RAF log books that were owned by George Hencken's father

RAF log books that were owned by George Hencken’s father

George Hencken, film producer and director, on her father’s flying log books

GB Tell me why you chose this.

GH These are my father’s log books, he was an RAF pilot and they span his entire career, almost 40 years. He kept them in his study, and though I knew they existed I’d never really seen them. After he died a couple of years ago, I came across this stack. They are square, hardback, cloth-bound RAF issue books. There is something immensely pleasing about the books themselves, the size and shape and weight & colour, and the fact that there were lots of them. Page after page full of coded stories. They are also beautifully ordered and calming to look at.There’s something Gohonzon-like about them.

GB Is the beauty primarily sentimental? (Would you find flying log books beautiful ordinarily?)

GH They do fire my sentiment synapses, but the physical attributes of the books go straight to my beauty receptors. I respond to the texture of the covers, and the typeface both inside and out. The design, the clarity of the books. The aesthetic is deeply satisfying to me. My father’s handwriting adds enormously to what pleases me about the books once I open them up. I find his handwriting very beautiful, especially within the framework of these books. Something in his handwriting reminds me of Japanese calligraphy. If the books were full of messy or ugly or boring-looking handwriting they wouldn’t delight me as much as they do – but I would still love their dimensions & the feel of them, and the typeface, and the weight of the paper,and how the effect of that is amplified when you get a load of them together. By nature I am the opposite of ordered and tidy. My notebooks are chaos. Maybe I find beauty in an order I aspire to, but that I know is unobtainable for me.

GB Does your father’s handwriting say a lot about him?

GH My relationship with my father was difficult. I found him unreachable and unknowable. I think he felt the same about me. His handwriting always fascinated me, though when I was a kid, I couldn’t decipher it at all. It seemed there was something ritualistic for him in the act of writing. He always wrote in black ink, using a big fat blue fountain pen which had a gold nib and a gold cap, and he used a half-moon blotter that he would roll carefully back and forth over the wet ink. There are no blots at all in any of the log books. No mistakes or crossings out, until you get to the very last entry. That one is written in pencil, and there’s a scribble on it.

GB He often flew Avro Shackletons which are held in great affection by aviation enthusiasts. Did you ever fly in one? Do you find these planes beautiful?

GH My father flew Shacks for the greater part of his career. He clocked up over 7000 hours. He may well have clocked up more hours on that aircraft than almost anyone else. I never flew in one, but I’ve been on board many many times. The smell of the inside of a Shackleton is unforgettable; a unique combination of hydraulic fluid and very old, high-quality leather, with hints of cooking and chemical toilet underneath. Dyptique should make a candle! And the sound of the engines is something else. We’re talking 4 Rolls Royce 36 litre V12 engines, something like 19,000 hp each. All the pilots wound up deaf. I adore them, and they are remarkable aircraft with a remarkable history, But beautiful? No. They have friendly, silly faces, big eyes, big nose and a funny smiley mouth. They’re like a big smelly old St Bernard.  

GB Tell me about some of the specific entries. Do you have a favourite story associated with them. What does Frilly Knickers mean? Why are some entries in red?

GH I love how the entries tell stories, or fill in details of stories that have been part of the fabric of the family all my life. Or they create questions. For instance there are entries that just say “Engine Failure”. The first pages in the photos you have are from 1969-1970 when we were stationed in Singapore. The entries for October 21st 1969 record a flight from Changi in Singapore to Butterworth, Malaysia, Butterworth to Gan in the Maldives, and then Gan to Majunga, Madagascar. The Beira Patrol listed in the next entry was the British blockade to prevent oil getting to what was then Rhodesia. So there he was, my 27 year old father, on these wonderful odysseys across the Indian Ocean. He brought me cowrie shells back from those trips, and told stories of seeing vast Manta rays in the ocean below, and of ball lighting rolling along the wing of the aeroplane, into the inside of the plane and then rolling down the centre of the aircraft before exiting through the tail end. Flying this ancient old aircraft, (it was designed in the 40s, became operational in the 50s, so it was 20 years into what would be a 40 year service life even then) was undoubtedly a romantic and adventurous thing for him. We found each other extremely difficult, and hurt each other deeply, but his stories of flying across the Indian Ocean, or the North Atlantic, brought out the poet in him, and that’s when I felt connected to him. He planted a sense of the bigness of the world in my mind.That said, ‘Operation Frilly Knickers’ was a sore point for me. That meant taking all the squadron wives for a flight, which pissed me off because I really wanted to experience flying in a Shackleton & it never happened.

The final entry, the one in pencil, really gets me. Shackleton 963 now lives at Coventry Airport where the Shackleton Preservation Trust are trying to restore it in the hopes of getting it flying again one day. My father was invited there in 2008, to test out the engines by taxying the aircraft. 963 is not airworthy, not allowed to fly, but my Dad just couldn’t resist getting some air between the wheels and the ground for just a few seconds.

