Looking to both the past and future like Janus—the dual-faced Roman god of gates, doors and transitions who is January’s namesake—we tend to spend the first month of the year urging ourselves to do, feel and be better than before. With Western New Year festivities just behind us and celebrations imminent to welcome the Year of the Yin Earth Pig, which seems to herald mixed fortunes for both Pigs and others, many of us are considering how best to make a fresh start. Rather than looking inward per usual, however, we might seek renewal via the thrill of outward discoveries—‘the pleasure of finding things out’, to borrow a phrase from the physicist Richard Feynman. With this in mind, what follows is a miscellany to share. Some of the discoveries require a bit of legwork: classic sculptures by Auguste Rodin, Antoine Bourdelle and Carl Milles that dot the grounds of Stockholm’s Waldemarsudde, and contemporary sculptures by Ai Weiwei, Giuseppe Penone, Kimsooja and Alfredo Jaar that you’ll find in the Yorkshire countryside. Or the aural astonishment of birdsong in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. Then there are discoveries of a more ruminative sort—an ode to stillness in Witold Rybczynski’s affectionate ethnography of chairs and seated postures, and how the different ways we sit inform various aspects of domestic life. Whether we’re close to home or farther afield, we can eschew stasis and the same old for groundbreaking new work. Le Renard Bleu, by the Japanese composer Midori Takada, is a single track of just 20 minutes and is the first new work she has released in 20 years. Its mesmerising intensity makes it a good place to start.
Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands are named for the British explorer Sir William Cameron, who arrived in 1885 and returned to Albion agog over the region’s lush mountains and mild climate. Tourists know it for its tea plantations, English colonial touches (Tudor-style fittings adorn the exteriors of new hotels; menus are heavy on scones and beef Wellington), somewhat twee bric-a-brac (strawberry-shaped souvenirs) and, unfortunately, for its crowds: the Mossy Forest boardwalk, a popular nature trail, is now also known as the ‘Muddy Forest’, thanks to ill-mannered travellers purloining flowers from along the path. Way off the beaten track, however, the magic of the Highlands is still intact, and readily accessible once you make your way to Terra Farm Treehouse, an eco-lodge of delightful simplicity. Doing so requires an off-road vehicle to traverse the narrow, rutted four-kilometre path that leads to the edge of the property, then a short, steep hike to reach the treehouses (per Terra’s website, ‘It is definitely better for one to bring along a lightweight backpack instead of trolley luggage’). A generator supplies electricity during the day, but you’re advised to pack a flashlight for the evenings, as well as your own towels and toiletries. Cotton quilts, mosquito nets and the lullaby of living, breathing nature promise high-quality sleep. Three meals daily are prepared using delicious, organic ingredients from the on-site garden. Hike the gorgeous surrounding trails, which lead you over streams, past waterfalls and through ecologically diverse mountain forests, or simply sit back in your aerie and listen to the birdcalls.
The South Korean potter Lee Kang-hyo is renowned for being the first modern artisan to fuse two traditional forms of ceramics: onggi pots—with their massive, simple solidity—and buncheong decoration, with its contrasting layers of complex patterns in white slip and dark oxides. The resulting minimalist designs and spattered glaze sometimes call to mind the works of Jackson Pollock. Used since 5000 BC to ferment and store such foodstuffs as kimchi, soy sauce and rice wine, onggi were going out of fashion by the 1970s, with the advent of electric refrigeration. Their large scale appealed to Kang-hyo, then a ceramics student, so he sought out a master from whom to learn the traditional form and spent three years as an apprentice perfecting his skills, rolling out the heavy coils of red-brown clay and balancing each snaky length on his shoulder as he integrated it into the lip of the larger structure with a slow-turning wheel and wooden paddles. Today, Kang-hyo often coats the coarse dark earthenware with a white slip and introduces carved decorations—anything from flowers, leaves, fish and trees to mountains, fields and sky. His pots have subtly variegated colors, both faint (milky-white, grey, beige) and saturated (pink that is close to coral, rusty red, rich brown). He runs his studio with his wife, also a ceramicist. When he looks at old onggi pots, Kang-hyo says, ‘I love the fullness of form and the volume...I never thought they were simply big jars. I thought they were great sculpture.’
