The Ledger

July 2018

In 2010, the Knight Foundation, together with Gallup pollsters, surveyed 43,000 people in 26 U.S. cities for a‘Soul of the Community’ study that sought to answer questions about the elusive concept of ‘home’. What makes us devoted to a city, whether we live there or choose to visit it over and over? What makes us want to move somewhere new? The study found that jobs and the local economy were not the driver but rather the consequence of certain ineffable attributes. It was ‘physical beauty, opportunities for socializing and a city’s openness to all people’ that drew residents, and cities considered the most beautiful, sociable and open, in turn, had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth and the strongest economies. Contrast these findings with the decentralised longing and anomie described in the anthropologist Marc Augé's book Non-Places. Augé is interested in no-man’s-lands such as airports, superstores, motorways, international hotel chains and ‘new towns’ devoid of ‘“places for liv­ing”...where individual itineraries can intersect and mingle, where a few words are exchanged and solitudes momentarily forgotten, on the church steps, in front of the town hall, at the cafe counter or in the baker's doorway: the rather lazy rhythm and talkative mood that still characterize Sunday mornings in con­temporary provincial France.’ What happens to our sense of belonging as we spend more of our time in non-places of the sort that obsessed the novelist J. G. Ballard? According to Augé, we become ‘people [who] are always, and never, at home.’ Would that we all had the rigorous, hyper-localized consciousness of the novelist Rachel Cusk, whose latest work, Kudos, begins on an airplane and spins the banalities of an annoying seatmate into a slice of life so beautifully observed it becomes intimate and almost animate. Perhaps we have something to learn from peoples who wholly or partially refuse to partake in the aggressive encroachment of mediated space onto our own sacred personal orbits, such as the Qashqa’i, a traditionally pastoralist group of Turkic nomads in Iran who weave spectacular carpets out of Shiraz wool. Whether we fantasise about joining their ranks or about having, instead of a seat in economy class next to a man who won’t be quiet, our own private magic carpet, we’d do well to remember the (now bumper-sticker-friendly) words of J.R.R. Tolkien: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’



A monument like no other, to victims of an often forgotten war

On a lonely stretch of coast in Norway, 300 years after nearly 100 people were killed on suspicion of witchcraft, there is now a powerful memorial created by the architect Peter Zumthor and the late artist Louise Bourgeois, a modernist monument atop the Arctic Circle. More than 40,000 people accused of sorcery in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were killed, and the Steilneset Memorial honours 91 by name. Zumthor’s contribution is a simple pine scaffolding that supports a suspended silk cocoon, within which visitors walk a 122-metre-long oak-floored corridor, passing 91 small lights set into tiny windows. Each window bears a plaque that tells a victim’s story. Alongside the cocoon is a large box made of smoked glass entitled The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, Bourgeois’ last major installation before her death. Inside the box, an eternal flame sprouts from a steel chair. Surrounded by mirrors, the flaming chair seems to animate the whole space with fire—a fitting tribute to innocents burned alive. About a third of the trials targeted members of Norway’s indigenous Sami population, whose traditional healing rituals aroused suspicion in times of conflict. According to Zumthor, Bourgeois’s part of the installation ‘is more about the burning and the aggression, and my installation is more about the life and the emotions [of the victims].’



A spiky kind of paradise in central Spain

The construction of Madrid’s Autovía A-1, a wide highway that leads to France, gouged out the surrounding countryside and left a stretch of industrial wasteland in the foothills of the Upper Manzanares River Basin Regional Park. The agronomist Mercedes García dreamed of converting this barren patch into green space, necessarily of a low-maintenance—or ‘zerolandscaping’—variety. Five years ago, with the help of the architect Jacobo García-Germán, she did just that, transforming a forgettable stretch of highway into Desert City, the largest cactus garden in Europe. Xerophytes, the very opposite of hothouse flowers, thrive in this arid environment amid thrumming traffic. Some 400 species of plants from five continents grow in beds of sand, soil and gravel; the gardens are complemented by a greenhouse, nursery, exhibition space, restaurant, store and offices. García-Germán’s architecture incorporates such sustainable elements as photovoltaic glass, geothermal power and water-recovery systems. Linear glass corridors protect the gardens from the sight of the adjacent motorway. The result is a peacefully prickly oasis.


A vivid current of life, rendered with a knowing eye

Alice Oswald’s 40-page poem Dart fills a whole book with the murmur of that singular river. When the volume won the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry 15 years ago, Oswald was compared to Ted Hughes and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but the language is all her own, inspired by the ‘frightening female presence of the Dart herself’ and channelling her riverine spirit. ‘If you sleep near running water,’ Oswald told an interviewer, ‘the brain rearranges the sounds like the human voice’, and her poem captures ‘the river's mutterings, a songline from the source to the sea.’ The Devon-based poet lives a few minutes’ walk from the riverbank and has spent a great deal of time speaking to those whose livelihoods rely on the Dart: fishermen and poachers, boatbuilders and sewage workers and ferrymen. There are also swimmers, people in canoes—and ghosts, including ‘Twenty knights at arms / Capsized in full metal getting / over the creeks; / They sank like coins with the / heads on them still conscious. / …and the river / already counting them into her / bag, taking her tythe, / Who now swim light as decayed / spiderweb leaves.’


