Piers Atkinson's Chinese headdress

Piers Atkinson’s Chinese headdress

Piers Atkinson, milliner, on his Chinese headdress.

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

PA The object is a headdress from either a Chinese opera or wedding. It’s the most incredible head decoration. I’ll tell you how it came into my life. I used to work for the artist, Andrew Logan, who’s a fascinating man and artist and creative thinker. I worked with him for years and years while he lived and worked in a beautiful building called the Glasshouse, which he’s just about to move out of – and on the ground floor is a storage space for all his sculptures – which are made out of glass and mirror and resin, but also lots of found objects. So people give Andrew buckets of stuff; broken Christmas decorations, interesting this, interesting that, even clothes. And this was one of the things he was given. I used to get quite frustrated rummaging through all this stuff, trying to find this for his work, so every now and then we’d go through the garage and tidy everything up. This was great for me because firstly, it was paid work and secondly, I got first dibs on all the things he was getting rid of. So he pulled this thing out and it was the most spectacular thing I’d ever seen. It’s very faded so it must be quite old. The tassels would have been a very strong pink. I guessed it was Chinese but I didn’t really know what it was. I was so thrilled to be given it that I went and bought a book about Chinese opera and saw this picture of one that’s almost exactly the same, worn by the bride character. There’s also a layer of wig that goes underneath the headdress.

GB Have you ever worn it?

PA Oh yes I have.

GB What did you wear it with?

PA I think it was one of Zandra Rhodes’s kaftans. I wore it at one of Andrews parties so I would have been helping him and doing the washing up in that headdress. You can see that it’s made from layers of things on springs and hinges. There’s a lot of card and stuck on paper so you can pull it around a bit when it wilts. It’s come around with me for about twenty years.

GB So you had it even before you thought of making hats?

PA Yes. My mum makes hats, so I’ve always loved hats and headdresses and always made them for myself to go partying at clubs like Kinky Gerlinky and a bit later on, Kashpoint. So Andrew would have seen me wearing the hats I made at his parties and the Alternative Miss World, so that’s why he would have given me this.

GB Have you ever made anything like it?

PA Not quite like it, but I did make a huge pink wig based on another Chinese character. It has some of Andrew’s jewellery in it and it was a project for Zandra. I did a lot of portraits of her because she’s a fascinating character.

GB have you seen any Chinese operas?

PA Only on Youtube and I’m not sure it’s for my Western ears!

GB Oh no, did it put you off?

PA Not at all. It makes it even more extraordinary. I’ll tell you what that kind of thing does for me. It comes from the Imperial part of Chinese history so it’s steeped in thousands of years of tradition. So you have this style of music, these very stylized gestures, make up and characters that are so far from a Western sensibility. But the personalities are the same. So however different it seems, you’ve always got the bride, the thwarted lover, the villain, the possessive father. It shows that as much as our humanity is the same,we can express it in these incredibly different ways. It made me love the headdress more, that it can tell the same old story of a bride in such a different way. Some of them have Reeves’s pheasant tails attached that are six feet long. Those come from the most boring brown bird but it has this beautiful tail. Then when you see these headdresses worn, all the springs wobble and they come to life.

GB It’s funny that people think Lady Gaga is original.

PA Well that’s why I love hats, or headpieces I should say. They’re displays of who you are in any culture – whether you’re the priest or the chief or the wife and in a position to display who you are, it’s a crown. And we all live in our heads so much. That’s where we feel we exist and we decorate that with hats and hair and everything else to exaggerate it, to exaggerate the self.

GB So when you saw this in your book on Chinese opera, was it more beautiful? Had it been more of a camp thing until then?

PA It does all depend on context, doesn’t it? It’s an exotic thing. When I was first given this, fifteen or twenty years ago there was no internet. It was easier for things to be exotic. Now you can research things so easily on the internet, it’s almost as though we’re overfed. I look at these beautifully edited, refined and cropped photographs in this book but now we feel we have the whole story in this endless unedited online library. I don’t have the same passion for fashion imagery anymore because nothing feels as special. I think the future lies in editing all this down to something that you want to keep.

GB I guess that’s where beauty can stand out.

PA Yes. We’ve got ahead of our competitors by putting an awful lot of effort into the beauty of our imagery and the way we present the work. We’ve always photographed the hats on models, even just for sales publications. I think there’s a huge market for a specialist interest in beauty. We look at so much low common denominator imagery that says ‘come in and join us’ rather than ‘don’t you wish you could be like us.’ I’m fascinated by this idea. In the eighties, kids didn’t try to look sexy, they wanted to shake things up and upset people. Then they were sexy if they could pull that off and shake things up. That was beautiful to us. Now people want a gym body and a spray tan. It’s all very normal and it takes dedication, but is it creative? The way we look is a way of communication and that seems like a very narrow channel of communication. I’ve always been interested in looking back through history books and seeing things like the way people used to pad their bellies to look fatter so they could appear to be rich, or the wide shoulders in the eighties as a show of strength, being sewn into a dress as a way of communicating that you didn’t need to dress yourself. Ancient Egyptians used to bind their heads. We alter ourselves to tell a story and that’s why I love hats. There’s a lot of information in this Chinese headdress that I can’t even read. Maybe the knots mean eternity or the pearls stand for something. All these things would tell a story to the Chinese audience.

