Friday, 27 December 2013


From the end of November till the end of the year, the nights are cold and long. It is the beginning of the Christmas season and when you walk down the streets in the centre of London you can see that the shop windows have been exquisitely decorated with human-like mannequins. 

The settings themselves are works of art, the make-up daring and adventurous, and you can see a story behind each human-like doll.

For example, the decoration of the shop windows of a famous clothes department store in Regent Street is inspired in the icy beauty of the divas of the 1930s, with a hint at the African war masks in their make up. Their hairstyle, a Scandinavian version of Queen Nefertiti’s, is also worth noticing. 

But if you go beyond the aura of beauty and glamour that surrounds their perfect bodies, you can perceive the deep sadness in their eyes, and that is disturbing.

If you walk on and reach Kensington, the dystopian replicants created by Ridley Scott in 1981 will look at you from the windows of another famous department store.

 Here a combination of moving lights contributes to create a futuristic atmosphere in which the appearance of the mannequins changes dramatically every few seconds, and you can almost see Joanna Cassidy dancing with the snake. 

Their look is not sad anymore, but dreamy, as if induced by some kind of chemical drug.

Blade Runner has always been one of my favourite films and I have always had the feeling that the night of 2019 LA was as cold and damp as London’s December nights.

Photo: Lorenzo Hernandez                              

Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Marenka Gabeler is a Dutch artist who has a special connection with the topic of memory and its loss. Today she invites us into her studio and tells us the secrets of her art.

The first thing you notice when you arrive is the luminosity of the space and also the noisy activity of the building site next to the studio. Marenka opens the door with a big smile on her face. She’s normally a person who is exquisite in the way she dresses, but today she’s wearing blue work overalls covered in white paint, which clashes amusingly with her pregnant figure.

She invites us for a delicious cup of camomile and spicy apple tea to help us recover from the December cold and starts showing us her latest work. She directs our attention to the wall at the bottom of the room, which shows a series of small portraits of little children who look at you with open eyes. They look a bit like cartoon characters, but each one has a personality of their own. When we ask her about their identity, she says they are Barnardo’s children. 

Barnardo's is a British charity founded in 1866 to care for vulnerable children and young people. Its founder, Dr Thomas John Barnardo, opened a school in the East End of London to care for and educate children of the area. Short afterwards, he founded a boys' orphanage and later opened a girls' home. By the time of his death in 1905, Barnardo's institutions cared for over 8,500 children in 96 locations.

Eighty of these portraits were exhibited at Lloyd’s club until 5th December 2013. The pictures were displayed around a fireplace, an object that has special significance in Marenka’s work, as we’ll see later on.

I went to Barnardo’s archive to do some research and found the images of the children. There were thousands of faces looking at you from the past, and you didn’t know their stories. 

We also noticed that the portraits on the wall had been painted on pieces of board.

I like to experiment with different techniques; I started using canvas and then moved on to plywood covered in two or three layers of plaster, which is then sanded down, so the effect is smooth. I use different strategies because I want to show how the paintbrush can maybe symbolise what happens to memory when you try to access it, how we remember, how we forget. 

But now her bigger project is about her grandmother, who lives with Alzheimer’s. At this moment she is working on a series of paintings inspired by an old photo that shows her mother, her aunt, her uncle, her grandmother, and her grandfather. You can see this photo at Marenka’s blog:

The last time I visited my grandmother, which was last summer, we did different activities like sewing, cooking, playing games, and then we looked at a photo album to reminisce. But I think that, for her, looking at photos is not a good thing, as she does not recognise herself or know who is in the photo. And when she came to one photo in particular she said ‘Who’s this beautiful lady?’ That was the first time she did not recognize herself. It was another step into deterioration. It’s so sad, but she did not get depressed or anything, I just said ‘But grandma, it’s you, you were so beautiful...’ and she said ‘Oh, it’s just me’ and that was it. She is happy when my sister and I are there because we are her grandchildren and this makes her feel secure.

