‘Eden’ is a word synonymous with paradise or the Biblical garden home of Adam and Eve, and has connotations with a state of pure bliss and happiness… so it was with optimism that I boarded a train at London Paddington bound for Cornwall and the Eden Project. Just over four hours later I arrived at St Austell, where the public are encouraged to walk or cycle to the eco visitor attraction. However directions are cryptic to say the least, beginning with heading east out of the station (I didn’t have a compass on me!) and then to dog-leg over Sandy Hill (an instruction which still eludes me!), and an inebriated local who helpfully pointed me in the wrong direction. With limited WiFi I finally managed to navigate my way through the hilly terrain to the former clay-pit which now houses the iconic biomes and twenty-acres of outdoor gardens. Visitors are welcomed by contrived branding and an eco theme dominates the entire site; from the carparks named after different fruits (banana, plum, apple and kiwi to name a few) to the sculptures created entirely from waste which litter the gardens. Despite boasting the worlds’ largest indoor rainforest, this biome was little more than an overinflated plastic-bag filled with palm trees and manufactured humidity. The Mediterranean biome was preferable with distinct geographical areas ranging from Southern Europe to California, Western Australia and South Africa – but again contained nothing that can’t be seen at Kew Gardens, other greenhouses, or indeed on a walk in the natural environments being mimicked. The Core Building did contain an engaging exhibition in conjunction with The Wellcome Collection featuring striking images captured on medical cameras and other advances in science-technology. Admission is a costly £27.50 and although your ticket acts as an annual pass, I doubt I’ll be returning anytime soon!
In the heart of the bustling city lies Wat Phra Kaew – the temple of the Emerald Buddha – and the Grand Palace complex. Cited as the most sensational and significant Buddhist temple in Thailand, a throng of international tourists swarm the site from the moment it opens until its 4pm close each day. Once you have literally fought your way past coach loads of tour groups, a sea of parasols protecting the fair skinned from the heat, and the army of aggressive selfie takers (by now synonymous with the big attractions of Bangkok!) – it is truly breath taking. The complex dates to 1782 when King Rama I ascended the throne as founder of the Chakri Dynasty and remained the royal home until 1925. It is not a single structure, but a vast site spanning 218,400 square metres and houses palatial buildings as well as administrative offices including the country’s war ministry, state departments, and mint. A strict modest dress code is enforced throughout the site, with additional measures such as the removal of shoes to enter certain buildings such as the Royal Chapel or ‘Ubosoth’ of the Emerald Buddha which is stunningly carved from a single piece of jade. Enormous gold domes, tiled stupas, intricately carved columns, mythical gold leaf figures, animal and anthropomorphic statues, phenomenal use of precious stones and rich mural paintings all vie for your attention, and a beautiful hand carved stone miniature of the complex helps orientate you. The site also contains a small museum displaying original architectural elements, Buddha statues, Chinese figurines, a mother of pearl seating platform dating to King Rama I, and even elephant bones. Inevitably a site of this date and magnitude will have undergone numerous renovations and repairs, however viewing so much original material in the museum did leave me questioning how authentic the buildings are today.
If you can cope with 34 degree heat, wearing multiple layers of clothing to ensure you are not exposing any skin as a mark of respect in such temperatures, and handle hordes of eager tourists clambering over a UNESCO World Heritage site in pursuit of the ultimate selfie – a visit to Wat Pho should rank highly on any Bangkok must see list. The complex stands on the site of an older temple dating to the Ayuthaya period and more specifically the reign of King Phetracha (1688 -1703), but did not exist in its current form until the time of King Rama l who ordered the renovation of the site in 1788. It underwent further development under Rama III and Rama IV in the 1800’s including extending the site and the construction of the fourth great chedi building. Today the site is most famous for housing the giant statue of the Reclining Buddha which measures a staggering 46 metres long and 15 metres high and is covered in gold leaf. The temple itself is also decorated in detailed murals and contains 108 bronze bowls (representing the 108 characters of Buddha) along the walls, and visitors can purchase a jar of coins to drop into these bowls which rings through the hall adding to the atmosphere. In addition to this giant statue, the complex is home to a further 394 Buddha images collected from various sites across Thailand which are positioned in impressive rows under various colonnades. There are also 91 stupas (or chedis); 71 containing the ashes of the royal family and 20 larger ones clustered in groups of five containing the relics of Buddha, all of which are wonderfully colourful and elaborately decorated with ceramic tiles and flowers which glisten in the sunlight, making it an extraordinary complex to explore.
