Monthly Archives: October 2008

Tate Modern: TH.2058, Rothko and Cildo Meireles

After the relative disappointment of my trip to the National Gallery, I returned to more familiar territory: Tate Modern. I’ve been a member of the Tate almost since it opened, but this trip was one I was particularly looking forward to, as it was my first chance to see the newly-opened Rothko exhibition.

The Rothko room at the Tate has always been my favourite part of the gallery, so the chance to see an expanded exhibition, grouping them together for the first time with the other paintings originally designed to go in the restaurant at the Seagram building in New York was something I definitely didn’t want to miss. I find it hard to put into words exactly why I like his work so much, I just know they bring out quite a strong emotional response in me. There’s been a fair bit of criticism about the way the work has been hung (apparently in line with Rothko’s wishes, with low light, against off-white walls, and relatively high up on the wall) but to me it just seemed to enhance the power.

As well as the main room, there were several other rooms featuring other examples of his later, darker work – one of which had a series of paintings that were entirely black, which I loved. (Does this mean I’m going emo?). There’s also a little section where they show close-ups of sections of work as seen under UV light, which really shows up the complexities of the paintings, each one made up of numerous layers of brushstrokes running in different directions.

While I knew I’d love the Rothkos, I had no idea what to expect from the other main exhibition, focusing on Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles. As it was free (as a member), there was nothing to lose by popping in – and I’m glad we did, it turned out to be brilliant. In parts thought-provoking, serious, playful and subversive, it’s one of the most fun I’ve been to. Best of all were the more interactive bits – walking across layers of broken glass (‘Through’) was a strangely disconcerting experience; doing the same over 600,000 1p coins (‘Mission/Missions’) fun – until we got told off by the guard (how were we to know we could walk on the glass but not the coins??).

Detail of Mission / Missions (How to build cathedrals), 1967 - aka lots of shiny pennies

Detail of Mission / Missions (How to build cathedrals), 1967 - aka lots of shiny pennies

Sadly queues meant we missed out on what sounds like the best bit – ‘Volatile’, a room which is knee-deep in talcum powder, that you have to take your shoes off to go into, maximum four at a time. I’m definitely going back for that one.

Finally we headed down to the Turbine Hall to see the latest exhibit in the Unilever Series, TH.2058 by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. And quite frankly it’s rubbish. Probably my least favourite so far (just beating my previous least-liked, Doris Salcedo’s ‘Shibboleth’, aka the Crack). It’s based around a distopian vision of the future. Being a bit of a sci-fi nerd, this should’ve been right up my street. But really – some metal bunk-beds, a series of clips of old sci-fi films and some giant reconstructions of London’s famous outdoor sculptures? As distopias go it’s pretty silly. You’d do better to pick up any of the similarly-themed books scattered across the beds and read them instead, which is what most of the visitors in fact seemed to be doing.

TH.2058 at Tate Modern

TH.2058 at Tate Modern

All in all a much more rewarding day than the trip to the National.

The National Gallery and discovering that I’m a philistine

So I finally made it to the National Gallery. Slightly sheepishly, I’ll admit I found most of it dull.

I went round in chronological order, and it was a pretty depressing start. Lots of religious pictures and historical portraits. Dull. Only the slightly ghostly sketch of the Madonna & child by Da Vinci really held my attention at all from the pre-1600 galleries.

Things picked up a little as we headed into the 17th century, with the Dutch & Flemish seascapes being the first section that I really loved. Even better were the impressionists, and best of all the Turners, which I loved. (Now what does it say about me that virtually all the paintings I loved were landscapes of some kind? Very few of the portraits held any interest for me.)

Still, overall I only really connected with a much smaller proportion of paintings (no more than 10% I reckon) than I typically do at Modern art galleries, which was no surprise to me. I just think I prefer modern stuff, something that was confirmed on the way out when I finally got to have a look at the latest occupant of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Much more fun than a painting of a dead king.

