Naive illustration of a nude man and woman jumping over a cloud

The Ledger

June 2017


In the very etymology of Thomas More’s term, utopia doesn’t exist – it’s literally nowhere. Yet it's become a byword for a target fixed in our sights with a very real clarity. Like most articles of faith, utopia’s value (ditto its danger) does not derive from its reality. And while it isn't always folly to declare the good the enemy of the great, there are sufficient follies – from the legendary tower of Babel to the naivety of Esperanto to darker experiments besides – to recommend treading carefully. Writers, painters, gardeners and carpet-weavers are united in appreciating the occasional flaw – the misprint, errant smudge, impertinent weed, or missed stitch that reveals, by its very contrast, the gorgeous handiwork of the whole. The utopian vision is more instructive and less destructive in the hands of those who use it as a sort of Platonic scrim, to strive for better while living consciously in the real world we inherit. The 1986 Challenger explosion notwithstanding, the invention of rocketships and the space race have yielded valuable discoveries and technologies – just wait till we try to colonise Mars. Or, for that matter, rural Massachusetts: In The Blithedale Romance, a lesser-known novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author’s alter-ego is one Miles Coverdale, a skeptic among die-hards tilling the soil. Blithedale is a thinly veiled Brook Farm, the Transcendental experiment that Hawthorne halfway joined, skedaddling when things went inevitably weird. The book captures an atmosphere of high purpose and the dreariness of a tiny bureaucracy. ‘The rest of us formed ourselves into a committee for providing our infant Community with an appropriate name; a matter of greatly more difficulty than the uninitiated reader would suppose. Blithedale was neither good nor bad.… Some were for calling our institution “The Oasis”, in view of its being the one green spot in the moral sand-waste of the world; but others insisted on a proviso for reconsidering the matter, at a twelvemonth’s end; when a final decision might be had, whether to name it “The Oasis”, or “Saharah”.’ Neither (all) good nor (all) bad: that’s life. Beware those who see in black and white and seek to fix anything in amber.

Black and white illustration of travel bag with the American flag


Kidlat Tahimik’s witty, knowing laments


Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik plays his own lead in Perfumed Nightmare (1980), an anti-bildungsroman in which a young man discovers the hollowness of his American dream. A bus driver in Balian, a city not far from Manila, the Kidlat of the film has a fanciful preoccupation with the West. At an international convention of overgrown Boy Scouts – the film, shot in 8mm, is unafraid of whimsy – Kidlat meets a wealthy American who says he’ll take him to the United States. They stop off in Paris, where Kidlat gets a job stocking bubble-gum machines. The rote nature of the work, among other experiences, corrodes his hope for a better life in America, and he skips a supersonic flight on the still-extant Concorde for a berth in a giant airborne chimney bound for the Philippines. Tahimik’s Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III (2015) revisits these neocolonialist themes. Per a review in Cinemascope, one comes to understand the director ‘by hearing his voice, tender and friendly; by seeing his drama, lo-fi, serene, offhand, intimate, and direct.’ The work crackles with understated intelligence; Tahimik’s adopted nom de scène (he was born Eric de Guia) means ‘silent lightning’ in Tagalog.

Black and white illustration of a face depicted with a hat, glasses and a pipe


Ernst Bloch, dogged optimist of the Left


According to Theodor Adorno, Ernst Bloch (1885–1977) dignified the notion of utopia. Friendly toward the Frankfurt School but never a dyed-in-the-wool member, Bloch fled Germany for the United States in 1938, then returned to Europe in 1948. He’d seen firsthand how things could go incredibly wrong; who was to say they couldn’t go incredibly right? ‘We must believe in the Principle of Hope’, Bloch wrote. ‘A Marxist does not have the right to be a pessimist.’ The Principle of Hope, Bloch’s three-volume compendium published sequentially in 1954, 1955 and 1959, is a philosophical tour de force that touches on Christianity, Marxism and psychoanalysis. Its original title was Dreams of a Better Life. Bloch was more interested in the idea of the Not Yet, a motivation for humankind, than he was in Freud and Jung’s focus on the subconscious, which he saw as mired in the sediment of the past. Music, love, sport and fairy tales are all manifestations of the Not Yet – beautiful ideations made real.





The crystalline dreams of Paul Scheerbart, via Josiah McElheny


Josiah McElheny, an artist working in sculpture and film, is known for his mastery of particular materials, such as glass, and his interest in under-recognised figures of Modernism and abstract art (Blinky Palermo, Hilma af Klint). So it’s no surprise that he is behind the really peculiar Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader. Scheerbart (1863–1915) was a Berliner, a writer and a dreamer. ‘Colored glass destroys all hatred at last’, was one of his fond ideas, envisioned in the treatise Glass Architecture (1914), wherein crystal cities and continental drift inaugurate some form of world peace. ‘Scheerbart’s moment was one in which technology and design had an evocative potential,’ McElheny told The Paris Review. ‘His work considers the ideas of the Babylonian era in equal measure with futuristic ideas.… We’re still in an era of historical forgetfulness as a cultural mode. All new technologies aspire to erase the technologies of just a few years before.’ Witness to the Wright brothers’ arrival in Germany in 1909, Scheerbart foresaw the death-dealing potential of airplanes straightaway – he was as sensitive to the dark side as to the light.





