Archive for October, 2008

October 31, 2008

Harry Dwight Corrigan was my grandmother’s brother.  He was a soldier in the Canadian infantry in WWI and died in October, 1917.   He had been fighting with the 46th Battalion in France and Flanders for over a year. I once found Harry’s burial information on a website.  A Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan boy – he is buried in Belgium. 

On November 6th, at 3:48 a.m., Harry’s name will be projected onto a wall for 8 seconds in London, Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto and Edmonton, as part of a WWI Vigil project that will bring him symbolically back from Europe to Canada.  His name will be projected as one of 68,000 Canadian soldiers that died in WWI.  I’m glad someone thinks he should be remembered  and that his country hasn’t forgotten what he did.  Information on this memorial project is at 

I don’t know much about Harry, except he was a scamp who liked to tease his sisters and was ‘fond of putting the blame on others’, according to my father.  He was best man at my grandparents wedding and signed their bridal book, which I still have.  I know Harry was terribly missed by his family.  Like true Victorians, they held seances to try to reach him after his death.  Both my father and oldest brother were given his middle name Dwight.  In the one picture of Harry, sitting with his sisters,  I can see a kind of resemblance to my father – in his eyes and how he is looking at the camera.

I’m glad to have a chance to think about Harry again, even though his name won’t be projected here in Vancouver.  Rest in peace, Harry Dwight Corrigan.


Vertical Farming
October 26, 2008

I recently saw an interesting zig-zaggy design for a new high-rise building.  Finally Vancouver gets some funky architecture, I thought.  Turns out it was a artist’s rendition of a proposed vertical farm.  More local produce is a good idea, but growing it in office buildings seems strange.

When I was teaching in Estonia, I tagged along with a Swedish group who were being shown around.  We stopped by a 9 or 10 storey building in a rural area.  The Soviets had used this building as a kind of vertical pig farm.  There were no snouts or trotters visible at the windows however, because the farm hadn’t worked out.  In fact, it had caused an environmental disaster.   The accumulated urine of so many pigs proved to be a problem.  It was initially stored in huge metal tanks adjoining the building.  Finally, a vast amount of urine was trucked to a nearby forest and dumped there – where it destroyed a swathe of natural woodland.  Way to go, comrades.

For two summers, I have grown peas successfully on my balcony.  As I am up on the 15th floor, I guess that makes me a vertical farmer.  One day, I was reaching over the balcony snapping off pods for dinner when a few fat pea pods already in my hand slipped away.  I felt cheated as I watched them fall 15 floors down.  I didn’t run to the elevator, but I now harvest with a firm grip.

The Brazilian/Indian Marriage
October 21, 2008

I went to a Brazilian/Indian wedding reception this week.  The bride and groom, both extreme extroverts, had been married earlier this month in a Las Vegas chapel.  Most of the 300 guests had watched the live webcast of the ceremony on their computers.  It was an interesting mixture of cultures. The Brazilian bride was stunning in a red sari.  Guests lined up to do the limbo to Indian music.  We were taught to dance to Bollywood music – “just reach up your arms and twist your hands sharply like you are unscrewing a light bulb.”  Someone got up on stage to show off their self-designed mixture of the two countries’ flags.   Later, a friend of the groom told the crowd she was surprised when he told her he had “got a Brazilian.”  There were three video screens around the room.  When they weren’t showing the ceremonies, the screens were full of wild Bollywood dancing. 

One of the guests was E. who is 91 and a native Vancouverite.  “India certainly has changed.” she said to me as she watched the manic, undulating dancers on the video screens.

Faux Danish Modern
October 17, 2008

Someone once said to me, “Everyone should build a chair.”  They had two reasons.  Firstly, the chair is one of the oldest and most essential domestic items.  Secondly, building a good chair is not as easy as it looks.  A good chair is a small engineering feat.  It must be designed to take the falling weight and backward thrust of the human body as it sits down – and also the push to rise out of it.

I think a good chair also invites the sitter to sit in it.

