Foyles & the comeback of bookstores

Living in this fast-paced world today, is there even time for nostalgia? Changes are inevitable in big cities, but not all changes are necessarily positive. In Hong Kong, I often complain to my local friends that 90% of the lovely spots that I discovered the year before are likely to disappear within a year, and most locals wouldn’t even notice it. One year is like eternity in Hong Kong. Now I feel like London is heading down the same direction, and people are becoming increasingly oblivious to these changes.

Recently in my neighbourhood, a beloved local newsagent has announced their closure, and all the locals are saddened by the news. I have known the family for years, and one day the owner said to me: “We are like families, I feel sad to go too.” Families? Would the guy who ‘mindfully crafts’ my coffee behind Starbucks use this word? Obviously not. I don’t think these locals are clinging to the past or are reluctant to changes, instead they value the relationships and trust built over the years. London used to be like a city with many small villages, and each village would have their small independent shops where locals would visit regularly. Now it is a very different story.



Foyles’ flagship store on Charing Cross Road 


Before Amazon, people used to linger in bookshops and I was one of them. Studying design and working in advertising, bookshops served as a main source of inspiration for me. The unfortunate demise of bookshops have prompted numerous independent and even large chain booksellers in the USA and UK to close down in the past decade. According to the Booksellers Association (BA), more than 500 independent bookshops have closed its doors in the UK and Ireland since 2005.

When I lived in New York many years ago, I used to spend much of my time lingering in independent bookshops like Rizzoli (which had to relocate from its beautiful 50-year old premises due to demolition of the building), as well as chain bookstores like Borders (now closed) and Barnes & Nobles (only a few left in the city). Being used to the traditional British bookshops (not bookstores), I was initially fairly gobsmacked by the size, late opening hours, and the variety of products (with huge magazine and music sections) available at these large American chain bookstores. Besides, Barnes & Nobles was the pioneer to incorporating cafes (or Starbucks) in their stores, and this proved to be a successful formula that would be copied by other bookstores globally.

The most successful ‘copycat’ is Taiwan’s largest bookseller chain Eslite, where customers can hang out all night long at their 24-hour Dunnan branch in Taipei (which I did when I was in town, and I loved it). Customers can browse books, shop for lifestyle products and enjoy coffee or light meals all within the same retail outlet. Another successful example is Tokyo’s Daikanyama Tsutaya Books (T-Site), a beautifully-designed concept bookstore that is open from 7am until 2am. These booksellers demonstrate that heyday of bookstores is far from over, all they need is to evolve and move with the times.


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In London, the best-known bookstore is Foyles founded in 1903. It was once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest bookstore in terms of shelf area (30 miles/50 kilometres) and number of titles on display. Like many Londoners, I still have vivid memories of the old maze-like store where books were piled up everywhere, and occasionally had to climb or dig to reach for the books.

When the 111-year old legendary bookstore announced that they would relocate down the road to a bigger space (the former site of Central St Martins College of Art and Design), it probably startled many of their apprehensive and loyal customers. After visited the bookstore a few times since it reopened it doors in June, I honestly believe this change was long overdue. London needs a world-class contemporary bookstore like this and I more than welcome the change.


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A cafe & gallery space inside Foyles’ flagship store


Designed by London-based architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, the new store has won several major architectural and retail project awards since its opening. With 37,000 square feet of retail space, spread across eight shop floors within the four storey building, and over 200,000 different titles on four miles (6.5km) of shelves, it is the largest bookshop to have opened in the UK in more than a decade.

The architects have done a tremendous job and have created a bright, practical and multifunctional space that would no doubt attract more footfall. And in order to survive in the 21st century, a bookstore can no longer be just a bookstore. Besides books, there is also a café, a gallery space and an auditorium, there is no trace of the past except for the posters/photos on the walls.

Elsewhere in London, booksellers like Waterstones and Daunt books (whose owner is now the MD of Waterstones) are also rallying and embracing changes in order to survive in a fiercely competitive market. Aside from book signing events, Waterstones have also installed free wifi and added Cafe W to more than 100 of their stores nationwide.


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Daunt books in Hampstead


But what about the independent booksellers that are rapidly vanishing from our high streets? How do they cope and survive in this day and age? What these bookshops offer that Amazon cannot is human contact, so aside from finding a niche and understanding the target market, factors like customer service and building relationships with the customers are crucial.

Here are some general, specialists and secondhand bookshops (I shall write about art/design bookshops in the future) that are worth visiting in the city:

Hachards booksellers (187 Piccadilly London W1J 9LE) – Forget Waterstones down the road, this is the quintessential British bookshop (even though it is owned by Waterstones). It is the oldest bookshop in the UK, and you can soak up the historical ambience while browsing inside. There are also many signed books available in store, and it is seldom crowded, so it is easy to spend a few hours here away from the hustle and bustle outside. 
hachardspersephone books waterstoneLondon review bookshop
Top: Hachards Booksellers; 2nd left: Persephone books; 2nd right: Waterstones; Bottom: The London Review bookshop
London review bookshop (14 Bury Place WC1A 2JL) – A much loved bookshop by the locals, and despite its touristy location (near the British Museum), it is not very touristy. There is a wide range of selection here, but the main focus is literary fiction, poetry, history and travel. The cafe is extremely popular too, as there are not many decent cafes nearby (P.S. I was told by the barista that they use Monmouth coffee beans, so coffee connoisseur need not worry here). 
Persephone books (59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB) – This small independent bookshop/publisher differs from other because it reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. Their collection of 112 books includes novels, short stories, diaries, memoirs and cookery books, all reprinted in their signature grey covers. You can buy their books online, but I recommend a visit to their crammed but delightful shop. 
Stanford Travel (12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP) – I often drop by when I need to research or plan for a holiday. Established in 1853, this travel and map specialist bookshop stocks the world’s largest collection of map and travel books, as well as travel accessories and stationery. The small cafe at the back is also quite pleasant and relaxing if you want to get away from the crowded and touristy Covent Garden. 

