Last Friday was an away day. It’s become a regular event that myself and two friends enjoy a day in the capital, always returning happily re-fuelled with culture, food and animated conversation.
Jess, Katharine and I have nine children between us, eight of them boys, so these days really give us the freedom to pack in all we enjoy without little legs flagging, mouths yawning and hands tugging at us to search out the adventure playground.
First stop was the Courtauld where we saw an exhibition by Peter Lanyon, a Cornish post war artist and keen glider whose inspiration is taken from his flights above the Cornish coastline.
Food is always a big part of the trip and the wonderful thing about London is that you are never far away from an enticing cafe or bar offering food from all around the world. We had already spotted a Vietnamese restaurant on our way to the Courtauld and decided to give it a try. Viet Eat in Holborn, describing itself as kwik & kool Vietnamese Street Food, serves wonderful fresh, spicy food in a casual setting with long tables and bench seating.
With timed tickets for the Ai Wei Wei exhibition later in the day we had time to fit in a quick visit to Tate Modern. We crossed the Millennium Bridge from St Paul’s to the Tate, admiring the chewing gum art en route.
We all enjoyed the Tate’s exhibition by American artist Alexander Calder. His performing sculptures took the form of miniature figures created from wire. With an interest in performing art and circus skills his figures depicted the vitality of acrobats in various poses.
With little time for a breather, it was onwards to the Ai Wei Wei exhibition. Ai Wei Wei is one of China’s most well known, and contentious artists, known as much for his politics as for his art. As a small child under the leadership of Chairman Mao he was forced to accompany his father, a poet, to a labour camp in North West China, only returning after Mao’s death 20 years later.
Considering his background, it’s hard to imagine Ai Wei Wei earning a living doing anything less than controversial or rebellious. I find Ai Wei Wei’s installations compelling to look at but not always beautiful in a traditional sense. It is more the meaning and messages behind his art that make it powerful. The room I found particularly haunting was the room containing an installation of hundreds of rebars from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Thousands of people died, mostly children and students, mainly because of the tofu-like flimsiness of the buildings especially the schools.
As part of this display, Ai Wei Wei had confronted government officials in order to extract every name of every person who died in the earthquake. Their names are written on huge panels on either side of the wall.
One series of photographs in the exhibition shows Ai Wei Wei deliberately dropping a 2,000 year old Chinese vase. It’s a controversial act and one that will not endear him to many people. Jess was horrified at this image, feeling that it was more about the artist’s ego.
Ai Wei Wei lives much of his life under surveillance. He once grabbed a camera from a stranger taking photos of him pushing his young son in his pushchair. The camera film showed hundreds of photos of the young boy. The act inspired the marble pushchair and grass in the exhibition.
As a big fan of social media, AI Wei Wei’s twitter-inspired wallpaper adorned with gold surveillance cameras is well known.
One of the rooms I found most fascinating were the dioramas of Ai Wei Wei’s incarceration in China. The images really highlight the intensity of the scrutiny he was under when he was in prison, never eating, sleeping, using the toilet without a watchful eye on him.
Perhaps the most visual exhibit was the bicycle chandelier. Beijing is the city of bicycles and this huge light looked fabulous in the main hall.
With weary feet, we made our way back to Holborn to a lovely little Sicilian family run trattoria called Fabrizio’s where we met a friend of Katharine’s who was returning north with us. The Fabrizio in question is a friend of Jess’s and on arrival we were all greeted like old friends. We left Fabrizio to choose our dishes which included cuttle fish ink risotto, the blackest risotto you will ever have.
Looking around the restaurant we were amongst a variety of customers; a Belgian couple with their young family, a group of elderly men and a couple in the corner. The diversity of London and its people is what makes it such a wonderful place to visit.
We hailed a taxi and with minutes to spare were on the train back home leaving the bright city lights for the rural pastures of North Yorkshire – happily dosed up with large helpings of culture, food and time to chat amongst friends. And already looking forward to next time!