3 02 2013
Paul Dobraszczyk, Cottonopolis, 2013, charcoal on watercolour and chalk and ink, 50x70cm

1. Paul Dobraszczyk, Cottonopolis, 2013, charcoal on watercolour and chalk and ink, 50x70cm

In this painting (1), I wanted to represent my recently-adopted home city: Manchester. Like all cities Manchester is, at least in part, defined by its textures: its surfaces and colours. And, for this city, that surface is brick and that colour is red. Yes, brick is used all over the country, being, perhaps, the most common building material, but here in Manchester it is somehow uniquely synonymous with the city as a whole: sodden and almost infernal on the frequent rainy days; warm, rich and earthy when the sun graces the sky. And if you look closely, Manchester’s seemingly monotonous brick is really a rich spectrum of red hues and subtle shapes: from the uneven hand-made bricks of its earliest warehouses (2) to the variegated patterns of its later flamboyant Victorian buildings (3).

2. The Merchant's Warehouse, Castlefield, 1820s

2. The Merchant’s Warehouse, Castlefield, 1820s

3. Warehouse on Princess Street, c.1870s.

3. Warehouse on Princess Street, c.1870s.

Fashioned from this omnipresent brick are Manchester’s buildings, particularly its industrial buildings from the days when the city was also known as ‘Cottonopolis’. World-centre of cotton textile production and marketing in the Victorian period, Manchester’s innumerable mills, warehouses and factories were once the defining visual motifs of industrialisation. For early-Victorian visitors to Manchester, like the German architect Karl Frederich Schinkel, the city’s mills that were concentrated in Ancoats presented ‘a dreadful and dismal impression’ of ‘monstrous shapeless buildings’ that Schinkel visualised in a kind of hurried fever in his 1826 sketchbook (4). Schinkel gave us the perennial Manchester motif (passed all the way down to Lowry): the massive utilitarian rhomboid dotted with innumerable but highly regularised windows; and the chimneys of course – a ‘forest’ of impossibly high ‘needles’, according to Schinkel, belching smoke incessantly into the skies over the city.

4. Schinkel's sketch of mills in Ancoats, 1826.

4. Schinkel’s sketch of mills in Ancoats, 1826.

Today, most of these industrial buildings and their chimneys are gone; or, if they remain, the smokestacks no longer smoke and the buildings are either half-ruined, empty or gentrified – ‘post-industrial’ in the literal sense of the word, frozen in an in-between state, no longer industrial but not yet something else. Yet, even this seemingly bygone industry is never ‘post’ – as we all know it’s simply been relocated elsewhere, out of sight, out of mind, halfway across the globe. Once, Manchester’s mills seemed to be literally taking over the world in a vast unregulated conglomeration, a kind of architecture that was dictated entirely by newly-industrialised capitalist production, one that threatened to reproduce itself in unending exact replicas across the face of the earth.

5. Old Mill, Ancoats, 1798-1801.

5. Old Mill, Ancoats, 1798-1801.

Yet, even in the blankness of Manchester’s surviving mills (5), I find a sense of honesty about industrial production that seems to have been covered over with what’s replaced it (the glass sheen of global finance). It’s as if the regular, repetitive windows on the surviving mills in Ancoats speak very precisely and transparently about the nature of capitalism itself; each window casts a light on the machine and its workers; each are identical cogs in a wheel; each are bound by the same brutal scientific rationale.

Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830


                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.

Peak Hollows

5 03 2012

Paul Dobraszczyk, 'Peak Hollows', 2012, coloured paper and sequins.

Hollow between two gritstone boulders on Kinder Scout.

Man-made hollows carved into the gritstone on Stanage Edge. These hollows, each of which is numbered, were created as drinking troughs for the moorland grouse.

Circular hollow near Monk's Dale in the White Peak. These man-made hollows were created as drinking troughs for sheep.

Natural water-filled hollow formed in the gritstone on Kinder Scout.

Abandoned hollow above Monsal Dale in the White Peak.

