Thursday 31 March 2011

City Snapshots: Rest in Peace

His city days were filled with noise. Even when he slept his head was filled with the steady drone of traffic, punctuated at regular intervals by beeping horns and police sirens. After a while he no longer noticed these sounds at all. Indeed, on the rare occasion that he ventured away from the city, it was the silence that he found most difficult to cope with.

Noise represented life, a relentless, pulsing energy that was never switched off. He drew strength from the rhythms of his daily routines. The street cleaners at dawn, the pings and buzzes of the Metro, the clanking and screeching of the train to and from work, the rumbles and cries of the late night refuse collectors.

When he died, it seemed natural that he should remain in this comforting cocoon. "Why should death always be synonymous with rest and silence?" he'd asked. "Just let me stay forever surrounded by the sounds of the city".

(Photo taken in the Cimitière de Levallois, story imagined!)

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Obscura Day…and Night!

Saturday April 9th is Obscura Day worldwide, and in Paris that means a couple of events that I have had a hand in. I’m pleased to say that the visit to the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in the morning has proved popular, with tickets selling out in less than a week. It’s a location that I find fascinating so I’m happy that it seems to have caught other people’s imaginations too.

If you are coming along for that visit, remember that we’ll be meeting up at 10.30am at the Nogent Sur Marne station on the RER line A. The visit is scheduled to last until midday, but please don’t make plans to run away too quickly as I have a little surprise lined up.

The second Obscura Day event is taking place on the Saturday evening at Dorothy’s Gallery near Bastille. The gallery will be transformed for the occasion into a 'midnight garden', and we’ll be revisiting the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in photo and sound.

Photographer Shane Lynam has made several visits the garden, digging through the undergrowth and around the abandoned buildings in order to capture a series of landscapes that reflect the garden’s century-long struggle between nature and humanity.

Des Coulam, the man behind the Soundlandscapes blog, has recorded the sounds of the garden in several different locations and at several different times of the day. The natural harmonies of the garden – birdsong, the wind through the leaves, a slow running stream – again contrast with human noise pollution from the exterior.

The evening event will also be the chance to discover the photographic creations of Korean artist Soon-Young Lee, who has created a series of imaginary homes where humans have been displaced by the invasive natural world.

Drinks at the evening event will be offered by Obscura Day sponsor Hendrick’s Gin, with food being provided by one of Paris’s most underground caterers. Naturally, both will reflect the wild garden theme!

Tickets – priced at €6 – have been selling fast, but there are still a limited number available. Click here for details on times and addresses and to purchase your ticket. Hope to see you there!

Monday 28 March 2011

Architecture and Food

Spanish artist Oskar Alegria contacted me recently, suggesting that I (and my readers) may be interested in a film he made about Le Dauphin, perhaps the most talked about restaurant in Paris at the moment. He was right. This playful five-minute film looks at the establishment's unique architectural style, and investigates the role this plays in relation to the food that is served there and the atmosphere that the team behind the venture wanted to create.

The film told me something about the restaurant, but I wanted to know a little more about the artist who created it.

Why did you make this film?
I have made several documentaries for Basque television featuring the best Basque chefs and I also work for a program called Orain (‘now’ in Basque) which is dedicated to Basque artists. Through these channels I began to work with Iñaki Aizpitarte for a documentary that we have just started to film. One of the first scenes is dedicated to Le Dauphin, which is of course his new place.

What is it about Le Dauphin that inspired you?

For the film, I didn’t want to speak about architecture nor about food, but rather about the paradox between the two, and about how this can work. We think that we see the same things - two parallel disciplines - but finally it is the opposition that makes things work – sometimes! Here I think it works very well.

As an artist, you have also produced a series of photos from a variety of locations around the world called ‘Visible Cities’. As a chronicler of the ‘invisible’, I’m interested to know what inspired you to choose this theme.

For me, visible cities is a play on words on Italo Calvino´s "Invisible Cities", probably my favourite travel book. It recounts Marco Polo’s first voyages, when he discovered oriental places for the first time with his own eyes. On the contrary, I wanted to play with very well-known places, our visible cities, such as London and Berlin. Instead of discovering them with the eyes, which is impossible, because we have all seen them so many times, I try to discover them by touch, which is the sense I prefer. To touch a city you must walk, put your feet on it, and walk and walk until you discover other points of view that have somehow remained untouched.

See for more information on the artist.

If the video embedded in this post does not work, click here to watch it at an alternative location.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Simon Procter: a spy in the house of fashion

Paris-based Simon Procter is one of the world’s most renowned fashion photographers, but his glamourous lifestyle today is a long way from his working-class roots in a small industrial village in the North of England. I talked to him about his unusual journey, and about how he is trying to transcend the fashion genre to create truly great works of art.

A long time ago I wrote a poem called Lockwing, which was about the swift. It's a bird that can lock its wing and sleep while still flying, and I wondered what it would mean to be a creature that had no nationality and no need for contact with the earth”.
Dividing his time between New York and Paris, as well as on location shoots across the globe, Simon Procter is seemingly in the perfect position to answer this question.

