Sunday, 8 February 2009

The Statue of Liberty Under Construction - Remarkable Photographs

The New York Public Library has recently unveiled some extraordinary pictures of the Statue of Liberty under construction. Take a trip back in time and see extraordinary behind the scenes images of the creation of this superlative structure.

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A giant is formed. The sheer scale of the statue under construction can be seen here, in contrast to the workmen posing woodenly for that fairly new invention, the camera. The more formal name for the statue is Liberty Enlightening the World and it is constructed with sheets of pure copper, even though the picture makes it look something like marble. It is something of a miracle that we now have the finished product standing proudly on Liberty Island. Had it not been for the contributions of ordinary French and Americans then she would never have arisen in the first instance.

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Such is the immensity of the statue one can only wonder whether or not the workmen pictured above had any idea which part of the statue they were working on at any one time. The photograher Albert Fernique, who captured these pictures around 1883, must have been in a certain awe at the immensity of the statue and his images capture its sheer scale and size beautifully. The French had decided to give the United States of America something for their centennial independence celebrations that the Americans and the world would never forget. The process of building was painstaking, slow and fraught with financial difficulties. The copper ‘shell' was only what the public would see. What lies beneath - both in terms of its structure and the story behind its erection - is almost as startling.

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Officials survey the workshop - models of statues can just be seen in the background. While they probably had an idea that their statue would become an icon of freedom the world over, the French politicians of the day had some rather more down to earth reasons for gifting the immense sculpture to the States. French politics. Perhaps for this reason the source of the copper has never been revealed. The rumor had always been that the copper was of Norwegian origin, from a village called Visnes, rather than a French source. In 1985 Bell Labs confirmed that this was fairly likely to be true.

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At the time France was in political turmoil and, although at the time under their third republic, many people looked back at the time of Napoleon and the monarchy before that with fondness and wanted its return. The desire for a backwards step to authoritarianism was worrying. French politicians - as wily then as now - saw Lady Liberty as a way, albeit phenomenally huge, to focus the public's imagination on republicanism as the best way forward. The USA and its centennial of independence from the yolk of England was the perfect focus.

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The plaster surface of the left arm and its hand take shape, the skeleton underneath revealed. As there is a deal of work under the carapace, so the French politicians had ulterior motives. Using the USA - which many saw as the ideal of government and populist aspirational politics - the French used the statue as a Trojan Horse in reverse, as it were. Its true purpose, in the eyes of the political gift givers, was to make republicanism the center of political ideology in the minds of the people. How greatly it succeeded can never fully be quantified but the French cannot be faulted for thinking big. It must be said here that the ordinary French, through their sunstantial buying of lottery tickets (and other fund rasing efforts) had a much purer purpose at heart than their politicians.

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It must surely have been amazing for the workers to turn up each morning to the sight of a colossal head looking down upon them. The inspiration for the face seems to be the Roman god of the sun, Apollo or his Greek equivalent, Helios. More down to earth sources of inspiration center on the women in the life of the sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. It may well have been Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a good looking and well-known figure in Paris at the time. More worrying, some believe the face of the statue actually belongs to Bartholdi's mother. Bartholdi never revealed the true model of the face, but if this is the case Freud would have had a field day.

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Bertholdi made a small scale model first, which is still displayed in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the city of the statue's original construction, Paris. Before the statue was shipped to America, though, it had to be seen to be tested. If it had not been for money, it may never have landed in the states - particularly in the form we all know. On a visit to Egypt, Bartholdi's vision of liberty expanded to its present proportions. Had his original idea received financial support, then whatever gift the French gave the Americans for the 1876 centennial could not possibly have been the statue.

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Little by little, the statue arises. Bertholdi saw the Suez Canal under construction in the eighteen sixties and was inspired to build a giant figure at its entrance. He drew up plans which bore a remarkable similarity to what now stands on Liberty Island but his ideas were rejected by the Egyptian ruling body of the time because of the financial problems the country was facing at the time. Had the staute been built in Egypt as a lighthouse, the idea would never have been taken up for America. The Statue of Liberty as we know it was in fact used as a lighthouse, from its unveiling in 1886 right until 1902 - the very first in the world to use electricity.

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Almost there! There were huge structural issues that had to be addressed in the design and construction of a sculpture of such enormity. Enter a certain Gustave Eiffel, who would later go on to build that eponymous tower which still dominates the skyline of Paris. It was his job (which he delegated to Maurice Koechlin, his favored structural engineer) to ensure that Liberty's copper sheath could move while still remaining vertical. Koechlin created a huge pylon of wrought iron and the famous skeletal frame to ensure that the statue would not fall down in high winds.

