What does it all meme?

Sometimes the last-minute ideas are the maddest, yet, nonetheless worth pursuing, don’t you think?

Such a last-minute idea came to me ten days ago, during my Final Major Project assessment, just in time for the forthcoming degree show. During this assessment, for which I wasn’t actually being assessed being a part-time student (but that’s not particularly relevant), one of the tutors not-really-assessing me suggested I create something interactive for the degree show to help members of the public to engage with my ideas on repetition. Just prior to assessment I had been asked if I needed an electrical socket. I had at the time said an emphatic ‘no’. However, straight away after the assessment and after we had had this discussion, I changed my answer to a definite ‘yes’. At that point, I had no idea what I was going to do with electricity, I just knew that I needed it.

The idea to create a new piece of art, with electricity, was bonkers and I had just over a week to do it. But sometimes I perform better under stress. It was a challenge, and ‘challenge accepted’, to quote Barney from How I Met Your Mother.

Of course, I needed help. I couldn’t rise to this challenge alone. The tutor had mentioned memes as a source of inspiration. The idea came to me that perhaps I could create an interactive ‘meme generator’. The question was: how? At that point, I had no idea. I could picture it, but I couldn’t just go forth and create it. I also didn’t know a huge amount about memes. I knew them only as those annoying, more-not-than-often originally funny, images of cats or people pulling faces accompanied by overlayed corny witticisms. I knew that they worked, on some level, on the basis of their combination of image and text. I knew that they were popular and I knew that I’d seen thousands of them yet I rarely engaged in meme spreading myself.

Recognise this child?

However, there seemed to be something behind the whole meme phenomenon that resonated with my current obsession with repetition and copy. After all, the meme is the epitome of the combination of appropriated image and text resulting in an imitated but new effect. They illustrate the fallacy of Plato’s shadows perfectly. This was exactly what I’d been thinking about and aiming for. I concluded that I had found a gold nugget. I just needed to do something to make the most of the gold nugget.

To start the process, I carried out a little meme research. I found out that there was a formula to the world of memes. Not all memes communicate the same thing. Not all memes use the same strand of humour or message delivery. Some use photographic images, many of which are so recognisable as to border on the annoying, and some use cartoons. Images are often chosen for their generality and universality, for example, Batman slapping Robin and the toddler in a green and white top lifting his fist in triumph and others are chosen for their warped ugliness, for example, the cat with goggly eyes. The common theme seemed to be generality, and this aids in the generation of irony when combined with unexpected text. There are, I discovered, in fact a number of purposes to Internet memes: generality, irony, message and ambiguity. The meme world was actually much more interesting than I’d originally thought. Academics had even studied memes.

Recognise this image?

Memes are effective when there is a conflict between the original meaning of the image and the implied meaning in the superimposed text. They also work when the effect of the text contrasts with the effect of the image (aggressive vs cute or adult vs child). The most popular memes use images that have been copied, copied and copied again. This is a form of radical repetition. We love familiarity and we love even more the uncanny sense we can get from familiarity. The symbolism of the image can be totally unrelated to the original symbolism of the image when it was first constructed and, for some reason, this works.

Roland Barthes came up with the idea of the ‘third meaning’ in an essay of the same name (written in 1970). Here, he was talking about what happens when, using the analogy of parchment paper, the original meaning (here, image) is ‘wiped’ and new meaning replaces it. The image, in the case of the meme, being used a symbol, has an original meaning co-existing with a new meaning and there is something about that that creates something popular. So this is the prefect case of copying that creates something of value.

That is exactly what a meme is, a cultural object that is constantly being replaced and reproduced, copied to infinity, through replication. Memes illustrate Gilles Deleuze’s praise of the copy perfectly: they are dynamic repetition: they are reproduced and actualised to new ideas and they are fluid. They produce endless reproductions. There is no finite limit. They are the differences in repetition.

The best memes display a mastery of the signification of the image with that of the text So after thinking about memes in this way, I knew that I just had to create a meme generator to go along with the other reproduced and copied, repeated elements of my degree show pieces.

After research, my next task was to create an actual formula for the ‘meme generator’.

In my research on memes, I had found out that there are various types of meme: irony, political, the X of the Y, work-related, relationship-related, cute cats, existentialism (the futility of life) and when / if. Through this, I had my formula.