As yet though, it is an enigma that he has not solved. The name Lockwing has also been given to his studio space in Paris, as well as
to a mysterious ongoing project. "We are not sure what the Lockwing Project is yet" announces the website he has set up in this name, and when I ask him directly he is no more forthcoming; “I’m afraid you will have to wait and see where that one goes” he explains, “it’s a bit confidential at the moment”.

Will it be his life-defining project? Procter's artistic progression has been a curious mixture of
intense self-belief with splashes of serendipity, but when speaking to him it is clear that he is constantly questioning his work and attempting to move back the boundaries of his discipline(s).

His creations - often based around monumental and dramatic compositions - have been described as “a unique synthesis of classical painting and fashion photography”, but this is a label he refutes. He is happy to keep the ‘unique’ tag, pointing out that he is always “trying to do something that no one else is doing”, but seems annoyed to have his work thought of as some kind of fusion. “My work is not a pastiche or a reference to the great classical art works. I am truly trying to produce things of that level” he explains.

His ambitions, and the creations that have stemmed from this, have also provoked a minor storm in the worlds of art and fashion. In 2008, British newspaper The Independent
discussed Procter’s monumental ‘Galliano Royal’ creation for Harper’s Bazaar and its later starring role at the prestigious Art Basel Miami art fair, and askedit may be fashion, but is it art?’ Describing his work as ultra-flamboyant theatricality the article also asked ‘does a Galliano shoot really belong in a gallery?

Procter, though, the more relevant question was the one posed at the end of the article; "it may be art, but is it photography?". As Procter has himself admitted, "most of the time I don't consider myself to be a photographer". He is working on projects that involve both painting and photography, and is a thoroughly modern artist, tacking along the digital line that today blurs traditionally distinct artistic boundaries.

The reason behind his approach may come from his background. Procter is classically trained. He studied fine arts, and for many years concentrated purely on painting and sculpture, considering photography to be a discipline for the rich. His drift towards photography was part accident and part design, but he believes that his wider training has given him a certain edge. “There was a whole genre of painting that was not really relevant to me when I studied Fine Art. But once I started taking photos something - a whole tombe of composition and pictorial structure that I was trained to understand and analyse - clicked. This was a massive advantage” he explains.

His vision may have developed early, but just how did he land in Paris and the fashion world? Following his art school studies, Procter explains that he did many things, and lived most of his adult life without very much money, which although "a bit exhausting and scary at times" was also a way of life that he "always believed to be for the sake of something".

After drifting to Paris, his break came following a chance meeting with “a wonderful guy called James Kaliardos (one of the founders of V magazine) who really supported me without asking for anything in return”. At the same time he stumbled into the fashion world, which he describes as "a very strange land, much stranger than people realise", but also one which changed his life.

The world of fashion gave him freedoms that he had never had before. "I had rather naive but very strong ideas about what an image should be, and by sheer chance I was put in a situation where this had great value. One day I was worrying about having enough money to buy batteries for my 10 dollar flash on my first V magazine shoot and five weeks later I was shooting the Nike global advertising campaign. The speed is the most fascinating and exhausting thing about fashion".

Simon Procter may be one of the key movers in this industry today, but he remains something of a non-conformist. When I ask about his influences, he mentions 19th century French artist Gustave Doré, whose work he describes as "very immediate, very graphic", but he also lists a far more surprising influence. "On a personal level the class stuggle in britain is a darkness that touches in an oblique way" he explains. "I think there is a whole generation in the north of my country that has been neglected and utterly forgotten. My brothers do not have the same life as me".

When I ask if this is not a little incongruous in the elitist world of the fashion industry, Procter hesitates. "I think its mainly an outlook on the world, seeing both the bottom and the top. The consumption of luxury brands may be elitist but the creative forces and ideas can come from anywhere" he explains.

Some of his recent photoshoots back up this theory. A Chanel project was snapped in the workshops of the artisans who live and work alongside Procter, but above all, it is his series
'Death of a Painter' for Christian Dior Haute Couture that gives an insight into this world-view. The shoot is the recreation of the 'life, art and death' of Procter's aged painter-neighbour, a lady called Rolande who had befriended his young daughter. It is a difficult subject matter, and one that could be deemed in bad taste in the wrong hands, but with the elegance and craft of Procter's photography it stands as a haunting eulogy.

Simon Procter's vision and motivations are undoubtedly complex, as are his often hyperreal airbrushed photographic compositions. Perhaps as an antidote to this existence, he also runs a blog called ‘Under Lutetia’ which focusses mostly on Paris and features much more intimate and personal photography shot entirely on his iPhone. When I ask him about it, he seems almost surprised. "I didn't think anybody else looked at it" he says. However, it is perhaps here where the real Simon Procter can be found. "It's more a kind of diary for myself" he explains. "Its not very glamorous. I think it's about what it is to be human". It's a subject that Simon Procter seems to know a lot about.