GB Is beauty linked to a sense of adventure or excitement for you? These planes made round world trips and were named after one of our greatest explorers. Is that spirit something you look for in other areas of life?

GH Yes, absolutely. Adventure and excitement make my eyes keener and my ears sharper and my sense of smell more acute – and in that state one is intensely present to even the tiniest or most fleeting experience of beauty. I do seek adventure and excitement, although what I find adventurous and exciting may not be the classic idea. I don’t need to go to the moon or climb a huge mountain, or sail round the world to experience adventure or excitement. I can find it in some pretty prosaic places. Canvey Island, for instance!

GB Did he make a lot of search and rescue missions? Is there an element of heroism in this beauty? Or an element of sadness because he was doing something dangerous and probably away a lot?

GH Search and Rescue wasn’t actually what the Shackleton was for. The Search and Rescue element was an off-shoot of the main job, which was AEW – Airborne Early Warning. Shackletons were built for long-range ocean patrolling. They were flying radar stations, patrolling airspace and coastal waters to sniff out incursions by enemy submarines and aircraft. During the Cold War this meant the Russians. The Russian aircraft – I think they were Tupelovs? – were known as ‘Bears’ and so my Father and the squadron he commanded, 8 Squadron, were ‘The Bear Hunters.’ He’d be called out in the middle of the night & go flying out over the sea to tell the Russians to sling their hook. I don’t know about heroic, but I did see it weirdly as quite glamorous. It was the late 70s – 80s. Everyone was obsessed with the Russians, they were the enemy du jour, and my father was on the front line of UK air defence in this remote part of Northern Scotland. I felt it was all very filmic, but then I was a child living in the middle of nowhere and bored out of my brain – I imagined everything as a film in order not to go loopy.

GB There is so much time and such an incredible story condensed into a few pages here. This condensing is also important in your documentary work – you can see how to store a whole world of meaning in particularly concise ways.

GH At the beginning of a project I can never imagine how I’m going to be able to condense all the information I want communicate and make it concise or coherent. I get chronic insomnia every time due to the apparent impossibility of the task. I have tried in the past to organise information in an ordered, precise way. I like the idea of spreadsheets, with columns and headings – a log book! – so that all the information is there at a glance, but actually that doesn’t work for me at all. It’s better to simply immerse myself and then leave it to my subconscious. The thing I am good at is finding clues, and allowing myself to be open and be led by those clues, especially if it’s in an unexpected or risky direction.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

GH Anything that dissolves the illusion of separateness is beautiful to me. Reading my father’s log books dissolved the sense of polarity that had existed for so long between us. I would have liked to have read them with him, talked to him about them, and found that connection before.



Richard Wentworth’s photograph, ‘Manchester, June 2014′

Richard Wentworth, artist, on his picture, “Manchester, June 2014”

GB Tell me why you chose this.

RW I think the picture is emblematic. That’s a nice word anyway. One forgets the word emblem. Now I shall look up its etymology. What that picture is about is a conversational space that’s shared by quite a considerable group of people I’m friendly with. We relate through pictures but not in an Instagrammy way – this is not even so much an image, it’s more of an anecdote. And in fact anecdotes are images if they’re any good. It’s almost like trading in cowry shells. A lot of people I’m friendly with are interested in this space, ultimately because its contingent and it’s the result of a performance. It’s obviously a small act, which has been performed and you see the evidence of it and the person who did it probably doesn’t realise that they’ve made an image.

Humans are reading the world constantly and part of surviving in it is to make sense of the world. Most of the time we’re scanning the world and we’re checking for conformity. We don’t even realize that we see conformity and that’s how we judge that something is coming to attack us, or a house is on fire or a car is about to crash into a child. That’s pretty much the kit that you get and it’s fundamentally notated in some experience: most people have burned themselves or cut themselves or learned from witnessing other people doing it. So this has something to do with our ability to play detective.

A photograph is already a terrible lie. The eye doesn’t make a 35 millimetre frame around things. It’s an eye. The world doesn’t have edges. So it’s already a pretend painting because it’s been chopped by the action of the camera. And it’s a modern camera so you can pretend to be near something you’re not. I even use my camera to read something I can’t read.

GB I used mine to look into a nest yesterday to see if the eggs had hatched.

RW Yes, that’s the modernity of it – that curiosity has joined up with the technologies of the time. Once upon a time it would have involved standing on the shoulders of the tallest boy in the class.