I then studied hundreds of memes on the Internet. I felt as if I was losing my mind by this point. I teased together, from my endless scrolling, a number of templates for each category: for example, When the [noun] [verbs] / and you [verb] the [noun] or All I know is that… / I [verb] [noun]. Each category seemed to have roughly six templates. I created text files for each template for each category (this came to around 40 files).

The next step was to look at the images used in the most popular memes. I didn’t want to use the same images we see every day on Facebook (so no Batman slapping Robin or cat with goggly eyes), I wanted there to be an element of originality (albeit appropriating images that weren’t intended to be turned into memes). I sourced from my own images, mostly from my phone; took photographs; and found some lesser well-known images on the Internet.

Finally, I created word lists as text files for each template for each category. This added up to a lot of words. I had to create words that would work for different templates. The idea was that any combination of words when randomly put into the templates and matched with an image would create a unique meme which might hopefully be just as funny and uncanny as those created by conscious thought.

Not being a whizz with C# coding, I outsourced the next bit, the tricky bit. In other words, the putting together of the templates, the words and the images into a simple step-by-step interactive programme which could be run from a laptop and accessed / manipulated by big buttons. I was lucky that I knew someone who could do this for me, for free. The success of course depended on my comprehensive instruction. The computer programmer and I spent a lot of time talking it through over a glass or two of Chateauneuf du Pape.

Helps with brain storming

The last part of the task was to create a physical box to house the devise. This was easier than the coding bit, although I had a great deal of help with that as well.

The result: the meme generator! Or, Plinth XP, as I fondly call it.

Testing the meme generator threw up a number of issues with some of the chosen words and templates, but with some tidying and fiddling, the final result, I hope, is interesting. Some of the generated memes that were thrown up through the testing process were better than others. My three children have had great fun creating memes. Some were a little nonsensical, but others were quite interesting and actually almost funny.

There is still some element of doubt of course as I have now run of testing time, and I haven’t been able to generate every combination of meme. So, the degree show will be a bit of a test for this idea.

One of my generated memes

To return to my initial thought, sometimes the last-minute ideas are the most interesting. If the meme generator works, I will now spend more time developing the piece for future use. For now, however, it seems to be exactly what I’ve been trying to discover with my obsession with repetition so I’m going to go with it and test it on the public.

The meme generator communicates with the public

Does it work? I hope so.

 

 

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Inside vs outside and infinite stuff vs infinite space

One of the activities I have been engaged in during my 9-month long obsession over repetition has been doodling on painted MDF. I have spent hours doodling and drawing, scribbling and musing. The doodles are about repetition. The doodles represent repetition. They are also repetitious. They reflect my thoughts on repetition and my repetitious thoughts. The topics covered by my doodles are vast and varied and come from many influences over the last 9 months. They include: physics, philosophy, space, stuff, popular culture, TV, books, films, magazines, radio, buttons, images, icons, ideas, concepts, data, coffee shops, food, Christmas, Easter, holidays, conversations, work, loves, people, friends, family, acquaintances, hates, joy, sadness and life.

The painted MDF has become two plinths. Here is Plinth 1.0. This is Plinth 1.0 in Paris.

Plinth 1.0 in Paris

Here is a close-up shot of a part of Plinth 1.0.

Plinth 1.0 in Wolverhampton

Plinth 2.0 is the opposite of Plinth 1.0. Plinth 1.0 has a skin of drawings and is black inside. Plinth 2.0 has a skin of black and has drawings on the inside. The idea is to reflect the opposites of infinite stuff and infinite space. The world vs the void.

I made Plinth 1.0 first. I doodled on Plinth 1.0 pre-constructed. Once Plinth 1.0 was complete, I moved on to Plinth 2.0. I doodled on Plinth 2.0 in five pieces. I took each piece home to work on, one at a time. The five pieces were assembled to make a plinth after completion.

I’m not sure how conscious I was of this but I’ve since noticed an interesting difference between the drawings on the first plinth compared to those on the second one. Plinth 1.0’s themes are general and external. They are global and universal. They derive from outside influences, the first half of the list above. They are about repetition. However, Plinth 2.0’s themes are much more personal and internal (see the second half of the list above). They are still about repetition but rather than about the repetition around me in the big wide world, they are about the repetitions in my head and my sphere of influence. I only noticed this interesting difference after I had completed Plinth 2.0.

