Art that brings meaning to medicine

The stereotypical view of contemporary art is that it’s too clever for its own good and heartless with it, constantly tripping the unwary viewer into moments of horrified realisation (ever looked closely at a Grayson Perry pot?) Yanzi’s work pushes in the opposite direction.  Those “bloody” smears and stains turn out to be exquisitely detailed miniature scenes of flowing water, framed by “hillsides” of calligraphy, combining poetry with Yanzi’s private thoughts. What at a distance seemed to be a work about violent medical intervention, becomes, closer in, to be something deeply personal, calming – even kind.

Visiting Zhang Yanzi’s A Quest for Healing at Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh, for New Scientist, 31 May 2018.

How Charles Dickens became a man of science

It is not accuracy we expect of Dickens; it is vision. It may be interesting that Our Mutual Friend uses the word “energy” in its new scientific sense. But what really thrills the heart is to follow Krook’s visitors up the stairs as they are about to find his body:

“‘See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won’t blow off – smears like black fat!’… A thick, yellow liquor defiles them… A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder…”

Visiting Charles Dickens: Man of Science, at the Charles Dickens Museum, London for New Scientist, 16 June 2018

A time-traveller’s life

Innokenty’s bourgeois, liberal, pre-Bolshevik anguish over what constitutes right action is a surprisingly successful fulcrum on which to balance a book. And we should expect nothing less from an author whose previous novel, Laurus, was a barnstorming thriller about medieval piety.

Reviewing The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin for The Guardian, 7 June 2018

Putting the Kama Sutra in the shade

It is impossible not to like Chopel — ‘A monastic friend undoing his way of life,/ A narrow-minded poser losing his facade’ — if only for the sincerity of his effort. At one point he tries to get the skinny on female masturbation: ‘Other than scornful laughs and being hit with fists/ I could not find even one who would give an honest answer.’

Reviewing a new verse translation of Gendun Chopel’s Treatise on Passion for The Spectator, 9 June 2018.

Making the invisible, visible

“Shortly after the Big Bang, there would have been the energies and speeds for proton-proton collisions like this to have shaped the early universe. That’s no longer true. We found ourselves making a piece of work that isn’t really about nature as it exists at the moment. It was a departure for us, and a troubling one at first.”
–Ruth Jarman

Another New Scientist assignment, interviewing artist duo Semiconductor, who turn the most abstruse scientific observations into captivating sensory experiences.

The unfashionable genius of William De Morgan

William De Morgan was something of a liability. He once used a fireplace as a makeshift kiln and set fire to his rented London home. As a businessman he was a disaster. The prices he charged for his tiles and ceramics hardly even paid for the materials, never mind his time. And at the turn of the 20th century, when serious financial problems loomed, only a man of De Morgan’s impractical stripe would resort to writing fiction…

Visiting Sublime Symmetry at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery for New Scientist, 28 May 2018

“Indulging in imaginary thoughts”

When you’re invited to write about an area you know nothing about, a good place to start is the heritage. But even that can’t help us here. The tiny city of Leeuwarden boasts three hugely famous children: spy and exotic dancer Mata Hari, astrophysicist Jan Hendrik Oort (he of the Oort Cloud) and puzzle-minded artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. The trouble is, all three are famous for being maddening eccentrics.

All Leeuwarden’s poor publicists can do then, having brought us here, is throw everything at us and hope something sticks. And so it happens that, somewhere between the (world-leading) Princessehof ceramics museum and Lan Fan Taal, a permanent pavilion celebrating world languages, someone somewhere makes a small logistical error and locks me inside an M C Escher exhibition…

Beating piteously at the windows for New Scientist, 25 May 2018

Elements of surprise

As Jane Austen’s novels demonstrate, two major “flaws” in our thinking are in fact the necessary and desirable consequence of our capacity for social interaction. First, we wildly underestimate our differences. We model each other in our heads and have to assume this model is accurate, even while we’re revising it, moment to moment. At the same time, we have to assume no one else has any problem performing this task – which is why we’re continually mortified to discover other people have no idea who we really are.

Reading Vera Tobin’s Elements of Surprise for New Scientist, 5 May 2018