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While most of us spent today hoovering up pine needles and recycling Christmas cards, a group of actors in London marked the Twelfth Night by rowing around on the Thames, feeding hidden peas to unsuspecting tourists and toasting a pub. 

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A bell is ringing quietly on the south bank of the Thames, a stone’s throw from the Tate Modern gallery. Among the throng of tourists, a little bell ringer not more than four years old draws the crowd in the direction of London Bridge, his spare hand tucked firmly into his mother’s. They proceed slowly until they are standing outside Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, where others have already gathered. They are waiting for the Holly Man, whose arrival on the south bank has, for the past 20 years, signalled the start of the Twelfth Night festival.

This small, strange festival of tradition is the work of a group of professional actors called The Lion’s Part. For the past two decades, they have been marking the end of the Christmas season on 5 January by dressing up, dancing and singing. And the festival, which used to be seen only by confused passers by, has now attracted a small-but-faithful following.

The Holly Man arrives on a Thames Waterman Cutter, a 34-feet long row boat known as the Trinity Tide, which also featured in the opening of the Globe and as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant. He is decked out like a Christmas tree, covered in branches from a fir, holly and ivy. His face is painted green and he wears a holly crown, a look disturbingly reminiscent of Old Gregg, the creepy half man half fish character from the Mighty Boosh. The Holly Man is just one version of the green man that appears in a whole host of English customs and other cultures around the world. Known at times as Jack o’the Green, the May King, Puck, Viridios and Pan, among other names, the green man is typically a symbol of rebirth.

Today, the Holly Man’s first act is to “wassail” the boat that delivered him to shore. According to the festival programme, the wassail comes from an old tradition whereby arguments between friends were mended by drinking ale. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon “waes hal”, meaning “I give you health”. With the audience’s help, he wassails the Globe and a nearby tree. “Here’s to this little apple tree! Long may it bear hatfuls, capfuls, and a little heap under the stairs!” A wassail bowl full of ale or cider is sloshed about during each toast.

Dancing follows and then a play, which takes place somewhat incongruously outside Pizza Express. At the end of the play, the troupe gives out Twelfth Cakes, the recipe for which dates back to 1803. A bean and a pea are concealed within two of the cakes; those who find them are crowned King and Queen respectively. A woman cries out that she has the bean and, in true pantomime-like fashion, is crowned the King. Nobody comes forward with the pea, so, after an appeal from the actors, an American tourist volunteers. Her friends are delighted to see her don a tall, pointed crown of leaves, and take her place by the Holly Man’s side.

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The King and Queen are whisked off on a procession through Borough Market to the George Inn pub. The little bell ringer, whose name, it turns out, is Peter, plays by the side of the road, bored now that he no longer has a role.

While the group makes its way through the market, a lone figure dress in a distinctive mammers’ coat, covered with different coloured strips of material, appears at the George. She has been sent ahead with the explicit instruction of buying the King and Queen a pint of lager and a lemonade, partly as thanks for being good sports, but also in case the wassail bowl needs a top up. This is her nineteenth year of performing in the festival. Has anything changed in that time? “No,” she says. “The only thing that’s different is the size of the audience.”

In the middle of the courtyard outside the George sits a Kissing Wishing Tree, which, we’re told, is what used to be made at Christmas before pine trees were introduced in 1840. A sign next to the tree urges people to tie a ribbon on one of its branches, “make a wish… and kiss”.

The procession arrives at the George an hour and a half after the start of the festival, yet it is only now that the real party begins. The setting suits, it being London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn, imbued with visible history. Punters lean over the railings on the upper floors, watching the Holly Man, King, Queen and their odd band of followers pirouette into the courtyard. The lead characters clamber up onto one of the picnic tables next to the Kissing Wishing Tree. Another wassail is said to the George and the King and Queen are formally thanked for taking part. Sure enough, lager is discreetly poured into the wassail bowl just in time for this final decree.

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One of the players announces that the festivities will continue in the form of drinking, dancing and storytelling in the pub – and then the Holly Man, King and Queen are finally allowed to disband. “Right, I’m off to scare some people,” says the Holly Man, before disappearing into the crowd.

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Peaches and Pixie Geldof, Norman Foster and everyday Londoners who have had a profound impact on the capital will be the focus of a new exhibition of artworks by students from Central St Martins this summer.

Over 100 fine art students from the college were invited by student accommodation provider Unite to participate, and five pieces were commissioned. They will be exhibited in Blithehale Court, Bethnal Green, to celebrate the opening of seven new Unite properties across London this year.

Entries were judged by Central Saint Martins Fine Art course directors, Jane Lee and Andrew Watson, as well as Unite’s sales and marketing director, Nathan Goddard. 

The winning artists:

Ewan MacFarlane
Norman Foster
Ewan said: “Instead of painting the Gherkin itself I thought it more interesting to paint its architect Lord Foster.  However I wanted to make reference to the fantastic structural planning that made the building possible. The result is a painting made up of brush strokes but within each stroke a number of shades.”

