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Simple

12 Jul

IMG_0611 (1).jpg

The Xhosa people of Southern Africa gave birth to one of our greatest human beings in Nelson Mandela. They speak the language called Nguni, which is also the common language of the Zulu and Ndbeli. Xhosa have no word for ‘Bridge’, except for…. ‘bridge’. This is surprising to me because the Mandela represents in himself a bridge sine qua non in South African and World Politics – his words and actions led to the reconciliation of white and black people following the dismantling of Apartheid and the building of a new nation state.

The word for river crossing in Nguni is Izibuko. Or a ford, where a body of water can be crossed safely on foot (far away from dangerous Hippos and Crocodiles). A Xhosa artist called Gogo, told me this and she also said that the word has a dual meaning – when spelled ‘Isibuko’ it means – ‘mirrors’.

At the crossing of a body of water do we not meet our reflection?

“Henkje,” my mother used to say ,”language is the key”. An air hostess had to learn quite a few in her day, so I always believed her.

It seems to me, however, that if words like bridge are not ubiquitous in human culture (because we don’t all build the same things, or solve logistical problems in the same way), then how is it possible to get all humans to understand each other before we accidentally recreate the Old Testament myth of the Tower of Babel?


After months of hard work creating commissioned pieces for my clients in my studio at www.woodenhenk.com, I recently awarded myself a few days of play time to pursue my practice.

 

Da Vinci Bridge

I was invited to build a much bigger Leonardo bridge at a public event organised by Ruth Nutter on Saturday 15th July, at Manor Fields Park, Sheffield – The Big Draw, Ruskin in Sheffield. This time I used Bamboo, grass stems instead of sticks from a hazel tree; oriental materials instead of occidental stuff. Lots of youngsters helped to build it and people climbed over it safely, including Ruth pictured here.

During the event a boy asked me, “Who designed it?”

‘Leonardo Da Vinci’, I said, ‘the famous 15th century Italian genius, do you know who I mean?’

“Yes,” he said, looking at me as if I had two heads, “but the bridge is so simple, surely somebody must have thought of this design before?”

“Simple things are hard to invent” I replied.

I suspected the lad had a point. It may be called a Leonardo Bridge, but one suspects that skilful builders like the Chinese and several other cultures may have been building free standing bridges from large interlocking poles for thousands of years.

PuqingBridge

It matters not, for the idea is so elegant and so practical, anyone can reproduce it, and simple ideas become the property of us all in short order.

It is this very simplicity that makes the Leonardo bridge so beautiful, the fact that anyone can make one and actually cross from one side of an obstacle to the other is enticing. Humans are all engineers and the act of making together makes powerful bonds between us.

To quote Willow Ferraby in the film above “As soon as there is a bridge between ‘us’ and ‘them’ there is ‘us’ and ‘the other us”. There is no longer a ‘them’.

As the architect Mies Van der Rohe puts it:

“Build, don’t talk”.

…it will help you to look in the mirror.

bridge in germany

 

 

Gaia

13 Jun

Neried

photo credit: Alan Howden

Gaia was the name the ancient Greeks gave to the elemental Goddess of the Earth. She was the mother of Kronos – the God of Time. In 1979 the name was appropriated by the polymath James Lovelock to describe his novel idea that Earth herself behaved like a ‘living’ organism – capable of regulating her own climate through gross perturbation: Gaia, a new look at life on Earth.

In 1979 I was a final year student of Zoology – I thought James Lovelock’s book was sensational. The idea that the Earth’s biota (all living organisms on the planet), the chemistry of inorganic cycles and the physics of the atmosphere all powered by the sun, could form part of a gigantic coherent negative feedback system simply blew my mind.

Negative feedback, the basis of biology and life-chemistry expanded to encompass Earth.

We humans live within a constantly changing environment. Night and day,  cold and heat, moisture and dryness, from pole to pole through temperate climes to the tropics all these geographical locations exert significant physical changes on the organisms that live there. Vertebrate animals – particularly mammals, have developed efficient ways of regulating their internal environment to maintain the best working conditions for the proteins within their cells. Proteins – enzymes and structural molecules – require very narrow parameters of temperature, salt concentration, pH and so on to work at all, otherwise they become ‘denatured‘ (permanently damaged).