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Money was always a problem. The plan had been to get the statue to the US by the fourth of July, 1876. Only the right arm and torch were finished by then. However, as the Americans had taken responsibility for the construction of the pedestal, these pieces of the statue were displayed to the American pubic at the Centennial Exposition (in Philadelphia). Money raised by allowing people to climb this part of the statue (see here) started the funding efforts for the base of the statue. The French did their bit too, showing the head in their own exposition in 1878.

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1886 must have been one of those years that people remembered for the rest of their lives. A statue of gigantic proportions, symbolizing the ideas and aspirations of America, was unveiled by President Grover Cleveland at Liberty Island (renamed from Bedloe's Island or Love Island). In an ironic twist, President Cleveland had vetoed the New York legislature from contributing fifty thousand dollars to help with the building of the statue's pedestal. Letting bygones be bygones, President Cleveland was more than happy to officiate at the ceremony. This had not been the only problem to face the statue in the years before its final unveiling, of course. From the model stage, above, to its triumphant moment of revelation, the process was fraught with difficulty - mostly of a financial nature. However, thanks to the efforts of both the American and French people we now have a permanant reminder of what we should hold dear - liberty still symbolically steps forth from her shackles to protect, shelter and enlighten.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

You're So Vane!

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They are everywhere around us, but sometimes we don't take the time to look up and see them! Here we present the slightly bizarre world of the weather vane. Whether or not those responsible for them will put their hands in the air and own up is anyone's guess. What is obvious, however, is that there is certainly truth in the old saying - vanity, vanity, all is vanity!

People are often labeled as obsessive or compulsive or both. Many, when they hit up something that takes their fancy will cling to it for dear life. Some people collect china dolls of Princess Diana. Others will gather a million cats around them and reduce their house to a giant litter tray. At least the owner of this rather plain erection in Cuddington, near Thame, England, has more than an ounce of originality when embarking on their collection.

The first collection, although a vast array, erred towards the traditional vane. You don’t have to go far these days, however, to get a thoroughly modern take on an ancient form of functional art. This very much larger than life fish, swimming majestically through the air in Hood River, Oregon, delivers a new take on the vane both majestic and not a little scary.

If you were asked to draw a weather vane, your piece would probably include the four cardinal directions, signified by their first letters at ninety degree angles to each other. On top there would probably be a hen or maybe a rooster. Historically, though, weather vanes have often reflected the local industry of their site. Here, in Charlestown, this somewhat bizarre impaled milking cow reflects the dairy produce produced locally. Udderly Weird.

That is quite fair enough, you might say. Fish at fisheries, cows at dairies and so the world turns. However, one balancing bovine can indicate something pretty different from another. Quite what the local industry in the part of Dallas, Texas where this creation rests may be is anyone’s guess. Or perhaps not. Over to your dirty mind in three, two, one.

Still, there is a lot to be said about tradition, even when given the gilt edge gleam of the twentieth century. The golden lobster weathervane at Boston Harbor sits proudly atop the James Hook Lobster Company. Clicking its pincers at passing planes and birds, it still proudly denotes an industry cherished in the area.

Pysanka! Bless you! Actually, this enormous, round, decorated thingy is in fact the world’s largest Pysanka. For those of you without a basic knowledge of Ukrainian, that’s an Easter Egg from the aforementioned country. Having said that, this one is located in Alberta, Canada and as well as being ‘decus’ it is also ‘tutamen’. In other words it has a function. Knowing what this article is about, we will leave you to guess as to what its mysterious purpose is! Other than, that is, to make people point, gawp and say ‘Look at that huge Easter egg! Awesome!’

You must cross the border to see the world’s largest weather vane. Welcome to Whitehorse Airport in the Yukon has this outrageous example of a vane of brobdingnabian proportions. And yes, it does move with the wind. Ever so slowly. Although not an immediate indicator of a high wind, at least one DC-3 is assured of a home at an airport for the foreseeable future.

From one flight of fancy to another. If your tastes are more Lilliputian, then you won’t feel left out with these, much smaller examples in the vane game. Over to the left, out of picture, is a dam they are just about to bust. Hardly likely, particularly in their home ground of Yosemite! They provide a great big prod to the imagination, though!

Returning to connections to the sea, can you guess upon which type of structure this wonderful product of the school of twentieth century art cum kitsch sits atop? It is none other than the New York Aquarium at Coney Island. A thing of marvel, how the whole culture of a city can be encapsulated in a single weather vane!

It may be strange for lobsters to chase planes, but what is so unusual about dogs chasing birds? Not a great deal, unless they are rendered from metal and hover precariously forty feet above the ground. From the looks of the Dalmatian at the end, one hundred and one is about to become one hundred.