Nelsons Column, seen through Model for a Hotel

Nelson's Column, seen through "Model for a Hotel"

Final thought on Portugal

I’ve now been to Portugal three times, and spent about three weeks there in total. I’ve seen a fair bit of the country (the Algarve, Lisbon, Sintra, Obidos, Fatima, Batalha, Nazare, Coimbra, Figueira da Foz), and I’m a big fan. When I get back I definitely intend to explore more, especially the interior, and Porto.

But there’s one thing that’s been consistently bad: the food. Other than fresh fish (which I’m not a huge fan of), and the heavenly Pasteis de Belem, virtually every meal I’ve had has been pretty ropey (and don’t even get me started on the salt cod). Most people I’ve spoken to who’ve been to Portugal feel the same.

Spanish food rivals Mexican as my favourite in the world. I don’t understand how theirs is so good, when their Iberian neighbour’s is so awful. Or have I just been extremely unlucky so far?

A Pastel de Belem, Portugals main culinary redeeming feature

A Pastel de Belem, Portugal's main culinary redeeming feature

Ghost Town

On the way back to the airport we decided to stop off in Faro, figuring the biggest town in the province probably had something going for it. Now, being October, we expected it to be a little quiet. As it turned out, quiet was an extreme understatement – it was like being in a ghost town.

The centre of Faro is still contained within medieval walls, and is very pretty, with whitewashed buildings, an old palace, cobbled streets and a pretty cathedral.

Faro Cathedral

Faro Cathedral

Despite all these sights, and the huge number of tourists passing through Faro even at this time of year (the airport was heaving), the town was empty. When we arrived in the main square, in front of the Cathedral, we were literally the only people there. It’s not very often you get somewhere like that all to yourself.

The rest of the town was much the same – more baroque churches, lots of buildings covered in Azulejos, and the novelty of seeing storks’ nests perched atop every tall building – and all empty (it was actually a little scary – we barely even saw any locals). It amazes me that so many people can go to a place and not actually spend any time exploring or checking out the history.

Azulejos & Graffiti, Faro

Azulejos & Graffiti, Faro

Storks nest on a church, Faro

Stork's nest on a church, Faro

Active in the Algarve

For some reason I’d written off the Algarve as being horribly overdeveloped tourist trap like the worst of the Spanish Costas. On absolutely no evidence whatsoever, just general snobbery about package destinations (says the man whose favourite place is Ibiza). Turns out I was quite wrong.

After a typically early flight from Gatwick we arrived in Faro, we were able to take advantage of the stupidity of all the other passengers – there was an enormous queue for the manual passport control, with electronic passport readers next door with no queue whatsoever, allowing us to skip right past them, straight to the front of the taxi queue and onto the station just in time to catch the train to Lagos.

Lagos itself isn’t the most beautiful town in the world (although it has its charms), but where it scores is with the coastline. Starting from the harbour there is a string of little coves dominated by huge golden sandstone cliffs, running all along the coast towards Sagres (formerly seen as the end of the world, before explorers headed out beyond them into the Atlantic in the 15th century).

Sandstone cliffs & stacks at Praia Dona Ana, Lagos

Sandstone cliffs & stacks at Praia Dona Ana, Lagos

The cliffs were fun enough to walk across on the first afternoon. Much more fun was tackling them on bikes. Only a week after my first proper ride in years, I found myself bombing along the coast on dirt tracks trying not to plummet over the edge. I’m now quite taken with this cycling lark, might even have to buy a bike before I go away. Although I probably need to learn to be a little more careful before tackling the ride down the world’s deadliest road in Bolivia next year; a couple of times I was a bit overambitious and came off the bike. It’s all worth it for the war-wounds though.
Always make sure youre going fast enough when cycling up a 45 degree embankment

Always make sure you're going fast enough when cycling up a 45 degree embankment

The other main activity of the weekend was less of a success. Despite my indoor course back in June, my first attempt at outdoor climbing was a bit rubbish. I just didn’t have the confidence to really commit to some of the tougher footholds (despite being on a rope). I have no idea why I’m happy to head downhill at high speed on a bike over rocks, ignoring the risk of being flipped over the handlebars, but worry so much more about falling while climbing, even though the rope means that’s much safer. Think I need to get some more practice in before next year (although despite being a rubbish climber, I still think the photos look quite impressive)

Me. Half-way up a cliff.

