Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More than just a trip, more than just a holiday

Taking seven months off to travel was more than just a holiday. The experience itself was great and yes it was artistically refreshing. When we take holidays of a week to a month, we are having a break from our normal life, but afterward, we return to that normal life. But taking a longer break, means an opportunity to re-evaluate life, and to make some fundamental changes.

I think that I have already mentioned that I am not going back to commercial work, I am going to focus on my personal work. But this trip enabled me to see why this is important, to let me know what my priorities are. Work, in exchange for money, enables a person to live in society. But somehow, life nowadays is about earning more and more money to buy things we do not really need. But what is important is our relationships, the people around us. And if I can have enough money to live, then my priority is not to accumulate more material things, but to nurture relationships, to build bridges. This understanding is what gives me the clarity to reject commercial job offers and focus on work and activities that will help me understand living better and share experiences with friends. Since I came back, the only shoot I have done was publicity photographs for my friend Juliet, not because it was a commercial job, but because it is an opportunity to share an experience with her.

On my journey, I naturally walked a lot and became fitter. I also started doing crunches regularly during the trip and added push ups when I was in London. I did all this because my diabetes was becoming harder to control. My medication was increasing but my blood sugar levels were not good for my age. With the exercise I started on my journey, it has helped my blood sugar levels a lot.

In the last six weeks of my journey, I was in London helping my father who just had a stroke then. I was not able to exercise as much as I did during my journey, but I was told of doctors who are recommending low carbohydrate diets to help keep diabetes in check. I tried exercising as much as I could in London, and I also tried the low carbohydrate diet. Together, I continued to be able to keep my diabetes in check.

Back in Singapore, I bought a good bicycle and I cycle several times a week alternating with strength training days of crunches and push ups. And with some advice from my doctor, I have increased my carbohydrate intake a little so as not to loose muscle. But I am now actively taking care of my health.

I think a lot of us living the city work life know that we should make changes to our lives for our own good. But with the work and the stress, it is hard to make a life style change. We do not have the energy to make that exercise or diet change. And with so many things on our minds, we do not 'see' the need for that change. And this is why the long journey was more than a holiday for me. With the time and energy given to me on the journey, I was able to make major life style changes which I hope will keep me healthier for the remainder of my life. And the time to think about life has also given me the understanding to commit to the changes I have made.

In the coming year, I wish all my friends the opportunity, time and space to re look at what is important in their lives and find the energy to make long lasting adjustments in their lives that will make their lives better.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Overland Once a day

My friend Wansheng asked me to take a self portrait once a day on my trip. I did this except for my week back in Singapore and for one day in Stockholm. I used the music Dare you to Move by Switchfoot because it is just a great song. I filled out the music with some video from the trip.

CHANGED: I had to change the music to 'Sunlight' by Kyte as they blocked the playing of 'Dare you to move' in Singapore. But this music is good too as I played it a lot when I was traveling.

For you Wansheng.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Making Harvest while the sun shines

The most important lesson I learned on this journey is that to seize as many opportunities as possible as they arise. So often, when an opportunity has passed us by, it has passed us by forever. And so even in this time of challenge for my family, I have continued to make the best of the time available to me. The good thing is that my father has been recovering at a remarkable rate and my brother is able to spend some time with my parents to. I generally have to be around during meal times to buy food or help my father get to a nearby restaurant now that he is able to walk. So the best time for me to do something has been the afternoons, when my parents are resting. I have been able to visit a Sally Mann exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery, Wolfgang Tillmans at the Serpentine, and Exposed at the Tate Modern. On some evenings my brother comes over to eat with my parents which has allowed me to see some performances like A Disappearing Number by Theatre Complicite and Vertical Road by Akram Khan tonight.

I did plan to visit my sister's vineyard for a grape harvest. So last weekend I headed to Bothy Vineyard with my cameras hoping to take some photographs. It was quite an operation. Saturday was a glorious day for harvesting as the sun was up. And there were about twenty volunteers, three kids including my two nieces and two dogs. My brother-in-law had planned to harvest over two days but was worried about rain on Sunday. With such willing volunteers and one brother-in-law, me, we harvested three and a half tons of grapes! I am not a wine drinker, but the fresh grape juice was delicious! After most of the volunteers left, I helped Richard with the last 3rd pressing. Back breaking work. I must admit, I was not displeased when I woke up to rain on Sunday and the picking was postponed. I spent Sunday resting and reading. Fortunately for Sian my sister and Richard, they managed to get some volunteers to pick red grapes on Monday which would not have survived until the following weekend.

I am fortunate for this year, its experiences, the opportunity to reassess what is important in my life and what is possible with what I have.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A little statistical overview and some acknowledgements

Here is a little summary of the trip. Nothing is exactly accurate, especially since the distances are between cities and the routes were probably longer.

I traveled for 160 days. This does not include a nine day break to get my tummy checked up in Singapore.

I covered approximately 25,900km by rail, bus or ferry. I used air travel for an additional 4360km.

I visited seventeen countries and stayed in thirty-four cities.

Although I had to eat instant noodles and sandwiches sometimes, my best meals were at
Da Dong Peking Duck Restaurant, Beijing
Cafe Pushkin, Moscow
Austria Restaurant, Berlin
Pod Aniolami Restaurant, Krakow
Le Crabe Restaurant, Riga

There were other good restaurants, but one way or another those five were the most memorable. And for non Singaporeans reading this blog, food is the most important past time to Singaporeans.

As a lot of people may know, I am a coffee addict. The best espresso is still in Italy. It is hard to really pick the best but at a pinch I would say that it was in a stand up espresso bar near the Duomo in Milan.

There was more physical activity then I was expecting on this trip. I climbed a 2500m mountain next to Lake Hogsvol in Mongolia and I cycled 45km in a day in Kolka in Latvia.

I must thank the hospitality of the people who were my hosts on this trip,

The Rin family in Shanghai,
Mario in Milan
Marian in Bern and Grindlewald
and Piritta in Helsinki

A special thanks to Olga and Michele on whose boat I rented a room for two weeks in Arles.

I also had nice friends showing me the secrets of their cities,
Ai Ling in Penang
Qin Pei in Beijing
Irina in Moscow
Gianluca in Rome
and Dimitra in Berlin

And a special thanks to my guide and driver in Mongolia, Odnoo and Nagi.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Journey's end - a little early, a little short

Visiting Estonia was the last major objective of my overland trip. All that was left for me was to return to London without taking an airplane. I could have taken a ferry to Stockholm, and then a train to Copenhagen and then to the Danish port of Ejsberg and a ferry to Harwich. However, as I had made Finnish friends in Tuscany, I decided to go to Helsinki and then go onto to Stockholm. This part of the journey was more a technical necessity for me.

