Favourite non-fiction books: Part 2

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Here we have another instalment of my top non-fiction books to talk about today. All of the following four volumes are fairly new additions to my bookshelf but have immediately secured their place at my literary inspiration station. Being recent purchases I haven’t actually properly read through all of them, hence the little introductions/ reviews that you are about read are not conclusive in any way.
As if any of my ideas were. But let’s cut to the chase.

Barbara G. Walker: The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects

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I didn’t know I specifically needed a woman’s symbol book until I saw it.
This book is very simply exactly what its title implies – a dictionary of symbols related to women and femininity. I am fascinated by universal symbols, local symbols, religious symbols, you name it, and have been on the lookout for a symbol encyclopedia for quite while. More often than not these kinds of manuals are very pricey, and so I was thrilled to stumble upon this bargain at my local second hand book shop.
The Woman’s Dictionary has been divided into sub chapters where interrelated symbols can be studied individually as well as a group. Of course there is also an index at the end for when you want to find a specific object – or use the “blind selection method” and start reading from the first page that you happen upon. That’s how I usually do it.

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Whitney Chadwick: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement

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This is another brilliant find from the aforementioned second hand book store (that I’m going to miss when I move next week!). I love surrealism, I love women and I love books. I used to browse through collective art books like this at my university library all the time, and I even wrote an essay about women and surrealism at one point of my studies. I don’t think I ever saw this particular one before because when I first leafed through the pages I discovered so much gorgeous, poignant art from the surrealist movement made by women that I had never seen before that it took my breath away. It is such a shame how women have historically been treated in the creative arts, how their art in any media has been erased from the art history.

In addition to the visuals, the essays in the book are also right up my alley discussing women’s place in the arts as primarily muses and the passive objects as opposed to active practitioners, and how the societal change has enabled them to start occupying a more visible and acknowledged space as creators and storytellers.
Nothing like a little bit of female empowerment to get those ideas coming.

Michael Gill: Image of the Body – Aspects of the Nude

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Guess what. Another bargain!
When I saw the cover of this book I instantly knew I was going to need it. If you read the first part of my favourite non-fiction books, you’ll know that the human body is one of the most fascinating things to me creatively and academically, and I will not stop hoarding related books. I have only read the first few chapters but based on that and a quick browse through, the book seems to offer a very rich view into the cultural history of the nude from the very first depictions of humans in pre-historic caves to contemporary photography.

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Quite unlike my usual experience with introduction chapters that feel like a never-ending hike through mud to the real content, this one was captivating on its own right. The cover photo that drew me in was in fact the theme of the intro. It is a commission made by Robert Mapplethorpe, and the creation of the image is described in such a detailed way, intertwined with paragraphs concerning those cave paintings that I mentioned, that I couldn’t but see it all happening right before my eyes. As a visual person I relish language that paints vivid pictures in my mind. And to be able to observe Mapplethorpe working with the models through the author’s eyes is quite unlike anything that I’ve read before. A big thumbs-up for this one!

Angus Hyland & Angharad Lewis: The Purple Book – Symbolism & Sensuality in Contemporary Art and Illustration

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Last but not least is my most recent gem, The Purple Book, which I first saw at Saatchi Gallery and fell in love at first sight (well actually my good friend Kimberley, pointed it out to me saying: “I found your book”). The price was a bit steep though, so I googled around until I found the best deal – nearly half of the original – and placed the order. Can you tell I’m a chronic bargain hunter?
Unlike all of the previous books that I’ve talked about this one is total eye candy with it’s canvas spine, purple and black divider pages and romantic typography. The content  consists of artwork from 23 contemporary artists paired with interviews, short stories and excerpts.

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Again I have only read the introduction and stared longingly at the pictures, and all I can say that it is a beautiful thing inside and out. Not to mention that purple is my favourite colour.
If you’re into tour-de-siécle kind of aesthetic and eroticism, dark romanticism, Tim Burton, Edgar Allan Poe, burlesque and sensual nudity this might be your cup of tea as much it is mine.

Of course, there are shelves upon shelves of other books that I’ve come across in my research that have left their mark. These are just the ones that either caught my eye in the right place at the right time, or I connected so deeply with that I just had to posses them.

Leave any recommendations below if you wish. One can never own too many books. Right?

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Creative Ideas: Access Denied

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I have been in a very persistent state of creative block for several months now, not really knowing how to dodge it. However, very recently it seems like a glimmering light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, and suddenly I feel like I have some new insights into easing or even defeating that state of lacking productivity.

First of all, I think it’s important to accept that your artistic juices aren’t flowing like you’d want them to. Accept that it is goddamn frustrating that the most creative effort you can manage is the shopping list. Also remember that you are definitely not the only one having to fight the fight; everyone is sometimes faced with a brick wall.

Something that helps me to deal with the swamp of non-creativity is trying to work out whether there is anything going on in my life that could be the cause of it. For example, I’ve had a couple of stressful and ungrateful jobs that completely ate up my energy and motivation. I’ve also struggled with some mental health issues, and the change from university to working life has added its weight to the baggage to be sure. In this light, it isn’t such a curiosity that I’ve been lacking ideas and excitation. When you can name some of the things that might be taking over your mental capacity, leaving nothing for the arty side, it’s easier to get over the frustration of the situation.

So now that you’ve accepted you’ve hit a wall, and maybe understood some reasoning behind it, it’s time to do something that at least for me feels scary: take your mind off of it. Whatever creative task you need to be doing, just forget it for a couple of hours – or even days if you can. Do something else, something that you really genuinely enjoy. What works best with me is physically getting away from the place that I would otherwise be working at. Somewhere that I can be completely detached. A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time in Finland and went to see three incredible shows by my favourite band with some of my favourite people in the world. I didn’t spare a single thought to all of the wiring and image-making that I should be doing, but fully immersed myself in the experience. I returned home absolutely exhausted but also buzzing with new energy. I believe that creativity comes from a genuine place, a place of honesty and childlike wonder. Re-connecting with that place within you will most likely have a huge impact on your productivity and creativity.

Another thing that I always neglect is talking to other people about my work. In university, I got used to brainstorming with my peers and tutors, explaining my ideas, finding strengths and weaknesses and challenging my thinking. Out of the academia, not only do I not have the structured way of making work, but also there are no people at hand to discuss my research and practical issues with. Of course I can shoot a message at any one of my friends at any time, but the constant support of the peer group is just not there in the same way as it used to be. Having someone else give their opinion on your project is extremely valuable especially when they genuinely put their mind into it. For me, hearing someone talk about a project from three years ago was an eye-opening experience, which encouraged me to go back to it and expand those ideas. The most unlikely conversations can give you the best ideas, which leads us to my next point.

Keep an open mind. It’s sounds like a cliché but it rings true. Don’t try to assume how anything will unravel. Maybe the first way you’ve thought out of a problem is not the best one in the end. Maybe something that seems completely unrelated and irrelevant to what you are doing is exactly what you need in order to overcome your mental block. Creativity is after all, exploring and discovering something new.

Lastly, as a counteraction to my first pointer: instead of getting excited, get bored. When you’re sick of sitting with the non-existence of creative ideas, you automatically reach for a distraction. I play bubble shooter or hidden object games, and although sometimes the mechanic, mindless activity will actually help to massage those brain cells, just letting yourself be bored can be a whole other way to rekindle the artistic fire in your mind. For me this is again about being a little bit brave because in our world boredom is practically the worst faith anyone could be faced with. We all have the smartphones and tablets within an arm’s reach, and so we never have to just be with our thoughts in silence doing nothing, embracing the dullness of life. But how can we expect to come up with new ideas if our minds are constantly engaged with pointless distractions?
Maybe a creative block is just our minds’ way of saying: “give me a break, I need to rest”.

What helps you to find a way out of a mental dead end?

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The smell of trees after rain.
Squeezing a hand when you’re in pain.

Conversations without sound.
Watching ferris wheels go round and round.

Making a new friend.
Wishing the night would never end.
Sitting by a fire, losing track of time.
Jump on a trampoline and pretend that you can fly.

Sway and move your body with the beat.
Curl up in a bed of fresh clean sheets.

Looking out the window,
slowly noticing the wonder
of rain and growth and bicycles,
people walking, talking to each other on their phones.

Close your eyes and see the galaxies.
Find happiness in sorrow and struggle in peace.

Lying underneath the stars.
Find the meaning of your scars.
Staying up ‘till sunrise.
Look into a pair of trusted eyes.

When someone else prepares the dinner.
Let another see your inner
world of colour, madness, sadness, loneliness.
Discovering a key to treasure chest.