I still have some of my family’s furniture.  It’s Danish Modern, bought in the 60’s.   I have a stylish little two- seater, which looks good but hardly anyone has sat on it in over 40 years.  Although stylish, the arms are narrow, the cushions thin and it doesn’t give the impression of being able to bear much weight.

The bookshelf rises from a broad base and its teak shelves are inserts which can be moved to make the space between them larger or smaller.  While it can hold a lot of books, the bookshelf is not fully stable and can be rocked.

The four teak dining chairs are good – with solid broad cane-woven seats, sturdy rounded legs and  rounded backs that offer support.  I have to get the cane rewoven on them.

The most successful is an imposter – a faux Danish Modern chair my father built.  I used to wonder where he got the design and suspected it might be Popular Woodworking.  Now I see that he simply modelled the chair on other Danish Modern ones, and made his own improvements.  My father was always looking for ways to modify. I can tell he thought Danish Modern wasn’t solid enough.  His chair has a strong square base and back.  The dowels in the back frame are larger and stronger.  The cushions are square and thick.  He has put broad carved armrests to strengthen the arms.  The chair is low enough for a small person like me, but larger people can sit in it and stretch out their legs.  I have spent many cosy evenings in it, reading and listening to music.

That’s another good reason to build a chair – to leave behind you a solid piece of work that provides comfort and repose.

Postscript Berlin
October 14, 2008

Home today.  Got to my door at 1am Monday morning.  Feels like I fell down a rabbit-hole and spent a month, not a week, in Germany.  It is a rainy, westcoast Vancouver day – air is wet and fresh, and the fog is rising like steam from the cedars in Stanley Park.  I usually take a sketchbook into the park, but didn’t today.  My brain is like cotton. 

Some last thoughts on Berlin.

In the Alte Nationalgalerie, I saw a great collection of German Romantics including Caspar David Friedrich.  They also have the painting, ‘Isle of the Dead’ by Arnold Bocklin.  Like many iconic images, it seems almost surprising there is an actual physical copy.  The painter did 5 versions of it.  A standing shrouded figure in a small boat stands in front of a mysterious island of white rock and cedars that rises in front of it. (There is a famous parody of it where the figure is losing its balance and about to fall out of the boat.)

The German keyboards interchange the Y and Z keys – which is the devil to deal with at first, but I learned it – now I have to switch back.  No wonder I’m jetlagged.

The area around my pension really wasn’t too dodgy.  A few massage parlors and bars.  Only a few blocks from both Kantstrasse and the Kurfurstendamm – both large shopping streets.  I was looking for the Brucke museum in the area (couldn’t find it) and stumbled across a wonderful children’s playground with dinosaurs made of rough blocks of wood and neat things to climb on.  How dodgy could a neighbourhood with a funky kids playground be?  Unless the playground is for dodgy children.

I was on my feet 8-9 hours a day.  Before heading back to my pension at about 8pm,  I would often walk around the lovely area of Savignyplatz.  The restaurants would start to get crowded and lively.  Many of them were lit by candlelight.   There was a feeling that things were just starting up for the night.  The city stays up late.  Stores don’t open in the morning until 10am.

Even though central Berlin was crammed with cafes and restaurants, I didn’t notice many overweight Berliners.   

The Holocaust Memorial is very impressive.  A whole square city block of stone slabs of varying sizes.  They are set on a grid on undulating ground.  You can walk between them and the stone blocks are high so it’s like a maze.  The shifting level of ground makes the experience of walking through them interesting.  And although the path ahead of you seems straight, you become aware of people crossing through ahead of you. Kids running through them.  I felt nervous that someone was going to walk into me from the side.  You don’t know what’s going to come from the side.  Very unnerving.  Very evocative.

 The disembodied voice at Tegel Airport sounded like an elegant, breathy goddess.  “Attention, ladies and gentleman,  please do not leave your baggage unattended…”  and in German, the same elegant tone,  “Achtung, bitte…”

Auf Wiedersehen
October 11, 2008

Well, it has been fantastic to be in Berlin for a week.  I hope all the great artwork and cultural images will impress on my brain and, in some modest way, help my own artwork.  I’ve found some really interesting work done by more obscure artists here.

I learned today that the transit station Friedrichstrasse Banhof, where I check my e-mail, was split in two during the Cold War.  People traveling east were kept separate from people traveling west.

I visited the Jewish Museum today.  Extraordinary building by Daniel Libeskind and a very moving exhibit.  There is an empty concrete angled room with a very, very high black ceiling. Down one seam between the walls there is a long crack of light.  The room represents the loss of Jewish culture during the war. The exhibit is brilliantly designed and lots of women represented in it, which is very good.

There is a chain of cafes here called Cafe Einstein.  I usually get a coffee and yogurt and sit in the window.  I’d only sit on a high stool in the window in a city where no one knows me.  Seems goofy.  But it’s a great way to check out the passing scene.

Strolled through the Tiergarten, the big park in the centre of the city.  Lots of people.  It’s a really lovely place, especially with leaves changing colour now.

There is a food place near the internet station that has huge loaves of meat of some kind.  They saw off a one inch slab, put it in a tiny bun – which is just a kind of holder- and then give the huge slab to the customer.  As a near-vegetarian, I can only watch agog as the customer rips into the meat.

I see the little green traffic man everywhere.  Signs,  shirts…I guess he is a kitschy symbol in Berlin.

One interesting thing in Berlin is the sheer arbitrariness of what survived the 1945 bombings and what didn’t.

Luckily, the medieval Marienkirke near Alexanderplatz did.  It has a 22 foot mural “Der Totentanz” from the 1400s – a kind of conga line of clergy dancing with skeletons. I entered just as the huge organ started playing.  The sound exploded through the church, seeming almost too powerful for the building.  I sat down and listened to the organist play 2 pieces.  An unexpected treat.

Spent the morning in Mitte, lots of art galleries.  Saw a lot of contemporary art.  Then I went to the Egyptian Museum – above it is an art installation that says in giant letters ALL ART IS CONTEMPORARY.  The showpiece of the exhibit is the 3000 year old bust of Nefertiti, but the other artifacts with their clean lines and mysterious auras were a pleasure to look at.

I just got comfortable saying ‘Eine Bagette mit Kase, bitte” and now it’s time to go home. I made inquiries and found the Hauptbanhof has luggage storage I can use for a few hours and the bus to Tegel Airport leaves from there.

So…tomorrow it’s “Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin – Hello Vancouver”

Ich bin there, done that.
October 10, 2008

I have been to about 15 art galleries and museums in 4 days – all of them world class.  I’m hoping my brain can retain most of what I saw.   I really enjoyed the small Berggruen museum – a Paris art dealer set up his own museum in a house.  Over 80 Picasso paintings and some Matisse, Brauch and Klee.

I needn’t have worried about missing early Christian altars, the Bode Museum had some mind-blowing ones.  And I am an agnostic, but it’s great art.  The gold against the luminous colours.  Some amazing carving of figures, and the faces seem so innocent and of course, of another time.

Art museums give you a headset.  There is a number on the paintings you punch in the number and a voice explains it.  That’s great, but exhausting if you are also scrutinizing the paintings for details.  Voice chattering in your ear.  I reluctantly do without the headphones.  If I had more time, I’d use them.

Berlin is one of the world´s art capitals, so I’m surprised that there is not much fashion in the streets.  Berliners have dropped the baton in the fashion races.  They wear mainly dark colours- black, brown, grey, blue and for the most part dress down.  Perhaps the strong hand of Martin Luther still rests upon them.  The original portrait of Luther by Cranach is in the History museum (Deutsche Historisches).  There are so many unique artifacts there.   I was impressed by a large Turkish tent, fully set up, which dated from the Turkish siege of Vienna – hundreds of years ago.  It’s a fascinating point in history.  The Turks were driven back but if they had captured Vienna – that would not only change Viennese culture but establish a beachhead into Europe.  Germany as a outpost of the Turkish Empire.  What an interesting idea – I bet Berliners would be dressing more colourfully today!

