June 2019

The Ledger

The internal and transnational migration crises of the past decade are, taken together, the largest since the displacements of the Second World War, and have forced many across the globe to consider—whether personally or as part of a political process—their concepts of insider and outsider. June’s issue is devoted to the contemplation and, crucially, the appreciation of such difference. The Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani is a stark example, having been made an outsider both in his native Iran and in his as-yet-unreached adoptive homeland of Australia (he has published a prize-winning memoir from asylum limbo on Manus Island). Traditional forms of cultural expression marginalised by the levelling effects of modernity have lately made a comeback in, among other places, Malaysia, with the robust revival of the traditional lute-like sape; and South Korea, with the thriving popularity of immemorial shamanism. Such developments bespeak the subtle adaptability of cultural areas once shunned by the mainstream. The Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night exposes the underbelly of a third-tier provincial city, finding profound insights in the lives of characters eking out a tough yet emotionally multifarious existence. In Austria, a touring exhibit of accomplished fin-de-siècle visual works produced by Swiss psychiatric patients provides a focused case study in outsider art—and a sense of how the outsider may view consensus culture. These windows into belonging and longing remind us that estrangement may be both very real—a matter of literal life and death—and at other times an aesthetic choice made by those seeking to see their own societies afresh.



South Korean practitioners of ancient spiritual rites, attuned to a modern world

Shamanism is alive and well in Seoul and beyond. An estimated 300,000 mudang/manshin (female) and baksu (male)—one for every 160 South Koreans—operate a thriving practice. Most are women, and they are doctrinally independent, sharing no single theology but channelling a heterogeneous group of spirits and deities, from Jesus and the Virgin Mary to General Douglas MacArthur and the late military strongman Park Chung-Hee. They went into hiding during Japanese colonial rule, and in the years following the Korean War they were derided as frauds and saw their shrines razed. Today, however, even many sceptical Koreans view shamanism as an important feature of an ancient culture worth preserving; and about a decade ago, the government designated shamans the representatives of ‘intangible cultural assets’. Shamanic rituals involve ceremonial clothing, music and dance, and represent the dynamic pluralism of modern Korean society, in which Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism commingle without conflict, and Buddha’s birthday and Christmas are both national holidays. ‘Korean shamanism is a great melting pot’, explains one religious studies professor in Seoul. ‘It never rejected anything but embraced everything, making endless compromises with other religions and social changes. That explains why it has survived thousands of years.’ It also tends to be attuned to the demands and rewards of the material world rather than the afterlife, which makes it an attractive proposition for those seeking to secure health and prosperity in the here and now. When people fall ill or experience bad luck in business or matters of the heart, they will consult a shaman to intercede on their behalf, accessing a dimension that is teeming with ancestors and other influential entities. In numerous rites linked either to significant events or to the lunar calendar, shamans work to facilitate protection, abundance and peace; they also honour the dead and shepherd spirits into the afterlife. Further, famous mudang and baksu advise politicians during election years, and exorcise public buildings of malevolent spirits. A more oblique—and very beautiful—meditation on Korean shamanism can be found in the work of the multimedia artist Park Chan Kyong.



Rustic lodging for the adventuresome in isolated sylvan environs

Kolarbyn Eco-Lodges are traditional Swedish forest huts found in thick woods just two hours from Stockholm and accessible by public transportation. The forest of Skinnskatteberg is made up of pine, spruce and birch trees, and populated by moose, beavers and wolves. Twelve tiny cabins, their roofs camouflaged by a carpet of grasses and garnished with clumps of bilberries and mushrooms, nestle among the trees. ‘Some guests have even called them mud-holes or hobbit houses’, reads Kolarbyn’s charmingly unvarnished website. ‘We simply call them forest huts.’ Forest workers used to stay in similar huts when working at the charcoal-powered kilns to produce iron and steel, which was exported across the world (the Eiffel Tower was built with Swedish steel). In the postwar era, charcoal burning was replaced by industrial methods. In 1996, the dozen traditional huts were constructed as a link to the past, and in 2004 the site opened to tourists interested in living out a bygone Swedish experience. Each hut has a wood-burning stove. There is neither electricity nor running water. Guests read by candlelight and chop their own firewood. Water comes from a nearby spring, and cooking happens over one of several firepits. From spring through autumn, the lodge offers an organic self-serve breakfast. Activities include cycling, hiking and relaxing in a sauna that floats on a lake; in winter a hole is chopped through the ice and a ladder added, to make icy plunges possible. Guests are welcome to participate in iron extraction by charcoalling, should they feel like pitching in at one of the nearby traditional kilns.