The particular quality of this picture is that I was being the child, being led by a knowing adult and I had surrendered my own sense of control. One of my ways of surrendering my control is to be a bit of an ambler. I enjoy the accident of turning left and not knowing where I’m going. I do that quite purposefully but on this occasion I was with someone who said he wanted to show me something, so we went down a side street and we were talking. Then he said, “Oh look at that.” It’s so fast, the chemistry of looking and sharing and exchanging. I don’t think he’d even quite realised what he’d pointed to. Most of looking involves not saying what something is, but what it isn’t. So you’ve probably already understood that it’s not a private house, you know more or less which part of the world you’re in, there’s a sense that it’s an institutional space, possibly a social space, maybe a student hall. So here there’s some invisible part of the sash, a weight or counter-weight, which obviously isn’t working. The point is that the act of seeing it is way ahead of comprehending what the concept or intention was. So now I’m looking at it I can see a really elaborate calibration here to do with the body and the height of chairs, the strength and portability of the chair. For all one knows it might have become standard practice in that building. I once knew a building in Brighton where they always kept the window open with a saucer. It was a canteen. The saucer would always be, as it were, ready to commit suicide. The weight of the window was the perfect reassurance to the saucer.

It’s important to me that it’s anonymous, but when you start thinking about it you have a powerful sense of the person’s own purposefulness when they did it. And the fact that it’s a leftover. Most of what we see is a leftover of other people’s actions. And I suppose with this building in the picture you can start to read the 1978 – 1985 architectural intentions and then you go “oops!”  – it makes the place feel intimate. You feel strangely engaged in it once you’ve inhabited this leftover. I suppose I like the fact that this is how we survive, that it’s all desperately imperfect. We throw in a few more imperfections and two imperfections can make a perfect.

GB It’s quite a small world where you have this conversational space. Would you say that within that world you have your own unique definition of beauty?

RW It’s funny because the word ‘beautiful’ is so interesting anyway. It’s a word that’s attached to sexual desire and perceptions of other humans and even recognizing that things have been put into the world with a purpose, which one doesn’t quite like. How presumptuous of me to assume that I have to like something or not like something. The energy with which it was put into the world, the complexity with which it’s been achieved is beautiful. September 11th was beautiful. A lot of artists talked about it. The way that profoundly theatrical act happened was because it understood it own mediation, and was consequently very politically effective. We don’t often discuss the sublime. So it’s the way one uses the word. For me it’s often quite exclamatory: “God that’s beautiful!” I’m really interested in everything having its context and the ultimate context is the encounter with you, so you have to meet it in some way or it has to meet you. And that little epiphany even has some kind of orgasmic metaphor. It’s a moment of incredibly powerful experience.

But there’s another kind of beauty, which is something to do with a very long pretty-much fetishized value passed from one human to another – things that create wonder, particularly the unaccountable. And maybe that’s the point. What I’ve just said is like a detective trying to write a report about something which is actually unaccountable. Look at Stonehenge. How long have they been standing upright? Have they ever fallen over? Did somebody put them back up?

GB I think what’s unusual about you is that you find beauty in these found scenarios that have a certain level of meaning that you can’t quite figure out. You’re not really concerned with the truth. In fact you like the fact that you can’t quite get to it.

RW I think the fact that it runs away from you is very important. Ultimately, the world is not made of much. It’s made of minerals, chemicals, organic material – and humans give meaning to things. The cat doesn’t do that. The most interesting thing my cat does is to still go to a cat door that has been shut for a year. I understand quite a lot about psychology and the strangeness of bodily behaviour. It’s odd that I don’t know how my fingers know where the letters are on a typewriter and I don’t know how I drive. Driving is one of the best extensions of the body where you don’t really know what’s going on all the time but you certainly know if it’s going wrong.

GB Once you start noticing the endless variety of these strange scenarios, does that put you off going to a museum to look at a Michelangelo?

RW No! It’s not to the exclusion of that. I’m not the lord of misrule. I think it comes from a genuine pleasure in the haptic, some modest talent that used to be called “good-with-his-hands’, for reading the world. I know how thick the paving slabs are just by walking on them. I’m reading weight, thickness, dimension and the proposal of things all the time. I grew up in a household that was very judgmental and full of admonition and opprobrium. I now understand that the mean-spirited atmosphere of post-war Britain that I grew up in is a part of it.

GB What was the opprobrium aimed at?

RW There was a right way to do everything, there was a code. I’ve just been reading the book about the Profumo affair and the first chapter is absolutely brilliant on that. You really feel the sequences of values and codes -and that was my childhood. There was nothing very special about my childhood but there’s an element in it, which I have perhaps contorted and redirected. Maybe I am a non-conformist and I see the crack before I see the pane.

GB So if you already know that there’s a huge consensus of opinion about something being beautiful and acceptable, does that make you less interested in seeing it?