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

PA I would say that it has to be unusual or remarkable and then good. Nature is beautiful in itself but in a person it’s related to morality. You can see a photograph of a person and say that they’re beautiful visually, as a part of nature, but when it comes to looking at the person as a whole it’s also related to their behaviour, their morals, how they fit into society. A beautiful experience has goodness attached to it.


Apologies for the lack of post this week. We took a little holiday. We’ll be back with something new next week, which is also when the third edition of GILDED BIRDS PAPER will be out.

issue three

In the mean time here’s an early post you may have missed. It’s one of our favourites and is included in the new paper.


Ned Block, philosopher, on his pair of pliers

GB Tell me why you chose your pliers.

NB The main aesthetic aspect is the feel of the pliers in your hand. They feel like an extension of your hand. I bought them at Allied Radio, a precursor of Radio Shack, in the 1950s in Chicago when I was in high school. They were heavily used even then but they still function perfectly. They are lineman pliers made by Klein and Sons, a company that started in the mid-19th century and was known in the 1950s for the best lineman’s tools. The logo is a picture of a lineman on a pole. They’re very good for stripping or bending wire. Long after I bought this tool, foolproof tools for stripping wires were produced but using this tool is more satisfying, partly because using it is an exercise of a skill from the past.

GB Do you think about the beauty of everyday objects a lot?

NB Not explicitly but of course everybody wants beauty in their lives. The beauty of the pliers is highly personal and certainly not any kind of natural beauty. With many things we find beautiful there is a strong dependency on cultural and personal context. Your porcelains for example resonate with one culture but not another. No one would appreciate the pliers who has no idea how to use them. You need to be able to imagine them in your hand, to integrate motor and visual imagery in envisioning using them. Their visual appeal to me is a matter of their affordances. “Affordance” is a term introduced by the psychologist James J. Gibson for the latent possibilities of action in the environment. To experience affordances of an object it needs to be close enough to you to grasp—in what is called peripersonal space. The photo won’t work very well since the part of your visual system that is concerned with affordances does not categorize the picture as a real three-dimensional object. That is one reason that photographs of sculptures are so disappointing. The affordance dimension is missing in many kinds of art.

I think the topic of affordances is scanted in most art criticism. Amazingly, we have two pretty much separate visual systems. One of them (the “ventral” system that starts in the visual areas in the back of the head and feeds into the sides of the head) is conscious and the one that most art exploits – but there is another one (the “dorsal” system that feeds to the top of the head) that is mainly unconscious and governs action. That is the visual system that dominates in dogs, which is why they see moving objects better than stationary objects. The dorsal system probably dominates affordances, certainly any affordances that have to do with shape or motion. My guess is that many of our more subtle aesthetic reactions are dominated by that affordance system.

GB Does beauty ever come up in your work?

NB Every philosopher would like to be able to write and think beautifully. Many philosophers value simplicity – I certainly do – and simplicity is a kind of theoretical beauty.

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

NB There are some aesthetic values that derive from human universal perceptual capacities, such as symmetry. But this object is beautiful mainly because of its personal meaning. I’ve used this tool, I made a Tesla coil with it. It fitted into my life at a certain time and reminds me of that time. I have noticed that physical universal beauty doesn’t seem to play as big a role on your site as one might have thought. I haven’t noticed anyone picking a famous painting that means nothing to them personally.


Simon Costin's bronze satyr

Simon Costin’s bronze satyr

Simon Costin, art director and curator, on his bronze satyr.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

SC It’s often hard to explain why a certain object has a unique fascination. Is it the design or form of manufacture? Perhaps its rarity or the fact that the creator was a person of note? Maybe the object has a history, a wonderful story woven through time, which lends it an aura, like a religious relic? Or sometimes, just once in a while, something comes along that hits you in a place you never knew you even had. A place in both the mind and the heart. My satyr is one such object.

