Illustration by Audrey Helen Weber

December 2018

The Ledger

Transformation is seductive, whether held in alchemy’s promise of base metals turned to gold, Michael Pollan’s courtly endorsement of psychedelics, or the magical tales we return to over and over. Take the selkie-folk of the Orkney Islands, for instance—a mythological seal-people who emerge from the ocean, shed their skins for safekeeping in some sea cave along the shore, and comfort the lonely with their heroic sexual prowess, like versatile mermaids. Of course, more workaday transformations can also be wondrous: look at the efforts of Rouble Nagi, an artist in Mumbai who recruited volunteers to help bring new life to the city’s waterfront slums, painting formerly drab homes in vibrant colours. It’s the time of year for this kind of thing, albeit more ephemerally: who among us is immune to the charm of wreaths on doors, candelabra winking in windows, and strings of lights illuminating city squares? The transformations we enact may be aesthetic or spiritual; and change may take the form of regression or even of stasis, deliberate or accidental, as often as ‘progress’. The more we embrace that possibility, the more level we’ll be.

Illustration by Audrey Helen Weber


Poems spun as if from silk, and literally written in its strands

In 2010, the journalist Amanda Schaffer, who had recently written about new developments in silk technology, approached the poet Jen Bervin. Schaffer knew Bervin’s work in text and textile and thought she may want to collaborate on a project about silk. There began the research that culminated in Bervin’s most recent book. The two women visited the Tufts University Silk Lab, whose scientists were redefining liquefied silk as a biomedical and technological material. Bervin found herself transfixed by silk biosensors—implantable, biodegradable sensors that can monitor patients’ progress after surgery or track chronic diseases such as diabetes. ‘If you are living with a silk sensor implanted inside of you, knowing what is written, inscribed or layered there could be quite meaningful and transformative’, Bervin says in a short video about the project. In thinking about how poetic forms might be shaped by the fabric’s structure, she looked at silk’s DNA. Its building block is the beta sheet, which resembles the weft thread in weaving, snaking back and forth, and the poet was excited to discover the same shape in the silkworm’s production of its cocoon. ‘The poem “Strand”’, Bervin says, ‘is modeled after the image of how the silkworm writes its own cocoon.’ The six-letter enjambed line in the poem comes from the genome sequencing and draws on the lineage of Islamic textiles. The regular reader may not be able to discern the poem Bervin wrote on silk, which requires a microscope to see the minuscule gold letters suspended in what was once liquefied silk dried into the form of a film. That poem, a meditation on mortality, is written from the perspective of a silkworm, a creature that lives no more than a month and a half, while the addressee is the person with the silk sensor inside. All that Bevin wrote in response to her explorations is readily accessible in Silk Poems, published by Nightboat Books in 2017.

Illustration by Audrey Helen Weber


Music of transcendence, mainly in the Persian tradition

Based in Tehran, the musician, composer, vocalist and scholar Davod Azad  plays multiple instruments (he is a virtuoso of the Persian tar and setar) and performs in a wealth of rare, distinctive genres, from Iranian classical and Azerbaijani folk to ancient Persian and Sufi music. His compositions often incorporate the poems of Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic; his 2012 album The Divan of Rumi & Bach was the first to mesh Iranian and classical Western forms. ‘I believe music has the capacity to disconnect the mind from the past and future’, he told an interviewer during a visit to Miami in 2014. ‘Ancient Sufis believed that we were in unity with God, and the language was music. There was no other language except music. Whenever we hear really deep devotion in music, it reminds us of that state of our being...the spirit wants to travel out from the body and go to that state of transcendent being we were in originally.’ And when Azad performs, he believes that the audience and the musician become one entity, ‘a circle of energy’ with no boundary. In short, his aim is to make music that goes beyond technique and imparts a granular spiritual change.