My mother has taken some photos from the album to make copies and I think that the gaps in the album represent what happens in your mind when you have Alzheimer’s. Then I got to this photo. As you can see, the album has onion skin paper sheets to protect the photos and with the time the sheets have become wrinkled, the pattern is similar to a spider web, but more chaotic. So, if you cover the photo with the sheet, you see the image through a veil, which may very well symbolise the confusion experimented by the person with Alzheimer’s.

Marenka shows us another wall covered with small pictures that represent the fragments of this photo. They are displayed with no order. One of the paintings represents a face, another one a hand, another part of a jumper...

I decided to cut the photograph into pieces and paint the different parts, as if it were a puzzle. I didn’t want to copy it exactly as it was, but much more simplified and childlike, reducing the detail, mimicking how the memory works, remembering only the generalities, and then sometimes going into detail. Also, as you can see, I didn’t use the fragmentation of the spider web in all of them. I started painting just the photos and then I thought that I could use it. Then I started experimenting and, for example, in this piece, which is a hand, you can also see a landscape or in this other one, which is part of the jumper of the boy, you can see the sea, the horizon or the sand. And the latest ones are almost like sketches. So, as you can see, slowly, a lot of things are happening in my painting.

Also the way I displayed the different pictures on the wall has changed. At first they formed a straight line, like a cinema screen and then, this morning, I thought I could show it like a puzzle, so I rearranged them.

At the bottom on the right, there is a piece that is just red paint. We ask her if it has symbolic value.

I am not sure yet. I would like to research the role colour plays in dementia, because they suffer blackouts, but there are also periods of aggression.

Maybe I need to paint the same topic over and over again, because one of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on my grandmother is that she tends to tell the same story all the time; she asks a question, you answer it, and she asks the same question again, you answer it, and it goes on and on and on and it’s really difficult. She does not realize she’s asking the same question, which is ok, but for us it’s really tiring: you try to give her a slightly different answer each time, or you try to divert the conversation, but she keeps on repeating the same question. So this is why I think I should repeat the same image instead of doing different images. For example, I paint the same face, but I paint it differently, because this is how the memory works: you remember, but you remember it slightly differently every time.

I started working with memory in 2011, coinciding with my grandmother’s illness and the passing away of my other grandmother, who I was really closed to. She was Indonesian, and I started to remember the stories she had told me from when she was little in Indonesia, and I made a book.

But this relationship with memory had already started a few years before, when she did a project about masks for her MA at Royal College:

I was interested in facial identity and I decided to make a cast of my face in plaster and make a mask. I just left holes for the eyes and the mouth and I wore it for two weeks to experiment what it was like not to have any facial expression, how it affects communication and how it makes you feel. I kept a diary. From then I started painting the experiences of the performance. And the final piece for the degree show was paintings inspired on masters like Velazquez, Goya, Vermeer, but transforming them somehow and I placed them surrounding a fireplace. That was the first time I used the fireplace as a motif in my work. And I think using the fireplace linked to the memory because it is the place where we reminisce. I think it’s Bachelard who writes about the person who sits in front of the fire and the memories come out and come back, like a star shape. Also, it’s common to find photographs of your family on the mantelpiece, which are also memories of the past.

At the moment I am also participating in a group exhibition at the Cello Factory. I am showing one of the pictures of the masks. As for my next exhibition in Amsterdam at the beginning of January, which is a solo exhibition, I am going to show the installation of the eighty faces, but it’s quite a big space, so I am thinking of showing some of the paintings I am working on now.

I always feel curious about the working routine of writers and artists, how they manage to shape their inspiration, so I cannot help asking Marenka about it.

I don’t have a very strict working routine, I have to work to earn money, then I am doing the RYCT course with Pam Schweitzer, and of course, as I am pregnant, sometimes I am just too tired. I am also decorating the house... so I come here when I can, basically. I prefer working in the morning, when I feel fresh. When I was younger, I used to paint all night and sleep during the day, but now I am more traditional.

Now that I am pregnant, I feel more relaxed. I used to be anxious, but now I accept t inspiration as it comes. I don’t know if it has something to do with the baby, but now I know that the baby is coming and I only have a few months left to paint. Then I will have to look after the baby and later on, maybe in four or five months, I will be able to paint again. Maybe I’ve become less ambitious.

