The Ledger

December 2017

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, social support isn’t far behind food and water. And yet studies of urban contemporary life show us eating fewer meals together. We marry later if we marry at all, and we give birth to fewer children. We volunteer less. The structure of our lives today, even as it brings us into so much nominal contact, suppresses our social nature, and that at our grave peril: rates of mental illness and addiction have risen significantly in the past 50 years. If hell is other people, to paraphrase Sartre, and even if your special hell is a certain uncle giving you the gift of his views on immigration after three too many eggnogs, still it’s better than the abyss that is loneliness. At this particular season, when the cosy tropes come at us in high relief and sharp cliché, even the most disciplined solitude can start to feel less like freedom and more like exile. Let us then bear bravely in mind that the frictions and factions of family and close community can be, in their fashion, nourishing. The secular convergence of actual bodies in sometimes rather small spaces reminds us that during so much of the year, with digital walls and curated interactions, the frictionlessness of social media has been an illusion. (Though if you feel like starting a hopeless screaming row well before the holidays are in full swing, Reader, take yourself to Twitter and Godspeed.) Out of the public eye and in one another’s faces: As it has always been, so we face our holy days and brace for a New Year. With love and trepidation and, in case of emergency, the quickest walking route to the nearest pub.



Close-knit dining for plant-lovers and others: Farm Spirit, Portland

You needn’t be vegan to enter into the ample Oregonian spirit of Farm Spirit, a tiny eatery in Portland devoted to plant-based cuisine. Drawing on the immediate environs of verdant Cascadia, a stretch of the Pacific Northwest known for its cool foggy rainforest and spectacular produce, chef Aaron Adams and his small team create fare that is rustic yet delicate: cured walnuts with the briny tang of mignonette, roasted peaches with Szechuan peppercorn syrup, a watermelon and pepita tart. It all sounds like one of the celebratory feasts eaten by wee woodland creatures in Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels. Every ingredient on the menu—from fruits and vegetables to legumes, nuts, oils and grains—is sourced from within 100 miles. Dinner is served at 7 o’clock Wednesday through Saturday, in a convivial communal setting that seats just 14. The experience is ‘more dinner party than just dinner,’ says Adams, who recommends sidling up for a cocktail or mocktail at Farm Spirit’s bar, which is hewn from the trunk of an ash tree.




A poignant quest for connection: Wu Ming Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle

Wu Ming-Yi is one of Taiwan’s best-known writers, beloved for his approachable prose and warm-heartedness. His 2013 novel The Man with the Compound Eyes was a work of science fiction in the allegorical vein of Margaret Atwood or Haruki Murakami. The Stolen Bicycle (2015) covers different but no less ambitious terrain. The narrator is a contemporary novelist, Cheng, whose father disappeared 20 years ago; when Cheng gets an out-of-the-blue email asking what happened to his father’s bicycle, he is prompted to track it down. Along the way, he comes across a scavenger, an aboriginal photographer, and the arcane secrets of an obsessive clan of antique-bicycle collectors, but his ultimate find is a relationship with his father, even if only through a prism of retrospect. To promote the book, Wu rode an antique bicycle around Taiwan, giving standing-room-only readings at independent bookstores. The tour helped him access the sepia-toned ambiance of those portions of the novel set before World War II, when people moved more slowly and spent more time with extended family. Wu’s sentences beautifully capture the rhythm of life in the countryside. ‘Still crouching in the field, the children shout back and forth, each call carrying with it a perfume of rice. One will finish shouting and wait for another’s reply. But sometimes all they hear for the longest time is the sound of the wind.’




An admirable endeavour in southern Germany

A former U.S. Army barracks in industrial Mannheim would seem an unlikely location for an open-air latticework structure made of untreated Douglas fir. This new building is the result of a collaboration between 18 architecture students at University of Kaiserslautern and 25 refugees recently arrived in Germany, who worked together to create a community centre at a local refugee camp in an impressively community-minded way. A local contractor laid the groundwork at the site and put in the roof, while the students and refugees did the rest, living at the barracks and completing the project in a matter of months. The centre’s two courtyards and recessed spaces have a variety of uses. One area easily transforms into an auditorium; another encourages private contemplation. ‘Due to bureaucratic procedures, refugees arriving in Germany are condemned to sustain a long period of passiveness,’ said the team. ‘They are well provided with the bare essentials but the immediate area is quite desolate and lacking [in] quality common spaces.’ This project is a corrective. The dappled light inside and a view of the fields to the west suggest a wide-open future.




On Dayanita Singh and her potent ‘novels without words’

The Indian artist began her career in photojournalism. Over time, the images that interested her changed from neutral tableaux she could hold at arm’s length to more intimate scenes and portraits. She titled one photograph—of a schoolgirl collapsed on her made bed in the early afternoon, face hidden from the camera—‘Go Away Closer’, a turn of phrase she describes as ‘what happens between people: I can’t live with you, I can’t live without you. It could be another way of describing love. It’s also what happens with photography—you try desperately to hold on to something, but the moment you take the photograph it’s already in the past.’ Inspired by Italo Calvino, Singh calls her photo books novels without words. In 2013, she began exhibiting her work by means of an innovative portable contraption she termed a ‘museum’, a large wooden structure that holds 70 to 140 photographs and opens into a number of configurations—for example, a Museum of Embraces or a Museum of Chance. The girl sulking on her bed is in the Museum of Little Ladies alongside the artist at the same age, photographed by her mother.




