March 4th, 2012

train, tintin, leuven

Charles Burns exhibition in Leuven

I had tried twice over the Christmas holidays to get to the Charles Burns exhibition at the M Museum in Leuven, stymied both times by finding it closed. Yesterday I realised that it only runs until next weekend, so I rushed into town to catch it before it was too late. The only work of Burns' that I had actually read was the acclaimed Black Hole, but that was enough to make me want more.

Well, I was very satisfied. There are only in fact three rooms featuring Burns' work, and only one of those is a normal museum exhibition room, featuring original artwork for Black Hole, and for Burns' other strips such as El Borbah, Big Baby and Dog Boy, few of which I knew much about but all seemed to tie into his obsessions with adoescence, the boundaries between humanity and animals or machines, and putting everything into stark black and white images. (Often when we say 'black and white' we mean 'grayscale', but not in Burns' case.)

The main exhibition room is dominated by a mural drawn by Burns specially for Leuven. I was a bit surprised that a lot of the other visitors appeared to be going clockwise round the cases, which is of course useless if you are trying to follow a story from start to finish. I was also surprised by the young age of some of the visitors - not all of Burns' work is really suitable for children, and some is pretty graphic (in an ugh! way rather than a sexy way). I guess if you are in the habit of taking the kids to a modern art exhibition at the weekend you take it in your stride.

What I had not reallised at all was that there are a number of Belgian links to Burns' career, which perhaps explains why the exhibition is taking place in Leuven. The middle and smallest of the exhibition rooms shows a documentary film about Burns' work as a designer of The Hard Nut, a much scarier version of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, which was premiered at La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels in 1991. Burns is also a contributor to a French film called Peur(s) du Noir (France not being that far from Belgium), and indeed his segment was on continuous play in the third exhibition room. And he takes a particular interest in Hergé's Tintin work to the extent that the cover of his newest book, X'ed Out, is a pretty obvious homage to The Shooting Star.

I thought this showed an imaginative use of the museum's space, with two of the three rooms dominated by dynamic exhibits (some other Burns material fills the space behind the screen where the segment from Peur(s) du Noir is being shown; this includes the OK Cola cans and marketing and the famous "Somebody's Watching" Time cover from 1991 - especially appropriate for me since it was Time that put me onto Burns in the first place). Well worth an afternoon out and if any you you are with reach of Leuven in the remaining week of this exhibition I strongly recommend it.

I took the time to wander through the other three temporary exhibitions in the museum. None of them grabbed me in the same way as Burns; Patrick Van Caeckenbergh has made some odd sculptures from everyday objects (the nearly headless penguin is the one that sticks in my mind); Wannes Goetschalcks has filmed himself doing things in a box, which is great if you like films about people doing things on their own in boxes; and Christoph Fink has put on display his own personal and frankly incomprehensible notation of journeys he has made, apparently to honour the great geographer Mercator (he of the projection) who was born in 1512 and did some of his early work in Leuven.

I will follow up a bit on Mercator; the library at the Arenberg campus of Leuven university is staging an exhibition about him starting later this month, and Prince Philippe and Pricess Mathilda are making an appearance at a ceremony at his birthplace today (the actual anniversary appears to be tomorrow). I might even struggle up to Sint-Niklaas, though the Mercator museum there seems with exquisite timing to have closed the main exhibit for renovations, while attempting to tempt the visitor with temporary exhibitions. Well, it's not that far away.
doctor who

The Ark on DVD

I realised to my delight that I had not yet opened, let alone watched, a DVD of The Ark bought some time ago, and spent some time over the weekend remedying the situation. As the First Doctor space opera stories go, this is one of the few successful ones without Daleks; and I've always appreciated it as Dodo's first proper appearance. The DVD is solid rather than brilliant, though the story behind the insanely complex camera work is told very well, and I had not appreciated just how short the time between filming and broadcast was; though the claim that Dodo's miniskirt seen at the end was the first ever shown on the BBC seems rather bold. The extras include a lovely reminiscence of the Riverside studio where the story was made, with Peter Purves and the director Michael Imison (who was told he was to be sacked literally as he went into the gallery to supervise filming of the final episode), and a rather silly pieceon why the Monoids never took off (which at least gets Jacueline Rayner a moment as a talking head).

