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August 10 2012

A David Cerny sculpture walk in Prague

Cerny's exercising bus sculpture may have delighted Londoners during the Olympics, but in his native Prague lurk many far wittier, more subversive creations. Discover them on this unusual tour of the Czech capital

Double-decker buses typically provoke an irksome reaction in Londoners. Crowded, late and plagued with chewing gum-abandoning teens, they are rarely the subject of mirth. However, David Cerny's "London Booster" sculpture – a 1957 Routemaster which does push-ups while groaning – has raised a big, transport-related smile from the capital's commuters during the Olympics.

Situated outside the Czech HQ in Islington, the wheezing, working-out vehicle is one of many tongue-in-cheek installations from the Prague-born artist. A rebellious mix of Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible is as controversial as he is amusing. In 2009, he was supposed to collaborate with 26 artists on a piece promoting the EU. Instead, he faked the names of the other sculptors and made the giant collage himself, perpetuating crude stereotypes of its member states: Bulgaria was shown as a squat toilet; Italy was a football pitch of masturbating footballers.

Subtlety might not be his strong point, but his larger-than-life social comment pieces are certainly intriguing. Many of his most famous creations lurk tantalisingly in Prague's historic crevices, providing a refreshing and quirky way to explore the capital's centre.

A perfect starting point is the middle of Wenceslas Square, inside Lucerna Pasaz on Vodickova. Here, you will find 'Horse' – a dark, bastardised version of the imposing kingly statue situated in the square behind you. Hanging, Damocles-like, from a lime-tiled dome ceiling sits Wenceslas, astride his now dead, upside-down steed. Though Cerny never comments publicly on his work, the piece is seen to be a damning attack on current Czech President, Václav Klaus – a frequent subject for Cerny derision.

Next, head down Spalena towards Old Town Square. When you reach U Medvidku beer hall on Na Perstyne, look up. In the distance, a diminutive, Colonel Sanders-esque figure dangles suicidally from a rooftop. This tiny, bearded figure of "Hanging Out" is, in fact, Sigmund Freud, casually swinging from a beam with his hand in his pocket. Created in 1997, it is Cerny's ambiguous response to the question of what role the intellectual would play in the new millennium; an absorbing sight regularly missed by tourists watching their footing on the cobbles.

Over Charles Bridge, the Franz Kafka museum immediately to the right (Cihelná 2b) harbours one of Cerny's most humorous creations. Affectionately titled, "Piss", it features two gyrating, mechanical men urinating on a map of the Czech Republic. Text a personal message to the number next to the exhibit and these chaps will happily waggle their bronze penises around to spell it out for you.

Skip past the gorgeous Malostranske namesti (Lesser Town Square) and head up Trziste, into Vlasska – a cobbled hill lined with large, grandiose buildings. The German Embassy is an imposing sight, and hidden within its huge, maze-like gardens, stands "Quo Vadis" (walk 100m past the embassy, left into a children's playground and peer through the railings). This post-Velvet Revolution sculpture, a fibreglass Trabant car on four, giant tree-trunk legs, is a tribute to the 4,000 East German asylum seekers who, in 1989, stationed themselves here until they were granted political asylum back into West Germany. Many left their Trabants behind, hence Cerny's choice of motor.

Double back on yourself towards the river and head right, along the Vltava's edge, to Kampa Island. Three giant babies guard the entrance to Museum Kampa (U Sovovych mlynu 2). These crawling, Lynchian creatures, with imploded slot-machine faces, are part of Cerny's "Babies" project – a commission to make the notoriously ugly Zizkov TV Tower more attractive. Look beyond the museum into the distance and you will see the result: swarms of these weird mutants scaling the futuristic eyesore, with atmospheric red and blue neon lighting them at night.

