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It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.

–         Great words from a great man.

Holding back from writing a blog comprised entirely of Oscar Wilde quotations (very tempting), I’m going to sidestep towards an upcoming show to raise a few questions. The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain 1860-1900 at the V & A is going to delve into an unexpectedly unconventional ethos. Art For Art’s Sake? Or Art For Beauty’s Sake? The latter, I feel, would be the case in point here. Under the figureheads of such artists and creatives as Gabriel Dante Rossetti, William Morris and, of course, poster boy Oscar Wilde, beauty became fashionable in the high Victorian period. Sounds obvious, and not exactly newsworthy, but the late 19th Century really was a high point for vice over virtue. It would be wrong to say that opulence was a completely new thing – just look at the Elizabethan or Medieval periods for proof – but it was used for a different purpose, that is, no purpose. Before the Victorians, decadence was often a glorification of the religious and spiritual, in iconography, ceremonies or lavish cathedrals. Decadence in the high Victorian era – not only in fashion and jewellery but also architecture and interiors – overshadowed the grim reality of life just simply because. As the V& A exhibition will showcase, there was no place in the Aesthetic Movement for any lowly chimney sweep or maid. This was a time for the house proud to let rip, and indulge in the fanciest designs in town. Before our times of rebellion and idiosyncrasy – our Raindance Film Festivals, Edinburgh Festival Fringes, Anti Design Festivals…. – let us not forget that there was a time when  perfection was everything.

But let the porcelain skin and rosebud lips not fool you – there’s a big HOWEVER here. Two words: Dorian Gray. It’s often noted that the death of Oscar Wilde was the death of the Aesthetic Movement. True, to a certain extent. But surely anyone who reads Wilde will know his distrust of surface beauty? Quotations from his novels, short stories, essays and articles are everywhere, and we all love them:

“A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”

“All art is quite useless.”

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.”

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

“I can resist everything except temptation.”

….and yes, I could go on. The point is, when we read them, we have a little chuckle to ourselves. Because they’re ironic comments on society’s ridiculousness. You’re not supposed to take them at face value. Oscar Wilde’s tragedy was his obsession with a decadence which he very well knew was full of vice. He wrote about it again and again.

Let me tell you, in brief, the story of The Young King:

Once upon a time, there was a Young King. A veritable Adonis in appearance, nothing pleased him more than to simply gaze – at his own appearance in the looking glass, his coronation robe of tissued gold, his ruby-encrusted crown, his rich tapestries representing the Triumph of Beauty….and then back again to his reflection, the polished mirror held up by a laughing Narcissus made of green bronze. One night, following his coronation, the Young King had a dream. He came, in his dream, upon three scenes: a pearl diver, killed by exhaustion as he returns on the ship with the pearl for his own sceptre; gaunt weavers with sunken cheeks, at the looms in a darkened room, working on his own golden robe; hoards of men searching for rubies for his own crown, while Death and Avarice watch over. When the Young King awoke, and his servants prepare to put his robe on his back, he refused, remembering his dream. And the courtiers were amazed, and some of them laughed, for they thought that he was jesting. “There is Blood in the heart of the ruby, and Death in the heart of the pearl,” he said…..this is Wilde’s own commentary, his thoughts despite his contrary lifestyle choices.

And then, of course, there’s Dorian Gray, who sold his soul, and every bit of good in him, for everlasting youth and beauty. We know what happened next.

So it’s interesting to think of beauty in art. Oscar Wilde, in the height of the Aesthetic Movement, expressed (often ruefully) how “All art is quite useless,” because all art, in their eyes, should be beautiful and only beautiful. Nowadays, we’re supposed to engage in art beyond its surface impression – look into the concept behind, experience the process, question it and let it make us question ourselves. Beauty is pretty much bottom in the pecking order in the list of priorities. Strangely, anything ‘beautiful’ now is labelled craft, and often thought lesser because of it. Now, we prefer ugly. One example: the 2009 Turner Prize winner, a gorgeous gilt decorative wall by Richard Wright, intricately patterned in traditional and decadent style. People were mildly surprised – and why? Because it was so beautiful they couldn’t imagine it could possibly have sufficient conceptual depth to be a Turner Prize winner. In-keeping with the Wildean ethos, beautiful and good became, for a moment, mutually exclusive – they (the Victorian Aesthetes) chose the beauty (“It is better to be beautiful than to be good….”)….I guess we like to think we choose the good. And to prove this point further, we also like to value ugliness.

