Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy: possibly one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a gallery

Ai Weiwei at the RAOne of these days, I’ll become one of those organised and useful bloggers. The kind who share Christmas tutorials in November, so you’ve plenty of time to make the craft before the big day. The kind who don’t have photographs sitting on their hard drives for months on end before writing the accompanying blog post. The kind who go to amazing, inspiring art exhibitions on their opening weekend and tell you about them when there’s still months left to book a ticket.

But, erm, I’m not yet that kind of blogger, I’m afraid, and so it is I am posting about the utterly amazing and unmissable Ai Weiwei exhibition a mere few days before it closes (at the end of this weekend, Sunday December 13th).

On the other hand, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about it in the first place, since it seems to have been the big ticket show of the year; the one that’s been thronging with people since it opened.

I visited last week, on a wonderfully sunny, though bitterly cold day.

I usually find that the higher my expectations of something, the more likely I will walk away disappointed, but, despite my already high expectations, I was absolutely blown away by the show.

The art was beautiful, which is a brilliant start. So much of it tactile, made of wood or marble; natural visceral elements. The construction was also awe-inspiring. Ai Weiwei works not only with materials that have a long history in China, but also with craftsmen who use traditions that date back centuries.

Stools at Ai Weiwei Stools at Ai Weiwei

Inspecting one of my favourite pieces, the circle made of three-legged stools, which on first sight I thought were probably glued together, I realised that a leg of each stool became a leg of its neighbour as well. The entire piece, in fact, carefully joined into one.

Fragments by Ai Weiwei at the RA, LondonFragments by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London Fragments by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London

Or the huge sculpture, Fragments, made from salvaged beams from demolished Qing dynasty temples: the sculpture takes up the whole room and you can wander through its arches. Apparently random as you see it from the room but from above, it makes up a map of China, though – of course – you can’t see that viewpoint in the gallery.

Bicycle chandelier by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London

Also breathtaking, the final piece is a huge chandelier, made from crystals and bicycles. The crystal (and chandeliers) used by the wealthy. The bicycle, of course, the chosen method of transport for many in China’s vast cities.

What I hadn’t necessarily been expecting (partly because I hadn’t read up on it in advance of visiting…) was to be so moved by the politics of the work.

I knew, of course, that Ai Weiwei is a political dissident, detained frequently in his own country and not allowed to enter the UK to curate the show. But I knew little about the specifics behind those stories.

Straight by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London

Straight by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London Straight by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London

My favourite room was the one housing Straight, a sinuous giant sculpture made of straight rods, laid out in lines, the end of the rods creating a curving shape that moved throughout it.

The accompanying videos told the story behind the piece. Earthquakes in Sichuan province in 2008 brought down many buildings, but it was the schools that were the worst affected. As government-built properties, they had suffered from shoddy building work, lack of foundations and poor building materials (bribes and corruption said to be to blame). Thousands of children died, but the government refused to release a full list of names.

In all of the buildings, mangled rods, supposed to protect the integrity of the buildings, were left sticking out.

Ai Weiwei gathered and bought the rods as scrap, and his team painstakingly straightened every single one, so that they looked as they would have done before being used. They are arranged on the floor of the room with a full list of the names of everyone who had died written on the walls.

Powerful stuff.

More info

  • The show is open until the end of the weekend and — due to the overwhelming numbers of people wanting to visit — the gallery is open 24 hours a day for Saturday and Sunday. So, if you still want to visit and you’re close to London, then get over to the RA! More info on their website here: Ai Weiwei exhibition.
  • They also have a fascinating round up of 13 of Ai Weiwei’s most important works.

Armchair travel

Once upon a time, I used to get itchy feet if I hadn’t been out of the country for a month. I was a travel aficionado. Weekend city breaks, European holidays, winter ski trips, a year off travelling through Asia: there were few travel opportunities I didn’t jump at. Frequently.

Palestine vintage travel poster
Okay then, I will…

But, now, of course, I’ve got a young family and my days of travel are, if not over, at least on hold for a while.

On the whole, I don’t really mind. There is something equally as exciting in discovering all the amazing places on our doorstep, both around London and in the rest of the UK.  Honestly, there really is.

France vintage travel poster
This hotel looks family-friendly, right? Oh…

But I have friends scattered at various locations around the globe, mostly there for work, and of course that bastard Facebook is terribly good at making you feel jealous about whatever it is that someone’s doing and you’re not…

And so it was, when one of my closest friends posted some photos today of her recent visit to Burma (she lives in Thailand and travels to Burma a lot. Yeah. I know).

I had an extreme sensation of itching in my feet and a yen to set off for sunnier climes.

Portugal vintage travel poster
No rain, ah blissful notion…

But I can’t. So, here is the next best thing.

You’ve seen these a hundred times before, of course, but I absolutely love these old 1920s travel posters. I found a whole set recently at the Boston Public Library’s Flickr account from an exhibition in 2010.

These are just a few of my favourites. You can take a look at the full lot here: Away we Go!

