The Ledger

July 2017

There’s plenty of neuroscience to support the notion of play for work’s sake. Over and over we read about innovation being the result of fun, rest and recreation. According to Einstein, 'Play is the highest form of research.' Hence the creation of adult amusement parks for employees of various businesses, with slides, snacks, billiards, beach volleyball, roller hockey and climbing walls. 'In the workplace,' we learn from an estimable newspaper, 'an experimental approach – to tasks as well as the structure of the working day – can boost productivity and profits.' The play-to-concentrate motif fits with a recent craze, in classrooms across America, for so-called fidget spinners, tri-lobed ball bearings you can flick to amuse yourself when you can’t reach for your drone or your frisbee. These toys were supposedly invented as a remedy for ADHD, but teachers are banning them left and right for approximating it. Might we posit that play yoked to productivity is a tiny bit tainted? Only in moments of unfettered leisure – found on weekends and holidays and once in a while playing hooky – can we let go enough to cross that invisible membrane that typically separates our grown-up selves from where the wild things are. July might find us hiking hot trails on Mykonos (if we’re lucky), or exploring Genoa, getting lost on purpose. Ghost stories by a campfire, a game of badminton played to win (and turning into best-of-five) – these, too, are significant recreational pleasures. Let us disregard Machiavelli to his Prince: 'He should consider peace only as breathing-time, which gives him leisure to contrive military plans.' Better, every now and again, to be lazy.



More handsome than the average board game


The Lucky Knot pedestrian bridge, in the Chinese city of Changsha, was inspired by the Möbius band and crosses the Dragon King Harbor River in red steel waves like the world’s slowest rollercoaster. It’s the playful brainchild of the Dutch architecture firm NEXT, which also designed the smaller, flatter, more portable Modern Architecture Game, a mashup of Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit. Players put on a special pair of Le Corbusier–style glasses to move like Theseus to the middle of a maze, testing their grasp of architectural arcana along the way. 'The 1280 small lamps in Toyo Ito’s Wind Tower (1986) react to what?' (The slant and speed of the breeze playing on the building’s photo-responsive glass, naturally.) The game pieces are miniatures of famous buildings, a nice touch that can be found as well in Skyline Chess. In the London edition, the plebeian pawn becomes a little terraced house, the rook is Big Ben, and the all-seeing London Eye, given delicate acrylic spokes, makes a good knight. A New York City version will debut later this year.



Trisha Brown’s fluid line of least resistance

'The forest was my first art class, 'Trisha Brown, who died in March, once told fellow choreographer Merce Cunningham. As a child Brown loved to slalom through the trees, leaping streams and rocks and dodging fallen branches. So the motto she had for her work, 'the line of least resistance,' was deceptive in its simplicity; if the field is an obstacle course, the line of least resistance looks like an electrocardiogram. Indeed, Brown’s work is all heart and electricity. Her style underwent a series of radical mutations over the years, from an early John Cage stage of dance qua dance to an embrace of classical composers to collaborations with avant-garde musicians. A founder of the Judson Dance Theater, she would go on to choreograph for the Paris Opera Ballet and to work closely with Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Her rigour and whimsy live on in the body of work she left behind; her last piece, I’m going to toss my arms – if you catch them they’re yours (2001), is both a wink and a blown kiss.




Exquisite subversions: Kyoto’s Butoh-kan

What is butoh? It has been called a seditious act, a prank in the context of chaos, a dance of darkness, a bastardisation of European ballroom dancing, an assault on refinement and understatement, an exercise that incorporates razor blades, insects, threads, waterjets and rods in the body. An avant-garde form of dance that arose in Japan in the late 1950s, early butoh’s brutal intensity was a comment on the harsh realities of postwar life – the dancers knew privation, starvation and exhaustion firsthand. Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours), the first piece of butoh, took its title from a Yukio Mishima novel and concluded with a performance by a live chicken. Nearly fifty years later, Kyoto has opened a venue devoted to the form. Butoh-kan’s hall is an Edo-era kura, or earthenware storehouse, that can accommodate just eight spectators, standing room only. The space is lush with the timbre of the three-stringed shamisen, and quivers with violent footfalls. This month and next, attend Hisoku by Ima Tenko or Underworld Flower by Yurabe Masami – or both.




