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Who Is David Hockney and Why Is His Latest Work Getting Dragged by Londoners?

Up until this week, I had never heard of David Hockney.

“Preposterous,” I hear you huffing. “How can you not know one of the most influential British artists of modern times?”

Well, pardon me for being an uncultured swine, but while I like and appreciate art, it’s not exactly necessary knowledge for me to pay my bills. So yeah.

But I digress.

To the uninitiated, David Hockney is an English painter, widely considered to be one of Britain’s most celebrated living artists. His early works often featured swimming pools in Los Angeles — where he lived in the 1960s — and they were his signature for a long time. In 2018, a 1972 artwork dubbed “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” broke records at a Christie auction by selling for $90.3million (RM3.7bilion) — making it the highest price at auction for a work by a living artist.

To put it into perspective, the Selangor state government of Malaysia (where I’m staying) had a revenue of RM2.32billion in 2019. Which means that Hockney’s one piece surpasses the revenue that the richest state in Malaysia makes in an entire year. (**If you want to see how a $90.3 million painting looks like, click here.) In recent years, Hockney has transitioned to creating whimsical digital pieces using his iPad.

Over the years, there have been numerous debates on why Hockney’s works are so famous, and whether or not they’re worth the price they’re paid for. Now, I know that art is a very subjective thing — what you like may not be appealing to others. Personally, I do like some of Hockney’s works — they have a very Picasso/Matisse-esque quality to them. But I also know how the art world can be… biased in their way of valuing things (more on this later) — and there comes a point where as an ordinary person, you seriously question if some of these artists (and those in the art society) aren’t just… you know. Trolling the masses.

Recently, London’s mayor unveiled Hockney’s latest work at Piccadilly Circus as part of the #LetsDoLondon campaign, to revive domestic tourism and encourage Londoners to get out and support local businesses. It certainly got people buzzing — but not all of the noise was positive:

British people had a field day in the responses. (Swipe right for more)

While the majority took the mickey out of the painting, there were also those that thought it was a smart and provocative move. Yet others believed that people were making much ado about nothing.

Meanwhile, young artists have also joined the conversation, calling the entire campaign a ‘missed opportunity’ for the mayor’s office to not only help struggling artists and businesses, but also showcase London’s diversity. Some have shopped works of their own onto the space where Hockney’s works are currently being displayed. *Look up the hashtag #letsdolondonbetter — there are some seriously amazing artworks here!

While Hockney’s piece was apparently done for free, the mayor did spend £7million on the entire campaign — which no doubt included marketing and the engagement of an agency and what not to a) promote and b) put up the posters. Which, to many artists whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic, is a double slap to the face because Hockney has not lived in the UK for a long time (he’s based in the US). Perhaps the only possible good reason for choosing him over everyone else is the clout that Hockney has — so in a way I guess the work achieved its purpose to create conversations, because like I said: I didn’t know who Hockney was until recently.

This brings me to the next point which I mentioned earlier: how we value art today.

If you’ve ever watched the horror/thriller movie Velvet Buzzsaw starring Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s a brilliant satire of the art world today. In the film, Gyllenhaal plays a seemingly independent art critic, who gets pulled into the world of price fixing after his girlfriend — who works for a prominent art gallery owner — discovers cache of haunted paintings by a dead artist. They decided to display the paintings, to great success, but as greed and avarice take over, the trade off becomes deadly.

While the story’s plot is pretty outlandish, its portrayal of price fixing — and how critics, gallery owners, and buyers are basically complicit in ‘valuing’ how much an art piece is worth — is accurate imo. Take Mr Hockney’s latest piece for example, and this article. It is well written, full of praise like “a great piece of public art” and seemingly thought-provoking points like how public art usually adheres to ‘safe, sterile taste of private developers keen to bring artistic flair to artificially created public realms void of people or life’. And it makes you think, hey, maybe there IS more to this. They sound like valid points.

But I guess if you asked a child what they would see — without the pomp and flair and fancy words — they’d tell you like it is: it’s a doodle. One that they could probably make, given the right tools and materials. Eg: 5-year-old Rob makes a painting. Parent: “It shows how artistic he really is. Look at the composition. The brilliant pairing of colours. It’s sublime and it expresses the human condition.”

“Why’d you make this piece, Rob?”

5-year-old Rob: “I dunno. I just like it.”

Anyway, what this environment creates is a small, select group of ‘elite’ artists whose works are considered extremely valuable, and you have the rest of the artists — whose works by the way are no more or less than others — but are undervalued and taken advantage of. I personally know artist friends who struggle to make ends meet despite how talented they are, because there are clients who constantly want discounts, aren’t paying them fairly, and think that art isn’t ‘worth’ anything. These same clients would gladly pay thousands for a prestigious piece from an artist who somehow managed to market themselves better.

A sketch I made. Value: priceless.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the art world as we know it today has lost its true meaning and purpose. When they say art can be anything, I didn’t think these people would literally take it to heart and spin in that way lol. There’s that artist Maurizio Catalan who duct taped a banana to a wall and someone paid $120,000 for it. There are also a series of paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that comprise of completely white pieces. According to SFMOMA’s website, the primary reason for the artist’s creation was to “create a painting that looked untouched by human hands”. The site later goes on to say that they have an important place in art history as precursors of Minimalism and Conceptualism.

Yeah… you keep telling yourself that, buddy.

Maybe I’m dumb. I’m not a professional artist or an art critic. But what I see are blank paintings, and a lot of ways to describe why they’re revolutionary, ground breaking, amazing. It reminds me of the story of the Emperor and his New Clothes, where everyone was too afraid to call out that the emperor was parading around naked; instead clapping and applauding because everyone around them was doing so. It took a child’s innocent eyes to call it for what it was.

What do you think about Hockney’s work, and art today in general? I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree with my views, especially if you’re an artist. Let me know in the comments below!

Book Review: Timeline by Michael Crichton

I first read this as a tattered library copy, almost ten years ago, when I was still in college.Even back then, I could see why the paperback was dog-eared and well thumbed through, its spine full of creases. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but for many years, I was unable to find it in local bookstores since it’s not a new title, and reprints are harder to find. I was overjoyed when by chance, I found a copy at Book Xcess recently (I was going to the checkout counter and almost missed it).

Timeline is classic Crichton – clever, suspenseful and thrilling – and once you get going, it’s extremely hard to put down. If you love medieval European history and an action packed narrative involving people from the future being thrown into the past, then Timeline will keep you glued to its pages, and then some.

Synopsis 

A vacationing couple driving through the Arizona desert discover a wandering old man, who seems lost and incoherent. They bring him in to a local hospital, where it is discovered that he is an employee of a quantum tech company called ITC. However, he quickly succumbs to abnormalities in his blood vessels, and dies. On his body are detailed sketches of what look like floor plans for a monastery.

In southwest France, archaeology professor Edward Johnston heads a group of young archaeologists, studying the 14th-century towns of Castelgard and La Roque, under funding from the ITC. After an interview with a local reporter, the Professor, suspecting ITC of undermining their operations, travels to New Mexico to confront its CEO, Robert Doniger. During his absence, the professor’s students uncover disturbing artefacts in a sealed chamber at their excavation site – including a message from the professor supposedly written on a 600-year-old parchment, as well as his eyeglasses.

Four of the students – Andre, Chris, Kate and David – fly to ITC HQ to search for answers. There, they are informed that ITC has developed a quantum technology that allows for time travel, and that they need the group’s help to extricate the Professor, who is somehow stuck in the 14th century after travelling back there with a machine. 3 of them, Andre, Chris and Kate, return to the past with two guides, while David remains behind. Things quickly go awry once they arrive, with one of their guides being beheaded by a knight, and the other escaping back to the present, only for the grenade he pulled to detonate once he returned to ITC, destroying the laboratory. While the present day team scramble to repair the machines so the group will be able to come back home, Andre, Chris and Kate have less than 36 hours to find the professor before their batteries run out and they are trapped forever –  all while navigating a brutal time period where violence and power rule, and the slightest wrong move might mean death.