A rock and a soft place: the disparate dystopias of Orwell and Huxley


In 1949, Aldous Huxley wrote a letter to George Orwell in which he compared the dystopias they’d imagined, respectively, in Brave New World and 1984. ‘Within the next generation’, Huxley asserted, ‘I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons….’ While Orwell’s book described what would happen behind the Iron Curtain, Huxley better predicted the frightening abdication of agency we seem to be witnessing in the West. Zonked on a narcotic called soma, distracting themselves at the feelies – Huxleyan IMAX – and with sportive, loveless sex, the novel’s characters scarcely notice how they are remote-controlled by ten sinister overlords. Neil Postman, who compared the two novels in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), wrote: ‘Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.’ Postman elaborates that Huxley foresaw how people would ‘come… to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,’ and ‘that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.’





A sublime triumvirate: Debussy, Toshio Hosokawa and Momo Kodama


Debussy is dreamy, and so, it turns out, are the compositions of Toshio Hosokawa. The two meet on Point and Line, an album released at the beginning of this year that features the ravishing pianist Momo Kodama. Kodama knows that Debussy looked eastward for inspiration, and she has an intimate feel for Hosokawa’s modern aesthetic, which mixes European and Japanese registers. Famous études commingle naturally with the very contemporary. ‘In the music of Toshio Hosokawa I find elements close to Debussy’, Kodama comments. ‘The freedom of form and tone colour, the sense of poetic design, with a wide range of lyricism and dynamics, between meditation and virtuoso development, between light and shade, between large gestures and minimalist refinement.’ Point and Line follows the pianist’s earlier album La vallée des cloches, on which Ravel, Toru Takemitsu and Olivier Messiaen find happy harmony.





Mary Gannon and Alice Hands, architects of hope


A half-century before Julia Morgan completed the braggadocious Hearst Castle – the inspiration for Xanadu in Citizen Kane and ‘yuger’ edifices since – the architects Mary Gannon and Alice Hands were building tenements for the poor. Even the cranky writer and social reformer Jacob Riis praised their designs’ efficient use of space and overall grace, which probably had something to do with Gannon and Hands’ actually living for a time in a New York City tenement, so as to experience firsthand the environment their constructions would inhabit. Formed in 1894, theirs was the first partnership of women architects in the United States, and they were commended for their compassionate approach. For their first commission they built a hospital in San Francisco admired by physicians for its ‘sanitation, convenience and architectural beauty’, and even in today’s dollars, the project cost barely one million.





Forward-looking talent on show in Montpellier


Each summer, the Festival des Architectures Vives (or the Lively Architecture Festival) mounts a hospitable takeover of Montpellier. Ten avant-garde installations, by a crop of young architects chosen afresh each year, annex venerable courtyards, stretch across squares and perch quayside. The theme this year is emotion – quite an ample palette to play with. The main pavilion, which anchors the festival outside the Hôtel Saint-Côme, is a forest of slender white columns, designed by local practice ØNA, opened on June 7. The festival proper takes place June 13 to 18. An undulating red circular bench called I ♥ Montpellier, by Rotterdam firm PistachOffice, invites you to canoodle in its sinuous curves. Forme Sauvage, by emerging Nantes architect Lilit Sarkisian, mists scent into the courtyard of the music conservatory for a diaphanous form of synaesthesia. A pop-up, tongue-in-cheek paradise with an end in sight seems an ideal seasonal diversion.





Fit for philosophers of all stripes: NEW Hotel, Athens


The rooms at NEW Hotel are elegantly skewed by angles acute and obtuse – trapezoidal mirrors, cutaway walls, zigzag perimeters, ladders to nowhere. Or perhaps the ladders lead us out of the cave, toward Platonic enlightenment? NEW Hotel, in the heart of Athens, is a stone’s throw from the Acropolis. Designed by Fernando and Humberto Campana, brothers from Brazil – and design partners for Aesop Vila Madelena in São Paulo – known widely for their inventive furniture, the hotel folds in remnants of the old Olympic Palace Hotel. The NEW has a roof deck that surveils the city’s bone-white buildings, a library of 2000 art books and a spa that will slather you in marine mud, ash, brown seaweed, kawa-kawa and nutmeg – a mixture alleged to help slim one’s figure after a slice too many of galaktoboureko.






Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung

‘No one regards what is before his feet; we all gaze at the stars.' Quintus Ennius