Some people have asked me if I have painted about my pregnancy. Actually, in the group exhibition I am taking part in at the moment, which shows the work of women artists, there is a beautiful painting of a belly containing another person. But no, I haven’t. At the moment, even if, of course, I am thinking about my baby, I am focused on my grandmother and the topic of memories.

Marenka is intelligent and beautiful but, above other things, has a magic aura about her that makes people relaxed and happy. I notice this every Monday when we go to the RYCT training. Her art will probably be one of the most interesting outcomes of this project.

Photos: Lorenzohernandez                    

Saturday, 7 December 2013


A couple of Sundays ago, Lorenzo and I were walking along the north bank of the river Thames from Battersea Park towards Covent Garden, where we were going to meet our daughter Carla.  It was dark already, which is not amazing at this time of the year. Suddenly, we came across the Tate Gallery and decided to go in. In London it’s not unusual to find galleries and museums open till late, so we decided to go in. The Tate has just opened its door to a newly refurbished building and we were looking forward to seeing it. At that time of the evening, all was quiet and we had the Tate all to ourselves. We could see works by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud in perfect solitude, as if they were hanged in our own living room. There was also a very interesting exhibition of the work of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama. All was quiet and peaceful, nobody disturbed us.

We were thinking about leaving when, all of a sudden, a door opened and a group of people appeared. They obviously didn’t expect to find us there. “How did you get in? The museum has been closed for half an hour”. Apparently nobody had noticed how we had entered through the main gate. They were really worried because we could have been locked for the whole night. Imagine, like in the famous film. A very nice lady accompanied us to one of the side exits and we talked about the renovation. At the end, we had our own little private visit.

Some days later, we decided to go to another museum after dark. This time it was the Victoria and Albert Museum, which celebrates free events on the last Friday of the month. This was the last of the year, as the next one will take place on January 31st and we didn’t want to miss it. This evening the topic was Rules of Adornment and there were installations and performances, workshops, conferences, films, catwalk shows and DJs, all revolving around the topic of body decoration and identity. 

When we arrived, we were greeted by the sounds of DJs Sam Peet and Tim Parker. The museum didn’t look as the one we had visited with Darren one week before. It looked like a big party, full of trendy people holding wine glasses and talking among the statues next to the great hall, mixing with a group of waif models that paraded Wha Lim collection, an emerald green dystopic version of  Renaissance. Lorenzo took out his camera and started to shoot. There were dozens of people taking pictures at that very moment, but the models decided to pose for him. 

Next, we moved to the Sackler centre, where the ilustration, graphic design and image making collective Brothers of the Stripe were holding a workshop.

The artists were decorating the glass surface of the door and the walls of the room with different shapes of letters and illustrations in black and light blue. 

In the middle of the room there was a long table where you could choose a poster with a character design by the artists (a thug, a pin-up, an octopus...) and tatoo it using stamps of different shapes. It was really good fun, as you can see in the photos.

Then we left the room and spent some time listening to the best music of the night, played by DJ, sound artist and composer Gyorgy Ono, while having fun in one of the spinning chairs you could find at the hall of the Sackler centre. Here you can see me falling back while holding the octopus I had just decorated.

Ono’s music was hypnotic and we spent some very relaxed and pleasant minutes looking at the people around, most of them in their early twenties but dressed exactly with the same clothes my friends and I used to wear in the early 1980s: black trousers too short to reach the ankles, shoes with thick soles, and long flowery shirts we never tucked in. It was like a blast from the past.

Then it was time to have a break and we moved to the museum cafeteria, where we enjoyed a wonderful piano concerto while sipping a drink. The pianist had the most amazing hands, elongated and curved from the wrist, as if they were a product of millions of years of evolution: hands perfectly adapted to playing at the speed of a cheetah.

We were about to leave the museum when Lorenzo had to take his camera out again. A group of cat women with their faces covered by masks of jewellery was coming down the stairs. 

