Flood: Former footpath between Dartford Park and Brooklands Lake on the left. Original path of river on the right.

Living in a town adjacent to the Thames and with a river running through its centre, people quite understandably keep asking me if I’ve been affected by the recent floods. Have I been plunged into watery despair? Am I wading despondently knee deep in sewage, being accosted by politicians on crucial PR pity visits? No, I answer. Thankfully, that is the truth (Farage and Cameron grinning at me in wellies would no doubt push me over the proverbial water’s edge). As the result of a simple principle which appears inexplicably not to apply to other parts of the country, it was spotted back in the 70′s that we were at risk of flooding and so precautions were put in place. Dartford hasn’t flooded seriously since the late 60′s, a happy statistic our current environment minister seems intent on disproving.

What I carefully neglected to point out to my concerned inquisitors was that last weekend, whilst wandering around Dartford taking the photographs you can see below, it happened that the floods were a momentary blessing to me, bestowing upon my camera some unique shots I do not get to see every day. Passing the much-needed tunnel between our local park and the beautiful yet underrated Brooklands Lakes, I discovered it is currently no longer a tunnel for pedestrians (unless going for a rather cold and boisterous swim) but more of a secondary river with decisively white-water tendencies, the original river spilling over onto the footpath in the manner of a makeshift weir. We can but stand back and concede defeat as nature spits her contempt upon our concrete interventions. It’s a striking sight, and an interestingly microcosmic glimpse into a future decimated by climate change. At the time of writing I believe Owen Paterson, our illustrious Environment Minister, is still in a job. I doubt for very long if the population disagree with his comments implying that climate change is an ‘emotional’ response rather than a reality. A news report I read recently hit the nail on the head when it stated that appointing an environment minister who doesn’t believe in climate change is much like appointing a health minister who thinks cigarette risks are exaggerated.

Scientific climate change experts almost overwhelmingly concur that we have been gradually killing our unique ball of gas, with quantifiable evidence in the bag and more to come.  I assumed it was a given nowadays. I thought we all pretty much accepted that we are highly likely to be the victims of nature’s wrathful death-throes unless we begin to accelerate very hard in reverse gear (excepting the US bible belt who are all busy polishing their arks, having been significantly forewarned).  Sadly, even if Mr Paterson realises his potentially catastrophic error of judgment in the next, say, day or so, we are still 10, 20 or even 30 years too late to put the brakes on the destructive weather changes we see battering the planet and which we were first warned about in 1957. Mitigation is the key at this point; damage limitation. If we act immediately, we might just save the planet from complete destruction. If it turns out that even this is now up for debate, I might just start building an ark myself. 2 cats – check. Now where did I put those spare fence panels…?

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Debry abstract

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2010-07-23-Big-Society

When Cameron unveiled his Big Society idea in 2010 I thought it at best a vacuous PR stunt; an extension of the Putin-style photos of ‘friendly Dave in shorts cycling to work because he cares about the environment’. I’m only now beginning to grasp how much I underestimated the Machiavellian skills of the top tier and to see how this cleverly cynical ideology of free labour painted as community spirit is starting to permeate the consciousness of British society.

Spurred by a recent arts project part-funded by my local council, a movement has begun to grow in my declining home town. Dartford Arts Network, a dynamic creative forum for people wanting to get involved in local art projects, is now beginning to take off independently, a community reaction to the ‘cultural desert’ status of the town. Although the catalyst for the creation of this group, that piece of funding was the first nod to the arts I’ve seen bestowed by our council for a very long time, if ever. Let’s not forget that thanks to recent government policy hundreds of towns who were committed to the arts have found their essential funding budgets indiscriminately slashed; the arts predictably facing the chop first and considered dispensable, inconsequential, despite the fact that study upon study has shown engagement with the arts to be quantifiably beneficial to the wellbeing of both the individual and the community as a whole. An active attack from government in relation to arts and community has repeatedly stirred people across the country to take matters into their own hands; street parties, community events; art exhibitions. The ‘blitz spirit!’ the Daily Mail would cry, ‘we’re all in it together!’ But this sweetly served dose of fantasy leaves behind a decidedly unpalatable aftertaste.

There are tell-tale signs that the Big Society spoon-feeding is hitting the spot; in people’s comments stating that we don’t really need the council for this or that anymore as we can just do it ourselves, in the simpering and transparent mandate from above ‘Oh, but you do it so much better than we would’, in Poundland back to work schemes and Free Schools. Through a cleverly constructed confusion between community contribution and free labour, the proletariat are in danger of buying into the idea that it is up to us, not the state, to facilitate these aspects of our lives. As Unison said in 2010 “The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.”

It’s crucial that we as a community, as a country, insist on more. Not token gestures, but a sustained policy for the funding and promotion of the arts in the future remit of both the government and each local council. We cannot, and should not, do it all on our own. Communities must use these local arts initiatives to focus budget-makers on the impact it has on the high street and to evidence how they should be an influential part of town planning. Instead of endless private flats or more generic chain store retail, why not encourage independent designers and incorporate creative spaces? The arts are not a luxury for the rich or a pastime for the middle-class, but a rightful resource for all and integral to the very fabric of our daily life. Along with the rest of our valuable public services, fight for them before they disappear for good and whatever you do, don’t allow the bigwigs to pass the buck.

Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

I’ve always liked Sarah Lucas. I both envy her clever creative wit and admire her ability to piss a lot of people off just through honest artistic communication. To offend meaningfully can be an inert skill in itself, often misused and derided by many but undoubtedly a significant catalyst in the creation of conversation, dialogue, debate and sometimes venomous expulsions. Tracey Emin, whose very name has become a dirty word among some cliques, is a contemporaneous example of this type of artwork; honest, too honest for most, but her works are the results of sad and poignant catharsis, sifting chaotically and urgently through the memories of a troubled childhood and beyond. Sarah Lucas, although addressing similarly taboo notions of sex and society, does so with far less heart-rending effect. Her works intend to provoke, flinging an upturned middle finger at critics and misogynists. Viewing them feels a bit like how I would imagine watching the Sex Pistols live would; a vicious, funny but unsettlingly serious piss-take.

Lucas’s recent retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery placed many older, familiar pieces alongside her current offerings. Well-worn but still fabulous classics such as Au Naturel quietly stole the thunder of recently completed wall prints, but in general the work continues with the subject matter and treatment she became famous for in the 80′s and 90′s during her time as a key member of the YBAs. Lucas treats her materials as punk musicians treated their lyrics; their presentation harsh and biting but ultimately forcing you, the recipient, to confront uncomfortable representations of a very everyday thing: sex, sexuality, the human body (or in the punks’ case, political and societal affairs).

Au_Naturel, 1994

Au_Naturel, 1994

It’s interesting what still makes us gasp today. In a tale as old as time (even beauty & the beast were at it in the end) it’s still sex which raises eyebrows and fuels the raging psychotic fury of Tea-Party loons, with half a second of nipple at the Superbowl inciting the blisteringly outraged complaints of half a million Americans. So despite our entirely natural urges and the booming global porn industry indicating that perhaps we should just give in to this one, it’s still, amazingly, a prime subject to ignite controversy. In some pieces Lucas uses skulls and teeth to represent the vagina, tapping into a commonly held belief that men are in fact afraid of it and highlighting the fact it is rarely positively portrayed. She’s certainly not the only person to call attention to this, feminists across the world have been saying it since the 60′s and actress Evan Rachel Wood recently made a similar complaint about public attitudes to the vagina following the editing out of a scene from her new film in which her character received oral sex “Accept that women are sexual beings, accept that some men like pleasuring women,” she said. “Accept that women don’t just have to be f**ked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves”. Facebook reactions to my sharing the artwork of avant-garde artist Casey Jenkins proved to be similar, consisting of a surprising (to me at least) mix of disgust, shock, anger and hilarity at the use of the vagina in art. Lucas challenges and mocks our repressed and discriminative stereotypes of sexuality through often brutal parody. Teeth as vaginas; scared of it now? A huge wall of penises; shocked yet? She cleverly references the insulting colloquialisms of popular culture with objects such as fried eggs and kebabs, transforming the slang from verbal to visual. Through forcing us to confront images which may embarrass us or which address negative stereotypes through distasteful representation, such as the sloppy fish for a vagina, she desensitises us to the very ordinary reality of our own bodies. Her less explicit works continue to explore sexuality, with humour abounding in pieces such as the headless self-portrait, which I at first took to be a balaclava, the exposed nipples staring brazenly at the viewer like the squinty eyes of a post-party raver.