Ewan MacFarlane - Norman Foster

Rose Stuart Smith
Phyllis Pearlsall
Phyllis Pearlsall created the London’s first A to Z of streets by painstakingly walking every street until she had mapped them all. Rose said: “As maps become available on mobile phones and sat-nav, the A-Z may soon fall out of use and Phyllis’ story will be lost, so I was excited to be given this opportunity to make work that commemorates her. She was, like me, a painter so it seemed fitting that the work should also be a painting.”

Rosie Stuart Smith - Phyllis Pearsall

Charles Drinkwater
Clara Grant
Charles’ work remembers The Bundle Woman of Bow who created farthing bundles of toys to give to poor children in the early 1900s. Charles said: “I chose Clara Grant because of her amazing actions. For a single woman, during that time, to make such a difference to children’s lives was remarkable. It reaffirms my belief in human kindness.”

 Charles Drinkwater - Clara Grant

Sue Kemp

Inspirational Londoners
Sue said: “The type of people that I think inspire students, are individuals they can relate to, everyday, ordinary people who through creativity, self-belief and hard work have achieved amazing things. I consider the people I have used in my work to be inspirational Londoners.”
Inspirational Londoners

Phoebe Mitchell
Peaches and Pixie Geldof

Phoebe said:  “The infamous daughters of rocker Bob Geldof and the late Paula Yates are the epitome of cool, trashy, teenage hedonism. They may not be saving the world, or carving out an enviable career…yet, but they can inspire us to enjoy ourselves and to take advantage of our youth.”

Peaches GeldofPixie Geldof

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I had great fun at Tate Modern a couple of days ago, courtesy of Robert Morris and Bodyspacemotionthings. The interactive installation, which is essentially a playground made out of plywood, rubber and ropes, first opened in 1971, only to be closed four days later because the crowd went a bit bonkers. This time round, Tate has made some health and safety adjustments, so I didn’t see anyone bounce off the walls or get a splinter in the bum.

It was 5pm. The Turbine Hall was filled with a few children, and a lot of adults. I watched a man in an expensive suit proudly make his way along the balancing beam. French tourists queued up to climb the walls. Everyone was giggling at themselves and each other. Even the gallery assistants seemed more relaxed than normal.

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My friend Gabi was a willing volunteer

 

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It is possibly the least thought-provoking work to be installed in the Turbine Hall so far, but who’s to say that’s a bad thing?

ARTBABBLE

I’ve been meaning to write about this site, ArtBabble, for a while now. It offers a collection of high definition videos dedicated to art and artists, from interviews and artworks to talks and documentaries. This is how they sum it up: 

What is ArtBabble?

Art-Bab-ble[ahrt-bab-uhl]
noun; verb (used without object) -bled, -bling

1. free flowing conversation, about art, for anyone.

2. a place where everyone is invited to join an open, ongoing discussion – no art degree required.

Here is an example of the kind of video they host:

What happens when five artists come one of the world’s largest libraries in search of inspiration for their next project? Hosted by Grace Bonney of the Design*Sponge blog, “Design by the Book” follows a glassblower, letterpress printer, ceramicist, pattern designer, and graphic designer as they uncover hidden treasures in The New York Public Library and then return to their studios ready to design… by the book. The artists are: Lorena Barrezueta, Rebecca Kutys, Mike Perry, John Pomp and Julia Rothman. Special guest Isaac Mizrahi will joins us in Episode 2 to share his sources of inspiration.

Unfortunately, it is predominently American art and artists. The closest thing we have, for now, is Tate Shots.

A selection of photographs from the Travelling Light exhibition, which opened on Friday at the WW Gallery in Hackney, east London.

Turns out the artwork embroiled in bureaucratic battle (see previous post) was by Sri Lankan born artist Roma Tearne. She wanted to wrap a single black or crimson cloth over the eyes of the statue of Eros in Piccadilly, London, but the people in charge refused to give the gallery permission.

Travelling Light, London>Venice Biennale

 

Travelling Light is an upcoming Venice Biennale art exhibition organised by a group of women from London’s East End: Sophie Wilson of Pharos Gallery, Chiara Williams and Debra Wilson of WW Gallery. The brief said all artworks had to be posted to the London venue for the first leg of the exhibition before they could continue on their travels to Venice, so the artists (among them Roma Tearne, Kate Davis, Maria Chevska and Oona Grimes) had to work to certain size and weight restrictions.

Submissions to Travelling LightThe travelling exhibition, which will showcase a total of 58 artists, is set to open in London and end up in Venice for the opening week of the Biennale. However, one of the submissions requires public interaction, and Westminster Council has yet to give the women permission to go ahead.

 

Read more about their efforts to cut through the red tape on their blog and on Twitter, and find further information, including a list of participating artists, on the website.

ART ON TWITTER

My new personal project is to find out about interesting artists and art projects through Twitter. Here is a selection so far:

Follow me on Twitter