Last month I mentioned that I started reading ‘Overstory’ by Richard Powers on my trip back from the US [see ‘When an upgrading is downgrading‘ on August 21st, 2019]. I only finished it about ten days ago because I have not had much time to read and it is a long book at 629 pages. It is a well-written book including some quotable passages, but one that I particularly liked which seems relevant in this era of polarised perspectives: ‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can is a good story.’ And, Richard Powers tells a good story about the destruction of the ecosystem, on which we are dependent, as a result of large-scale felling of ancient forests. The emphasis should be on ‘ancient’ because time for trees appears to run at a different speed than for humans. While we can observe the seasonal changes in an ancient woodland, we are barely conscious on the growth and movement of the woodland. When we read Shakespeare’s lines in Macbeth about ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come’, we think of it moving over the landscape at the speed of an army of people, whereas woods move so slowly that we do not live long enough to notice the change. For instance, there is a spruce tree in Sweden that is 9,500 years old. Our spatial understanding of a tree also leads to a misconception because we can only see the overstory, i.e. what is happening above ground; so, we think that each trunk is an individual tree, whereas for many types of tree many apparently individual trunks belong to the same organism with an extensive understory below ground which might be thousands of years old. All trees are involved in a substantial understory communicating with each other in ways that we can barely imagine let alone comprehend. Most of the ancient forests in Europe were cut down before science revealed the scale and complexity of life in them; yet, we still continue to fell forests as if there was an inexhaustible supply rather than one that could take as long to replicate as humans have been recording our history.
I wrote some weeks ago about art challenging the way we think and artists being spokespeople for society [see ‘Spokesperson for society’ on August 28th, 2019] and also about ‘Taking a sketch instead of snapping a photo’ [on September 3rd, 2019]. My photo of the sketch taken by Rennie Mackintosh was snapped at an exhibition in Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool; and, on the wall of the gallery was a quote from Rennie Mackintosh: ‘All artists know that pleasure derivable from their work is their life’s pleasure – the very spirit and soul of their existence’. I feel the same way about my work as an engineer and I think that many of my colleagues would agree with me. In my welcome talk to new engineering undergraduate students last week, I used this quote and tried to convey the extent to which science and engineering is a part of my existence and how I hoped it would become a part of their life. I am not sure that I convinced very many of them.
We are lucky to live in a house with a great view of Liverpool cathedral [see picture in ‘Two for one‘ on January 2nd, 2019]. Hundreds of tourists visit every day and take pictures of the cathedral with their smart phones. A few even turn around and take a picture of our house! It is a modern disease: capturing pictures of a spectacle without actually looking at it and then probably never looking at the photograph. There is some small level of fulfilment in having taken the photograph; however, 120 years ago there were fewer tourists and they had no cameras. Instead, when Charles Rennie MackIntosh visited Naples on April 8th, 1891, he admired the tower of the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine and ‘took a sketch’. It must have taken him some time and concentrated effort. The level of pleasure and fulfilment from taking a sketch must have been much greater than from our modern experience of snapping a photo.
Of course, there was no Liverpool Cathedral in 1891 and ten years later, Rennie Mackintosh was disappointed that his proposals for it were not selected from the 103 submitted.
There is an excellent exhibition of Keith Haring’s work at the Tate Liverpool until November 2019. Keith Haring and I were born a couple of years apart but that’s where the similarity ends. He was an American artist who collaborated with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and was influenced by Pablo Picasso, Walt Disney and Dr Seuss. He was part of the New York street culture of the 1980s and many of his early works were forms of graffiti painted in subways and on the sides of buildings. Some people think that art should challenge the way you think about the things; however, “Haring felt that the artist is ‘spokesman for a society at any given point in history’ whose visual vocabulary is determined by their perception of the world”. His work about racism, the excesses of capitalism and the misuse of religion for oppressive purposes seem as relevant today as thirty years ago.
Quotation from the one of exhibition displays with apologies to curators of the Tate exhibition, Darren Pih and Tamar Hemmes.