Films for ‘Renewal’

The theme of ‘renewal’ gave me a little bit more difficulty when thinking of what films I would recommend. But then it suddenly dawned on me. Renewal could be an excellent prism through which to view films where the lead character(s) go through a process of change that leads to their redemption, even though the journey may be difficult at times. I think that this time of year is a good time to evaluate what we’ve been through over the past year and to plan our journeys for the future. What better way to do this than in a cathartic manner through film?

Gravity (2013)

The first film I would like to recommend is one that I came late to, having only recently watched the DVD. That film is Gravity (2013) and I found it to to be an intense viewing experience. The film deals with the difficulties that a small group of astronauts experience when trying to fix the Hubble telescope in space. The film’s focus is of the protagonist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and her powerful development and evolution. The story is  quite metaphysical and though it would be classed as a science fiction film I was struck with how deep the religious and re-birth aspects are that run throughout. I won’t give any spoilers away but will say that if you’re looking for a film to represent renewal of a main character in terms of evolution of personality and bravery you can’t go wrong with watching Gravity!

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

The second film that I would like to recommend is The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). I know that opinion has been divided over this film (mainly due to it’s central message and that it deviates slightly from actual events). I would also not always agree with it central message that being incredibly rich solves all of life’s problems. However, the emotional intensity of the acting in this film is what sways it for me to recommend it for the theme of ‘renewal’. The Pursuit of Happyness tells the real life tale of Chris Gardner’s struggle with homelessness and being the sole carer of his son after the breakdown of his job and relationship in San Francisco. His one hope is to win the coveted position at a stock brokerage firm during a competitive internship against nineteen other candidates. The sheer tenacity of the central character and the strength and difficulties that he goes through with his son to achieve his ambition are astonishing. The central performances from Will Smith and his real life son Jaden are excellent and I think this is one of the best film roles I have seen Will Smith act in. Will was nominated for an Oscar, losing out to Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. The acting in the scene where he has barricaded himself and his son into a tube station toilet overnight to sleep is astonishing, as is Will Smith’s acting in the final dramatic scene. This is an emotional journey to go through and you do really root for that ‘happy’ ending, for everything to turn out ok in the end.

Ray (2004)

Ray is the final film that I would like to recommend on the subject of renewal for January. Jamie Foxx  was awarded a well deserved Oscar and BAFTA for best actor in this role playing Ray Charles. This film being a biopic does differ from actual events like above. However, the  journey that the central character undertakes is astonishing. We follow the story of Ray Charles from extreme poverty as a child in Georgia through family tragedy, discrimination in the form of racism, overcoming blindness and drug addiction. All of these struggles occurring whilst Ray was creating some amazing music that has been very influential on subsequent recording artists. It really is a great film and Jamie Foxx is incredible in how much he resembled Ray Charles in his physical movement and voice. I first watched Ray when I had gone through stressful experiences of my own and I felt it cathartic to watch this character’s journey. The film does offer a kind of redemptive hope and channels the power of psychotherapy to help when life throws up stumbling blocks in your journey’s path.

These are the three films that I’ve come up with for the themes of ‘renewal’ in January, can you think of any others that you would like to nominate?

Books for ‘Renewal’

It’s that time of year again when we all start to evaluate and make New Year’s Resolutions or not as the case may be! What better time then, to start with some reading resolutions and make this the year that you begin to read something you may have never read before or why not choose to re-read an old favourite?

