Milestones in Books, Theatre and Art

ARTS, Books, Features, Theatre & Performing Arts, Visual Arts
To mark ten years online and in print, a selection of “personal milestones” from past and present contributors to The Lumière Reader.

This yearThe Lumière Reader turned ten, a milestone we’ve achieved thanks to the enthusiasm and commitment of our many contributors. To reflect on a decade of criticism and feature writing, we proposed a “personal milestone” to our current staff, as well as some of our past contributors, as a way of encapsulating their own watershed moment in the appreciation of art. Some have used this as an opportunity to contemplate the significance of a specific work and its influence on their worldview; others have cited a meaningful encounter or event, either while on assignment for Lumière or from their own experience. The only criteria was that their chosen milestone would fall within The Lumière Reader’s ten year history (2003-2013).

Andy Palmer, Joan Fleming, Renee Liang, Sam Brooks, Sam Gaskin, Sapna Samant, Saradha Koirala, Thomasin Sleigh, and Zhou Tingfeng offer their Milestones in Books, Theatre and Art below; see the B-Side of this feature for Milestones in Film.

img_milestones-lakeofcoalAndy Palmer

Lake of Coal: The Disappearance of a Mining Town
David Cook, 2007

Undoubtedly the past ten years (or so) has seen arguably the greatest evolution photography has seen. In quick time people now have on their phones better cameras than the first wave of hugely expensive professional DSLRs. Technologies have also dramatically changed how we interact with and regard photographs, and while there is a lot that could be (and indeed has been) written about these changes, I don’t wish to dwell on them here.

Instead, I’m interested not in the digital but in the physical. The past ten years has also seen quite a number of publications by many of the significant recent New Zealand photographers: Anne Noble, Ans Westra, Laurence Aberhart, Wayne Barrar, Marti Friedlander, Peter Peryer, John Daley, Brian Brake, Frank Hofmann, Andrew Ross, Ben Cauchi.

It has also seen a smaller number of publications that explore New Zealand’s photographic history; a continuation of the work Bill Main and Hardwicke Knight started 40 years ago. These include Into the Light: A History of New Zealand Photography, Songs of Innocence, Out of Time: Maori and the Photographer 1860-1940, Crombie to Burton: Early New Zealand Photography, George D. Valentine: A 19th Century Photographer in New Zealand.

However, one book really stood out for me: David Cook’s Lake of Coal: The Disappearance of a Mining Town (Craig Potton Publishing, 2006). The publication was the result of a twenty-year project, as much social history as it is a photographic book. A story of a community disconnected, and a landscape re-shaped, “a visual ethnography” placing amongst the photographs elements that give the reader a much greater context—interviews, journal entries, facsimiles of letters to and from State Coal Mines, etc. Jonty Valentine’s design is integral in pulling the various ingredients (and photographic styles) into a fascinating, wonderful whole. It is my firm belief that Lake of Coal will come to be seen as one of the most important photographic works to be produced in New Zealand.

Three other books that have largely gone unheralded and are well worth tracking down are Haru Sameshima’s Bold Centuries: A Photographic History Album (Rim Books, 2009), Hinterland: Rick Alexander’s New Zealand Photographs (Rick Alexander, 2007), and Feeling for Daylight: The Photographs of Jack Adamson (South Canterbury Museum, 2010).

What these four publications have in common is the exploration and engagement with our country over an extended period of time by individual and unique photographers, and each in their own way allows us a view of New Zealand we wouldn’t otherwise have seen. As photography becomes increasingly transient and disposable, there are almost certainly other photographic collections such as these waiting to be discovered (or rediscovered), reminding us of the true value of great photography and which will add to our collective cultural heritage.

Andy Palmer has been working as an exhibiting artist, curator, and photographer for over ten years, in addition to writing on photography and visual arts for The Lumière Reader since 2007. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally (see: acpalmer.co.nz). In 1995-96, he co-authored and co-edited ‘Kiwi Rock: A Reference Book’.

img_milestones-artifactJoan Fleming

Artifacts, 2012

This place of transparent syllables

At first, I didn’t know how, or what, I was going to be able to give back to the artifact. It arrived in the post: brown padded envelope, little brown box, tissue paper. Then a delicate, suggestive object, asking me to first describe its purpose, and then describe the world in which that purpose makes sense.

My friend Kate Parry, who is an artist living in Philadelphia, had made twelve of these “artifacts,” as she called them, from “a place that doesn’t exist,” as she called it, and sent them to twelve friends. We would send her what we had written, she would build the world we had written, and then she would send us postcards from it.

