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Exchanges at the Frontier goes to India

Just days before Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, Wellcome Collection travelled to India for our most far-flung event yet, to meet a man who has a rocket to put the Diwali fireworks to shame. Kicking off the fifth series of Exchanges at the Frontier in spectacular style, we journeyed to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, along with our partners from the BBC World Service. We were there to meet Professor Jitendra Nath Goswami of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), part of the Indian Space Research Organisation, in the run up to the launch of India’s first ever mission to Mars.

Professor Goswami is a leading planetary scientist and was the hero of India’s successful mission to the Moon in 2008, in which their probe Chadrayaan found evidence of water when NASA had said there was none. Now he is embarking on India’s most ambitious space adventure yet, sending the Mars Orbiter on a 300-day, 780-million-km journey to the Red Planet in search of signs of life. We wanted to find out more about the science behind the mission and the rationale for spending $50 million on space research in a country that has such profound poverty.

Ahmedabad is two cities in one – divided by a wide river, the old town is a rabbit warren of narrow streets (called ‘pols’) containing Jain temples, mosques and houses more than two centuries old decorated with intricately beautiful wooden carvings. Across the river the new town boasts an impressive skyline of high-rise buildings (including some designed by the renowned architect Le Corbusier) and most of the best restaurants (where you can enjoy an all-you-can-eat thali for under £2).

Exchanges at the Frontier goes to India
Exchanges at the Frontier goes to India
Exchanges at the Frontier goes to India
Exchanges at the Frontier goes to India

On the streets of Ahmedabad, we had to dodge a constant stream of auto-rickshaws, ancient city buses, temple elephants and camels pulling wooden carts laden with fruit, against a soundtrack of cacophonous car horns. But inside PRL – once we had made it past the high metal gates and armed security guards – we found an oasis of calm, a campus of concrete buildings among leafy trees, birds and peacocks.

Exchanges at the Frontier goes to India
Exchanges at the Frontier goes to India
Exchanges at the Frontier goes to India
Exchanges at the Frontier goes to India

Professor Goswami and his colleague Dr Bhushit Vaishnav gave us a warm welcome and pulled out all the stops to ensure a large and lively audience for the event. After a snack of samosas and Indian sweets on the lawn, the 250-strong audience of local schoolchildren, members of the public and PRL researchers packed the auditorium to hear Professor Goswami talk to the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt about the importance of the Mars mission for Indian’s scientific status and national pride. It was perhaps the liveliest audience we’ve ever seen for Exchanges at the Frontier, given to bursting into spontaneous applause and laughter, and eagerly asking questions of our speaker on topics ranging from the technical challenges of the mission to the likelihood of finding aliens on Mars. Given that the subject is of such significance and interest to Indian people, it felt entirely appropriate to be holding the event on home turf, where the garrulous enthusiasm for science and support for India’s ambitious space programme created a brilliant atmosphere in the room. During the event Goswami spoke not just about the scientific details of the mission, but about his own early experiences as a budding scientist. He reminisced about his first encounter with space – lying on the grass as a child in his home state of Assam, looking out for Sputnik as it passed overhead. It seems likely that for some of the young people in the audience, India’s Mars mission may prove to be a similarly inspirational first step in their own scientific careers.

You can listen to the programme on the BBC World Service website.

For information on upcoming events and to book, visit the Wellcome Collection website.

A Little History of King’s Cross

King's Cross
King’s Cross, London: the Great Dust-Heap, next to Battle Bridge and the Smallpox Hospital. Watercolour painting by E H Dixon, 1837

Dr Ben Campkin, Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory and Senior Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture, led a series of walking tours entitled “Crisis and Creativity in King’s Cross” over six days in September and October. In this article Muriel Bailly examines what it is in King’s Cross that’s changed in its history, and why.

King’s Cross is one of London’s busiest and most thriving areas with its 50 million commuters each year, but its fame goes far beyond the boundaries of the City. Thanks to the worldwide phenomenon Harry Potter, the only people that haven’t heard of King’s Cross – and of platform 9 ¾ – are the ones that are too young to have read the books yet. However, King’s Cross station had been playing a central part in London’s history far before J K Rowling’s success.

The modern site of King’s Cross stands only a few miles north-west of the Roman settlement of Londinium. Archaeological excavations carried out in the area suggest that this point served as a crossing of the Fleet River. The area is also traditionally recognised as the location of the legendary battle between Boudica, the warriors Queen of the Iceni, against the Roman invaders in AD 61. It is believed that Boudica’s remains rest under platform 9 at King’s Cross station. After her death, the crossing over the Fleet River was renamed Battle Bridge.

In the 18th century, the area of King’s Cross and St Pancras was popular with Londoners escaping the busy city to healthy ‘countryside’ – that is, Kentish Town, Highgate and Hampstead, which were retirement and commuter villages at the time.