Twenty years ago I was strolling along Columbia Road flower market in London on a sunny Sunday morning. I was with friends and they had wandered ahead a little. The crowds of people in the market make it easy to lose people temporarily. I stopped to see if I could see them and my eyes turned towards a shop window. Sitting there was a small bronze figure clasping his knees, his face turned in contemplation and eyes cast down. As I stared at him I noticed that he had the shaggy flanks and cloven hooves of a satyr or faun. This was no mere mortal but a representation of a God. In ancient Greek Mythology a satyr was the companion of Dionysus. Early representations have them with horse like features, a tail, ears and well, other parts… The Greek God Pan has goat legs and horns and Romans later used the term saturos when speaking of the Latin faunus, so the two aspects combined. Later representations of satyrs feature the more familiar aspects of Pan with goat’s legs and horns. Pan was known for his wild, lusty, untamed nature, a God of the fields and shepherds and known for his music played on the pipes. The worship of Pan began in Arcadia and being a creature of nature, his temples were simple natural places, groves and caves. A true lover of life and the natural world. But here in a shop window was an alternative representation. Thoughtful, perhaps melancholic, pondering the unknowable but reminding us that he’s still here and still has things to teach us.

At the time I didn’t have enough money to buy him but I put down a deposit and returned a week later with the cash. The most surprising thing about the piece is how much it weighs, its almost supernaturally heavy. The one thing I remember from the dealer who sold him to me was the instruction to stroke him. Bronze reacts well to the oils in our hands. Over the last twenty years I have helped to build up whatever patina he has by regularly stroking him and making sure he’s loved. He has repaid me by opening my eyes to a different way of looking at deity and our kinship with nature.

GB You seem drawn to the macabre. Can something be both macabre and beautiful?

SC Absolutely! But then its all down to an individual’s perception of beauty, surely? Eye of the beholder and all that? Modernism showed us that ideals of classical beauty are there to be challenged and we should embrace all forms of existence. I enjoy the transgressive nature of the macabre. The disturbing or off-kilter has always held a fascination for me because its always been something lurking on the edge of my vision. I’ve a sunny disposition by nature but there’s always been the feeling that everything could just go up in flames at any minute. I was born in London and have lived here all my life. I’ve been here when riots have erupted and when terrorists have bombed. I went to see the buildings in the city directly after the 1993 IRA bombing. It was all so surreal. I had been past the exact same spot the day before on a bus but here it was in ruins. And the strangest thing of all was how beautiful it looked. The scale of transformation was breath taking. Horror and beauty combined.

GB You seem so involved in telling stories through your work. Does the story of the satyr appeal to you?

SC I think what the satyr represents is appealing, yes. I’m the director of the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. The museum houses the largest collection of witchcraft-related artifacts in the world. We not only look at witchcraft but also magical practice. Britain has an enormously rich history of magical practice, from Anglo-Saxon Sorcerers to the stories of Merlin and on to Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s magician. Robert Fludd in the seventeenth century to Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Ithell Collquhoun and so many others in the twentieth. The figure of the half man-half goat was demonised by the early church and became their Satan. I’ve always thought this such a damaging thing. A satyr represents our kinship with the natural world. The church saw humanity as being above nature and that legacy is what we are now having to live with as our planet struggles to support us and all the damage we inflict on it. Pan reminds us that we are not removed from the natural world. I’ve often thought that my wistful satyr seems to be sad with the knowledge of this dislocation.

GB You collaborate a lot in your work. Do you ever discuss beauty specifically? Your work with Tim Walker is incredibly beautiful.

SC You know I can’t ever recall having had a single conversation about the nature of beauty with anyone within the fashion world. I’ve talked to artists about it certainly, but not people in the fashion industry. Tim has a very particular aesthetic, which is why he is so successful. He has a singular vision of the world and has been able to play that out in the pages of the worlds most looked at magazines. Like any great artist he has tried to stick to his guns and fight for what he wants and how he sees things, but what makes him remarkable, I think, is how he can collaborate and listen to others. He’s not a dictator. On a shoot with Tim we are all wrapped within his vision and everyone has their role to play in helping to create that vision. It’s the same with all fashion photographers but Tim always acknowledges it.

GB How do you work around clashes of taste when you’re collaborating with someone?

SC That rarely happens to me thankfully. If someone chooses to work with me it’s usually because they like the worlds I create, so we are already half way there. The only time it has happened is when  moneymen, they are usually men, don’t understand the vision, lack any kind of aesthetic or cultural understanding and are totally visually illiterate. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does… a deep breath and a lot of explaining, trying all the while not to be patronising, is the order of the day. Painful!

GB You set up the Museum of British Folklore. Are these artefacts more interesting to you than anything in the contemporary art world?