Paula Fox on ties relinquished, ties established and wisdom gained

Paula Fox, who died in March at the age of 93, had a wrenching childhood. She was given up for adoption, reclaimed by a grandmother, and passed around like a breadbasket thereafter. In turn, Fox gave up her first child, a girl, for adoption. (The daughter, a self-help writer named Linda Carroll, later tracked her down, and they built a relationship; this didn’t extend to Linda’s daughter, the rock frontwoman—and Kurt Cobain’s widow—Courtney Love.) Fox wrote more than 20 children’s books, along with six novels and two memoirs for adults. The latter were all out of print by 1991, when Jonathan Franzen picked up Desperate Characters (1970) in a library at an artist’s residency and broadcast its merits in Harper’s, which led to its popular reissue. Her work got at the fear that creeps into even the most settled-seeming, sophisticated city lives, fear that was a vestige of her unsettled past. ‘I saw a terribly mud-laden figure—my Spanish grandmother—coming up the long road to the house, and… saying, in broken English, She’s my blood,’ she recalled in an interview in The Paris Review. ‘She brought me back to Cuba. Then we had to leave Cuba when I was ten because there was a revolution…. I took everything as it came. Revolutions, earthquakes, whatever.’ Kindness, too, she took in stride. She had a couple of good early years being cared for by a Congregational minister in upstate New York. ‘When I was five months old, Mr. Corning took me in. I don’t really know why. I must have smiled at him or something.’




Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Kiki Smith’s captivating Concordance

The poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing to a Chinese mother who was a mathematician and an American father who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Chungking. Her long-lined poems contain strands of philosophy, architecture and science; fellow poet Ben Lerner, writing about Berssenbrugge’s collection I Love Artists, says she ‘seek[s] to make the process of perception perceptible.’ A 1997 collaboration with the German-born American artist Kiki Smith, whose sculptures and intricate grayscale works on paper address themes of sex, gender, the natural world and the AIDS epidemic, brought forth the book Endocrinology, devoted to the human endocrine system. Concordance (2006) examines the divisions and affinities between self and other, human and animal, thinking and feeling. With the guidance of book artist Anne McKeown, Berssenbrugge and Smith interspersed ink drawings with lines of verse on rich stock that opens out in an accordion binding. Alongside two captivating poems, you’ll find images of seeds, feathers, pods, owls and floating dandelion spores.




A knowing and compassionate gaze: Una Mujer Fantástica

In Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman), a transwoman singer named Marina (Daniela Vega) plans a trip to the Iguazu Falls with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), her divorced, older lover. They’ve just moved in together, and everything seems copacetic until Orlando suffers an aneurysm, tumbles down a flight of stairs and dies in hospital. Instead of a holiday, Marina gets a world of trouble: hostile authorities and scandalised family members, all interrogating and mistrusting her. The Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio last directed the lighter-hearted Gloria (2013), about a divorcée dating it up in Santiago. Una Mujer Fantástica is a more serious take on relationships—and bigotry. Marina experiences the latter from all sides: Orlando’s brusque ex-wife who forbids her to attend his funeral; his violent son Bruno; an investigator from the Sexual Offences Unit. ‘It’s a romantic film, a funeral movie, a film about humiliation and revenge, a character study, it has a documentary element at its heart, it’s a film about a ghost—but none of these ingredients take over the film completely,’ Lelio told an interviewer. ‘Its identity shifts, it refuses to be reduced to one single idea. In Spanish, "género" means both genre and gender, so the same way we talk about a transgender woman, we can describe A Fantastic Woman as a transgenre film.’




Art as a force for cohesion: the 6th Asian Art Biennial, Taiwan

Taiwan’s National Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung hosts the 6th Asian Art Biennial through 25 February 2018. In-house curator Hsiao-Yu Lin collaborated with guest curators Kenji Kubota (Japan), Ade Darmawan (Indonesia) and Wassan Al-Khudhairi (Iraq) to assemble work around the theme of ‘Negotiating the Future.’ What does this mean for artists on a continent of such range and churn, whose cities, from Karachi to Chengdu and all their lesser-known kin, are swelling so fast it can seem metastatic? Among the 37 participating artists and collectives are Korean practitioners Yang Chul Mo and Cho Ji Eun, aka mixrice, known for multimedia works about human rights and immigration; Borneo-based group Pangrok Sulap, whose woodcut prints advocate for community rights; and Art Labor Collective from Ho Chi Minh City, whose ongoing ‘Jrai Dew’ project looks at the matriarchal ethnic Vietnamese Jrai community and their belief that every human being is destined to return to an elemental state of ia ngôm, or evaporating dew.



Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung.

‘Frequently consider the connection of all things in the universe and their relation to one another.’

Marcus Aurelius