What European country is overly fond of its beer and regularly ‘invades’ other countries to make sure they know it during the summer? After responding with ‘every country in Europe’ please rethink and be a little more National Lampoon. Yes, it’s the Brits and this anthropomorphized toad is telling of another national obsession. No, not that, it’s the fondness the British have for animals of course! Dartmoor, well known for its American Werewolves, is where you can find this particular Mister, without Ratty and Moley for company perhaps but still enjoying life (and beer!) to the full.

From the natural home of inebriety to that of subtlety. They say that everything is bigger in America and so must be the wind. A little west of Carmen in Oklahoma, someone had the bright idea for this early warning tornado system. It should perhaps be called a weather vane-r. Or even vane-st. If this boy moves, head for the cellar!

Trust the Finns to get all minimal on us! This ever so slightly surreal attempt at the vane can be found in Helsinki. It has some of the usual accoutrements of the genre (if it can be so called) but lacks the usual directive pointers, having only four identical white ships to guide the would-be forecaster. They would, necessarily, try in vain to discover the way the wind is blowing! And yes. That particular play on words just had to be used. You were waiting for it, come on!

Often the traditional and the modern can come together in a spectacularly successful fashion, as in this vane from windswept Cumbria in the UK. This art deco re-imagination of the conventional elements of the vane does not go against the time honored ‘must haves’ of the form. Just wonderful!

Oh and pigs might fly? After any pseudo arty ramblings, something has to bring us down to earth. Oinking skyward, this flying pig shows how British humor can be subtle and, well, not all at the same time. The denizens of Derby, however, need beware. This porcine wonder has a somewhat vampiric look to him! It would be fantastic if below this vane was a pub called something like ‘The Slaughter’d Lamb’.

Straight from pigs to beef. Most people believe that a certain fast food restaurant (cough) opened in the nineteen fifties. Here is absolute proof, from the Appalachians, that the firm was opened many years before. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite get their marketing right first time around and after due consideration decided on a logo more or less at eye level. They also thought later that a color change might be appropriate. Please note, if you want a global brand, this is one lesson you should learn. Use color.

In North Carolina, a local arboretum hides in its chimney tops some beautiful vanes. Is it a leaf, a flower or is it even a shooting star? With so much art, some of the pleasure is in deciding for yourself!

Reminiscent of a flight to Oz this modern day vane fulfils its time-honored purpose with a twist of the New World Gallic. Almost guaranteed to raise a smile on the face of the average Quebecois it’s a subtle piece of modern architecture serving a conventional purpose. Is there any need to dispute which is the more important?

Which way does this bird fly in winter? This uber modern vane brings us completely up to date with established functionality sharing pride of place with innovative design. If you didn’t study Latin at school and are still wondering what the phrase ‘Decus et Tutamen’ means, it is this: ‘an ornament and a safeguard’. What better way to describe the above vane?

Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon, must have the most beautiful modern weather vane on the planet. A new city by some standards, it is unashamedly proud of the fact and that is reflected in this stunning chrome colored construction.

In a similar vein, the juxtaposition of the old and new can send a delighted shiver down many a neck. When the vane itself is not thoroughly modern, the evolving environment around it can be a ready made history lesson for the eyes.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Sea Slug Symphony

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Sea Slugs may not have the most beautiful of names but it can be argued that they are among the most beautiful of creatures on the planet. There are many species - an astounding array of color, shape and size. Join us and witness the Sea Slug Symphony below the sea!

This beautiful creature is found in the Western Pacific. A rich pinkinsh purple color, they have a white border on their mantle. They would be startling enough without, but their rhinophore clubs are an orange-yellow color that is a startling juxtaposition with the rest of their bodies. This exquisite creature is formally known as Hypselodoris apolegma.

This is Flabellina iodinea, an elegant species if ever there was one. It is also known as the Spanish Shawl because of its rich purple coloring. You can find it from the West Coast of America all the way to the Galapagos islands. The rhinophores – what we might call its horns – are used to find possible mates and its prey as well. The appendages you can see are actually gills which draw oxygen from the sea water.

Glossodoris atromarginata is found off the coast of Australia. It has a black line along the border of its mantle edge which gives it an almost modern art look. Its gills often wave in a rhythmic motion as it moves, giving the sea slug an other-worldly quality which has to be seen to be believed. It can reach six centimeters in length and is the most common species in its group.

The Hammerhead Nudibranch is a specialty in some parts of the world and you can see why it might be found attractive. A gorgeous black color with vivid, almost neon markings around its mantle, this could perhaps also be named as the Prince of Darkness of the nudibranch world. Its Latin name is Chelidonura varians and its dark beauty is a perfect contrast to the vivid brightness of other sea slug species.