This October, for example, The Future Can Wait, an edgy alternative to Frieze, will be taking place in the eerie basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, in trendy East London. Its disturbing works, from performance and video to site specific installation and painting, all share a definitively un-pretty aesthetic. The grotesque and the sinister, dispelling the glossy allure of the traditional art fair, all come to the forefront in this year’s line-up of 30 artists, including The Future Can Wait stalwarts Tessa Farmer, Sam and Luke Jackson, Gavin Nolan and John Stark, as well as newcomers Dale Adcock, James Howard, Jasper Joffe, Nika Neelova and Wendy Mayer. Check it out for a taste of something different this Autumn.

Over in Piccadilly, the ominous and eerie will again reign supreme in Maurizio Anzeri’s exhibition The Garden Party, which will be set in Q, a new gallery space converted from an old-fashioned bookshop, dusty shelves in tact. Maurizio’s sculptures, made of synthetic hair, are menacing yet weirdly alluring, creating the kind of garden party to have the Victorian Aesthetes up in arms.

If the creatives of the late 19th Century were the Cult of Beauty, what does that make us now? The Cult of Ugly? Does that make us more ethical human beings? I fear not. Though an unshakable fan of Oscar Wilde and all his writings (well, most), there is one thing I have to disagree with him on: beauty and morality are not mutually exclusive. Neither are ugliness and sin. Nor are sin and morality, even. I’m afraid you just have to look past the surface, and, sometimes, step out of your comfort zone. Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge an artwork by its exterior. Even if it’s an ugly one.

Images:

Lady Lileth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (c) Stark

(c) Maurizio Anzeri

Curiouser and curiouser…..as I type, I am looking around my desk for things that are no larger than my head. Not for the purpose of some brain-circumference-related ego boost, I assure you – I’ve got something much better lined up.

Between the 12th and the 19th October this year (most probably the 12th – I’m really very excited about this one), I’ll be heading down to the Wellcome Collection with my ‘thing.’ Artist Keith Wilson, creating and anthropology of the here and now, is inviting the public (that’s you) to donate an object (any object, rare or mundane, as long as it’s 1) no bigger than your head, 2) not wet, 3) not explosive and 4) not containing any human remains) to be part of a temporary exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, titled, aptly, Things.

It has to be said, collectors can get a bad name – across the spectrum from stamps and miniature eggs to McDonalds toys and Spice Girls memorabilia, there’s an assumed owner behind the scenes….one who is weirdly obsessive and unnervingly introvert. But there’s a different kind of obsession that Keith Wilson talks about in conjunction with this exhibition – a fixation with other people’s things. This isn’t some form of kleptomania, but instead an intrigue concerning stories, connotations, and links between an object and a thought, and what happens once an object is taken out of its natural context. If I take this beautiful cup and saucer in front of me, which is filled with wax and made into a candle, from my desk and give it to be placed in the Wellcome Collection, it could be put in a glass case beside a trainer, a ring, or a book on English hedgerows. Who’s to say where that teacup came from, or why it became a candle? It will be removed from its contextual anchor and completely reconsidered, most probably inaccurately, but that’s no bad thing in this case.

When contributors come and deposit their chosen object, behind the scenes each object will be catalogued, photographed and labelled, allocated a specific date out of 365 days in 2011 and placed on public display in a system of metal shelving and museum display cabinets. On the 19th October, people can reclaim their loaned objects or leave them as gifts. Those objects that have been gifted, rather than loaned, will be kept by the artist, and may become part of a future artwork, ‘Calendar’, to be shown as part of The British Art Show in 2011.