RW I’m wary. I think I’m quite wary of received codes. That’s exactly the point. I love being with somebody who really knows a subject and will drill right below it. I remember getting in on the edge of a guided tour in Venice and hearing somebody hold forth and they said that a huge amount of what we go to look at in Venice, was Venice reacting to the fact that America got discovered and that fucked up all the trade routes because, basically, Venice was over. So as America was starting to become the force of new energy, new materials and all the historic lines of trade to do with silks and spices and trade were being questioned, Venice started to get a bit hubristic and make bigger and bigger paintings and buildings. The thing about history is that we weren’t there so we’re always in danger of over-teaching it. No one ever told me as a child that the brick is an invention. Then somebody told me that the brick was the beginning of cheapness. That’s brilliant. It’s the beginning of standardising something and it’s not stone. It’s a wonderful invention but it isn’t masonry. It wants to be masonry. A brick is the size of a hand. If it’s bigger it doesn’t really work. And it’s really just a filler. It can’t even be a supportive structure. The brick is a gap-maker and the web of the mortar is the miraculous strength-giver.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RW I would say something like intake/out-take. It’s like breathing. Beauty can come to me through reverie, where I slowly realise (and I like the word realise because it means to make real) – so that’s what you might call a deductive process, like understanding the brick. That can have quite a long arc of recognition. But the one that is a little bit sexy, that makes you actually take in breath because you’re completely taken with something – that’s where some of the great standards come from, like the sunset. Sunset is somehow more beautiful than dawn. Is that because it’s death? A petit mort? I know a few places where people habitually go and watch the sun go down because the landscape works that way. I think anything that reminds you that you’re alive is beautiful. It’s pretty extraordinary to be alive and it only happens once. Human experiences aren’t that different. We prattle along, recognizing other humans. That’s why I’m so disappointed with the cat. Humans desperately want to communicate with people because they’re so lonely. It’s really very sad.


Simon Periton's Buzzcocks EP

Simon Periton’s Buzzcocks EP

Simon Periton, artist, on the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

SP In some ways I chose it just because a seven-inch single could be the beautiful object in itself. But then I started thinking about which particular seven inch it could be. I think it fits with something I like about the idea of beauty, which I’ve talked about before in connection with my work. Part of starting to cut paper doily pieces was a kind of disillusionment with leaving college and no longer having anywhere to work. I liked the idea of making something that was invested with a lot of time and effort but was essentially just useless and beautiful. And out of that grew the idea of the doily as being quintessentially English and all the notions of Englishness and rebellion. People talk about champagne socialists but actually, most of the revolutionaries I’ve ever come across drink tea all the time. Punk was always a bit like that for me. Now it’s all corporate nostalgic nonsense but from my humble input it was quite under the radar, quick and easy and simple. There was an urgency and a cheapness to the way it got out there. If I think back to that time now, we weren’t wearing luxurious things like Seditionaries and Boy, we were wearing things we’d made ourselves because we didn’t have any money. It was about getting on four buses to go to a village in the middle of nowhere to see some band in a village hall if you wanted to be involved. So in a way, Spiral Scratch is the epitome of that. It’s the first self-produced indie EP. It’s fast and packed full of Devoto’s interesting literary witticisms. It’s black and white and looks as though it were photocopied together.

GB So you find it beautiful because it’s quaint and English?

SP It’s definitely quaint and English. I think a lot of punk was. I dyed my hair pink when I was about 16, which was quite late, and where we came from in Kent, the only people who loved it and were obsessed with me were the old ladies who had blue rinses. I used to tell them about Crazy Color and one particular old lady was really keen on Pinkissimo. It was all so careful and polite. It’s hard to explain how weird and odd Crazy Color looked at that time. Even straight trousers made you look different. Coloured hair made you a total freak.

GB It’s strange that punk seemed so threatening in those days.

SP I remember going to visit my grandmother in Kent. She lived in an Oast house. We went on several buses. I’d made myself an Anarchy armband. My grandmother said, “What’s that A on your arm?” I said, “It means anarchy.” And she just said, “That’s nice dear. Would you like some tea?

I was fuming with pent-up aggression at that time but the Englishness of her response was so politely rebellious in itself.

GB So is it possible for something beautiful to also be subversive?

SP There are so many things that are naturally beautiful but generally the things that appeal to me have a shock of the new. So they are aggressive but then they get subsumed into the culture and homogenised. Punk isn’t aggressive at all any more. You’re more rebellious now if you don’t have a tattoo.

GB So when you were making pretty doilies after you left art school, that was rebellious?

SP Yes, when I started showing the doilies, the whole aesthetic was very minimal, with lots of MDF – and I entertained some of that as a student. But I suddenly saw a tunnel of repetition, farming out smooth MDF shapes and I wanted to do something different. There was a gang of German artists like Kippenberger and Georg Herold that I really liked and they had a kind of humour and playfulness I admired, a kind of punk directness that I respected. When the YBA thing started there was a lot of press about how it was similar in feel to punk and I didn’t think it was. I found it quite conservative and staid. It referenced punk but it didn’t have that spirit and the energy. The doily-making thing was a slightly conceptual move to make something so decorative in that ‘cool’ period.

GB But you do really like fussy baroque things?

SP Yes I like flowery ornate things and I like quite hard things too. I suppose I found decorative and quaint things subversive and that was confirmed for me when I told people I’d started working on cutting out doilies and people would have this look of horror on their faces.

GB Tell me about the journey of having the aesthetic response to something that’s new and shocking like Spiral Scratch, to still finding it beautiful 30 years later.