Stockholm’s Waldemarsudde , a picturesque museum that was originally the home of the painter and art patron Prince Eugen (1865–1947), boasts a castle-like main building designed by Ferdinand Boberg; a manor house and linseed-oil mill from the late 18th century; and a gallery added in 1913. On view through 27 January is an exhibition devoted to Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), a pioneer of early Expressionism, and her cohort at Worpswede, a storied German artists’ colony outside Bremen. Modersohn-Becker first went to Worpswede in 1887 to study painting under Fritz Mackensen; the following year she settled for good in the tiny village. After an unsuccessful solo exhibition in 1899, she worked mostly in seclusion, inspired by van Gogh and Gauguin to make canvases of bracing simplicity and beauty that received very little attention in her lifetime. She belonged to a community of painters that included Otto Modersohn, Heinrich Vogeler, Ottilie Reylaender, Hans am Ende, Fritz Overbeck, Hermine Overbeck-Rohte and Mackensen, as well as the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who married the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (Rilke himself periodically lived and worked in Worpswede before moving to Paris and, later, to Borgeby Castle, in southern Sweden). Captivated by Worpswede’s open fields, birch arbours, clear brooks and abundant light, this group, Modersohn-Becker included, produced many landscapes as well as portraits of the area’s peasants and scenes from stories and myths. The exhibition at Waldemarsudde also features 60 of this larger group’s paintings, drawings and prints. You’ll be inspired to visit Worpswede immediately, but a pleasing substitute can be found nearer to hand: a visitor walking through Waldemarsudde’s estate and parkland will find ancient oak trees, gracious gardens and lovely views of Stockholm’s harbour. A sculpture park contains works by Auguste Rodin, Antoine Bourdelle and Carl Milles, as well as a copy of the Nike of Samothrace, cast after the one in the Louvre.
The Horne Prize is awarded annually in partnership with our friends at The Saturday Paper, an Australian weekly renowned for excellent longform journalism. Honouring the boldness of one of the country’s most respected public intellectuals, the late Donald Horne —who always wrote for the country he wanted to live in, not the one in which he was living—the prize invites essays that shed light on contemporary Australian life. In December 2018, The Horne Prize was awarded to the Melbourne-based Yorta Yorta writer Daniel James for Ten More Days, a unique account of intergenerational trauma within an Indigenous family and community. After describing the racism experienced by his father and grandfather and lamenting its persistence, James turns to the future. ‘What it means to be Aboriginal is constantly evolving’, he writes. ‘The challenges I face today are different from the challenges of my ancestors. Australia isn’t changing fast enough to keep up. We require the ongoing leadership and empathy of Aboriginal people from all nations, to help foster the change Australia so desperately needs.’ James draws readers into an intimate story while preserving its sanctity, asking that they respect the balance between memoir and intrusion.
Katja Gauriloff, a documentary filmmaker from Lapland and a member of the indigenous Skolt Sami people, unearths remarkable archival material about a culture in danger of being forgotten in Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest (Kuun metsän Kaisa), her 2016 project about the stories she inherited from her great-grandmother. The title refers to both that forebear, named Kaisa, and the Swiss writer Robert Crottet, who lived among the Skolt Sami in the late 1930s and published several books of their folklore; The Enchanted Forest was a collection of traditional stories he learned from Kaisa. Crottet was drawn to the Skolts in a near-mystical way: sick in bed with tuberculosis, his fever dreams contained figures from a ‘Tribe of Lapland’. Bent on finding them, the young playwright travelled to the Arctic village of Suenjel, which he called the ‘threshold to eternity’. He was warmly welcomed by the 30 families who made up the tribe’s winter settlement but grew especially close to Kaisa. They both spoke Russian—Crottet was born in Russia, and Kaisa had learned the language when she worked as a servant in a monastery—and Crottet began learning her endangered language to better understand the Skolt stories he was hearing. Those legends are full of violence. Gauriloff highlights one of them, narrated by Kaisa and illustrated by Veronika Bessedina’s animated drawings, about the Northern Lights. A forbidden forest, magic trees, murder and cannibalism come to life in black-and-white, with subtle flares of colour. (Colour is sporadic and poetic throughout the film: at one point, Crottet asks Kaisa why she has painted the neck of one ewe blue. She responds, ‘Blue is her favourite colour.’) The real-life historical saga and misfortunes of the Skolt Sami, especially around the displacements of World War II, unfold alongside the film’s depiction of their fairytales. The population of the Skolt Sami today numbers in the hundreds, and most no longer speak their ancestral tongue. In 2015, an archive of the Suenjel Skolt Sami community, which holds documents from the 17th and 18th centuries, was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
The blue fox is a stunning rarity: a genetic variant of the Arctic fox that appears in just one per cent of these compact, cozy canids. In traditional Japanese belief the fox is a messenger of the divine, and the Japanese composer Midori Takada recently named her new release, which came after a hiatus of nearly 20 years, Le Renard Bleu. Takada’s limited-run 1983 album Through the Looking Glass had only four tracks—unsettling, overdubbed reveries whose instrumentation combined marimba, harmonium, Coke bottles and cowbells—and became an object of cult fascination. For Le Renard Bleu, Takada worked with the London-based experimental pop artist Lafawndah, and the artistic directors Lola Raban-Oliva and JR Etienne of Partel Oliva created an accompanying film (funded and distributed by KENZO, whose runway shows Lafawndah has soundtracked). Solitary bells open the album’s single track, and Lafawndah begins to sing, sounding at times like Anita Baker. ‘Fox, sing for me’, she commands, ‘about how one mind learned to read another’. For the next 20 minutes, she is accompanied by a rich tapestry of handbells, antique cymbals, the myochin hibachi windchime, drums and marimba. Sparkling peals of bells close out the record. It’s a strange, unpredictable, sui generis sonic trip, and a striking counterpart to Through the Looking Glass.