The 19th century was undeniably a period of frenetic transformation for the area, which became heavily industrialised. The completion of the Regent’s Canal in 1920 ensured the connection between King’s Cross and other major industrial cities in northern England. The railway industry established itself in area by the mid-19th century, when the first temporary passenger station opened in 1850 north of the canal. This station remained in use until the inauguration of King’s Cross station in 1852. The Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway, was also completed at this time. The temporary station subsequently became part of a wholesale potato market. The railway development at King’s Cross in the mid-19th century was also associated with intense demolition campaigns, including the destruction of housing buildings, which contributed to the overcrowding of the area.

The mid-20th century was a turning point in the history of King’s Cross. The site’s status of ‘wasteland’ changed in response to the decline of the industries that used to flourish there. King’s Cross went from being a busy industrial zone to an under-used site. Such a shift in the land’s economy had a strong impact on the local community; many lost their work associated with the transport of freight activities and various buildings were abandoned, leaving the area in a dramatic state of decline. It is from this desolate landscape that idea of a ‘dodgy’ King’s Cross was born.

By the 1980s and 1990s, King’s Cross was often associated with working-class, and the issues of poverty, racism, drugs and prostitution. Mike Leigh’s 1988 movie High Hopes focuses on a working-class family living in King’s Cross, exploring the political and social classes of the area’s inhabitants.

King’s Cross devastated land became the soil for new generations to form their ideas and develop new industries. Many artists and designers, including Antony Gormley and Thomas Heatherwick – both leading figures of contemporary art – have established their studios in the King’s Cross area. I will allow myself a little digression here, as it is worth to mention that the Wellcome Trust has had the chance to work with both artists in the past. Thomas Heatherwick’s dramatic, 30m high Bleigiessen sculpture was commissioned by the Trust to be displayed in the new headquarters inaugurated at 215 Euston Road in 2004. Antony Gormley’s sculpture Feel is displayed at Wellcome Collection, although it has been recently boxed up for its own good for the duration of our development project.

But back to King’s Cross: if you have been wandering around the area lately you have probably noticed that, there too, there are some important works going on. King’s Cross Central is the area’s latest regeneration project that will result in the constructions of cultural venues, hotels and restaurants. It’s a trendy area to be in, and from the looks of things, the creativity in King’s Cross can only grow and blossom in the years to come.

Embark on our curious journey

As part of our curious journey, the Medicine Man gallery is closed until summer 2014. As the gallery space has been reduced, Wellcome Collection has decided to put its collection on a bus and to go and meet people in Camden. Muriel Bailly is taking you on the Curiosity Roadshow.

What do Wellcome Collection and Camden Lock market have in common?

An alternative crowd? A pronounced taste for the strange and unusual? Good food?

Well, yes, among other things, and this special relationship between Wellcome Collection and one of London’s most iconic venues has now been made material with our very own Routemaster bus!

As part of Wellcome Collection’s redevelopment project, we have decided to put part of the museum on wheels – as you do – and to park it at Camden Lock market once a month until Christmas.

On Saturday 24 September, part of Wellcome Collection’s crew spent the day out in Camden for the second time and loved it. By the end of the day, more than a thousand visitors had climbed on our bus to share some good conversation with us.

Whether you are a Wellcome Collection enthusiast or you have never heard of it before, the bus and its contents are going to surprise you. On the bottom and top decks you will find printed images of objects from our Medicine Man gallery, currently closed, giving to the bus an aspect of a cabinet of curiosities from Renaissance Europe. These images are a good starting point to learn more about our collection and the man who put it all together, the one and only Henry Wellcome. If you are a regular visitor at Wellcome Collection, you can test your knowledge of the collection and see if you recognise them all. Chances are you will have missed one.

Curious journey
Curious journey

The top deck is the hands-on area. You can surf on the Camden vibe and leave us an ‘arty’ comment on our drawing cards, and get closer to our collections by looking at, touching and trying on some objects – yes, you read it right, try on! Visitors Services Assistants will be there to help you engage with some of the strangest and most mysterious objects from our object handling collection.

Curious journey
Curious journey
Curious journey
Curious journey

Being the free destination for the incurably curious, a ride on our routemaster is entirely free, so whether you are a bus enthusiast, a Wellcome Collection enthusiast or simply curious about why on earth there is a big double-decker bus parked in Camden market, climb inside and let us take you through our curious journey.

We will be back in Camden on 9 November and for two full weekends over the Christmas period, and we look forward to seeing you there. Shall we try to break our record of 1000 visitors?

To keep you waiting until then, our next temporary exhibition, Foreign Bodies, is opening on 14 November in a brand new gallery space. Make sure you come in and have a look.