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Top left: Skoob books; Top right, 2nd row middle & right: Housmans bookshop; 2nd row left: Karnac bookshop; Bottom left: The bookshop theatre/ Calder Bookshop; Bottom right: Judd books


Housmans bookshop (5 Caledonian Rd, London N1 9DX) – London’s oldest radical and not-for-profit bookshop (since 1945) specialising in books (over 500,000 titles from their online shop), zines, and periodicals of radical interest and progressive politics. Located close to Kings Cross, this hidden gem stocks the largest range of radical newsletters, newspapers and magazines in Britain. It is hard to find this sort of bookshop in London today, so we are lucky that this one is still going strong after all these years.

Calder Bookshop/The Bookshop Theatre (51 The Cut, Southwark, London SE1 8LF) – This is another unusual bookshop and theatre that started in 2011 by a collective of friends who wanted to create their own theatre to put on their own productions. Aside from regular theatre and a weekly cinema club, their not-for-profit shop has quality second hand books and literature on plays and performance art.

Karnac books (118 Finchley Rd, London NW3 5HT) – This small inconspicuous bookshop is located on the busy Finchley Road, yet many would walk by without taking much notice of it. This specialist bookshop is in fact dedicated to psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and related subjects. Established in 1950, Karnac is Britain’s only specialist psychoanalytic bookshop, and interestingly, it is located not far from the Freud museum. There are not only books by famous names like Freud and Jung, but also new and rare-to-find titles, and it regularly hosts events and seminars related to these topics.

Skoob books (66, Brunswick Shopping Centre, Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AE) – This basement bookshop is one of my favourites in the city because it feels like Aladdin’s cave for books. It offers over 55,000 different titles of second-hand academic books, including large collections of books in Philosophy, Psychology, Modern Literature, Art, History, Politics, Economics, Classics, Science and Technology. I often find books that I already own here for 1/2 the price I originally paid, so if you are looking for bargains, this is THE place to come. And you are quite likely to spend hours here and leave with a heap of books back home.

Judd books (82 Marchmont St, Saint Pancras, London, WC1N 1AG) – Judd Books has a large stock of used and bargain academic books including Literature, Art, Film, Media, Architecture and Music. There are also bargain boxes outside where you can find new/like-new condition books for under a fiver.


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Top left & middle: Black gull bookshop; Top right & bottom: Word on Water


Black gull bookshop (70-71 Camden Lock Pl, London NW1 8AF) Now that Camden market has become a major tourist trap (it didn’t use to be this way), I would avoid like the plague. However, there are still some gems to be found beyond incense sticks and greasy Chinese noodles, and one of them is Black gull bookshop. The secondhand bookshop stocks Fictions, Classics, Crime, History, Philosophy, Psychology, Mind Body and Spirit, Mythology, Occult, Art, Film, Music, Poetry, Drama and Cookery. I also discovered a few plastic crates of children’s books outside. Most books are in excellent condition, and the staff is friendly and helpful. The market is currently going through a major facelift, I just hope that this shop is here to stay.

Treadwell’s books (33 Store Street, London WC1E 7BS) – If you are into tarot and other spiritual-related matters, then a visit to the Treadwell’s is a must as it is an independent/alternative bookshop that specialises in esotericism, culture, religion and spirituality. There are also regular events, courses and workshops on related subjects, this is undoubtedly one of the most unconventional bookshops in London.

Word on Water (Located inside Granary Square) – The most unique bookshop in London is not on land but on water! Word on Water is a floating bookshop on a 1920’s Dutch Barge that offers a range of contemporary fiction, cult, art and photography, non-fiction and quality children’s books at reasonable prices. After losing their previous mooring in Paddington Basin last year, they have been offered a permanent residence on the steps at Granary Square in King’s Cross. These days, it is not easy to find space on land or on water in London, so let’s hope that this bookbarge is here to stay.


Asia Triennial Manchester 2014

I visited Manchester once when I was at university when my friends and I drove to the city and spent half a day there. I don’t recall much except for traffic jams and gloominess; needless to say, I was not particularly impressed. Yet when I found out about the Asia Triennial Manchester this autumn (27th Sept – 23rd November), I was curious and wanted to visit the city again, properly.

I have never heard of the Asia Triennial before, but I was intrigued by what I saw via the media. However, with work getting busier, I only booked one night there, which I later regretted. With only 36 hours in the city, I decided to plan ahead and so I emailed the event’s PR for more information. Catherine was very helpful and emailed me the event brochures and press releases before my trip. Although there are ongoing events and activities (including symposium, film programme and open studios etc) throughout the triennial, most of them had already taken placed as the festival was coming to a close.

One of the main events at the Triennial was “Harmonious Society” exhibition curated by Centre for Contemporary Chinese art. The exhibition re-examined the ‘conflicts’ and ‘harmony’ of China and that of Asia and the world. The Chinese title of the exhibition can be translated as: ‘Nothing (has happened) under the heavens’, which is derived from the current socio-economic vision and political proposition of China’s regime since 2005.

The project invited 30 artists from Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to develop artistic responses that are specially commissioned and site-specific. It took place in six venues across the city centre, though unfortunately one of the main sites, Artwork was closed while I was there.


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 At the Manchester Cathedral – Top right: Li Wei’s “A decorative thing”; Main: Zheng Guogu’s “Brain Lines”


I didn’t know what to expect before my trip, but I was expecting the weather to be cold, grey and wet. Instead, I left the cold, wet and grey London behind and arrived to find blue sky, sun and warmer weather, whcih took me by surprise and made my trip even more pleasant!

At the historical Manchester Cathedral, Chinese artsist Zheng Guogu‘s “Brain Lines” consists of 13 freestanding light boxes, representing the 12 Apostles and Jesus. The work explores the fine line between faith and science, visually representing the connections both within the brain and between Jesus and the 12 Apostles.

Another piece of work nearby “A decorative thing” is created by another Chinese artist Li Wei. The mirror sculpture is a response to the Cathedral’s Gothic architecture, and its frame is adorned with animals and fantastical hybrid creatures. This provides a literal reflection on humanity, evolution, scientific and religious beliefs.