SC The museum world and the contemporary art world are two very different things. One deals with the impulsive, intuitive experiences of groups of human beings and the other deals with the rarified and usually intensively meditated-on work of a single individual. Very different things. For me the museum is so important, so broad and so revolutionary in terms of current museum practice that there’s not an hour passes that I’m not thinking of it. Setting up a national museum for the UK is such an insane project after all. But, folklore has been so long overlooked, misunderstood and marginalised, that I almost feel like a lone voice desperate to bring all our wonderfully rich folkloric culture to the fore. But I’m far from being alone. It runs through our lives in ways people don’t recognise, from street slang to urban myths. We construct ritual and give it meaning everyday in response to fundamental human desires. We have constructed wayside shrines ever since the first traveller was killed on a road and we still do it when a bicycle is painted white and chained to the railings close to where a cyclist was killed. The Museum of British Folklore will reflect what it means to be human in the 21st century and will draw on the customs and traditions of the UK to show the world the things we hold dear and how they resonate in the wider community and the commonality we all have as human beings.

GB You take very local stories and use them to influence shows with global appeal – such as your recent work with Gareth Pugh. Do you think the references get lost in translation – or is that part of the beauty of it for you – the creation of something fresh and mysterious from this obscure beginning?

SC I was delighted when Gareth said that he was using British Folk customs as a source of inspiration. I don’t think it particularly matters that not everyone will understand the references. A new audience has heard that there is relevance to folklore that they may never have thought about before. I love the fact that the Minehead Hobby Horse and Mummers tatter jackets have been reinterpreted. It won’t affect those particular events in any way I imagine but it may bring a handful of people to explore them in some way and learn more about them. Of course if we had a museum of folklore people could visit it and learn so much more.

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

SC Beauty can literally take the breath away. I think the experience of beauty is always intensely personal. Many years ago I was in Rome and got up early to go for a walk. I turned a corner and there was a small square. A fountain played in the centre, lazy birds strutted around and the light was so beautiful. I stood there and tears streamed down my face and I was shocked at myself. Where the hell did that come from? That’s what beauty can do, take you by surprise and fill you with a vision of life that floods you with happiness so intense it’s almost too hard to bear.


The Temple of Concordia from ancient Akragas

The Temple of Concordia from ancient Akragas

Anthony Snodgrass, Professor of Classical Archaeology, on the Temple of Concordia at Agrigento.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

AS Because I’ve had a long time to look at it. It’s nearly sixty years since I first visited the temple, and I haven’t been back that many times; but year in, year out, I look at pictures of it (especially this photo) and I never get tired of looking. It’s a huge slice of luck, too, that the temple is so well preserved.

GB Can you visualise it in its original state, with stucco and decorations? If so, do you prefer the ruin – or the temple in your imagination?

AS Yes, the materials are important. Here in Sicily, the Greek builders and sculptors mostly worked in local limestone: they had no easy access to white marble, but I guess that stucco was reasonably successful in reproducing its effect, which we can see in dozens of buildings in mainland Greece. In this case, however, it seems that there was little or no sculptural decoration (painting is another matter), so the difference from its appearance today won’t have been all that great, I would be happy with either, but I’m not trying all the time to imagine the original state.

GB Do you believe that this is a higher form of beauty than nature? Do you think that the master builders who created it believed it was?

AS No, I believe that nature excels anything we can do (that’s why I’ve re-visited the Scottish Highlands every year of my adult life). But you asked me to ‘choose one object’, and I took this to mean an artefact. With the second part of your question, I’m not so sure. Greek literature is notoriously reticent in praising natural beauty, by comparison with perfect craftsmanship, and these builders could have felt the same. But if the Greek temple was really based on nature (see below), then we’re back where we started.

GB For you personally, to what extent does the beauty come from the building’s perfect proportions – and to what extent from its particular associations for you, your visits to it, your knowledge of its historical context?

AS one per cent from personal associations, one per cent from the context (of which little or nothing is known) and 98 per cent from the building itself and its proportions.

GB To what extent do you subscribe to classical conceptions of objective beauty through order, symmetry, proportion etc.?

AS I think you have to believe that there was something in their conceptions. If you think of a perfectly proportioned man or woman, you don’t want to alter anything, and the columns of a Greek temple are said to have been based on human proportions. Whether or not that is true, everything was clearly scrutinised in obsessive detail. Take this particular Doric temple (Doric was seen as the ‘male’ alternative). The Greeks fiddled and experimented with their temples for centuries on end, changing this or that tiny detail. For technical reasons which we needn’t go into, builders in the Doric order soon found that they had to move the outer columns of the façade slightly inwards, in order to get the upper works right. They clearly liked the result in aesthetic terms too, perhaps because it made the building look less sprawling. Sometimes they shifted the end columns quite abruptly inwards (by two feet in the case of the Parthenon). Here in Sicily, they thought of a different solution: move not just the two outer columns (#1 and #6) very slightly inwards, but the next two also (#2 and #5), so that the central gap, between #3 and #4, will be the widest, making a natural entrance way. You have to look very hard to see that they’ve done it at all. But in all their centuries of searching, I feel that this is the moment when they got it right. Plenty of experts would disagree: the word ‘provincial’ is freely thrown around when the art and architecture of Greek Sicily are discussed.