Trtonia festiva, as this gorgeous specimen is known, can be found from Alaska to northern California and can be even found in the waters off Japan. Its food is the soft coral called gorgonians. Their frontal veil is used to position itself over these soft corals and then it waits to launch a surprise attack. It attacks its prey very quickly and bites off polyps before they can get back in to their protective cover. So, it may look like a delicate and peaceful creature but it is far from it!

You really would be forgiven for thinking that this is a creature recently discovered on another planet by one of the Star Trek crew. However, it is in fact Janolus barbarensis and this fabulous creature is distributed from California down to Mexico. It is named for its proximity to Santa Barbara and is in fact one of two incredibly alike species that for a time were considered the same.

These two strikingly different looking specimens are in fact the same species. Hermissenda crassicornis can look quite different and these color variations are in fact quite common. The white lines on the species can also appear blue. How they tell that they are the same species is anyone’s guess.

This is Hypselodoris bennetti and can be found off the coast of New South Wales in Australia. It can grow up to about five centimeters but is normally somewhat smaller than that. The spots are arranged randomly, so each one is unique. It is often thought to live a distance from its food, but the sponge it lives off is covered over with algae, hence the mistaken belief.

This is the aptly named Chromodoris magnifica – and so it is indeed. The name means magnificent colors and as you can see this denizen of the sea is truly gorgeous. It is from Indonesia, Australia and Papua New Guinea and feeds off red sponge. It lives in depths of about five meters and can be found as deep as thirty.

A translucent species, Chromodoris lochi has several dark bluish or black longitudinal lines that set it apart from other species. This sea slug lifts itself up and seems to be “sniffing” around. They are hermaphrodites and as such have fully functioning female and male organs. So, this species produces both eggs and sperm. When mating they position themselves by the side of another and align their genitalia to enable the passage of sperm.

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Saturday, 3 January 2009

Matt Smith to be the New Doctor Who

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How do you make a whole nation tune in to the same TV channel at the same time? A state of the nation address by the head of state? Announce the death of a senior member of the royal family? Or simply tell them that they will find out who the next actor to play that wandering Time Lord, Doctor Who in his eleventh incarnation, will be? The latter, it seems!

So it was that Matt Smith was exhibited to the nation – a lamb to the slaughter perhaps? After all, this is one of the best loved TV characters of all time and those lucky (or foolhardy enough) to be chosen for and accept this role have the hopes of a nation (if not the English speaking world!) riding on their shoulders!

The BBC was, once upon a time, accused of not being very good at marketing or self-promotion. No so anymore! In an unprecedented move the BBC announced on New Year’s Day that they would be announcing the new Doctor Who, David Tennant’s replacement on Saturday 3 November. Usually it is done as an item at the end of the news – the ‘feel good’ story to give people that little pre-bedtime boost and it is reported in the newspapers the following day.

However, due to the huge popularity of the show, and the fondness people have for Mister Tennant, the BBC made an unprecedented move. They announced that they would be unveiling the new Doctor in a special episode of the popular spin-off show, Doctor Who Confidential. Normally shown on the digital channel, BBC3, the show was, for one day only, destined for the prime Saturday tea-time slot of five thirty-five on the BBC’s flagship channel, BBC1.

Tennant announced that he was quitting the show last year and the actor replacing him has been the source of intense and frenzied media speculation since then. The rumors abounded – would the next Doctor be a woman? Catherine Zeta-Jones has been thought to have been in talks with the corporation. Coming from Wales, where the show is shot, she was thought to be the main contender as the first female Doctor – even though her compatriot Rhys Ifans was also suggested for the same reason.

Would the next Doctor be black? Two well respected actors were thought likely to be in the frame – Patterson Joseph and Chitwel Ejifor. Ejifor has a successful film career and Patterson is best known to TV viewers for his role as Greg Preston in the recent revival of that other BBC science-fiction favorite, Survivors.

However, he choice was ultimately Matt Smith. Born in 1982 he is the youngest actor ever to take on the role. He is known to TV audiences for his role as Jim Taylor in the adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Ruby In The Smoke. Ironically he performed alongside Billie Piper in this role, who starred as the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler in the rejuvenated series when it started four years ago. He also appeared beside her in the much raunchier vehicle, Secret Diaries of a Call Girl.

He has made a number of stage appearances, including the cast of Alan Bennet’s History Boys (it seems that no young British actor these days has not appeared in this!).

As a member of the National Youth Theatre he was well positioned to go on roles in television and his first professional performance was in Fresh Kills, starring Christian Slater.

He has received one acting award and that was the Lawrence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement or Performance in an Affiliate Theatre. This is sure to be the first of many now he has accepted the role of the Doctor! Smith will beginning filming later this year and the first full series starring him as the Doctor will show on British television in 2010.

Good luck to Matt!