The Ledger

April 2017

At a corporate retreat held last year for digital editors and producers of the New York Times, participants were asked to take part in a ‘trust’ exercise. Sitting in a circle, the employees unlocked their smartphones, by fingerprint or by passcode, then handed the devices to the person on their right. Their extreme reluctance suggested this was every bit as viscerally unsettling as it would have been to fall backwards into the supposedly waiting arms of their colleagues. Your stamp collection of apps; an inopportune text message popping up; your ‘wallpaper’; your unread emails tallied to a T – an exoskeleton of wants, responsibilities, interests and entanglements, laid bare (for a moment) for others to see. The line between public and private is much on our minds these days – from the thin curtains of voting booths the world over to the outward turn of mass protest, governance by Twitter, new uses for drones, search-history subpoenas and the right to bury your Google hits, at least in Europe. New technologies have, since the dawn of time, shifted and erased and redrawn that line. The printing press transformed reading from a group activity, in which people assembled to hear one literate person (typically a priest) decode text as impenetrable to the rest as the Rosetta Stone, into solo study or entertainment. Running water created the water closet and with it the propriety of bathing alone. Uber spares us the street-corner jostle, while pooled rides plunge us into conversation with strangers in the back seat. For each innovation that secludes us, there’s an equal and opposite innovation that returns us to the fray.

Black and white illustration of foot kicking a football

SOS Tadjoura: sanctuary for children in need

A dimple on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti appears to fold in on itself even as it abuts the Gulf of Aden and controls access to the Red Sea. A decade of civil war ended in 2001, followed by intense drought and famine. Many children are developmentally delayed due to hunger, while others leave school early to work in jobs that leave them vulnerable to exploitation; and many are orphaned. SOS Children’s Villages respond to such circumstances around the world, funding construction of group housing and engaging women from each community as matriarchs to the resident children. Here, Urko Sánchez Architects absorbed the ambitions of this model in the creation of a village in Tadjoura, collaborating with local labourers and practitioners from many quarters. The perimeter of the walled medina is studded with miniature apertures that admit light while preserving peace and quiet. No cars are permitted, which encourages pitter patter down a warren of alleyways that open on to shared spaces – a cheerful playground, serene courtyards, and oases of green in a dry and dusty land.

Black and white illustration of a flower

A private paradise generously made public

Piet Oudolf’s green thumb coaxes tender shoots and hardy grasses from the raised beds of New York City’s High Line and rectilinear recesses of London’s Serpentine Gallery. Those seeking sanctuaries less well-trod may prefer a solo expedition to the landscape designer’s home and nursery at Hummelo, in the Netherlands. His private gardens are open from the end of May till the beginning of July, then from the end of July through October. Hedges of beech, yew, and oak conceal the main house from view, although strategic gaps give a teasing view onto the front garden. Those flowerbeds are full of bright Achillea, soft blossoms of Anemone robustissima, and spiky asters. You might start in one of his other Dutch gardens – there are two in Rotterdam and one in Utrecht – before making this more personal pilgrimage. Wherever you go, you’ll find artfully tamed wilderness that remains transfixing no matter the season, more sculptural and naturalistic than colourful and fragile. In other words, Oudolf’s no hothouse flower.


A magnanimous few find means to feed many

Rio de Janeiro, the sixth most populous city in the Americas, is a good place to get lost in a crowd. It yearly draws nearly a million visitors for Carnival; last year, it hosted the Summer Olympics. Its cheek-by-jowl favelas are home to a quarter of the city’s population; many of their dwellings were razed in advance of the Games. In the aftermath, a remarkable project that combats hunger and dignifies the hungry continues. Refettorio Gastromotiva is a collaboration between Italian chef Massimo Bottura from Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Brazilian chef David Hertz, a slow-food disciple who has spent a decade training the poor to become kitchen assistants, and Alexandra Forbes, Brazilian gastronomy journalist. Gustavo Cedroni of METRO Architects designed the space; art curator Vik Muniz, the Campana Brothers and Maneco Quinderé also contributed generously, designing scenography and furniture. The project began with recovery of surplus food from the bloated Olympic Village, transforming donations of slightly bruised produce and stale bread into estimable dishes and serving seventy homeless people per seating. Today, a paying lunchtime crowd helps to support free meals in the evening, and vocational classes teach students how to use ingredients for maximum nutrition and minimum waste.