GB The Greeks were masters of creating optical illusions such as tapering columns, to give the illusion of a perfect form. Does this make it less perfect?

AS No, I think that it’s precisely the manipulation of optical effects that creates the feeling of perfection. Without them, these temples would risk looking like provincial stock exchanges.

GB What is your personal view of Plato’s idea of beauty as an ultimate value?

AS Well, it’s lasted pretty well, hasn’t it ? Plato of course used ‘beauty’ in many other contexts besides the visual (character and thought, for instance). But if we confine ourselves to visual beauty, there is a surprisingly wide consensus: I don’t think it is time-specific, though culture-specific it may be. Fashions and tastes change at bewildering speed, but some things just last. Look at any book or gallery of portraits of women who were judged beautiful in their own time: people’s preferences today may differ, but no one ever says “Yuk !”. There must be something ‘ultimate’ behind this.

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

AS Shape, proportion and colour. I look around and see beauty everywhere, natural and man-made, often side by side with ugliness. I don’t think most people find it hard to decide which is which, and there will be a wider measure of agreement than on most topics. I would expect that posterity, too, will share the consensus.



Marcel Duchamp's '3 Standard Stoppages' (1913)

Marcel Duchamp’s ’3 Standard Stoppages’ (1913)

Gideon Rosen, philosopher, on Marcel Duchamp’s ’3 Standard Stoppages’

GB Tell me why you chose this? What was your reaction when you first saw it?

GR When I was eleven or twelve I spent a long summer collecting insects — butterflies and moths, but also beetles, grasshoppers, even flies. This was mainly a geeky science project, but the impulse was also aesthetic (as I now see).   I had the idea that I would collect these bugs and then build a cabinet for my collection. I pictured the sort of oak and glass display case with dozens of small compartments that one sees in natural history museums, but the point was to build it myself: fit the joints, varnish the wood, cut the glass … I drew up detailed plans, though I never came close to building it. Still the idea was viscerally gripping for me. I’ve lost my interest in bugs, but as I think about this now, I find myself wanting to make the box.

A few years later I saw Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages at the Museum of Modern Art and my first reaction was: That is a beautiful wooden box. I wish I had made that. I’ve been fond of it ever since.

GB Were you already aware of its context in art history when you first came across it, as Duchamp’s farewell to painting and ‘retinal’ art? Did that influence your opinion?

GR I had just read Calvin Tompkins The Bride and Her Bachelors in a high school class on theories of art. The book is about the line from Duchamp to the 1950s New York avant-garde, so I was aware that my ‘aesthetic’ response amounted to missing the official point. Still it was clear to me then that like many Dada icons, this thing is obviously beautiful — much more beautiful in person than the pictures in the books convey. And as I now think, the Stoppages were obviously meant to be beautiful: maybe not the box itself, which is very nice, but the object as a whole. Of course the beauty isn’t strictly retinal: the object isn’t ravishing. Still, the gestalt one takes in as one looks at the thing and thinks about it has a strange effect that I’m happy to call a response to beauty.

GB What’s beautiful about this object? Can you say?

GR It’s partly the idea. The “stoppages” are alternatives to the standard meter, allegedly produced by dropping a meter-long thread from a height of one meter onto a painted black canvas, tracing the contour and then cutting wooden slats to match. This is a pataphysical joke that resonates with turn of the century ideas about the conventionality of geometry (Poincaré), the aesthetics of industrial production — the stoppages are devices for reproducing an arbitrary curve ad infinitum — and other groovy ideas of the time. As Duchamp put it:

This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance, at the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity as a meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight line as being the shortest route from one point to another.

It’s a perfectly good joke, but you don’t need a beautiful object to make it. To focus on the joke in isolation is to miss the most salient thing about the Stoppages.

The stoppages are housed in a carefully made pine box — the sort of box a surveyor would use for his tools. The canvas onto which the strings have been dropped has been cut into three strips, each of which has been affixed to a long glass plate. The lower part of the box has been fitted with slots for these plates, so it’s a blown up version of the sort of box that biologists use for their glass microscope slides. The stoppages themselves — the wooden slats — are stored in the lid of the box with a clever mechanism.

This intricate arrangement makes no sense if the point is just to freeze some random curves in time. Taken together, the arrangement is a literalization of Kant’s claim that the beautiful object displays “purposiveness without a purpose”.   You look at the box and its contents and imagine the pataphysical surveyor opening his meticulously packed toolkit only to find that his rods and sextants have been replaced with long glass slides and curved measuring sticks. That thought and other more abstract thoughts mix with the visual experience of the materials— the wood, glass, canvas and thread all carefully arranged— to yield a strange gestalt that I find beautiful.