However, in life things happen. I was attending an outdoor party when my father called me and asked me to return earlier than my planned date of the 22 September. When I asked him why? He answered that he had suffered a minor stroke. As my brother is in London and my sister was visiting from Oxford, I amended my plans to get to London as quickly as possible overland on the 17 September. However, after talking to my brother, it was clear that I was needed even earlier because my brother still has work commitments and my sister has a family and vineyard to look after in Oxford. I took a flight from Stockholm and arrived in London on the 15 September. After five and a half months, my journey ended.

Well, technically I took flights when I had my tummy upset, I had a short connecting flight in Mongolia to get me to my trans Siberian train on time and I flew from Stockholm to London. To be pedantic, I did not do an overland trip from Singapore to London. But I did have the trip of my lifetime. I visited Luang Prabang, Mongolia, Poland and the Baltic States for the first time. I saw the fireworks of the National days of Vietnam and Switzerland. I experienced the wet and wild celebrations of the Thai and Laotian New year. I attended the World Expo in Shanghai and the photographic festival in Arles. I attended a one day workshop with my hero Paolo Roversi and did a one week workshop with another hero Arno Minkkinen. My project was voted project of the week by the instructors. There were times in Laos and Singapore, with my sensitive stomach that I wanted to throw in the towel, but then I would missed so many things. I think the nourishment from this trip will last me a lifetime.

In an early post on this blog I gave the reasons why I am able to undertake this epic journey. Epic for me anyway. One of the reasons is that my parents were still healthy. The choice of the 1 April was arbitrary. But if I had started a month later I would have had to give up a the Baltic states. If I had decided to play it safe after the food poisoning and postpone the trip to 2011, it would not have happened. The opportunity would be past. This is something I would regret in my life.

A friend gave me a hand made card with the words Carpe Diem as a good luck charm for the trip. Those words are as apt as they can be. I had a window of opportunity and I took it. And the overview of life that I have got from this journey, as well as the illness of my father is that life is for the living. One can be completely reckless and squander away money, dying in poverty. But one can also be a Scrooge, hording wealth for the sake of wealth, and not appreciating the range of experiences life can offer. I realise that I simply have to use the resources available to me to lead the fullest life I can. And to some people, they will not comprehend what I am doing or how I am doing it. Well, every person is an individual and I do not know how other people manage to live their lives, in the frozen Mongolia winter, or racing up the slopes of Swiss mountains, or be continuously creative like some of my photographic idols. All I know is that 'other' people can offer their point of view of how I should live my life. But I have to make my own path, and I have to be brave enough to be myself. The only thing to fear is fear itself.

The journey has ended, another journey has begun. This time it is with my father, it is a journey of recovery. A journey so that he can continue to live life to the full.

For my life, and the support to be me, I thank my parents. I know they worried for my safety but trusted that I would come back safe. I thank my parents for the blessings they have bestowed on me. Now is my turn to step up to the plate.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Estonia Experience

My first stop in Estonia was the resort town of Parnu. It was very telling that the hotel I was staying in looked empty, like I was the only guest. On the first evening I visited the beach and there was a brilliant sunset but the second day was cold and rainy. I mentioned this to the receptionist and she said that it was now Autumn. I tried to see as much as I could on this journey, and by doing so I had run out of summer. I still enjoyed my visit to Estonia is general, but I had literally lost the light.

Sareema is the largest island belonging to Estonia and it had one town called Kuressaare. This was another visit to the wilderness, but the sights of Kuressaare are separated by relatively large distances. Even though I had just recently managed to cycle 45km, I would have had to jump to 100km a day at least if I wanted to use the bicycle. So, I rented a car. I went down to the southern most point of the island to see a lighthouse. I also tried to visit some Soviet installations, but they looked a lot like holes in the ground. They were soviet batteries. I also visited cliffs, a fishing village and desolate coastlines on the north of the island. I could have been more adventurous on this island, but I did not have the time and I had a little cold. The remnants of which are making my throat itchy as I write this.

Tallinn's old town is rather larger than that of Vilnius or Riga. In fact, it has two parts. The higher part, where the present parliament is held, was traditionally occupied by the nobles. The lower where most of the tourist trade happens, belonged to the merchants. And the merchants, who were not only protecting themselves from invaders, also built a wall against the nobility in the old town whom they were very suspicious of.

Perhaps I was tired after five months of travel, perhaps the grey and wetness of autumn had got to me, or perhaps my feeling that my room in Tallinn was 'dirty' put me on edge, but my overall impression of Estonia was ok. I wish I could say more, but really I cannot.

So, one of my major aims of exploring the Baltic states came through with the end of my visit to Tallinn. All the capital cities and their old town are worth visiting. But I must say that Riga, with its audacious art nouveau buildings, makes it the most outstanding of the three Baltic capitals. For a more adventurous holiday, the national park around Cape Kolka in Latvia is also my favorite. It is worth visiting all three Baltic states, but if you only have time for one, Latvia would be my recommendation.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lost and found in Latvia

I must admit, when I thought of the Baltic states I remembered Estonia and Lithuania. Estonia because of the composer Arvo Part and Lithuania, I am not sure why I remember it. I thought it was that Lithuania got into the world cup but I stand corrected by a reader. But Latvia? I thought it was the country ruled by Doctor Doom, the arch enemy of the Fantastic Four. Well Doctor Doom comes from the fictitious country of Latveria... see?!?!? And the closest thing that came to my mind about Riga, was the final Boss Ryga, in an interplanetary version of Street Fighter. Ok, you can see how lame my knowledge is and where I spent my time becoming so lame.

So I really did not know what to expect from Latvia. It rhymes with Bavaria, so should I expect something Germanic. Well, as it turns out, Riga, the captial, started as a German colony for the conversion of the local populace to Christianity. So there is a German link. And Riga was an important European port, with lots of rich merchants and a cosmopolitan population. The tradition carries on now with a surprsing number of Japanese restaurants in Riga.

What I can say now is that the old town of Riga is definitely more grand than Vilnius. They have refurbished some of the merchants' guilds in Riga, and boy are they showy. The churches are pretty nice too, large but not too overly ornate and complex inside the churches. I like that. I also found an unexpectedly good restaurant at a reasonable price called Le Crabe! Yes, I am looking after myself.

But Riga is not just the medieval old town. It has several outrageous Art Nouveau houses to the north of the old town. I have seen a lot ornate buildings in my time, but these buildings really left me gob smacked! And I kind of like that style, very sexy!

So after a good time with good food in Riga, I take a bus along the coast of Riga to Cape Kolka. Cape Kolka, or Kolkas Rags, is in between the Baltic sea to the west and the Gulf of Riga to the east. It does not have a high cliff at the point but it does really look like the end of the earth. And the clouds all around are always spectacular. It is still warm enough to take a swim in the sea when the sun is up. And it has relatively fewer tourists here than on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania. I think that it is just harder to get to Kolka than Nida in Lithuania. And Kolka is in the Slitere National Park, with wonderful forests and old Livonian towns. I cycled 45km today to see some of the sights. This really tired me out, but it was worth it. I think if someone wants to do a sword and sorcery epic, Slitere Natioanl park would be the perfect place to film it.