On the subject of ‘renewal’ I see as being a positive word as to me, this speaks of re-evaluation of one’s self and a chance to learn something new and what better time to do this then at the start of a new year?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The first book I would recommend is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I first read this during my first year of university, I had heard that there was a bit of a buzz around this book as I was working at a bookshop at the time and had put off reading it until I had read pretty much all I wanted to read at the time and decided to give this a go and I wasn’t disappointed. This book really spoke to me as I was going through a pretty rough time and it gave me hope that things would turn out alright in the end. It also resonated with me the belief that life is a journey with many twists and turns along the way and that we all have courage inside of us and we must learn to trust in this. Santiago is the Andalusian shepherd boy who sets off on a quest around the world to find a hidden treasure with unexpected results. I don’t want to give any more away but you really should read it, it’s a very interesting book.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Another book that I would like to recommend that allies with the subject of ‘renewal’ is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I read this book two years ago when going through a difficult period of re-diagnosis for a long-standing health condition. Harold Fry, a retired sales rep from a Devon brewery is contacted by an old friend and former colleague who he felt he betrayed years ago. She now has cancer and what begins as a simple posting of a reply to her letter turns into a pilgrimage on foot from Kingsbridge South Devon to Berwick upon Tweed in Northumberland. Along his journey, Harold meets a diverse variety of people, some of whom decide to follow him for parts of his journey when his story is picked up by local news along the way. Harold comes across as a likeable man who is open to letting others join him on his journey, though at times he does realise he needs solitude for reflection. He also becomes very accepting when his journey changes along the way, and learns to let go of both his temporary companions and any negative emotions that arise during his journey.

Despite the subject matter the book is very life affirming. The physical journey is just really a metaphor for what Harold learns from meeting other people and by having time and solitude to reflect on his difficult past and learning how to accept and come to terms with this resulting in Harold becoming a stronger person emotionally. All of these moments cause Harold to significantly change his perspective on life. In this way for the physical journey being a metaphor for an emotional journey. It made me think of how much long-term illness is a metaphorical journey in itself in that you learn about yourself and learn to adapt your life which results in change.

Wild – From Lost to Found on the Pacific-Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.

The final book I would like to recommend on the subject of renewal is Wild – From Lost to Found on the Pacific-Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. The film with Reese Witherspoon is out now and I hope to see it but if you’ve not read the book it is definitely worth a read. It tells the true story of how Cheryl Strayed hiked over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone after the death of her mother, divorce and a heroin addiction. This book taught me to trust in my intuition and be brave. I was astonished how resourceful Cheryl was and the number of times that fate intervened in her hike and the number of close encounters that she had ranging from: lack or excess of kit, need for food and water and personal safety threats from wildlife and strange men.

Wild, like the other two books uses the metaphor of a physical journey to explore emotional issues and reflect on life so far and where you would like it to go in the future. This is why I feel that these three books are journeys themselves that I believe are excellent starting points of renewal for January. Happy Reading!



‘Renewal’ in History

With the start of a new year, many millions of people around the world will embark on a regime of self-improvement. A few will stick to their resolutions beyond January. Change is often difficult and challenging, although the rewards can be far-reaching.

The idea of renewal is by no means a new thing. The concept of a “phoenix rising from the ashes” can be traced at least back to the ancient Greeks, and to other civilizations around the globe. It would seem that people around the world have a desire to create a new, better path either as a society or on a more personal level. History gives us so many examples of changes in society, and of individuals.

Britain after World War Two (Post-War Consensus)

Britain after the experience of the Second World War was far from “Great”. The population had experienced a great deal of trauma. Many cities were reduced to rubble from bombing during the Blitz. Families had been separated, and many people had died. This war is often viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of the nostalgia industry, with “GI Joes” or a “Land Girls” dancing to Big Band Swing. However, the reality was that many people had to demand basic facilities, such as the use of the London underground to shelter from bombing. It was far from fun and frivolity. However, the spirit of camaraderie which endured, and the ideas of working together as a society for a better world meant it was an experience that would fundamentally shake people into wanting a better way forward.

WWII,_England,_-West_End_London_Air_Raid_Shelter-_-_NARA_-_195768People sheltering from the blitz in an Underground Station

The experience of war, and knowing that it was possible for the government to make things fairer by organising the limited resources in times of war, gave people a taste of how things could work better for all. The people had fought a tough war, and did not want to return to a country that would have fundamental problems unaddressed. Great inequalities were present. Healthcare was only accessible to those who could afford it, and there was a lack of jobs and housing. Having gone through challenging times, the people had come to a realisation of how to make things better. From the rubble, the hope of the future of the nation began; a future that was a renewal of sort. Policies that were brought in included full-employment, a comprehensive welfare state, and the creation of the National Health Service. These were widely popular, and helped renew the society and justify most people’s dreams for a fairer one. With the improvements in living standards over the decades since 1945, many of which were a result of the changes in policy, some of these ideas have gone out of favour or become watered down. However, the legacy from this time of renewal persists and some ideals are largely held dear by the British people, such as that of universal health care regardless of ability to pay. The regeneration brought after World War Two was quite remarkable, and demonstrates the power of progressive change.

The story of Amazing Grace

The song Amazing Grace is perhaps one of the most famous hymns, and it being a song about redemption, a personal renewal of sorts. The first well known verse, exemplifies this:

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.”

Sometimes in history, the story of an individual becomes so widely popular that it encompasses an aspect of the time, or, at least exemplifies an admiration of how all of us should aspire to be. The song ‘Amazing Grace’ has a curious history. It was written in 1779 during the height of the slave trade.

The lyricist, John Newton, was a former slave-ship captain, who became transformed. In the song, Newton describes his radical turn away from his past ways and a growing sense within that he held and saw a new way of being. His experiences of seeing the abuse given to slaves on his ship awoke an awareness and paved the way for an epiphany of the soul. Formerly, he was uncaring and callous, only valuing the monetary value of the slaves. This realisation would come to him during his life after his time at sea , when he was an Anglican Clergyman and saw this enlightened view as a gift from God.

After this time Newton became an avid campaigner to abolish the slave trade and was of great help to the well-known abolitionist William Wilberforce. The pamphlet Newton wrote – Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, was especially influential with Wilberforce.

John_newton_plaque John Newton Memorial Plaque

Final Thoughts…

These are just two examples of how renewal can be found in different times, places and situations. Renewal is a universal phenomenon, and there are so many examples out there. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on or experiences of renewal.

  Image source

Air Raid Shelter Photo from:
By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Newton Picture from:
By Susan Yates (Open Plaques donation) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Golden Barrel Cactus Renewed

Golden Barrel Cactus

Throughout history, we as people have explored the globe and carved out landscapes to make homes for ourselves. This holds true from ancient times all the way to the present day. The consequences have been significant for the natural world. Consequences including deforestation, climate change and even extinction of species.

However, the natural world has long been known for its regenerative capabilities. Renewal, as is so often seen in the natural world such as when winter turns to spring, when eucalyptus trees regrow after a fire and even in this peculiar case of the Golden Barrel cactus (Echinocactus Grusonii).

This beautiful, striking and fearsome plant, almost alien in appearance and completely bizarre has quite a contrasting tale to tell. In the wild the Golden Barrel cactus is rare and has become an endangered species.

The natural home of the cactus was once a dry, dusty valley but has now become a lake. This is due to the building of the Zimapán Dam in the Mexican state of Querétaro. In one fell swoop the home of an entire species was devastated by mankind’s desire to progress.

But this is far from the end of the story, the Golden Barrel cactus is probably best known in its juvenile form. Often seen in hardware shops and garden centres in the house plant aisle. It is so ubiquitous in cultivation that many forms have been created, including some without spines, multi-headed plants and crested varieties.

Cactus field
Golden Barrel cactus farm in southern China

It is so common in cultivation due to farms in southern China. These farms grow thousands upon thousands of these in fields on a huge commercial scale. They are often seen all over the world in hardware stores, garden centres and even supermarkets. In all possibility there might be more plants of this species being grown now than there ever were in the wild.

Landscapers, gardeners and cacti and succulent collectors are indeed very lucky to be able to still have this plant available to them. However, it is perhaps the plant collectors, explorers and botanists we should also thank for keeping this plant very much alive despite its original home being lost.

Perhaps one day it can be re-introduced back into the wild, near its original home and will once again grace the desert landscape with its prominent, rugged form. Till that day it will be grown and bought in the hundreds of thousands by people all over the world as a house plant and an outside plant for those in favourable climes.

This shows a form of renewal which is perhaps a little unorthodox, indeed some might say it is almost ironic how man’s intervention saved a species but also made it nearly extinct.

As we all head forward into this new year I am sure we can appreciate that seemingly trivial choices and decisions that we make can have a much bigger impact than expected. Had it not been for a keen interest in collecting and cultivating this plant, it may well have gone the way of the Dodo.

Stranger than Fiction

After a successful London run at The Science Museum, conceptual artist and photographer Joan Fontcuberta’s Stranger than Fiction exhibition moved north to The National Media Museum in Bradford where we visited on a cold and wet December day. I had already researched online and seen some videos and read a bit of background information before going to this exhibition but despite doing this I was still surprised at how much was revealed. I knew that the exhibits we were going to see had been created and were not real though pretended to be so. The National Media Museum is split over several floors and this exhibition was also split up into two galleries (Galleries One and Two) over two floors. We visited in reverse order, seeing Gallery Two before Gallery One. Gallery Two featured two displays, Sirens (2000) and Karelia, Miracles & Co (2002). Unfortunately you could not take photos so the images I provide here are not from the actual exhibition.

Sirens (2000)

Out of the entire exhibition, my favourite area was most certainly Sirens (2000). Sirens was mostly comprised of a series of large photographs of fossils of Hydropithecus alpinus (human skeletons with a fish tail or mermaids). Hydropithecus alpinus (a form of sea cow) was said to be discovered by Father Jean Fontana (a play on the artist’s name) in 1947 in the foothills of the French Alps. These creatures or ‘mer-people’ were presented in the exhibition as verified by anthropo-palaentologists to be a link between the evolution of the sea and land animals. The site where they were found were stated as being a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Fontcuberta had so convincingly portrayed these discoveries, the large photographs were stunning and the way that they appeared to cling quite precariously to the side of eroded cliffs or appear to be discovered on the seabed was very cleverly portrayed and extremely playful. Some of the photos had stories attached to them about their discoveries and the lives that they might have lived Cerro de san vincente was a photo of a Hydropithecus and child and was accompanied by a description saying that they may both have died as a result of childbirth. The photo of The Bes rock shelter with two adult Hydropithecus skeletons had a description from Fontana’s diary stating that these were “…the Bes lovers, petrified and together for all eternity.” This brought to mind the evocative Cave of Swimmers scene in The English Patient where they discovered ancient cave paintings to people swimming in what became a desert. The Beaujeau skeleton was said to feature evidence of bone-making techniques and suggested that the hydropitheque had tools and perhaps had murdered the individual found.

Scientific archaeological techniques were presented as having analysed the age, sex and teeth of the hydropitheque where possible and had discovered that some had dietary deficiencies. The first skeleton discovered was from the Saint Benoit Waterfall preserved in the limestone and discovered due to erosion of the rock. The description accompanying this states that: “This landscape represents prehistoric life in its infancy where our ancestors used natural shelters as frail protection against the raging elements.” The language used here ans in other places of the exhibition was very poetic.

Aside from the huge photos in Sirens, there were two glass cabinets, one had a resin cast of a Font Chaude hydropitheque skeleton which looked remarkably realistic on the way that it was created it brought to mind many fossil casts that I have previously seen in museums and on television. I think this was because instead of creating a tail-fin out of bone he had printed an imprint of the tail on the rock which is just how you would see fossilised fish remains. A glass cabinet of curiosities relating to the finds was used to further anchor the exhibit to reality. In the cabinet amongst other items was a mocked up but very realistic looking and faux aged copy of National Geologic magazine (obviously based on National Geographic) with the seabed hydropitheque remains on the front cover. There were also Fontana’s pencil sketches of the hydropithecus skeletons, his rosary bead and wooden crucifixes. These cabinets of evidence further made the exhibit seem to appear be a real archaeological find or at least make people wonder if it was.

There was something incredibly haunting and poetic about Sirens that really resonated with me I think it was the combination of the huge glossy photos and the attempts to anchor these into a form of reality which was playful and created an inventive story that I really enjoyed. I think that Fontcuberta was trying to play with our idea of photography as representing the complete and utter truth, this is so pervasive in our culture and can be seen in the increasing reliance of photo and video identity to prevent and identify criminals but also in fashion photography where models are routinely airbrushed but we often forget this, hence the rise of depression, self harm and eating disorders in Western society.

The increasing availability of camera technology also increases the extent that people can create their own truth and fiction. The predominance of selfies and image adjusted photos  that people create and then use to represent as pictures of themselves which are not real but are presented as being so online. Therefore, Sirens was ahead of its time in this respect. I think it resonates even more today than it did fourteen years ago.

It seemed liked Fontcuberta was also making a statement about authority in society and that it was a monk who had first discovered this species was perhaps making a statement about religion and that a monk could be perceived as being the authoritative truth as a man of god and that these remains should not therefore be questioned. If he was making a comment on this then it was interesting that Sirens led into the next exhibition which had much to say about religion.

Karelia Miracles & Co (2002)

Wooden Cross in Demark

 Karelia Miracles & Co (2002) was a investigation by Fontane who went undercover as a novice monk to expose the fraudulent miracles that were said to be performed at a monastery. Karelia (an area between Finland and Russia) was said to be the location of the interdenominational Valhamonde Monastery where monks learned to perform miracles. Fontane was dressed as an Eastern Orthodox Priest though the exhibition seemed to be commenting on this and Catholic religion.

A video displaying short films of Fontane performing miracles was very comedic, my favourite clip was of him smoking in front of a tomb with an effigy of a man on top and when he inhaled the cigarette the smoke exhaled from the effigy! There was also a clip of him performing a speech which could not be heard or translated but was orated at a plinth very expressively with his hands bringing to mind dictators speeches and the accompanying subtitles at the end said although we couldn’t translate what was said it was a very important speech (or words to that effect). Again, in a different way this part of the exhibition was playful, with Fontacuberta making commentary on what he saw as  the fraudulence of religion and its beliefs and perhaps people who steadfastly stick to these and take everything that is presented to them as the gospel of truth without question. He looked at the absurdity of this belief through pencil sketches of the Karelian Tarot of Sound Advice which displayed cards such as: 1. Avoid at all costs being decapitated and 4. Do not take part in the fratricidal disputes of trolls. He then presented a selection of photos of ‘miracles’ most performed by Munkki Juhani (the undercover monk) which began with a photo of him teaching a group of Laponian meerkats to read and getting more and more bizarre and absurd including such miracles as The miracle of the flesh where an image of Che Guevara (confused with Jesus Christ) appears in a leg of Iberian ham. Apparently, “…depending on the sort of acorns the pig was fed this can also reveal the face of Adolf Hitler and, even more rarely, Osama Bin Laden…”

Other photos displayed showed the monk in a block of solid ice The miracle of cryonisation, or on fire on a boat in The Miracle of will ow the wisp and even walking on water and dolphin surfing! Two glass cabinets of other items from the investigation were displayed on top of aged stone tables that looked very catherdral-esque. One cabinet contained items such as a Mirror (Juhaney Grey) with a description beside it stating: ”…curiously it is an ordinary mirror that reflects what you put in front.” The other cabinet contained small photos from the investigation of journalist Joan Fontuberta from: Demystifiers without borders which is obviously a play on doctors without borders. The interesting objects in the second cabinet were relics consisting of what looked like small bird bones and a ring and also in a small box what was stated as being carcasses of Insects and arachnids from the third plague of Egypt.

This part of the exhibition was playful and the most comedic part of Stranger than Fiction I feel that it gave the idea of being able to discover who Fontcuberta is in terms of his sense of humour and felt like the most revealing part of the exhibition in that sense.

Fauna (1987)

Gallery One exhibited other parts of the Fontcuberta exhibition. The first exhibition was Fauna (1987) which I have to admit I myself and my accompanying visitor had strong reactions to. This part of the exhibition was completely different to what I was expecting. I was expecting to see lots of images of photo-shopped animals or creatures like a kind of photo bestiary. There were photos and descriptions of the animals, however there was also quite a lot of taxidermy of bits of different creatures stuck together! The visitor I went to the exhibition with had to leave the room as they instantly felt nauseous and I must admit I couldn’t spend as long as I had planned to in this part of the exhibition as I too started to feel ill. I do wonder if this was part of the intention of Fontcuberta for people to have a strong reaction to Fauna as no other visitors seemed to linger in this part of the exhibition and hurried through. My instant reaction was revulsion and disgust and it was incredibly grotesque. The parts I did manage to make notes of were that the narrative of Fauna which was that it was all the work of Professor of Tetraology (abnormal development in animals) Peter Ameisenhaufen (1895-1955) who catalogued and investigated all of these strange creatures but who disappeared mysteriously in the Scottish Highlands in 1955. I did wonder if Fontcuberta was making a commentary on this by inventing a sort of punishment for this Professor, was it that the same or a different strange animal(s) came for him in the lonely wilds of Scotland in revenge? He made it sound very ominous as to how and why this man had disappeared and does make you think how did this created narrative for this man actually end? Thank goodness the rest of the exhibition reverted back to photography again!

Herbarium (1984)

Aster Tataricus

Herbarium (1984) was the first set of photos you encounter and is comprised of a number of black and white botanical looking photos each said to represent a specimen of exotic plants. In actual fact the photos are comprised of a series of objects put together to represent a flower such as a rubber hose and pieces of plastic. These images were described as being influenced by the work of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) a botanical photographer who specialised in detailed clos-ups of plants. I found this part of the exhibition fairly interesting as I love botanical illustrations. Again, Fontcuberta was displaying his playful and inventive nature here by trying to disguise the flowers as being real and not invented. You could not tell if the plant was real or not in a number of the photos which showed how successful his endeavour was in challenging the nature of truth.

Orogenesis (2002)

Orogenesis (2002) was a beautiful series of computer generated mountain-scapes that were created by using a program called Terragen which was originally created for geographers and surveyors that created maps of three dimensional landscapes. This series of mountain images were beautiful and were split into colour images and black and white ones. They did bring to mind Lord of the Rings landscapes with their powerful rocky mountains and sheer valleys which looked even more stark in black and white. Some of the images used paintings as their inspiration such as Orogenesis: Turner which was a stunning photo of what looked like a Bronte-esque Wuthering Heights moor-like terrain except it was covered in a dusting of bright red heather instead of purple heather and was inspired by William Turner’s The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons (1835). Fontcuberta also used paintings by Gainsborough and Cezanne to influence the images created in Orogenesis.

Constellations (1993)

Constellations (1993), was the last part of the exhibition and consisted of several photos that were starkly black with white dots on said to represent the night sky. Several of the images though did look like bird deposits on a car windscreen! After reading about this exhibition I found out that Fontcuberta actually did use his car windscreen to create these images with dust, deceased insects and other debris, some of which may have been bird-related to create these images. I am not sure how well these images did actually represent the night sky but it was an interesting experiment nonetheless.


In summary, I would say that the Stranger than Fiction exhibition was a mixed bag. I really enjoyed the Sirens exhibit which I thought was inventive in its narrative and beautiful in the imagery created. The Karelia Miracles & Co exhibit was also playful and very satirical take on authority and religion. Both of these exhibits I would happily go to see again. I also thought that Orogenesis was beautiful and creative and would go to see this again. Constellations and Herbarium were less interesting to me personally but I wouldn’t mind going to see these again if I was going to another exhibition. Fauna however, though it was a creative narrative and I liked the story behind it, especially the mysterious disappearance of the Professor, I was repulsed by the grotesque taxidermy and feel it went too far as the narrative could have been retained through photo-shopped images instead. I do know that this exhibition has been acclaimed internationally and this is just my personal reaction and is no reflection on the artist or his work. I felt that by including the taxidermy this may have  possibly been the deliberate intention of the artist to create strong reactions amongst visitors. Overall I would go to visit Stranger than Fiction again and especially recommend Sirens, Karelia Miracles & Co and Orogenesis.