Alaska vintage travel poster
If I could go anywhere on my next holiday, I think it would be Alaska…

They utterly epitomise the glamour of travel don’t they? And that’s enough for me at the moment. Travel from my armchair…

Related articles:

  • Well, I shouldn’t really moan so much, since I was in Puglia a mere month ago. But of all the places I’ve been to before, Borneo would be the one I’d return to quickest. If only to see these baby orangutans again…

Things I’ve learnt: screen printing

I have a new love! It’s screen printing!

F is for fish screen print | Wolves in London
I made this with my own fair hands

Screen printing was the very first thing I wrote on my Things to Learn list, that lengthy tome of everything I need to do to get this fabric business started.

I want to print onto T-shirts, babygrows, bags, cushions… …you know, the usual old things. But I didn’t really have a clue how to go about it.

So, I was pretty excited as I went off to my first screen printing class a few weeks back. Excited and a little trepidatious too. I had a horrible feeling I was going to be the least “arty” person there. That everyone would turn up with amazing intricate images they’d drawn themselves and poke fun at me (or at the very least sneer behind my back) for my envelope stuffed full with vintage images that I had not lovingly drawn by hand, but downloaded from the internet.

Of course, I needn’t have worried. I was, most definitely, without a shadow of a doubt the least arty person there. In fact,  I was the only person there who wasn’t a fine art student. (Okay, okay, it was only a class of two, but the tutor was also a fine art student as was the, erm, fine art student who was there using the studio…)

But, not a single one of them laughed at me. I know! It’s almost as if I’m not still at school anymore, but a functioning adult in the real world, isn’t it?

The screen printing process was actually a little more complicated than I was expecting. And used a lot of really big, impressive swanky machines, that I couldn’t possibly hope to get into my spare bedroom. (Yeah, that had been the plan before I set off…)

I’m certainly not about to give you a step-by-step of how to screen print, but this is what I did on the day…

First we drew out our designs on acetate.

This is mine:

Screen print acetate
I actually think this looks even nicer than my final print

I traced out a fish image I got from Old Book Illustrations and the F is from a free downloadable font called Coffee Tin. (I’d printed them out beforehand onto normal A4, but actually if I’d had some tracing paper that I could load into a printer, that would have been the easiest way of doing it…)

Screen printing works by building up layers of different colours on top of each other. The prints I made just had two colours.

For my base layer, I used red. So when it came to printing this layer, I just needed the block outlines of my design.

Acetate design for screen printing
The simple block outline gave all the red parts…

For the top layer, I used black ink. This was where the detail of the images were really going to show and this was more the more intricate design.

We then needed to get these designs onto the silk screen.

I’ve got no photos of this part, but a very brief overview is that we put emulsion on a screen, which, when exposed to light, sets hard. Our designs, put onto the top of the screens, prevent that part of the emulsion reaching the light, so you can wash off that area and the ink goes through later.

Clear as mud? Thought so.

Anyhoo, the end result is a screen through which you can push paint in certain parts.

It was amazingly good fun doing the actual printing and I got a bit carried away and made ten copies of my design. I’m not actually planning on using this on paper (otherwise I would have given it a background colour too) but I thought about doing an alphabet like this on the front of babygrows…

So this was the finished result:

Screen print F for fish
F is for fish

I’m really pleased with the way the F turned out. The way the paint’s come through the design looks pleasingly aged…

Screen print F
Looks like it could be emblazoned on a big top, doesn’t it?

The fish was less successful, however. The middle fins have turned out really well. The tail is pretty good too:

Screen print close up
Though the lack of edges being perfect is, perhaps, a little mistake, I really like the effect…

But the face hasn’t taken as much detail as I would have hoped, nor has the cross hatching on the  main part of his body.

See, this is how the face looked on my transfer paper:

acetate design of a fish
Shall I frame him as well?!

Compared to the end result:

Fish face screen print
Oi fish face!

This is because I didn’t go over the black lines on the tracing paper enough times, so they’ve let a bit of light get through when we were exposing the screens. I’ve still got the design though, so I plan on going over a little more and trying again.

Still, imperfections aside, it’s not a bad first attempt is it?

My main disappointment was that the open access studio is going to cost a lot more than I had hoped.

However, and hold onto your hats people, because here is the first really useful bit of info I’m sharing in this post… …I have found an absolutely brilliant tutorial on screen printing at home from the ever-amusing blog The Art of Doing Stuff.

I need to look into buying the supplies, but it might be, it just might be, that I could set it all up in my spare bedroom after all.

Related articles

  • If screen printing sounds like a bit too much (and I certainly haven’t made it sound simple, have I?!) then have a go at ironing printed images onto fabric. It’s really, really simple. See my step by step tutorial and take a look at a few more tips and hints for getting a really great result. (The last one was another Things I’ve Learnt post!)
  • There are various other projects and ideas I’ve made with vintage images in the vintage images category, if you feel like a browse…
  • And this lovely fish (a smelt, apparently) shows up again in the fabric designs I made on Spoonflower.
  • You can head over to my tutorials page for more projects to make.
  • My only other article sharing things I’ve learnt was about photography. But I warn you in advance, the main point is that I’ve not learnt enough… Ah well. One day.