I am so glad that I am having this opportunity to explore the Baltic states. And as much as I love the romance of old towns, the beauty of nature is having an effect on me. It kinds of puts into perspective what is important in life and it is not the rat race.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Laughter in Lithuania

When I was in Warsaw, I met a very unpleasant French man who simply said that he disliked the Baltic states. He did not specify why when I asked him, but he just did. He made some rude remarks about me as well and his wife was embarrassed. But I think he was wrong on both counts.

My first stop in Lithuania was its capital, Vilnius. It has a nice personable old town, with several churches. It amused me that the Soviets used one of the churches to be a church of atheism. The Lithuanians were definitely not convinced.

I must admit, after traveling for several months, old castles, museums and churches were not high on my lists of to dos. The nicest church was one that was changing hands and was almost empty. There was still a few pictures of the Virgin and Christ. This seems the most honest to me. But I did visit some of the churches like the Gates of Dawn, where they have the Black Madonna. And the Choral Synangogue too.

What did leave a mark on me was the Museum for the victims of Genocide. Here was the history of how the Soviets signed a secret pact with Hitler to divide up the region. How the Soviets annexed Lithuania together with the other two Baltic states. The Germans broke the pact and took over Lithuania for about four years and then were driven out by the Russians again. The Lithuanians and countries like the United States always considered this an unlawful occupation. But Stalin wanted the Baltic states. Many Lithuanians were sent to hard labour in distant places in Russia. A lot of people were kept, tortured and killed in the Soviet run prisons in Lithuania. The west did nothing. I am not sure why, maybe after fighting Germany, the west had no stomach to take on the Soviet Union. Life just ain't fair.

But you have to like the Lithuanians, because they are the most humorous bunch of people I have met. In Vilnius, a group of artists have declared their own independence in a district called Uzupio. They have a hilarious constitution which says things like 'You can die, but you are not obliged to'.

Vilnius is not as grand as the old cities of Poland, but it is very charming in it's own right. There is a road on Literatu street where there is an open air gallery celebrating the literature of Lithuania. Beautiful work.

I went to the port town of Klaipeda, which is the connection to the Curonian Spit. The spit is a 140km sand dune with the Baltic sea on one side and a large lagoon on the other side. Half of the spit is owned by Lithuania and the other half is owned by the Soviets. The old town of Klaipeda is small, charming in its own right. Its old buildings have interesting wooden beams as support. The buildings used to be warehouses for the shipping trade. Can you believe it, out of the 11 tourist sights in the old town, one is a sculpture of a mouse and another is a sculpture of a cat.

The Curonian Spit though is simply breathtaking. It does not seem like much to look at the sea. But when you see the Baltic sea coming ashore, you really get to see the majesty of the sea, of nature. And along the long long beach, Lithuanians and tourists have fun sunning themselves. Quite a few people go nude! Talk about a sense of freedom.

I ended my travels in Lithuania with a short visit to Siauliai. I did not really sight see in Siauliai as it seems more like an industrial town. But what is amazing is the Hill of Crosses which is about 15km out of town. Just thousands and thousands of crosses. The Soviets tried to destroy this religious site, but the Lithuanians kept putting up new crosses. Most of my friends know that I am not a believer, but the sight of so much spontaneous religious expression is impressive.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An observation from the journey

This trip is truly liberating. to climb mountains, to walk in the falling snow, to swim in the Mediterranean sea, to dance in the moonlight, to travel vast distances and watch the scenery change from dessert to mountain to plains to lakes to towns to cities to the sea.

There are limits to what we can do, but within these limits, there is a great range of possibilities. To live fully takes courage, determination, a positive attitude and flexibility.

I met nomads in Mongolia who lost a lot of their livestock in the last winter, one of the harshest winters Mongolia has ever had. One nomad simply agreed that he had lost many livestock and noted that he would have to rear more. In Poland, they were affected by huge floods, but as a visitor you could hardly tell. They carried on with life. What I see on this trip is resilience and people able to continue not just to survive, but find joy in life.

We have to say 'no' to energy sapping negative people. Live within the law, but live outside constraining social norms. Above all, be true to yourself. Never be afraid to express joy, delight and love. Express anger when absolutely necessary, but discard it as soon as possible, or it poisons one's heart.

Give time, love and support to the young, for the are the future. Give time, love, support and thanks to the old, for without them we would not be. Spread good ideas and happiness to those around us, for we have the world in our car for now. We have to do a good job for those who come after us. Don't be afraid to admit mistakes and change for the better. Consequences are larger than our egos. Don't regret things done in ignorance, we can only know so much. But try not to repeat the same mistake over and over again.

We have to walk in the mountains sometimes, it shows us how small we are. Then we realize that we live on a planet that is insignificant in the vastness of space. This is why we need to come together as a planet. We need to stop the hate, we need to stop the rape of the earth. We are like ants, alone one can do little. In a colony, mountains can be moved.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Walking Berlin

Berlin was on my trip because I wanted to visit my friend Dimitra, whom I met at London Contemporary Dance School. It was ten years since I was last in Berlin and seen her. How time flies! I realise that I have been a busy boy in the last ten years. I liked Berlin when I visited it ten years ago, I like it even more now.

Having been to Berlin once and since it was a trip to visit a friend, I did not do any planning at all about what to do there. One thing was for sure, I did not want to see any more castles, old masters or crosses. On the way to my hotel, I saw there was a Magnum photography retrospective at a place called CO Berlin. I asked the lady at my hotel where this museum was and she showed me on a free map giving out by Sandeman, a walking tour company. What caught my eye was an alternative tour of Berlin, showing squats, street art, protest points, things you would not see in a regular city tour. And where does the tour start? CO Berlin, where the photographic exhibition was held!

I spent the morning going through the Magnum exhibition and bought a documentary on Magnum. The exhibition showed classics from the founders and newer work by photographers like Paolo Pelegrin and Alex Soth. It was trying to show how Magnum started as a photo journalists collective and how it is developing today in a market where the photo journalistic market has collapsed. Many of the young photographers are journalists/artists. They think as much as doing exhibitions and selling prints as they do of getting their work published in newspapers or magazines. Enlightening.

I had a quick lunch and joined the alternative Berlin walking tour. The guide was an Irishman, Finn, whom was very interested in graffiti artists. The first stop was an artists' squat in east Berlin called Tacheles. Apparently, it will be evacuated and turned into a luxury hotel at any moment, so I was very lucky to see this piece of free Berlin history. As we went along this tour, we were introduced to various forms of street art and their creators. It is interesting that billboards is not a very effective form of advertising in Berlin and major companies have now started to use street artists to paint ads street style. How commerce works eh?