I had been trying to think my way in to the writing when I realised that the word “world” frightened me. The responsibility of that. The thing sat on my desk for a month, two months, three. It took on weight, it became less strange. And then, like every new thing that gets old, I stopped seeing it.

At the same time, and with a different friend, I was practicing butoh nine hours a week on the greasy carpet of a student union building meeting room, if we weren’t lucky, or on the vast wood floor of a well-lit dance studio, if we were. We brought poems to every practice session. We needed to see if the imagery in the poems would move us, in both senses of the word. Whether it would press our hearts enough to push us beyond habitual body shapes, and make us move like new.

One day, the postcards started arriving. They were images of mineral and iceberg and carnival and flag. Quietly marvellous. On the back, Katie had written, “A postcard from this place.” Suddenly, I saw, I didn’t have to write an entire world. It was only a place I had to write: a place I had visited with my body, but not with my mind.

When I sat down to write, the piece came quickly. I understand it best as a butoh poem, where every image worked on me like a charged provocation that I wanted to dance.

Butoh space is rare, and difficult to talk about. It takes a lot of time, and then time disappears. It requires the right imagery to get there. And, crucially, one has to leave one’s thinking head behind.

The slow-burn realisation that the slight, cellophane-and-feather object worked on me was a felt understanding of the generative sympathies between art forms. Butoh was the way into the artifact poem. The poem was the way into the postcard world. And the postcard was the way into the questions Katie would ask, later, of a different friend, also a dancer, who took the questions and made movements out of them.

You might not feel about the images the way I feel about them, but they keep working on me like my best experiences of art: they activate the mind, and then ask it to step aside.

This place where we learnt how to press our several faces against the doors
as they were opening               where we found our faces were made entirely of
opening doors                 This place of transparent syllables                 This place
of the exquisite fish bone          in the throat of the lake

Joan Fleming is a poet and academic-in-training currently based in Dunedin. She is the author of ‘The Same as Yes’ (VUP, 2011). A contributor to The Lumière Reader since 2006, she also maintains a website at joanflemingpoet.com. Read more about the artifacts project here.

img_milestones-arrivalRenee Liang

The Arrival
Red Leap Theatre, 2009

As a fledgling theatremaker, seeing Red Leap Theatre’s The Arrival (2009) was a revelation. Here was a piece of theatre, moved as if by magic from page to stage; a world literally springing to life from its paper origins.  By chance, I’d read Shaun Tan’s original masterpiece not long before I saw the show, and was impressed at both how faithfully his world had been created, and by what the medium of theatre could add to his insights on the universal experience of the migrant.

At that time I was just writing and staging my first full length plays, which were—in very different ways—exploring the same topic. Watching The Arrival inspired me to look more actively for the magic in theatre: the transformative ‘ahhh’ which inspires an audience member to keep on thinking about a piece long after they’ve seen it. As my teacher, Murray Edmond, said to me, “the poetry doesn’t need to be in words.”

Since then, I’ve tried to figure out how to find the magic. It’s a little like mining—the starting material needs to contain a glint, a hunch that something special might be inside. But as with ore, it is the hard work, a reworking and refining process, which brings out the gold. This is called ‘devising’ when done by actors, or ‘revising’ when done by writers. I’ve experienced both, including a workshop run by Red Leap called Incubator which has helped a number of theatrical works come to fruition.

Red Leap has also shown me the importance of time and thought in maturing a piece.  Their next work, Paper Sky, was probably premiered too hastily and its initial outing lacked clarity of vision. (They have since shown a much more developed version of the piece.) Conversely, a recent restaging of The Arrival (in 2012) surprisingly didn’t move me as much as I remembered being moved by the original. Maybe it was a version of the phenomenon in which things are never as good the second time around, or perhaps the reworking had removed some of the original emotional ‘triggers’ for me. Maybe it was just that I was hugely pregnant at the time (I had the baby the next day) and my attention wasn’t fully on the work. Probably all it shows is that magic in art is fickle, has to be constantly sought, is never completely held captive and is experienced differently by different people.

Renee Liang reviewed theatre in Auckland for The Lumière Reader from 2008-2010. She is a playwright, poet, blogger, and mum to a toddler who understands magic.

img_milestones-osageSam Brooks

August: Osage County
Auckland Theatre Company, 2010

In 2010 I saw a play that changed my life. I was in my second year of a writing degree, a degree that involved very little practical writing and lots of learning techniques and skills (both of which would come in handy in the future). This was before I started writing reviews and well before I would have considered having a career at all, let alone in theatre.