We call this cellular ‘fighting back against change’ Homeostasis:

“the maintenance of metabolic equilibrium within an animal by tendency to compensate for disrupting changes”

In March this year, with the help of Yorkshire Artspace I was given permission to set up my oak Ruskin Sculpture on the roof of Persistence Works in Sheffield and organise an artistic event with contemporary dancer, Simone Thompson and visual artist Robert Twigg (assisted by Will Armson). There was no script and no direction, just a bunch of creative humans having an open dialogue around a strange structure on a roof top.

I’d seen Simone perform at a street fayre in Sheffield in 2015 with her students and was struck by the energy and vitality she drew from her young students and her own wild, eclectic performance when she treated us too her own extemporised dance.

I guess I wanted to create a living substrate – in equilibrium – that would allow my talented friends to create something that was dynamic, rooted in the environment and celebrating life.

In searching for a title for the work I was reminded of the power of the Earth Goddess, and here she is:

To live in harmony with the Earth and with each other is the single greatest challenge of our age. If we don’t we will perish.

“Nature favours those organisms which leave the environment in better shape for their progeny to survive. James Lovelock”

 

Blind

3 Jul

Dear readers, my dear friend Alec emailed me today and asked me if I was ok, seeing as I had not posted a blog for quite a while. I told him I was suffering from ‘Brexit’ – a condition whereby the brain temporarily exits stage left due to incredulity.

Many years ago my brother Tim came home from primary school to report to our mother that he had been punished for misbehaviour. His teacher, Mrs Kay, had hit him across his hand with a ruler for persistently using the ‘wrong’ colours when colouring in a scene. Orange grass for example, green sky – that sort of perfidy.

The next day our mother steamed in to school and tore several strips off the teacher and the Head. Yet, ever aware of our needs, she asked our neighbour Mike Green (optician) to check Tim’s vision out.


Mike showed my brother a little booklet of Ishihara colour tests and discovered that Tim could read even the most obscure ones (left). Tim is colour blind.

Over the years Tim has turned this minor handicap into a boon, with the leverage of his very flexible scientific mind.

In the 1980’s he was studying for his Ph.D. on oyster biology in Jamaica. He relied on old fashioned histological (microscopy) colour dye test to assess the parasite loads in cultivated oysters (parasites reduce commercial yield). He also needed to ask colleagues to look down his microscope to check the colour reaction, because he could not see it (red).

Eventually he was able to short circuit this problem by developing a new antibody test, that did not rely on colour change, using state of the art molecular technology. His line of research led directly to a very successful career in molecular evolution.

Why might it be useful for all of us to be a little ‘colour blind’?

By now the world has absorbed the shocking reality that the citizens of the ‘Dis-United’ Kingdom have voted to leave the European Common Market in a referendum.

How do we understand this? Have we doughty Brits suddenly found a more lucrative way to peddle our wares and do business?

Well, no. It turns out that a majority of the population are deeply concerned with immigration – to the extent that a significant proportion  may be deeply racist. They would rather pull up the metaphorical rating draw bridge and ‘go back to the way things were’ (three day week, national strikes, bloody awful food, no avocado pears, vile beer….). Clearly some of us are NOT colour blind.

Unlike my brother these people have not recognised the myriad opportunities that colour blindness brings:

Hybrid vigour, cultural exchange, philosophical enrichment, import of skills and the joy of diversity, great food, opportunities to work abroad and so on.

Since the referendum on the EEC at the end of June racist abuse and spontaneous aggression towards Polish, Black, Muslim – indeed anyone not deemed ‘British’ in the eyes of the abuser – have increased significantly.

What are our leaders and betters doing about this? In fact they have no solutions and are busy squabbling over power, convulsed in internecine back biting both Tory and Labour are playing leadership contests. NO ONE seems to be addressing the future of the UK outside the EEC or making a plan.

So this is what I would like to propose:

 

 

1. Let us forge a new, written British constitution of rights and responsibilities that enshrine the kinship of all humans on these Islands of ours. Everyone should contribute, but please let’s pay attention to the writings of our neighbours – the Scottish Philosophers (David Hume, Francis Smith, James Hutton and so on – The Scottish Enlightenment and the Importance of Reason– they have plenty to say on the human condition and represent the very best of British Exports – Our Rational Ideas.

It will be an even bigger disaster if, following ‘Brexit’, the United Kingdom loses Scotland to a devolution vote.