The really surprising thing to me is that Berlin as a city, is 67 million euros in debt. This, the capital of capitalist superstar Germany! But Berlin is a city for artists, with very little industry going on. There are many development plans, but no money to get them going. One quarter of Berlin's property is empty! Hmmm... sounds like my city to do a photographic residency!!! :)

After the great tour I met my friend Dimitra for dinner. Ten years ago she took me for a Viennese Schnitzel that was simply amazing. I tried getting a good schnitzel in Vienna but failed. We went back to the same restaurant and had the schnitzel again. To me, this is the best schnitzel in the world.

I enjoyed the alternative Berlin tour so much that I convinced Dimitra to follow me for the free Berlin tour. And she has lived in Berlin for twelve years. But the guide, Sam, a Cambridge graduate, was great. He was knowledgeable and he could put things across well. Dimitra was impressed by how he compressed German history into 16 minutes. The highlights of the tour for me was the monument to the Jews killed in the second world war and a monument to a massive book burning exercise at Humbolt University. The Jewish monument is thousands and thousands of cement blocks. I did not take a picture of the monument to the burned books, but it is an underground room made of four walls of white bookshelves. These works kind of blew my mind.

The evening was finished with Taffelspitz at another Austrian restaurant. It is boiled beef and does not sound that fantastic. But it is served with horseradish that really makes this a special treat.

So two great days in Berlin and meeting an old friend.

I am now going into the last part of my overland journey, the Baltic states. I am writing this post in Warsaw, on my way to Vilnius in Lithuania. I am still being surprised and educated, but I am a bit tired. I am looking forward to returning to London and sleeping in a familiar bed.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Passing Kolo - From my diary

Living in Singapore, a city state, we always get the feeling we are in Singapore. And although Singapore is just a little red dot on the world map, we have a much larger presence in world consciousness than other cities in larger countries. I think people all over the world would have heard much less of Port Klang than they have of Singapore. What would the profile and wealth of Singapore have been like if we had stayed in the Malaysian federation? I wonder.

But as I pass the town of Kolo in Poland on the train, a town I have never heard of, have no idea at all what it is about, filled with people speaking a language I do not comprehend. I realise how distance divides human kind, how politics divides human kind, how language divides human kind, how religion defines human kind. It is strange that things that help bind a certain group of humans together, also causes boundaries to other groups of humans.

We benefit and are victims of our circumstances. Where and when we are born. Who are our parents and what is their legacy for us. There are only a handful of people like Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, the president of the United States, that can truly become part of the world consciousness. And there are still large groups of people who have no interest in Shakespeare, Lao Tzu or the president of the United States.

For better or worse, English is the most widely used language today. And to be brought up in an English speaking society is the key to a huge library of information and ideas. We can always debate the pros and cons of colonialism, but the proliferation of the English language makes important knowledge available for understanding the world and getting things done. For example, if I lived in Ulaanbaatar, had fast internet access, but could only read and speak in Mongolia, the range of information available to me would be much smaller than if I lived in the outback of Australia but understood English.

We like to think that we can do anything we set out minds to. But the truth is, it is several times harder to be a fashion photographer in Chicago than New York. You can actually be a great photographer but if you cannot make it to a fashion capital, you have nothing to work on or work for and you are up shit creek. Closer to home in Singapore, our safe, comfortable country is not the place to get a world press award or a Pulitzer. Your chances increase the closer you get to a major conflict zone. Access is a key to certain industries and oppotunities. Having access is a privilege some people are born with, and some people can get if they work hard, and others are completely denied. I remember watching a documentary on children beggars in Indonesia. When asked what their dreams were, one said that he wanted to be a doctor...

Our parent's legacy to us, forming our world view, our beliefs and our character in engaging with others. Some of us are brought up with more self-contained world view, which makes it hard to engage with others, to take in new information. Others are brought up more liberal, with a willingness to take in new ideas. This is a key in enabling us to either take advantage of the opportunities offered to us, or bar ourselves from these opportunities.

The world, with the aeroplane and the internet has become a smaller place. But still, circumstances and surrounding are key to one's life.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Polish Summer - Wroclaw and Warsaw

It was the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski that made me expect a drab, grey, decaying Poland. What can you say to a city that has a fountain topped by a nude fencer and has gnomes spread throughout the city. Wroclaw, like other Polish cities has had its share of hardship and pain. But the gnomes are inspired by the gnomes drawn by the Orange alternative over places where the communist government had censored anti-goverment slogans. The gnomes are cute nowadays for tourist, but are a reminder of how the Polish used humour and ridicule to combat the oppressive communist regime. On this score alone, one should not look down on the Polish.

The town square, or Rynek, is the second largest in Europe, after Krakow. But it is much prettier to me. The facades of the buildings are more colourful and ornate. The old town is surrounded by a river and there several islands with churches on them. The islands are very pretty but also has the magical Botanical gardens. It really does look like a place that I would expect to see fairies and gnomes come out. At the very least, the gardens is well kept and labelled, you can tell that it is a labour of love.

Also between the islands is a bridge, where lovers hang a lock as a token of their love. This is almost too sweet, but when you see a punk couple putting up their lock and chain, you realise that these people have remained romantic and oh so human in spite of the communist regime.

And I stayed at probably the best hotel on this trip, the Art Hotel. Even though it looks really posh, it was in the middle range of hotels. It was worth the money. The room, bed and toilet were all great. And you cannot beat the location within the old town.

I guess that I am gushing, but even though there are prettier towns in Tuscany and in France, there is something magic about Wroclaw.

So I save the city that was voted Europe's ugliest city for the last. But to counter that I am staying in the Old Town too. Which is quite pretty. I can see in the rest of Warsaw, there are some ugly Soviet style buildings, but there are also some new moderm buildings popping up here and there.

I also spent time at Lazienkowski park which has a summer palace and Wilanowski Park with a baroque palace. Newr Lazienkowski park is the Centre for Contemporary Art housed in Ujazdowski Palace. And next to Wilanowski palace, is the Poster Museum. The two palaces are nicer and prettier than the Royal Palace in the old town. Actually the entire Old Town was destroyed by the Nazi's in retalliation for the Warsaw uprising. So the palace in the old town is actually quite new. But the two palaces in the parks are more original, and the settings are gorgeous.

After traveling so long, I get a bit spaced out looking at palaces and churches. There is a kind of sameness to it all. But I go through them just in case there is something that may strike me like at the hermitage. But thank goodness for the contemporary art museum and the poster museum. They add a different dimension and bring new creative ideas to my attention.

The highlights of Wroclaw and Warsaw and sad stores of moments of courage and sacrifice by the Polish people who were time and again invaded by the Germans and the Russians. In Wroclaw, they have the panorama of Raclawicka. This is a unique panoramic painting housed in its own circular building depicting a defeat of the Russian army by Polish peasants. This was short lived as the Russian army defeated the Polish. But this incident forever inspires the Polish people. In Warsaw, there is the fabulous Warsaw Uprising museum, dedicated to telling the true story of the Warsaw uprising. Towards the end of the second world war, when Hitler was beginning to loose the war, the Polish people started an uprising in Warsaw to overthrow the Germans. They were hoping for help from the allies. Unfortunately, the British and Americans did not send much aid. The Russians acted as they were going to help, but let the Germans bomb the hell out of Warsaw and then took the opportunity to disarm the polish Hoem Army and turn Poland into a communist state. The stories are sad, the saddest I have heard in Europe. So if Polish people do seem cynical sometimes, you can see why.