Things is a pioneering project reflecting Henry Wellcome’s own position as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and compulsive collector, and it’s something everyone – and (almost) everything – can be part of. I can think of only one question: why not?

Top image: Periodic Table (c) Keith Wilson

Bottom image: Skull Mask, Bhutan (c) Rama Knight (from the Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man gallery)

Ordinarily, the prospect of books making it into the headlines would have me very excited indeed. But today’s stories leave very few in the publishing world with Great Expectations. Instead, it’s Hard Times all round (excuse the puns). Amazon would seem to be the exception (for now, at least), as it rolls out its supercheap new version of the Kindle and launches its local UK store at the end of August. It will boast 400,000 titles in its library, including Andrew Wylie‘s notorious additions to the mix. Classics such as Lolita and Midnight’s Children, titles run through Wylie’s agency, will be electronically available through Amazon alone, much to the horror of Random House. Victoria Barnsley, chief exec. of Harper Collins UK, noted that Amazon was the only winner in this exclusive deal, but the impact on the publishing world, in its print and electronic guises, runs deeper. Why else would traditional print publishers worldwide be wracking their brains for new app.s and interactive design features to complement their titles?

Andrew Wylie is probably one of the only people in the world who could make such a scandalous move, both a) getting away with it and b) causing such an uproar in his wake. His agency roster includes, among around 700 clients, Martin Amis, as well as the estates of Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson. But Wylie’s decision comes at an opportune time (for the enfant terrible to cause trouble, that is, not for the book lovers) – he’s got a lot of help from the ever-escalating digital craze. Consumers want it, and the retailers want to give it to them – cheap. Amazon’s bargain e-reader (only $139/ $189, depending on whether you go for the 3G or wifi-only version – a tiny fraction of the price of the original Kindle) is just one contender in the e-readers marketplace. In June, Barnes & Noble lowered its Nook e-reader below $200, prompting Sony and Amazon to do the same. With Google launching its own digital bookstore later this year, competition from the virtual world is only set to get fiercer.

Price wars are inevitable in any sort of commerce – so there’s no reason the book world shouldn’t be the same….it’s happening with music and film, why not literature? The problem is that publishers aren’t adapting to the consumer demands as quickly as they could – gone are the days when an editor can happily publish fifty titles, knowing perhaps one will be a hit (we’re in a recession, donchaknow?). And at the same time, on the other side of the till, while it’s nice to have a shelf lined with bound beauties, it’s hardly economic, especially if a new release is going to be available only as a twenty quid hardback, at least for a good few months. At least a Kindle won’t wreak havoc on your modern decor.

Speaking of modern, the modern English novel is having a hard time, says Gabriel Josipovici, former Oxford professor and revered lit. crit. Award winners like Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes are searching for an antidote to our superficial electronic lives (how apt), he says, and in the process have shown their true colours, as “prep-school boys showing off.” The editor’s role is crucial, then, firstly in controlling all the now-Hollywoodesque literary egos, and then, secondly, marketing them as something worthwhile and at the same time sellable. It’s a tough job. But print publishers won’t be obsolete for a long while as far as I can see – there are too many influential editors whose opinions still really matter. We need just need them to make the right choices. No pressure.

Imagine if getting your 5-a-day could be as simple as breathing. Imagine no longer! The lovely guys of Bompas & Parr (aka the Jellymongers) bring you….The Ziggurat of Flavour, an inhabitable pyramid installation containing a cloud of breathable Fairtrade fruit. Sitting on top of the hills overlooking the Big Chill festival this year, it’s going to be a fantastic addition to their already well set (geddit?) reputations in both culinary and artistic worlds. Their fine English jellies (including that infamous example containing a ‘speck’ of Princess Diana’s hair, bought from a US eBay dealer) and bespoke jelly moulds are just tinchy examples of their work. Their projects often operate in the space between food and architecture, exploring how the taste of food is influenced by synaesthesia and setting.

