Moping Owl: Hoo ra ra

Gormley, Salisbury Cathedral

Gormley: Flare II, Salisbury Cathedral

… from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r The moping owl does to the moon complain Of such as, wandering near her secret bower, Molest her ancient solitary reign.


If I seem to be hooting on rather too much these days about that Zoo down in Piccadilly, I do apologise, but you know how it is when you get to my age, and it don’t get any better. First there’s Dicky Stork, stuck in his nest of twigs up on the chimney pot, still cawing away about whatever he’s told to caw away about this month – we know, Dicky: we know. Then there is that Sculpture Show that forgets about sculpture halfway through. And now this.

Where did I put it? Oh yes: here it is. “Announcement from the Royal Academy of Arts: Perry Mason elected Royal Academician at a recent General Assembly.” Well well, or there you go, as they say these days. Now this Gerry Pacemaker creature, it seems, is quite rare, and therefore quite a catch, being some sort of Cassowary, which is a very large flightless bird, native to the tropical forests of New Guinea, north-east Australia and parts of Essex – I blame global warming. Anyway, the cassowary is a shy and solitary creature, apparently, except during the breeding season or when there’s lots of food about. And when it’s disturbed it is capable of inflicting serious injury to dogs and people with its sharp claws and powerful kick, so I’d better be careful what I say. How shall I put this, for it is quite important? Point 1: the behaviour of the cassowary is not yet well understood. 2: the female is bigger, and more brightly coloured.

So it all fits in. Young Barry Grayson set out in life making large pots or jars, with lids of course, which he decorated, if that’s the word, with narrative cartoon-like graphic illustration, though no-one took much notice of it for quite a while. So, as any good cassowary would, and he quite a large lad too, he thought he’d make himself a bit more conspicuous, or brighter so to

say, and the work too. So out of the old chest-of-drawers came the frock and ankle socks, and a bit of ribbon for his hair, and thus arrayed he began calling himself Doris – or was it Cynthia? Doesn’t really matter. And onto those same old pots or jars went images that were somewhat more ‘challenging’ and ‘interrogative’, along with crisp slogans suitable to subvert established notions of the meaning of life and all, such as ‘Frock me’, and  ‘Frock You’, and ‘Nice Ones Gloria’.

And of course Charles Saatchi bought him up, lock and stock, for his private menagerie, since when there has been no looking back – though I have to say that while we’ve been seeing quite a lot of Cynthia on the telly lately, sorting out the world with his wit and wisdom on Question Time and Thought for the Day (must have missed that one), we haven’t seen too much of the Gerry Pots lately. Never mind: For it came to pass in these latter days, that a great clamour went out among the Academites, who dwelt in those parts, to anoint him as one of their own: And so he cast off his pots, for pots were not allowed to him in this sort amongst the Academites: And so contrariwise it was for the prints of his own handiwork that he put upon them that they sought him, if you get the drift. So he is Gerry Printmaker now. Nice one, Doris.


There are times when I’m not sure I can go on. I don’t want to fall off my perch just yet, but then again, the old head’s not what it was. I can still get it round most things, even in these post-literate days, but sometimes it seems to get just in a twist too many. This, for example, has just blown by on the wind from Farmer Jobbin’s state-of-the-art milking shed and chicken coop down in Mason’s Yard. It’s left me with quite a crick. In fact the head is still spinning.

It’s about a mixed show called ‘New Order’, which is a sort of warning in itself, so I should have known better. But here we go, building a New World, with an admiring quote from one Jacques Ranciere to set the scene. “The dream of a suitable political work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle.” All I would say to that is that Frere Jacques should have gone a bit easier on that ripe old Brie last night.

But it gets better, which is to say worse. “The late 20th century saw an overt politicisation of critical discourse amidst collapsing colonial hegemonies, global wars and the emergence of civil rights movements across the world”. You could say that again, but please don’t. “A number of key figures (so they say) emerged on the international art scene, whose practice specifically dealt with power structures, injustice, race, gender and dissent.” So is there still hope for us all. “The works featured in ‘New Order’ share a focus (a bit tricky, that, I’d have thought) on the transformation of ideological structures that shape experience (even trickier), and in different ways they explore existing communal, political and physical constructs of the everyday. ”We get the drift: We are none the wiser: We want to go home.

No, sorry, you can’t, not yet. Miroslaw Balka shows his ‘Kategorie’, “a 6 metre long,  2 metre high tunnel interrupted (??) by five fine coloured threads, suspended from rotating motors on the ceiling (as of course they would be). The work is rich (only to be expected) in associative historical and political references, such as the traumatic memory of wartime atrocities in his native Poland.”

What more is there to say? But then Doris Salcedo shows “part of her ongoing series in which found domestic furniture is used as a vehicle to explore the traumatic political history of her native Columbia.” David Hammon’s practice “rooted in black urban experience, comments on the iniquities present within social, political and economic systems.” And I’m losing the will to live.

Mark Bradford’s densely-collaged abstract paintings “reference alternative cartographies that burgeon within cities, such as the spread of an economic underclass, the movement of immigrant communities and race relations.” Julie Mehretu’s ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ (sic) “conveys the destructive power of uncontrollable nature within a stricken cityscape, mired in bureaucratic chaos.” Some people I know felt like that filling in the Census. And all the while our old friend Anselm Kiefer “revisits the iconography of his own art-history, as a means of investigating the resonance of totalitarian symbols across the passage of time.”

I can’t help thinking they should all get out more, go for a nice long walk in the park, and, with a bit of luck, get lost. I need a drink.