SP It has a poetic simplicity. It’s beautiful in a really obvious way with just the right amount of notes, not too much, not too little. The first 500 copies were in Manchester and I was in Kent, so it was already nostalgic by the time I first got it. Things had changed a lot. But it was so perfectly brilliant, it could fight through that. Of course all these years later it pleases a part of my mind in a different way. But when I first heard it I was struck by the sneery, camp lyric delivery and the two-note guitar solo – and it has these northern phrases I’d never heard before. It was never shocking to me. I’d heard other punk records. I can’t separate the whole thing from my adolescence and the opening up of a whole new world.

GB And when you listen to it now, are still filled with a sense of all those possibilities?

SP Yes, I’m an eternal optimist in that respect. I get disillusioned with things that aren’t as interesting. There’s a beauty in that feeling of optimism that’s so simple and wonderful so I try to feed that into everything I do.

GB Is that more important than ever, looking at how the music business and the art business have evolved?

SP Maybe it’s my perception but things seemed to be more simple then. There was as dominant culture and then a few other things going on. I think this record was only intended to be a minor blip. A small route to doing something else, in the way that my doilies were when I first started doing them.

GB Do you worry about other peoples’ reactions to your work? If people are no longer horrified, do you still want to do it?

SP It doesn’t bother me at all. I think of my audience as my mates and sometimes other artists, but I never think about people like hedge-fund art collectors.

GB What makes something worthy of the word beauty to you?

SP There are many forms of beauty. There’s an aesthetic dimension to it, so pleasing to my senses. It would have some kind of simplicity and directness to it even though it might still be fussy and baroque in its look. I think it should have something slightly subversive in it, something slightly odd or wrong. There has to be a kind of absurdity to it that’s hard to define. Maybe beauty is a carrier for something else. Something seduces you into wanting to engage with it. If it can subvert your experience somehow after that, then I call it beautiful.


The lavender bushes that Ajaz planted in how mother's garden, in the sunshine, with bees buzzing around them.

The lavender bushes that Ajaz planted in his mother’s garden, in the sunshine, with bees buzzing around them.

Ajaz Ahmed, AKQA founder, on the lavender bushes he planted at his mother’s house.

GB  Tell me why you chose this.

AA  C.S. Lewis once wrote: “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” Tranquility is not something I find myself actively searching for. But sometimes, when you least expect it, tranquility finds you. Scarcity has an extraordinary and beautiful value and at this moment, I felt that I was a friend of nature.

GB  Is it important to you that you planted these lavender bushes yourself?

AA  You have to honour the land because it’s the ultimate source of all livelihood. That is the way we were raised. Our family are farmers. Farming is the only reason ours and many millions of families have endured to this point. But in an age that’s dominated by technology and media, It’s easy to forget this. It’s easy for humans to be blinded by our own clever inventions and create an artificial separation from nature. On our farm we grow oranges, mangoes, grapes, but all outside the UK. In the UK wildflower meadows are being all but wiped out. Bumblebees and other species are facing habitat loss. Planting lavender provides a source of food for bees and a sense of sustainability and respect for the land.

GB  Does the beauty have a sentimental element because these are at your
mum’s house.

AA  Maybe it’s knowing how much my mother loves and respects nature. Maybe its knowing how much she loves flowers and can effortlessly make the most spectacular arrangement straight from her garden.

GB  Why is the real experience of this so much better than any digital experience?

AA  Sight, touch, smell, sound, taste. Nature makes all the senses light up. Digital is not mutlisensory in the way that nature is, not even close. My memorable moments with nature are engraved into my heart and mind. I can’t say that’s true about digital experiences.

GB  Do you think nature is the highest form of beauty?

AA  Leonardo da Vinci said: “Human subtlety will never devise aninvention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does naturebecause in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.” 
Nothing is lacking, nothing is superfluous – I think that’s the ultimate aspiration for anyone who wants to create something beautiful.

GB  Do you think that the internet has helped us to experience beauty in any ways? (As well as helping the campaign to save the bees!)

AA  The speed at which connections get made. The sharing of Information. The sense of global collaboration. The world becoming more of a global village. In many ways it is profound and can start a path towards beauty for those that pursue it.

GB  You’ve chosen something free, that’s available to all. Is that an important part of its beauty?

AA  Perhaps the greatest gift of beauty is its equality.

GB  This is something that’s on a timeline that never changes. Is that reassuring when you work in a world that is constantly speeding up – or frustrating because you have to wait for the lavender to flower throughout the winter?

AA  Winter has its own magnificent, powerful and often terrifying beauty.

GB  Do you think that beauty has the ability to slow down time for us?

AA  The truly beautiful moments are the enduring ones, they are with us In our memories, fabricated into our DNA. If an experience lasts only a second or less, but it is with you for life, perhaps the concept of time does not even apply.

GB  What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

AA  Beauty is not superficial. Beauty is the truth.