The John Rylands libraryThe John Rylands libraryJohn Rylands libraryThe John Rylands library Samson YoungJohn Rylands librarySamson YoungZhao YaoThe John Rylands libraryAnnie Lai Kuen Wan Wang YuyangThe John Rylands library The John Rylands library

The John Rylands Library – 2nd row right & 3rd row middle: Samson Young‘s “Muted Situations”; 3rd row right: Zhao Yao‘s ” Wonderlands”; 5th row left: Annie Lai Kuen Wan‘s “Lost in Biliterate and trilingual”; 5th row right: Wang Yuyang‘s “Breathing books”


I have visited many libraries in the world, but I never knew that one of the most spectacular libraries in the world is situated in Manchester! The neo-Gothic Grade I listed John Rylands Library was built as a memorial to her husband by Mrs John Rylands. She commissioned Basil Champneys to design the building, which took 10 years to complete and was opened to the public in 1900. In 2007, a £17 million extension project was completed, offering modern facilities and better accessibility.

Several artists’ work could be found in various locations within the library including: Wang Yuyang‘s “Breathing books”, Zhao Yao‘s ” Wonderlands”, Annie Lai Kuen Wan‘s “Lost in Biliterate and trilingual”, Samson Young‘s “Muted Situations” and Jin Feng‘s “Chinese plates”.

In the middle of the spectacular reading room, there was a pile of books on a table, and they turned out to be an installation by Chinese artists Wang Yuyang. I inspected the seemingly ordinary books up-close, and suddenly the books started to move in slow, breathing motion! Elsewhere, there was a display of 18 white ceramic books created by Hong Kong ceramic artist Annie Lai. These white books are moulded from various bilingual dictionaries, and yet they have no text and cannot be opened, thus, transforming the purpose of dictionaries. I was also intrigued by Hong Kong composer and sound artist Samson Young’s video installations (the videos are available to watch via his weblink above) of various sonic situations. The work explores sound layer, where foreground sounds are consciously muted or suppressed, and as a result the less-commonly-noticed layers are revealed (this work echoes John Cage‘s famous piece, 4’33”), challenging the viewers/listeners’ expectations and assumptions on images and sounds.


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National Football Museum – Top: Yang Zhengzhong’s “Long live the Great Union”


At the National Football Museum, one of the exhibition floor was closed and so I didn’t see some of the exhibits except for Chinese artist Yang Zhenzhong‘s “Long live the Great Union. From the side, the 3-D architectural installation of Tiananmen Square are seen as 9 separate pieces. But from one viewpoint through a hole, the architecture is ‘reassembled’ in front of the viewer’s eyes. A clever and playful installation that coincides with the ‘harmonious’ theme of the exhibition.


MOSIMOSI MOSILuxury Logico's Solar, ManchesterChen Chieh-Jen's "Realm of Reverberations" Chen Chieh-Jen's "Realm of Reverberations"Chen Chieh-Jen's "Realm of Reverberations"

Museum of Science and Industry – 3rd row: Luxury Logico’s “Solar, Manchestr”; 4th & 5th row: Chen Chieh-Jen’s “Realm of Reverberations”


The Museum of Science and industry is another wonderful discovery during my stay in Manchester. I spent hours here, and I would have stayed longer if it wasn’t for the tight schedule! I have always had a strange fascination with old industrial machines, aesthetically and mechanically (perhaps I am geekier than I realised). At the museum, I felt like a kid in a candy store because the museum is full of beautiful machinery! The museum is huge, and it is composed of several buildings including two Grade I listed buildings: the world’s first railway station, Manchester Liverpool Road and 1830 warehouse.

One unmissable outdoor installation was “Solar, Manchester” created by Taiwanese artists group, Luxury Logico. Specifically constructed for the exhibition, this installation is composed of over 100 reclaimed street lamps from Greater Manchester and are refitted with LEDs to create an artificial sun. The ‘glowing’ sun, symbolising hope and optimism about a high-tech and sustainable future, could be seen by passerby from afar after dark.

Elsewhere at the museum, exhibits included: Hong Kong artist Lee Kit‘s ” I don’t owe you anything” and four Taiwanese artists: Chang Huei-Ming‘s “The last rose”, Kao Jun-Honn‘s “Malan girl”, Yao Jui-Chung‘s Long, Long live” and Chen Chieh-Jens “Realm of Reverberations”

I was especially touched by international renowned artist Chen Chieh-Jen’s subdued “Realm of Reverberations”, consisted of four video works of Taiwan’s first leprosy hospital, Losheng Sanatorium, established in 1929 during the period of Japanese colonisation. The government’s decision to demolish the building and relocate the sanatorium in 1994 for the expansion of the metro system caused outcry and protest amongst the locals because many of the residents had lived there their entire lives. Chen Chieh-Jen’s daunting and powerful videos act as photographed cinema, documenting the eradication of memories, history and ‘home’ (now a ruins) to a vulnerable group of elderly and disabled victims. His works capture the pain and isolation of these victims, and highlight the issues of marginalisation and inequality in our consumer society today.

This exhibition is currently exhibiting in Paris at Galerie Olivier Robert (5 Rue des Haudriettes, 75003 Paris) until 13th December.


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Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art – Top right, 2nd & bottom row left: Pak Sheung Chuen’s “Resenting Hong Kong series”; Bottom right: Liu Xiaodong’s “In between Israel and Palestine”


It is interesting that the only art organisation in the UK dedicated to contemporary Chinese art is based in Manchester and not London. The Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art has been exploring Chinese contemporary art and visual culture for 28 years through innovative programme of exhibitions, residencies, projects, festivals, symposia and events etc.

At the centre, two Chinese artists responded very differently to the theme. In gallery 1, Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong presented “In Between Israel and Palestine”, a collection of realist paintings, accompanied by video diary and journal excerpts from his one month stay in Tel Aviv and the Holy Land. The artist is known for his documentations of social issues in China through his carefully orchestrated compositions in his work. In this case, everyday life in Israel and Palestine is depicted in a diptych format, which acts as a visual conveyance of the divide in the region.

In Gallery 2, Hong Kong conceptual artist Pak Sheung Chuen explores identity and historical significance in “Resenting Hong Kong series: Resenting my own history”. This exhibition is particularly timely because of what has been happening with the ‘Umbrella revolution’ in Hong Kong recently.

