Review no 88: Artist Frank Bowling (Guyana)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Born in 1934, Frank Bowling moved from New Amsterdam, Guyana (then British Guiana), to London in 1953, and later graduated from the Royal College of Art. In the late 1960s he spent several years living in New York, where he maintains a studio, and in later life continues to divide his time between the two cities.

His work, recently the subject of a large-scale retrospective by the Tate in London (and the first living black artist to be included in the gallery’s collection), explores what can be achieved with paint as a medium, when it is poured, dripped, stained or thickly layered (“painting as total activity“). His canvases are often enormous in scale, with vivid use of colour, and they are notable for their luminosity and iridescence, achieved through his use of materials such as fluorescent chalks, metallic pigments, acrylic gels and acrylic foam.

The work combines figurative elements and geometric shapes with abstraction, and from early on autobiographical elements and a pre-occupation with sociopolitical issues were evident. From the 1980s he began to incorporate remnants of materials from everyday life, from plastic toys to scraps of African fabric brought back from a trip abroad by one of his grandsons.

Detail from Witness, 2018, which incorporates – embedded in the paint – a cocktail umbrella, pipe-cleaner dog, plastic spiders and fabric (picture taken from the Tate exhibition catalogue)

Bowling’s early work displays an expressionist, representative, sometimes visceral, painting style, inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon and Goya. As Bowling’s work moved towards abstraction and away from the obviously personal in the late 1960s, a number of motifs were nevertheless used and re-used repeatedly in Bowling’s art. These include shadowy contour maps of continents, as well as screenprints of family members and of his mother’s home in Guyana. He employs these as if they were abstract forms, but they remain ambiguous and, as Richard Schiff notes in the Tate catalogue, can’t avoid being connotative.

Bowling is perhaps most renowned for his iconic late 1960s map paintings, as well as his subsequent ‘poured paintings’, which, as the name suggests, experiment with the effects achieved by pouring paint onto unstretched canvases.

Through his writing as well as his art, Bowling has also played a leading role in issues relating to ‘black art’ and the right of artists from all backgrounds and identities to express themselves artistically. The catalogue from the Tate show tells of the duality that Bowling felt as a young man, where, as a rapidly well-established part of the London and New York art scenes, he hoped to represent black people and the black experience in his art, but resented the reductive label ‘black artist’.

“[critics] tend to stress the political over the aesthetic … concerned with notions about Black Art, not with the works themselves” – Frank Bowling

Moby Dick, 1981, acrylic paint on canvas, 250.5cm x 189cm. Taken from exhibition catalogue.

Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989 – 178cm x 136cm (taken from exhibition catalogue)

The above painting was inspired by a trip to New Amsterdam with his son Sasha, and the quality of the light he found there, and the combination of brightness and heat haze: I really like this one.

For Bowling, painting seems almost like a kind of performative act of transcendent philosophy (which I’m not sure I’ve fully got my head around!)

Spirit, where is it? But painting will continue to declare thingness.” – Frank Bowling

Currently my aspiration is to make my work as my life has been. The unfolding of light, and the total experience of my body within history, making real those moments when the material I’m using registers a spirit of the wholeness of extemporaneous life, of things. As a thing myself I was there, I witnessed, I felt, I know, and knowing is the work.” – Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1971 , catalogue picture (although not an American citizen, Bowling was sufficiently immersed in the New York art scene for his painting to qualify as ‘American painting’.)

Review no 87: Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana (Thailand)

Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

Duanwad Pimwana is one of Thailand’s best-known female authors, and this is a collection of 13 short stories, first published between 1995 and 2014, which give a small insight into the development of Pimwana’s writing.

I found some stories to be much stronger than others. The collection opens with the best, and longest, story in the collection, from which the book takes its name. This is also the most recent story in the collection. Arid Dreams is clever play on words, as a pantingly horny Thai traveller takes some beachside accommodation for the night, and ruminates on the beautiful woman who seems to help run the guest house, as well as provide massages to tourists. When he finds out that she really does has no time for herself at all, and also offers sexual services at nighttime, he is determined to sleep with her. Eventually she opens up to the pent-up protagonist, confiding that she only sleeps with non-Thai tourists, to avoid sealing a reputation as a whore among the local people in the place to which she is bound. In this story the lechy traveller develops a modicum of self-awareness as he gets to know her better – this is not the case in many of the other stories. I really like this story, and looked forward to reading the rest of the collection, but overall it fell a little short of expectations.