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Self-portrait

Self-portrait

My trip around the exhibition concluded with overhearing a fellow visitor whisper ‘is she a lesbian?’. I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear this as her sexual preference had not even come close to crossing my mind, although the fact it came up at all serves only to hammer the point she is making about sexual stereoptying and association. Because although her work deals with this topic, it is not, unlike Emin’s work, primarily concerned with the emotional aspect surrounding sex, or even about relationships in any way. It is almost primeval in its exploration of our sexual selves and speaks to me virtually exclusively about social stigma and attitude. The day a carefully situated kebab fails to cause offence is the day our society will have finally learnt a valuable lesson. But what would Lucas teach us then?

Extract from Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher's Lady of the Sea at The Wapping Project

Extract from Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher’s Lady of the Sea at The Wapping Project

I’d heard of the Wapping Project before. As someone interested in the arts in London, it was almost hard not to. Exclamation at it’s evident all-round brilliantness gushed from every source, über-cool reviewers and members of various ‘in-crowds’ chattered excitedly about its innovative programme and siting. But inevitably, like a million other must-sees in and around London over the years, I had always failed to actually get there and consequently, regrettably, allowed it to drift from my subconscious to-do list. In a sadly ironic twist it’s impending closure means that I did finally manage to visit, after receiving last week an email from the project’s deputy director Marta tempting me with the sale of various jugs/bowls/glasses at bargain prices. The reason for the kitchenware sell-off being that the renowned restaurant based there, along with the rest of the project, will be no more after 22nd Dec, with reports claiming that complaints from residents about noise levels has forced the shutdown. Complaints about the complaints have also been voiced in increasing number, with creatives across the city mourning the looming date of its disappearance. On a brighter note of self-interest, this situation did mean that moi managed to swiftly baggsie myself a few cut-price treasures for my kitchen cupboards (every cloud and all that).

And so it was that I found myself, on a damp, dark Thursday eve in December arriving at Wapping, it being an attractively strange place oozing history and character in that nouveau-classy manner of much of the east docklands area; the palpable taste of new money ‘a la Shad Thames refurbed wharf architecture, but it’s modern flashiness still unable to conceal that dark undercurrent, the sense of unease a residue from centuries of rough riverside streets; crime, murder and the nearby Execution Dock instilling an aura of menace in the fabric of the historic maritime area. The breeze from the Thames feels old, almost as though it has been carried along from 1750, the spectre of Jack the Ripper lurking behind each corner, hidden on the dark and wet almost deserted streets which glisten under the subdued glow of the streetlights. I must admit, I loved it.

A 5 minute walk from the station along Wapping Wall brings you to an initially underwhelming industrial gated entrance opposite the famous Prospect of Whitby pub, but a tentative peek through the door reveals the dramatic facade of the old Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, windows emitting that syrupy phosphorescence of low candlelight and allowing just enough contrast with the dark night to give an initial glimpse of the restored machinery-clad interior. Once inside, I immediately enjoyed just being in the space (I’m a big fan of old industrial architecture) gleefully eyeballing the structure and revelling in my dreamy rose-tinted imaginings of its past days. Kitchenware collected, I reluctantly prepared to be on my way, the sense of foolish missed opportunity dawning on me and regret beginning to seep into my consciousness, when deputy director Marta eagerly pointed me towards a small door just off the main hall – “go and see the last exhibition” she said, “before we close for good”.

Stepping through into the dark entrance of the Boiler Room I was struck instantly by the unmistakeable smell of damp and cold; wet on metal and the past still hanging in the air, the pungency of childhood adventures spent exploring places where perhaps you shouldn’t be. Coming to the top of a staircase I saw below me a partially constructed wooden structure set upon a bed of sand, snow and gravel. Shafts of brilliant white light poked through what appeared to be window holes, illuminating the surrounding area and inviting me in and out of the dark cold gloom. Stepping inside felt a little like an intrusion; I was in that rather rare position of being the only person at the exhibition, meaning the suspension of disbelief was thrillingly heightened. It could well have been someone’s house, inside were benches covered in sandy blankets, the accompanying soundtrack intensifying the effect of the drama as you entered the space. One whole wall of the shack consists of a screen projecting the photographic essay shot by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher in Svalbard and (I discovered later) inspired by Ibsen’s play ‘The Lady from the Sea‘. The inside/outside setting of the installation parallels with the movement of the story through interiors and exteriors as it follows the Nordic couple, the quality of photography and direction recording their emotional turmoil visually whilst also relating it to us via physical atmosphere and sound.

Interior of the wooden shack at the Lady From the Sea installation by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher

Interior of the wooden shack at the Lady From the Sea installation by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher

I sat there for a good fifteen minutes; a record for me I think. When it comes to moving artworks I usually find myself less engaged than in those which are static, maybe the controlling and over-independent facets of my personality find it jarring to be forced to look at something else, to be told when I have to move my gaze on. This set of photographs however, succeed in delicately achieving an unforced flow, lingering long enough on each image to make you eager for the next, but not so much that you get bored of it; adeptly sufficient in length for the viewer to drink in each lovely drop of it. The direction and curation utilise cleverly our brain’s ability to fill in the blanks; leaving the little shack I felt inherently that I knew the characters well, understood their respective positions, sympathised with both viewpoints and even hoped that they sorted their troubles out in the end. All that emotional response gleaned from 15 minutes in front of a set of still photographs.

On the way home, feeling extremely lucky to have had an unexpected private view of such a beautiful new exhibition, I mused on how I had ended up there. Fate? Was I meant to see the Wapping project at some point, a spurious roundabout kitchenware errand leading me there all along? I like to think that chance is a better bet than fate. Sometimes there occur poignant moments in life which materialise entirely through random fortuitous happenings and, like a cyber-finger enacting the proverbial Facebook poke, never fail to make me acutely aware of the importance of chance incidents within the bizarre rollercoasters of our daily lives. It was a circumstantial moment such as this in which I found myself last Thursday evening; unexpectedly sitting alone inside that cool, damp, wooden shack and revelling in my good fortune.

The Lady of the Sea by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher runs until 22nd December 2013 at The Wapping Project, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, E1W 3SG 0207 680 2080.

For more information on The Wapping Project in its final days contact marta@thewappingproject.com

Extract

Extract

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Wall projections outside the wooden shack in the Boiler Room

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Interior of the shack with projection extract

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Extract

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Anyone who really knows me is likely to confirm that I am a bit of a hypochondriac, a personality trait I am aware grinds irritatingly on most of them, eyes rolling wearily skyward each time they hear my self-pitying tales of woeful sickness. But it turns out that this trait is not confined to the physical, or even the health-related aspects of my body. It also extends to the creative; that deep little cubby in my mind, dark and cosy, filled with cases of tattered old books and tin cups brimming with red wine. I like it there. So why am I finding it quite a difficult place to be at the moment? My attempts to write resulting in unpublishably bad two-paragraph drafts and my current cosy place being nose-deep in a cringeworthy pot-boiler of a book. The obvious irony here is that I actually am, at this point, writing; hence, you are reading. So, ‘creative hypochondriac’, I hear you snigger, your implication of writers block appears unfounded. But is this, ie. writing about not being able to write (is that a paradox?), what I want to be writing about? This being general musing opinion thingys and the necessary distinction being part of the problem.