Anyway, I did not know what to expect of Poland before I started this trip, but I certainly have some fond memories of this country.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Krakow, Poland - Getting there and being there

Poland is simply one of those countries that does not get to the top of the list when visiting Europe. I called my sister from Warsaw and told her I was in Poland because my brother-in-law is half polish. My sister was unimpressed. I told her I was on the way to Krakow and she said that was better than Warsaw...

Well, I must admit that the state of the buildings in the countryside of Poland is depressing. Things are run down. I was coming from Switzerland with its picture postcard houses and passing through Germany with its solid state of the art buildings. Getting into Warsaw, I was too late to catch my connecting train to Krakow. Fortunately, it was simple to change my ticket to a later train and this gave me a couple of hours to kill in Warsaw. I was able to book all my train tickets for Poland as well as a train to Berlin and another connection from Berlin to Vilnius in Lithunia. The missed connection was a blessing in disguise. But the look of the train station, with underground tunnels linking looked like dungeons.

Arriving in Krakow, I was greeted by drab looking communist housing. Or if the housing was older, it was also run down. My hotel, was at the edge of the old town. It was in the walk into the Rynek Glowny, the largest town square in Europe, that things started to look different. The buildings started looking spruced up and had more interesting detailing like other charming European cities. The town square was bustling with activity. Lots of cafes, restaurants and shops. The centre of the town hall was something called the Cloth Hall, now a large tourist souvenir mall. It is a bit like Convent Garden, but not so hip. Ok, this was not an Italian piazza, but it had a charm of its own. It was a bit spoiled by the obvious tourist nature of the whole thing.

I spent the next two days going to Wawel Hill, where there is an old castle. I visit the church there. I walk around the cobbled streets of old town Krakow. I check off the tourist to-do list and feel a little bit like I am in a less cheesy version of Disneyland. The most engaging event was a retrospective of American photographer Andreas Feininger at the International Cultural Centre. I must say though that the St. Mary's Church interior was impressive. The artwork was not refined like Italian churches, but the colours and styling was bold! Krakow was not bad, but not great.

Then on the third day, I decide to visit the Jewish quarter, also known as Kazimierz, and this seemed a little more 'real'. It was still touristy, but the people there were locals too. I visited on a Saturday, which is not good for visiting the synagogues, but I did visit one that had been converted into a museum. There was an interesting exhibition of old pictures of Jewish people, in their traditional clothing. I enjoyed that.

Then I went to the Krakus mound which is south of Kazimierz. This is the oldest structure in Krakow, a mound that is man made but who's history is lost in time. It was a nice walk to the mound and a little climb up the hill. The view of Krakow was pretty nice. And then I spotted the Libany quarry. This is an abandoned quarry which started off as being owned by a couple of Jewish men. But during the second world war the Nazi's forced Jewish people to work in the quarry. So it was a place where there was painful memories as well. And apparently, when Steven Speilberg filmed Shindler's list, he built sets in Libany quarry instead of using the actual sites of concentration camps. So there is some traces of film sets mixed with the actually quarry remains. I really could not tell which is which. But I found a way into the quarry which is now overrun with wild life. Fish and ducks in the ponds. Butterflies amongst the grass growing around the old quarry equipment. I had a fun afternoon exploring this space. I felt only slightly uncomfortable but did not get any of those hair standing on the back on my neck moments. But I did get caught in the rain.

The food in Krakow up to now had been somewhat decent if a bit overpriced. And then I tried Pod Aniolami. The prices were not cheap, but I thought why not? And it turned out to be one of the top three meals on my overland journey, the other two being Peking duck in Beijing and Duck at the Pushkin restaurant in Moscow. I had meat dumplings to start with and trout as a main course. The flavours were just amazing in my mouth. They were confident flavours, but not overpowering. I am not so much a fish man, but this trout, with horseradish sauce, rocks. I paid like fifty Singaporean dollars for the meal and it was worth every cent.

The meal took longer than I took and I was slightly upset to have missed my last chance of attending a performance of the Krakow Jazz festival. But as I walked about in the town square, an open air concert and dance was going on. It was like a Spanish folk group playing simple dance music and the crowd was loving it. Large groups of people were joining in. I took lots of pictures. And even though it felt kind of silly dancing by myself, I danced a couple of dances too. This was really a great end to a great day in Krakow. And I know that because of the third day, I will not forget Krakow.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Short stop in Switzerland

I went to Bern to visit my friend, Marian, whom I met in dance school. I had once visited her before in Bern and it turns out that it was ten years ago! How time flies.

Now Marian is married to Roland and has two children, Sedonia and Mauruss. The kids are quite a handful and Roland is a forty-seven year old mountain boy! Marian and her husband are just extremely fit. I went with the family to Marian's childhood village, Grindelwald, which is up in the mountains. And they took me hiking in the foothills. While I had to take a lift half way up the mountain and then walk up further by myself, Roland would walk up from the bottom for the mountain with his son strapped to his back! And then in the descent, Marian would bring Mauruss down. Did I say this family was fit? But it was very enjoyable to spend time with Marian and her family. Even though I could not speak any Swiss German, I made friends with the kids.

Bern is a lovely little city as it always is. I did not know that it was the capital of Switzerland. I always thought it was Zurich for some reason. I walked around for a day exploring the shops in the old town. Beautiful things at expensive prices. In my personal experience, Switzerland is an expensive country.

In Bern I did go to Zentrum Paul Klee, a museum dedicated to the famous Swiss painter. It is a wonderful space in the shape of a wave. And Paul Klee's paintings are beautiful too.

Grindelwald is the picture perfect Swiss mountain village. We stayed in Marian's brother's house. We were lucky to get two good days of sunshine and was able to hike on those days. It was the Swiss national day on the 1st of August. There was meant to be loads of celebrations and parades but the rain kind of dampened that. There was a small procession which we joined in. Sedonia was dressed in a traditional Swiss outfit. And there were fireworks at night. The bangs reverberated through the mountains.

And it was surprising how many Japanese there were up in the Swiss mountains. The mayor of Grindelwald spoke in Japanese during the National Day speech!! Unbelievable.

Well. It was a nice short stop in Switzerland and good to catch up with an old friend.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Milan - Always a photography city for me

Milan was more like a pit stop for me. And I was fortunate that my friend Mario put me up for my stay there.