In this project, the artist invited Hong Kong people to donate HKD $1 coins with Queen Elizabeth II’s profile (still found in circulation sometimes) and to stipulate someone in the U.K. to scrape away this profile on the ground. This action separates Hong Kongers and the British, previously connected by the two sides of the coin, and leaves a mark on the ground in the U.K. Some of the coins are assembled into a mirror, creating a moment of reflection on the past and future. During the exhibition period, visitors were also encouraged to participate in this on-going project.


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 Kashif Nadim Chaudry’s “Swags and Tails”


At the Manchester Craft and Design Centre, Nottingham-based British Muslim artist Kashif Nadim Chaudry is showcasing artwork featuring skulls and stitches at his third solo exhibition, “Swags and Tails” (until 31 January 2015) as part of the festival.

The exhibition explores family traditions, religion, sexuality and politics. Chaudry mixes traditional craft techniques with conceptual, sculptural forms, using unusual and challenging materials. As a gay Muslim, Chaudry is outspoken about his identity and constantly uses his artistic work to push boundaries in relation to his sexuality and religion. Insider the former Victorian fish market, visitors can view Chaudry‘s haunting, beautiful, and skillful pieces installed in various areas within the venue.

Due to time constraint, I was not able to visit all the venues that took part at the festival, but I was glad to have visited the main venues within the city centre. Now I will have to wait three years for the next festival, but hopefully I will be more prepared and have more time to wander (without rushing) next time!



Mimetic festival 2014 & Nothing

old vic tunnels old vic tunnelsThe vaults


Around this time last year, I saw a few puppetry performances at the Suspense festival (see my previous blog entry here), but for some reason, the festival is not taking place this year. However, all is not lost as there is Pie’s Mimetic Festival, a two week celebration of the emerging devised, physical and visual theatre, mime, puppetry and cabaret.

The last time I visited the Old Vic tunnels was when my friend and I saw the immersive and theatrical show by the cabaret group Boom Boom Club about 2 years ago. Now this unique and atmospheric venue has been transformed into an arts platform and renamed The Vaults with several theatre spaces, gallery, bar and a screening room filled with deck chairs.


The vaults


As always, I found it hard to pick from an interesting array of performances, but I settled to see two within one evening. The first one I saw was “First Draft” created by Open Heart Surgery, and brilliantly performed by the two young and talented Charlotte Baseley and Louise Callaghan.

Open Heart Surgery Theatre is a new London-based physical theatre company founded by two Canadian theatre artists. Their show, “First Draft” is inspired by conversations about war and E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stop”, which explores a fast-paced world in contrast to a future world that exists in a protection unit far away from the Earth’s surface. The two performers play a multitude of characters, and they provide many sweet, amusing and provocative moments throughout the show. However, I feel that the show is trying to convey too many ideas and messages; though many of them are undeveloped, which is a shame because I really enjoyed the performances by the two young actresses. The concept ‘less is more’ applies to not only in design; in this case, the show would be much better if less ideas and messages are crammed into such a short performance time.

‘Buddhism: is it just for Losers?’ from Silvia Mercuriali & Matt Rudkin on Vimeo.


The second show was “Buddbism: Is it just for losers?” created and performed by Brighton-based company, Inconvenient spoof. I have to admit that it was the title that grabbed by attention when I was looking at the programme. And funny enough, the show’s creator, Matt Rudkin did mention why he chose this title at the end of the show.

This show is fun, satirical and bonkers, and it captures what British humour is all about. Having lived in the States for a few years, I realised that although the British and Americans share the same language, everything else seems miles apart especially when it comes to humour. In fact, not that many Americans ‘get’ the British houmour, and I cannot imagine this play being produced by none other than a Brit!

The show is about Matt Rudkin, whose mind is full of rational thoughts; he just can’t help thinking and analysing everything and so he has to see alternative therapy to ‘cure’ this symptom. A very intriguing and ‘current’ topic for a theatre show.

I think the first half of the show is more engaging, whereas the second half is slightly loose and inconsistent. Having said that, it is still a hilarious and thought-provoking show with excellent performances and creative use of props, costumes and puppetry.

Throughout the show, there is no mention of Buddhism until the very end, only at the sharing session! Having been to many Buddhist groups and retreats, I am familiar with the terms they use, and so I found the inside jokes particularly hilarious. I suspect that Matt is a practitioner, but it’s interesting that he is able to step back and poke fun at the practice (though not in a nasty way). Not only do they mention John Cage‘s silent piece, 4′33″, they also invite the audience to meditate with them. I have never meditated at a theatre performance before, but I guess there is always a first time for everything!


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Left: Pi’s bar at The Vaults; Right: Preshow at the Camden People’s theatre including audience and performers


I have read quite a lot of positive reviews about “Nothing”, an award-winning play by a new graduate company, Barrel Organ from the University of Warwick. This is their debut show and it is series of eight monologues spoken by characters feeling a disconnect with the world around them, and is performed in a fresh and unrehearsed order. Upon arrival at the Camden People’s theatre, the audience (and performers) would wait in the cafe area, and later be led into a room of random seating. A member of the audience is then asked to pick a number and a name out of three, then the named performer who is sitting among the audience would start the monologue.

Throughout the show, seemingly random people among the audience would suddenly start talking, move around the room and at times, monologues would even overlap. This refreshing way of performing is highly engaging because you are never quite sure if the person next to you or opposite you is a performer or not. The show is simple and yet inventive, and the monologues are related to issues that young people are facing today and our dysfunctional society. Interestingly, the performers are dressed as themselves (they all carry bags and coats like the rest of the audience) and they use their real names, so this breaks down the barrier between the performers and the audience. And since the first monologue is chosen by the audience, the order of the show is never the same and the performers would improvise a new cut with every performance. This style also captures the ephemeral and transitory quality of theatre brilliantly.

It is always encouraging to see creative work produced by new voices and talents, I will certainly look forward to seeing the company’s future productions.


The Mimetic festival is running until 29th November at The Vaults, Leake St London SE1 7NN.



Yoshitomo Nara, Shinro Ohtake & Yayoi Kusama exhibitions

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Yoshitomo Nara at the Dairy Art centre


This autumn/winter, lucky Londoners have the opportunity to see the solo exhibitions of two internationally renowned Japanese contemporary artists Yoshitomo Nara and Shinro Ohtake. The artists were both in town to talk about their work, and I was especially interested in hearing from Yoshitomo Nara, so I booked for my friend and I to the preview and talk at the Dairy Art Centre last month.