A crucial insight into the agonising void of an asylum seeker

The Kurdish poet, journalist and scholar Behrouz Boochani refers to himself as a child of war—he was born in 1983, during the war between Iraqi Ba’athists and Iranian hardliners waged in western Iran. While working as a correspondent for Tehran newspapers, he also gave secret lessons in an endangered Kurdish dialect and ran a Kurdish magazine, Werya. When the publication was raided in 2013, he went into hiding and fled Iran. As Boochani attempted to reach Australia, the boat he was on capsized, and he floated perilously in the ocean until a British cargo ship came to the rescue. Boochani and his fellow refugees were transferred to an Australian naval vessel. Just four days before his boat sank, however, the Australian government had decided that all asylum-seeking ‘boat people’ would be housed indefinitely on Manus Island or Nauru. Single men went to Manus. No Friend but the Mountains, his searing memoir of a life in captivity and limbo, begins there, where 400 men are contained in an area smaller than a football field. Boochani witnesses men collapsing from despair as well as from the suffocating heat; they are like ‘pieces of meat in a metal pressure cooker’. He identifies fellow prisoners by monikers such as the Smiling Youth, the Gentle Giant, Maysam the Whore (a man who plays the comedic fool to try the patience of the guards), the Cow (a man apparently content to wait in one place or another all day, determined to best the gruelling queues for meals, toilets, telephones, cigarettes and medication), and the Prime Minister, a man of natural dignity who is so humiliated by his experiences on Manus that he agrees to return to Iran, where he will be in severe danger. Boochani argues that life on Manus hews to a kyriarchal system, a term he borrows from feminist theory to describe intersecting forms of oppression that intensify one another. In Iran, Boochani was tempted to join the armed Kurdish insurgents but in the end refrained, wanting to believe that non-violent political action would deliver him from strife. On Manus, he wonders darkly whether his pacifism was just a form of cowardice. No Friend But The Mountains was written in Persian as a series of WhatsApp messages sent surreptitiously to the advocate and translator Moones Mansoubi, who formatted the material and sent it on to Omid Tofighian for translation. The book has received numerous accolades, including the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature—Australia’s premier literary award—but Boochani has been unable to collect any of his prizes in person.


Rescuing a traditional music from extinction

The Sape’ is a traditional two-or four-stringed instrument of the Kenyah people of Sarawak and Kalimantan, carved from a single bole of wood, hollowed out and scored with decorations. Its hypnotic sound can induce a trance; and it once accompanied ancient healing rites. The instrument’s popularity subsequently waned, but a few musicians have kept it alive. Tusau Padan was the first Sarawakian musician to bring its sounds to a global audience; since his death in 2009, Mathew Ngau Jau has honoured his legacy by playing the Sape’ locally and abroad, giving lessons to a new generation, carving new instruments and acting as the mascot for the World Rainforest Music Festival (his likeness adorns the festival banners). Jau is a cultural guardian—named a Living National Heritage by the Malaysian government. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, he says that playing the Sape is ‘a piece of happiness’. Some of that pleasure derives from its resurgence. Jau is teaching more students than ever and has experimented by electrifying the instrument with amplifiers and replacing its wooden pegs with metal ones. It used to be that women were forbidden to even touch the Sape’, but one of Jau’s female students, Alena Murang—who began studying with him at the age of 11—released her first album, Flight, in 2016.


Art institutions, psychiatric institutions, and the space between

Until 18 August, LENTOS Kunstmuseum Linz in Austria hosts an unusual exhibition of what might be termed the quintessence of outsider art. EXTRAORDINAIRE!, having already toured in Germany and Switzerland, showcases the creative output of patients in Swiss psychiatric institutions at the turn of the twentieth century. From 2006 to 2014, Zurich University of the Arts sponsored a team of researchers to gather and survey artworks created in 19 institutions between 1850 and 1930, though the works in the show are restricted to a narrower period. The team created a database of more than 5,000 images that will be a permanent resource for the public at the Swiss Institute for Art Research. The unusual exhibition, which at Kunstmuseum Linz is supplemented by works from Austrian institutions, reveals the perspectives of lay artists whose minds were unstable—or who were regarded as such. The ‘correct’ interpretation of such amateur works is anyone’s guess—isolation, social critique, despair and joy all seem plausible in various proportions—but the degree of technical skill is consistently high; the aesthetic effects, while often mysterious, are not accidental. The curator Brigitte Reutner has assembled a commendable survey, allowing the viewer to identify with the artists beyond the strictures of their case histories.


Revisiting the mischievous creations of an eccentric Queens artist

‘True aesthetic ambidexterity seems vanishingly rare, particularly among top-tier figures’, writes James Gibbons in The Paris Review Daily, venturing that ‘a great artist’s side projects invariably seem secondary and marginal.’ Robert Seydel (1960–2011) proves the exception. His texts and collages were inextricably bound, finely calibrated things that were overlooked during his lifetime but given posthumous appreciation in the form of three lovely volumes put out by Siglio Press, as well as the 2015 exhibition ‘Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter’ at the Queens Museum in New York City. Seydel declared his work to be ‘scaled intimate and to the hand’ and his goal ‘to write an art … and have it be as well a poor art, assembled from scraps.’ His playful appropriations and impersonations made use of real historical figures as well as fictional characters. He often made work under an alter ego, one vivid example being Ruth Greisman, an invented Queens resident whose identity was inspired by Seydel’s aunt of the same name. Greisman’s journal entries and collages reveal a spunky, sui generis consciousness. In Seydel’s lively imagining, Greisman was a bank teller, member of Hadassah and sister to a shell-shocked man named Sol. She was meant to have lived near the residence of the artist Joseph Cornell, to whom she mailed her homemade collages and humble typed poems. Thus Cornell’s presence hovers behind or shines through Greisman, whose output is ‘discovered’ amid his archive. (Seydel’s work also calls out to Jean Conner, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Höch, Ray Johnson and Tom Phillips.) ‘I’ll invent who I am, against what is’, Greisman writes. ‘My time and name: a Queens of the mind.’ Seydel’s oeuvre, suggests Gibbons, blurs the line between illustration and caption, between invention and quiet, concrete reality.


Celebrating the life and work of a pioneering practitioner of design

The educator and design theorist Victor Papanek espoused socially and ecologically responsible tools, objects and infrastructures, and loathed shoddy, show-offy workmanship. Born in Vienna in 1923, he fled the Anschluss in 1939 and sought refuge in the United States, where he studied at Cooper Union and MIT, apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona and found an ally in Buckminster Fuller, who wrote the preface to Papanek’s 1971 Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. ‘Much recent design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires’, wrote Papanek, ‘while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected by the designer.’ Highly critical of contemporary trends, the book became a major success and was translated into twenty-three languages. Throughout his career, Papanek sought to practise socially responsible design, collaborating with UNESCO and the World Health Organisation and volunteering his time and expertise in developing countries and underprivileged communities. His interest in anthropology led to his living for several years with Navajo, Inuit and Balinese peoples. Papanek, whose work was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Vitra Design Museum, produced his own design innovations as well, perhaps most notably a series of multifunctional ‘living cube’ modules that allow a user to work, relax and sleep—sometimes in the same adaptable space; the cheap and versatile living cube is now a classic form that has been lovingly toyed with by amateurs and luminaries alike. Papanek also wrote (with James Hennessey) Nomadic Furniture I (1973), Nomadic Furniture II (1974) and How Things Don’t Work (1977). Design for Human Scale (1983) and The Green Imperative (1995) he wrote alone. ‘We all live in a world of 1 year leases, 3 month fashions, and jobs that may mean relocation every few months’, Papanek observed in Nomadic Furniture II. ‘Much is wrong in our society and seeking refuge in sleek objects is a cop-out.’


A heady, intoxicating voyage into persistent memories and alluring dreams

Long Day's Journey into Night, the second feature by the young Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan, is a film of many bifurcations, the title of which is only the first the viewer encounters: in English it appears to nod to the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name, but in Chinese it borrows from the Roberto Bolaño short story ‘Last Evenings on Earth’. In interviews, Bi denies that the film has anything to do with either literary work, yet it hearkens back to both: the unreliable, substance-dependent mother of O’Neill is matched with the ominous dread of Bolaño to create a protean neo-noir with a strange and moody love story at its core. The film’s protagonist, Luo Hongwu, has returned for his father’s funeral to the provincial town of Kaili (also Bi’s hometown, whose dialect his stars gamely learned in order to act in the film). Luo hopes to reunite with a woman, Wen Qiwen, with whom he had a brief and passionate affair years earlier. The search takes him not to a happy reunion or an inevitable tragedy, in the end, but to an entirely different dimension. This is Bi’s second bifurcation: the film is divided into two parts, the first consisting of memories and the second—which arrives just at the point when Luo is on the verge of finding Wen—consisting of a dream, rendered in a single continuous 59-minute 3D take. The segment’s technical virtuosity is, impressively, overshadowed by its hypnotic lyricism, which Bi’s encyclopedic command of literary and art-cinema history has endowed with all manner of weighty yet subtle symbolic touches, from the Minotaur and its labyrinth to a swooning tribute to the final (extremely long) shot of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia. Both Luo and Wen are marginal figures from a city that is already on the margins. His is a life of mystery, hard luck and shady dealings, and she is a shape-shifting figure of the demimonde, who has gone from being a gangster’s kept woman to living the hard existence of a dancing girl. It is fitting, then, that the film winds up in the world of a ravishingly rendered dream: for Bi it is a place which crystallises the ambiguous power relationships of waking reality, and, as for us all, a place where we find ourselves feeling both like extreme outsiders and strangely at home.

Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber

‘Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.’

William Butler Yeats