I was in Milan the year before and saw some great exhibitions and bought some wonderful photographic books. The same happened this year. I saw exhibitions by Phil Stern, Irwin Olaf, Eikoh Hose and Francesca Woodman. And I bought a book by Shirin Neshat. I have been looking for books by this wonderful Iranian artist for a long time but the few books I found on the internet were way too expensive. And I found a great book of hers at 10 Corso Como.

I also finally managed to see the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. This fragile masterpiece, is very subtle. The guide was informative. But, I had to book my ticket two months beforehand online. There is very little chance of going on the day and getting in.

Italy has so many wonderful cities with so much to do and see. Milan kind of gets lost amongst the other cities, but after a while, I think it can grow on you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Four months - a reflection

It is almost August, almost four months traveling. This is without a doubt the trip of my lifetime. I have been fortunate as I have had very few bad experiences on this trip. Yes, the tummy upset at the beginning, but nothing else like that so far.

Visiting Milan, for my third time. And visitng Moscow and Rome for the second time after ten and twenty years, I realise how human I am. How human, we all are. We can only experience such small portions of a city, and our human brains will forget what it has experienced. It is all in the head, what we experience. It is only with a brain that we can be cognizant of what our eyes, ears, nose tells us. And then the brain, limited in capacity, will forget it. We only have the shadows of the shadows of the experiences in our heads. And these shadows are mixed up with the dreams that spontaneously come into our heads. Time passes, and things will remain in a tangled memory for a while, to be forever forgotten when we are gone.

This trip has been great, showing me so many things that I have never seen before. giving me the opportunity to met old friends too. And a reason for me to take some photographs. But I asked my friend Jaizki about how he felt about his trip overland to Spain from Singapore, and he replied that it was like a dream. This life that passes so quickly, is really just a dream, a passing moment in eternity. A spark in the infinite darkness.

But I will tell you what, I am a happy spark. And I hope that they will be able to see me at the edge of the universe.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A week in St Anna in Camperana, doing a photographic workshop

I spent a week in St Anna doing a photographic workshop with Arno Minkinnen. I worked pretty hard and took more pictures than at any other point of my trip, but I am not ready to show the work. The project, called 'Starlight Sonata', was chosen as project of the week and I won a Spyder 3 screen calibrator. But this is the first project that I think that I will be able to continue after the workshop is over. Particularly since I am still traveling and I think that there are places where I can continue with the project as I travel. So I do not have much to say or show for this week.

On the way to St Anna, I stopped off at the house of my friend, Gianluca, for lunch with his family. The photos of the children are his nieces and nephew. And on the way to Milan from St. Anna, I traveled with Mario, whom I am staying with now in Milan. I met both Gianluca and Mario at the TPW workshops. So, you can see how all this ties in together. At St Anna itself, all I have are a few portraits of the people I met.

I made new friends in the week and plan to visit some of them in Finland later on this journey.

As much as I enjoyed all the courses in Tuscany, this may be my last time there on course. I think it is time to take my work further, and maybe look for photographic residencies, to that I can continue to build my body of work.

Another Rome

Except for a one day visit to the Vatican a few years back, I must have not been back to Rome for twenty years, my first impression of it not being good. I remember crowded streets and crazy drivers. But my Roman friend Gianluca kept assuring me that there is a Rome that is warm and friendly. So I decided to give it another chance after all these years, why not?

On my first day in Rome I went to places like the Spanish steps and was just assailed by the huge number of tourists there. I guess that me being a tourist means that I should not be complaining, but I still did not enjoy it. I started taking pictures of the tourists and graffiti. This is another Rome for me, a Rome that was not as bad as in my memory, but not the Rome of the guide books.

And the summer heat was just full on when I was there.

I did have a nice dinner with my friend Gianluca, and I did visit a William Klein exhibition on Rome. The typical Rome is not attractive, but there is Another Rome.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A little bit more Arles

After doing my best to cover most of the exhibitions at Recontres in seven days, I took it easy. I also met quite a few people I know like Herman, a fellow student from TPW, the french photographer, Francois Hugier, who stayed in my house for a month in Singapore, Carlos who runs TPW, and Diego and Claudia who assisted at TPW. So nice.

I did do a one day workshop with Paolo Roversi on a Sunday. He is a tall elegant looking Italian gentleman. His images are so beautiful and timeless. He stressed that one needs to put heart into the photography and there needs to be some risk and surprise. So true. He looked at my images and noted that there is not very much Singapore in it. And I wonder what of Singapore could I put in my images that is true and not a cliche, self-censorship? That is the truest Singaporean input that I have in my work. Ah well, I am what I am, I am inspired to continue trying to capture beauty. With all the horrifying images that impinge on our eyes constantly, we need beautiful ones too.

My landlady and landlord took me to the beach a couple of times. The first time for a quick visit, the second for a swim. They are the Italian couple in the pictures. They are Olga and Michele. I had such a nice stay and when I return to Arles, I will stay with them again! The boat in the pictures is the boat I stayed in.

So just a few more impressions of Arles as I walked around this pretty town.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Les Rencontres Arles Photography

Le Recontres Arles is a big festival. It is recommended that at least three days is needed to see all the exhibitions. I had a seven day pass, and it was still difficult to assimilate all the images. An image is not like a play or a dance piece, which takes 15 minutes to three hours. We can view hundreds of images in an hour, but we can only hold one image in our minds at a time. Well, at least I can only hold one image in my head at a time.  When you are going through 60 exhibitions, a multitude of books and slide presentations, it is like an animal being force fed.

I have been constipated in my own photography. I gorged myself at this visual feast, hoping that something inside will burst out of me. Will it be a golden egg or just shit? I do not know, but I want something to come out of this intake, anything. Regardless, I want to go in a new direction. Anxiously, I stuff more images through the openings in my eyes, I open my eyes wide.

I do not have a ticket today, thank goodness. It is an excuse to rest.

Like anything this big, some work is mind-blowing and some work is simply bad. Some work I can appreciate for its originality, but it is not aesthetically to my taste.
I am talking about anybodies reaction to any such a festival.


My persona favorite exhibition is a retrospective of the Italian master Mario Giacomelli.  His imagery is graphic, high contrast, visceral. Another favorite of mine was the collection of film maker Marin Karmitz. He has work by Anders Peterson, Michael Ackerman, Roger Ballen, Doisneau amongst others. His collection is also of very strong visceral work as well.

On a more commercial note, I loved the work of Claude Gassian, a french photographer for music. He has shot so many great musicians like the Rolling Stones, Chet Baker, Oasis, Rod Stewart, the list goes on. He also had a slideshow in one of the evening presentations.

The great find for me was Paris based photographer Klavdij Sluban. His exhibition was based on this travels in Trans Siberia. His book won the European book publishers award. It was a very moody black and white world.

Except for Claude Gassian, I found that most of the work that really grabbed me was black and white and was strong stuff. Gassian's work was very dramatic too!