For the last stop, head south past the funicular railway, and turn right up Holeckova street. A brisk 10-minute walk and you'll reach Futura, a contemporary, free art space (Holeckova 49, Wed-Sun 11-6pm), which hosts the permanent Cerny installation, "Brownnosers". Weave through the underground vaults to the tiny garden at the back to find it – two giant pairs of legs bent over and moulded into the wall. Viewers are invited to climb up the ladders and stare into the fibreglass anus. Inside, a video of Cerny's old adversary President Klaus is shown, in which he and the Head of the National Gallery are spoon-feeding each other slop to the sound of Queen's "We Are The Champions". Crude, unsubtle, comical, it is yet another example of Cerny's displeasure with post-revolution democracy; the fates of the Czech people, he feels, rest uneasily in the dictatorial, money-grabbing hands of inept politicians.

A fitting, relaxing, antidote to the day's walking would be to catch a band at Cerny's very own club, Meet Factory (Ke sklarne 15). Part music venue, part gallery, it is a converted glass warehouse in the Smichov district, with two melted red cars nonchalantly hanging on pegs outside ("Meat"). The club regularly hosts electro and indie, and you can regularly find the floppy-haired man in question, David Cerny, beer in hand, enjoying the bands.

• EasyJet (easyjet.co.uk) flies to Prague from London Gatwick from £52 return


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August 08 2012

London street photography walk

A new guided walk of east London includes a hands-on photography lesson – and lunch thrown in – all for £30

"Always treat a jar of gherkins like a person." This eccentric piece of photography advice, from Eleanor Church of Fox&Squirrel Lifestyle Walks, struck me as deeply profound. At last: the key to taking great pictures! In hindsight, I may have got a little carried away, but at least it was a good reminder to get up close and personal with your subject, however banal it may at first seem.

In fact, that was one of the main lessons I learned on a street photography walk in east London: anything can make a good picture. What might seem meaningless now could be of interest to future social historians. (OK, it's unlikely that anyone will write a thesis on the Pickled Foods of Early 21st-Century Britain, but you never know.)

I took the pickle picture as part of a warm-up exercise at the start of the walk. Over coffee and a chat with Eleanor at Allpress Espresso in Shoreditch, one of London's excellent New Zealand-owned coffee shops, I was told to pick a colour (I chose green). The walk began on Brick Lane, where I had to take photographs of anything as long as it was green. Eleanor advised me to keep an open mind and be – or at least act – confident.

I felt a little nervous aiming my camera at assorted shoppers, cyclists and street sweepers, but most didn't seem to mind. Street photography is so common now, thanks to the ubiquity of cameraphones, that no one bats an eyelid. And in this part of London, half the population choose their outfits with "street style" photographers in mind. I was soon snapping every green object in sight: shop fronts, shoes, bikes, sunglasses ...

When we went through my shots, any embarrassment I felt at having an award-winning photographer and documentary-maker looking at my out-of-focus snap of a woman in green trousers soon dissipated. Eleanor was positive and encouraging about every photo, even finding something to praise in the most prosaic picture of a green door, and making gentle suggestions of how each could be made "even better".

I was on a private preview of the walk, a new one for Fox&Squirrel – they also run art, fashion and vintage walks – so I had Eleanor all to myself, which probably meant I got more detailed feedback on my photographs than the average customer. Usually there will be a group of up to eight with one guide, or up to 12 with two, and people will be encouraged to critique each other's photographs. At lunch, the guide – either Eleanor or Stuart Beesley, another professional photographer – will give feedback on each person's pictures. That kind of personal attention usually commands a premium, so this walk is remarkably good value for £30, especially as lunch is included.

Eleanor stressed that the experience is a guided walk, not a photography lesson, but I found I was focused entirely on finding photo opportunities rather than enjoying the stroll. I picked up lots of useful photography tips, but I didn't really learn anything new about London, as you might expect to on a city walk. On the other hand, I noticed things that I would usually stride right past: a sculpture of a crushed car high above my head; a clump of grass pushing through a sea of concrete; a cyclist with six baguettes poking out of his rucksack.

These details were important in the next exercise in and around Spitalfields, which was all about capturing a moment and telling a story. This was a lot harder than just photographing anything green. At the end of the segment I felt I'd done badly (not that it was a test). But actually my favourite shot of the day, of an elderly woman at a tea dance I stumbled across (pictured below), was taken during this exercise. It just goes to show that you have to take a lot of bad photographs to get one (relatively) good one.

After lunch at the Barbican's Foodhall, a modern cafe with light installations and tables out on the terrace next to the lake, my next brief was to use the arts centre's brutalist architecture as a stage for photographs. I tried to implement the things I'd learned: symmetry, the rule of thirds, straight lines, light and shade, colour, detail. The end results weren't exactly thrilling, but I felt I was starting to frame my shots with more purpose.

The walk usually ends with a photoshoot at King's Cross St Pancras, but Eleanor had been warned by a police officer that anyone taking pictures at a train station during the Olympics would have their camera confiscated and destroyed. On balance, we decided to skip that part.

A bonus feature of the walk is the aftercare: Fox&Squirrel send out instructions on editing your pictures for maximum impact, and there is a Flickr group to add to as you practise what you've learned. For as Eleanor says, good street photography ultimately comes down to a little bit of luck – and a lot of practice.

The three-and-a-half-hour guided walk was provided by Fox&Squirrel (foxandsquirrel.com); it costs £30pp, including coffee and lunch. Next walks on 11 and 15 August. Suitable for smartphone cameras, compact cameras or SLRs; lomography walks also available


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June 07 2012

Wainwright notebook and maps among artwork at Carlisle auction

Meticulous preparation for the famous guidebooks is shown in the Lake District writer's notes and annotations to maps

The Lake District has probably inspired more art per square inch than anywhere else in the UK, even if William Wordsworth rather let the side down with the opening lines of his poem on Westminster bridge.

Some of the most interesting is the work of amateurs or specialists in other fields, among whom the names of Beatrix Potter and Alfred Wainwright are currently the most well-known.

An interesting example of work by the latter is coming up for auction later this month; one of the notebooks used in the preparation of his seven-volume guide to walks on the Lakeland fells, along with a score of Ordnance Survey maps with annotations in his neat, town clerk's hand.

Wainwright could be crusty about the OS when they erred; an almost unavoidable hazard in their vast task, but only because he respected the mapmakers' dedication to accuracy which was matched by his own. Even the notebooks are fine examples of very careful work, although intended only for his use.

The lot also contains a further bundle of maps used by Cyril Moore, one of four people who helped the great navigator with his Pennine Way companion. Maps and blue-bound ledger will be auctioned in the somewhat un-Wainwrightlike surroundings of Carlisle's Rosehill industrial estate on Monday, 25 June, by the local firm of HH auction rooms. One of its auctioneers and valuers, Georgina Nixon, says:

Wainwright's notebook will be of great interest to both enthusiasts and scholars alike. I provides real insight into the process of working and indeed to the unique style of the author.  Although a number of more up-to-date guidebooks are on the market, Wainwright's works remain ever popular for their depth and detail, something still cherished by followers to this day. The unique value of the collection comes in its having been kept together.


The estimated price is £2000-£3000 but it's anyone's guess, with Wainwright having many devotees. Other Lakes-related items in the sale include work by the contemporary artist Marion Bradley, notably a series of pencil sketches, and paintings by the late Victorian and early 20th century painter, Thomas Bushby.

One of these shows a little boy wearing a red beret – a cap much favoured by Bushby who would have enjoyed the arrival of Kangol the beret makers in West Cumbria, had he lived to see it. The child is out with his granny in the Cumbrian rain and the auctioneers are keen to establish where the scene was set. Nixon says:

It has been suggested that the place in this painting is Brisco, near Carlisle, but we would like to hear from anyone who can fully identify the location.


The estimate on that one is £2000-£3000 as well.