Natural circular hollow in the gritstone on Derwent Edge

Wild spaces: Kinder Scout

22 03 2011

1: On Kinder Scout looking towards Edale

Kinder Scout is a high windswept upland gritstone plateau, most of which stands at around 600 metres above sea level. This is the largest and grandest of the upland areas of the so-called ‘Dark Peak’ in England’s Peak District National Park. Like its southern cousin, Dartmoor, Kinder Scout is studded with stone tors and crags, which flank all of its steep edges that guard the almost featureless plateau, which covers an area of four square miles.

2: Rocks on Kinder Scout

3: Rocks and aircraft trails

4: Balancing rock with Edale behind

It is the rocks that give Kinder its distinct personality. Sculpted by wind and rain and extremes of temperature, the gritstone tors act as landmarks on the plateau – strange presences that rise up out of the peat and heather. Here (1), a mushroom-shaped rock looks out over the steep sides falling into Edale; there (2), two isolated rocks are seemingly drawn towards a mysterious point in the sky; here (3), aircraft trails radiate from a hole in a rock on one of Kinder’s innumerable crags; there (4) a balancing rock frames the sweeping Edale valley behind. Without these presences, the landscape would be immeasurable, hostile and alien, as is the case on nearby Bleaklow. With them, the wild landscape assumes a reassuring character, although its meaning remains inscrutable if undeniably present. No wonder, then, that Kinder Scout was the site of a mass trespass in 1932, when thousands of walkers breached the fenced moorland to claim their right to roam, given formal recognition in 2003.

5: Kinder's plateau frozen in January

6: Frozen stream on Kinder Scout

Kinder’s landscape is transformed in the winter months, when its surfaces freeze hard and one can roam over the wave-like undulations of its plateau without sinking into a quagmire (5). Here the landscape becomes almost extraterrestrial, the deep reds of the peat and endless, blank horizons confirming on it the character of an alien planet. When its streams freeze into petrified white ribbons fringed with icicles (6), the landscape assumes a silence that is not characterised by absence; rather, it opens up a space of contemplation and wonder, stopped in its tracks and frozen in time. On clear days, this space of silence is only accentuated by the view of Manchester’s city-centre towers 20-miles away, gleaming behind statuesque rocks and the strange gurgling call of the grouse.

The labyrinth as sacred space

11 12 2010

Paul Dobraszczyk, Mausoleum, Meknès, 2010 (watercolour on chalk and gouache)

The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of the only sacred buildings in Morocco that can be visited by non-Muslims. In the 17th century, Moulay Ismail elevated the city of Meknès to a imperial capital in his 55-year reign from 1672 and built a vast royal palace, enormous fortifications and monumental gates. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest figures in Moroccan history, despite his extreme despotism; his reign was marked by bloody campaigns of pacification, countless grisly deaths and the employment of tens of thousands of slaves to build his vast monuments in Meknès.

Dark space

Light space

By contrast, the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is a remarkably peaceful series of spaces, divided into squares. On entering the building through a tiny door, one comes into a dark square room, intricately decorated but barely lit. Ascending a small flight of stairs, you enter into an unroofed space of light, covered in coloured square tiles that one sees in almost every significant Islamic building. Up another flight of stairs, you walk through an almost identical square room, completely bare apart from the mesmerising tiles covering the floor and part of the wall. Ascending more steps into an arcaded room, seemingly lighter again, one eventually enters the mausoleum itself – a square room filled with light, with all surfaces decorated with carving or tiles and, in the centre, a fountain ceaselessly playing its soft watery music.

Lighter space

Heavenly space

This mausoleum represents a simple use of a labyrinth as the guiding spatial principle. The visitor is gently led on a single route through the spaces in an ascending path to the heavens. In contrast to the secular commercial labyrinth of the medina of Fes, this is the sacred labyrinth that directs the pilgrim on a path to enlightenment: a spatial guide from earth to heaven. Its use predates the rise of the monotheistic religions, as indicated in these carvings in Cornwall, which date from the Bronze Age, or around 1500 B.C.E. As if linking continents and cultures across space and time, the carved labyrinth in this isolated Cornish valley is accompanied by contemporary offerings to the gods: words inscribed on slate and coloured fabric and trinkets hanging from the trees.