My friend arrived before me and warned me about the long queue outside of the gallery. I was gobsmacked upon arrival because I had not expected the queue to go round the block! We had to wait about half an hour before we were let in (not a good initial sign), then we were told to sit on the hard floor because of limited seating. For the next hour and a half, hundreds of people (some dressed in suits) were squashed together in a hot room while the artist showed us his holiday snaps! My friend and were not impressed by this overbooked and disorganised event, and we left not long after the artist finally decided to talk about his work ( which was an hour into the event). There was nothing wrong with the artist showing us his holiday snaps ( in fact, he is seem quite funny), but it would have been preferable if we were in more comfortable condition.


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Luckily, the art work in the gallery made up for the frustration and discomfort we felt during the talk. The exhibition is a retrospective of Nara’s work spanning 30 years including drawings, paintings and sculptures. It is not hard to see why the event attracted so many people because the artist’s work has a global appeal and it has the ability to evoke emotions within us. Nara‘s drawings of innocuous ( though at times monstrous and creepy) children and animals are cartoon-like; they are simple, imaginative and have a ‘dreamy’ quality to them. However, his work also has a darker and complex side to it, feelings of loneliness, helplessness, rebellion and boredom are also depicted in some of his work.

The artist is hugely influenced by music, and at the talk, he also revealed that he prefers cats over dogs, which probably surprised many as dogs appear to be a popular subject in his work. Distraught by the tsunami event in 2011, the artist took up a residency at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music in Nagakute and began to work collaboratively with students to produce new large-scale bronze sculptures of childlike heads and busts, which can be viewed at the exhibition.


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I think many adults are constantly seeking the innocence or even the rebellion streak we had when we were younger. Most of us don’t want to grow up, and so we struggle with conflicts that we created for ourselves as we age. Nara‘s work captures our imagination, reminds us of our younger selves, but most importantly, it encourages us to cherish our ability to dream no matter the age.

Yoshitomo Nara’s ‘Greetings from a place in my heart’ is showing until 7th December at Dairy Art Centre, 7a Wakefield St, London, WC1N 1PG.


Shinro Ohtake

Shinro Ohtake’s installation at Parasol unit. Courtesy of the artist and Parasol Unit. Photo: Stephen White.


Unfortunately, I missed Shinro Ohtake‘s talk with Mark Rappolt from ArtReview at The Japan Foundation last month, which I am sure was a fascinating one. Although both Shinro Ohtake and Yoshitomo Nara are from the same generation and music lovers, the contrast between their work is immense. Ohtake is rather like an obsessive hoarder who has been collecting and collaging scraps, found materials and personal memento for over 35 years. In 1977, he began his ongoing series of ‘Scrapbooks’, and has to date completed more than sixty. Some of them were shown at the Venice Biennale 2013 as part of the ‘encyclopedic palace’ exhibition.

The exhibition at Parasol Unit showcases work by the artist’s early, recent and new works including drawing, pasted works, painting, sculpture, and photography, as well as experimental music and videos. I was particularly intrigued by his series inspired by his trip to Tangiers; these cut and paste pieces contain cutouts from Arabic newspaper and one of them even has a faint sound recording installed in it ( a trick that the artist likes to employ and experiment on). Another rather playful installation is a robot like statue ‘Radio Head Surfer’ – an exploration on scraps, art and sound. On the surface, Ohtakes work is chaotic, compulsive and surreal, yet it is also original and quite mesmersising. Don’t miss this chance to see one of Japan’s leading artist of today.

Shinro Ohtake’s exhibition is showing until 11th December at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art, 14 Wharf Road, London, N1 7RW.


parasol gallery IMG_1527Yayoi kusama's pumpkinsYayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro garden

Top left: Parasol unit & Victoria Miro; Top right: James Clar’s ‘All everything’ light sculpture; 2nd & bottom rows: Yayoi Kusama’s bronze pumpkins and the Narcissus Garden at Victoria Miro garden


The highlight of the visit though was the Victoria Miro garden, a joint landscape garden at the back of the building. I had not realised that another renowned Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama‘s bronze ‘Pumpkins’ are currently on display at the garden until 19th December; hence, it was a very pleasant surprise. I have never seen her iconic permanent ‘Narcissus Garden before, and I was amazed by the sight of the impressive stainless steel sphere installation in the water. I love the tranquility of the garden and Kusama‘s installations make it even more special, so I highly recommend a visit before the exhibition ends next month.


The London Korean Film Festival

10 minutes


A while back I wrote about the Japanese soft power on the world, but within the last decade, the world has witnessed how South Korea managed to conquer the world through technology, design, cosmetics (including surgeries) and pop culture in a relatively short period of time. The transformation is staggering because South Korea was never seen as ‘cool’ in the region; Japan was the trendsetter for decades, then one day it lost its crown… It shows what determination and investments could do to a nation that needed an image fix.

Not only Korean soap operas are hugely popular in Asia (and surprisingly, in Cuba), Korean cinema has also been gaining international acclaim and respect since the late 1990s. And this year at the 9th The London Korean Film Festival, it is the biggest yet (you can tell by the thick brochure) showcasing 55 films including a special focus on one of the most well-known and controversial director Kim Ki-Duk.

I only picked three films due to my schedule, but hopefully, I can watch more on DVD in the future. The first film I saw was “10 minutes”, directed by Lee Yong-seung about a hard-working university student’s nightmare-ish internship at a government office. For those who have worked as an intern or junior staff in an Asian office environment would certainly resonate with the character. The film reveals the Korean/Asian working culture which is not often depicted in Asian films, but at times I found myself feeling frustrated by the main character’s behaviour. The film is engaging, but I feel that it lacks surprises, and the opening ending is unnecessary because my empathy for the character is not strong enough, so this ending is more of an anticlimax for me.



The second docufilm “Manshin: Ten thousand spirits” is directed by artist and documentary maker Park Chan-kyong, the younger brother of the famous director Park Chan-Wook (famous for Oldboy). It is a part documentary and part biopic of Korea’s ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ – Kim Geum-hwa, a National Shaman.