Playful with a tenacious edge

More Than Horseplay, Sarah Barton’s 2008 documentary, follows three children with cerebral palsy and asks whether horseback riding lessons can ameliorate their condition. Her subjects’ delight, as they break into a canter, is infectious. Less of a feel-good but amply affecting is Barton’s 2016 Defiant Lives, about people with disabilities in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. proudly demanding agency and autonomy. Confinement in institutions, the condescension of clueless celebrity fundraisers and banal but far more numerous do-gooder types are some of the hurdles to being seen as vital adults capable and deserving of jobs, love lives and adventure. The protests these activists stage are fierce, brave and sometimes funny, as when they storm the stage of a Miss Australia competition, a disruption that renders the leggy, able-bodied contestants, doing dance moves in a line like kicky chorus girls, suddenly surreal: All bodies are strange and sundry, is the unspoken message. When a woman in a wheelchair handcuffs her thumb to a tram to object to its inhospitality, we wince and cheer at the same time.




The copious, sparkling riches of Chapada Diamantina

July is a winter month in the Brazilian state of Bahia, and high season for Chapada Diamantina, one of the world’s lushest national parks. There you’ll find ferns and lily-pads sized for a dinosaur; a flower called sempre-viva ('forever alive'); Brazil’s highest waterfall; quartzite caves of dark water you can illuminate by flashlight and snorkel in; squirrel monkeys going treetop to treetop like tiny Tarzans; anteaters and the scary sucuri, an anaconda that could swallow a basketball player; and mountain towns of washed-up hippies, snow-white graveyards and stone mansions overrun by wild orchids. The inside of the chapel of Santa Luzia is decorated with frescoes of saints by a São Paulo graffiti artist. Vast Diamantina was once crawling with diamond-miners, and hikers still stumble on sparkles in the rough and tiny bits of gold. If you prefer the squirrel monkey sensibility over digging in the dirt, you can zip-line. Down below there’s the Gruta Azul (Blue Cave), a waterhole that glows turquoise for an hour a day, when the sun hits it just so.




Stanzas in the sun: The New York City Poetry Festival

New York City in midsummer is a good place to sit still, or to stand at an open mic inside a ring of daisies reading your own verse to a crowd of poetry buffs. (Of courage, Anne Sexton writes, 'It is in the small things we see it.') The New York City Poetry Festival takes place July 29 and 30 on the oasis of Governors Island, a rehabilitated military base (of shifting allegiances over many centuries) that’s a quick ferry ride just off Brooklyn and Manhattan. Featured poets this year include Sapphire, Deborah Landau, Aja Monet and Patrick Phillips. Per the festival organisers, 'Bring sunscreen, a blanket to lounge on, an appetite for food and books and cash to satiate it.' The upstairs of one of the old officers’ quarters hosts a 'Poetry Brothel,' where a pound of flesh is neither the offer nor subject of desire, so much as the language that floats through the air.




Julio Cortázar and the game

Among many other works, Julio Cortázar wrote 'Blow-Up,' the short story on which Antonioni based his famous film. His first story, which appeared to him in a dream, was published in a magazine edited by Borges. As a child, he was drawn to the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, which he would one day translate. 'My mother encouraged me,' he told The Paris Review in 1984. 'Instead of saying, “No, no, you should be serious,” she was pleased that I was imaginative… I read Edgar Allan Poe for the first time when I was only nine. The book scared me and I was ill for three months, because I believed in it.' He also believed in the seriousness of play. 'I remember when I was little and my parents used to say, “Okay, you’ve played enough, come take a bath now.” I found that completely idiotic, because, for me, the bath was a silly matter. It had no importance whatsoever, while playing with my friends was something serious. Literature is like that – it’s a game, but it’s a game one can put one’s life into.'




A case against ivory towers: The Glass Bead Game

Hermann Hesse, alarmed by the rise of fascism in Germany, fashioned his final novel’s fictitious province of Castalia to resemble Swabia, the region of southwest Germany where he spent his childhood; the impossibility of nostalgia is one of its themes. A bildungsroman of sorts, The Glass Bead Game traces the life of Joseph Knecht as he becomes Magister Ludi (master of the game) of Castalia’s central preoccupation, a contest whose rules are never fully explained – perhaps some amalgam of Go, game theory, and musical chairs? Having come to view the game as an aggrandised cerebral exercise, he renounces his title and becomes a humble tutor. When his tutee goes for a swim, Knecht gamely follows, and drowns – fulfilling a fantasy his life of the mind had heretofore prevented. ‘I do not wish to go out into the world with an insurance policy in my pocket guaranteeing my return,’ he says of his quest. ‘There should be hazards, difficulties and dangers to face; I am hungry for reality, for tasks and deeds, and also for privation and suffering.’

Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung