My first uni project was to compile a visually interesting and informative Rough Guide to the Covent Garden, China Town and Soho part of London. It was actually a really good way for me to find my feet and familiarize myself with at least one part of the city!
Also I really enjoyed the challenge of looking at things in exceptionally detailed or unexpected ways. I wanted to find inconspicuous elements that would show the areas in an original and subtle yet insightful way. I particularly enjoyed alternative ways of mapping, looking at pattern and the simplicity of reflections within puddles. It is so strange how the simplest of concepts can sometimes be the most stunning.
Alongside this visual mapping, we were asked to give our areas a context through some primary and secondary research.
Covent Garden striked me as the complete package for a fun filled touristy day out. The atmosphere is that of one continuous bank holiday with people casually spilling out of the numerous bars, restaurants and cafes, killing endless hours smiling at the vaguely entertaining street performers and slipping from one to another expensive boutique. How civilized! It is somewhat hard to imagine that the area served as a practical fruit and veg market during much of its history. And yet more unexpected, served as a peaceful garden to an Abbey and Convent many years ago. Although during the 18th Century it gained the reputation of being a rather seedy, red-light district, in contrast, today it is arguably one of the most family orientated parts of London. The grand Royal Opera House sits proudly in the square and is personally one of the main reasons I would visit the area.
Having an avid interest and infatuation with Asia, I personally love the bustle, disorganization and general rudeness that comes with visiting this area. Generally, I observed that people treated China Town like some sort of universal studios experience. They took endless photographs of themselves posed against anything vaguely oriental and either marveled at or pointed in disgust at the wealth of unusual Chinese goods and foodstuff. Interestingly enough, Chinatown was originally established in the east end but suffered a decline when partially destroyed during the London blitz. In the 1950s, British soldiers returning from the Far East and their new found appetites for Asian cuisine resulted in the flourish of Chinese restaurants within the Gerrard Street Area. I suppose one of the very few good things that came out of wartime horror was the introduction of new cultures which have indeed grown to a point that they are amalgamated into our British heritage. As a modern day area, one cannot deny the vibrant and exotic allure of visiting such an area, and no trip to London would be complete without some crispy peking duck and a fortune cookie!
Bizarrely believed to be called Soho after a hunting cry, there's no doubting the seedy, sex-shop reputation of this area and it proudly does little to conceal this. It's 'entertainment' nightlife and film industry have dominated the area since the 20th Century, however since the 1980s it has transformed considerably by sprouting trendy media offices and a whole host of upmarket restaurants and cafes. I would note it as a definite celebrity 'hang out' and as a place to be seen rather than a place to see as is the case for Covent Garden and China Town.
After gaining a bit more knowledge about the area, the next step was to chose 3 objects from the area to reflect upon and compare.
1. A found object or an object from a market stall or second hand shop.
2. An object from a shop, department store or boutique.
3. An object from a museum or gallery.
OBJECT 1- Handkerchief
I decided to pop into WOW Retro Vintage shop on Mercer Street, Covent Garden and purchased a ladies flowered handkerchief for £2. The Chinese, fine art student behind the till was both uncommunicative and uninterested in my project. She said she worked there as she 'loved vintage'. A very 'a la mode' interest to have these days. The hanky caught my imagination because it is quite a personal belonging which can suggest a lot about its' owner, for example it's quality would traditionally reflect their social-economic class. It is also an item redundant in today's throwaway paper napkin society where it has become considered an old-fashioned, mumsy object. This saddened me and convinced me to give the hanky a new home!
It measures roughly 26cm by 26.5cm making it just off the size of a perfect square. It is made of a cotton which has softened considerably, suggesting it has been used and washed several times. A label indicates it has been made in England and that it is colour fast. The repeat pattern around the edges of the cloth features clusters of orange and blue flowers. Their simplicity and lack of detail makes their precise species hard to distinguish. The flower clusters are joined by stalks and leaves. In the background a simple square coil pattern begins by being defined and bold at the edges but becomes increasingly fragmented and faded towards the centre. The two dominant colours are a deep, warm orange and a sky blue, enhanced by a serpent greeny-turquoise for the leaves and pollen detail of each flower.
Keywords I associate with this object-
How would this object appear in another context?