Besides the work that many of my friends would guess that I love, there was also very interesting work which was not photography in the way we usually think of it. For example, there was an exhibition called Shoot!, which is about how fun fair shooting galleries used to have a camera which would automatically take a portrait of someone when that person hits the bulls eye. This was a fascinating collection of famous people like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sarte amongst images of anonymous people.

From China, Zhang Dali, exhibited a piece of work called Second History. He went to research the images archives and found the original images that proved that a lot of the Chinese propaganda images had been collaged and doctored heavily. And it was amazing what could be accomplished way before the age of photoshop. I would not buy these images to put on my wall, but the work was truly intriguing.


While more of a visual artist than a photographer, Leon Ferrari, made use of images to criticize the Roman Catholic church in Argentina as well as the Americans continual use of force. They hung his most famous piece, Western Christian Civilization, which is a Christ figure, crucified on a jet fighter, in the altar place of an old church. Controversial indeed.

There were activities in the evening, like slideshow screenings and prize givings. So there was little time to rest.

Recontres D'arles is similar to the Edinburgh Festival in that it has an alternative festival called Voies Off which I think is the image equivalent of the Fringe in Edinburgh. A lot of Voies Off happened in the African quarter of Arles and evening screenings there were often accompanied by music and food.

This was truly a great slice of photography. It was inspiring in the best work, intriguing in the challenging work and of course sleep inducing in the boring work. I do want to come back again.

And I was very fortunate that my friend Anna, recommended this boat on the canal to stay on. It is owned by a lovely Italian couple, Olga and Michele and is a short walk from the city centre. But in the summer heat, being on a canal really helps. However, one has to take shelter inside about 7pm because the mosquitoes come out in force at that time. Still, I would definitely stay here again.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Arles- Inspiration from books

Not only are there exhibitions in Arles, but there are many books as well. There is a book competition and in a hall there are four hundred books on the short list. Here are some that caught my eye.


On Borrowed Time by Henrik Malmsstrom

Black Passport by Stanley Greene

Flow and Fusion by Ken Kitano

Daughters by Margaret M. de Lange

 Francesa Woodman by Francesca Woodman

So much to see, so little brain to store it all away.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A sea of images in Arles

There are so many exhibitions and great images in Arles. But here are a few of the most inspiring for me.

Candy Darling on her deathbed by Peter Hujar

An image from a work called 'MAD' by Gabriel Valansi

Roast in Mendiolaza by Marcos Lopez

Musicians Portraits by Claude Gassian

From the work 'Half Life' by Michael Ackerman

An installation by Christian Boltanski

More to come...

Saturday, July 3, 2010

St Petersburg to Arles via Moscow, Berlin and Paris

After spending five days on the Trans Siberian Rail, other trips do not seem so daunting. But honestly, the Trans Siberian is about chilling with different people for five days on the train. Making my way to Arles took 4 days, three different trains, a night in Moscow, 12 hours in Berlin and another night in Paris. When I got to Moscow, I found that my hotel was way north of the centre of town. I got to the right metro station, Vladykino, and then got lost. In three months, this is the most lost I ever got, but fortunately I found a taxi who took me to the hotel for rubles. The next morning I decided not to take the chance, I booked a taxi to take me to the train station.

The train from Moscow to Paris was very close to empty. I do not think that many people know of this train. So I had a three bunk cabin all to myself, but even then it was pretty small. The unexpected surprise is that there was a twelve hour stop over in Berlin. I took the opportunity to book some train tickets for Arles to Rome, change my traveler's cheques to euros and buy medication for hay fever. That is what I love about Germany, they are efficient! I made friends with a Russian girl, Ann, from Smolensk, on her way to Paris for a summer attachment. She had never been out of Russia before and was nervous about finding her way around. It turned out that I became a tour guide for the first few hours in Berlin. I took to Brandenburgh Tor and then the radio tower and then to Alexander Platz. After a hamburger lunch, I had to return to the train station to do my stuff although Ann seemed a bit nervous. I was happy to see her at the train station later that night before it was time for us to continue our journey to Paris.

And Paris. It is one of those cities that I have visited several times for a few days at a time, and so I have only seen parts of it. It is such a large city. I booked a relatively cheap hotel near the Bastille. The web site said that the showers were shared so it is more like a hostel. That did not bother me, but the summer heat was a killer. And my room faced the main street, with traffic and loud Parisians walking by. I sleep well most of the time, but this was as hard as it gets for me to sleep.

The next day, it was a relatively short train ride to Arles where my landlord, Michel, picked me up. A friend, Anna, had recommended this bed and breakfast place on a boat in Arles. I did not really know what to expect, but I found a lovely little boat on a canal. Olga and Michel are an old Italian couple living here because the air is much better than in Italy, or that is what they say. Right now there is a group of Italian photographers renting other rooms as well on the boat. I have already spent a day walking around in Arles and visiting the exhibitions. It looks like it is going to be a lot of fun, but I will save that for the next post.

I will still have some overnight trains before I finish this journey, but I think there will any more long continuous days of journey. Coming to Europe, there are more options, but it is not necessarily easier, and it is definitely more expensive than the first half of my journey in Asia. C'est la vie!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

St Petersbug in Black and White

St Petersburg - Unending days

After the run down cities of Siberia, and business like Moscow, I was not expecting very much from St. Petersburg. All I had in mind is that the Hermitage has one of world's greatest art collections.

My hotel, which I booked through a company called Real Russia, was too far from any metro for me to walk from. At least that is what I thought from the maps. As I left today, I walked to a metro station north of the hotel. But on arrival, not knowing better, I took a taxi to the hotel. I was a bit disgruntled as I thought I was stuck out in nowhere. But when I got to the hotel, Happy Pushkin, I was very happy. The hotel was a boutique hotel based in an old apartment. It was done up to look baroque. Very cool. It is the prettiest hotel I have stayed in so far. And when I looked at a map which I purchased at the train station, I found out that I was within walking distance of most of the major attractions including the Hermitage.

So for three days, I walked through St Petersburg, and it turned out to be such a nice city to walk through. A lot of the buildings had classical facades with beautiful ornamentation like in other old European cities. There is a huge river running through the city, the Neva, and there are several canals as well running through the city. Reminding me of Venice and Amsterdam.

The first thing that struck me was that there seemes to be a lot of 24 hours shops. And this struck me as weird in a communist country. But then as I moved around the city, and got stuck in the rain and saw the unending nights, I realised why there are so many 24 hours shops. It was only in reading up about St. Petersburg that I realised that it was very far up north and in summer they have white nights. But my sleep time went a bit screwy as I was out in the streets trying to figure out what it would be like around midnight. I was tired and asleep in the hotel in the first night in St. Petersburg. The next two nights it was like eternal twilight, because it was raining. It was more like grey nights than white nights. But on the last night before I left, it was a white night. You cannot see the sun, but the sky was lit up for sure. Really surreal.