Calle Loiza (After Enoc)

A wrought iron security fence in Puerto Rico

Carlos Rolon AKA Dzine, artist, on a wrought iron security fence in Puerto Rico.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

CR I produced a series of new works for my solo exhibition at Walter Otero Contemporary in San Juan based on the wrought iron security fences that are used as source of both protection and beauty on most Puerto Rican homes. The patterns used for these new mirror paintings are derivative from photographs taken during several site visits. Not only is there a contradiction of both invitation and seclusion, but there is also a double entendre as these wrought iron motif windows have been brought over to the US mainland as a source of identity, comfort and home.

GB Is the beauty of this very attached to emotions for you? Is there a sadness there because of the purpose of the fences? Or is it more to do with pride in making what could be very mundane fences into something magnificent?

CR Yes, for sure. All of the above – Sadness, beauty, pride, mundane and magnificent. But this story is also very melancholic. Several of these new works were based on patterns taken directly from homes on Loíza street in a area called Calle Loiza. This area is an integral section of Puerto Rico that dates back to the 18th century, but also has some of the highest crime rate on the island. You have some of the most relevant architecture and prized real estate on the island in this area, which in turn, produces some of the most amazing wrought iron decorative fence work to enhance the architecture, but most importantly, to protect the home. Most of which will never be seen or admired because it is known as a neighborhood with high crime.

GB Any ornate man-made beauty in this day and age is always close to being camp or kitsch. Do you find that the line between beautiful and kitsch is similar in Puerto Rico and America?

CR Sure it can be camp or kitsch. For me this is part of the story that an artist cannot make up – taking the risk of producing in spite of the fear of being called camp or kitsch. I think this idea goes far beyond Puerto Rico and the mainland. This day and age everything crosses multicultural boundaries.

GB Do you find that people appreciate the pure beauty of your work? There is so much real beauty in the way you craft your work.

CR I think people have come to appreciate the craft making that is put into the work. Most importantly, people can see the honesty and back story from where it comes. This is what really makes it beautiful.

GB The faux luxury of fences like these is copied from palaces that were often the product of vast divisions in wealth in corrupt societies. Does it feel ironic to take this aesthetic to the contemporary art world  through your mirror paintings?

CR Not at all. My story comes from a different place and time. The work is contemporary, but at the same time, feels very familiar (based on what you just mentioned amongst others). Ironically, I think this is what has made the work successful.

GB Do you find real 18th century Baroque beautiful?

CR Absolutely. But at the same time, anything can become redundant after you’ve seen something similar over and over again. This is why putting a contemporary twist on this language is exciting to me. One of the most beautiful renditions of this period is in full glory as part of the Period Rooms at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the Louis XVI grand salon from eighteenth-century Paris. I only wish I could create otherwordly site specific installations such as these rooms. They’re utterly amazing and detailed. I love that you get lost in the grandeur of it all. Even if its for 30 seconds.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

CR Anything that has a good, honest story.


A fan signed by the members of the Berlin Congress of 1878

A fan signed by the delegates of the Berlin Congress of 1878

Stefanos Geroulanos, historian, on a fan belonging to his family which is signed by the delegates of the 1878 Berlin Congress.

GB Tell me what this is and why you chose it.

SG This is a folding fan made of cherrywood. It is in my father’s possession, originally owned by his great-grand-mother Despina Caratheodory. She was the wife of Stefano Caratheodory, Ottoman ambassador to Brussels and one of two members of the Caratheodory family who made up part of the delegation of the Ottoman Porte to the 1878 Congress of Berlin (the other was his uncle, Foreign Minister Alexander Caratheodory Pasha). On each of its wooden blades is inscribed, in ink, the signature of a statesman present at the event. And so you have Gorchakov, Chancellor of the Russian Empire first on the left, followed by British PM Benjamin Disraeli (signing as [Lord] Beaconsfield), then Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany, Gyula Andrassy, Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary, and so on. In other words, at some point in the Congress, it was agreed upon that the participants would sign fans for some of the spouses who were also attending. Or, less likely and more fun, that on the last day of the Congress, the smart or strategic spouses went around and got everyone to sign identical fans as mementos.

I chose it for several reasons. First, I am fascinated by regalia of power, the stuff into which sovereignty is invested. Second, it belongs to that category of objects that carry a peculiar aura because they have been handed down within our families. Things we all have that, regardless of their value or even their beauty, leave us somewhat enchanted and help define our own sense of the beautiful. My family acted as though it was such a normal thing to have that I didn’t really have any sense of it until recently. And third, there’s a rather eerie beauty to the fan itself.

It is rather bare, almost unadorned, except for the outer panel. The wood has a curious tactility to it, the lightest of fissures. Then there’s the now-decayed gold leaf thread that unites the different blades, and one should not fiddle with it, or even use it, to avoid harming the thread. And the signatures on it, taking the place of any painting or carving of the blade. So there are the Great Powers carving up Eastern Europe and my great-great-grandmother was perfectly happy to go home with a memento of all the famous people having signed her fan. Just as they would sign the 1878 Treaty that carved up South-Eastern Europe, that altered and reduced the break-up of the Ottoman Empire (her Empire) that had been imposed in the Treaty of San Stefano shortly before. So they convey a sense of someone who is excited to have access to power, they institutionalise a certain coquettishness—on the part of both of the owner(s) and all the signatories.