Well, you would have little success at attempting to sell a brand-new fabric handkerchief let alone a second-hand one within a shop nowadays. Disposable culture has taken over leaving little place for the re-washable and re-usable handkerchief- perceived as a total time wasting idea. In the context of the vintage shop, the item made me think of the wearer, the memories and travels that the handkerchief and its owner had been on, the tears it had absorbed and the important part it had played in someones life. Place the same item within a shop and the words grubby, unhygienic and unwanted spring to mind. If one were to place the handkerchief within a museum however and label it as having a well-known or well regarded owner then I'm certain it would win the same appreciation as I encountered within the vintage shop. People would want to learn its story and realize its integral function within an individuals' daily life. It may even inspire some to ditch the paper and return to the fabric!
OBJECT 2 - Chinese preserved fruit
This box of preserved fruit (or to be more precise, hot dried seedless prunes) was purchased for £1.38 from Wonderful Patisserie Bakery on Gerrard Street, China Town. The grumpy cashier was suspiciously eying me up as I marveled at the somewhat regally boxed array of colourful dried fruits. She briskly informed me they were "Ready to eat" and "very tasty" before grabbing my money.
The fruit appear wrinkled, dry and rather tough. They have an unnatural burnt red colour due to the fake colouring and additives listed in the ingredients. They are presented within a hard, square plastic case. I think the lid gives it a grand, regal appearance suggesting it is a treasure box or protective casket. This lid is sealed by a piece of garish gold tape which certainly catches the eye. The bright pink label equally screamed out at me from the shelf and the clashing contrast with the unripe, green colour of the painted image of prunes further this. The colouring is garish and girly but nonetheless it certainly appealed to my eyes and I cannot wholly make up my mind whether the packaging is tacky or expensive looking.
Keywords I associate with this object-
Indeed it seems as though this object has evoked many contrasting words for me. You may wonder how an object can teeter between looking expensive or tacky but I believe that your opinion on the object may also depend on whether you are Asian or not. For example I remember going into an Asian grocery store in London with my Japanese friend a few weeks ago. I was in awe of a bottle of chilled green tea as it was covered in a beautiful intricate patterns bursting with colour. My friend was stunned at my amazement. She said that the brand was so common in Japan that when she saw the familiar bottle she thought of it as being cheap and tacky. It's so funny how I saw her cheap, common object as a treasured special artifact! So perhaps on a market stall in Beijing, this little box of dried fruit would be seen as a cheap, basic snack. However placed within the Food Hall of Selfridges would give the average person the impression that it was an exotic, foreign delicacy and hence we would not hesitate to spend money on buying a box. This demonstrates that our personal knowledge can influence the way we think, but we are also strongly influenced by the way things are presented to us within society. Even though this is often a fabricated impression by companies usually after our money, it is extremely difficult to avoid this influence.
OBJECT 3 - The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
A dominating oil painting on wooden board painted 1495-1508 and measuring 189.5cm by 120cm. The painting is awe inspiring, inviting and exceptionally clear due to its recent 2 year restoration. I joined a guided tour of the National Gallery collection and was struck by the beauty of this particular painting. I think this was fueled further by the passionate talk given about this particular painting by the tour guide as it was one of her personal favourites. She guided us from the most minute detail, such as the pea-pod gold and red detailed embroidery to the unarguably stunning face of the angel, considered to be the most beautiful face of a woman ever seen. She also taught me a considerable amount- e.g. the image has 40 layers of glaze, da Vinci painted with his fingers, the masculine appearance of the hands is due to the fact that he painted using male models etc.
Keywords I associate with this object-
Intrigued by my intense draw to the image, I decided to ask the gallery attendant a few questions to find out what were the reactions of others. Michael Hail said that many hundreds stop to look at the painting throughout the day. He personally was not a fan ("It just doesn't do much for me"), believing that the name da Vinci preceded the image. "People only come and see it because it's a da Vinci, but I personally rate his sketches far more", he said. Yes, this sounded criminal to my ears. This painting is truly amazing and the exquisite detail really does leave you breathless regardless of whether it was painted by da Vinci or a total amateur. I stood and observed the crowds of people for a while and noticed that although many did make a beeline for the image, few actually stood, gazed and soaked it up in its full glory. It's as if they were there to merely tick the box of having seen a da Vinci painting. This once again demonstrates the way society influences our appreciation of objects. Michael Hail of course, defiantly bucks this trend!