Simon Procter’s Paris
I love Paris, I truly love Paris. I have grown up in Paris, but always with - and as - a bunch of outsiders, who dont know much about St Germain and the Latin Quarter. I live in Belleville - a kind of china town in the east of the city - and it’s a wonderful place. There's duck drying on the balconies, and you can see live eels for sale in the street. Everywhere is energy and industry, but no one has a free ride here.

My recommendations for visitors are always the same. Everyone once in their life should go to the menagerie in Jardin des Plantes and see the snow leopard. After that a bowl of soupe satay sans boulettes in the vietnamese Tin Tin restaurant just next to the Belleville crossroads

All photos © Simon Procter

Sunday 20 March 2011

Paris is a warzone

Zoo Project
The final post in this street art trilogy!

Zoo Project, Rue Jean Moinon, 75010

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Street Knitting

Continuing on the theme of street art, and staying in the same neighbourhood as the 3 Murs, I was surprised to come across a first for me - urban knitting! These polychrome woolen hearts have been stitched into place on a wire fence, and bring a touch of fantasy to this patch of wasteland.

The creation seems to be signed 'Val Rex', but I can find no information relating to this online. If anybody has any information about the artist or the mysterious world of urban knitting, please drop me a line!

Update: Reader iBecks (who has her own knitting related blog) has informed me that this kind of creation is known as yarn bombing or yarn storming, and advised me to check out this website for more information on the genre: After a little further research, she has discovered that the wonderfully named Les Tricoteuses de Belleville are responsible for this creation. Looking at their photos, it seems as if there were originally far more hearts on the fence. Perhaps people are now taking home a souvenir!

Sunday 13 March 2011

Les 3 Murs

The Project 'Les 3 Murs' in the 10th arrondissement is somewhat strangely named (it involves four walls!) but is nevertheless an interesting initiative. Between April 2010 and September 2012, eighteen works will be displayed, with the creations being changed on average every three months. Each time a work is added, a local school or association is recruited to help the artist, and to become the sponsor of their creation.

The goal of the project is to encourage reflection on shared spaces in the city. As the people behind the initiative explain, "Le mur ne serait pas seulement un espace de séparation entre le dedans et le dehors, mais aussi une surface qui parle, interpelle, inspire..". (The wall need not only be a separation between the inside and outside, but also a surface that talks, questions, inspires...).

Beyond any other considerations, they certainly bring some colour to what were previously nondescript grey corners of the city!

Here are the four creations currently on display:

'Untitled' by SiaoBé (

'Bagueera' by Harry James (

'Diffraction' by France Dubois

'Gamme Chromatique en 18 couleurs' by Arnaud Crassat

Sunday 6 March 2011

The Maison Galvani

Built in 2003, the Maison Galvani (on the street of the same name in the 17th arrondissement) is the answer given by the architect Christian Pottgiesser to a seemingly impossible question. How to provide extra living space to a three story house without touching the facade, without obstructing the view from the house to the street and without removing an inconveniently-placed Lime tree.

The result is a real curiousity. The structure seems to offer complete transparency, and yet almost everything is in fact hidden away on the first floor or underground. The entrance via the glass facade (and a miniature indoor garden where the tree has pride of place) is visible to anybody passing by, but at the same time, the house has also been removed from Google Street View.

All is at once visible and invisible, including the owners of the property. They live in a glass house, but remain very discreet. The principal space remains the 19th century classical townhouse at the end of the courtyard, but much of their living space today is in an underground zone between the two. However, even the architects have apparently lost contact with their creation, and are unaware of how it has evolved. A message on their website simply explains that "as far as we know, the ground floor has recently been transformed into a cellar. The two courtyards have been demolished, maximising square meters". Truly a house of mystery.

For a full overview of this house, its various spaces and how it was designed to fit together, see the description on the architect's website:

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Join me on Obscura Day!

Saturday April the 9th will see the 2nd International Obscura Day organised by the team at the Atlas Obscura website. It will be the opportunity to attend a selection of fascinating events around the world, including one that I will be running in Paris.

After attending last year's Paris event at the Musée Fragonard, I was determined to organise one myself in 2011. After thinking for some time about possible venues, I decided that the best option would be an exploration of the Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale, in a remote corner of the Bois de Vincennes.

The Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale was primarily the site of an experimental plant nursery which attempted to find ways to produce and transport tropical food plants to the French colonies around the world. In 1907 though, it was also the site of a strange colonial exhibition where 'natives' of these colonies lived in camps under the curious eyes of the Parisian visitors.

After being allowed to decline and rot for decades as a secret, locked away location, it is today a public garden, but ghostly traces of the past remain in its decaying structures and wild shrubbery.

The gardens should be spectacular in these first days of Spring, and are wonderfully photogenic. However, I will also give full details on each of the zones, and will present documentary evidence of both the gardens and the colonial exhibition in their previous incarnations.

To sign up for the event, limited to 30 people, click here:

Note that the meet up time for the event will be 10.30am at the Nogent sur Marne railway station (RER A), roughly 20 minutes from the centre of Paris.
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