GB The fan is so beautifully divided up and yet it represents this huge conflict over territory. Does that side of it bother you?

SG Not especially, if anything it adds to the aura. They would have carved up the borders of all these countries anyway. I suppose the idea of a souvenir, of the Congress as also a kind of salon with party time, is outrageous. Especially once you think of how the Congress set up tensions that would contribute to the origins of World War I. But then, don’t people always do this, try to make power beautiful? But it seems to me that my fascination with the object is not tied to glorifying the Congress. Rather, 135 years later, unless you’re a historian and really care about that moment, it’s merely an object that carries that now-faded moment, and so the choice and look of the object matters differently, it opens up that world. And that’s a value that is so easily lost—you don’t have a sense of its importance without the oral history that comes with it. I find that rather fascinating. The signatures are so singular, there’s this very personal element to them. They signed it in a moment of calm or relaxation—or even irritation about having to sign a fan as part of the ritual. Perhaps they were taking a break—and such breaks would have been equally important. Maybe Berlin was super-hot in the summer of 1878, and the fan was an inside joke, an apology to the wives for having kept them in a meteorological and geopolitical heat. So the signatures have a beauty in themselves by virtue of who they raise from the dead, and how. Bismarck’s thick signature eats up the whole blade and ends in this clunky K; it’s like he dunked his pen much deeper into the ink and needed to write that K with all the ink he had left. Disraeli’s is elegant by comparison—though nowhere near as elegant as Launay or Saint-Vallier [Waddington, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs]. You can dream up a whole geopolitics of stereotypes out of them.

GB What came first for you in terms of the beauty? The family connection the object itself, the historical importance?

SG I think the object itself and then, intertwined and slowly unfolded, the family connection and the historical aura—but then again it’s not like these different elements are dissociable. Somehow the bareness of it. Even without the signatures it would be beautiful. The gesture of opening it and the whole elaborate fantasy of using it appeals to me. Then there are the weird political inscriptions. There is no contract value in this signature but there’s the force of them all on top of each other, and then next to each other. You hold them in your hand. Then the family connection somehow sets it in, the family unconscious that you sort of learn over time and that leads you to restore these things, to identify with them. There’s nothing beautiful to the event, and yet so much is inscribed here and given a whole different life, than the Treaty and the territories and the violence and the deaths that would follow in remaking these territories.

But the personal relation that I have to it somehow works to make it beautiful, this family unconscious that comes back and re-imposes itself, because otherwise this kind of family object becomes mere stuff that loses itself in the geography of our lives. Over the years, this became identified with a past family glory, something to keep and remember with, and so it was kept like an old art object—it identified the family itself as much as the people who had signed it. Having grown up in a family that was invested in its own heritage, I was always happy to run away and do my own thing, but eventually it caught up, and then you wonder what role these things play in how you come to look at the world as you were running away. The fan seems to have nothing to do with my usual aesthetic yet I can’t help but find it beautiful. So I very much like the idea that these objects we grow up with re-establish themselves, maintain a kind of control, which resurfaces and recrafts our sense of beauty. And then they become precious, in both senses of the word.

GB Do you think part of the reason for wanting these signatures was a desire for physical evidence that the family were part of this world power?

SG Surely. That’s why they kept and cared for it. I imagine she was happy to be with all the stars and it was for her the most important moment of her husband’s public life (she died only a year later). She could show off in slightly Proustian fashion to those she would bring into her house, to other people in Phanariot or more broadly Ottoman high society. I suppose that this was a mark of class; by the measure of power, at least, it meant you’d been to the highest salon of 1878. So the fan was kept on display with other family artifacts (keimilia), though not during my lifetime; another fan like this, which additionally carries the date July 13, 1878, is still on display in Hughenden Manor in High Wycombe. (Now of course this means nothing—if we measure by Wikipedia, she and her husband only appear on the page of their much more famous son Constantine, who was a mathematician.)

But there is more: in this sense of belonging with “these people,” of carrying them on oneself, in something as slight as a fan, there is also an inverse function of representing the Congress through one’s person and one’s signature. The signature is not only in the official documents, where the statesmen spoke largely on behalf of their states. In signing items they gave to each other—to their wives— they also reassert a certain sovereignty as these statesmen, as themselves. The signatures they’ve shared with one another are signatures that mark themselves as decision-makers, as parties to an international treaty, as more or less sovereign, but also as people who live with folding fans. They thus return, physically and literally carrying the Congress with them, representing this group.

GB What does this moment in history mark for your family? Hope or foreboding before the First World War? From our history lessons, it’s when Disraeli starts to become worried about the Germans.

