Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 9 March 2008

Once the Gormenghastly pinnacles of St Pancras Chambers have been fully converted to luxury penthouses, or whatever, and the hinterlands of King's Cross have been fully regenerated, this is going to be a pretty impressive part of London. The presence of the British Library puts it well on the way already, of course.

Notwithstanding one of Prince Charles's sillier remarks, I've always thought the British Library a wonderful building, since the first moment I went inside. Of course, I was biased, having gone there from trying to study in an undersized university library overwhelmed by "study groups" that wouldn't shut up. Going to a proper grown-up library, with everything to hand and nothing to disturb or distract, was like a holiday.

Today I went back to see what's new in the (free!) display galleries. I had thought to practise some nostalgia in 1968 - on record (yes, I do remember it, and I was there - indeed I once nearly stepped on Charles's toes coming out of a lecture at Cambridge), but (why do I think this seems characteristic of 1968?) the computerised sound archive was on the blink, so all I could see were some all too familiar news photos and captions.

So I went downstairs to Breaking the Rules, stuffed full of avant-garde Isms from all parts of Europe. Paris, Moscow and St Petersburg take pride of place, but there are cases of examples not just from London, Brussels and Berlin, but Belgrade, Tallinn, Kyiv and all points in between. Although it claims not be an art exhibition, and to focus on print, film and music are also there. Perhaps I left it too late before lunch (the BL has quite a nice café, too) and it would repay an extended visit, but I'm afraid I find myself tending to the "Yes, well, and...?" point of view. Yes, I know that in any age there is lazy conventional thinking to be challenged, new things happening that could change perception and social relations, but a lot of the experimental doesn't really inspire. And for all the wickedness of the Nazi and Stalinist response to the avant-garde-isms they saw as dangerously independent, I can't ignore the point that both Hitler and Stalin were, in their way, frustrated artists in their own dogmatisms: an artist with a manifesto is not necessarily an unmitigated good for humanity.

Not particularly avant-garde is this 3-D piece of trompe-l'oeil in the basement, which has amused me since my first visit to the BL (it's called Paradoxymoron):

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