Art & Development, Research, Travelogue

Travelogue Entry No. 2: Manchester, London

My last day of four in London. Too premature to sum up any concrete ideas. Immediate impressions follow:

-Manchester’s great. I was really impressed with the city’s investment in culture. Saw “Outside of the Box,” a knock-out show of media art at Cornerhouse, an contemporary art gallery and film hub, as well as a cool retrospective of work by SF-based Lynn Hershman Leeson at the Whitworth Gallery at the University of Manchester. I was so impressed with the city’s vibrance that I found the constant refrain that Manchester was trying to shake off its industrial reputation to seem outdated, but a Londoner’s slight scoff at Manchester proved me that other minds have yet to be opened.

-London has looked like this in my visit:

–Lewisham Road feels remarkably similar, at least on appearances to parts of Brooklyn: lots of immigrants from all over the world, internet cafes/call centers, low storefronts with lightboxes, fried chicken, mattress retailers. Of course on the other side of Lewisham Road is Goldsmith’s, where I’ve stumbled upon a small community of Filipino and Fil-Am expats. How funny it is to sit in a Morrocan cafe in punk-rock Camden-town and listen to Taglish.

–Quiet opulence everywhere. The city is not especially pretty, but the remarkable architecture always gives me an awareness of a sensibility of being in the seat of an Imperial power, however faded it may be in the shadow of the U.S. superpower. Even as I snap my tourist photos of Parliament and Big Ben, I’m thinking: what were the conditions that made all of this possible? The finest building materials: gold, marble. The huge consumption of tea from China, chocolate from Latin America, sugar from the West Indies? I like the idea that somehow I can subvert something by being here and sitting in Royal parks, walking through the free museums… but of course what’s more important is what I can bring home as a citizen, not just a consumer, of the United States.

I was startled and amazed and angered when, lost in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London’s swank South Kensington, I stumbled upon a view of two great halls. In one hall sat two monumental columns, which soared to the atrium several stories above. They were the two halves of Trajan’s Column, built in Rome in AD 131. On the other side sat a conservatory for antiquities, with a replica of Michalangelo’s David sitting among dozens of partially crated busts, statues and reliquaries. The view of these priceless antiquities was awe-inspiring. And I mean awe in the sense of terrific, and terrible. I am only surmising the conditions that made it possible for the Column to be cut in half and moved to South Kensington from Rome. And there are so many layers of meaning to explore: the collapse of the Roman empire, the past greatness of the British Empire, the vulnerability in the consolidation of wealth and power of that magnitude.

View of amusement park
My DIY Burtynsky. Visited the Mall of America — mega-church of consumerism and diversions — on an unplanned overnight layover in Minneapolis (Tip: Flying to London? Fly direct and avoid Northwest Air).

Victoria and Albert Museum
The wealth of nations at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

–In addition to some art and history museums, I’ve been visiting as many contemporary art spaces as possible, seeing everything from Doris Salcedo’s unsettling exhibition at White Cube on Hoxton Square to Ed Ruscha’s stunning watercolors at Gagosian on Oxford street — about £1m in small photorealist watercolors were watched over by two suited and booted guards who found my photo-taking suspicious — to group shows at Alma Enterprises, which has all the atmosphere of a decaying public high school, in up-and-coming  Bethnel Green. The standout space, however, is inIVA, the Institute for International Visual Arts, spearheaded by an international consortium of artists, thinkers and business leaders of color. It’s brand new, on a smelly alley in Hoxton, with a largish gallery, project space, and library that collects catalogs by artists of color only. I love it. It’s a beautiful building in a great location with top-notch art and huge potential to be a formidible force in London, and hopefully, the world. I find it hope-inspiring.

Rico Reyes (artist, curator, theorist and my generous host in London) and I had the good fortune of participating in Leticia Valverdes’ project, “Is London the Place for Me?” As I’ve been travelling and shooting photos of landscapes of sheeps and stone walls, neo-Gothic cathedrals and plates of bangers and mash, I’d been wondering how much I’m looking for experiences that fit my expectations of England, instead of seeing England as it is. But with Valverdes’ props and a digital studio, we were able to play with the cliches. We placed ourselves — Chinese American and Filipino American artists — into a tea room designed to display wealth and refinement. It’s a simple, ironic gesture, and I enjoyed it very much.

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One thought on “Travelogue Entry No. 2: Manchester, London

  1. After visiting the Philippines and England this summer, my understanding of “colonialism” is fundamentally different. What a paradox it is to study post-colonial theory in the US — the feeling that it’s a necessity and relative luxury is amplified.

    In the UK, I was pleasantly surprised that the English seem much keener on fair trade coffees than Americans. (Here, it seems like a marginal, West Coast phenomenon.) That is nice, I thought. But that’s the problem: Is fair trade coffee in England and the US a case of “better late than never” or “too little too late”?

    In “Extreme Chocolate,” (New Yorker, Oct. 29th, 2007), Bill Buford provides a brief overview of cacao in colonial Europe:

    “In London, the first chocolate shop opened, on Gracechurch Street, in 1657. Two private clubs, White’s and the Garrick, got their start as chocolate houses. By 1664, when Pepys whas writing about the new beverage …, he was a representative European consumer. He didn’t understand what he was drinking, had no idea how it was made, and knew only that it came from the New World and that he wanted as much as he could get. In the face of a global shortage, an equatorial panic set in, and prospectors and opportunists fanned out across the tropics, looking for wild trees and planting new ones…. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Spanish had found trees in Venezuela and Ecuador. They planted some in Trinidad, the French planted in Martinique, the English in Jamaica.”

    In Europe, as Buford writes, “…by the early sixteen-hundreds the beverage—the Aztec preparation, served warm, with European flavorings (sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg)—had its own high-society rituals.” Without sugar, of course, chocolate at that time would be nearly inedible (and wouldn’t tea served without milk and sugar be Asian, not English?). Great swaths of the New World became sugar cane plantations. Talk about a mean sweet tooth.

    A few months ago, David Bacon, the Oakland-based photographer and journalist specializing in labor, issues sent me images and an essay about child labor on banana plantations in the Philippines. I looked, read, and promptly went into denial. But this week at the grocery store I picked up free trade bananas, which tastes and feels better.

    Links:

    “Children in the Banana Trees,” a report by David Bacon:
    http://dbacon.igc.org/Phils/02ChiBan.html

    Gallery of photos of Banana workers in Mindanao, by David Bacon:
    http://dbacon.igc.org/Phils/banana00.htm

    Food of the Gods slide show (New Yorker)
    http://www.newyorker.com/online/2007/10/29/slideshow_071029_chocolate

    Abstract of “Extreme Chocolate,” by Bill Buford (New Yorker)
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/10/29/071029fa_fact_buford

    Fair trade coffee available at Global Exchange
    http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/fairtrade/coffee/

    Transfair USA
    http://transfairusa.org/

    Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International
    http://www.fairtrade.net/

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