Thursday, 12 July 2012

Best of British

Best of British
St John Bread and Wine
When: July 2012
I planned this day with one idea in mind, "Think like a tourist." although my day did not turn out in quite that fashion I had planned it was still a lot more fun than my usual unplanned wanderings.  Sometimes it is easy to take living in Central London for granted.  My original plan was to start the day with a filling breakfast at St John Bread and Wine followed up with an exhibition, then a nice early dinner with a good film to round off the day.

The first key difference between think like a tourist and act like a tourist is getting up.  I had planned to get up for breakfast, but after a hard week at work (or in my case half a week of work and half a week of PS3) it's hard to get up, get ready and go get some breakfast on the other side of town.  Also the inertia of there always being another time to do this starts to kick in.  Anyway, by the time we made it out the house and on to the tube it was approaching lunch time.  Liverpool St is around 25 minutes away on the tube and Spitalfields is only a few minutes walk from the station.  Taking the scenic route along Commerical Street we arrived at St John to take a look and see if we felt like lunch and also like spending good money on lunch.  After some debate, a quick circle of the market and some persuasion on my part we ended up back at St John Bread and Wine and settled in for lunch.

The restaurant is sparsely decorated despite its smart white and black exterior, there are simple tables and chairs inside with wait staff decked out in all white chef-style uniforms.  We were seated and quickly given menus, a jug of fresh water and a plate with some very tasty slices of brown and white sourdough bread.   The crowd inside was pretty mixed, not fitting a particular scene in terms of age or dress but erring on the casual.  I washed down my food with some Meantime lager, our other drink was apple juice.  The food menu changes daily depending on what is available and today we both went with rabbit after I was talked out of a 40 minute wait for the pigeon.  There was a short wait for our food, a full plate with two large pieces of rabbit each, some nice greenery, baby carrots and some aioli on the side.  The food was really good with everything complementing the rabbit.  The only negative was having to watch out for bones in the rabbit but the food was delicious and filling leaving us with the debate of dessert.

The debate was short lived, though in hindsight we should have had one dessert to share rather than one each.  We had the brioche with apricots and the chocolate cake with crème fraiche ice cream.  The brioche was fresh and buttery to the point of almost tasting like a good croissant, they contrasted well with the sweet, yet sharp apricots in their juices and a little bite of the crème fraiche ice cream to cleanse the palate and set off on another round.  The chocolate cake was almost brownie like and tasted like it was made with good cocoa or chocolate and again the ice cream acted as a cleansing respite from the intensity of the chocolate.  At this point we were stuffed to bursting after enjoying some great food.  Despite the quality of the food with the bill at just over £50 it was not a cheap lunch and perhaps would have made a much better dinner.  Anyway, St John certainly lived up to its Internet hype and is somewhere I'd like to dine at again.

Damien Hirst

We then began a brief and much needed walk through the city of London and across Southwark Bridge towards Tate Modern.  We had mixed expectations of this exhibition, which I have to admit I was keen to see after reading some of the reviews.  Not having booked we joined a fairly long queue for tickets as there were only two people issuing tickets for a fairly significant queue.  We made our way upstairs to the exhibition which thankfully was not too crowded.  The exhibition is divided up into 14 rooms displaying Hirst’s work largely in chronological order.

The first room had a rather striking picture of a young Hirst posing with a head from the anatomy department of Leeds University, there were also some pots and pans stuck on one wall and some rather attractively placed coloured boxes in the corner of another wall.  In the next two rooms there were some spot paintings and medicine cabinets.  We also had some   animals suspended in formaldehyde, in this case the famous shark, sheep, fish and sheep's head.  This room was a bit like a larger than life museum exhibition and was quite fascinating to look at.  You can spend time out staring the shark, watching the fluffiness of the sheep's coat and the tranquil but dead eyes of the fish suspended in time and space and strapped to the walls.  My highlight of this room was A Thousand Years, a large glass cabinet with a fresh cows head in it, the cabinet is used to breed flies and you can see them flying around, lying dead or resting.  Somehow it all feels very human when you talk about it, the fear and fascination of the bloody head stuck on the floor and the distance the glass casing gives is quite un-nerving.

Room 4 looks like the kind of thing you might see in a museum on 20th Century life 100 years from now.  The large glass case with the empty office chair and desk.  There is also a cabinet in the style of the pill boxes but filled with various cigarette butts.  Do we see ourselves like this now, or is this how our great grandchildren will see us, in a museum display case much like we now see life in the mines or on a traditional farm today?  Room 5 was overshadowed by Room 6.  In this room butterflies are living their lives in a controlled environment, in the room before they are stuck onto painted canvas to make works of art.  Who is the artist running our lives, it doesn't feel like God/a god.

Room 7 was a giant pharmacy which made me feel quite uncomfortable, the giant floor to ceiling cases filled with medicine and the lack of humanity made the experience of walking around the room in silence with strangers quite unusual.  Being an observer rather than a participant in what is otherwise a familiar domain makes it take on a whole new perspective.  After taking our pills in Room 7, Room 8 gave us the hypnotic Spin Paintings.  Room 9 I found much more fascinating, walking between the halves of a cow and its calf suspended in time and the huge white ashtray filled with the stench of cigarette butts was truly an unpleasant sensation.

Moving into Room 10 we entered a giant supply cupboard for a hospital with wall to wall cabinets of beautifully organised, spotless pieces of metallic medical equipment.  We were being prepared for death and now that science has failed to preserve us we head back to Religion and Room 11.  In this room there are beautiful stained glass style butterfly paintings and a marble statue of an angel, however one that is distinctly and fatally real with its organs and insides on show.  In Room 12 maybe we head one step closer to hell with a 70s shag rug made of flies and a beautiful sheep in a case to keep the neighbours talking.

Room 13 offers its own vile conclusion as we are offered a selection of recent Hirst works which feel like horrible blinged our parodies of his previous work.  All the mysticism of life, death and beliefs have been replaced with cold, hard cash.  Items sold for auction and private consumption rather than placed in a gallery for all and everyone to see.  What's left after you buy into consumerism, maybe just death or perhaps an inner peace from selling all your things and a more simple life?  The serene beauty of the dove frozen in time feels like the right way to end this journey.

This exhibition throws up lots of questions on the nature of art.  For me the exhibition was like walking through a museum depicting the last 50 years of life on Earth in abstract.  The emotions gained from the experience though are quite different from walking through the National History Museum, looking at the animals in London Zoo, or wandering through a prefab house at the Science Museum. 
In all we had a day that was much more than the sum of its parts, things we could feel, taste and experience but that felt familiar and close to home and try as we might to break our patterns and do, feel or behave in a different way we ended up exactly the same.

St. John Bread and Wine 94-96 Commercial Street, London, E1 6LZ.
Tate Modern  Bankside,  London, SE1 9TGDamien Hirst till 9th September 2012

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