Verdict 

Like many of Crichton’s novels,Timeline is nicely paced and action packed; keeping the reader enthralled as to what comes next. Crichton’s novels usually follow a ‘formula’ – the stories typically start off by introducing a problem, or by highlighting that something has gone wrong. We see this in novels like Micro, which opens with people getting killed under mysterious circumstances (we later find out that they’re actually killer bots), and Jurassic Park, where an employee of InGen is brought with serious injuries from Lo Sa Raptor (we later find out = dinosaurs). Similarly, the lost and not-of-sound-mind employee the couple find in the desert sets the story up that not everything is going smoothly, and a shit storm is brewing.

Next, we’re introduced to the cast of characters. Like my favourite author Stephen King, Crichton’s protagonists often fall into a category, but instead of authors and writers (which King likes), they’re usually scientists and those in academia – but with athletic prowess (how else are they going to survive all the physical shit that’s going to be thrown at them?). I remember reading Micro and going ‘wow that’s convenient, that they’ve got all these characters that have just the right skill for a particular situation’. Timeline is no exception – but perhaps it is necessary to ensure that the characters have a higher fighting chance. (Imagine dropping me into the medieval era – the first thing I’d do is lose my glasses, and then stumble around blind, then get eviscerated by a noble. Probably).

There’s Andre, a researcher who is obsessed with the medieval era, and who (conveniently) knows how to joust, fight with a sword and a longbow, and speaks the local languages of the era. It seems he is made for medieval times – and jumps right into the fighting, with no hesitation of killing those who seek to harm them whatsoever. Kate, the architecture expert, is able to utilise her knowledge of the buildings to look for secret passages in the castle, helping the group to narrowly escape pursuit several times. She also has great reflexes and climbing prowess, enabling her to escape from dangerous situations. Chris, the comic relief, has the greatest character development, from a somewhat weak and whiny pretty boy to discovering a streak of bravery that lets him stay alive and also help his friends.

I really like how Timeline tries to make things seem more believable by incorporating aspects that most novelists would not think about. For example, I hate the fact that some books (and films) just drop their characters in the middle of another era and all the characters can speak the same language. Worse still, you have movies like Memoirs of a Geisha, where the actors are non-Japanese, and they all speak English in bad accents, lol. In Timeline, the predominant language used is Middle English, which is very different from the modern English we use today (reading the novel actually prompted me to go look up videos on Youtube), as well as languages like Occitan and Latin. To overcome this, the group have earpieces that automatically translate whatever is being said to modern English. But this doesn’t overcome the fact that some of the group are unable to speak in the language of that era, which proves to be a challenge when interacting with the medieval people they come across.

An interesting theme that is raised in the book is the accuracy of what is portrayed in history. What we know today of medieval times is largely based on what we have unearthed, in writing or records, but there is no sure way of capturing the way medieval people lived exactly, because so little of this history survived. Like the bones of dinosaurs, we’re able to guess as to how they probably looked like, but not how they behaved. Similarly, buildings and castles provide a very brief glimpse into medieval times, and we have certain records of things – but at the end of the day, where there is no concrete record, everything is mere speculation and subjectivity. The characters discover this when they time travel.

All in all, Timeline is a great science fiction-cum-action novel. If you love fast paced, action packed science fiction novels, and you like Michael Crichton’s works like Andromeda Strain, Micro, Jurassic Park and Sphere, Timeline provides a solid 8.5/10.

 

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Japan is a fascinating place, but it is also one that can seem rather… unusual to outsiders.