And there's also a short documentary on the influence of H.G. Wells on Doctor Who, which seems at first an odd inclusion, though the argument is in the end very convincingly made that The Ark is one of the most Wellsian stories in the Whovian canon. This features a lot of Matthew Sweet, who has written some of the more literary Big Finish audios, and also Kim Newman, Graham Sleight and a mysterious figure credited as Dr A Keen, who looks like someone I vaguely remember from the Belfast arts faculty computer facilities in the early 1990s; I wonder what he is doing now?

So, that first century manuscript of Mark's gospel then

In my links roundup for Friday I included this article describing the alleged finding of a first-century fragment of manuscript with text from the Gospel of St Mark. I don't remember how I came across it; my memory is that I followed a link to it from a summary found somewhere else (I originally thought Huffington Post but don't see it now). In any case, I wish I had been a bit more thorough; the link I chose is the Indian syndication of an American evangelical news service, and in general I prefer to link to primary material (which this is not) rather than journalistic coverage - particularly when as in this case, it is actually old news; my link was more than ten days after the 20 February news story, which itself reported an event held on 1 February.

I would have been better to link to this 20 February radio interview with the scholar at the centre of the controversy, Daniel Wallace, which gives some more details - though not really much more - of the find: this is a manuscript which came from Egypt somehow, and has so far been dated by one unidentified but apparently well-regarded palaeography expert to the first century.(The radio host makes the puzzling remark that "it can't be later than 51", which cannot be correct; Wallace does not either confirm or correct the remark.) Mutterings elsewhere indicate that it may (or may not) be part of the Green Collection, possibly a papyrus fragment from a late Egyptian mummy.

Tracking through internet discussion of this, I have become rather depressed by the poor quality of the debate between liberal and evangelical theologians. The evangelicals seem delighted by the idea that this discovery - if it is true - will push back the known fragments of manuscript to within the lifetime of the apostles, and may (or may not) indicate that the specific fragment of text on it has (or has not) remained unchanged since the earliest days. The liberals, on the other hand, have been mocking the evangelicals for a fake manuscript that isn't even the piece in question.

Myself, I've done a wee bit of New Testament Greek and scriptural analysis, and I've done a wee bit more palaeography and attempts to reconstruct original texts (of a much later date) from various manuscript versions, enough altogether to make me feel that both the evangelicals and the liberals who I've read on this particular topic seem to me to be approaching it with too many preconceptions. If we do have a genuine first century manuscript, that should be a cause for general celebration, full stop. Scholars will certainly continue to debate what it means and how significant it is, but a couple of verses of Mark's gospel in a fragment of a first-century manuscript can't and won't ever prove that the entire New Testament reached its present form by AD 70.

(Though at least none of the people I have read on this question are King James-ers.)

BSFA awards for Best Art

I may not know much about Art, but I know what I like.

I found it actually quite easy to rank the four nominees for this year's BSFA award for Best Art.

4) Cover of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama by Pedro Marques - Not that I dislike it; I understand and like the concept, and it almost works. But the trail of smoke, while no doubt meant to suggest both the cigarette of the noir detective and the collapse of the Twin Towers, doesn't quite manage the second; and the absence of any element suggesting the real Bin Laden's trademark beard weakens it.

3) Cover and illustrations of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls by Jim Kay - this may be a little unfair, but I'm not sure to what extent the art we see on the web page corresponds with the art nominated for the award. At one point I thought that it was just the cover, in which case it would have been a clear fourth-place vote. But obviously it includes the internal illustrations as well, which are indeed striking and grotesque. The third image, the monster sitting on a shed, is particularly impressive. In the end I just like the other two more.

2) Cover of Liz Williams’s A Glass of Shadow by Anne Sudworth - this is just beautiful, the cat particularly well caught, its eyes reflecting the bright small flowers around it, the countryside so vivid that you think you could step right into it and feel the midsummer evening glow.

1) Cover of Ian Whates’s The Noise Revealed by Dominic Harman - it may be a bit sad of me, but I like good old-fashioned spaceships sometimes, and here we have a cover that tells us what the story is about (probably); things going whizz and bang and vroom, and a couple of minuscule human figures standing back in awe. The weird and (presumably?) natural rock shapes of the landscape both clash with and complement the modernistic and (presumably?) artificial metal shapes of the base from which the rockets are emanating. It gets my vote.