It’s the only play where I have felt compelled to give a standing ovation without anybody else standing out before me, and it’s the only play where I’ve spent almost an hour swinging between crying and being on the verge of it. I left my friend almost immediately after the house lights came up and when she went past me on the bus, I felt compelled to text her and tell her that I was actually fine and not to worry about me. This play had left me shaken to my very core, and more importantly, it left me dying to do what this play did to me to other people.

That play was Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, presented by Auckland Theatre Company. It is a modern play of unparalleled size, with a massive cast and a massive scope. It’s three and a half hour with two intervals. It is, pure and simply, about family. It is specifically about a family in the very centre of America, but is about all families, yours and mine. It is a play that is as breathtakingly funny as it is staggeringly dark. It is, in my mind, the perfect play. One of the best three written in the last thirty years (along with Angels in America and Fences), and it’s the only one of those three I’ve been lucky enough to see.

It’s hard to explain why this play made me want to write or want to start a career in this industry, but it’s not hard to identify it as a turning point in my life and what would become my career. It’s not the best production I’ve seen, but it’s the first production that made me aware of the power of theatre and what it can do to a captive audience of four hundred people (and sometimes that number can vary).

I will forever remember these captivating images. One is Jennifer Ward-Lealand standing over a prone Jennifer Ludlum, spitting (as many lines in this play are spat), “I’m running things now!” The lights went to red, then black, and the theatre filled with a soundtrack I wish I could get my hands on. (Somebody hook me up!)

The other image is, again, courtesy of Jennifer Ward-Lealand, calmly sitting at a table and slowly turning into her mother. I’ve seen Ward-Lealand on stage more times than I can count, but this is the finest piece of acting I’ve seen from her, and possibly, the finest piece of acting I’ve ever seen. In these minutes I saw not only a woman becoming her mother, allowing herself to become the person who she most hates, but I saw the entire family that August: Osage County painstakingly documents, dragging each other into the dark. It gives me goosebumps even typing it out now, three years later, and it will likely do so for the rest of my life.

One day I will write, and probably put on myself, a piece that will do this to an audience. I saw some of these reactions to a play I put on this year called Another Dead Fag. I hope I can do it again, and I know that this hope came from the kernel that August: Osage County planted in me. I just hope it continues to grow.

Sam Brooks is an Auckland-based writer and producer, as well as The Lumière Reader’s current Theatre Editor. He has produced five of his own plays, won Playmarket’s Playwrights b4 25 award two years in a row, and been shortlisted for Playmarket’s prestigious ADAM award.

img_milestones-oscarwaoSam Gaskin

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz, 2007

Having moved to China in 2007, it would be fitting for me to mention a novel as brilliant as Yiyuan Li’s The Vagrants, a film as revelatory as Lou Ye’s Suzhou He, or a work of reportage as deeply lived as Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls as a personal cultural milestone. They are. Since shifting the emphasis of my own reporting to visual art in the past couple of years, several ironic and audacious but genuinely insightful works by Xu Zhen, or something as outrageous as Lu Yang’s manga superhero “Uterus Man” would also serve.

Yet Junot Diaz’s 2007 novel The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao sets itself apart, so adeptly capturing the way people spin plates of high and low culture, native and nurtured languages, and privileged and put-upon status positions in lives that play out across countries and their disparate subcultures. Diaz himself embodies the non-contradiction: a glasses-wearing Pulitzer Prize winner, born in Santo Domingo and bred in New Jersey, who once spent most of his time body building and moving furniture.

I spoke to Diaz over Skype in 2010, sitting at my desk in a studio-sized shikumen apartment off Nanjing Xi Lu. In my six years living as an immigrant (the classists among us go by ‘expat’), no-one has nailed the experience of being here as well as he did, running his mouth for an hour and a half with his typical mix of generosity and condescension, still talking as he handed over his boarding pass and as the cabin doors closed on a flight to somewhere else, long before he ever stepped foot in China.

It took Diaz over 10 years to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an eternity in an accelerated culture. Congratulations to Tim Wong et al at The Lumière Reader for persisting just as long, with no signs of slowing.

Sam Gaskin is the Editor of BLOUIN ARTINFO China, Shanghai. He contributed to The Lumière Reader between 2007-2009. His interview with Junot Diaz can be read here.

img_milestones-fromtheeruinsSapna Samant

From the Ruins of Empire:
The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

Pankaj Mishra, 2013

When Tim Wong sends out an email asking past and present Lumière contributors if they want to add their two bits to a tenth anniversary feature, one can’t refuse can they? I’d pitched a ‘review’ to Tim in May this year after reading Pankaj Mishra’s latest book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia (Penguin UK, 2012). An anniversary assignment was a good excuse. Except that this is not a review.