The drawings on Plinth 1.0 are completely visible. The drawings on Plinth 2.0 are partly obscured as they are within the five walls of the plinth. They reflect what is in my mind, which I guess like Plinth 2.0 is mostly obscured to the outside world. 

A section of Plinth 2.0

When the two plinths are on show in the Degree Show people will be able to examine the drawings on both plinths. However, it will be much more difficult for them to study the drawings on Plinth 2.0. I also fear that they will also struggle to understand many of the themes behind them. I hope that they will find something they can relate to. Even if they are challenged by my drawings, my hope is that the concept is clear: life is repetitious, both on a macro and a micro level, but it is also ever changing and ever interesting because of the small changes that come about from repetition. I’m referring here to the infamous infinite variations. We should praise the minute differences that come about from repetition. We should also value repetition for what it does for us. It comforts us but it also shapes so much about us an the world around us.

 

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The age-old question: is it art?

I’ve been thinking more today about my defect art. I have been asking myself what it is about these innocuous little examples of graffiti that I like so much. All I am doing is painting holes and marks. The question I now ask is: why is this art? These replicated holes aren’t particularly aesthetic and they don’t take long to do. They don’t have much in the way of compositional thought or feeling behind them. Nobody is going to seek me out to ask me to paint marks or holes. So what is it all about? 

Another question I have been asking myself is: why do I like painting holes? On one level, I think it is the humour that appeals to me. After all, what sort of person goes around painting holes and marks? They aren’t expected and they should catch the eye. But on a deeper level it is the underlying, oft-asked question that these little ‘pieces’ raise that appeals to me: what is art?

All art, it can be argued, is a form of copying or imitation, whether that be of life, thought or feeling (I’m not going to go into that debate here).

An imitation or representation of an object, a landscape, a face, an emotion, a pattern or a feeling is valid as art. So, how about an imitation of a mark or hole, a blob of paint, an accident or a staple? If there is no such thing as originality and all art is copying. I’m copying and this is art. If I’m going to copy something I may as well copy something nobody would normally consider copying. Why not turn the really band into an interesting ‘stilled’ life? Why not still the irritating and the mundane?

Holes by the loo

Putting the copy next to original seems to give the copy some degree of agency. To me, it feels as if the copy is saying: Hey! Look at me! I’m more interesting than that boring old hole next to me because I’m deliberate and I’m a fake.’ The copy seems to be defying the urge of destruction. Defects should be filled in, painted over, washed away but would you do the same to a painted defect? By doing so, the artwork will be destroyed. My painted holes and marks of course will definitely be destroyed at some point. I have no doubt about that. They aren’t regarded as valid art forms when compared to a painting or a sculpture, or an installation or performance. That is just a fact. I can’t dispute that.

So, perhaps the conclusion should be that this isn’t art. I would like to think it is but the fact that they will be painted over and without much conscience to me says that they aren’t valid, or at least aren’t regarded as valid. This does not answer the question: what is art? That question will remain forever unanswered I fear.

While engaged in this project I have come to the realisation that I am not an aesthetic artist. I am not a representational artist. I’m not an abstract artist. I’m a philosopher who uses art as a medium of expression of ideas. 

Philosopher first; artist second. Despite all the self-doubt I have the further I get towards my degree, perhaps there is some purpose to all of this ‘playing’ I do.

 

 

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Copying defects – the real vs the unreal

I am now marching (or being marched, it feels like) swiftly towards the Degree Show in the Fine Art department here in Wolverhampton. There is just one month to go. The studios are buzzing with ain air of creative stress and frenzied activity. I love this time of year. The results of ten months work are starting to appear and there is a lot to be inspired by.

The theme of my work over the last ten months has been repetition. I have been obsessed with repetition. I have lived and breathed repetition. I have been drawing, painting, making, writing, posting, blogging and obsessing about repetition for months.