From towering grain silo to ten-storey art museum

More than 40 concrete tubes, each 33 metres tall and 5.5 metres wide, once clustered in the centre of Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), which opened in 2017. To create the museum’s cathedral-like central chamber, the British architect Thomas Heatherwick carved through a former grain silo, for a long time the tallest building in the Cape Town skyline, on the Victoria and Alfred waterfront. ‘We all know what tubes look like’, Heatherwick said of his approach to the project, ‘but when you cut through them with a curve, they create these magical lines.’ Light cascades down through the tubes from installed skylights. The atrium takes its shape from the grain that used to be stored there: it is modelled on a kernel of corn, which the architect digitally scanned and enlarged to a height of ten storeys. The interior holds a considerable and impressive permanent collection (on long-term loan from the museum’s main patron, Jochen Zeitz) as well as centres for photography, performing arts and the moving image; a dedicated arts education centre; a costume institute and a curatorial training programme. The public-transport arrangements and access policies were designed to encourage local visitors, for whom the recent history of apartheid, with its policies of exclusion, still smarts. Don’t miss the South African artist Nicholas Hlobo’s remarkable flying dragon or the Swazi-born Nandipha Mntambo’s haunting cowhide silhouettes—both examples of the kind of sculptural genius that benefits from having an exhibition space as thoughtfully spectacular as Zeitz MOCAA’s. 


A life-changing anti-trafficking programme in Nepal

Each year, thousands of Nepali girls and women are enmeshed in human-trafficking schemes, passing through hubs where they are sold into sexual slavery transnationally or made to work domestically as indentured workers in brick kilns, roadside taverns and textile and embroidery workshops. The devastating earthquake of 2015 left thousands displaced and especially vulnerable; the same year, a blockade closed the Indo-Nepalese border, which further worsened economic conditions. Trafficking is a lucrative business, and Anuradha Koirala, a 68-year-old former teacher who started the anti-trafficking organisation Maiti Nepal in 1993, has developed a number of compassionate and innovative interventions to fight its strong undertow. Maiti—‘mother’s home’ in Nepali—is part of a network of community activists, lawyers, police and survivors agitating for better preventive measures, stronger laws and stricter enforcement. Koirala’s group has established a school for 1000 children, a shelter in Kathmandu, prevention homes where at-risk girls receive counselling and are trained in crafts such as sewing and candle-making, transit homes along the Indian border and two hospitals. Maiti also conducts public awareness campaigns, works with police and government officials to locate victims, and runs social support programmes for victims who have been rescued but who face stigma and ostracism from their families and communities. ‘When I see their pain—their mental pain as well as physical pain—it is so troubling that I cannot turn myself away’, Koirala said when she received a humanitarian award from the Indian government last year. ‘This gives me strength to root this crime out.’


Tangled skeins of metaphor, reality and selfhood

‘In all chaos there is a cosmos’, an experimental theatre director named Evangeline (Molly Parker) proclaims early in Josephine Decker’s new film Madeline’s Madeline, ‘in all disorder a secret order.’ She’s both quoting Jung and instructing Madeline (Helena Howard), a talented, troubled teenager, on how she might make art out of her psychiatric instability. The film, which flirts with dreamy impressionism, is attuned to chaos. Its cinematography is wild, its soundscape full of chants, shrieks, whispers and wailing. Madeline has spent time committed to a mental health ward and is on medication (which she takes only sometimes) in order to keep herself even; Evangeline’s influence is at once galvanising and destabilising, nurturing and parasitic. The role-play exercises Evangeline prescribes in rehearsal uncomfortably mimic her young charge’s domestic reality, where Madeline exists in fragile balance with her caring yet overbearing mother (Miranda July). Madeline takes her assignments home with her—pretending to be a pig, a sea turtle, a cat—and Decker cleverly blurs the line between art and madness, and between mentoring and exploitation. Mother oversees mercurial daughter with a mixture of pride, unease and raw fear; July’s smile is nearly a grimace. Decker built the film around the show-stealing Howard after seeing the 19-year-old perform at a contest in New Jersey, and left the script deliberately loose so as to accommodate both Howard’s improvisations and those of the real-life theatre group who appear in the production. We witness Madeline coming to some awareness of her power in Evangeline’s world. When she’s dancing—Evangeline’s approach involves a lot of movement—she seizes the stage and becomes the centre of gravity.