There are some common, recurring themes. These include the failure of entitled male characters to even attempt to understand the perspectives and inner worlds of the women around them, and their tendency to apply double standards in their relationships with their wives and lovers (male characters repeatedly bemoan the fact that their harried wives are ageing less well than they feel to be the case for themselves).

Others focus on poverty and other failed dreams. Some don’t quite work: “The Attendant” reflects on the tedious life of a lift attendant; unfortunately, this also meant it bored me stupid. Another, “The Awaiter”, focuses on a man who finds some mislaid money at the bus station, and then stands there doing absolutely nothing, while ruminating on possible explanations for the loss and the consequences should he take it. This tale was charming, but not exactly engrossing.

I loved “Wood Children”, in which a wife longs for a child, but her and her husband find themselves unable to conceive. The woman begins to find distraction in whittling children out of wood, and becomes more and more engrossed in her hobby, to her husband’s consternation. The story unspools to a determinedly creepy conclusion.

Over the past several months, Mala had carved almost ten figures. Children formed out of wood, in different poses, were lined up on her table. Some of them smiled, lopsided mouths and all; some had heads that skewed back, hands that didn’t align with the arms, or feet that were disproportionately large.”

All the characters in this intriguing collection seem to be trapped in some way, whether through poverty, marriage or simply inaction. It’s definitely worth a read, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

No 86: Christo (1935-2020): The Bulgarian-born artist who, in collaboration with Jeanne-Claude, wrapped the Reichstag

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The soft material which drapes the Reichstag will remind us of the flames that lashed these walls and of how vulnerable and endangered democracy is” – German politician Konrad Weiss, 1994

Earlier this month I heard of the death of Christo Javacheff, more commonly known as Christo, and famed for his work with Moroccan artist Jeanne-Claude (de Gouillebon, 1935-2009) and in particular their transient 1995 Berlin-showstopper Wrapped Reichstag. Christo was born in Bulgaria, and studied art in Sofia, before fleeing the Soviet bloc in 1957. He remained strongly motivated by the pursuit of artistic and political freedoms throughout his life and career.

[Photo taken from the book Lost Art by Jennifer Mundy (published by the Tate in 2013).]

Christo met Jeanne-Claude in Paris in 1958, and they lived and worked together for many years. Christo painted, but he also began to make objects, wrapping, covering and adding an element of the mysterious to everyday objects, such as barrels, paint cans and furniture (Jeanne-Claude was not credited in this early work). Christo and Jeanne-Claude also together began to create temporary installations, often with a political message: for example, they filled a road in the Paris Latin Quarter with 89 oil drums, to represent the barriers erected by police in other parts of the city to contain protesters against the conflict in Algeria.

They began to wrap entire buildings, such as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, in the late 1960s, and even wrapped parts of the natural environment, such as stretches of coastline.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude first considered the idea of wrapping the Reichstag in 1971, when, of course, Berlin was still a divided city, and the historic German parliament building (which dates back to the late 1800s), was under the jurisdiction of both East and West Berlin. Damaged by an arson attack in the 1930s, the Reichstag building was restored in the 1960s, by which time the seat of the West German government had been relocated to Bonn. Although the building was barely used, the site remained extremely politically sensitive, and the artists’ plans were repeatedly rejected. But after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, and the reunification of Germany took place, the plan was finally able to come to fruition.

The building was covered with 100,000 sq m of fabric with an aluminium surface, secured by 200,000 kg of steel frames and some 15 km of blue rope. The intensely modern, silvery material hung from the building’s towers, statuary and stone decor in sumptuous pleats and folds, echoing classical art. The project cost US $15m. to implement.

The Wrapped Reichstag was on display for two weeks and it attracted huge numbers of visitors. It worked as an easily comprehensible symbol of the emergence of the newly unified Germany:

The wrapped Reichstag makes lightness and softness … into characteristics of the greatest monumental power … the wrapped Reichstag can almost be seen as an ideal symbol of the new Germany” – Paul Goldberger, New York Times

The German Government asked Christo and Jeanne-Claude to extend the duration of the installation beyond two weeks. They refused, on the grounds that “non-permanent art will be missed“. Completed on 24 June 1995, it was dismantled on 7 July, and the materials were sent for recycling. I wish I’d experienced it firsthand, (though it wouldn’t have been top of my to do list back in ’95).

It is a kind of naivety and arrogance to think that this thing stays forever, for eternity. All these projects have this strong dimension of missing, of self-effacement … they will go away, like our childhood, our life. They create a tremendous intensity when they are there for a few days.” – Christo

Review no 85: The Discomfort of the Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Netherlands)

Translated by Michele Hutchison

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This debut novel, first published in Dutch in 2018, has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, and it wholly deserves the nomination. Rijneveld is also a prize-winning poet, and the writing here is phenomenal. The subject matter is more of a struggle, although the book is never boring or a chore to engage with. The novel is an exploration of the impact of loss, and a dissection of a family dealing with, or rather not dealing with, the grief that follows the accidental death, just before Christmas, of the eldest child, Matthies.