There are two main pieces I am hoping to exhibit. One is two plinths covered in drawings, which I will write a separate blog about. The other ‘piece’ is recreated defects in the exhibition space and elsewhere in the building. I’m hoping that it will be a sort of subtle, mostly unseen, but not wholly unseen, anti-Platonic guerrilla art.

Blue tack

I won’t be able to create any of my defect replicas until just before the Degree Show, so I feel strangely relaxed, but I have been practising today. Since the studios here are in quite a state after nearly a year of artistic activity by me and my fellow students, there are a lot of opportunities for me to leave my mark here.

Some random holes

The aim is partly to see if people will spot my artworks while they are looking for ‘real’ art. Despite the fact that these pieces are, in my eyes, genuine artworks, they aren’t expected.

Bigger holes

I want to challenge the notion that the copy is inferior to the original (and that the copy has a bond with the original). I have (will) deliberately place the copies next to the originals to see if people are able to dissassociate the former from the latter, which is what I want them to do.

For my research on repetition, I have read a lot of what Gilles Deleuze had to say on the subject. He is well-known for turning the Platonic relationship between the model and the copy on its head by looking just at the copy itself and divorcing it completely from the original. He talks of two types of repetition: mechanical and dynamic. The latter creates originality. He wanted us to value the copy in of itself and to value the process of repetition, not for the copies themselves but the differences between the copies, or the vibrations.

I want to tease something interesting out of this process of copying. There is something unsettling, or uncanny, about seeing a fake a hole or defect. It doesn’t quite look right. It isn’t the original, but it resembles the original, yet it has a quality separate from the original. It couldn’t possibly be the same as the original. It isn’t the same so we don’t need to refer to the original. My question is: does the copy here have value in itself? I hope so.

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How to create an artwork with indifference

I’ve been thinking today about what makes something a work of art and what makes something effective as a work of art (as opposed to ineffective).

Assume the following scenario: a viewer has a negative response to a piece of art. He or she sees something and expresses dislike or disgust. In that case, I would argue that as the viewer had an emotional response, even though it was negative, that artwork was successful, even if the artist had hoped for a positive response. In other words, any response is a result. Even ‘My two year old could do that’ is a response. Some might argue differently about this issue but that’s another debate. This is not what I am talking about here.

Is this art? My seven year old could have done this.

So assuming that a negative response validates a piece as art, the next question is: what would it mean if the viewer felt no response at all to a piece of art? In that case, he or she would look at a piece of art and feel neither a positive emotional response or a negative emotional response. Does that mean the artwork isn’t valid as art? In other words, what does it mean if they see an artwork and feel nothing whatsoever about it, they feel complete and utter indifference, no emotion, nothing, zilch? Does that mean that the artwork that caused indifference cannot be regarded as worthy as art?

However, I am curious as to whether it is actually humanly possibly to be completely indifferent to a visual or sensory stimulus (in this case a piece of art)? I would argue that it is impossible to be completely indifferent to art (or a sensory stimulus designed to cause a response whether that be art, music or otherwise). In fact, I would challenge any viewer of art to be indifferent to a sensory stimulus designed to be ‘art’.

Therefore, can we conclude that anything and everything is art? That seems to be nonsense. Surely that can’t possibly be true? But if we take logic as our guiding light, what can the conclusion to this be? Can we even use logic here or will we just get so tangled up in circular arguments that we descend into madness?

Is this pancake art? Do you respond to it?

Leaving madness aside, this debate leads me to want to take up the challenge of creating a piece of artwork that causes an indifferent reaction. Is that possible? It seems not if we take the above to be true.

However, I think there is a loop hole in the argument. I think I know how to do it and in fact I think I may have done it today without realising it. The idea came from a combination of thinking about Schrödinger’s infamous cat and the notion of the impossibility of non-existence which physicians and philosophers have been discussing since man first opened his mouth with a query.

Cat in a Box

The background to my idea comes from the thought that if the viewer is unaware of the existence of ‘nothing’, nothing becomes something, it can be described, it has a topology and it has a shape. Therefore, it is an object of sorts. Nothing is a hard concept to grasp though and scientists and philosophers have long battled over it. The Ancient Greeks didn’t even have a a concept of nothing. 