From the Ruins of Empire opens with the Japanese defeating the Russians in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, a major event in colonised Asia that has a ripple effect across the continent, and then delves into the lives of three Asian men—the little known Jamal al-din al-Afghani and Liang Quichao, and the quite famous Rabindranath Tagore. Three thinkers from different corners of Asia who lived in colonial times and expressed not just anti colonial sentiment but novel concepts encompassing politics, social structures, religion, the environment, human rights, economics and philosophy that continue to influence and inspire different people in different ways across the world.

Today we have sociological definitions like ‘polycultural’, ‘transnational’, ‘third culture kids’, and what not, but these men existed in times when the world was a definite, unchanging empire, where Asians were lesser people and in such terms alien. You were either an old fashioned ‘savage/native’ or you became ‘Western’ to move up in life. Nothing in between. These three men were global wanderers who thought in cross cultural terms but were many times ridiculed. Yet they were brave and persistent. For them, Asia had potential. Not as a free land mass only but as a place where Eastern spirituality and Western pragmatism could mash to throw up new ways of leading the world.

It was their story and the large canvas of history that this book covers which impressed me. The possibilities that such men create even a century or two after they have passed; that countries can move beyond State and Nation; that the world can be a potentially harmonious place, led by Asia of course, is deeply reassuring.

This book does not offer any solutions to the problems of the world but actually warns Asian countries not to ape the West, not to indulge in social Darwinism, but to take the best of the East and the West. Few politicians would care about such intellectual admonitions but for the hoi polloi (for me anyway) it is a way to know that currents of thoughts about peace on earth have flown from times past. It is important to recognise that and imbibe.

Dr. Sapna Samant, now based in Wellington, is director of Holy Cow Media. She also maintains a blog at drsapna.wordpress.com. She has contributed to The Lumière Reader since 2005.

img_milestones-goosebathSaradha Koirala

The Goose Bath
Janet Frame, 2006

The first poem in this book appears almost as a preface, separate from the seven sections of poetry. It’s a poem that comes to mind often for me and even the title seems to answer the old Why I Write question so perfectly: “I take into my arms more than I can bear to hold.” Similarly, the final poem sits separately; a footnote that resonates backwards through the book. “How I began to write” describes “thoughts passed, like presents” the writer unwraps these to find words, “unwrapping the world, / unwrapping the world.” If Frame wrote to “unwrap” the world and makes sense of what she thought and felt, it was never for an audience. She wrote in a (oft quoted) letter to C. K. Stead, “When I write I’m not writing to be published. Publication is always a shock and an embarrassment. I still think posthumous publication is the only form of literary decency left.” The Goose Bath is the first of what are now six posthumous books by Frame.

Having read and adored Patrick Evans’s Gifted (VUP, 2010), which describes Janet Frame through the imagined eyes of Frank Sargeson, I picture her cringing at the thought of her words being read with any intensity or scrutiny. Early on in Gifted Sargeson describes having tea and scones with Frame (“She was holding saucer and cup in her left hand and stuffing a halved scone into her mouth as if she hadn’t eaten for a week!”) and mentioning that he had read her stories: “She needed to know my assessment of them—surely this was what she had visited me today to hear?… Now, I said. One of these stories of yours—She stared at me, looking terrified, her eyes unblinking as she waited for the death sentence.” Although fictionalised, it’s easy to believe her terror, especially at this early point in her career and in the presence of the ‘father of the nation’s fiction’. However, her shyness remained and the poems that make up The Goose Bath spent their many unpublished years stacked and stuffed into a goose bath—“a fibreglass bowl about the size of a child’s paddling pool,” as Pamela Gordon explains in the foreword—the writing and collecting of them more important than having them read.

I can do Janet Frame the dignity of not “assessing” her work, but will point out some favourites from this collection. ‘Compass’ asks the question “if / you had to choose would you be / the centre or the foot of the compass?” would you prefer to “stay-at-home as balance” or have “nothing to do all day but describe / describe the perfect circle and / meet your origins foot to foot on a highway / narrow enough to contain you only.” The poem ‘Bach’ is both perplexing and beautiful in its praise of the musician “Bach: the same old story…/ He can argue with the sun / and win while at the same time / the sun quietly releases its overflow of light / to the moon keeping track of the human night.” And ‘The Happy Prince’ brings back that childlike tone (so wonderfully captured in her Gifted character) “In the children’s record of the Happy Prince, / before each gold flake is peeled from the Prince’s body, / the voice orders, Turn the Page, Turn the Page, / supposing that children do not know when to turn, / and may live at one line for many years.” The line that I’ve lived at for many years—“I take into my arms more than I can bear to hold”—is followed by another, “I am toppled by the world.” These poems are like the sun’s “overflow” giving light to the moon. I imagine Janet reddening at the thought of her words being any kind of milestone moment for me.