Food should always be shared – a picnic at the park, around a table, on the beach, in the garden…why not in a gigantic pyramid? Taste could never be a more communal thing, spatialised in the Ziggurat of Flavour as a public realm, scaled up from bodily interior to building interior. Fruit will become architecture – an immersive, habitable environment.

Bompas & Parr has already worked with leading architects including Lord Foster, Will Alsop and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners to design jelly moulds. Heston Blumenthal used their jellying expertise for his television series Feast and they created Alcoholic Architecture – a walk-in cloud of breathable gin and tonic. I bloody love a good G&T – a cloud of it enveloping me? It’s almost too much happiness to bear….ah, gin….

Now back to the almighty Ziggurat: After negotiating the misty labyrinth of vaporised fruit, Big Chillers will emerge onto a slide at the top of the huge structure. Now, I won’t even pretend to be a scientist when it comes to the next bit, but according to the guys in the know, as you slide down your kinetic energy compounds the fruit cloud, making it denser. Always listen to a doctor though, when he tells you to eat them apples. Cue Dr Oliver Firth of the Centre for Altitude Space and Extreme Environment:

“The ingenious method of vaporisation employed by the Ziggurat should create a fruit-saturated atmosphere, and anyone breathing it will likely absorb a significant quantity via their respiratory tract. How much will clearly depend on the time spent breathing in the fruit vapour, as well as on variations in individual lung performance. However, the absence of heat treatment means that the vitamin content and nutritional benefits of the fruit are likely to be preserved, and hence this method of delivery could potentially contribute to an individual’s 5-a-day quota.” Sounds good to me.

If you’ve got a fruitphobe on your hands, or a kid who’s not eating their greens (take the whole family!), there are probably some considerably better things you could do than take them to a music festival….but, with the Ziggurat of Flavour on the horizon, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

Image: Ziggurat of Flavour (c) Dan Price

Top image: Jelly St. Paul’s Cathedral by Bompas & Parr

If you’re chatting loudly enough for me to hear, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a private conversation.

The Bugged initiative, a new project in celebration of eavesdropping, has got me very excited indeed. On the 1st July, writers (in the loosest sense imaginable….meaning anyone who can hold a pen….meaning YOU) are being asked collect snippets of conversation you’ve heard during the day and pen them as either poetry, prose, or script – poems of up to 60 lines, stories up to 1,000 words, flash fiction up to 150 words, scripts up to five minutes long.

The judges are National Poetry Day director and Glastonbury festival website poet-in-residence, Jo Bell, and novelist and playwright David Calcuttthe, and they’ll be selecting the best to be posted on the Bugged blog, and the very best to be published in October in a printed anthology.

Think of the yawnsome hours spent in sweaty tube carriages, noisy buses and stuffy waiting rooms – languish no longer….pick up the pen and write! Some people are naturally inquisitive/ ear-sensitive/ nosy, some people are natural writers…..in this project it is advantageous to have both venerable qualities – but if you’re not in this camp, there’s a great collaboration to be made, I’m sure of it.

Things to remember:

1. “Your life story would not make a good book. Don’t even try.” Fran Leibowitz advises you not to pen your own life…try someone else’s instead.

2. As Daphne Du Maurier once said, “Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard.” Try not to piss anyone off tooooo much. Discretion is the magic word.

3. Submissions open July 2nd, and close August 15th. Keep an eye out (and an ear) right here.

A Question of Taste

From early Renaissance scenes of the Last Supper to Dali’s Lobster Telephone and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, food has always been on the canvas, as well as the mind. It’s time for the relationship between the palette and the palate to be brought to the table.

Historically, art can tell us how the cavemen ate, what the Romans drank and why gout was such a fashionable (i.e. unavoidable) disease among the Edwardian elite. Culturally, art reveals just how creative dining has always been – haute cuisine is no new phenomenon.