I knew nothing about Korean shamanism before I saw the film; it was fascinating to witness the rituals and see how this tradition has survived and evolved over decades. However, the film is essentially about one woman, the strong-willed and slightly mischievous shaman and her adventurous and dangerous life. The film is visually enticing and very well-edited; the character is played by three actresses, but the shaman also appears in the film along with some rare archival footage. But the film is also about Korea’s history and culture, and at the Q & A after the screening, the director commented that he wanted young Korean people to be interested in the traditional culture again. However, he didn’t want to make ‘judgements’ on this tradition, so the film invites the audience to judge for themselves. This is a colourful and compelling film, but most importantly, it is a story about courage, survival and human nature.



The last film “Bitter, Sweet, Seoul” is the world’s first crowd sourced documentary sponsored by the Seoul government and helmed by brothers Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong (using the name PARKing CHANce). With over 11,852 submissions from the public, the directors eventually used 154 clips and edited down to an hour.

The documentary is about Seoul, and if you have been to Seoul you would know that this large metropolis has many sides to it. The title suggests that although Seoul is often depicted as a modern, high-tech and wealthy city, it also has its darker side and a bitter history. The film doesn’t try to sugarcoat the city, it includes archival footage of past historical events, as well as interviews of tourists, expats and locals. It is extremely hard to create an ‘authentic’ portrait of a city in a promotional film, so finding a balance and being objective is very important.

At the Q & A after the screening, director Park Chan-kyong revealed the challenges they had to overcome in editing the vast amount of material (and I am not surprised). But I think the hard work has paid off and the directors have done a brilliant job in capturing the different faces of the city and the people who make this city special.

The film is also available to watch via Youtube:




Cross Cultural Live Art Project 2014

haggerston the proud archivisthanqing miao

 Top: Haggerston; Bottom: Hanqing Miao’s performance


I used to spend much my time hanging out at the ICA, yet since summer, I have been frequently visiting another new arts/cultural space, The Proud Archivist in Haggerston (an area where I was not familiar with before). I have never eaten in the restaurant downstairs, but I have attended different events in its upper gallery space related to arts, coffee and business. The space seems to be a popular venue for events hiring.

Over a week ago, I attended the “Cross-Cultural Live Art Project” led by an independent curator-partnership, Something Human as part of the SEA (Southeast Asian) ArtsFest 2014. The event brought together Southeast Asian and UK/European artists for a 2-day symposium, showcasing performances, talks and a screening programme exploring gendered/feminist notions of “rites”.

I arrived in the afternoon during a panel discussion on ‘Curating live aer in public spaces in UK and Asia’. It was interesting to hear the curators sharing their experiences and obstacles they faced in curating live art in Asia due to cultural differences. The discussion was followed by three live art performances by young Southeast Asian and British practitioners.


hanqing miaoKelvin Atmadibrata's 'Yaranaika'jonathan colemanMarc Hagan-Guirey Kelvin Atmadibrata's 'Yaranaika'jonathan coleman

Top left: Hanqing + Megan; Top Middle & 2nd row: Kelvin Atmadibrata’s ‘Yaranaika’; Top right and bottom: Jonathan Coleman’s ‘How to be a man’


The first act, “Hanqing + Megan: The Calligrapher” was performed by London-based Singaporean artist Hanqing Miao on the issue of identity, roots, culture and on being a foreigner living in London. The second act was Indonesian artist Kelvin Atmadibrata‘s “Yaranaika on Japanese pop culture, masculinity, sexuality and cultural identification ( a lot of dancing with leeks as props). And the final act was “How to be a man” created and performed by British artist Jonathan Coleman exploring the changing image and role of men today.

During the break, I met a Brazilian performance artist who moved to London 6 months ago, and we had a stimulating conversation on feminism, gender issues and the problems facing Brazil at the moment ( serious topics for an initial conversation)!


hattie Newman mayuko FujinoshotopopshotopopshotopopMarc Hagan-Guirey IMG_1457

Top left: Hattie Newman; Top right: New York-based Japanese artist Mayuko Fujino; 2nd row: Work by London-based Shotopop; Bottom left: Marc Hagan-Guirey‘s Horrogami


I was also lucky to catch the Paper Cut exhibition before it ended on the next day. The exhibition showcased paper cut work by 25 paper craft artists from around the world. It is rare to find exhibitions focusing solely on paper crafts, so it was an unique opportunity to see some stunning paper craft display. There are regular art and design-related exhibitions being exhibited at the gallery space, so check out the website or sign up to their newsletters to find out more.


The Proud Archivist – 2-10 Hertford Road, London N1 5ET.




The art of letter writing


New paper stationery by Kuroyagiza from Japan


Can you remember the last time you received a handwritten letter from someone? I can’t (postcards don’t count). Have we lost the art of letter writing? Did you ever have pen pals when you were younger? In recent years, authors, designers and retailers are trying to revive this ‘ancient’ way of communications. Even pen pals are making a comeback according to a Guardian article, so perhaps this form of art is not quite ‘dead’ yet.

My love affair with writing paper began during my primary school years, and many of my school friends shared the same passion. We often exchanged cute and wonderful Japanese writing paper with each other, and this activity was one of my fondest memories of my school years. About a year ago, I accidentally discovered a large box containing writing paper that I had exchanged during those years, which certainly brought back many childhood memories.


kuroyagiza pen & ink letter kuroyagiza story telling

KUROYAGIZA’s letter sets are delightful and has a nostalgic quality to it


During my secondary school years, I was sent to boarding schools by my parents who reside abroad. Apart from communal payphones, the only way for boarders to communicate with the outside world was through letters. My parents insisted that I wrote a letter to them every week, and so I did. And when I changed schools, I corresponded with friends from my previous schools weekly. Everyday, boarders anticipated letters from friends, families or loved ones, this was our ‘gateway’ to the outside world. A week without any incoming letters could make us feel neglected, we all longed for the connection with people who mattered to us.


float your paper boat red string letter

Korean design studio Ttable Office’s letter set are heart-warming and imaginative, they evoke innocence and childlike qualities within us


I have a male school friend who has corresponded with me continuously since we left school. We would meet once every few years (because we were both constantly moving to different countries and cities), and even when his outer appearance has changed, his handwriting has not and I would recognise it as soon as I see it. When our correspondence eventually stopped, he would still send me a lovely Christmas card every year with a note attached telling me how he is doing. Last year, I received a Christmas card from him with a photograph of his new family and a note expressing his joy on his new life and future. I could ‘feel’ his happiness through the lines of his handwriting, and I was so over the moon for him. Friendship like this is hard to come by these days, and so I will always treasure it even when we no longer correspond regularly.


eco letter set eco letter set

Korean design studio Gongjang’s eco letter sets are one of our best selling paper stationery. Many customers also use them as ‘Thank you’ notes.