Documentarian of a disappearing world

The work of the American artist and photojournalist Justin Brice Guariglia suddenly feels more necessary than ever. As the United States’ National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Environmental Protection Agency seem to teeter on the brink of extinction, and employees of NASA and the US National Parks Service set up shadow communications, Guariglia’s role as an embedded artist on a NASA mission takes on special significance. As part of his work about climate change, he will spend the next four years accompanying agency staff on low-altitude flights across Greenland and capturing the death throes of glaciers. An austere expedition to be sure – as well as a life-and-death public service announcement. Until 13 May, those in New York can view his exhibition AFTER NATURE at Two Thirty-One Projects in Chelsea, while ACTION: MELTWATER PULSE II opens on 22 April (travelling subsequently to the 57th Venice Biennale). In late May, THE NEW NORMAL shows at Telluride Gallery of Fine Art. And the enormous, textured digital prints of EARTHWORKS: MAPPING THE ANTHROPOCENE are on view from September at the Norton Museum in Florida’s West Palm Beach – a snowball’s throw from the Winter White House.


An interior journey of arresting beauty

To access the recondite rhythms in Do Not Enter My Soul in Your Shoes, you have to heed the injunction of its author – the Canadian First Nations poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine – to tread carefully, to ‘melt the blue of our broken jubilations’. Fontaine writes in a French powerfully inflected by Innu language and culture. Her search for authenticity involved, first, realising that her heritage had been suppressed in her history textbooks, and then, at eighteen, she withdrew from mainstream Quebecois life and returning to the Pessamit reserve of her ancestors, where she lived for a year without leaving the community, ‘not even to shop in town!’ She credits the retreat with giving her the strong voice that has reverberated through the slam poetry scene. ‘In full immersion,’ she said in 2015, ‘I re-learned the language. And though I was raised in French, the Innu way of thinking is coming back… speaking Innu means cultivating a deep relationship to oneself.’


Long-obscured stories brought artfully to light

‘ğ’, a vanishingly soft consonant found in a smattering of Turkic and Kartvelian languages, lends its name to an exhibition on view through the end of May at the Schwules Museum, in Berlin: ‘ğ – queer forms migrate’. Perhaps we might then welcome ğ into the warm, ever-expanding alphabet soup of LGBTQIA; the intersections of G and ğ, where nationality meets gender and sexual identity, form the focus of the show. Curators Emre Busse and Aykan Safoğlu investigate the untold his-and-herstories of queer migrants from Turkey, and consider their contributions to the German art scene. ğ reminds us that a minority twice over merits respect and allows for sincere curiosity. The ‘Q’ in LGBTQIA, after all, stands both for ‘queer’ and for ‘questioning’.


Never one for the limelight: Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin’s poetry may be unique in making an equally strong impression on literati and laity. His output was slim but bold, and stood out against the modesty and steadiness of his life in Hull, where he worked full-time as a librarian and turned down the role of poet laureate. Readings and official functions, he once said, ‘embarrass me very much. I don't want to go around pretending to be me.’ Small wonder he was sometimes referred to as the Hermit of Hull, although he told The Paris Review he’d never been a recluse. Nevertheless, he kept his curtains drawn to shield his books from sunlight, and preferred correspondence by letter (with, for instance, the writer Barbara Pym and his Paris Review interlocutor) to meeting in person. Further, he said, ‘this business of meeting famous writers is agonizing’ – happening upon T. S. Eliot in the London offices of Faber was ‘shattering’. For all his self-alleged lack of adventurousness, however, Larkin speaks volubly of his work and inspirations. Dour he may have been, but dull, never.


Too much information: a salutary tale

Josh Harris is the putative star of We Live in Public, Ondi Timoner’s engrossing 2009 documentary about an Internet soothsayer, his public crack-up, and how his fate relates to our own hyper-surveilled moment. Harris made $80 million with, an early streaming site that presaged almost every major platform to come; but dial-up speeds in the late ’90s made it a clunky forebear. Still, he was a true visionary, if deeply weird, ploughing money into performance-art projects that drove him insane. The first was Quiet: We Live in Public, a five-week experiment that filmed every moment lived by one hundred volunteers in a Manhattan bunker. Drugs, a shooting range, exhibitionism, and Harris dressed as a clown called Luvvy practically begged for a police shut-down. In 2000, he filmed his relationship with girlfriend Tanya Corrin in invasive detail. They split up, unsurprisingly, and Harris retreated to an apple farm, then to rural Ethiopia. Timoner’s film has held up well – Harris as a madcap ‘Warhol of the web’ seems more prescient, and ominous, than ever. He now lives in Las Vegas, and believes the FBI are watching him. Odds are, he’s right.