November 2018

The Ledger

Albert Webster Edgerly (1852–1926) was an American social reformer whose pseudoscientific theories of personal magnetism now seem quaintly silly even if they are not, fundamentally, that different from our contemporary pseudosciences. He contended, among other things, that magnetism could be built up in the body if ‘leakage’—caused by ‘crisp’ foods such as biscuits, cranberries, pickles and crabs, and simply by being a chatterbox—were stopped. Lessons on all types of magnetism, literal as well as figurative, are better gleaned from the sciences; but if the abstruse laws of dipolar matter and the vagaries of mirror neurons prove too taxing to count as light reading, consider the Australian artist Cameron Robbins’ work Mount Jim – Magnetic Anomaly (2013). This series of drawings, maps, diagrams and sculptural pieces, tied by a shared quiet intensity, were inspired by a basalt formation in remote Victoria that causes a peculiar 20-degree compass variation. Robbins’ meshing of hard science and elemental forces with the profound mystery of human aesthetics seems almost a rebuke to Edgerly’s hot-air definition of personal magnetism, its spin and self-promotion. Charisma is all well and good, but we’re for less ephemeral energies of attraction—those that bind people together to collaborate on lasting achievements which benefit us all.



A menu for hope and progress

Fat Macy’s is a London catering service that’s light on its feet. Employing young locals residing in temporary housing, it serves a delicious and varied menu of home-cooked food at supper clubs, events and offices across the city, aiming to effect ‘a route out of homelessness through food.’ Meg Doherty established Fat Macy’s in March 2016 as a social enterprise to help people living in long-stay hostels run by charities, similar to homeless shelters. The more the such residents earn, the more their rent increases and the more government assistance decreases—which makes a housing deposit and modest savings near-unattainable. Doherty addresses this catch-22 by giving Fat Macy’s workers a credit for each hour on the job; after 150 hours they become eligible for a housing deposit grant to put toward securing a home of their own. Her menus demonstrate an equally clever, can-do approach to a completely different kind of problem-solving, featuring delicate desserts such as stewed plum with rosewater-infused mascarpone and Caribbean-themed offerings such as callaloo soup and boozy rum cake. The ‘lightbulb moment’ for Fat Macy’s came when Doherty was volunteering in a hostel and stumbled upon an informal Caribbean cooking class. ‘It was in the small prep and training kitchen where nothing really works properly but there was music, amazing smells, and everyone was laughing. It was the complete opposite of normal hostel life.’ Recently, the organisation raised enough money through crowdfunding to renovate an old building in Peckham, and is now well on the way to setting up a restaurant, cafe and social enterprise hub that will continue to offer training, work experience and housing support. It will also serve as a base and prep kitchen for the roving caterers and their pop-up suppers. Coffee, breakfast and lunch will be served during the day and ‘British tapas plates’ in the evening. 



Collaborative poems that bear tender witness to unrest and exile

In 2009, the Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi, who lives in northern California, received an email from her acquaintance Marilyn Hacker, a Jewish-American poet who lives in Paris, containing stanzas about a child living through that year’s siege of Gaza. Shehabi replied with her own poem. Their exchange lasted four years and became an extended collaborative work in the tradition of the Japanese renga form, with each poet choosing a word, phrase or image from the poem preceding and carrying it into the next instalment. The 117-page collection was published in 2014 as Diaspo/Renga. Contributions by Hacker, whose 12 volumes of poetry include Presentation Piece, for which she won the National Book Award for poetry in 1974, are marked with an ‘M’; stanzas by Shehabi, the author of the poetry collection Thirteen Departures From the Moon, are stamped with a ‘D’. The book’s imagery dwells on unrest and exile in moving and unexpected ways, invoking present-day wars and those we think of as done but which are in fact dormant, leaking quiet trauma into the minds of the living. ‘M: Five, six—and righteous, / the child in green in Gaza / stands in her wrecked home, / grubby, indignant. Her hands / point; she explains what was done / bombed, burned. It all smells like gas! We had to throw our clothes / away! The earrings my / father gave me… No martyr, / resistant. The burnt cradle… D: breaks over the cold mountains / of North Carolina where a Cherokee / poet huddles in a cottage / by an indigo fire. She sees / the child and says, / This is the new Trail of Tears. / Calls out, Oh outspread Indian nation / Let’s braid our hair / with the pulverized / gravel of Palestine.’ What Shehabi emphasises as the common thread, despite the poets’ different identities, is ‘So much love for humanity over all.’


Art tethered to elemental energies

The artist Cameron Robbins works from a studio in Castlemaine, Australia, but his installations absorb and redirect various forces of nature the world over. For his 2013 piece Mill House Gravity, situated on the west coast of Norway, he installed a set of organ pipes in a kvernhus (old mill house) at the Nordic Artists’ Center in Dalsåsen, hooked them up to a nearby waterfall and harnessed the rapids’ energy to make them sing in the key of A major. MILLKULTURE (2016), on permanent view at the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum in Lilydale, Victoria, is a kinetic wind-powered drawing machine that creates graphite marks on concrete: a series of wheels connected to a long graceful arm support a birdlike object with a lyrebird’s tail feathers and a graphite beak. On windy days, the object moves around an internal gallery space and strikes the wall with its beak, producing an incremental collage that memorialises the ephemeral breeze. Another of Robbins’ works dealt with Mount Jim, also in Victoria, a basalt formation with a magnetic anomaly—a 20-degree magnetic compass variation that is caused by a huge unknown underground object. Robbins used compass measurements, markers, lighting and long-exposure photographic ‘night drawings’ to externalise the abstraction of 3-D magnetic forms for his multidisciplinary work Mount Jim – Magnetic Anomaly (2013), producing a series of hand drawings, maps, diagrams and sculptural works that are quiet, steady and hypnotic.


A fertile space for urban dwellers to gather

Îlot d’Amaranthes sprouted in 2003, when the Galerie Tator, in Lyon, invited the artist and gardener Emmanuel Louisgrand to apply his practised green thumb to a grimy vacant lot in the city's La Guillotière district. What he did at the junction of Rue Montesquieu and Rue Sébastien Gryphe inspired neighbours and other Lyon residents to pitch in: the neighbourhood association Brin d’Guill’ formed a year later to oversee the space and make it a permanent fixture of the cityscape, and a barren patch of concrete is now a vibrant community garden edged with a bright-orange fence and a fresco by the Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra. Îlot d’Amaranthes’ interlocking plots, compost site and greenhouse convey that it is a serious working garden. Its trees and gorgeous roses make it an island of tranquility perfect for passing an hour or two with a book. For a scenic route getting there, cross the Rhône via the Pont de l’Université.


An ingenious ‘do tank’ for social housing

In 2016, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena received his field’s highest award, the Pritzker Prize. The jury’s language was telling, emphasising his ‘long-term commitment to tackling the global housing crisis and fighting for a better urban environment for all’ over any flashy project or rarefied sensibility. Aravena has undertaken institutional and private commissions, but what sets him apart is his devotion to social housing. His firm Elemental—an equal partnership among five architects, the Universidad Católica de Santiago and the Chilean oil firm COPEC—first found widespread acclaim for their 2004 housing project Quinta Monroy, in Iquique, Chile. The government supplied a modest amount of money for a new home, and Elemental built what they called ‘half a good house’: a two-storey, two-bedroom residence with kitchen and bathroom, and an equivalent empty space next to it, encouraging residents to build out an addition to their own taste and capacity. The idea worked brilliantly, transforming a type of asset that too often deteriorates following initial investment into a site of innovation and a generator of new wealth. Yet Aravena considers the project a failure, as he said to the Guardian, because ‘the mainstream has not been affected.’ In response to his Pritzker win, he published the plans of four of his social housing projects on his website, for anyone to study and use—an open-source, spotlight-deflecting act that suggests his money and mouth are in the same place. He uses the word ‘irreducible’ to describe Elemental’s approach. ‘An Elemental project should be something where you can’t change the design without removing something essential’, he told the New York Times. ‘Scarcity of means requires from the architect an abundance of meaning. The power of architecture is the power of synthesis, to say what you want in two words instead of three, to achieve a solution in as few moves as possible.’ He has called Elemental, fittingly, a ‘do tank’. 