Bronze Age labyrinth in Rocky Valley, Cornwall

Offerings in the trees near the Bronze Age labyrinth

The city as labyrinth: the medina of Fez

2 12 2010

The old city of Fez from above

Fes-el-Bali – the old city or medina of Fez in Morocco – is believed to be the world’s largest car-free urban area. Founded in the early 9th century, the medina covers only around a square mile, but contains over 9000 streets and around 150,000 residents. Virtually unchanged since the gigantic ramparts and seven monumental gates were built around it in the 16th century, the old city is a self-enclosed world, working to its own internal rhythms. Each small district within the city has its own public utilities – water fountains, mosques, baths – and the city’s streets are sharply delineated between the busy public shopping streets and the almost silent private streets of housing leading off to dead ends. Sandwiched between the endless lines of shops selling everything imaginable – from fabulous ornaments and sparkling textiles to fruit and vegetables and tourist tat – are oases of peace: richly decorated medersas built by the Merinids in the 14th century; mosque courtyards; elaborate medieval funduqs (inns for itinerant traders); and tree-filled courtyards of opulent Riyads – the traditional Moroccan home.

A private street in the medina

One of the medina's many public streets lined with shops

Not surprisingly, the medina of Fez presents problems to the first-time visitor, especially in navigating its tortuous geography. Here, the standard way of getting hold of new cities – seeing them from a high viewpoint – only serves to confuse, the streets disappearing in the extraordinary density of low-rise housing that only becomes apparent when above the city. On the ground, maps are virtually useless for the tourist as most of the streets are either unnamed or only given in Arabic script. At the very centre of the old city, conventional geography seems to stand on its head: covered streets lead around the enormous central mosque in a whirl of dense crowds and heavilly-laden donkeys, and the connecting side streets are so narrow and dark they seem to be underground.

Courtyard of a medersa in the medina

Narrow street passing from dark to light in the medina

In this place, one navigates initially by trial and error as if in a maze (getting lost, retracing one’s steps, discovering dead ends); then by remembering certain features that remind you to turn left or right; then by the gradients (down towards the centre of the city, up to get out). After a few days, certain streets begin to link up in the mind and a skeletal outline of the city is mentally constructed. Only with many weeks – even months – of exploration would the rest of the labyrinth slowly unfold itself and connect together.

For the tourist, navigating the medina of Fez inevitably brings you into contact with that peculiarly Moroccan character: the faux guide (false guide). Usually male youths, they lay in wait for tourists at strategic points in the old city (each seemingly having their own patch) and approach whenever there is a pause, hesitation or misdirected glance. After leading you to where you want to go they demand payment, usually much more than you wish to give. Most will try and divert you into a shop, presumably owned by a relative or even their employer. The only way to avoid being ensnared is to always know where you are going and thus Fes is ideal picking ground for these would-be-guides, preying on tourists’ most vulnerable weakness – their lack of environmental awareness. And so, in Fez, the tourist becomes like any other commodity being peddled in the souks, stripped of that special status that so characterises Islamic attitudes towards the ‘guest’.

Night in the medina

At night, when the shops close down and the touts go home, the medina quietens and takes on a new charm, one defined by private lives – boys kicking around a football, young girls walking with their mothers, groups of men gossiping in doorways, animals heard behind thick walls. This sharp disjunction between the public world of commerce – aggressive and male – and the private world of the family, is common to all cities, but particularly intense in a city like Fez, where the regular pulsations between these realms have been continuing unchanged for centuries.

Layers of time: reading the everyday

19 11 2010

Posters on a phone box, Marylebone Road, London

Poster on the Underground, Metropolitan Line, London

On a recent journey to and from the British Library in London, I was led to reflect upon posters and the act of reading them. On one leg of the journey, I saw a poster in a tube carriage advertising an advertising company – playfully drawing attention to the fact that posters are effective tools of communication. On my return journey on foot along the Marylebone Road, remnants of posters on a phone box drew my attention for their unusual texture.