If we perceive something to be nothing, we can be indifferent to it. Or can we? That is the one of the many questions that is rolling around my head at the moment. I suspect that there is a way we can be indifferent to nothing. That is, if we are unaware of the existence of that particular nothing, we can be indifferent to it.

My idea is for an artwork that is nothing and something. It is nothing yet it is something the viewer isn’t aware of, so their unawareness is translated as indifference. Ergo, indifference to art is possible.

Watch this Space.

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The place where time is stilled

There were two parts of Northycote Farmhouse that really affected me when I took part in a drawing symposium run by the University of Wolverhampton recently. The first was the sittingroom in the farmhouse itself, the second was an area of Medieval pasture land just beyond the grounds of the farmhouse which, as participants of the symposium, we were lucky enough to have access to even though it isn’t normally open to the public.

The Medieval field

On Day Two of the symposium, one of the other participants went into the field with a couple of others and returned seemingly enlightened, describing her experience as ‘Alice-in-Wonderland like’. She felt compelled to write a poem about how she had felt. This intrigued me. I wanted to feel the Alice-in-Wonderland effect also. I felt that I had to visit the field myself.

The following day, Day Three, I did get to visit the field. The Alice-in-Wonderland friend of mine came with me, and another friend came too. Shortly after we crawled through barbed wire into the field we felt an odd, profound, deeply moving sense of peace in that field. It is very hard to convey what that felt like. I wouldn’t generally describe myself as a deeply spiritual person. My life is too busy for such pausing for thought and hippy dippy reflection.

However, standing in the middle of that field I felt so moved by something that I still think about it quite a lot two weeks later. The best way to describe it would be to say that I felt as if I were actually, physically stepping back in time. Once beyond the initial boundary of the field, the atmosphere became calm, oddly quiet, still and steeped in something I can’t articulate. Was it history? It was the weight of something. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was extremely pleasant.

Part of a tree

The grass has grown completely fallow and long, and bouncy. I think unless you feel it for yourself, it is hard to understand what walking on that grass was like. It was as if the ground was undulating (the ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ experience). The trees in that field feel old and ‘wise’. They loomed sedately and heavy with observation and knowledge. I felt aware that there was animal life in the field, yet I couldn’t see it. There were tracks left by furry animals of some variety. Yet I know not what they are and I could not see them. I could not hear them.

One of the trees

I will remember the experience of walking around that field for a long time. It was like nothing else I have felt before. I didn’t want to leave it. The grass wasn’t really ancient, even the trees have evolved a great deal since Medieval times, yet I felt as if I was there, back in time.

The philosopher’s brush, or the Ship of Theseus, strikes again.

 

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Northycote House and the philosopher’s paintbrush

A couple of weeks ago I attended a drawing symposium at Northycote House, near Wolverhampton as part of my studies at the University of Wolverhampton. The aim of this symposium was to respond to the location and draw. That was what I did. I decided at the time that I wasn’t going to relate what I did on the symposium to my studio practice.  I wanted a break from all that intellectual thinking. I wanted to just draw for drawing’s sake.

Until now, I believed that that is exactly what I did. But now I have spent some time reflecting on the three days and what I learnt and what I drew, and I realise that the experience of the three days was in fact quite closely related to my current practice. 

Northycote Farmhouse Image Credit © City of Wolverhampton Council http://www.wolverhampton.gov.uk/parks

 

Northycote Farmhouse is a Tudor farmhouse which was built around 1600. It has had an interesting history, including being a place for keeping ‘war’ horses during the First World War before they got sent to the Western Front. It is a magnificent building: old, higgledy piggledy, solid and spooky. The surrounding countryside feels just as old and eerie. It was an amazing location to spend time in and respond to. The area is seeped in history.

Oddly, by the end of the three days I felt more emotionally charged and inspired by the physical objects themselves (the building, the grounds, the fields, the trees) than any drawings I made or any ‘progress’ I might have made in my drawing. In fact, I felt as if I hadn’t really made much in the way of progress. All I had to show for the time as a few sketches. I had taken some photos, gone for walks, wandered around the place, drank coffee, talked to people and made a few, mostly pen, drawings.

My sketch of the well

However, today, on reflection of the three days, I realise that there is more to the effect the symposium had on me than a chance to relax and draw for drawing’s sake.