Through ancient history, people prided themselves on creating dishes as appealing to the eye as to the tastebuds (admittedly often far more). And this was evident in the art of the day – a showcase of the edibles à la mode, left for all to ogle for years to come. Call it still-life, call it whatever you will, the focus was often the realistic depiction of the plate, and historians will always be thankful for precisely that. Before film or photography, painting and sculpture were the ways to visually record life, from a scientific experiment to a lavish feast. So, wanting to be remembered for their epic shindigs, wealthy party hosts became wealthy art patrons.

One thing that comes to mind when the words “food” and “art” flash before me is the idea of movements and fashions. Even in the last few decades, we’ve see the coming in and going out (and sometimes the resurfacing) of trends such as Prawn Cocktail and Pina Colada, Art Deco and Kitsch. The idea of ‘fashionable food’ makes the chef as much of an artiste as the designer or artist, subject to (or responsible for) the whims of the dining/ gallery-going public. Heston Blumenthal, for one, can probably take a lot of credit for the recent return of the Soda Stream, following his marvellous transformation of the cheap ’80s white wine, Blue Nun, through carbonation, into a faux champers.

Last night I had the pleasure of an 8-course taster menu at Pearl, the swanky restaurant headed up by chef extraordinaire Jun Tanaka. I make no hesitation in saying that the dishes were gorgeous to eat, but more notable was how intriguingly complex and genius they were in both visual and taste composition. An amuse bouche of heritage tomato jelly, with a tomato crisp, a light cheese foam and basil sorbet was amusing to both the bouche and the brain to decipher….and that was just the beginning of the savoury exhibition. At the San Francisco Museum of Art Café you can get Mondrian Pound Cake – why get out your paintbrush to imitate the artist when you can get out your wooden spoon instead?

Heston and Jun, along with Michel Roux, Michel Roux Jnr., Raymond Blanc, Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith, Marco Pierre White…..are who we think of as modern day celebrity chefs, but they comes from a long line of kitchen superstars. Food as aesthetic creation is no new thing.

The only difference is the thousands of TV channels, iPods, 4oDs and iPlayers now constantly putting it into the popular consciousness.

Martino da Como was, in the 15th Century, the first “celebrity chef.” Martino’s elevation to the “Prince of Cooks” made his Liber de Arte Coquinaria one of the bench marks of early European gastronomical literature (a.k.a. cookbooks). Later, in the height of the French Revolution, Marie-Antoine Carême surpassed this “Prince,” becoming known as “The King of Chefs.” Carême was an early pioneer of the elaborate style of cooking known as haute cuisine, the “high art” of French cooking: a grandiose style favoured by both international royalty and the nouveau riche of Paris.

…..Now, for fear of this becoming a history lesson, there is one indefinable, intangible thing that both a painting and a pâtisserie have the power excite in equal measure, with no consideration of fads or fashions: desire. Did you know that Dali’s Lobster Phone has an alternative name? Aphrodisiac Telephone. This says a lot for food-as-subject in general. Think neo-Classicist or pre-Raphaelite…gorgeous women lying around surrounded by platters, men with grapes dangling above their open mouths. In the painting and in the feast, it was all about having the cake. And eating it too.
Moving on a few centuries, desire in food art takes new forms. Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans epitomize precisely what I’m getting at. Desire becomes commodity in the age of consumption, but it is still the same thing, if only in a new, plastic-wrapped new form. Ralph Goings’ painting A-1 Sauce appears just as a few condiments bottles on a table. Not a conventionally romantic image, I’ll grant you, but eye-catching and thought-provoking. Just as modern art must question, prompt and intrigue, so must modern cuisine. And food in art, also, is as prevalent today as it always was, but serves a new purpose – to communicate an opinion, expose a truth or ridicule the ridiculous, rather than showcase the artist’s technical skill.
The imitation of the real in framed, elevated art is like the description in a menu of a dish you can’t quite afford – it just makes you want it more. Along with the human form, the serene landscape and the battle victory, the image of the edible is yet another object of desire. It’s all a question of taste.

The number 108 doesn’t really have a ring to it… but throw in a cosy village scene fused with top class cuisine and you have the makings for something very memorable indeed.

