Saturday, May 2, 2009

May 1: St Paul's, Tate Modern, and the V&A

After a well deserved night's rest (Me: 10 Hours, Dan: 13 Hours), we left the hotel around 11:30 (I don't think I've ever been in a hotel this late in the morning before) and headed towards Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral, with hopes of taking a 1:30 guided tour. Built on a site that has housed a church of some sort since 604 AD, the current structure was built over 35 years from 1675 t0 1710 to replace the former St Paul's destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Though the magnificence of the cathedral is impossible to deny, the £11 ($15.50) admission fee seemed a bit steep and coupled with the presence of a cafe and a large gift shop in the crypt, there was no mistaking this for a money-making operation (though from the upstairs the only notice of commerciality was the admission queues). In contrast, church services are still performed here regularly (4 per day), with around 100 regular Sunday-service parishioners. We inquired about the 1:30 tour (another £3, though certainly worth it) after our entry to the cathedral at 12:30.

While waiting, we grabbed a bite in the aforementioned cafe and then headed up to meet with "Chris", our guide. Chris, a 60-something BBC-voiced Brit gave us and around 8 others a wonderful hour and a half tour. The tour was informative and humorous and when it was over, we were eager for more. Here were some of the particularly enjoyable moments:

As we were sitting in a "court" area (once inside, immediately to the south of the entrance) adorned with tall wooden carvings and benches, Chris was giving a talk about the general age and creation of the space. He paused for a moment as he'd been dealing with a direct beam of sunlight pouring through the window above our heads. He quipped, as he moved out of the beam, "Well, I'm not that righteous." And he was correct; his name was lacking a "t" at the end.

Our visit happened to occur on the Duke of Wellington's 240th birthday. After being informed of this by Chris, he declared as we passed the Duke's massive tomb, "So, Happy Birthday, Duke (which of course sounded like dj-uke)."

At a number of stops, Chris would add that he "just simply loved" whatever object we were viewing, which was pleasing to watch someone get so giddy over structural objects as I certainly have an excitement for these kinds of things as well. It did make one wonder what Chris "just simply hates", though this never became apparent. At one of the simply loved stops, an abstract white-marbled sculpture of mother and child whose stone had a number of natural indentions throughout, Chris urged us to cop a feel. He then quipped, at once seriously and tongue-in-cheek, "Sometimes we give tours to the blind and they really love this."

And finally, as we were standing in front of Lord Nelson's (he of Trafalgar, of course) tomb, Chris conveyed to us that upon Lord Nelson's death, his body was placed in a cask of rum. While stopping in Gibraltar, on the way to transfer the body back to England, the cask was found to be empty of rum as it had been presumably consumed by the sailors. To this day, particularly among members of the Royal Navy, rum is often referred to as "Nelson's Blood".

Following the tour, we departed and, as we were waiting to cross the street, saw Chris heading away from the church, apparently absolved of his duties for the day. We almost approached him with the hopes of him giving us a tour of, well...anywhere he'd like. But we didn't and the informative Chris vanished into anonymity in the distance of a busy sidewalk.

From here, we crossed the Millennium Bridge, a foot-traffic-only bridge which crosses the Thames and leads from St Paul's to the Tate Modern, housed on the south side in a converted former power station and presently Britain's national museum of international modern art. Admission was free and the galleries were displayed over 4 floors of impressively laid out space. As with much modern art, in this viewer's opinion, certain areas of the contents lack almost everything to be desired. To wit, one piece of "art" consisted solely of a thick old rope laid upon the floor. How does one even approach this? For that matter, how does one approach the Tate Modern with the hopes of it adorning their floor?

Artist (or Finder of the Rope): "So, I found this old rope in a barn and laid it about thusly. Whaddya think?"

Tate Modern: "I think we've got just the floor."

As we approached another consisting of cast bells (similar to those adorning the California missions) strewn upon a table at the end of a 40-foot room, I thought, "I hope this one is titled "Embellishment". It was not to be. This artist, it seems, not only could not produce art, he also lacked the artistic vision of even coming up with a name for the non-art. It was listed as "Untitled", in addition to 3 other different (and non-bell related) pieces of the same name. Such inspiration.

After viewing things of this nature in many of the galleries, I decided to create my own art which I hope will be displayed in the Tate Modern one day. It will fit in well amongst some of the more tiresome peices; you may have even viewed it in a museum before. It shall be titled "Exhibit Temporarily Closed". Now that's art.

To finish out the day, we rode the Underground (for the first time) from Mansion House to South Kensington to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum, described in the literature as the "greatest museum of applied art in the world". We arrived, and so it was. And it was also free(!). This space is truly amazing. Occupying 4 floors and a total of 7 miles of floor space (of which around 4 miles housed objects from all around the world), the V&A, as it is popularly and self-evidently known, contains over 4.5 million objets d'art. The favorite room, of both Dan and me, was that of the Cast Courts, which contained plaster casts of various items, including Trajan's Column from the forum in Rome, the entire portal of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and a number of effigies of royalty and other dignitaries from the 12th century onwards amongst many other items. Honestly, everything in the room looks as good as real and I was as pleased as punch to be viewing such inspired "genuine" forgeries. The rest of the museum was impressive as well, with sights too many to recount. Here's a link to the contents:

We followed this with a sandwich, crisps, and Coke at Pret a Manger, the UK fresh-sandwich retailer. Supper was had for less than £5 and was very tasty at that. After returning to the hotel and having a Skype conference call with all members of my extended family, I was off to bed at around 1 AM, though didn't make it to sleep until 3.

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