The river Neva, St Petersburg, 23.30

One of the highlights of St Petersburg is the Church of the Saviour on the Blood. A church that was built on the spot where the Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. It is more a memorial church than a normal working one. But there are scenes from the life of Jesus on the inside of the church and scenes of life of the Tsar on the outside. It is more of a museum now because of the beautiful mosaic bible scenes in the church.

I also went to the Hermitage which is one of the world's largest fine art museums housed in an old palace. The splendor of the palace and the collection was amazing. I really enjoyed what I saw. There was a Picasso exhibition from Paris at the same time. I rented the audio guide and had a great time. Unfortunately, time was not on my side and I only visited about half the rooms. I guess that I will have to visit St Petersburg again!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


My last visit to Moscow was short. I remember poverty, shops with almost nothing on their shelves. The soldiers clothes were worn. I think that things look better now. I do not think that people are trendy in Moscow, a lot of the clothing seems dated. But the clothes are clean and neat. There are up market shops and at least some rich Moscovites are dressing it up.

The thing is that Moscow is not going to win any awards for charm. A lot of it was built to be imposing both pre communist in the Imperialistic era, during the communist era, things were built big. There is a sense of solidity here, but little sense of style. The most characteristic Russian motif is the domes of the Russian orthodox Church. But in Moscow, a good part of the time you will be walking pas solid, large buildings that have an air of decay around them. Most of the buildings were built in a age past, and except for a building like the Gum, which has been renovated by the super rich for the super rich, and they show it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the Moscovites, although outwardly having the appearance of being more market driven, actually still have a communist mentality of doing as little as possible. In a kebab shop, they refused to sell me half a roast spring chicken with salad because the salad was for the wrapped kebab. I had to let go of the spring chicken and get the wrap. In my hotel, there is no kettle for hot water, you get it from a common dispenser in the corridor. And for laundry, you take your dirty clothes to the office on the 26 floor, pay first and collect the laundry from the laundry office the next day. I get the feeling that people are not thinking of service for the guest, but how to make their lives easier.

What helped a lot on this visit to Moscow was having a friend in the city. Irina, who was on the Anders Peterson course with me a few years back works here. On the first day, she took me for a Russian brunch at this place called the Ginza Project. It was a quaint looking house, decorated to look like an old Russian house. The food was good too. Then she told me that the Moscow Photo Biennale was on. I was in luck as she took be to a joint exhibition of Paolo Roversi and Peter Lindbergh, two of my fav photographers! Roversi's work was from his book Studio and Lindbergh's work was based on his fashion work themed 'Invasion'. I had seen this work in a Stern portfolio before. But see the prints was a real treat. Tonight, Irina treated me to a sumptuous meal at the Pushkin restaurant. It was the best meal I had in Moscow. For starters I had Russian salad, a salad with different types of pate made from duck, mushrooms and lamb. For the main course I had roast lamb with cherry sauce. Yummy!  I should be cultured and say that in spite of its uninviting air, Moscow is worth coming back for its wonderful Museum. However, I would say that it is worth coming back for a meal at the Pushkin Restaurant!! I promised to buy Irina a chili crab dinner if she visits Singapore.

I visited the Red Square which is imposing. I think my first visit there, I only went to the Gum which was empty at the time. This time I visited St Basil's church, with its iconic domes. It was an interesting experience, going to a Christian church, but with a completely different lineage from the Roman Catholic/protestant one. I know that there are some doctrinal differences but I cannot remember what. Still, iconography was very graphic. A lot of the work was very illustrative of the bible stories and decorative at the same time. I had a great time taking pictures of paintings and wall motifs. I also went back to the Gum, which although full of international brand shops, had lost much of any character. This worldwide presence of Aussino, Apple, Armani etc brings a certain instant level of recognizable affluence to international cities, but also robs cities of their individuality.

What was a lot of fun was spending time, on just one metro ticket, looking at the artwork in the Moscow metro. A lot of the work have the same theme of Russians fighting their wars, growing crops, being strong and healthy. A lot of the Moscow metro was apparently built on volunteer labour, how about that? Although in the modern era we are aware of the political propaganda of the communist era, there is a certain charm to the images of strength, nation and family that the images portray. I know it is propaganda, but they are not bad ideals to strive for. Who does not want security, a happy family and health? I have put the pictures from the Metro in a slideshow of its own.

Today, I went to the Pushkin museum of fine art. There are like four wings and I went to the main museum which houses the classical art collection. There is some fine work there which unfortunately gets repetitive after a while. How many variations of the annunciation and nativity scenes can one take? Or sensual bacchanalian scenes hinting at the sexuality of the painters who cannot paint explicit porn. I got a bit of museum fatigue from this museum.

However, I also went to the Gallery of European & American Art of the 19th-20th Centuries. What happened is that the communist took over the collections of a couple of rich art loving merchants. This must have pained those guys dearly. But I must admit they had great taste. There are wonderful pieces of work by Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Picasso and others. I rented the audio guide which really kept me going. I hear that there are more works at the Hermitage in St Petersburgh. I am looking forward to that.

So Moscow as a city does not rate that highly, but there are definitely things worth seeing here. But it is an expensive city. This does not sit well with me because it is expensive because certain services exist. It is not because these services are excellent.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Quote from Paolo Roversi

My studio is a rectangular room with a high ceiling, old wooden parquet flooring, and a large window facing north. It is like a tiny theatre with an empty stage, a space to be filled, a time yet to be invented, a proscenium where everything is possible, no trick disallowed, where neither seasons, nor days, not hours exist. Here all temporal boundaries dividing live and imitation, reality and fiction, dissolve. Like any art worthy of the name, the most brazen lie can evolve into surprising and seductive truth. The furnishings are modest: two stools, a carport, some chairs, two or three lights, and an old blanket, which is my favorite backdrop. It can be a wall, a road, a field, sky, night, fear, wind… a screen for dreams. The studio is not only in this room; it is anywhere I put my camera on my tripod and my tripod on the ground, liberating my heart and mind. The studio is far more than a workplace or a tool of my trade. It is above all a state of being and feeling. The studio is everywhere. It is the corner of my mind. I have a very mystic and spiritual approach to photography, which I can't explain, and I don't need to. I like to keep things unrevealed, I like sometimes to lose myself into the indefinite. That often happens to me along the path of beauty, without every truly understanding where to proceed, and the further I manage to see, the deeper the mystery becomes. Photography goes beyond the limits of reality and illusion. It brushes up against another life, another dimension, revealing not only what is there but was is no there. Every photograph is an encounter, an intimate, reciprocal confession. I like long exposures to allow the should all the time it needs to rise to the surface, and to let chance have its way. Always, photographs surprise me; they never turn out quite the way I imagine they might. Every photograph enters the world as a sign of hope. It is late, very late. Everyone has left, and a strange silence has descended. I wander aimlessly around the deserted studio trying to bring some order to ideas and objects, but the natural and permanent chaos exerts its power. I put on my jacket, turn out the light, and close the door. But where does the light go? Silence… Darkness is the light's silence.

Paolo Roversi