Saradha Koirala lives in Wellington and teaches English at Aotea College. Her first poetry collection, ‘Wit of the staircase’, was published by Steele Roberts in 2009 and her second, ‘Tear Water Tea’, was released earlier this year. She maintains a blog at saradhakoirala.com.

img_milestones-merceThomasin Sleigh

Tacita Dean
Australian Center for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; June 2009

I visited Melbourne in mid-2009, and went with my brother and his girlfriend to the Australian Center for Contemporary Art. A solo exhibition of Tacita Dean’s work was on—we hadn’t even heard of her, but we went anyway. I remember we were all stilled and stunned by this exhibition. When we emerged, one by one, at the other end, we sat on the low chairs in the foyer area in silence. I remember my brother said, “I really, really liked that.” We wanted to buy the catalogue but we couldn’t afford it.

There is no space here to explain the subtly of Tacita Dean’s art. But, looking back and thinking about this show, there are two things that now seem significant:

  1. The exhibition was about the act of looking. The works unpicked the very action by which I received them, so the process of moving around and through the show was one of looking and also being looked at. But not in a clunky, ‘meta’ way; it was in a way that caught you off guard and tilted the whole experience of being a gallery goer.
  2. The exhibition was about technology, but it wasn’t nostalgic. Dean uses actual film cameras to make many of her video works, and the most memorable work in the show Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33”… was filled with whirring film projectors churning through 16mm film. The work seemed to be asking me (amongst other things) to think about how technology determines and dictates the way we see the world. This may seem self-evident now, but it was one of those thoughts that triggered future direction for me (and I only realise this now, looking back), so that is why I pick this show, Tacita Dean, as my milestone moment.
Thomasin Sleigh recently completed her MA in Art History on the histories of art criticism in New Zealand. She began writing visual arts commentary for The Lumière Reader in 2008. Her debut novel, ‘Ad Lib’, is due out in early 2014.

Image Caption: Tacita Dean, “Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33” with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007,” 2008. Exhibition view at ACCA, Melbourne. Photo: John Brash Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London, and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

img_milestones-deathZhou Tingfeng

Death With Interruptions
José Saramago, 2009

A Sentence, With Interruptions

I was perusing in the local library when, quite unexpectedly, a particular book caught my eye, Death With Interruptions, it announced on the cover, in wobbly capital letters, above which, in a slightly smaller but equally unsurefooted font, was the author’s name, José Saramago, neither meant much to me, it was in fact the picture on the cover that drew my attention, it looked like it had been drawn by a child, the timid lines tracing out the figure of a middle-aged woman, hair tied in a bun and carrying a rather unfriendly looking scythe, Whoever first said Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover must’ve been blind, I thought to myself, though if that was the case then whatever was written inside the book wouldn’t have been much help either, needless to say, we are assuming that this seemingly innocuous but in fact deeply misleading little idiom preceded the invention of braille, but I digress, I opened the book, the first line of the novel began innocuously enough, The following day, no one died, an intriguing little rejoinder that could just as easily be the first line of a pulpy murder mystery, this, in the end, didn’t turn out to be the case, the book is in actual fact about Death, who, as we all know, is an attractive looking woman in a melancholy garb, and who sends letters in lilac envelopes to those who are about to kick the bucket, anyway, one day she decides to suspend the state of rigor mortis, though only, of course, for a little while, just to see what would happen, at any rate, we are digressing again, what I had meant to say was that it was a sentence several pages in that did me in, a sentence that begins Homes for the third and fourth age and does not end until three pages later, it was this sentence that made me think, hmm, I should best read on, and as I kept reading, and especially by the time that I reached the final full stop, I could never look at full stops the same, for I realised that prolong it as we might, all sentences must eventually arrive at a full stop, but this needn’t be a bad thing, for death is the full stop that gives life its meaning, and not only that, but only in knowing that the final full stop is coming, do we have the slightest inkling of what one should perhaps fill that sentence with, and how.

Zhou Tingfeng grew up in a small countryside town in New Zealand. His fiction has appeared in ‘Cha: An Asian Literary Journal’ and ‘Spectrum 5: An Anthology of New Graduate Writers’. He is currently based in Beijing, where he works as the Arts & Film Editor for Time Out Beijing.