Oh yes, I’m afraid so. It’s that man again, as my dear old Pa, the Rt Rev Dr R G H E Olw, DD. rtd., used to say long ago as he tuned in the old crystal set. In the event it’s the Oh M’Gooley Bird, that flies too low over bush and forest, and the occasional thorn or thistle, letting out the while its plangent cry of ‘ooomgooleyoohmgooleyoooh’, with tears in its eyes. There was some hope that it was by now on the endangered list for loss of habitat and gullible twitchers (I blame global warming), but clearly no such luck. And now, to cap it all, we

301 Moved Permanently

have news that it is roosting safe and high in the soaring nave of Salisbury Cathedral, where even as we speak it is probably looking down to admire its reflection in the still waters of that genial old greenshank’s (ie. Bill Pipe: by appointment purveyor of water-features to the nobility and gentry), smart new font.

A confection of stainless-steel wire, which M’Gooley calls ‘Flare II’ for some reason, is now hung from the ceiling of the South Transept, where it will stay “bathed in light celestial from the surrounding windows, providing an inspiring and illuminating experience for all who visit”, for a full 12 months. And here’s what Gor Blimey himself has to say about this latest expression of his ineffable creative and imaginative powers. But before we go on, it might be as well to have pen and paper handy, as you may need to make the odd note, just to keep up. People have been given Doctorates for less, you know, and by our Ancient Universities, steeped in time, for untangling stuff like this. “In order to express the human state of embodiment less as a thing or narrative than a state I have tried to make the space of the body open to light, to the gaze and to space at large. The act of sustained and materialized imagination of Salisbury Cathedral and the volume and transparency of the south transept is (tut tut) a wonderful context for this work.”  Deep stuff, eh? Well, stuff at least. What a treasure he is.


Oh dear, do forgive me. I can’t help myself. Look, here comes Wally the Dodo again. Haven’t seen him for a bit: thought he might have hit the buffers once too often. No, he’s still the same, chuntering through the wood on his mobility trolley (S. Times special offer), and talking to himself. He once asked me why I keep having a go at him, and I said there there Wally old thing, I know you’re a nice chap really, but the trouble is you’re a Dodo. He blinked a bit, or at least I thought he did behind those specs. It’s all right for some, he muttered darkly, and dodoed slowly off into the ditch.

So what’s he on about this time, with his glasses all steamed up again – watch out Wally, left hand down a bit, gosh, that was close. Talk about endangered species. Anyway, it seems he’s been at the vintage V&A again, strong stuff, and come all over, well, all over, with the Cult of Beauty. “Almost all the pictures feature beautiful women. Some are so shockingly irresistible that even your Dodo, who is usually immune to the machinations of Victorian exploiters (what a good Dodo he is), found himself twitching Swinburnishly at the lips.” The twitches, 301 Moved Permanently eh? Are sure it’s only the lips? Smelling salts might help.

But on he goes regardless. “All the painters gathered here are male, and chiefly (oh that ‘chiefly’) heterosexual, so the fatal attractions they record are invariably feminine (funny that). Interestingly, none favours the proper woman, round of hip, buxom of bosom, curvaceously proportioned (I say, steady on old boy). Big hair aside, most of their Stunners are boyish and flat-chested (I’ve told him time and again to wipe those glasses of his). Something is emerging here you feel cannot be hidden.” Indeed it is, Wally, and I’d say it’s coming from your fevered imagination.

The trouble is the poor old thing doesn’t know what he’s allowed to like. He’s always so anxious not to stray off message, and never takes his own line, ever. I blame that feminist harpy with the big tits and dungarees, down at the Community College beyond the railway sidings, where he took his O Level retakes in art-work and origami all those years ago. “Those of us who have previously had difficulty taking the aesthetic movement seriously – by which I am confident I count most people (oh yes, oh yes) – have been put off chiefly (again) by its decadence and its absurdity.”

Hang on, Wally: I can’t for the life of me see what’s wrong with a spot of decadence, now and again, to keep the pecker up. We owls know a thing or two about decadence, I can tell you, and great-aunt Athena, who saw quite a bit of life in Greece in the good old days, and quite a goer herself by all accounts, told me things that would make your feathers quiver like quills upon the fretful pomegranate. As for absurdity, when was most of Art not absurd, and its fashionable enthusiasts most of all? Just wander down to Farmer Nick’s and take a look. I mean to say.

But where was I? Oh yes. “The argument put forward here is that Britain in the 1860s was a ghastly place to be. Soul-destroying. Pleasure-crunching. Toxic. Capitalistic (here we go again). Socially rigid (yawn, yawn). Aestheticism is here presented as an enterprising mutiny mounted against repression. The aesthetic movement was not so much a challenge to Victorian values as a stamping down on them. There is something brutal about this showy nay-saying, something fierce.” Dearie me. As always, when in doubt, and just to make sure you’re on the right side of the orthodox view of things, the safest thing is to put the boot into the Victorians.

As I say, Wally has very odd ideas. Now he’s got himself into quite a state over that interesting painter, Albert Moore, whom he doesn’t like to admit he likes, “who painted pretend Roman girls in diaphanous taffeta gowns.” Now Wally, which is it, diaphanous or taffeta? It can’t be both, you know. “The magnolia orange robes worn by the three Midsummer girls are murderously alluring.” He means the robes and the colour, you understand, not the girls: perish the thought. Can’t have that. But magnolia orange? He really should get those glasses seen to.

Wally! Watch out Wally. No, not that way. Too late: he’s in the ditch again.

The Jackdaw May-Jun 2011