The sinuous movement of the models bewitched the observer. 

But the best photo came at the end, when they retired to the adjacent room and sat for a moment to rest. Here you can see the vulnerability behind the mask.

Two nights at the museum, two new experiences.

Photo: Lorenzo Hernandez                                      

Saturday, 30 November 2013


One of the most amazing persons I have ever met was a Japanese gentleman called Nozomu Sekine. We were both studying French at the EOI Malaga when we met. Every year he spent eleven months in Spain, where he studied and travelled. During the other month, usually in spring, he travelled to Japan to visit his family. We used to sit together in class, revise our homework and soon we became friends. I introduced him to Carla and Lorenzo, who made his portrait. When his wife visited him in Malaga, they came over for dinner. It was one of the most enriching multicultural experiences I have ever had, guided by our friends Luis and Noriko.

One day, I asked Nozomu, who was approaching the age of eighty: Don’t you miss your family in Japan, your wife, your children and grandchildren? He said: Yes, but I have so much to learn

Darren Gormley is not thirty yet, but he has the same kind of spirit and I can perfectly imagine him saying the same in fifty years’ time. He works visiting people with dementia at their homes, on a one-to-one basis. His approach is personal: he does something different with every person; sometimes it’s a weekly game of backgammon or scrabble, others he just helps them with their daily tasks. Often, he accompanies them to museums, concerts and other types of events. And mainly he listens and listens and listens, because the people he visits are wise and have a lot to share. When I started working on this, six years ago, I had no experience of culture. Now I am a completely different person. Thanks to the people I visit (professors, musicians...) I started visiting museums, going to exhibitions... Now if people say that I have interests, it’s because of them.

He also writes a blog, Making Dementia Care Personal which is daring, brave and open. He writes about topics such as gender roles in the caring profession, dementia unfriendly communities, or the stigma of depression. He has also invited contributors such as Sally Knocker, who has written about dementia from the perspective of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons. When he started the blog last April, he did it on his own time, working in a sector that is not convinced about the idea, as if there was a contradiction between the profession and the public nature of a blog or social networks like Twitter. But he feels the opposite: a great percentage of the people who live with dementia stay at home and what happens in their lives remains unknown. What he’s doing is bringing the issues that arise in his daily work into the open and raising people’s awareness.
It was risky, but fortunately his effort has been recognized and Darren has been awarded two Older People Media Awards. When I heard my name, I felt actually sick. I never thought I was going to win. Then I was there, posing with the awards and the only thing I wanted to do was to go and show it to the people I am visiting. They were delighted and proud of Darren. They even wanted to have their photo taken with the awards. That was definitely the best moment.

Darren’s career choice was determined by the close connection he had with his grandparents when he was a kid. In that time, he used to take the bus to visit them and felt really grown up when travelling alone. When we took number eleven to go to the V & A museum, he told us that his favourite buses are those that replicate the old models with the open door at the back. From those trips he remembers that there was a conductor who sold the tickets and used to sing out loud all along the journeys.

Once we arrived at the museum, his favourite place in London, we walked around the sculpture gallery and then sat at the wonderful cafeteria, decorated with gorgeous stained glass windows and gigantic globe-like lamps. Here you can taste one of the best café latte in the city.

Darren took out his computer and showed as a video of him jumping off a plane with the purpose of raisin money to help people with dementia in Kensington and Chelsea. He’s also going to run for Alzheimer’s Scotland in next year’s Edinburgh Marathon. He has chosen this organization for the breakthrough work they are doing. There’s another Scottish connection: he did his MA on Dementia Studies in Sterling.

We finished the day at Battersea Park’s athletics track, where Lorenzo photographed him training with the shirt he’s going to wear at the marathon.

Talking to Darren is enriching and engaging. He’s a great listener and he has a lot to say.

Which brings me back to my dearest friend Nozomu. A few weeks ago, when I stated the blog, we sent him a link to Tokyo, where he moved back right before his eightieth birthday. Some days later we received the saddest news from his daughter Makiko: he passed away this May. She told us that he often wore the scarf we gave him during his last winter. I still can’t believe it. In my mind Nozomu would live to one hundred. He still had so much to learn.