Lumiere Festival brightened up the dark wintry nights in London over a four day outdoor event from 14th – 17th January. The project was launched in Durham in 2009 and this was the first time it took place in the capital; across various locations from Oxford Circus, to Piccadilly Circus, St. James, Trafalgar Square and Kings Cross. The crowds outside Oxford Circus tube during the rush hour commute were visibly stunned by Janet Echelman’s huge net sculpture suspended between buildings above the station. Echelman’s work is inspired by fishing nets seen on a trip to India, and this piece was more specifically based on the 2011 Tsunami and data from NASA which created a 3D image, informing the shape of this beautiful floating sculpture. A few steps down Regents Street saw mesmerising LED fish creations from the Fetes des Lumieres Lyon which floated, danced and swooped through the sky whilst constantly changing colour. Further towards Piccadilly the unexpected sound of a wild animals’ trumpet amidst jungle noises could be heard, as an animated elephant emerged between the archways of Regent Street shops stomping through a cloud of dust! Through Piccadilly and into Leicester Square, French collective TILT installed various plant structures (flowers, tress, Japanese lantern inspired plants amongst myriad other creations) made from recycled materials, illuminating the square with a magical quality. A hundred metres further, Trafalgar Square showcased the original Centrepoint lights on the steps leading up to the National Gallery highlighting how each installation was designed to respond to the architecture it was placed within. Finally a pack of glass and neon dogs – not dissimilar to balloon dogs at children’s parties – graze near Trafalgar Square with their leads, bones and other paraphernalia associated with dog walking. Here’s hoping the festival returns to the city to enliven many a Londoners journey home!
Dennis Severs House is a magical place, even more so at this time of year when their annual Christmas installation decorates all five floors of the Grade II listed Georgian terraced house. Situated on Folgate Street, behind Spitalfields Market (East London) the house was purchased by an American artist named Dennis Severs in 1979. At that time the building was in a dilapidated state and Severs began an extensive refurbishment programme, decorating each of the ten rooms in a different historic style from the 18th and 19th centuries. Not content with refurbishment alone, Severs also added the fictional story of the Jervis family, originally Huguenot silk weavers who inhabited the house from 1725 to 1919. Visitors ring the bell to gain entry to the house and are asked to remain in silence for the duration of their visit, as a scintillating combination of sound, smell and sight arouse your curiosity and help guide you on your own journey. With no electrics, the house is lit entirely by candlelight and each room is absolutely bursting with furniture, trinkets, half eaten food, portraits, old masters paintings, clothes, jewellery, musical scores and more! Visitors begin their descent back in time in the basement cellar and kitchen, then upstairs to the ground floor eating parlour, up another flight of stairs to the withdrawing room and smoking room, upstairs again to the chamber and boudoir, before a final climb to the top floor which is rented out to lodgers and in a much more ramshackle state than the rest of the house – and end back on the ground floor in the back parlour. The house motto is ‘Aut Visum Aut Non!’ translated as ‘you either see it or you don’t’ – and if you fail to be transported back to the Victorian age through the bewitching experience presented here, then you are truly missing out.
Design districts (Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Chelsea, Brompton, Islington and Bankside), temporary installations, large-scale fairs, and hundreds of talks and events popped up across London last week to celebrate the city’s annual Design Festival. After lack lustre RIBA installations in flagship store windows along Regent Street and a frustrating visit to the V&A involving disorganisation, poor signage, a map with the wrong orientation, and long queues when you finally did locate a related room – Somerset House provided a welcome change and was extremely satisfying. It was easy to navigate, the central courtyard contained clear signage with arrows directing visitors to different areas, and actively encouraged public engagement and interaction. Although not strictly part of the festival, Marc Quinn’s ‘Frozen Waves, Broken Sublimes’ sculptures currently inhabiting the courtyard are certainly worth a mention, comprising five monumental stainless steel pieces including a 7.5 metre long wave and four conch shells. Moving into the Terrace Rooms six ‘#Powered by Tweets’ competition winners were on display, each challenged to create something beautiful or solve a problem using Twitter. Given my cynicism towards social media I was surprised by how thoughtful the entries were; one design equipped pigeons with pollution monitors enabling real-time tweets to report on air quality in various global cities, another harnessed Twitter to create visual mindscapes to help relax patients receiving chemotherapy, whilst another monitored language to create a real-time visualisation of the most popular words being used on Twitter. On the subject of communication technology, Punkt in the West Wing also touted their MP01 mobile which refreshingly contains no status updates, notifications or multiple alerts but instead “focusses on the things that matter, like communicating”! Finally, the sunken Embankment Galleries showcased ‘My Grandfather’s Tree’ where Max Lamb beautifully explained his story of felling an ash on his family farm which was cut into 130 sections, each transformed into a stool, table or chair, and all displayed homogenously.
The Shell Grotto opened as a visitor attraction in 1838 yet very little is known about it prior to that date. Today local legend continues to debate whether it was originally built as an ancient temple, a meeting place for a secret sect, a smugglers cave or a wealthy mans’ folly – and following my visit, its purpose remains ambiguous (though I would like to believe it was commissioned by an idiosyncratic family as a whimsical cavern for their children). Unusually for Margate it is located inland; away from the beach, Turner Contemporary, Old Town, and Tudor House, but is well sign posted. The grotto lies just two metres below a residential garden, and is 104 feet long. It is punctuated with archways, a rotunda encouraging visitors to explore in either direction, a stunning dome where the shells glisten in natural light, and culminates with the Altar Room where the only non-local shells (Caribbean conches) can be seen. Somewhat frustratingly, it is difficult to describe my visit without contradicting myself… whilst the grotto itself is wonderfully eccentric and fantastical, it left a lot to be desired in a “museum” sense and offered little in terms of interpretation or explanation. Although there is a small orientation room before entering the grotto, the layout feels clumsy and cluttered and despite being keen to learn more about its origins and history, I found myself skipping this room as trying to make sense of it was quite hard work. However, once inside the grotto all is immediately forgiven and forgotten as the intricate floor to ceiling mosaic of approximately 4.6 million shells is absolutely breath-taking! Regardless of whether you believe in religious or cult symbolism, the delicate patterns made from regional cockles, muscles, whelks, limpets, oysters and razor clams is astounding and well worth the humble £3.50 adult entry fee.
