So, on Thursday I went to see this wonderful exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London with my lovely friend Beatriz (www.wellcomecollection.org/). It was a collection of retablos or paintings commissioned to give thanks to a saint or the Virgin Mary or Jesus for a miraculous cure or the prevention of a terrible accident. They are quite naive and often painted on tin plaques. They tell fascinating stories of the most awful calamities befalling people which were rectified through divine intervention. Being Colombian, Beatriz could read the inscriptions in Spanish and went round the exhibition in stitches at the heightened dramatic language of the inscriptions which she thought had rather lost something in translation. I was open-mouthed at the awful tales of bandits, firing squads, abductions, death, disease and disaster and more death as she had tears rolling down her cheeks. We both, however, loved the film of a woman who had commissioned a plaque after a saint helped her to make perfect tortillas after years of torment by her demanding mother. In the next room was a costume for a wooden saint who is paraded through a village in Mexico in an outfit covered in ex-votos sewn on to make patterns not unlike a pearly king in this country. After that was an installation by the artist Felicity Powell which was a response to an Edwardian collection of charms and amulets.
The individual pieces were just lovely, but the massed collection of historical pieces was extraordinary, and the film of Powell making her wax pieces, which look like cameos, was mesmerising. I was aware that I was sitting with my mouth wide open. One of the most magical seven minutes that I have spent.
The information panel on the wall about the video said:
For ‘Sleight of Hand’ Powell filmed the making of her own small-scale world in wax with an overhead camera, revealing how they take shape, and playing with the sense that making and engaging with objects is in itself rather like being under a spell.
I think that’s exactly right. When I am in the middle of a project that really has life and really captures my imagination, it is like being bewitched. I have been kept awake at night regularly by thoughts of projects that won’t let me go. And the celebrated definition of being ‘in the zone’ from the creativity guru Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is about flow experiences when you lose track of time and don’t know if you have been working for three hours or thirty minutes. He could be describing being bewitched. Being suspended in time and experiencing timelessness is s key part of creativity which I don’t think has received that much attention. But watching Powell working on her tiny wax pieces with dentist’s tools was mesmerising and like being put under a spell.
All that, plus the exhibitions are free. Plus the cafe is surely one of the best in London. Plus the bookshop is a fascinating place with wonderful books about science and art, material cultures, and the psychology of objects. And it’s a really good place to buy presents.
It’s on from 6 October-26 February 2012. So plenty of time to see it.