Went to a contemporary art museum in the old Hamburger Banhof station.  There was a show by a Berlin conceptual artist who has worked hard at rocking the boat for decades – rolling in large chunks of animal fat and other startling things.  He’s well-known.  I like one of his installations – a big platform with 2 blackboards with chalk writing on them.  About 40 other blackboards -with and without writing- were stacked or thrown around it.  I liked it.  Not sure why.  Pleasingly anti-authoritarian, I guess.

I had to get off at the Hauptbanhof to find the gallery -the big train/city transit station.  The station is really a stunning structure.  Huge and made of all clear panels.  Inside you can see the Reichstag and govt. buildings across the river. 

Keep seeing strange crows here.   Their bodies are grey, heads and wings are black.  I’m not sure if they are mutant crows, avant-garde crows or some other unknown species.  Or a strange portent.

One interesting thing – you can tell if you are in the former Eastern sector by the pedestrian crossing signals.   The little flashing “Walk/Don’t Walk” figures are different in East and West.  The East Berliners fought to keep their little ‘ampel-mannchen’ – little traffic men.   They are spritely, and the Western ones are lame and just functional.  Today I passed a store that sells nothing but merchandise featuring those little East German traffic figures.  Bags, cups, towels etc. There were quite a few people inside.

Oh, I got to Alexanderplatz today.  It’s not far from the centre of Berlin, but the area is still redolent of East Germany.  Not a lot of money has been put into this area.  Berlin city hall is here however, the impressive Rathaus.   I sat with my sandwich in a nearby park.  The was a large statue of Marx and Engels at the centre.  It looked familiar, maybe it was standard image from articles on East Berlin.   I dabbed my mouth with a napkin and went over to take a picture.  My guidebook said that, when the wall was taken down, someone wrote on this statue, “Next time will be different.”

Berlin Stuttgarterplatz
October 8, 2008

Stuttgarter Platz is where my pension is.  I always liked the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz.  Must get to Alexanderplatz before I go.  It’s not far.

The Germans like food.  The streets are crammed with restaurants and food stores, there are little food carts on the street and the main transit stations all have food courts.  And nobody is giving up carbs. Or gluten. It´s all pastries, bread and pretzels.

Yesterday I was in the Gemaldegalerie (Picture Gallery). Spent almost 3 hours among 13-18th century masterpieces – Ruebens, Rembrandt, Botticelli et al.  I felt exhausted.  One of the last rooms was early Christian altars and icons.  I love those! But felt like crashing to the floor.  I had to sit for a while in the foyer, then I managed to get over to the Berlin Philharmonic building nearby for a lunchtime concert.  Handel arias.  Fantastic.  Also saw another church and a few more museums and generally admired the amazing architecture.

Also went to an museum of early music intruments.  Loved the old harpsichords and spinnets! I saw Frederick the Great’s harpsichord.  It folds up.  And there is a tiny painting of a little cherub blowing a flute from out of his rear end.  The king had a sense of humour.

A lot of buildings in Berlin are low – 5 or 6 storeys – so the sky is always a great expanse above.  This makes the parks seem larger as they are not hemmed in. It’s a different feel from Vancouver anyway (mountains and a huge amount of tall green glass buildings downtown). And an extraordinary building is not diminished by higher ones behind it.  It gives the city a great feel.  Bike paths are incorporated into sidewalks which is great, but pedestrians have to watch where they walk. Or get taken out.

Saw Hermann Goering’s Ministry of Aviation Headquarters.  Classical Fascist architecture.  Very creepy.  The Soviets put a `happy citizens/workers` mural on it.  But maybe it should have been torn down.  Hitler´s bunker is gone and is a children’s playground.  No signs point it out.

I found a large metallic-blue, balloon sculpture by Jeff Koons on Marlene-Dietrich-strasse, in the shadow of Daimler’s super-stylistic headquarters.  I got up close to photograph it, for a laugh – to get my reflection on it in the photo.  I am like a tiny black fly on it.  Then I thought, I could probably have a whole career as an artist – just photograph my reflection in other people´s art and show it.  Hey….!