Me. Half-way up a cliff.

The meltdown and me

Time for me to bow to the inevitable and finally mention the economic meltdown. In some respects, I’m quite pleased about it – I’ve never been able to afford to buy a decent house in London, so falling house prices mean there’s a good chance I will be able to buy when I return in 2010. Plus getting out of my job on my own terms during a recession means less worrying about job security. Best of all, I get to escape constant discussions of the situation in the news for a whole year.

But there has been one impact so far: on my savings. I originally calculated my savings budget based on needing $50 a day spending money (excluding travel costs, visas, insurance and so on). At the time, the exchange rate was $2 to the pound. Being sensible, I calculated my savings based on an exchange rate of $1.70 to the pound, meaning even with a 15% drop in the pound’s value I’d still be fine. Less than that, and I’d end up with more than I’d budgeted for. I figured I was being pretty cautious there – until now. Today the exchange rate is $1.73. Some people are forecasting it could drop significantly further over the next few months.

If it drops much further, I’ll need more money (which will then eat up some of the money I plan to have saved for when I get back). Around £800 for every $0.10 drop in the value of the pound. I could exchange money now, but then I’d be losing out on interest (as interest rates are better over here). Or I could do nothing and hope the pound stabilises around its current level. It’s the unpredictability that’s killing me.

And one final note: I know you’ve been waiting ages for this, but please no gloating from any US-based travellers in the comments box!

Cycling though Docklands

I recently got talked into going to Portugal for a rather activity-packed weekend, including a full day of mountain biking down the coast. Which sounded lovely, except for the fact I’d only cycled once in the last decade. So I figured I should get a little practice in to see if my legs had it in them. I figured if I could do it in London traffic (I’ve never cycled in a city before) then a coastal road on the Algarve should be no problem.

It all started out easily enough with a gentle cycle along the Regent’s Canal down to the river at Limehouse. It’s a lovey part of town, away from the traffic and getting to head through Victoria Park. From there, we headed through Canary Wharf and down the Isle of Dogs. It’s a very odd place, with the gleaming office blocks looking like they’ve landed from somewhere across the Atlantic, right next door to run-down council estates and boarded-up pubs.

After heading under the river via the Greenwich foot tunnel, I hit my first hill in Greenwich Park, which was a bit of a struggle, so we stopped for lunch in Blackheath. We were going to head back after that, but for some stupid reason I suggested we instead cross the river using the Woolwich Free Ferry instead and go back that way. I normally have quite a good sense of London geography. This time however, I got it a bit wrong – it pretty much doubled the overall length of our journey, which considering I hadn’t cycled for so long wasn’t a great idea.

Still, it was worth it for getting to see some of London’s more out-of-the-way sites:

Thames Barrier

Thames Barrier

including London’s very own slightly-less-impressive equivalent of the view from the Staten Island ferry:

Canary Wharf & the Dome, viewed from the Woolwich Free Ferry

Canary Wharf & the Dome, viewed from the Woolwich Free Ferry

and probably the largest remaining unconverted docklands warehouse, Spillers Millennium Mills. It’s absolutely huge, and would make lovely flats – except for the fact that it’s about 100 metres from the runway of London City Airport.

Millennium Mills, seen across Royal Victoria Dock

Millennium Mills, seen across Royal Victoria Dock

After all that, the cycle back was knackering, especially with the 30mph winds making every hill more of a struggle, and the surroundings of the East India dock road and Poplar being rather less than inspiring. By the time we made it home, 28 miles later, I was ready to collapse. Not bad going though for my first ride in years, and I was amazed to find my legs were fine the next day, so I knew I’d be OK for Portugal.


I love autumn days like today, the sky was such a beautiful shade of blue. Such a change from the miserable weather at the weekend.

Blue sky over Centre Point

Blue sky over Centre Point

I just hope it lasts.