GB Does the fact that the curves were produced by chance contribute to the beauty of the work?

GR Actually, I don’t believe they were made by chance. When I went back to MOMA to look at the Stoppages again before responding to your questions, I came home wanting to make something like it— always a good sign after a trip to the museum — so I played around a bit, dropping strings and threads and lengths of fishing line from a height of one meter. It turns out that it’s impossible to get an elegant curve by this method. And yet Duchamp’s curves are not just elegant: they’re modern, like a Brancusi contour. (At MOMA, the Stoppages are in a gallery adjacent to Brancusi’s Bird in Space, so the affinity is hard to miss.) So I’m inclined to doubt the official story, and if I’m right that’s a massive irony, since this work was important to John Cage and others precisely because the key bits were supposed to have been left to chance.

I think all of this should occur to anyone looking at the Stoppages who knows the official line about them. The idea would have been every bit as excellent if the curves had been ugly or uninteresting; but they’re not, so one has to wonder. This just reinforces my idea that the Stoppages are beautiful on purpose. The lines are beautiful; the box and the arrangement of materials in it is beautiful; but the work is strange in a distinctive way because this sensual beauty prompts thoughts about the source of the work’s effects. These thoughts combine with the visual experience to produce something that is not quite a feeling and not quite a thought — something we have no good name for, but which seems to me to be a way of registering a sort of beauty.

GB Do you think that humans have an in-built response to those kinds of contours — perhaps in the way that our instinct for edge-detection leads us to find line drawings pleasant to look at?

GR I don’t know whether it’s in-built.   But I tried another experiment: matching Duchamp’s lines to contours in great pictures of the human figure like Ingres’ Grand Odalisque, and it’s easy to do. Our response to those pictures is partly erotic, hence presumably partly innate, so there may be something of that in my response to Duchamp’s Stoppages.

Still, I’m surprised that people seem to care so much about whether our aesthetic responses have an innate source. There must be something innate about our capacity to find things beautiful. But even if my particular sensibility is massively shaped by culture, personal history, and so on — so that I find things beautiful that others don’t — I don’t think that threatens my sense of beauty in the slightest. This is a philosophical point, but I think beauty can be objective – really there in the object — even if it takes culture and history to see it.   Someone who looks at the Stoppages and doesn’t find them beautiful is (I think) missing something that is there to be seen and felt.

GB Do you think an ‘unaesthetic’ object could ever exist?

GR This is tricky. As soon as I give you an example of an ‘unaesthetic object’ — something that won’t repay attention— that will amount to an invitation to stare intently at the thing and (if you’re my sort of philosopher) to start spinning a story about how this banal thing is really fascinating after all.   There can be illusions of beauty, and intellectuals of a certain kind are prone to them: we mistake our beautiful thoughts for beauty in the object. That said, when I look around my office for something of no aesthetic interest at all, I’m stopped by the fact that everything has been designed, hence prettied up a bit. There’s hardly anything in the room that wouldn’t reward a second look.   Still I do think there can be such a thing. Nothing much to look it in a pool of vomit.

GB In Duchamp’s words, “One stores up in oneself such a language of tastes, good or bad, that when one looks at something, if that something isn’t an echo of yourself, then you don’t even look at it. But I try anyway. I’ve always tried to leave my own baggage behind, at least when I look at a so-called new thing”. Do you think he was fighting a losing battle trying to leave associations behind and see something with fresh eyes?

GR No. There’s nothing wrong with responding to art in a personal way. My own most intense experiences of beauty all come from pop music, and any response like that is bound to be intensely personal. But it is possible to bracket quite a lot of that.   The example I’ve given here doesn’t make the point, since my response to the Stoppages is partly personal and a bit nostalgic.   But last year I took a group of students to the art museum at Princeton and told them all to find a beautiful thing to talk about. I did the assignment along with them and found myself standing in front of a painting by Ad Reinhardt: a big black canvas broken up into squares of subtly different shades of black. I forced myself to look at it, since it really isn’t my cup of tea, and found myself gripped by the picture (and by the story I was beginning to tell myself about why I found it gripping).   I don’t think there was anything personal about that response; my baggage had nothing to do with it. Though as I say, I wouldn’t privilege the impersonal response to art in any way.

GB Duchamp believed that painting and sculpture die — that their freshness disappears after forty of fifty years. When you see this work now, do you have the impression that you are visiting a relic?