This is no ordinary family, even in happier times. The book is narrated by eldest daughter Jas, aged 10, who lives with her devoutly Christian parents and two surviving siblings, Hanna and Obbe, on a dairy farm. (Rijneveld, too, grew up on a dairy farm, raised by deeply religious parents, and lost an elder brother in an accident.) In its account of parental religious fervour it reminded me a bit of the (excellent) US memoir Educated by Tara Westover. The children in The Discomfort of the Evening do attend school, but they also work on the farm, where the labour sounds gritty and dirty, but also sometimes comforting, and life is hard to start with, and then hard and grim and devastating. The children are forbidden from talking about Matthies.

“A rope with a noose in it had recently appeared in the attic, hanging from the rafters. “It’s for a swing,” Dad said, but there was still no swing.”

While Jas’s mother, broken by grief, stops eating, Jas stops excreting. It is a sort of scatological coming of age story, with some deeply disturbing descriptions of early adolescent explorations of sexuality, violence and death, coupled with dubious child-rearing methods. Some of the less (yes, I meant to write less) unpalatable of all these include the deliberate drowning of a hamster, and the manual insertion into Jas’s anus of broken-off pieces of soap, in a bid by her father to make her finally open her chronically constipated bowels.

Mum … hurries out of the living room, pulling the vacuum cleaner along with her by its hose … she seems to have more of a relationship with it than with her own children. At the end of every week I see her cleaning its tummy with great love and putting a new hoover bag in it, while mine is about to burst.”

The book is undeniably brilliant, and the sensuous prose is often beautiful, and littered with evocative and imaginative metaphors. The tale is also horrific, though, in its unveering, microscopic examination of the unrepentant brutality of life, although it always manages to steer clear of gratuitousness. I feel Rijneveld would make a worthy winner of the International Man Booker prize, but this is not a book I would go back to – and I definitely wouldn’t buy it for a present!

Review no 84: Golden Child by Claire Adam (Trinidad and Tobago)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

“He likes to look at the moon and imagine space. He imagines it to be very silent, very cool. You would definitely need a sweater.”

Golden Child is a confident debut novel by Claire Adam, which was recently awarded both the Desmond Elliott Prize for first time novelists and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. I read it as the third of my 20 books of summer.

The novel is gripping and assured, and the plot unfolds with a Sophoclean inevitability. There were echoes of Blood Brothers in this story of fraternal twins, Peter and Paul, who are destined for very different futures. Peter is academically brilliant and dedicated to his studies, while the other, Paul, is declared likely to have a degree of “retardation” after problems at birth. Despite his family’s insistence on his congenital lack of promise he seems very normal, perhaps with a learning difficulty like dyslexia, and certainly not an intellectual, but a sensitive, bright, physically assured boy.

The book is set in rural 1980s Trinidad, some distance from the capital Port of Spain, in an environment where crime and break-ins seem to be rampant, and families live simply. Tensions arise with one of the maternal uncles, Romesh, over the distribution of an inheritance, after the death of another relative, Uncle Vishnu. Meanwhile, the twins’ parents, Clyde and Joy, are determined that their sons will benefit from a good education, and the novel examines the level of sacrifice a parent might be prepared to make to ensure a glittering future.

Although we are given the opportunity to see events from Paul’s perspective, especially following the intervention of an Irish priest and school master, Father Kavanagh, the brilliant Peter remains a bit more opaque, which is the only real qualm I have with this novel. It’s a story that makes you catch your breath, and invites discussion on the responsibilities of parenthood and on the impossibility of judging what gives a life its value – in the days that have passed since I finished this novel I keep circling back to the unspooling of events with a kind of grim fascination.

Paul looks different with his long hair swept back from his face rather than hanging over his eyes – perfectly at ease. With his rolled-up trousers, the shirt sticking to his back, his face turned down against the rain, he reminds Father Kavanagh of pictures of men in old storybooks ploughing fields with their horses or pulling nets in from the sea.

Review no 83: Syrian feature documentary ‘For Sama’

I watched For Sama (2019) on All 4, knowing only that it was an Oscar-nominated film about the Syrian conflict, dedicated to the baby daughter of the journalist and film maker Waad al-Kateab (and co-directed by Edward Watts). I expected it to be harrowing, but I was unprepared for how gripping and powerful the film would be. I was immediately hooked, and although I started watching it late at night I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop it half-way and start again the next day. I had to know how things were going to work out for Waad al-Kateab, her husband Hamza, their child Sama, Hamza’s hospital, their friends and their families.

