12 May 2012


So, after saying I was going to see the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern every free day for the past God-knows-how-long, I finally went. Following a huge bank holiday Monday breakfast-for-lunch for indulgent sustenance, I once again cursed like the blazes at my dratted umbrella and bussed it through another grey day to Southbank. The drizzle was fitting, as I wasn't feeling too enthusiastic about checking out Damien's retrospective blockbuster. I'm gonna put it out there: I'm just not that into him. I get some of the messages and ideas and all of that, but endless pharmaceutical cabinets...really?? So yeah, I may be a philistine. However, I did find quite a bit of the exhibition seriously beautiful.

Firstly there was 'A Thousand Years'. A huge glass vitrine. Maggots hatch, develop into flies, feed on a severed cows head, stick to the congealing pool of blood leaving it pockmarked with fly-prints. Many meet their end on an insect-o-cutor, which sounds like a ridiculous and terrifying B-movie contraption. Others survive to continue the cycle. The eyes of the cow's head were wide-open and milky.

In the next room was a more aesthetically pleasing take on this life-cycle exploration. 'In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies)'. White canvases are embedded with pupae so butterflies hatch from the paintings, fly freely round the room, feed on sugar water and flowers, mate and lay eggs. Then there is the more stationary version. 'In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays)'. Which is pretty much just that. Ashtrays overflowing with cigarette stubs laid out on tables surrounded by coloured canvases encrusted with varnished butterflies, and quite lovely for it.

Butterflies carry religious associations of resurrection. So symbolism dictates at any rate. 'Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven' is huge in scale. On arch-shaped canvases butterflies are arranged into patterns like medieval stained glass church windows. The triptych has a pleasing internal rose-like composition. Stunning against the white gallery walls. More arresting, however, is 'Black Sun'. A vast dark circle, the surface covered in clusters of dead flies that look like a paste of thick tar stuck with tiny insect legs.

From black to white. 'Sympathy in White Major - Absolution II'. A pale pastel disc-shape comprised of subtle butterflies displayed in circular patterns. The first part of the title is taken from Philip Larkin, who wrote that religion is 'That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die'. Though the poet that came into my mind as I walked through the butterfly rooms was Keats. In one of his many love letters to Fanny Brawne, he writes 'I almost wish we were butterflies and liv'd but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.' If we are to believe Jane Campion, Fanny opened her window to butterflies and trapped them in her room while she pined after her love.

In the centre of one of the butterfly rooms is 'The Anatomy of an Angel'. A white marble sculpture of an angel, but with a section of internal organs revealed, only visible from certain angles. In one of those sacred moments of poetic coincidence, I had started A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects only a couple of days earlier. These are two novellas, the first about the naturalist William Adamson, explorer and collector of insects, the second about Christian Mysticism and communicating with angels. I hadn't yet begun the second novella, but the first seemed particularly prescient . William collects insects and butterflies and can't help but compare their habits to those of humans. His love-interest, named Eugenia (which is also the name of both a rare butterfly and the novella itself - Morpho Eugenia) makes decorative displays using butterflies. Well, blow me over with a feather (or, indeed, butterfly wing), for Damien is doing just that. Eugenia tells William:

'I have made a beautiful display - a kind of quilt, or embroidery almost - out of the earlier specimens you sent my father. I have pinned them out very carefully - they are exquisitely pretty - they give a little the effect of a scalloped cushion, only their colours are more subtle than any silks could be.'

I don't think I'm giving anything away (well, perhaps I am) when I say that their marriage does not last (for it turns out that she is actually more taken with incest than insects) and he leaves on another expedition. Which leads me to think it may not be such a good idea to paper my walls in butterfly wings, as beautiful as that may be. I would only have to watch them then decay around me.

Photographs courtesy of my gal-pal Frances

5 May 2012

100 Billion Suns

Katie Peterson
Glogaverstr 26
Berlin 1099

Wednesday 18th January 2012

Dear Mrs Urquhart

I'm sorry to inform you of the death of the star 6RB 120118B.

Yours sincerely

Katie Paterson

There were dozens of these letters, bearing different dates and different star-codes, all set out neatly and chronologically in a display case along one wall of a tiny white gallery. The artist Katie Paterson had written to The Haunch of Venison informing the gallery of the deaths of stars over the past year. Astronomical institutes notified her each time a star exploded. So she wrote a letter for each dead star. Most were typed, some hand-written, some on thick luxurious card, some on fine leaves of paper, some bordered, some with bright envelopes. All had the same jolly stamps and bore the same simple lines of death. In the final display case, the letters were no longer set out separately, but were piled up and overlapping. I glimpsed a date: 22nd April 2012. Only a week before I visited the exhibition.

Tiny multi-coloured perfect circles lay on the glass covering the letters. At first there were very few, only dotted here and there, but then they seemed to multiply and cluster as the number of star-deaths grew. I thought they symbolised the dead stars. It turned out they had been blown from a confetti canon behind me. 3126 pieces of paper had been placed in the canon, with each piece matching the colours of the brightest explosions of the universe - Gamma Ray bursts are the brightest, burning with a luminosity 100 billion times that of our sun. The canon was set to go off at 1pm for the duration of the exhibition, creating a miniature explosion of all the vast explosions in the greater universe in just under a second. Cool.

At the Venice Biennale 2011, one hundred of these canons were exploded around the city at anonymous locations at times, set off night and day, over major piazzas and narrow backstreets. Each explosion was captured in a photograph, some of which were displayed. Colours mid-air in the night sky, spots of paper mingling with leaves on the ground, smoke lingering from the canons. It looked like sequins had invaded the city.

A television was set up in the middle of the gallery space. It showed footage of ancient darkness. Darkness broadcast from the edge of the universe, from the furthest point of the observed universe, nearly 13.2 billion years ago, long before the Earth existed, when the first light began to form. I watched one minute of this darkness, the dark minute shown on a continual loop.

I visited this exhibition on its final day. Before the lights went out and all went dark. Apparently, during the hours of darkness, the gallery lights flickered in time with lightning storms happening across the world. There has been many London thunderstorms of late, so much lightning this past fortnight. The perfect time to celebrate stars. I wish it rained coloured-paper confetti instead of damp grey mists. I'm sick of being soggy. I'd rather be sequined.