The main farmhouse is a fascinating building. It is in quite good condition and many of the rooms have been mocked up to appear as if a lived-in working farmhouse from the past. However, the atmosphere that this creates is one of odd, uncanny ‘absense as presence’. There are forced ‘signs’ of human existence yet no actual signs of habitation. It is obvious that nobody lives there, yet there are ‘things’ carefully placed to suggest otherwise. The things do not work. The place feels off kilter. It is unsettling. The pretend habitation gives the place a ghostly feel. In fact, many of us that attended the symposium felt that the building was perhaps haunted, or at least felt so, should haunted be a real thing.

I’m not going to ponder here on the reality of ghosts. But I do know that certain buildings and locations give me a ‘feeling’ of unease for whatever reason. And this building was most certainly one of them. The room that gave me the most unease was the sittingroom. This room was dark, dingy, painfully quiet, freezing cold and void of life except by purposely placed objects. It reminded me of a soundproof room I visited once at the BBC in Manchester. That particular room was so eerie, being totally devoid of any sound, that it made me feel very anxious and eager to escape. I lasted less than a minute in that particular room. This sittingroom in Northycote Farm gave me a similar, albeit less extreme, feeling.

So on Day One of the symposium I decided to sit alone in that room and draw. I dared myself to see how long I would last. This is the room in question.

Does that look spooky to you?

I lasted about an hour before it got too tense. This is what I drew.

My drawings

The others attending the symposium agreed that I’d been brave to last that long on my own in there. We all, or the majority of us at least, seemed to have felt the same eerie sensation in that room.

On Day Three of the symposium we were given a tour by the ‘Friends’ of Northycote Farm who are responsible for the upkeep of it, the mock living scenes and the tiny museum in one of the rooms. As we entered the sitting room, the person giving us the tour told us that the part of the house where the sitting room currently is was actually destroyed in the 1980s (I can’t remember whether it was a fire or something else) and rebuilt. This knowledge made me look at the room anew. Why, then, I asked myself, was it so spooky? Was this ‘eerie’ feeling just my imagination based on the fact that I had been under the impression that the whole house was built in 1600, or at least any additions to it were still very old? Or, if the eerie feeling was genuine, does that mean that an eerie feeling, whatever the cause, is not attached to objects (i.e. walls) and can exist irrespective of objects (walls)? This would explain why a ghost hunter I once met told me about all the ghosts that live in Cineworld in Shrewsbury which is obviously a newish building.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, eerie feelings as something tangible or not, this is an interesting question. It brings to mind the dilemma of the philosopher’s paintbrush, or the Ship of Theseus to give it its proper name, or even Trigger’s Broom to give it it’s popular culture name. The question of the philosopher’s paintbrush is that if you own a most-favoured paintbrush, and you change the bristles one year, the metal band the next, the wooden handle the following year, and then the bristles need changing again, the metal again and so on, is that brush after so many years still the same brush as it was at the start? The obvious answer is ‘no’ as it is composed of parts that weren’t there originally. Some might say ‘yes’ basing their argument on that fact that only one part was changed at a time so the development of the brush was an organic process, each new part touching the old part, and it is in fact the same brush. I would argue that that doesn’t matter. The brush is the same brush whether you changed the parts one by one or not. It is the same brush because it feels the same. The ‘brushness’ of the brush transcends the physicality of it. The object isn’t just the object, it is the relationship the owner has to the object, that is important to the value of it. There may be infinite variations of the brush (it could be changed, built upon, developed an infinite number of times) yet it remains the same brush. The differences between each physical manifestation of the brush are what makes it the same object. I sense Giles Deleuze is smiling at me.

Douglas Adams faced the same conundrum when he visited the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Japan (which I have also been to – lucky me), which has been rebuilt and repaired many times. He was told that of course it is the same building. This is his response:

“I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.”

—Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See, p. 149

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan

So back to the room. I think this is the same as that spooky sitting room. That spooky sitting room will always be spooky, however many times the walls are rebuilt. It might be a ghost, it might be something about the atmosphere created by the colours, light, the objects themselves. That doesn’t matter here. The replica of the room is just as valid as the original. And another replica if it were to be created would be equally as valid again. And again. And again. The room remains spooky. The ghost is smiling.

 

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