Only five minutes walk from the hubbub/ hell (delete as appropriate) of Oxford Street, nestled in the heart of Marylebone Village, 108 Marylebone Lane makes the stress of city life a distant memory for a couple of hours. As the sounds of car horns and crowds of tourists fade out, the local feel becomes more and more apparent. 108 Marylebone Lane likes to source as much as possible of the produce and goods it uses from within Marylebone Village itself. Easy to source locally when you’re based in the middle of rural Hampshire, Warwickshire or Yorkshire (and many others of the Shires, for that matter), not so easy in the centre of the capital. The restaurant gets much of its meat from The Ginger Pig, just off Marylebone High Street, and nearby Biggles, where the ”Biggles Venison Sausages” come from, as it happens. The Rococo Chocolate Brownie (just gorgeous) is made from chocolate bought at- you guessed it- Rococo, handily located just a hop, skip and a jump away on Marylebone High Street, and cheeses come from La Fromagerie, arguably one of the best cheese shops in England. Acting as a platform for local businesses and producers to showcase their wares, 108 Marylebone Lane absolutely revels in being the sum of all its (quality) parts.

The venue itself, with its contemporary interior, is divided into two sections – both beautiful, but each with a completely different tone. The bar is strikingly modern with its shiny red ceiling lamps. On the other side of the room, the arrangement of the tables in the large restaurant area offers little corners in which to enjoy food and conversation without the feeling of being in a huge, daunting venue. At the risk of sounding middle-aged, the general feel to the place was really rather pleasant.

Now, turning to the good stuff.  I began with the asparagus (what with it being in season and all), with pickled wild mushroom, quails eggs and truffle dressing, while Miss F opted for the stilton and leek tartlet. The asparagus itself was perfectly blanched, and the truffle dressing was apparent but pleasingly subtle. The quails eggs, hard boiled, would probably have been preferable poached or soft boiled (I’m a big sucker for a gooey yolk – it takes me back to my childhood), but cooked as they were they were able to hold the accompaniments well. Miss F finished the tart with gusto – the single bite I was permitted was incredibly rich; however, I did enjoy the palate teaser of the initial tang of the cheese to the final hum of the leek. We both opted for mains of fish; I the fillets of bream with potato puree and sautéed leek, Miss F, the less purist, saltimbocca of roast monkfish and mozzarella, which came with potato and fennel confit, baked aubergine and wild rocket pesto. The plate sizes, firstly, were just right (especially if you’re going to brave a starter of stilton and leek tart). Though torn by a variety of choices, including the Biggles sausages and the pork belly, the arrogant simplicity of the bream was a sure winner, with the fish perfectly cooked and the side-dishes inventive and intriguing.

Following two courses, only Gluttony and her sister Greed (Miss F and myself, incase you didn’t recognise us) could have managed a couple of desserts on top. However, word on the street is the Rococo Brownie is not to be missed (a rumour with legs, it turns out). Now I must admit that I hate rum in desserts, with a passion! (Rum’n’raisin ice cream = my worst nightmare) In light of this information, you’d think that a banana, rum and chocolate brownie would be a recipe for disaster but I decided to give it a go. My, oh my, what a treat! Spoiling ourselves further with the white chocolate cup and Bailey’s mousse, served with a delightful warm orange madeleine, really was the zenith of indulgence. If we are to believe that proof really is in the pudding then this gem of a place certainly gets my vote. Then again, the proof could have been in the starter or the main and my judgement would have been the same.

108 Marylebone Lane is a little jewel of a find on this one of London’s busiest and bustling shopping streets.  The restaurant’s insistence on keeping things local is such a refreshing change from the rise and rise of global gastronomy on offer in London’s high-end restaurant scene. This place has reverted to village life and prefers to keep it simple and fresh. And that is precisely why I like it.

www.108marylebonelane.co.uk

108 Marylebone Lane
Marylebone, UK W1U 2
020 7969 3900

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