SG That’s right. Germany was now the big European power, and everyone now knew it. Certainly it looked as though things are resolved and fairly stable for a while. Except it’s also tricky given the newer limits on the reach of the big Eastern-European empires—Russia, the Ottomans and the Habsburgs. None of that gets written into the fan which is the part I find most amusing about it: a wonderfully sanitised version of those power games. Greeks like to remember Alexander Caratheodory for having pushed back on Russian and Pan-Slavist demands that Greece get nothing out of the Congress; for the Ottomans more broadly, this was a much better deal than that of San Stefano, given their loss of the Russo-Turkish War. With regard to “the family” I don’t know. On the political and personal level, clearly the envoys were happy that they secured a decent deal. But this feels so distant, so Old-Europe—I doubt that one could unlock a definitive meaning, or what it meant to their standing, or that I could even exactly speak of “my family” by connecting to their pleasures and anxieties. The fan itself comes separated from any such sense—with an aesthetic and as part of a lore but separated from any meaning personal to its original owner.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

SG It has to be something that evokes a whole climate (film is important to my sense of beauty). It would have to have some shock value, to surprise or astonish. An intellectual value comes after, also an anti-intellectual value too, that it must exceed the rationalisation, gnaw at you. Beauty is then persistent and tenuous. And the fan has such an extremely tenuous relationship with beauty, in this suspension of time that it momentarily enforces, this breathlessness that a fan is supposed to alleviate; it’s why I wanted to talk about it and preserve it here.


Lawrence Weiner's painting, "Placed Just Below Above the Horizon"

Lawrence Weiner’s painting, “Placed Just Below Above the Horizon”

Jeanne-Salomé Rochat, magazine publisher, on a Lawrence Weiner painting.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

JSR  I was attracted by a work that seems to have no function except to tell something that happened, is happening, or will happen somewhere else. What exactly is placed just below, above the horizon? Is it just the word or does it refer to something else? And where is that place? Which horizon?  The form is graceful and lyrical, and the content seems ready to be filled up.

To me beauty is that. It’s an unknown face, appealing, confusing and it mostly feeds on what’s left over from people around it.

GB Weiner says he wants to create works that function irrespective of culture – so is this a universal beauty?

JSR Of course I might not have been attracted to this work if it was in a language I cannot understand. I might have noticed that the font is cute, really cute even. Nevertheless, the work might be equally functional if translated, for example, simply through its formalist character. It sounds and looks like it’s talking about itself: the mural (the paint on the wall, in the exhibition space, in the museum building) might be placed, just below, above the horizon. Is it? Or is it not? If it’s both placed just below AND above the horizon, does it mean it can be pretty much anywhere except way below?

In all, the work is quite egocentric: wondering about its own location and limits, absorbing the viewers projections and hypotheses. It mostly refers to itself, its form as a frame for people to wander in, a container for them to pile their own things up in, like an empty house. I like that simplicity, that subversive emptiness. The work is unsolved, never finished, unable to die. I welcome that kind of frustration.

GB Do you think that Weiner is concerned with beauty? He talks a lot about dignity. He wants to change our perception of the world. Is beauty a part of that in any way?

JSR I know that Weiner is concerned with art, sustainability, politics and a myriad of other interrelated themes  – and beauty is probably a part of it. I don’t know his personal thoughts on the issue. In my perception, there is a use of formal prettiness to attract the eye, gracious shapes, dynamic arrangements in space, colours. That balance allows the eye to feel at peace, to not panic. This is different from the type of beauty I described before – that’s still connected to form but with the aim of creating desire, or waves of desire, not only desire to look but desire to take part in the work. Beauty is asking to be used. Real beauty endures. It’s a rhythm, a cadence, a sphere of action. So in my mind, that work has the power to change perceptions.

GB Do you see a relationship between the beauty of this work and your own work in publishing?

JSR I identify with the way Weiner seems to prioritize the value of experience. He produce systems for experiencing culture, for exploring our identity in new ways and it is something I also pursue actively through my own work, Novembre is about examining Swiss culture in relation to other cultures, in a trans-generational perspective, and Sang Bleu is about challenging the borders between definitions of ‘underground culture’ and ‘mainstream culture’  in relation to the human body and its possible presentations, ornamentations and modifications.

I am also thinking about something else: in my own culture, and by extension, professional activity, it is often considered so uncool, so obvious, and so kind of gross even – to talk about what is happening in front of our faces – like a typically striking beauty. This can be hard to break out of. It’s like when everything is on the table and everything is so known, to even talk about it is very banal, and simultaneously forbidden. So you end up not talking about it at all. In the work of Weiner, I pick up something similar, an inability to talk about something. I assume that there is a conversation going on but wait a minute, what are we talking about actually? Talking about nothing is so natural sometimes, and we do it so carefully, so innocently.

I think that the formalism in Weiner’s work emphasises the taboo, the presence of extremely important and simultaneously ordinary elements in and around it. In my life, I like to enjoy those basic highlights.