As an aspiring writer you inevitably have the pressure of indulging in constant comparison with both your role models and peers. I try hard not to do it, we all have different styles, yada yada, but you do suffer that problem of labelling. Those beautiful societally ingrained cuboids of concept, we must of course all fit in a box; opinion writer, reviewer, critic, novelist, journalist. The modern age tolerates not the jack-of-all-trades. Take our education system. Good at everything but excel at nothing? Sorry love, back down the job centre for you. Brilliantly ruthless investment banker but lacking in every other aspect of personality? Jackpot. You my friend, can rule them all. So here I am, wondering where I fit, if anywhere? I like writing about all different things but keep coming up against the same questioning brick wall – what is your niche? Assessing the (admittedly far-advanced) competition doesn’t help. Admiringly gobbling up columns by Rosamund Urwin or Grace Dent feels much like a personal dressing down, each cleverly crafted witty sentence and sharp one liner being delivered to me via mental monologue, in that masochistically patronising voice of the M&S advert woman and her invisible cruel smirk; ‘I know you want this, but you just can’t have it, you poor deluded thing’ (oh, and there’s the self-pity).

Back Camera

Sitting down to write a non-descript column at this point is a challenge. To try to come up with something worth writing, that’s worth people reading, in a style worth sharing, is a seemingly mountainous task. Easier to read a book, eh. So what’s the answer? How do I discover my ‘niche’ and do I have to? The stubborn part of my psyche stamps it’s foot with a resounding No. And to continue doing what I’m doing (a marketing manager writing an ‘art’ blog), I suppose it’s right, that’s up to me. But to try to take this forward and move it on, to shift it gently or otherwise in a more purposeful direction, I admit I may have to surrender. I might have to assess and analyse and streamline and use all those other horrible soulless business words on myself towards an end point. A point where I can take my wine soaked, candlelit, creative mind-cubby and place it gingerly in a carefully labelled box, like a weird conceptual parallel of Deal or No Deal with my career as the prize and hopefully without the appearance of Noel Edwards. But truthfully, even before I begin this process I know in my gut the end result; sorry Mr Banker, No Deal.

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If, as Keats so famously wrote, beauty is truth and truth beauty, surely a pertinent exemplification of this has to be the result of a simple but primordial chemical reaction, the product of which we named Fire. Fuel+O2+Heat incited by pressure, equals. Darkness into light; a way out of the malicious shadows, yet the creation of a state charged with it’s own instinctively vicious propensities. Bearing in mind the hypnotic and electrifying effects which fire continues to inspire in us today, in our info-heightened, over-subscribed, post-hacking world of anti-innocence, it is mind boggling to attempt to imagine the not just life-changing but existence-changing effect the unearthing of this awareness must have had on its discoverer. For unlike today, a Neanderthal person would not have been able to share an enlightening experience with their fellow earthlings across the way. Each community would have had to come to the knowledge in their own time, the technique passed down through generations for millions of years until the fateful day someone invented the match, reducing the skill of fire inception to merely owning opposable thumbs. Have you ever tried to light a fire using just a pile of brush and sheer will, imploring your hands to spin, spin those sticks faster!? It’s hard. I failed. An embarrassingly cliched product of my upbringing and environment, I soon scrambled off to find matches; the enveloping cold air surpassing my desire for that particular scouting badge.

The physical and psychological powers of fire are often tragically underestimated, lending an ominous counterbalance to its intense beauty. So why do we find it so mesmeric? Is it aesthetic? Or, as is more likely, it is rooted in our dependence as well as in our fear. We all know that fear and power hold a certain attraction, despite our protestations of distaste for that fact. Both embody an element of excitement, our adrenaline levels rising to combat a potentially dangerous situation. It’s sexy, it’s kind of taboo, it’s what drives almost every kind of pornography you can think of and despite your protestations dear reader, statistics suggest you are likely to be in some way a consumer of that particular industry. We fear it, thus we are entranced by it, it thrills us; car-crash rubbernecking. It’s also undeniable that we must have an instinctive basic attachment to something so key to our very survival. Although it is powerful, we often, as I said before, underestimate its speed, force and completely indiscriminate nature. We have ‘controlled’ fires, we use it for fun, it warms us and cooks our food; we believe we hold the power. But despite all of this, the visual spectacle of a flame, from the endearing initial flickering to awe-inspiring and terrifying explosion, continues to capture us in a unique way.

To photograph a flame, a fire, is fantastically easy or frustratingly difficult; satisfaction being entirely dependent upon the effect you’re after. A good while ago I gave up trying to portray exactly what I was seeing, when I realised that the outcome of my shots captured less the exact visual image I was perceiving and more the behaviour of the process and material. I now realise how much more interesting this is to me, the frantic jitters of the flames caught in a series of moments; the longer exposure tracing their journey back and forth, up and down, like trapped insects searching for freedom without knowing why. Colour of course plays a part, the brilliant purity of the red and yellow flame providing the ultimate contrast with the blackness of night. The scenes beg to be photographed, painted. As I’ve always said, Nature herself is most certainly an artist.

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After Hamilton

After Hamilton

Brick Lane may seem like a photographer’s dream, but the challenge is in discovering interesting things to capture which haven’t already been photographed by every other tourist with a camera! Huge standout pieces are startlingly beautiful, but my imagination is captured on a smaller scale by chance compositions such as this combination of paint, advertising and graffiti tagging; dwarfed by high-profile street artworks it comes together seemingly unintentionally to create an almost pop-art contemporary work.

Madness

Madness

Laying on the grass on a sunny day at a festival, I took this photograph of my sister Holly as she danced standing above me. The angle entirely distorts the scale of her actual physique and although naturally tall, it portrays her height as positively monumental. The odd angle somehow expresses her figure and clothing in an almost landscaped manner; undulations of folds appearing somewhat mountainous. The fact that her face is partially obscured only adds to the emphasis of her stance and the vibrancy of the bright colour juxtaposition.

Seaside Geometry

Seaside Geometry

Anyone who has visited Dungeness will remember it by its flat and barren nature. This photograph, taken on the beach through a warm mist, exemplifies the sense of isolation inherent in the seaside town. The parallel stacking of the horizontal linear marks created by the variation in the density of the sand creates an entirely abstract element from which the stark verticals of the windsurfing kart protrude dramatically. The absence of colour in the image adds to the sense of desolation and enhances the geometric nature of the composition.

Global Hoodie

Global Hoodie

I am always fascinated primarily by circumstantial compositions which encapsulate a moment, or which seem to have been created or placed by an unseen hand. This photograph, taken at the Blinc Festival in Conwy, wales, captures a hooded figure silhouetted against one of the exhibited pieces around the town. Aside from the pleasing aesthetics (the alternate black against the deep purple and curves against lines portraying an almost space-age like imagery), the connotations struck me as interesting; the attitudes which fuel our modern day witchhunt against ‘hoodies’ imbue this image with a sinister undertone (silhouetted hoodie/unseen face), yet the reality was, of course, entirely different.

Balti House

Balti House

Taken in a side street just off Brick Lane, this image captures the humour inherent in much of the artwork around that area. As well as high-end, large scale pieces such as the giant stork, there are hundreds of small individual pieces which encapsulate the tone of the area; figures and characters dotted around, reappearing in various guises and situations and becoming almost envisionings of living creations. In this image there appears a blurring of the boundaries between the real and the imagined. I see the walking man and the graffiti as intrinsically entwined; both part of the fabric of the streetscape and both characters in my created image.

Mr Scream

Mr Scream

My favourite type of image is one such as this; created by chance, by a combination of weather, nature and human impact and resulting in a beautifully startling moment. As the winter snow started to melt, I spotted this image, the tarmac underneath revealed to create the image of a gaping mouth, the overall effect reminiscent of a Mr Men character. I am a big fan of Andy Goldsworthy and his landscape interventions which produce art in nature using materials found nearby. However, I like to take this one step further and not intervene at all, but to discover; to look carefully and find unusual and artistic compositions such as this which are naturally occurring.

White Witch

White Witch

The contrast between the threat of the sharp rose thorns and the purity of the white snow scattered on its tips instinctively brings to my mind the fairytale stories of my childhood; the ever simplistic contrast of good and evil is reflected not only in the materialism of sharp and soft but also in the monochrome tones of the image. Backed by a grey winter sky the traditional beauty of the rose has died; turning the power struggle on its head, the snow, with its seemingly gentle demeanour, has succeeded in destroying the flower’s primary function. The story which unravels challenges assumption and prejudice and forces us to re-assess traditional ideas of beauty.

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