I have been moved by fictionalised depictions of life in war-torn countries, but watching Waad, a beautiful, intelligent woman with everything ahead of her, move with Hamza from being optimistic, energetic, politically engaged, happy students to astonishingly committed, fun but intensely serious, breath-takingly courageous, traumatised and most of all kind war veterans was genuinely humbling.

As Waad’s narration informs us, she starts making the film in order to demonstrate to Sama why her parents made the decisions they did: the decision to take on the Assad regime, and their decision to remain in Aleppo during the long siege of that city, even returning after a trip to safety in Turkey to visit Hamza’s sick grandfather. And at every step of the way they have no idea if they will survive, or if their child will survive.

First they are shown, before they’re a couple, taking part in peaceful demonstrations at Aleppo University, in which Muslims and Christians came together to express their dissatisfaction with the Assad regime. Hamza was already married, but was a close friend of Waad, who describes him as having a constant smile on his face, while she tells us that she was considered to be a headstrong teenager by her parents.

However, we already know events are not going lead towards any straightforward happy ending. The response of the regime rapidly intensifies, until we are shown, in January 2013, the corpses of tens of massacred young men, handcuffed, with bullets through their heads. The footage does not shy away from the horror of these images, or the devastating grief of their families.

Hamza’s wife understandably wants to flee the escalating conflict, but for him, a committed political activist, this represents an impossible choice. He chooses to remain in Aleppo, where Hamza and his friends decide to set up a much-needed hospital, filmed and supported by Waad.

And so an intimate portrait unfolds of a relationship and a war. We see Waad and Hamza fall in love, get married, and find their dream home. They tend to their plants, and Waad becomes pregnant.

But then friends begin to be killed, the hospital is bombed, and the film is littered with the senseless violent deaths of children. As one horror-struck medic says: “Children have nothing to do with this, nothing.” Waad interviews the children of friends, who sometimes seem bewilderingly carefree, playing among bombed-out vehicles, but at other times are stricken, with an utterly unchildlike awareness and passive acceptance of the worst depths of human experience.

And all the way through Waad questions her choices, and those of her husband. Were they right to stay in Aleppo in order to document the siege and provide desperately-needed medical care, when that has meant risking their lives every minute of every day, and risking the life of their infant child, who is so inured to the sound of bombs strafing the city that she doesn’t cry, doesn’t even jump.

This warm-hearted, intensely intimate and deeply humane documentary should really become required viewing for all.

Review no 82: The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza): a film by Paolo Sorrentino (Italy)

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To this question, as kids, my friends always gave the same answer. “Pussy.” Whereas I answered, “the smell of old people’s houses”. The question was: “What do you like most, really, in life?” I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.

The Great Beauty is a 2013 film co-written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. The protagonist is 65-year-old Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a largely nocturnal critic and journalist, a womanizer and intellectual famous for his lavish parties and for a single book, The Human Apparatus, published in his youth. He has lived in Rome since the age of 26, when he arrived from Naples with the intention of becoming the sort of man who not only got invited to parties, but who had “the power to make a party a failure“.

After celebrating his 65th birthday Jep has something of an existential crisis, deepened when he discovers his fleeting first love, Elisa, has died. When a guest at one of his soirees dismisses The Human Apparatus as a “novelette”, he embarks on a devastating take-down, which includes the killer phrase, “we’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little … Don’t you agree?“.

The film is flooded with religious iconography, and Jep sees nuns wherever he goes, while at the same time beginning a relationship with a middle-aged stripper (that eternal madonna/whore dichotomy!). He begins weeping openly at funerals, which he hitherto seems to have valued more for their performative aspect than as an opportunity to pay his respects.

By the end I had entirely lost track of what was happening, as Jep dined with an eminent cardinal, reputed to be the best exorcist in Europe and tipped for the papacy, and an ancient toothless nun, so old and wrinkled, she looked like she’d been whittled from wood. He flaneured around Rome, and there were signs that he might be experiencing a late evaporation of his writer’s block.

