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Architecture and spirit

Which one is mine?

Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul.

Ernest Dimnet

Every day I am surrounded by buildings growing towards the sky.  These buildings will house human beings, their spirits, hopes, dreams and thoughts.  Are the buildings going to enrich their lives or reduce them?  To me they seem more and more like hives – tightly bound, completely organised.  They are closed tight against the world and within them, the doors are locked tight against neighbours.

Within these walls, with views of other walls and other buildings, do we have a chance for the expansion of our horizons? Within these buildings we need to constrain ourselves. We fear disturbing the neighbours, so we moderate our anger and our joy.  No dancing in high heels to loud music, no screaming our frustrations at the walls.  Our children learn to be quiet. No running to let off energy in the corridors or up and down the stairwells.  They could interrupt someone’s sleep, TV watching or dinner. We lessen our creativity. Common walls cannot be painted with our visions or joyful colours.

These buildings block the world from our view, and the apartment doors block us from our neighbours, and are locked to create some hope of privacy.  Our gardens are not filled with plants that we have chosen, but by those the body corporate employs someone else to choose.  Our BBQ area is supervised by the windows of one hundred apartments.  No long lazy afternoons sitting beside the BBQ, a few cool ales in hand, chatting with our friends, watching the children run and play on the grass. Someone else may need the area, or may object to children running on the grass or to the music we have in the background.

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These building then begin to control our lives and our expressions of life.  Where in them can we find the space to expand our souls? To give our children the freedom to play, run, sing and explore their world?

These buildings are also ‘one generation’ buildings, not intended to be refurbished, because their structures are too both rigid and too poorly constructed for renovation and renewal.  They are intended to be torn down with 20-25 years, making way for more modern, probably ever higher structures.  The cannot grow organically the way a house can, in response to teh needs of the family; with a room added here, a verandah there, and an attic under the roof. Gardens and trees planted within the grounds are short-term, not intended to provide shade, fruit, food and beauty for long.

Modern architecture in communities where people are seen as factory fodder, where children’s role in life is to study and achieve and where profit becomes the highest aim, loses everything rich and exciting that it could be.

Even with single family dwellings, it seems they are constructed with the same constraining principles in mind.  Few windows, very small openings to the outer world; surrounded by other buildings; no gardens, no trees, no comfortable shade; and no colour.  These buildings do not invite us to relax and refresh ourselves after work. They don’t give opportunties to stamp an individual or creative touch on them.  They don’t inspire interest, either in themselves as pieces of ‘living’ art, or in the outer world.

Why do buildings have to be like this?  Architecture can help people move into comfort after a long day at work. It can set the space for imagination and exploration.  It can allow creativity to flow. We may initially desire to escape, but if all we can see is more of the same, there is nowhere to escape to.  Instead these buildings gradually imbue us with their prisonesque feelings, finally limiting our physical and, eventually, emotional expressions.

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Beauty 3

Inside the bell - the beauty of age.

Still looking at beauty and where we find it.  I love the colours of rust, the textures and stories that I can conjure from them.  This is an image from inside the bell at Qinglong Temple in Xi’an.

Each temple and city in China traditionally had a bell and drum tower.  The bell was rung in the morning, the drum at dusk.  A lovely way to mark the beginning and end of the day.  Most of these are now just ornamental, their purpose being taken over by watches and clocks.

Can we find beauty in the disused, outdated and time-worn?  I think so. The beauty is in the colours of the past, the textures of the disuse and the stories they could tell if we listen carefully enough.

Out to pasture

Most photographers love photographing the faces and hands of the elderly – and I guess for pretty much the same reasons.  Those faces and hands can tell so many stories and those stories can enrich our lives so much.  History is written for us to see in the eyes, wrinkles, knotted fingers.   Babies and littlies are sweet, but their faces, as yet, tell us little.

I can find beauty, even in death, if it is surrounded by life.  A well-lived life, with work  done, goals achieved and loves fulfilled, is not sad in death, but beautiful.  The death of an old tree in a  forest surrounded by young trees, speaks of the wheel of time, the ever-renewing face of life.