The sight of a billboard just after a poster has been removed is certainly mundane, but contains within it hidden truths about the visual culture of our towns and cities. In the decaying remnants of posters we glimpse, for a moment, the tattered layers of time, seen like rings in a tree trunk. Such remnants demonstrate the contradiction at the heart of advertising, that is, it’s focus on the always new that creates, in its wake, a vast waste-dump of the old. As long as new posters are in place, that waste is kept hidden and our focus is on the new product being advertised. However, once the old posters are exposed we are reminded, in a shockingly graphic form, that those desires have not been fulfilled and never will be. Yet, against this disillusionment, we can also rediscover new worlds: traces of the old that are constantly being either erased or concealed. Such playful curiosity forms the basis of much counter-cultural artistic activity, particularly graffiti, which makes a virtue out of these layers, creating a babel of messages that cannot easily be read but nevertheless mirror the city with its multitude of conflicting voices and histories.

Graffiti in Leake Street, Waterloo

Reading graffiti or layers of posters is like grasping a hidden language of the city, one that normally evades everyday perception. Yet, once we start looking, new worlds open up at every turn: in the ceaseless flows above and below ground; in the obscure stains upon the pavement; or even in the marks on shop shutters, opened and closed every day. In short, everyday life produces its own visual marks that remind us that in the city, like Freud’s definition of the mind, ‘nothing that has once taken shape can be lost, that everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances’.

Shop shutter in Seville, Spain

England’s desert: Orford Ness

5 11 2010

Twelve miles long and up to two miles wide, Orford Ness is a desert – a vast shingle spit lying just off the Suffolk coast. One of a series of similar landforms along the coastlines of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, Orford Ness was – and still is – created by the ceaseless action of tides, currents and seasonal storms, its undulating ridges of shingle marking the passing of time. Accessible only by boat across the river from the picturesque village of Orford, the Ness is as bleak a place as one can imagine – devoid of shelter, battered by winds, and where the only animate objects are hares, birds and the sea wind.

From the First World War until 1993, Orford Ness was owned by Ministry of Defence and, for 70 years, was the site of intense military experimentation. During this period, activities on the Ness were subject to complete secrecy: for the inhabitants of Orford, it was like a foreign land, the stark but oddly beautiful military structures the only indicators of its sinister provenance.

The 'pagodas' from across the river in Orford

Now owned by the National Trust, and opened to the public in 1995, its series of coloured trails delineate a small area where it is safe to wander – for the vast shingle banks are littered with unexploded ordnance and other military objects, strewn across the landscape like obscure clues to an unknown riddle. Here, ‘lethality and vulnerability’ trials were carried out: aeroplanes were lined up and shot to pieces with rifles to ruthlessly expose their weaknesses; and, in half-submerged bunkers nearby, detonation devices for Atomic bombs were tested with extremes of vibration, temperature and other shocks.

The 'red trail' on Orford Ness

Rusting object on the shingle

From the top of a building known as ‘The Barracks’ – used to photograph the trials carried out on the site – the vast extent of the Ness becomes clear, as do more inexplicable forms: huge shingle-covered bunkers; the off-limits ‘pagodas’, part of the Atomic weapons site; a vast circle inscribed on the shingle; and, all around, almost motionless and hunkering down in the wind, birds of all kinds – gulls, plovers, avocets, redshank.

The Atomic Weapons site from the top of 'The Barracks'

Circle in the shingle

Very gradually, the site is being reclaimed by the National Trust and the birds, but it’s hard to imagine them ever taming its bleakness. The almost overpowering sense of melancholy is generated not by any past human tragedy but by the senseless absurdity of its function as a vast arena for the systematic torture of objects. In a kind of surreal irony, objects of destruction were themselves destroyed in the game of real and imagined warfare. If we are moved by the suffering of people, can we not also be moved by the suffering of objects?

Exploded boiler on the red trail

Icons of the ordinary

21 10 2010

Paul Dobraszczyk, 'Hayracks', pen and pencil on watercolour, chalk and ink, 2009

In Slovenia, the hayrack (kozolec) is a national icon. Slovenian emigrants are said to weep at the sight of them on postcards sent from their home country. These modest forms of vernacular architecture are scattered throughout Alpine central Europe and are wooden constructions that allow the mountain winds to dry harvested wheat and hay. They originated in the seventeenth century and are still used today, but are now more likely to be made of concrete rather than wood. In Slovenia, hayracks take many forms, from single standalone structures to toplargi, which are double hayracks joined together and roofed with a storage area on top.

Toplargi in Studor, Slovenia

How do such mundane structures become iconic in the national imagination? It has been argued that Slovenian hayracks are built according to the golden section – supposedly the ideal proportions in architecture – making them pleasing to the eye. Yet, in Slovenia, they only took on heightened significance after the nineteenth-century impressionist painter Ivan Grohar made them the subject of many of his paintings. It seems that for the mundane to become iconic, it needs to be invested with elevated ideas already present in other places.

This is what gives certain works of art their power. It is said that Henri Matisse looked at an object which he intended to paint for weeks, even months, until its spirit began to move him, to urge him, even to threaten him, to give it an expression. This intense discipline of study is a kind of meditation, a form of identification that enables the artist to feel the shared life that animates both him/her and the object. It is as if the object is making its own picture. And, as you travel in the Alpine meadows of Slovenia, it does indeed seem as if the hayracks have a life of their own, scattered over the hills like an extended family: here, a lone pioneer; there, gatherings of many; yet all joined together in a shared life.

Toplargi in Studor, Slovenia

Cast iron’s hidden histories

22 09 2010

Bracket in Clifton arcade, Bristol

Bracket in a shelter on Clarence Esplanade, Portsmouth

Victorian decorative cast iron represents an important and relatively early example of mechanically reproduced design. Unlike wrought iron, which is hand-crafted, cast iron results from a mechanical process: a pattern is made in wood or metal and this is cast in a bed of sand to produce the finished product. This can then be reproduced endlessly, illustrated by the two examples shown here: identical brackets in Bristol and Portsmouth. They were made in Glasgow, at the Saracen Foundry of Walter Macfarlane.

We take for granted the fact that products we buy are mechanically reproduced: we expect them to be exactly the same as any other produced by the relevant company or brand. Yet, we buy certain objects – particularly clothes – to feel special, individual, set apart from others. This generates a contradiction, which is a fundamental aspect of consumer societies today. Yet, it began to take effect only in the nineteenth century. The rapid dissemination of ornamental cast iron represents an important instance of this and came under close scrutiny by critics. Some, like John Ruskin, despised it because they hated the very fact of industrial production, longing for an age when products were made by hand, with craftsmen indelibly linked to the things that they made. Decorative cast iron represented the separation of art and work, the work of the craftsman being replaced by a manufacturing process. Others regarded this as a positive development: mechanical reproduction democratised art by disseminating it to the many rather than the few.

These two examples – probably produced in the 1880s – represent a time when cast iron reached a height of ornamentalism. The fantastical design is typical of its time: at the base of the bracket a grotesque head merges with the sinuous tail of a dragon, wrapped around a sprig of foliage which fills the space inside the bracket. Here, decoration performs no ‘function’, other than to invest the bracket with elevated qualities then associated with ornament and hand-crafted works of art. In others words, this decoration suggests a designer, but this is undercut by the fact that the same design is seen in two places that cannot be easily connected. In fact, the brackets would have probably been acquired through the pages of a trade catalogue, in this case those of the iron founder Walter Macfarlane, based in Glasgow. In these catalogues, no designers are credited, the brackets being advertised as just one product among countless others. Yet, they are different , not as a result of design but rather of their context – the bracket in the Portsmouth shelter is weathered by time and the elements; that in the Bristol arcade is still pristine in its clearly-defined forms.

So, how can we interpret these objects? If Walter Benjamin has argued that mechanically-reproduced works of art lacked authenticity, a real presence in time and space, where do these objects stand? Well, to get anywhere, we have to ask questions not normally posed about works of art: who decided to acquire these objects and for what purpose? Who was involved in the manufacturing process and how did they interact? How were these objects perceived in their distinct environments? It seems to me that the question of context is crucial. Even though these objects were made in the same way and to the same design, their meaning is determined primarily by the places in which they appear; the function and use of a seaside shelter are very different from a shopping arcade. In this way, decorative cast iron can be understood as contributing to the making of different environments – worlds where intention and perception are of the utmost significance. It is in iron’s place in these worlds where its meaning is made.


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