Like how they’re insane sticklers for punctuality (the management of a train service issued an official apology ‘for the inconvenience caused’, after the train departed 20 seconds early). Or their crazy dedication to order and their need for conformity (there’s a Japanese saying that goes ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. So much for individuality).

Conversely, the flipside to this restraint and rigidity is pretty extreme, which is why you have things like hikikomori (a social phenomena where mostly youngsters cut off any contact from the outside world, becoming ‘hermits’) and high suicide rates.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is a reflection of this duality.

I came across the book while browsing at Kinokuniya, and attracted by its cover design (in baby blue, canary yellow and bubblegum pink), flipped it open. I remained rooted on the spot for an hour and a half. The book itself was not a long read, but it was certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve read in a long time – a tongue-in-cheek look at Japanese society and its hypocrisies and machinations.

Synopsis

Keiko Fukuhara has been a convenience store worker for over 18 years, and is by society’s standards, an oddball. At 36, she is single, unmarried and has no ambitions to climb the career ladder, content in the monotony at the store. In fact, she thrives in the everyday tasks of arranging perfect displays to maximise sales, shouting out Irrashaimase! to customers, anticipating their every move and reflecting that efficiently to cater to their needs. She calls herself a ‘cog’ in the machinery of the store.

As we delve deeper into the story, which is told through Keiko’s eyes, we learn that Keiko is not quite ‘normal’, and that she herself is aware of this, albeit in a detached kind of way. Like the alien that has learned to blend itself in with the rest of the crowd by putting on a mask, she has learned to hide her thoughts, although at times she still gets confused with how she should act. It is rather eerie to read the degree of self-awareness when she narrates her mimicking the way her colleagues speak and dress, and how it changes with every new person that comes to work at the store (I’m reminded of the film Body Snatchers). While discussing things with groups of people, she ‘carefully arranges her facial expressions’, as it she herself is incapable of showing her natural emotions.

Keiko also reveals psychopathic tendencies, as recalled in an episode from her childhood when she and her classmates find a dead budgie. While all the other children were crying, she snatches up the bird and tells her mother that they should eat it, mortifying her mother. At a school fight, when two boys were fighting and the rest of the class were screaming for them to stop, Keiko grabs a chair and hits one of the boys over the head – her reasoning being ‘they wanted them to stop’. Even more disturbing is the casual way she thinks of stabbing her sister’s son when the pair come visiting, because he wouldn’t ‘shut up’. Of course, Keiko has learned from her childhood experiences to hide these thoughts and not act upon them, because it isn’t ‘normal’. She does not seem to be bothered by it though – it is simply the best way to go about life efficiently.

In a sense, her convenience store job has given her a purpose and a measure of ‘normalcy’. But it seems everyone in Keiko’s life, from her colleagues to her well-meaning family, do not want to leave her alone – intent in making her ‘conform’. They bug her about dating, about marriage, about finding a new ‘real’ job, etc. and as time passes, she finds it harder and harder to justify and to fit in.

At the store, she meets Shihara, a misogynistic social outcast unable to hold down a job. Despite working at the convenience store, he despises it and looks down on his colleagues as well as the manager, and finally gets fired for slacking off and also stalking female customers. Shihara rages against how society wants people to conform, telling Keiko how “Strong men who bring home a good catch have women flocking around them, and they marry the prettiest girls in the village. Men who don’t join in the hunt, or who are too weak to be of any use even if they try, are despised.” But while Keiko seeks her form of ‘normalcy’ in her convenience store job, Shihara wants nothing more than to loaf about and hide away from the pressure of it all. The two strike up an unlikely deal in order to try to get everyone off their backs – by moving in together.

Verdict

Like the convenience store where most of the story happens, everything seems bathed in an artificial, fluorescent light. The conversations sound unreal, plasticky, but it works well with the overall tone of the story and the character who, as the story has established, is incapable of feeling and appearing normal at times. But in a way, you can’t help rooting for Keiko. I think despite how the character is and her complete lack of empathy and feeling, most people have felt like Keiko – she just wants to live life her own way, no matter how different it may be to others. And who are we to deprive other people of such a right, if they aren’t harming anyone?