GR It certainly looks like an antique, and that’s part of its appeal for me. If the box were made of plastic it would be much worse. But I emphatically reject the point implicit in Duchamp’s remark — that freshness is important in art, and that since freshness is transitory, the interest or value of an artwork is also transitory. That’s a very 1913 thought, and I just don’t have it. When I look at 3 Standard Stoppages I know I’m looking at something it would not make sense to make today. But it doesn’t strike me as a relic, if by that you mean a thing whose beauty has faded.

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

GR As Alexander Nehemas says, the point of calling something beautiful is to invite others to spend time with it. That’s why it took me so long to respond to your invitation to contribute to Gilded Birds. To call something beautiful in public is to stick your neck out, since it involves issuing an invitation that others may reject, or worse, take up only to discover that you’ve wasted their time with your bad taste. Beautiful things do not have any special feature in common, just as people worth spending time with don’t have anything interesting in common. But some things are worth spending time with (in the various ways in which we spend time with works of art). I wouldn’t use the word “beautiful” for all of them: beauty isn’t the only aesthetic value, and I’m not sure how to distinguish it from the others. But my hunch is that Kant was not far wrong: there’s a kind of attention to the way things look that prompts an effort of understanding that prompts renewed attention to appearances, and there is a pleasure that (sometimes) comes from this back-and-forth. To call something ‘beautiful’ is to promise this sort of pleasure from it.


Rose de Mai

Rose de Mai

Azzi Glasser, perfume designer on the Rose de Mai

GB Tell me why you chose this.

AG The Rose de Mai is one of my favourite flowers in the world. It’s such a beautiful flower to look at because it doesn’t really look like a traditional rose. It’s a cross between a peony and a rose when you look at it and each one is completely different. Sometimes flowers like tulips can all look very similar but there’s something about the Rose de Mai that makes each one individual. If I’m in the fields for a long time I’ll try to find one that looks exactly the same as another – I used to do that with shades of green leaves as a child, looking for something that might be there but seemingly impossible to find. It just has this depth, like no other rose. It only comes out for about two weeks of the year in the South of France, in May and because of that it’s one of the most expensive rose oils, if not one of the most expensive essential oils in the world. The whole process of extracting the oil is a beautiful experience because it’s treated like royalty. The process is quite ancient but precise. First the flowers are picked in a certain way, petal by petal, then they are tossed in the air for a period of time so they’re aired, before being cooked in a kind of pressure cooker, which is where the steam distillation takes place. In the end the extraction is solid like a wax, the ‘absolute’ usually pink in colour. The aroma is so deep and intoxicating, there’s nothing like it.

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

AG Nature is the answer to our creation so it has so much to offer in every way. For me it’s like security in life. The word beauty wouldn’t give it justice.

GB How do you think sight and smell interact with one another?

AG Sight is the primary sense for most people – although not for me, of course. The sense of smell is based from the subconscious and almost ignored by people. Everyone smells things and they think about it but they’re not always aware that they are thinking about it. Smell can be more powerful than sight. It can tell you things that sight can’t, like smelling a fire before you see it, or smelling bad milk, which still looks perfect.

GB So if something smells gorgeous, do you think that alters our perception of it, so we might find it more visually appealing?

AG The individual aesthetic of an object can blind your sense of smell if you’re not in touch with it. Most of us have no training from school or parents in how to understand our sense of smell. It has to come from yourself. A person can look fantastic with the right clothes and hair or makeup, but if they don’t choose the right fragrance to match their personality, then it can be quite off-putting to others. The scent of a person is a really powerful weapon and affects how we think and feel about people. You won’t want to be with a partner forever if you’ve never liked their smell. I do a lot of bespoke business for people and mainly Hollywood actors because they’re generally very in touch with their subconscious, which is why they’re acting, so we can relate through these fantasy worlds. They would rather wear no perfume rather than get it wrong. And then if someone does smell great, you’re immediately attracted to them, regardless of their beauty. There’s that instinct thing. I can smell if someone’s washed their hair that day, or maybe not washed it for two weeks! I can smell the shower gel they’ve used. My brain will start dissecting the molecules in front of me. Scent molecules are such a big part of life, they are everywhere.

GB Does Rose de Mai have any particular associations for you?

AG When I was seven months pregnant with my first child I was directing an editorial shoot for the Independent Magazine. My husband’s a photographer and we were doing a shoot about the making of Joy. One of the main characters in Joy is Rose de Mai. Patou owns their own Rose de Mai fields in the South of France and when we went there their entire crop had gone by the time we arrived. They told us it had gone yesterday. Well, we couldn’t wait for another year. I started frantically calling around and one of my contacts said that there might be one more field high up in Rémy. We drove up the mountain and just over it saw this huge field of Rose de Mai in full bloom and the scent was incredible and the sight was beautiful. When I’m pregnant my sense of smell is so strong, it’s like there are two people smelling – in fact there probably are. The fields were so mesmerizing that it has become one of those unforgettable memories.