QingLong Temple bell

Beauty can be found in the old and forgotten.  It can be found in rust and cracked paint. It can be found in death.

Beauty 2

They’re pylons, generally seen as excrescences on our landscape, marching across hills, through farmlands, carving their way into wilderness.  Not seen as beautiful – necessary, ugly, perhaps dangerous with their radiation.  Visual pollution.

These pylons in Guangdong have been beautified – given multi-coloured coats of paint.  Why?  Does it change their essential starkness?  Someone, somewhere, thought that even this sign of modernity could be made more beautiful.  And in doing so, gave a little light relief to travellers on a long road trip, maybe changed the perspective of some.  Someone cared enough to spend money on painting pylons.

This caring, this expenditure, says something important.  Even the ugly, the plain, the utilitarian, can be given a coat of beauty.  And in doing so, greater beauty is created.  The spirit that created this idea is seen.  The essence of the object is changed. Possibilities have been seen.

What else can make these objects beautiful?

Their role in our lives.  Our perceptions. Carrying power to remote areas, giving light and heat to houses, generating power for industries that help feed workers and their families.  The promise of  future work or comfort for rural dwellers.

Even if these robotic soldiers of progress can despoil our landscapes, their lines of connection have to be eradicated from so many images, they pose danger if misused; they still have a beauty in strength, promise and use.  Someone somewhere saw this, wanted to change our perspective, wanted to create beauty from utility.

Looking at ugly, plain, utilitarian, practical with other eyes can show us a different beauty.

Shadows of life

The last few weeks have been difficult creatively. I came back from Australia ‘photo’d out’, with close to 4000 images to work through, and no energy to make  a  big effort.   I also came back very confused about my direction.  So much desire to go back to Australia to be close to my family and friends, but at the same time, still really enjoying my life and my work here.  And of course my family and friends are suggesting that I return. Internal conflict, the tension of competing desires left me with no focus, no vision.  So I felt pretty blocked emotionally and work-wise.  Photoshop also threw a tantrum and decided to lose a couple of fairly vital bits after I had a friend go through my computer to free up space.  Not being able to work is as bad as not wanting to work!

But a friend visiting from overseas pulled me out of my ‘no more photos’ funk, taking me to local places I hadn’t been to for a while, and giving me a chance to see things with new eyes again.  And then spring came, albeit with a pretty chilly wind as well.  The sheer gorgeous-ness of flowers in spring forces its way into the consciousness, and demands to be seen, appreciated and for me, recorded.

Working came before the inspiration, and resulted in a renewal of a desire to experiment with my camera.  Even without of the full sun of inspiration, I could still see and feel the importance of getting out there with my camera and working from the ‘dark side’. Once we begin work in the ‘dark side’, it allows us to see the shadows and express them.

Added to these influences, I read Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art’. This book names and shames the resistances within us that prevent us from working, from creating.  It is pretty direct, which is sometimes what is needed.  The basic message of ‘get off the backside, quit the excuses, NOW’ is definitely necessary some days.

Waiting for the sun of inspiration will not open the doors of creativity.

Beauty

 

I’ve been wandering around museums and mausoleums lately and have been struck by the drive for beauty that seems to be innate.  Even back in Neolithic times, when, we imagine, life was more difficult, more primitive, more survival oriented than today, women still carved bone into hair decorations.

Our need for beauty that we create extends to everyday implements. If we need to identify our belongings, to me a simple mark would have been enough and efficient.  But instead from the beginning of thought we have created beauty with our markings.

 

Houses have been decorated as well – it seems that to create beauty for ourselves is an incredibly strong motivation.  This goes beyond identity, beyond practicality and into the realms of the spirit.  But most decorations aren’t based on a religion or pleasing the gods, but deeper into our own spirituality.  We create beauty to make our lives more meaingful, to add something beyond what is necessary to survive.

From adorning ourselves to adorning the world around us, from art to music, photography to sculpture, painting to collage, needlework to architecture, from gardens to natural scenery – we have a drive for finding and holding beauty.

Beauty is within us and is reflected by our external creation, by our search for it.

The ideal space

I think that the ideal space must contain elements of magic, serenity, sorcery and mystery.
Luis Barragan

Queensland is pretty well inundated. Huge areas of land are underwater and it is still raining.  It’s raining so heavily that the mountains surrounding my sister’s place have disappeared and even the neighbours only a couple of hundred metres away are misty. The roads are cut and I am stranded here for another couple of days at least, until the rain stops and the floods recede.

However, it is a very comfortable stranding for me.  I have no real responsibilities – no crops to be destroyed, no work I can’t reach.  We’ve stocked up with food from the local supermarket, and have books, movies, cards and each other to keep ourselves occupied.  I have no young children here to keep entertained and from climbing the walls.  My sister and brother-in-law work from their computers, so I have long periods of uninterrupted ‘alone’ time.  So, for a flood experience, it is the ideal space.

This enforced period of stability is lovely. I can work on some projects, read, drift off to sleep, chat and relax after a long semester and a, so far, very busy holiday.  Virginia Woolf called for a room of one’s own, but for me, with plenty of rooms of my own, it is time for myself.  Time to contemplate, time to read, time to be alone. Uninterrupted time to be at peace.

The nuns at Chenrezig have their time for meditation and the meditation room is filled with the sense of peace.  I am not a strong religious observer of any particular brand of religion, but I have found that when I am in a religious space, no matter mosque, temple, monastery, church, synagogue etc, there is a pervading sense of peace.  The peace creates the ideal space to be serene and relaxed, allowing a sense of well-being to reach inside.

This ideal space has given me the chance to let everything else go, to just be.  And after a period of time, the serenity and the emptiness of letting go gradually becomes a space to find the magic – new ideas and new creativity.  I start to feel a new energy and clearer, stronger resolutions for my goals. Without this peace, I feel as if I bounce from activity to activity, idea to idea, person to person.  I achieve all of the things I am supposed to – work, deadlines for articles, social activities etc.  But nothing new and creative can fight through the busyness, can be heard above the daily hubbub.

The beauty surrounding me create a balm for city-tired eyes and ears.  The low hills, extensive gardens, trees close by, birds and native frogs calling and even the constant rain change my world view. Pollution and poverty are far away, politics and power struggles recede into the distance.  The sorcery of nature takes over and clears my eyes and I can look for the small beauties. The natural sorcerer transmutes my daily concerns into internal and external discoveries in this ideal space.

And the mystery of the ideal space – where and how to find it on demand!  The choices necessary to go to the space are difficult.  They mean saying ‘no’ to people I hope I can help create a new life; saying ‘I need to be alone, I don’t want to come” to my family and friends and most of all they mean saying ‘Relaxation is not watching a TV series or reading a crime novel while eating nibblies and having  a glass of good red. Real relaxation is meditation and allowing nothingness to occur’ to myself.

This ideal space – time to be quiet – is so rare, and finding a way to increase it is one of my biggest challenges. I can’t rely on being stranded in lovely surroundings all the time!

 

Ambition is so powerful a passion in the human breast, that however high we reach we are never satisfied.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

It’s raining and causing flooding over huge parts of Queensland.  More rain is predicted for the next couple of weeks, more flooding will happen.  This is being called the biggest natural disaster  for the last x years and likely to cost $5 billion in clean up, lost revenue, damages etc.  Clearly we have had enough rain – for now.  But Australia is an arid country that floods. A fact of life.  In 6 months we will be complaining of how dry it is, and worrying about the loss of crops and how little water there is for the cattle.

We swing between too much and not enough.  Floods and droughts are extreme examples of this seesaw of life.

In my own life I am always looking for the next thing that will make things easier, better, more interesting etc.  Today I was on-line looking for camera bags.  I already have several; some too small for my current camera, another too big to take on long hikes, but necessary to take when I travel to hold all my gear.  I am looking for a bag that carries my camera, flash, maybe another lens and looks like a handbag, I am also looking for a bag that allows me to climb mountains, stay balanced so I don’t fall, hands free of camera and stuff, and yet can easily grab the camera while holding on to the rocks or branches.

I have to ask how often I will use these bags, what real necessity there is for them?  How many camera bags are enough?  How many lens are enough?  Ultimately, how many images are enough?  When will I say, I have enough, I have seen enough, I am enough?  Or will I always be looking for the next piece of equipment, the next country, the next image, the next version of me?

On the other end of this spectrum, yesterday I went to the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Nuns community. Set on a ridge, surrounded by natural bushland, this community runs classes, retreats and provides a home for those wanting to live a life of simplicity and meditation.  Giving up the desires of the world for the expansion of the soul.  Is it another ‘what is enough?” process?  Material ‘stuff’ is gone, but will there ever be ‘enough’ connection with the universe or the Bodhisattva?

The search for ‘enough’ goes on.

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

C. S. Lewis

These eggs were still warm from the hen when I took the image. Their soft blue colour shells held the warmth and when I held them in my had, warmed me as well.

Their fragility made me walk carefully, taking care not to slip in the waterlogged grass, fearful of dropping them.  Yet the hen can sit on them for around 4 weeks without breaking them, letting the chicks grow until they reach the right level of maturity and need to peck their way out.

External forces can damage them, but the internal pressures don’t cause the shell to crack until the need for protection is finished. This process seems to me to be reflected in my life.  The only time there is a real problem is an unwillingness to take the next step to growth and leave this warm, slightly snug shell behind.

This image is from the “Ordinary Joys” series, and there is nothing much more ordinary than an egg.  Breakfast eggs, egg sandwiches for lunch, eggs in cakes and biscuits, souffle for dinner… such an ordinary thing.  And yet, holding it, warm and textured, takes me to many places.  Birth, genesis, change, growth and on and on.

The ordinary

I am in Australia visiting family and friends, and it is summer. In China it is winter, with my favourite seasonal happening – SNOW!  So many people brought up in places where snow is common place, and in fact more of a pain than a joy, laugh at me for my delight in this magic stuff.  For them it is so ordinary and sometimes frustrating, and dangerous.  For me, it is magic.

This delight in the ‘ordinary’ is important.  The ‘ordinary’ of a lovely sunset after days of rain; the messy smile of a baby learning to eat solids; a breeze through the trees in the back yard, a crisp sweet apple; a friend’s smile; a comfortable bed after a long day; a cool drink on a hot day.  These things create our lives and missing the joy in them because we are looking for greater joys – a large financial win, a fantastic job, overwhelming romance – means that we lose the joy that appreciating the ordinary can bring us.

For now I am planning a series of ‘the ordinary’ to see if I can capture the happiness, satisfaction and joy in these small events of life.  There is no difficulty in finding these small things to photograph, but I think the difficulty will be in making the image reflect the happiness it creates.

 

The edges of things

We’re always attracted to the edges of what we are, out by the edges where it’s a little raw and nervy.
E. L. Doctorow

My home country is an island, a pretty big one, but still edged by sea (or as we say – girt by sea 🙂 ). Oceans fascinate me and make me feel sane.  But I have come to realise it is not just the ocean, it is the meeting of the ocean and the land.  The edges of both.  Rocks, cliffs, sand beaches, mangroves, all the places where change happens.  This clash of one against the other, or melting from one to the other creates so many images and so many thoughts.

Where I live is edged by mountains with rocky outcrops, steep drops and twisting, climbing roads and walking trails leading to waterfalls, or cliff edges with views across forever.

The edges of the days, sunset and sunrise, bring beauty and change, mystery and light.

And then there are the edges of towns and farmland, with women still working in the fields while new buildings are constructed on old farms. Nature and architecture edge against each other, creating tensions and juxtapositions that in turn create images.

Looking for the edges, where change inspires, saddens, transforms and challenges is important. It is in these places I can find new ways of looking at old ideas, old views, and hopefully create new images.