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April 06 2010

Britain's best views: Hadrian's Wall

Martin Wainwright explores the ancient Roman frontier, from the famous grandeur of Housesteads fort to its less-visited outposts

Hadrian's Wall may seem a bit of a shoe-in when it comes to Britain's best views, but the monument is much more than the often - and understandably - repeated views of Cuddy's Crags and Sewingshields on the crest of that wonderful escarpment, the Whin Sill.

In truth, it is hard to beat the romantic, lonely grandeur of this famous stretch above Housesteads fort (english-heritage.org.uk/housesteads and nationaltrust.org.uk) and the Twice Brewed Inn. But the less well-known parts of the 74-mile frontier, built as the Northern frontier of the Roman empire at the height of its power, are a particular treat to discover and enjoy.

They can be linked in a day or two's exploration between Wallsend and the Solway Firth, using the Military Road part of the way - more mundanely known today as the B6318. This conveniently follows the legions' original highway between their lookout turrets, milecastles and major forts such as Housesteads. Inconveniently, its ruthless 18th-century builder General Wade used a lot of wall stone to make it.

The great monument's quieter options include fragments which survive in the surreal setting of everyday suburban Newcastle and a phallic symbol on Chollerford bridge abutment which blesses Wall walkers with good luck. There's also Limestone Corner, the empire's actual furthest north, where Hadrian's men got fed up with huge boulders and abandoned them in the middle of splitting the rock into neat stones. You can see their unfinished chisel holes.

The Wall's urban stretches are best on Tyneside, which offers the partially reconstructed fort of Arbeia in South Shields. The name means "the place of the Arabs" and comes from legionaries recruited in Iraq. Tests on DNA at the other end of the wall suggest genetic links between modern residents and Roman soldiers originally from North Africa.

Much has been made of these southerners shivering in the Geordie chill – W.H.Auden's Roman Wall Blues is an example, and good for children to learn and chant. More of them were based at Segedunum in the middle of Wallsend which was a Cinderella until Millennium Lottery money paid for one of the Wall's biggest excavations and an excellent viewing tower.

This doesn't strictly give one of Britain's best views, but the panorama across town and Tyne is absorbing. Segedunum's reconstructed bath house meanwhile rivals Housesteads' famous communal lavatories for an insight in Hadrianic hygiene, and signs at Wallsend's Metro train station have been translated into Latin.

Just for atmosphere, I like Denton Hall Turret and its 65m (213ft) of wall which lies between a housing estate and a dual carriageway just east of the West Road/A1 roundabout on the edge of Newcastle. Gone are the imposing fortifications shown on English Heritage's website but you can potter round the few courses remaining and chat to shoppers getting off the many buses. There's another, smaller fragment, just down the hill behind the filling station.

Heading west, the fortunate phallus is one of a necklace of sights at Chollerford, including a short but lovely stretch of wall at Brunton Turret, the bridge remains and major excavations at Chesters fort. The big George Hotel by the river is comfy, or you can have the satisfactory experience of visiting the Hadrian hotel in Wall, the next village south.

For quiet beauty, Birdoswald fort is a good bet, with walks to the east beside the longest unbroken stretch of the entire wall. A little further west is another English Heritage property, Lanercost Priory whose monks pioneered the General Wade policy of stone-pillaging but made something beautiful rather than useful.

There is much, much more. But my final recommendation lies way to the west at Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast, where a naval base protected the Solway frontier from pirates. The remains of the bath house are among the tallest surviving from Roman Britain at nearly four metres (13ft), and the village has masses more to see and do, from Muncaster Castle to 'Lil Ratty', the narrow-gauge trains of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.

Staying is no problem near the wall, although book ahead in summer. And if you ever get the time for a week or 10 days' visit, hike the Hadrian's Wall national trail, an additional 10 miles long but by far the best way of seeing the monument.  En route, you'll discover why the pub at Housesteads is Twice Brewed and the youth hostel Once Brewed. Don't cheat with Google. It's worth going there to find out.


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