Photo: Lorenzo Hernandez                                                      

Monday, 18 November 2013


One of the really good things about the Reminiscence Group is that you have the opportunity to discover new things about London through the eyes of its dwellers. For example, last Monday Ted brought me a newspaper cutting of an article by Will Self. The famous writer talked about his lifelong obsession with the Thames, which had led him to walk on the foreshore of the river until he found himself immersed thigh-deep in the muddy water. What Ted suggested was not so extreme: there is a Thames path you can take along the river, from Monument to the Isle of Dogs on the northern shore and from Greenwich to London Bridge in the south.

Living so near Greenwich, we had already experienced the lively activity on the river. In fact, not so many weeks ago, Pam and I discovered a very ancient boat, one hundred years older than the Cutty Sark, anchored in front of the Royal Naval College. It was going to stay there for three days before being towed all the way to Australia. Also, when you walk along the river at night, you can see the lights of the boats that cross it and, on a sunny day, you can choose to travel to Central London by boat instead of taking the underground.
So taking a long walk along the river seemed like a good opportunity to see London from a new perspective, and this is what Lorenzo and I decided to do last Sunday, following Ted’s advice.

We opted to walk along the south bank from Greenwich to London Bridge. I must say that the experience was quite disappointing. We started following the riverbank, but soon were diverted inland and we stopped seeing the water. There were signals that read “Thames Path”, but they just took us along streets full of ugly buildings, and whenever we got to the river, the sights were pretty depressing. So, we decided to return to Greenwich and cross the underwater tunnel that leads to the Isle of Dogs.

This 70-metre foot tunnel was built in 1902 and is now being repaired, although you can still use it. It’s quite an experience, especially if you are a little bit claustrophobic, because you can’t avoid thinking that you are under the river. I used to cross this tunnel a lot when I lived in London twenty years ago, and it hasn’t changed so much. The only difference is that now we can use the original lifts, which were being repaired in 1992, so I had to go up and down the long spiral staircase every time I wanted to visit Greenwich market.

Once you get to the Isle of Dogs, you can see in front of you the Canary Wharf building, one of the landmarks of the Docklands area. If you turn towards the river in Island Gardens, the views are impressive: you can see the Royal Naval College and, to the left, the old power station with its four majestic chimneys. 

We decided to walk eastwards and reach the Thames Barriers. Here the path follows the river almost constantly and you can see old and newly renovated buildings with a view to the river. It’s a really pleasant walk where you can meet people with their dogs or riding their bikes. 

From time to time you can reach a concrete slipway full of pebbles and moss that leads to the muddy shore. Every time a boat goes past, the waves lap the concrete and you must be careful not to get your feet wet. 

As you walk, you can see new landmarks on the opposite bank, like the huge dome of the O2 Arena.

Eventually, the path took us back to the road and, to our surprise, we saw the Canary Wharf in front of us again.

We had not realized that the Thames meanders around the isle, so we had almost returned to the starting point. Then we realized that the Barriers might not be as near as we thought. Fortunately, there are nice pubs along the way where you can stop for a pint and have a rest.

We decided to go on and eventually we reached the futuristic-looking barriers.

The first time we learned about their existence was ten years ago, when London was bidding for the Olympics and we saw an advert in the underground that showed some swimmers posing as if they were about to jump from the barriers into the river. Since that moment, they stayed at the back of our minds.

These amazing works of engineering were built in the 1970s with the purpose of controlling the floods of the river. Jason, the caretaker of the university building in Woolwich, told Lorenzo that he used to swim from one barrier to the other when he was a kid, which is something he wouldn’t recommend now. Looking at the barriers you have the feeling of having been teleported in time and space; they would fit perfectly into the sets of Mad Max or Planet of the Apes.

Once you pass this part of the river, you can take the ferry that takes you to Woolwich, in the south bank. From there you can take the bus back to Greenwich.
The day was cold and grey but the light was perfect to enhance the beauty of the Thames.

Photos: Lorenzo Hernandez