The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert Galleries, London, SW1 & W1: Bridget Riley - Works 1960 – 1966, 23 May – 13 July

Bridget Riley’s meticulously crafted monochrome canvasses were something of a sensation in the 1960s. This exhibition - held in both of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert’s London spaces - will be the first ever solely dedicated to Riley’s black and white paintings. On their notoriously “optical” and “trompe l’oeil” qualities, Riley wrote in 1965: “The basis of my paintings is this: that in each of them a particular situation is stated…I have never made any use of scientific theory or scientific data, though I am well aware that the contemporary psyche can manifest startling parallels on the frontier between the arts and the sciences.” Whether you call her work painterly or mathematical, it’s undeniably as engrossing as it was 40 years ago.

Literature

Asia House, London, W1: Festival of Asian Literature, until 31 May

Asia House, the UK’s “leading pan-Asian organisation”, is currently hosting a two week festival that celebrates the writing of the Asian continent. Founded in 2006, the festival can proudly call itself “the only festival in the UK that is dedicated to writing about Asia and Asians, from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific.” This year sees another engaging program of events, debates and discussions that will touch on themes such as Women, Power and Politics, The Arab Spring and Asia, The Geo-Politics of Oil, Women and Water in Pakistan, Persianate Poetry and more. There will also be family friendly events like cooking classes and yoga.

Exhibitions

London Transport Museum, London, WC2: Mind the Map: Inspiring art, design and cartography, until 28 October

Opening today, this intriguing new exhibition at the London Transport Museum probes the “inspiration, history and creativity behind London transport maps”. Promising to be the largest of its kind, and drawing extensively from the museum's impressive archive, expect to see gorgeous cartographic works that map not only a city, but evolving perceptions of design, functionality, journeys and identity. The display with include “geographical, diagrammatic and decorative” transport maps, as well as – of course – an exploration of the impact of the iconic London Tube map on “cartography, art and the public imagination”.

Festivals

Weavers Field and Brick Lane, London, EC2: Boishakhi Mela, 19 and 20 May

This explosive celebration - now in its 14th year - rings in the Bengali New Year with a two-day bash that sees the self-titled “Banglatown” district of Bethnal Green transform into the consummate outdoor festival, with a line-up of acclaimed international performers, parades, music, dance, rickshaw rides and culinary delights. Having worked closely with the Tower Hamlets Council, Boishakhi Mela aims to showcase the best in Bangladeshi talent, arts, heritage and culture. While the primary fanfare will be taking place in Weavers Field, the nearby Brick Lane will also soak up the atmosphere, with most restaurants opening up for alfresco dining and live music.

Various UK Venues: Museums at Night, 18 – 20 May

Museums at Night is Culture24's annual after-hours celebration when the UK’s museums, galleries, and historic properties promise “to come alive when darkness falls”. With hundreds of evening events across the country, this will be an almost inescapable three days of glorious late-night madness and cultural curiosities. Amongst the many highlights: Experimental culinary craftsmen Bompas and Parr stage a jelly installation onboard the SS Great Britain in Bristol, Terry O’Neil discusses his photography at the Ragged School Museum in London, torch-lit tours through the Museum Discovery Centre in Leeds, sleepovers and midnight feasts in Dover Castle, the Sunderland Winter Gardens and the British Museum, and a late night-soiree a the Somerset House. What bliss!

Bridget Riley in 1963. (Photo: Romano Cagnoni)
JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses