A Day Out in Cambridge

My fluorescent yellow pass to see Patti Smith in concert in Cambridge

Hi, Welcome to my latest blog post. I thought I’d talk to you about my day out in Cambridge on 29 May 2022. It feels like we’re still coming out of lockdown and that there’s a lot to learn and take in. So, what did I do on my day out in Cambridge?

Patti Smith

Nine months ago, I booked a ticket to see Patti Smith in concert. As an artist, I need music like water; it’s one of those evocative and pleasurable things that helps me. It doesn’t just help me; it reaches my soul. 

Dancing Barefoot

Patti Smith is part of my growing up. When I listen to “Dancing Barefoot,” it takes me straight back to the bedroom of a teenage girl whose father was dying of brain cancer. I danced barefoot in my bedroom while her voice helped me deal with my emotions.

Also, I admire that she has had no plastic surgery; she’s a rebel and a poet. Constantly photographed for her androgynous looks and sticking-out eyes, Patti Smith had hair under her armpit and used that on an album’s front cover. Similarly, I had hair under my armpit and didn’t like shaving; it made it sore and went bright red – it was a horrible practice. And as my mother said, “Mediterranean women don’t shave under their armpits.”

So, Patti Smith set a precedent for me, and that led to a day out in Cambridge to see her dancing barefoot on the stage. At 75, her voice still made me cry because it took me to nostalgic places where only the evocative singer can transport me to. Listening to her record just isn’t the same thing. There isn’t the atmosphere, movements, or vibrations of the voice you get in a live show.

She sang her greatest hit, “Because the Night,” a song that really is Patti Smith’s song. The song co-writer and king of rock, Bruce Springsteen, said that only a woman could bring to that song what it needed.

Patti Smith on stage at Cambridge Corn Exchange
The legend Patti Smith herself on stage

Although I’d booked to see Patti Smith, the idea that I would go to Cambridge just for the gig seemed nonsense. So, I went there for the day. I didn’t just want to spend my time shopping, and there is plenty else to experience on a day out in Cambridge.

Kettle’s Yard: Ai Wei Wei

Famous for its universities, old buildings, colleges, canals, and narrow boats, Cambridge also has an art gallery called Kettle’s Yard. On arrival at Kettle’s Yard, I was fortunate to discover that Ai Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian, and activist, had an exhibition. Ai Weiwei’s works, beautifully crafted in jade, marble, and porcelain, explore contemporary issues, draw on his life story, and transforms familiar artifacts into iconic objects.

I’ve seen his work on and off over the years. His most significant piece I saw at Tate modern was the sunflower seeds that was briefly shut off due to the dust. He is an exciting artist and a dissident in China who left because of the state’s repression. It’s important to remember that people are not the government of their countries. No matter where someone is from, they are very likely to have criticisms of the government.

Artifacts

Ai Weiwei’s works are between artifacts in the British Museum and redeployed artifacts that could take on new meanings for the current time. One of the pieces at Kettles Yard was his “Brain Scan Image on Plate,” showing the inflammation caused to him by police brutality.

Brain Scan Image on Plate, Ai Wei Wei on show at Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
Brain Scan Image on Plate, Ai Wei Wei

Others consisted of things like a marble toilet roll which focused on panic buying at the beginning of the Pandemic. Using everyday objects, he allows us to converse with ourselves about our daily lives and see how mundane objects can be turned into artifacts and crafts through the use of materials. Duchamp gave us a ready-made, whereas Ai Weiwei is bringing us a toilet roll made out of marble.

Other objects, such as the handcuffs made in jade, change the context in which we view them. When we look at the handcuffs, we might think about getting arrested, while some people might also think about sexual fetishes. Ai Wei Wei’s work plays with that idea and adds in the context of his life experience.

I enjoyed one of the artist’s most famous images, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.” What would you call them? To me, they look like photographs made out of Lego. Of course, Lego is a child’s toy but put into this context is a costly form of art. The images were of holding an artifact, dropping an artifact, and then holding an artifact. Maybe there’s something quite creepy about that? How do we categorize what makes an object from the past an ‘artifact,’ what we should be reproducing, and what we can’t (leading to fakes)? Is it about smashing something precious and hierarchical to make way for a new future?

Some of the porcelain objects on show at Ai Wei Wei's exhibition at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
Cabinet filled with objects

Art is More than Just a Hanging in a Living Room

Something else that caught my eye was several blue and white plates, which is such a strong tradition but also, to some extent, links him to Grayson Perry for me. The blue-and-white plates had scenes of war, arrest, fighting, and refugee status – telling the stories of universal unrest.

Many people say to me, “Would your paintings go in my living room?” But would they have Ai Wei Wei’s plate in their living room, which shows people getting arrested, carried on stretchers after being shot, or blown up?

Art is a conversation the beholder has with the work. Art helps us understand our human vulnerabilities. The pieces in this exhibition showed our collective vulnerabilities with objects.

Toilet Roll: First World Status Taken For Granted

Take the toilet roll, for example: something so mundane, so dull that we take it for granted. Toilet roll does not exist in every country in the world; therefore, it’s a first-world item. Ai Wei Wei’s marble toilet roll is unusable, and a toilet roll is not the most beautiful of objects nor the most exciting object to choose to highlight. Yet, for most people in society, a toilet roll is probably one of the most important things to have, especially in the first world. Yet, some cultures choose not to use toilet rolls, so this item holds no relevance for them. In addition, toilet roll also relates to pollution. Before we had toilet rolls, what did we do to wipe our bottoms? 

Ai Wei Wei’s marble toilet roll could break your foot if you drop it. To bring more context to this artwork, the real-world toilet roll, made of tissue in a bit of cardboard, is soft and kind. We all know it was hard/difficult, with toilet rolls in short supplies due to bulk buying. The contrast between hard and soft makes me think of before and after. So there is something quite interesting about the marble. If you drop it, would it smash into a thousand pieces, or would it just chip? 

Placed in a cabinet he brought from the British Museum, he displayed it alongside other objects such as the plate of his brain scan, the handcuffs, a sex toy, and an iPhone – leaving us to contemplate the ‘every day’; although, handcuffs and sex toys may not be everyday objects for everyone.

Shared Love for Cats

Like me, Ai Weiwei also draws his 2 cats.

“I like cats very much because of their independent character, alertness, and understanding of human beings; I have feelings approximating to reverence for them. Cats have been regarded as psychic animals since ancient times, no matter in China or Ancient Greece. What’s even more interesting is that if a selfie of mine would be seen by 100 people, a cat photo would be seen by 1000 people. I believe that everyone can share this happiness.”

– Ai Wei Wei

Oddly I did not know this about him when I was painting and drawing my cats, as I have found that painting them has helped me laugh and smile as they bring a kind of cheer to my day. So I am going to continue to draw and paint my cats. My painting, “Tiddles,” can be found in my growing gallery/catalogue.

Vegeterian Food on a Day Out in Cambridge

A generous halloumi platter at Gardenia on Rose Crescent in Cambridge
A very generous vegetarian halloumi platter

During my day out in Cambridge, I also needed to eat, as you do. My partner and I found a lovely little Greek café called Gardenia on Rose Crescent with seating upstairs. I had halloumi salad while he had a falafel salad. It was plenty of food and all for £13 – perfect for most budgets. We also tried out the crêpe shop, which offered gluten-free crepes; it was excellent, and the staff was friendly towards us day-trippers from London.

So that’s just a little about how I, as an artist, get inspiration, which helps me continue making my art pieces.

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