Modern fiction is so mired in morality and social justice themes that it can get rather preachy. Which is why, to me, Convenience Store Woman was such a refreshing read. Despite Keiko’s quirks and odd behaviour, I never felt that the author was judgmental. In fact, I felt that Keiko had a right to her version of normalcy and happiness… like from a job at the convenience store.

Review: Cor Blimey, SS15 Subang – The Best British Fish N Chips In Town!

Cor Blimey!

That’s a British expression to express surprise – and an apt name for this fantastic chippy in Subang. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the place, and finally decided to drop by for lunch with N over the weekend.

Forget about generic fish and chip joints in the malls, where they serve you soggy, reheated chips, and the fish taste like they’ve been in the freezer for years.

This, my friends, is the real deal. 

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The decor is, no surprise, British-themed: vintage black and white posters, signboards with the names of cities in the UK, warm and cosy wooden decor, tiny Union Jack flags hanging from the ceiling. They even have Mr.Bean cartoons playing on the TV screen.

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The menu is limited, but why would you even come here if you’re not looking to satisfy your fish and chip cravings?

First, choose from four types of fish (Dory, Snapper, Atlantic Cod or Haddock), then a batter (plain, lemon and herb, onion and garlic, chilli lemon) and finally a side (minted mushy peas, baked beans and coleslaw). You can also opt for dipping sauces such as onion gravy, thousand island and chip shop curry sauce.

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The kitchen prepares each dish to order, so expect some waiting, especially during peak hours.

While waiting for my Lilian Gish and Jockeys Whips, there was this interesting survival guide on Cockney slang to keep me occupied.

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Our orders arrived, and we were both impressed by the generous portions – a gigantic piece of fried fish sitting atop a bed of crispy chips. It also came with a huge dollop of tartare sauce.

N had Dory fish with lemon herb batter and a lemon butter sauce.

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My order of dory fish in onion garlic batter, served with a side of baked beans.

I was extremely excited when I saw that they had onion gravy and curry dipping sauce, which I absolutely love. Back in the good ol’ days when I was a student in Sheffield, my housemates and I would always walk out from our dorms to the chippy for supper, and I always drenched each piece with curry dipping sauce. There’s something about it that is so different from the usual Indian curry you get locally – it’s sweeter and creamier, for one. Also less spicy.

Sadly, when I got back to Malaysia, I’ve never seen it served at any fish and chip restaurant. Now I know where to get my fix!

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Did not disappoint! It was just fresh, hot, good food. Gordon would have been proud.

Fish was fried to crispy perfection and did not feel greasy at all; was moist and juicy on the inside. Same went for the thick cut chips. Beans were good, curry sauce was on point. Only thing that could do with improvement was the onion gravy, which was a tad too sweet for me, but all in all, still decent.

Our meal for 2 came up to about RM50+, which is reasonable given their hefty portions. 10/10 would recommend.

Ambience: 8/10 – rustic and cosy

Service: 9/10 – efficient and attentive

FISH N CHIPS: 10/10 BEST BRITISH FISH N CHIPS IN TOWN

COR BLIMEY (SS15 BRANCH)

No. 23, Jalan SS15/4, 47500 Subang Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia

Opening hours: 12-3PM, 6-11PM. Closed Mondays.

corblimeymy.com

Book Review: The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

My first Philippa Gregory book was The Other Boleyn Girl. The acclaimed novel, which revolved around the life of one of England’s most infamous queen consorts –  Anne Boleyn – was jam-packed with tales of intrigue; of power hungry men (and women) who’d stop at nothing for influence and the throne, and of dangerous political games where love and family have to be put aside for alliances and securing one’s position in the hierarchy. Despite being a fictionalised account, it still offered a fascinating insight into one of medieval Europe’s richest and most colourful courts. Needless to say, I was hooked, and I’ve been reading Gregory’s books ever since. It has even inspired me to read more on the actual events in history.