For those inclined to combine wandering the moors with a dose of contemporary art, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, on the grounds of the Bretton Estate, boasts 500 acres of fields, hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens, as well as indoor gallery space. In 1720, Sir William Wentworth built the Palladian mansion that anchors Bretton Hall. His son, Sir Thomas Wentworth, dammed the River Dearne to create the estate’s lakes, and entertained his guests with firework displays and mock naval battles. Thomas’s illegitimate daughter, Diana Beaumont, expanded the estate’s mansion in the early 19th century and built many glass structures and conservatories. In 1948, much of the estate was sold, becoming a training college for teachers of art, music and drama, which in turn became part of the University of Leeds. In 1977, Bretton Hall College incorporated sculpture into the mission of the estate, opening the landscape to the public and offering artists the opportunity to site monumental works in the Yorkshire countryside. The college closed in 2007, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park took over the management of the entire 500 acres. (The Hall is slated to become a luxury hotel.) Those planning a visit in 2019 will encounter Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads (2010), a group of 12 bronze animal heads that has been on a worldwide tour since 2011; Giuseppe Penone’s remarkable tree sculptures (Matrice, made from the bisected trunk of a fir tree, and Propagazione, a drawing on three walls, are housed in YSP’s gallery spaces, while nine of his bronze sculptures are in the open air); Kimsooja’s To Breathe, which covers the chapel floor in a hypnotic mirrored surface; Alfredo Jaar’s The Garden of Good and Evil, in which the Chilean-born artist places steel cells that invoke CIA blacksites in pockets of the surrounding forest; and Criminal Ornamentation, a wide-ranging exhibition curated by Yinka Shonibare MBE that includes work by Boyle Family, Susan Derges, Milena Dragicevic, Laura Ford, Ed Lipski, Alexander McQueen, Joe Fletcher Orr, Lis Rhodes, Bridget Riley, Caragh Thuring, Timorous Beasties and Bedwyr Williams.
‘Sitting up is always a challenge’, writes Witold Rybczynski in an engaging Paris Review Daily essay about the posture—standing-desk fad aside—in which most of us spend most of our waking hours. He begins with a scene plucked from David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia: T. E. Lawrence and his superior, Colonel Brighton, visit Prince Faisal in the desert. The royal tent has a carpet floor upon which the men sit, Brighton very stiffly, the Bedouins fully at ease, and Lawrence somewhere in the middle. From there, Rybczynski ruminates on the etiquette and awkwardness of seated life around the world. He cites the anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes, who identified a hundred common sitting positions. People in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America tended to sit cross-legged or in a deep squat. Melanesians and a number of Native American tribes in the Southwest liked to stretch their legs straight out in front of them. The rise of the chair, Rybczynski muses, is mysterious. You might think that cold or damp floors would be conducive to raised alternatives, but the Japanese and Koreans, who live through cold winters, traditionally sat on floor mats, and folding stools emerged in ancient Egypt, where it was warm and dry. Nomadic Mongols carried collapsible furniture, unlike the equally nomadic Bedouin. Floor-sitting peoples typically remove shoes before entering the home and wear looser clothing. Those of us perched on furniture, meanwhile, often find it’s nothing to write home about. The Austrian architect Bernard Rudofsky, the provocative author of Architecture Without Architects, loathed chairs: ‘The more sensitive among us are aware of the ludicrous aspects of sitting on chairs—impaled on four toothpicks, as it were, or, draped limp like an oyster, over what resembles an outsized halfshell.’ We think of a seated position as static, whereas in fact it’s an ongoing balancing act. Per the British psychologist Paul Branton, a human is ‘not merely an inert bag of bones, dumped for a time in a seat, but a live organism in a dynamic state of continuous activity.’ Perhaps that’s what gives the rocking chair its allure: it absorbs our propensity to fidget.
Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber
‘No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference.’