Star charts gleaned from famed opening lines

‘I didn’t intend to create constellations’, writes the data artist Nick Rougeux of the unusual diagrams he created to map the appearance of some of the Western literary canon’s most famous first sentences. ‘I wanted an interesting visual way of looking at text but quickly found that what I was creating resembled constellation maps.’ The posters that emerged from his investigations, with white stars, circles and slender lines set against a dark blue background like a night sky, not only have aesthetic appeal but also deftly capture the big or little bangs that open various works—from The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (which has a busy look to it) to Dubliners by James Joyce to Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie. A legend at the bottom of each poster explains how the parts of speech making up these familiar lines correspond to the stars above. The first word of each diagram gets a starburst; each word that follows is denoted by a circle whose size matches the word’s length, and Rougeux mapped each part of speech to a compass point, so that a connection to an adjective, for example, points north, whereas prepositional connections go in a southwesterly direction.


Tracking the shifts that steer language and culture

Each summer, the linguist Sarah ‘Sally’ Thomason does a two-day, 1800-mile drive from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she lives and teaches, to rural northwestern Montana, where for 34 years she has been compiling a dictionary of the Montana Salish language, which is spoken fluently by fewer than 40 people. Thomason is fascinated by the collision of languages and the changes that ensue, or don’t. In The Paris Review, Ryan Bradley conducts a lively, wide-ranging interview with Thomason that explores how linguistic traits move and mutate, how pidgins and creoles arise, and how languages evolve over time. ‘Every generation of teenagers will invent their own words because the whole point of teenage slang is to have in-group vocabulary that outsiders, like old people, can’t understand very well. And a lot of those words are ephemeral. The next generation comes along, gets their own words, the old words disappear’, Thomason says. She became interested in Montana Salish after spending time in a mountain range to the east of the easternmost Salish language (Salish is spoken mostly on the coast). ‘I thought I could find out about this linguistic area if I started studying this language, and the tribes wanted somebody to come and help them get used to the writing system, a new linguistic device for them, so I was going to be useful’, she tells Bradley. ‘[I]n 1981, I started trying to learn about this language, and it took about ten years before I realized I need maybe another 150 years for that project, and then I’d only need another century or so to understand the linguistic area. But in the meantime, I really got hooked…’


Taking resolute steps in the cause of social transformation

At 85, the Japanese calligrapher, Zen teacher, author, translator and peace activist Kazuaki Tanahashi is still going strong. Famous for his ‘one-stroke’ paintings and multicolour enso (symbolic Zen circles), he is also the founding director of A World Without Armies, the founding secretary of Plutonium Free Future, and a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science. His most recent book, Painting Peace: Art in a Time of Global Crisis, is a Tanahashi-style ‘letter to a young artist’. Its stories and meditations aim to inspire artists and young activists toward living more generously, working on behalf of others and taking action to shore up the health of the planet. Tanahashi first became politically active as an artist living in San Francisco in the late 1970s, in response to the escalating nuclear arms race. ‘I did not know if I would wake up the next morning’, he told the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. ‘I wanted to do something to change the situation, to become free from this horrible threat of global suicide.’ Today, he identifies population growth and climate change as our current great crises, and recommends that Buddhists seeking to tackle them take inspiration from unlikely sources: ‘One time at a Buddhist Peace Fellowship meeting, I said that maybe we should learn from business people and the military—they are masters of being effective!’ People were horrified by his suggestion, but he stands by it: ‘If we are working for social transformation, then we need to have the best kind of path, the best strategy and tactics. We have to maximize the results with limited resources and capacity.’



Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber

‘…nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.’

Antoine Lavoisier