Writing by hand requires more conscious effort because you don’t want to make mistakes as you can’t delete it and scribbling over it would look messy and careless. We need to think or construct more on what we want to convey before writing it down on paper. And there is no doubt that receiving handwritten love letters or poems through the post is much more romantic than receiving it through emails or text messages.

Due to my passion for letter writing, I have continued to stock writing paper designed by different Korean designers and they have sold surprisingly well. Hence, I want to continue to advocate this form of art and encourage more people to enjoy the magic of letter writing. I discovered Japanese design studio KUROYAGIZA one day, and I was drawn to their wonderful and slightly nostalgic letter paper and mini note sets. I later found out that the designer Junko used to have 30 pen pals around the world when she was younger, which subsequently inspired her to set up her own studio and share her passion through her paper stationery.

You can check out our new range of paper stationery range by KUROYAGIZA, and surprise your loved ones by a handwritten note or letter. Let’s help to revive this art form and not let it drift into obscurity!


Dance Umbrella & TOROBAKA

Apart from a string of art fairs taking place in London last month, there was also the 2-week long Dance Umbrella festival, showcasing exceptional talents in the world of choreography from around the world.

At the festival, I saw some brilliant and ground-breaking dance performances produced by two contemporary dance companies. The first one was Spain’s Rocío Molina‘s ‘Bosque Ardora’ at the Barbican, and the second was China’s TAO Dance Theatre‘s ‘6&7’ at Sadlers Wells.

I have watched both traditional and contemporary flamenco dance shows before, but ‘Bosque Ardora’ is more like theatre and its star Rocío Molina is much than a flamenco dancer. She is unconventional, raw, precise and utterly mesmerising to watch; she is a natural performer.

The show is inspired by Greek mythology, and it revolves around hunting games set in a fantastical forest. Aside from Rocío, she is joined onstage by two excellent male dancers, and a group of musicians including a soulful flamenco vocalist José Ángel Carmona. Although the dancing and music is inspired by traditional flamenco, Rocío has broken many traditional boundaries and has created a show that is abstract, mysterious and surreal. It is never easy to reinterpret a traditional form of arts/dance and develope it into something new, but Rocío‘s ambitious piece proves that anything is possible as long as we use our imagination.


Rocio Molina – Bosque Ardora Teaser


It is hard to describe what I saw and experienced at ‘6 & 7‘ (click on the link to watch a clip) performed by the Chinese Tao dance theatre. I was completely captivated by the performance. The concept is simple, the execution is minimalist and repetitive, yet the impact is powerful in a meditative and hypnotic way.

The piece has no narrative, it is an exploration of body movements through repetition in a collective way. The Taoism concept of ‘yin and yang’ is presented in the two-part show. In the first part, 6 dancers are dressed in black moving on a dark and smoky stage accompanied by somber and intense music. At the beginning, audience can barely see them, except for the shadows and certain movements. Even when the smoke clears, it is still hard for the audience to distinguish the dancers’ gender! Yet in the second half, 7 dancers are dressed in white and the stage is illuminated brightly with no music but a humming sound from the dancers. What a sharp contrast! This conceptual piece is unlike anything that I have seen before and it is very exciting to see a new voice emerging from China.

The 6-year old company was founded by Chinese Choreographer Tao Ye when he was only 22. Some people might compare his work and style with the internationally acclaimed and more established Taiwanese Cloud Gate Dance Theatre founded by Lin Hwai-Min, but I feel that Tao has created his own unique language that is not only inventive but also very contemporary and universal.


rocio molina tao dance theatre

Left: Rocío Molina’s ‘Bosque Ardora’ at the Barbican; Right: TAO Dance Theatre’s ‘6&7’ at Sadlers Wells


The spirit of the creativity continues after the festival ended. This week, British Indian dancer/ choreographer Akram Khan and Spanish flamenco dancer/ choreographer Israel Galván are performing their new collaboration ‘Torobaka‘ at Sadlers Wells.

The dance performance is a fusion of kathak and flamenco styles, and it takes place mostly within a red bullring ( inspired by the title – The bull/’toro’ and the cow/’vaca’) with Spanish and Indian musicians standing or sitting just outside of it. The two accomplished dancers’ styles are quite different but they are both compelling to watch. I especially enjoyed watching the two performers dancing/’competing’ with one another, the energy is intense but playful at the same time. I also applaud them for giving the stage to the musicians in one part of the show, though the show does feel somewhat disjointed and underdeveloped.

Overall, this experimental piece is an exploration of dance, movements and sounds, and the language that the two dancers has created is innovative and fascinating. Don’t miss the show if you want to see two world-class dancers bouncing ideas off each other on stage!


TOROBAKA final trailer (short) – Israel Galván and Akram Khan from Akram Khan Company on Vimeo.


Torobaka is showing at Sadlers Wells until 8th Novemeber.



A future without autumns



The title of this blog entry came up because of an article I read recently on BBC magazine regarding the effects of climate change. Higher temperatures and droughts across the globe are having big impact on the entire ecosystems, including the reduction of leaf pigments production and causing leaves to fall from trees prematurely.

There are tropical countries where autumns don’t exist at all, and so their inhabitants would miss out on the beauty of autumns. Personally, I love autumns and the article made me wonder what the world will be like without autumns, how will this affect us?


autumnleafsquirrelautumn squirrel


I have come up with a list of possible scenarios if this happens:

No more fall foliage – Tourism in Canada, America and Japan would be affected because fall foliage draws tourists to well-known spots every year. The local economies would no doubt be hit hard by this.