The Constant Princess, another of Gregory’s works, is a prequel of sorts (in terms of timeline) to The Other Boleyn Girl; chronicling the tale of Queen Katherine of Aragon, one of Anne Boleyn’s greatest rivals. Betrothed first to one English prince, who died at a young age, she then married his younger brother King Henry VIII and reigned over England for 24 years before she was ousted off the throne, and her marriage annulled so that Henry could marry Anne.

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Synopsis

From a young age, Princess Catalina has learned war at her mother’s knee. As the youngest daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand II of Spain, she saw her parents campaign against the Moors and her mother’s strong belief that it is God’s will guiding their actions. This instills in Catalina the belief that whatever path chosen for her is similarly, God’s will.

Betrothed to Prince Arthur Tudor to seal the alliance between England and Spain, Catalina knows it is her future to become Queen of England. But she soon discovers that reality is far from her girlish fantasies. At 16, she travels to her new home only to receive a cold welcome from her husband, who is far from a man himself. The two youths eventually fall in love, laying out grand plans for their future together.

The dreams are shattered when Arthur succumbs to the sweating sickness just a few months after their marriage, and dies. On his deathbed, he makes her swear that she will marry his brother Harry and fulfill their plans for the country. Thrown into despair, with little support and far from home, the young Dowager Princess falls out of favour at court, seeing that now she has little to no value to the royal house.

After Arthur’s mother, Queen Elizabeth dies, Arthur’s father King Henry offers Catalina the chance to become queen, as long as she bore him sons and played the role of submissive wife. Worrying that she’d never put in place the reforms she spoke of with Arthur, Catalina refuses and insists to marry Harry. The spurned King Henry is enraged, and plots his revenge. Outwardly, he betroths the two, but then ill treats her. He refuses to pay for her household’s allowance, and her own parents refuse to pay the other half of the dowry until some arrangement is made for Catalina to marry. So it was that she waits seven long years, a constant presence at the fringes of English court, sinking further into poverty. Her luck changes when King Henry dies, and Harry ascends the throne, honouring his word and marrying Catalina for love. Therein begins the reign of King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine.

Readers are privy to the subsequent pregnancies and miscarriages of Queen Katherine, such as the son who died from an illness just a few months old, and how this estranged the couple and turned Henry to his womanising ways. The story also highlights how she valiantly defended the country against the Scots while the king was in France fighting another war. But as we all know, Katherine of Aragon’s story has a sad end, and this fate does not change even in this piece of historical fiction. There is no doubt, however, that she was a queen to the very end.

Verdict

The Constant Princess reads like most of Philippa Gregory’s other books – a world filled with deception, power struggles and manipulation. We see how Catalina, a young and fiery princess with absolute belief that she is a child blessed by God and destiny, blossoms into a sombre womanhood, hardened by death and despair.

 

The first half of the story tells of a sweet and innocent romance between her and Arthur – how at first they disliked each other before hopelessly falling in love – so it hits the reader even more when he dies and she loses her greatest love. This loss changes her into someone determined to fulfill her ambition and promise at all costs, to the point of lying about her virginity. We pity her because she is alone and friendless, caught in an intricate web of lies and deceit, betrayed by her own parents for the ‘greater good’ of securing alliances, and we admire her courage for doing whatever she can to survive in a dangerous court. In this, Catalina shares characteristics of the heroines in many of Gregory’s novels: women who are forced to make a choice, torn between their hearts and ambition.

The only thing that could be a flaw for the novel is that the ending seems rushed, especially the part where Catalina as Queen Katherine takes up arms against the invading Scots. While all accounts should be taken with a pinch of salt, since the story is highly fictionalised, The Constant Princess is still a good read and introduction for those unfamiliar with medieval English history.

Verdict: 8/10