2. Educated people are politely asked to please stop looking down their patrician noses at the people who voted ‘out’ and pay attention to what they are really saying. “Pay attention to us”. They are part of British Society too, they need to be given the chance to articulate their fears, address their legitimate concerns and contribute. In this regard let us re-examine Freedom of the Press. Newspapers are never ‘free’ and are certainly not ‘independent’ – we are still easily duped by propaganda it seems.

3. Declare a state of Emergency Colour Blindness. It is time to see through the skin colour of our brothers and sisters to the human being beneath, to open our ears and our hearts and minds. To put the ‘Great’ back into Britain.

How about a national ‘Ishihara’ test? A little booklet of real British people in which we try to guess their heritage and their contribution – to  remind us that colour blindness is a most desirable trait. It is what we do that defines us, not the colour of our skin.IMG_5287.

Time

23 Jan

Years ago, as a student zoologist I was friendly with a young physicist – a fundamentalist Christian. I was pretty stuck on Darwin and Wallace’s evolutionary theory and a confirmed agnostic so we had lots of pithy arguments over a pint or three of Boddingtons best bitter in the Barnes Wallace Building – UMIST student union. Our watering hole in the late 70’s.

God, the Nature of the Universe, beer and girls – a great combination.

The evening would always end with us both a bit the worse for wear and with him a little upset.  I was, in his view, going straight to hell and he was going to heaven.

My friend believed in celibacy before marriage, I believed I urgently needed to get laid.

On one subject we did find common ground. We were both fascinated by the Nature of Time and whether it could be perceived.

I argued that because living creatures lack an organ for sensing time, we could, therefore not perceive it directly. Thus a vertebrate or cephalopod eye, in conjunction with the central nervous system converts the electromagnetic energy patterns of light, via chemical reactions and tiny electromagnetic impulses fueled by membrane biochemistry into what we understand to be visual cognition in the cortex. We sense light changes directly.

My friend argued that we could measure time and that it was a fundamental property of the physical Universe. No argument there then.

He agreed that it was changes in the physical world: heat loss, radioactive decay, senescence, rot – governed by the laws of Thermodynamics, that we measure time by. We cannot perceive Time directly, only the changes affected by it.

Of course we are able to deduce that time passes because living things are born, grow old and die, rock formations are generated through chemistry and igneous processes and then are eroded, or transformed under pressure or, again, chemistry. Everything is changing in the universe.

Although we lack a time sensitive organ, we possess a very powerful tool of perception – our imagination.


The thought experiment I used to play with when drinking with my pal was a model I called Flatland.

Consider: we organisms live in a four dimensional universe: 3 cardinal perpendicular axes X, Y and Z of movement and all under the influence of time (the fourth dimension). We can see and feel up, down, left, right, fore and back and around, but we do not ‘see’ or ‘feel’ time – we just know it is there because of constant change to the physical, chemical and biological domains.

In Flatland creatures move and grow in two dimensions – as if restricted to a sheet of paper. Flatpeople would only ever perceive the perimeter of another Flatperson as they bump into each other, and move around them. They would be able to deduce each other’s general shape by moving all around each other. They might even have primitive light sensitive organs that recognise Flatpeople edges.

Consider a three dimensional sphere moving perpendicularly through Flatland. A Flatperson would perceive a point expanding to a circular perimeter and contracting back to a dot before disappearing. They would not be able to perceive that a third dimension exists from this, they know about Time because Flatpeople die eventually. A smart Flatperson might observe that an unusual Flatnomenon had occurred – a body had spontaneously appeared, expanded, shrunk and then disappeared – what could have caused this?

You see the problem? We in our three dimensional physical world are very aware of changes, but we cannot grasp the Nature of Time itself. But although the Flatperson cannot deduce the existence of spheres – they might be able to imagine their theoretical existence and build a 2-D model.

So might we be able to model time as it actually is in 3 dimensions?

As I spend time with my Dad in his 86th year I am aware of great changes. And yet I am also deeply aware that, because I share many of his characteristics, Time itself connects us. I can see the changes I will endure in him.

This awareness is tempered by deep love and affection between us. This I can feel, this I know.

I would be prepared to consider the possibility that Time itself is the best evidence of a God. It is universal, unknowable and connects all living and non-living things.

In the end, Time, like Love heals all.