Laugh until your face and belly hurt and breath falls short.
Try and fail, and try and fail – and try again once more.

Dancing,
running,
listening.
Pick the first flowers of the Spring.

The sound of thunder, the salty scent of sea.
Knowing this is where you need to be.

Chocolate bars, snowfalls, old books and wine.
Inhale,
exhale.
It’s going to be fine this time.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

DSC_1139The V&A Museum in London iscurrently hosting an exhibition of fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s work. It has been open since March but there is still a constant queue outside the dedicated gallery space. I went there already a month or two ago, but as the show is still on until August I thought I’d share my thoughts on it.
As soon as you enter the first room of the exhibition you’ll know it’s not going to be just another clothing exhibit. Then again, this is Alexander McQueen so you probably guessed that already. The visitor is immediately confronted with mortality as the artist’s suicide is addressed. A wall-sized video piece of his face slowly blending into an image of a skull in a completely dark room accompanied by an eerie soundtrack sets the mood for what’s to come – dark, romantic, thought-provoking.

Fashion is not really my forte, nor am I remarkably familiar with McQueen’s story as much as his reputation and a few key catwalk looks. So on that point of view the exhibition offered a lot of information about the designer and his path to success and fame. I read a few snippets here and there but the real strength of the show is in the visceral experience that the fantastical garments in cohesion with meticulously constructed gallery spaces including backdrops, lights, sounds and even air currents create. Having previously seen another fashion exhibition occupying the same space really emphasised how incredibly versatile white cubes are: how passive or active the environment can be in relation to the display. But back to Alexander. Can I call him Alexander? Are that close? Al, my pal. Maybe not.

The first room after the entrance video is an overview to the beginning of the artist’s take on the craft of dressmaking. We know Alexander McQueen’s collections as filled with romanticism and fantasy, over-the-top, sculptural, shocking works of art. He did begin with the basics though, and thought alike many other masters of their craft that in order for one to break the rules one first must know them like the back of their hand. That he did. I used to dabble in dressmaking so I know something about patterns and cuts, and how damn hard it is to make it all work out like it does in your head. Judging by the sculptural, asymmetrical shapes of the jackets and trousers on display, and the accompanying technical drawings, Alexander knew somewhat more than I. This first room is all about the form, and its dismantlement. It’s simple, all black and white and business throughout. It immediately guides the viewer’s gaze toward a principal element of McQueen’s work – the deconstruction and reconstruction of the form, whose primal beauty gets sometimes swallowed by the spectacle. It shows the integrity of the work, the craftsmanship, and the singularity of the man behind it.

Everything after the first room, the intro, is a rock concert. There is leather and lace, deep colours, bright colours, feathers, bones and fur, leaves, flowers and butterflies, regal gowns and latex hoods. The mood changes completely as you enter another room, and another. I can’t but marvel at how skilfully each room has been decorated to compliment the garments, worn by mannequins but seeming strangely alive. The clothes and accessories are absolutely stunning in their total disregard of such mundane things as gravity, and the imagination in the choice and combination of materials and colours can be added to the list of ‘things that blew my mind’. However it is always the form that my eyes fall back to. Most of the pieces can be viewed from all angles, granting rightfully earned attention to the three-dimensionality of their design. It’s almost infuriating how perfectly thought out these garments are; whichever point you choose to view them from, you’ll find something you couldn’t see before. They are essentially sculptures that look like something a human body could wear, and the overall curation of the exhibition does a wonderful  job at obscuring the line between art and fashion in Alexander McQueen’s legacy.

If I hadn’t seen this show and was reading what I just wrote I’d probably deem the writer a tiny bit mad for getting so emotional over some dresses on mannequins. Having seen it, I have no trouble understanding why Savage Beauty has been all the rage in London since its opening. It really is worth the hype. And just to add a few more degrees of choked-up-ness to this mess, I would say that the show is a worthy memorial to a brilliant artist who evidently was in a lot of pain. (I have a soft spot for brilliant suffering artists, don’t judge.) The gloomy beginning is cleverly mirrored by another video installation at the end of the show. In the enchanting hologram projection in the middle of a dark room a white dress worn by Kate Moss, floats and flutters in the wind making her look ethereal, like a fairy or an angel. Symbolic or not, Savage Beauty is one of the most memorable exhibitions I have visited in a long, long time.

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