Small print disclaimer:

The title of this post is a little misleading. The premise for my things I’ve learnt series, is that I discuss things I have genuinely learnt as I embark on this whole fabric business project. Learnt to the point – dare I say it – of being good at them.

It was a great idea when I first thought of it, right back at the very beginning of this blog. I would share information and tips that would hopefully be useful to others, all about setting up a craft business.

But, of the 62 blog posts I’ve written since then, only two of them have been for this series. Why? Because I haven’t yet learnt that much, ha ha.

So I realised that if I’m going to wait until I’m properly really, really good at things, this series is never going to get going.

That, then, is the disclaimer: I have only “learnt” screen printing to the point that I technically know how it works and I have made one, just one, print.  I am certainly not an expert. Not even an amateur yet, really. Definitely not “good”… Just someone who has tried it out.

Linking this post up at the Shabby Nest, Shabby Creek Cottage, Today’s Creative Blog, Skip to my Lou and Sew Can Do.

Counting sheep: the art of sleep

Sleep’s been on my mind a lot recently. I haven’t been getting any. I miss it.

Vintage image child sleeping
This looks like a very nice night to me indeed… I think this image would be lovely printed onto a baby’s sleepsuit as well. Watch this space, I might well get round to it one day…

It’s down to the baby.

I try not to witter on too much about baby things on this blog.

I know how tedious it is to listen to parents of babies tell you every last detail about their sleeping / eating / pooing routine as if this were a topic of conversation that you, too, would find just as enthralling. And you feign interest with an “oh really” and tilt of the head as they tell you how their baby’s pooing face differs from its thinking face, but secretly your brain has switched off long ago and is thinking of all that lovely vodka you can drink as a non-parent, and all those late nights you can enjoy, followed by long, luxurious lie-ins the next day.

So, I won’t bore you with all the baby sleeping details, except to say: he’s not.

But my lack of sleep has led me to think longingly about it and search out these rather gorgeous sleep related prints and products, which I’ll share with you instead of details as to how many times I’ve been up in the night.

Sleep. It’s beautiful, I tell you.

Go to Sleep!

Go to sleep poster
Yes indeed, go to sleep!

I love this Go to Sleep! poster. It’s a Letterpress print, from the Etsy shop Type A Press. I’m all over anything Letterpressed or screen printed at the moment, especially if it uses nice typography. So, really, this couldn’t be more appealing.

(I don’t actually know the song it’s referencing, though. Instead, going round my head is “Go to sleep little baby” as sung in O Brother Where Art Thou? Love that song.)

You can buy it here: Go to Sleep poster.

Japanese Baby Song

Japanese baby song
You didn’t think I’d have a post like this without some vintage images, did you? Of course not, you know me too well for that.

This slightly angry Japanese Baby Song print is from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, one of my favourite places online to lose a couple of hours…

The baby and the mother both look a bit cross to me, but the surrounding illustration is just beautiful.

Sleeping fox cushion

Sleeping fox cushion
I feel sleepy just looking at this pair

Far more relaxing is this sleeping fox cushion from Etsy shop Erinnies. Another delicious shop with loads of lovely screen printed products. If you like this sort of thing as much as I do, I recommend a browse.

You can buy the cushion here: sleeping fox pillow.

Good night, sleep tight poster

Good night, sleep tight poster
Beautiful, isn’t it?

Another hand printed poster from Etsy, this is from the shop Roll & Tumble Press.

I’m not sure which I like more, the poster itself (that is the moon illustration from all my childhood books, I’m sure) or the vintage ephemera styling the front of the photo. Oh, to own that clock!

You can buy the poster, though sadly not the other bits and bobs, from Etsy here: Good night, sleep tight poster.

Rock me to sleep print

Rock me to sleep poster
Play your gentle soothing lullaby again, Mama

I just had to include this vintage poster because I thought it was so hilarious. “Rock me to sleep, Mother.” No wonder the children aren’t sleeping when the mother sits around at the piano like this. I’m sure they’re all up until midnight eating sugar straight from the bag. What a brilliantly chaotic mother this woman appears to be.

Image found again through NYPL digital gallery.

Sleeping dachshund necklace

Sleeping dog necklace
If you feel like something was missing in your life, it was most probably this: a sleeping dachshund necklace

Finally, as someone who thought it was a good idea to make a lobster necklace, this item pleases me deeply. A necklace, with a sleeping dachshund on it, made in bronze. What more is there to say?!

This is by Anna Siivonen, also available from Etsy: sleeping dachshund necklace.

Related articles:

  • I was moaning about my lack of sleep a few weeks ago as well, but using it as an excuse to share some vintage book covers.
  • I’ve got a whole category for vintage images if you’d like to see some more of them.
  • And over on my tutorials page you can see a few projects I’ve made using vintage images.