Inside the Creative Mind: Re-imaginings

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Artist Elaine Duigenan is working with young women at New Horizons Youth Centre. She has devised and is running a series of six workshops that explore connections with works in the current Wellcome Collection exhibition, Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan. She’ll be writing a blog each week to relay some of the ideas and outcomes in words and pictures; here’s her final post.

The sixth week came round all too quickly and in some ways it felt like we had only just got started.  The group members are often new each week, but there are some consistent attenders too.  I had two activities planned, the main one being to work with some clay and second to pick up on the sellotape printing from a previous week.  I have found it best not to overload the sessions with too much information but to choose an artist from the exhibition to look at in detail.  There are a number of artists in the exhibition who work with clay, but the one I was drawn to is perhaps the least ‘sophisticated’.  Komei Bekki makes tiny objects, I would say figures except it is not that straight forward.  They are beyond representation and perhaps seek to improve, embellish, re-imagine the figure.  The emphasis or addition of features make for magical re-configurations of the body or simply a body part.  En masse they have extraordinary power, not unlike the army of twisty tie ‘warriors’ by Shota Katsube.  The proliferation gives them strength as the artist has worked in, around, beyond – such intense focus creates a mesmerizing collection.

I showed the group a photo of a single tiny sculpture and then one of the mass of objects.  We discussed how liberating it is not to have to aim for realism in our making but to use imagination and fantasy.  To help with the making, I asked how we could improve on the design/form of our bodies – “do we need four pairs of hands? Eyes in the backs of our heads?”

I encouraged everyone to get stuck in with some red clay in hand. The only restriction I placed on it was scale, that each object could not exceed the amount of clay given.  This is something I have discovered through running the workshops; by limiting the scale it has proved less threatening to participants and allowed those in the group who feel that “I am not an artist” and “I can’t do art” to simply have a go.  Tactile materials become a pleasure to work with; A talked about how she liked “playing with blu-tac – I cant help myself, I’ve just got to fiddle with it”.  There is a compulsion to pull and stretch it and even craft something out of it.  Without exception small objects emerged from everyone’s red clay.  H produces a medley of individual body parts that she then places in a small “sad” pile.  M makes an eye in relief and V comments that it is reminiscent of the small votives in the Wellcome Collection.  Interestingly some of the girls who struggled initially came up with some really evocative objects.  H just bashed away at the clay, making marks and venting something..

So, two things from today – the nostalgic enjoyment of a tactile material and the non-threatening nature of working at small scale. It feels like the last six weeks have been enormously fruitful, not least for myself as an artist.  I cannot over estimate the inspiration drawn from the Souzou exhibition.  The work there is liberated from constraint and encourages us to embrace a child-like delight – one that revels in mark making, the feel of a material, drawing on fantasy and imagination.  I have loved seeing the group participants become calm and focused, relaxed and chatting with hands and brains busy.

What a wonderful thing art is!

Souzou runs until Sunday 30 June. Find out more about Elaine’s work at www.elaineduigenan.com.

Inside the Creative Mind: My city out there

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Artist Elaine Duigenan is working with young women at New Horizons Youth Centre. She has devised and is running a series of six workshops that explore connections with works in the current Wellcome Collection exhibition, Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan. She’s writing a series of blog posts to relay some of the ideas and outcomes in words and pictures; here’s the fifth.

I was looking forward to this workshop as planning to do something based around the beautifully complex drawings of Norimitsu Kokubo.

Following the exhibition themes, I wanted to open out the focus from self to environment and look particularly at the context of our city.  I have always loved maps and the correlation I could see between say the markings of Toyo Hagino and the linear configurations in an old A-Z map book of London.

In preparation for the workshop I went to Holborn Tube Station to find out what happened to all the tube tickets that get inserted in to the barriers.  Ten minutes later (and a somewhat puzzled station manager) I had my bag stuffed full of as many tickets as I could carry.  These formed our starting point as we examined where someone had started a journey and where they might be going – it prompted a lovely discussion about travels and ‘home’.  We hole punched the tickets, wrote on them and stuck them down on a large map so that other place names showed through the holes.

Next we got translucent paper and drew landmarks real and imagined in the style of Kiyoaki Amemiya and placed these on the large map, again eliciting discussion about origins and family. J is from Leicester and she told us about her family and some of the difficulties she has experienced.

Easily the most enjoyable and interesting activity was when we chose and tore out sheets from the A-Z.  I showed some examples of how one could use highlighters to fill in certain configurations of streets or felt pens to colour in areas of parkland, sewage works, and landmarks.  It was one of those pleasurable tasks that we literally got lost in.  Someone described it as meditative and another was reminiscing about colouring books when a child.  It was a simple task that rendered beautifully individual approaches that surprised and delighted.

Souzou runs until Sunday 30 June. Find out more about Elaine’s work at www.elaineduigenan.com.