Willkommen in Berlin
October 6, 2008

I am in Berlin.  Everyone is speaking German, which seems surreal for some reason.  Even I am speaking German.  I have spouted out my few practiced phrases to great effect, I think.  But I learned quickly to ask young funky people for help.  Luckily, they really like to speak English.  I am typing at a pay terminal in a busy rail transit station.  A funky, young man helped me use it!   Which reminds me the transit here is great and easy to use.  There are many signs up for tourists to track down the sights.  Berlin sights are clustered in several areas which are very walkable and I can take transit in between them.   And weirdly, everybody is white.

Some notes –

I found a great little coffee shop to frequent in Savignyplatz – a trendy area with lovely parks and streets, not too far from my dodgy area (see below).

There is the most amazing architecture here.  Every couple of blocks it seems there is some wild variation on the building code.  And I wasn´t going to bring my camera.

Also, amazing open spaces and squares around some building.  I saw one wonderful plaza amid beautiful classical buildings on the Unter den Linden – of course, that where the Nazis staged their book burnings.

I saw Napoleon´s hat in the German History Museum.   They have all kinds of remarkable paintings, documents and artifacts there.  Went to a wonderful museum on the art of a Berlin artist, Kathe Kollwitz.   Really amazing churches here.  I saw the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and some other great art museums.

I must look like a native Frau.  Some well-dressed Russian women approached me for directions.  I said Ìch bin ein Tourist` but got out my map and tried to help anyway.

The taxi driver from the airport was very friendly and warned me I was in a not good area, but it would be fine during the day.  Some bars and prostitution.  No problem –  I saw on an internet site that the area around this pension looked dodgy but was ok.  And the pension was discribed as `friendly, cheap and useful´ – words to warm the cockles of the heart of any descendent of Scots Presbyterians.   It was for me and it´s perfect. It´s a formerly bourgeois building with great staircases and fancy classical molding on the walls and really high ceilings.  I think my room is higher than it is long.  And it´s full of respectable bargain hunters like me. 

I had a lot of trouble finding an internet machine, but a young girl at a pastry store told me there was one in the station near Dunkin Donuts.  Dunkin Donuts is everywhere, unfortunately – even in Berlin.

The Spanish Armada
October 2, 2008

A local reporter with an Irish surname recently wrote an article on DNA testing.  He had his own DNA analysed for a story and was surprised to find he was primarily of Spanish origin.  His genetic traits were predominant in one particular area of Spain.  Turns out his DNA had only a brief stopover in Ireland.

Spanish merchants have long traded in Irish ports and Ireland has a history of political alliances with Spain against the English.  One of the most intriguing connections for me is the Spanish Armada.

When I was at university in Northern Ireland,  I lived in a house with other students on a coastal road that faced the North Channel.    The area has rocky cliffs and spectacular beaches, called strands.   The howling windstorms in winter were sometimes too intense to go out in.  The wind at night sounded like a fist trying to smash in the window.   Spray from the sea from the depths below the cliff would also hit the house.

 In 1588, these fierce North Channel gales destroyed almost 20 vessels from the Spanish Armada – sinking or driving them onto coastal rocks.  The ships were fleeing around the Irish coast after their defeat by Francis Drake’s Royal Navy.  They would have sailed past the headland on which I lived.   Most of the Spanish crews drowned – hundreds of bodies washed ashore.  Many who reached land alive were murdered by the Irish.  Only a small number are thought to have survived, stayed and lived out their lives among the local people.

In the last century, divers recovered artifacts from the wreck of the largest ship, the Gironda.   Weaponry, cannons, gold coins were recovered along with domestic objects – and also, elaborate jewellery.  Many of the Spanish nobility were on board.  Most of the artifacts are in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

One of the most well-known artifacts is a small gold ring with the image of a hand holding a heart.  Inscribed on it in Spanish are the words, “I have nothing more to give you.”