Damien Hirst Spot Challenge: LA to London (6 down, 5 to go!)

5 down, 11 to go in the Spot Challenge! Thanks to the extraordinarily cool security guards at the Britannia St Gagosian Gallery for taking this attempt at a tripod inversion (hmmm ... I should have fixated on a spot. But which one?)

From the chic, sunny sidewalk of Rodeo Drive to the icy, sleet-whipped streets of London: many have said, why on earth did you backtrack, from New York to LA to London? Why not keep flying in one direction: New York, LA, Hong Kong (as many Spot Challengers have done)?  Simple: since the Beverly Hills show closed in 3 days, and the London show in the coming week, getting those two out of the way first would save me a mad scramble through Europe. The Spot Challenge is thus threefold:  do it on a budget, do it in the dead of a particularly severe EU winter, and do it before each of the galleries closed their respective shows.
The Davies St Gallery showcased the wee little spots
The staff at Gagosian London managed to stay chipper despite the tsunami of  "spot kickers" like me.

I touched down 1pm at Heathrow and made my way swiftly through the tube system to St Pancras Kings Cross, following instructions kindly provided by the staff at the Brittania St gallery. After getting my stamp and obligatory shot (with my special spot hat!) I made for the Davies St gallery, a quick tube change away. This location showcased the "little spots," tiny canvases about an inch square with a single dot, half a dot, a dot and a half ...

You can just imagine Hirst and helpers sitting around stoned or otherwise churning out these rudimentary permutations, knowing they were literally doodling banknotes and giving a legion of art critics something to either hate or fawn over. Like or loathe, the man knows something we don't about how to make money.

Spot hat meets its maker!

My host Jose emerged from the kitchen with a perfect
Cuban sandwich.
Mission accomplished, I headed off on the Jubilee line to my London hosts Annika and Jose Perdomo. I met Annika in Costa Rica 12 years ago when she was a guest at Avalon Reserve, a rustic, cloud forest eco-hotel where I moonlighted as a cook and manager. The hotel was a remote and rocky 3km hike along a dirt road at 7000 feet; most visitors spent a maximum of two nights - if they manage to find us at all. Most stayed at the more popular Monteverde resort in another part of the country. Annika stayed over a week, putting my hasty, self-taught cooking skills to the test, as I committed to feeding her a different breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Gracis a Dios for the tattered Joy of Cooking on the shelf! She had planned on visiting Cuba, so I connected her with people I'd stayed with on my 2000 visit - locals who were later to become destinations for many readers of my book, The Handsomest Man in Cuba. Lo and behold, Annika subsequently met and married a Cuban, and brought him back to England.  Jose is now the Cuba product manager for a big London based travel company, a job that sends him home three times a year. With their extremely cute little daughter Lily they have created - in my book - a perfect life of family, travel, profession and culture.

No boat to China ... On the erroneous advice of an Expedia saleswoman who told me I didn't need a visa for China, I booked a 1-way flight from Athens to Beijing for a couple of days, in order to visit my cousins Leslie and Malcolm. I soon discovered that not only do most mortals need a visa, you have to be a UK resident to get one in London - you can't really do it "on the fly." So much for spontaneous travel plans. One look at the room full of applicants, all facing the bank of windows in the cold, fluroescent light of visa offices the world over, and I knew it was hopeless. I thought I'd make a last ditch effort in Rome, more about this later.
The Tate Modern
Instead I went to the Tate Modern. It's a nice stroll over the Millennium bridge to a Herzog+DeMeuron building, with its famous, cavernous Turbine Hall. For me, the only buoyant spots in the building were the gift shops. The exhibition space seemed strangely tired and S.A.D. affected. A Warhol here, a Brancusi there, a Calder lolling overhead as Calders do ... and call me a childless curmudgeon, but coming out of the lifts to be greeted by the cacophonous kiddie play area as a prelude to the galleries was plain weird.  The only pieces that grabbed my attention were an early Ellsworth Kelly that only a diehard minimalist could love, an arresting model of a building in Beirut that started out as a rich clan's enclave but due to unrest, was never finished. An eyesore on the landscape, it is now just a sniper outpost:

Validating any highbrow analysis of Hirst's spots, in my opinion, was a Claes Oldenburg crowdpleaser - a giant plug complete with sexually-charged appendages and orifices, according to the rapturous caption.Who doesn't love Claes Oldenburg - it brings out the kid in all of us. Just like Hirst. Here's the Ellsworth Kelly, which for die-hard minimalists (like me) really does capture the mood of the "Mediterranean" without any messy scenery.

The most expensive lunch I ever met
Valentine's Day. I decided to shout myself a nice lunch in the rooftop cafe. If you're on a budget the biggest mistake you can make is to order the appetizers thinking you're saving money. Mesmerized by the panoramic views over the river I did just that, and the bill came to - holy helmet - 32 quid, or $US50+. Oh woe is the US dollar.

Serves me right. 

Not a stone's throw across the river was the tent city of Occupy London, camped outside St Paul's Cathedral.

Everyone was still in bed. Signs saying "My tent for your bonus" and "My tent for a flat" and "People not Money" were plastered everywhere. As in other cities, there was a soup kitchen meeting house, meditation tent and library.

As I snapped photos and interviewed a stalwart member of the group I became acutely aware of the irony of my trip: spewing zillions of carbon molecules per frequent flyer mile, chasing after Hirst's homages to Twister mats in fancy galleries while people were looking for their next rent payment. I was looking for mine too, my day job having disappeared for the second time in 2 years, but I decided to put that aside for the moment and eat art instead.

The BBC crew were lurking in the background - apparently an eviction order was imminent. We agreed it would be very "unchurchy" for St Paul's to throw the patrons off their turf - they'd managed to last this long because of benevolence from behind the large oak doors.
The BBC cameraman and I compared rigs - my Canon S100 (in my pocket on the end of a lanyard) and his pro gear. "Start  from a still place, pan slowly across, pause, pan slowly back, pause," he advised.

I include this for my biking friends - the Barclay bikeshare scheme is alive and well in London.
I didn't want a wet butt, so I walked.

Tomorrow: Catching the Eurostar to the Gagosian Gallery in Paris

Dots, butterflies, pills: everything Hirst touches turns to gold.

Next stop: Gagosian Gallery Paris

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