Starving squirrels – What would happen to the poor squirrels? In autumns, I frequently see squirrels out and about in London’s parks gathering and burying nuts and seeds in preparation for winters. Without autumns, they would not have enough time to store food away when it becomes scarce in winters.

Expensive mushrooms – Autumn arriving later (like this year) means that fungi is not appearing until the temperature drops. Mushrooms boom in autumns, without autumns, they would be scarce and harder to find. Outdoor activities like fungi foraging would not take place, and we may have to pay a double for our wild mushroom risottos!


autumn leavesautumn leaves autumn leaves


Halloween without pumpkins – Foods like pumpkins, sweet potatoes, figs and many root vegetables are harvested during autumn, a Halloween without the iconic carved pumpkin is almost unthinkable!

No more Sweet Purple Potato Kit Kat – Seasonal changes and festivals are very important to the Japanese culture. Not only do the Japanese celebrate each season with traditional activities and events, seasonal food and ingredients are also closely linked with their food culture. Food and drinks manufacturers, fast food chains and restaurants would launch limited edition seasonal products all year round. In autumn, sweet purple potato, pumpkin, mushroom, ginko nuts and chestnut are all seasonal foods that you would see everywhere. How boring would the world be without Sweet Purple Potato Kit Kat?


Tales from the autumn housee Tales from the autumn houseeTales from the autumn housee

‘Tales from the Autumn House’ exhibition at St John on Bethnal Green installed by graphic artist and illustrator Renaud C. Haslan


No autumn fashion and trends – The multibillion-dollar fashion industry depends very much on the seasons, and during fashion week in September and October every year, fashionistas are all out and about ready to be photographed in their latest autumn gear. Being seen in their passé summer outfits would be unimaginable!

An unusually warm October in the UK this year has caused a dip in sales of coats, jackets and knitwear, so fashion companies would need to be ready for more unpredictable weather in the future.

Autumn-inspired art, poems, music, films and novels will be meaningless – In the year 2114, people may have to rely on paintings, poems, films, books and songs to get a glimpse of what autumn feels and looks like. Yet these works would be meaningless to the generations who have never experienced autumns in their life time. Autumns would be part of history, just like the Ice age and they wouldl learn about it through their school textbooks…


I am sure I can keep on writing about this, but I hope that none of the above would take place. Skeptics may continue to dismiss climate change as myths or that humanity is not responsible for it, but how can industrial pollution and carbon dioxide emissions be beneficial to mankind and the planet? We need to be responsible for our actions and protect the environment regardless of whether global warming is man-made or not.

A future without autumns sounds frightening and yet plausible unless we take the warning seriously.


The other art & Parallax art fairs

David ShillinglawJack Teagle Ego Leonard

Top: 50 ft installation of work by David Shillinglaw; Bottom left: Jack Teagle; Bottom right: Ego Leonard


Although I am not a big fan of mega art fairs, I would support smaller art fairs and independent artists who may not be represented by galleries. These fairs also provide an opportunity for visitors to meet and talk to the artists directly rather than through gallery representatives.

The annual joint The Other art fair and Moniker art fair at Old Truman Brewery offers a platform for emerging talents as well as street artists. Once upon a time, street art was seen as subculture, now it is becoming more mainstream and collectors can purchase unconventional artworks produced by urban artists at the Moniker art fair.


Junkyard games by Mark Powell VermibusMister E DaweFidia Falaschetti Fidia Falaschetti

Top left: Mark Powell‘s ‘Junkyard games’; Top right: Berlin-based artist Vermibus; 2nd row: Mister E Dawe’s ‘Anvil’; Last row: Fidia Falaschetti’s ‘Cuntdown’ & ‘Freaky Mouse’


At The Other Art Fair, aside from paintings and sculptures, there were also ceramics, illustrations and prints, paper crafts and photography by 130 emerging artists. The event was casual and less glamourous than Frieze but a good place to start for a new art collector.


keira rathbone Nicolas Moussettevas zavialovdamilola odusote IMG_1257The other art fair

Top left: Keira Rathbone‘s typewriter art; Top right: Nicolas Moussette‘s ‘Cité imaginaire’ 2nd row: Vas Zavialov‘s London slang map; 3rd row left: Damilola Odusote; 3rd row right: Timothy Information Limited; Bottom: printmaking workshop


Gerry Buxtondan rawlingsP1100930Chowwai Cheung myung nam anolivier legerroys people Alexander Korzer-Robinson

Top left: Gerry Buxton‘s Barbican screen print; Top midde: Dan Rawlings; 2nd row left: Chowwai Cheung‘s collagraph ‘Villa Musica’; 2nd row right: Myung Nam An‘s ceramics; 3rd row: Olivier Leger‘s illustration; Bottom left: Roys people; Bottom right: Alexander Korzer-Robinson‘s hand cut art


parallax art fair parallax art fair Duda Marques dos Santos

Parallax art fair at Chelsea Town Hall; Bottom right: Duda Marques dos Santos‘s ‘lights’ series


The week after, I attended the preview of Parallax art fair (free entry) at Chelsea Town Hall for the first time. With over 200 established and emerging artists, there were many interesting artworks to be found too.

I was glad to have met Japanese artist/sculptor Kiyomi Sakaguchi, who has had her solo exhibitions in Japan and Germany and was exhibiting at the show for the first time. Ms Sakaguchi‘s sculptures are installed in many institutions, public spaces in Japan, but at the fair, she showed mainly her ink drawings on Japanese paper.

This art fair is probably not as well known as the other art fairs in London, but I think it is worth checking out and being free does not mean the standard is lower than other fairs.

The next show will take place at Chelsea Town Hall from 28th Feb until 1st March.


Sally Dunne Karina SavageKiyomi sakaguchihae byn yoon luigi viscontithree eyes man design

Top left: Sally Dunne‘s illustrations; Top right: Karina Savage‘s ‘Red Parabola’ Lino cut with chine collé; 2nd row: Kiyomi Sakaguchi; 3rd row left: Hae Byn Yoon‘s ‘Perspective studies’; 3rd row right: Luigi Visconti; Bottom row: Three eyes man design‘s hand-drawn wood work