Art tied intrinsically to sacred landscapes

For the ongoing exhibition ‘Walkabout: the art of Dorothy Napangardi’, Seattle Art Museum has devoted its third-floor galleries to works by the revered Indigenous Australian artist, who died in 2013. A Warlpiri woman born in the early 1950s near Mina Mina, in central Australia’s Tanami Desert, Napangardi is known for intricate paintings intrinsically linked to the origin stories, ancestral journeys and sacred places of her family’s country. She and her family walked hundreds of miles across this landscape, noticing with reverent, richly informed attention the details of runnelled earth, the crystalline surfaces of salt lakes, and the constellations that patterned the night sky. She spoke of feeling profound happiness, peace and freedom during these times. The mother of five daughters, Napangardi was extensively involved in women’s ceremonies within Warlpiri society, and known to be a woman of few words (her Warlpiri nickname translates to ‘the Silent One’) even as she became a highly celebrated artist whose work was shown, awarded and collected internationally. Predominantly, she painted; however, she also extended into printmaking, transformed one of her sandhill paintings into a gorgeous carpet and collaborated with the Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna. This exhibition, showcasing pieces completed between 2000 and 2013, provides a rare opportunity to view her art in abundance and in context.


Seeing with intent: mesmerising views from various shores

In 2004, the American independent filmmaker James Benning made a meditative landscape study entitled 13 Lakes. Shot on 16mm film, it was hailed as a stately example of ‘slow cinema’ and added to the US National Film Registry in 2014. At 135 minutes long, 13 Lakes is really just that: 13 static shots of American lakes, each lasting ten minutes; devoid of narrative, characters and dialogue. Jackson Lake, Moosehead Lake, the Salton Sea, Lake Superior, Lake Winnebago, Lake Okeechobee, Lower Red Lake, Lake Pontchartrain, Great Salt Lake, Lake Iliamna, Lake Powell, Crater Lake and Lake Oneida all offer variations on little ripples and bigger waves, the chortle of motor boats, bird calls and the sporadic rumble of thunder and rain. It is no surprise to learn that Benning, who lives partly in the Sierra Nevada mountains, is much moved by Thoreau’s Walden—particularly the following ‘sentiment to live by’: ‘What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry… compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk into futurity.’ This single-minded piece of cinema, somehow both luscious and austere, is inducement to look and listen intently with just such resolve.


Capturing the complex, intriguingly layered sounds of our cities

Cities and Memory, an online project launched and curated by the Oxford-based sound artist Stuart Fowkes, features field recordings and music from around the world, with over 500 contributors involved so far. A collaborative endeavour, it seeks to remix the world, one sound at a time. There are currently around 2000 sounds from 75 countries—everything from the hubbub of San Francisco’s main train station to folk fishing songs on Lake Turkana to the buzz of vaporetto engines in Venice. Those are examples of the documentary element; there is also an imaginative element in which contributors can upload sonic reimaginings—anything from ambient music to electronica to abstract compositions—inspired by a specific locale. And several times per year, Cities and Memory presents global collaborations that delve into the aural character of a place in greater detail. Last year saw a four-part piece inspired by Dreamland, the U.K.’s oldest surviving amusement park, featuring an extended recomposed piece consisting of field recordings from Dreamland and newsreel clips; a sound map of the town of Margate; a set of ‘sonic postcards’; and ‘An Attempt at Exhausting Dreamland’, which modelled itself on Georges Perec’s visual diary of Paris. Another piece, ‘Prison Songs’, presented songs about work, love, privation and faith that were recorded at the Mississippi State Penitentiary during the 1950s. One might think of these offerings as ur-podcasts, distilling the experience of a place, past or present, into the purest form of listening.


An astutely focused lens on contemporary Norway

The photographer Eivind H. Natvig’s 2014 monograph Du Er Her No (You Are Here Now) is a rare glimpse of a Norway we don’t know. Instead of fjords and smørbrød, Natvig gives us images only a returned local could know to find: fish heads bobbing out of what looks to be a writhing red sea; a ruddy man in front of a parted floral curtain who is oblivious to the dazzling rainbow forming in the picture window behind him; wild dark horses in blurry motion; construction equipment toiling in a snowy forest. After six years of working abroad, Natvig came back to Norway to work as a staff photographer at a small newspaper. ‘Pandora’s box was open’, he said of that time. ‘I had eight assignments throughout the country where [I had] 100% creative control... I discovered that my countrymen are more welcoming than expected. This country which seemed so remote and so closed to me through all my years abroad was not that way at all.’ When the job ended, Natvig set off to further explore his native land, travelling light and relying on the kindness of strangers.


Arresting images of industrial history

Nathan Harger's black-and-white photographs of industrial sites are clean and peaceful, full of straight lines and strong, vivid shapes: grooved metal siding on a factory wall in Elizabeth, New Jersey; an enticingly vertiginous exterior staircase on a process tank in Brooklyn; the dark, perfect silhouette of a sinking ship in a ship graveyard. To find these static muses, he travels to cities known for their industrial history, such as Bethlehem and Bath in Western Pennsylvania, training his eye toward ‘shapes and structures that are rich in lines and geometric forms.’ He started out thinking he'd become an industrial designer, but ended up getting degrees in photography from the Cleveland Institute of Art and Parsons. ‘I’m visually attracted to the same things I found compelling when I thought I’d be an industrial designer’, Harger writes to introduce a portfolio of his images published in The Paris Review. ‘A friend of mine wanted to come shoot with me one day—he’s from Cleveland, which is where I grew up. He found it hilarious that I moved from Cleveland to New York, because I keep going to places that look like Cleveland.’ His photographs are part of the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.



Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber

‘Any landscape is a condition of the spirit.’

Henri-Frédéric Amiel