The news of a balloon installation across Covent Garden Market was enough motivation for me to take a detour and see it on my way home last night… and I’m so pleased I did! The floating cloud created by hundreds of balloons measures 54 metres long and 12 metres wide, encompassing the entire ceiling of the South Hall Market building. Created by French artist Jean Charles Petillon, the installation is called ‘Heartbeat’ and incorporates a pulsating light that moves across the piece, creating a mesmerising effect by slowly lighting up different balloons from one end of the installation to the other. Whilst I was captivated by the delicate balloons floating against the hard wrought iron structure of the old market building, it was equally enjoyable to see that it didn’t detract from normal everyday life in the market as the shops, cafes, street performers and public all functioned as normal below it. This is not the first time Petillon has used balloons in his installations – indeed he has filled derelict houses, cars and basket-ball courts with them in the past – but this is his most ambitious balloon project to date. Each one of his ‘invasions’ (the artists preferred term for these installations) is metaphorical, and this one is intended to represent the dynamic nature of Covent Garden market, and how it has been the beating heart of the area throughout history and into the present day. Somewhat surprisingly, I had no desire to pop any of the balloons as it looks so fragile and beautiful; the mere sight of just one slightly shrivelled balloon was enough to make me feel a little sad. As transient and fleeting as a real cloud, this installation is only floating above Covent Garden for a short time so catch it before it blows away on 27th September!
I am deeply suspicious of immersive theatrical experiences and have a palpable dislike of forced audience participation, so had my concerns about attending Dreamthinkspeak’s new production at Shoreditch Town Hall. Inspired by The Duchess of Argyll’s residence at a London hotel for over a decade until her eviction in the 1980’s, ‘Absent’ uses the Town Hall’s labyrinthine basement as the set for a journey “guests” can enjoy at their own pace. Upon arrival, I immediately bought into the deception of it being a real hotel, complete with reception and check-in area, functioning bar, and doormen leading you down to the basement where the hotel façade continues. With no idea what to expect when entering the first bedroom, black and white films of a glamorous dinner and a two-way mirror allowing you to see into the next bedroom where a drunk and disorientated older woman is packing her suitcase, ease you into the story. Moving down the corridor, you can look into each of the hotel bedrooms via keyholes and peepholes to view the same woman at different life stages; an innocent child, elegant young lady, and lonely older woman. Influences range from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, to C.S Lewis’ Narnia and Orwell’s 1984 – and the integration of film, installation, eerie soundtrack and detailed miniatures of the rooms you are standing in, make navigating your way through the building intriguing and utterly absorbing. The maze-like basement constantly alters in scale, and oscillates between the real (actual rooms) and the imaginary (film, installation, replica miniatures) making you feel as though you are stepping into scenes you have been watching or moments from the past. As you exit the final room a doorman is required to inform you that the experience is over, testament to its authenticity and to how convincing an illusion has been created.
Bompass & Parr’s new breathable cocktail installation ‘Alcoholic Architecture’ is cloaked in mystery and those with tickets are provided with very little information prior to their experience. It is located behind Borough Market next to Southwark Cathedral (the UK’s oldest gothic cathedral and site of an ancient monastery) and certainly plays on this monastic theme… guests are greeted by robed monks who stamp your hand with a cultish symbol before allowing you to enter the basement. This theme continues with archaic signage, faux stain-glass windows, bar staff dressed in robes, and the ‘Holy Orders’ drinks menu is similarly designed to look like a church service offering Heavenly Tonics, Canonical Cocktails, Sacred Shots, Trappist Brews and Celibate non-alcoholic options. Don’t be fooled by these names – this is a dangerous cocktail list comprising absinthe and Buckfast, the fortified wine Scottish parliament is currently trying to ban from entering the country. Attendees are given a fifty minute time slot and at 9pm I was given a disposable mac before entering the ‘Walk-in-Cloud’ installation. A neon sign warns those entering to “breathe responsibly” as the cloud is composed of spirits and mixer at a ratio of 1:3 and uses humidifiers to saturate the air, allowing alcohol to enter the bloodstream through your lungs and eyeballs! The macs are certainly necessary as it is very sticky inside the cloud and my companion and I likened the experience to an upmarket version of the sweaty nightclubs you went to aged 16 (in my case pre-smoking ban), complete with sticky floors, dense alcohol permeated air, and an eclectic playlist! My only criticism is that the cloud is fairly small and once you have walked through it a few times (I couldn’t stay in it continuously) there were a couple of ‘what should I do now?’ moments where a talk or having more information available would have been welcome.