GB Does it smell very different in the fields from the essential oil you get in the end?

AG Yes, the aroma is very different. The extract oil is so concentrated and rich and deep. What’s wonderful is that this one flower can produce this incredible smell. It could so easily be ignored or not realised. When the oil is extracted at the end, it’s locked in a safe because it’s worth €500,000 per kilo.

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

AG If I chose one word it would be originality – something that’s different that gives you more than you see, so that it becomes something else through the way it makes you feel.


Painting by Ethel le Rossignol

Painting by Ethel le Rossignol

Bishi, musician, artist, performer, on one of Ethel le Rossignol’s psychic paintings

GB Tell me why you chose this.

BB A friend of mine invited me to see her paintings at the Horse Hospital. I immediately loved the way that they’re so psychedelic and that art-deco crossover, but unusually, they don’t have that twenties colour palette, they’re completely technicolour. They also remind me of the Hindu imagery I grew up with – but still have a distinctly European flavour. Where East and West collide has always been at the crux of my life and work. I come from a Bengali background and I grew up in London.

GB Would you say that they’re two cultures with very different ideals of beauty?

BB Absolutely. My experience of British culture has always been about the underdog and beauty through filth and resistance. But in Bengal people were really into the British Empire and whatever’s at the top of the pyramid of power. They love the establishment. There are still collections of people in Calcutta who speak with cut-glass accents. They took the EM Forster novel and it became their reality.

GB And do you think this painting is closer to one side or the other?

BB I think both sides would like it. The Horse Hospital where it was shown celebrates avant-grade culture and occultism, so everybody I know who’s into what I term ‘wizardy shit’ would be into it.

GB So you’re into ‘wizardy shit’?

BB Oh yeah. Somewhere in between Jung and Jodorowsky and Alan Moore and Alan Watts, with Aldous Huxey thrown in the mix. People can laugh at it and deride it and say it’s rubbish, but I just smile. I have no reason to try to convert someone to my way of thinking. I was brought up as a Hindu with elephants and swans riding through the sky. I didn’t care if it existed or not. I can relate it’s mythicism to surrealist thinking and altered states with psychedelic drugs. I’ve found my own truth in performing, nightclubs, music, DJing and performance art. I like to see other people communicate their gift.

GB Do you believe Ethel’s story about she created these?

BB Ethel attributes them to a spirit known as J.P.F. She channeled voices and the paintings came from these spirits. This appealed to me because I work with the human voice, songwriting with vocal layering. I also work in a collaborative way, channeling the voices of my the musicians & artists I work with. I like to see myself in a dialogue between different styles of music and different forms of art and communication.

GB When you saw the pictures, did you already know about their background and how they were created?

BB No, I was just completely hypnotised the second I saw them. It was a visceral experience.

GB Did you find out more about Ethel later?

BB Ethel died in the 1970s as a 96 year old, leaving 44 of these paintings. Half of them were donated to the College of Psychic Studies.

GB Do you think she made up the name Ethel le Rossignol?

BB I think she might have. She certainly understood show business on some level. She was a nurse during the First World War. There was a great spiritualist movement after the war because people were so horrified by the murder and destruction.

GB Have you heard the equivalent in music?

BB I think we all do it in music! But no one has openly admitted it.

GB So do you think inspiration comes from outside you – or is it all in your mind?

BB When it happens for me, it’s like a firework that goes off. I can’t fake it. As soon as I try to find it I don’t. Things come to you when you’re not looking. The best thing is to keep your head down and lose yourself in being who you are.

GB Is beauty something you think about in your work?

BB I never consciously think of beauty in that way because I think it’s such a difficult thing to define. But I see beauty in everything and everyone even when things are really dark and negative. I can always find inspiration. I think that turns into something beautiful. We live in a society that seems out to deride and shame people. Women in particular are so objectified.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty?

BB I think it’s dependent on your state of mind to a great extent but I’m interested in the way certain archetypes and  mythologies have remained in the public consciousness for thousands of years. There are certain things that we all respond to whatever our background or education.

GB It seems that you’re very visually led for a musician?

BB I would describe myself as a visual musician. When I was sixteen I read a book called Talking Music by William Duckworth and it had interviews with Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Conlon Nancarrow – and that was the moment it all made sense. I’ve made collaborative work with interactive visuals timed to my music. I  have been quite uncompromising about it. It’s not easy, but to have authority over my work has been the greatest liberation.

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

BB I think it’s connected to that flash of inspiration and something that takes you out of yourself. It can be disturbing. It takes you out of yourself and onto another plane. You shouldn’t have to try. It enters your existence and you don’t question it.  Curiosity is important. I know so many different types of people and you might say they’re eccentric but they have that curiosity.