Communities observed with keen regard

The documentary photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen was born in Finland in 1948 and moved to London in the 1960s, where she studied film at a polytechnic in Regent Street. In 1969, she moved to the industrial neighbourhood of Byker in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and for seven years she photographed and interviewed her neighbours in and around their terraced houses. Her book about them, Byker (1983), was complemented by an exhibition that toured the world. Soon afterward came the project Step by Step, a study of girls attending dance schools (it was an influence for the film Billy Elliot). Writing in the Sand, a collection of photos taken between 1973 and 1998, chronicled beach life in the northeastern England with whimsy and joy. (‘It’s like putting Champagne in your veins’, she said of swimming in the North Sea.) In 2004, Konttinen turned to a new generation of Byker residents, with a fresh approach. As she wrote in the Guardian, ‘It's no longer OK to walk the streets with a camera and photograph anyone—especially children—without permission. So I got to know people, and asked them: if you were to put your life into just one picture, what would be in it?’ One portrait, of ‘a typical Byker lad’ and his young daughters, epitomises both the forethought and impromptu magic of this style. The family is about to move house, belongings packed in boxes; the man is playing at blowing bubbles with his children. ‘I set up the tripod and lights and framed the picture carefully,’ Konttinen writes, ‘but I hoped something spontaneous would happen.’ Like a four-legged metaphor for the fragility and transience of the community, their pitbull terrier snapped at a stray soap bubble. Konttinen claims particular inspiration from a line by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki: ‘The quality that we call beauty… must always grow from the realities of life.’ 


The irrepressible curiosity of the relinquished child

The Return (2018), a hybrid drama/documentary feature by the Danish director Malene Choi Jensen that was shot in just 15 days, tells the story of two Korean-Danish adoptees returning to Seoul to search for their birth families. The fictional narrative, which combines scripted and improvised elements, features experimental touches in cinematography, editing and sound design, while the documentary scenes ring vivid and true. Based on the filmmaker’s own experience of adoption, as well as histories of her interviewees, The Return is a meditation on family ties, loneliness and the sometimes elusive nature of home. Karoline (Karoline Sofie Lee), a woman in her thirties who was raised in Denmark, meets Thomas (Thomas Hwan) at Koroot, a Seoul guesthouse that hosts visiting Korean adoptees, who converse and swap tips as they navigate the complex emotions and bureaucratic machinations of trying to locate those who brought them into the world. Karoline ends up accompanying Thomas and an interpreter when he finally meets his birth mother (Seong In-Ja), who serves her guests a home-cooked meal as she tells them her heartrending story. Yet there are also moments of humour occasioned by Karoline and Thomas’s naivety about Korean culture, and an unexpected turn comes from the testimony of an American-raised adoptee who moved to Korea for a longer period after locating his birth family, and who in doing so caused a rift with his adoptive family. The multidisciplinary artist JooYoung Choi, herself adopted by Americans, explains how multiple trips to visit her birth mother have filtered into her graphic art, which is set in a richly imagined fictitious land she calls the Cosmic Womb.


Testament to a remarkable friendship

When Helen Keller was 72, a friend introduced her to modern dance maestra Martha Graham. Graham invited Keller to her dance studios at 66 Fifth Avenue, where Keller used her tactile faculties to observe the choreography, putting her hands on the floor to register the impression of the dancers’ feet as they moved in one direction, then another. This meeting was the beginning of a deep friendship between Keller and Graham. Both women were famous, Keller for showing how much of the world she could absorb despite her deaf-blindness from the age of 19 months, Graham for her contributions to the world of dance. ‘Graham and Keller’s different approaches to the body and to movement made them both student and teacher to each other,’ writes Ellen O’Connell Whittet in a touching tribute to an unlikely friendship. ‘It’s a useful reminder that even late in life, discoveries await.’ Graham, in her memoir, wrote about another of Keller’s visits to the dance studio, when she asked, ‘What is jumping?’ Graham asked Merce Cunningham to stand at the barre and demonstrate. ‘“Merce, be very careful,”’ she warned. ‘“I’m putting Helen’s hands on your body.”’ Graham placed Keller’s hands on Cunningham’s waist as he assumed first position and began to jump. Soon Keller was copying his motion, vaulting her own body into the air. Graham recalls Keller’s ‘expression chang[ing] from curiosity to one of joy’ and her exclamation, ‘“Oh, how wonderful! How like thought! How like the mind it is.”’



Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber

’Tis sweet to feel by what fine-spun threads our affections are drawn together.’

Laurence Sterne