I can not help myself – when engaging with something new I turn to books. This time I am trying to track down books on creative uses of feathers. As yet there seems to be very little on the subject other than the catalogue that accompanied the Birds of paradise exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp. (On leafing through the book recently I spotted a consistent mis-naming of a particular feather which made me wonder whether if it was a genuine mistake, an over active auto-correct function, or carelessness.) I treated myself to three books at Foyles though none of them are exactly what I was looking for: one considers the soci-cultural images, myths, and legends of various birds hroughout history; another examines the evolution of the feather from a biologist’s standpoint; the third is “visual guide to the structure and anatomy of birds”. All of these books touch on creative uses of feathers but I thought that I might find a more comprehensive volume looking at feathers in artistic practices.
So on Saturday I took myself off to the National Art Library at the V&A. I have never been there before and I have to say it is quite an experience! I was surprised and delighted at how many people were there on a fine autumn weekend. It is a wonderful place with helpful staff and what must be an incredible stack/store as it takes less than an hour for requested books to be available. I found four books in their catalogue that seemed relevant though I wonder if that has more to do with my abilities to come up with ‘keywords’ for the catalogue’s search facility. In my mind I have images of strange victorian confections of feather flowers presented along with taxidermed birds under glass domes. But how do I search for something like that? What did come up was a book documenting the commercial and industrial aspects of plume-making in France! Published in 1914 the book lists and illustrates the range of feathers available at that time, a list that is certainly not available now! I was interested to see how many terms for the plumes are the same as Tim uses – the language of feathers seems international, or perhaps acknowledges the supremacy of france and french in the fashion industry. Diagrams of various machines for the treating of feathers, and the exprot/import tables, made me realise how large-scale the operations must have been in the past. The book was fascinating and it was a real treat to be able to look at it. As I mentioned I had not been to the library before and the way in which the book was presented by the librarian had perhaps primed my curiosity and wonder. The book was classified in the special collections which meant that I was invited to look at it at particular and considerably smaller group of dark-wood tables, each reader’s place was denoted by a large grey cushion on the table top. The librarian placed the book on the cushion that I quickly understood was there to support its spine when I opened it. I spent a very happy hour leafing through a book in which, despite not speaking french, I found both the familiar and the new.
Last week I saw Prem Sahib’s shows at the ICA and Southard Reid. I didn’t know his work and went along based on a short article in a copy of the Royal Academy magazine. I liked the work and am thinking of going over to the Barbican to see the work of one of his friends and collaborators Eddie Peak. The ICA has re-instated its “day membership” – a brilliant idea that means it costs £1.00 to see the show. The ICA was one of the first, if not THE first, contemporary art venue that I started going to when I was a teenager. I remember seeing a Rosemary Trockle show there – I must have been 17 or 18 which would make it about 30 years ago! It was great to be back there and feel a familiar sense of excitement and curiosity.
On friday evening I was able to accompany Kim to the RA and join her public talk in the Ai WeiWei show. It is amazing how popular the show is. It must surely be the art event of the year. Kim and I have been discussing both the artist and the work over the last few months as she prepared for the show and has been giving tours to both school and public groups. What I really apprecaited was Kim’s skill at presenting the pieces as outcomes of both artistic and activist commitment. The work is wonderfully material, and the materials and forms are beautiful, whereas the popular image of Ai Weiwei seems more concerned with the stories around his detention and treatment by the chinese authorities. The show is impressive not least for the way in which takes on the scale of the RA galleries – it is one of the few one person shows that really sits well in those grand rooms. Kim and I continue to ponder why the show is so very popular – we can’t believe that it’s because of the actual artworks, however if the cult status of Ai Weiwei gets people interested in art and shows them how artists work through personal, political, and philosophical issues then it is all to the good!