbers.

Painting at house number 5

alter

And it was not only on the walls of Miasino and Legro which were adorned. Just behind the village lies Sacre Monte, an UNESCO site, with 21 chapels and a staggering, 900 frescos and 366 monuments dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. Work on the site began in the late 16th century and it encompasses many architectural styles from late Renaissance to baroque and rococo.

Sacre Monte fresco of St Francis

St Francis painting with graffiti

St Francis Tableau

Summer frock

And no holiday snap album would be complete without an appropriate dress. Here’s the dress of the summer – a stripy vintage 80s (trying to do 50s) dress bought in Brighton in the winter months in anticipation of long sunny days. Released at last in this Italian village…

Summer dress

Have any of you visited Lake Orta or seen any quirky mural towns? Let me know…