It didn’t really matter that I lost the plot a bit: the well-preserved (well not that well-preserved it turns out, he was 54 playing 65!), vulpine Servillo was never less than compelling, I loved the choral, high church mixed with electro-pop soundtrack, the Fellini-esque cinematography was ravishing, as were the beautiful scenes of lavish interiors and the architecture of Rome. And the overblown, euro-trashy party scenes! They are one of the best things about this movie, and outclass even The Great Gatsby in terms of louche degradation and bizarre extended dance scenes. As The New Yorker wrote at the time of the film’s release: “You could set “The Great Beauty” in America, but only if Harper Lee had spent her evenings at Studio 54.”

“This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the noise and the blah, blah, blah. Silence and sentiment. Excitement and fear. The spare, unsteady splashes of beauty.

Review no 81: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Japan)

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

My book number 2 in the 20 books of summer challenge has been Convenience Store Woman (first published in 2016). This is a quick and deceptively unchallenging read that reminded me of a Japanese Eleanor Oliphant. It has a straightforward, flowing style, which is very easy to engage with.

Keiko, the narrator, is an outsider who has learnt to mask her true self (or lack of self) in order to fit in with society’s expectations. For almost two decades, since finishing her studies, she has worked part-time in a convenience store, mimicking the cadences and behaviour of other workers, fulfilling every stricture of the employees’ handbook and living according to a strict routine, heating food from the store for her evening meal.

I couldn’t stop hearing the store telling me the way it wanted to be, what it needed. It was all flowing into me. It wasn’t me speaking. It was the store. I was just channelling its revelations from on high.”

Author Sayaka Murata was apparently inspired to write the novel by her own experience of working in a convenience store for many years. (I was surprised, in Keiko’s case, that she is described as working “part-time”, as she seems to be at work five days a week for many hours – but presumably average Japanese working hours are different to those here in the UK.)

Keiko perhaps has undiagnosed autism, although this is not made explicit. Despite been very socially awkward and having no real interest in other people, she has accumulated a few friends and acquaintances who she sees intermittently as part of a large group, and who begin to question her decision to work in the store without progressing for so long, and to show an uncomfortable interest in her permanent single status.

However, ultimately the story ends satisfactorily for Keiko, with an ending that celebrates, in a very non-polemical way, difference, being true to yourself and marching to the beat of your own drum.

Review no 80: Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun (Sudan)

Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

AFRICA

This collection of short fiction by Rania Mamoun is engagingly written in simple, direct prose. Published in Arabic in 2009, it has recently been published in English translation by Comma Press (2019). Representing the first major collection to be published in English translation by a female writer from Sudan, the book is very short, at just 69 pages, so a perfect choice for the 20 books of summer challenge that I’m participating in. I polished it off in a day.

The stories comprise a mixture of musings on universal themes, such as thwarted romantic relationships, mixed with heart-breaking social realism and a glimpse of insight into life in Sudan. Nevertheless, the book studiedly refuses to discuss directly the conflict that many associate with the country.

The story In the Muck of the Soul is particularly strong, a moving portrait of desperation and health poverty, with an overt filmic influence, which successfully skirts mawkishness. Stray Steps, featuring a pack of altruistic dogs, introduces a bit of magical realism to the mix, while the collection also features some very good flash fiction, with the pithy A Week of Love and the powerful One-Room Sorrows. The book has been the worthy recipient of an English PEN Award.

Review no 79: Kiss of the Spider Woman – book by Manuel Puig (Argentina)

Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Colchie

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

I grew up in the pampa in a bad dream, or rather a bad western” – Manuel Puig, quoted by S. J. Levine (2001)

Puig’s (1932-90) writing is famously experimental, with a pre-occupation with gender roles and sexuality (he was himself gay), and a strong cinematic influence – he even trained as a cinematographer, and Kiss of the Spider Woman is clearly influenced by Hollywood B movies. The book, published in 1976, is set against the background of political instability and repression that characterised Argentina in the 1970s. Puig was subject to political harassment and death threats, and although he wrote the novel in exile, he was well-versed in the experience of political imprisonment and torture, having spent time interviewing people who had experienced exactly that.

For most of its length, the novel is constructed as a dialogue between two prisoners, Molina (who has been imprisoned on charges related to his homosexuality) and Valentin (a political revolutionary). Changes of speaker are represented by dashes (similar, in fact, to the Samantha Schweblin novel I read for the blog), and the narrative is multi-layered and studiedly dissonant, without a single, unifying voice. Amid the dialogue, come chunks of interior monologue, divulged in a stream of consciousness. There are copious, academic-seeming footnotes, often evaluating homosexuality from the perspective of famous intellectuals such as Freud and Marcuse, and extending over many pages. Finally, the latter part of the book takes the form of an undercover police report.

Although Molina and Valentin are initially quite antagonistic, there is an overt homoerotic element to their interactions, and an increasing attraction and connection. Their conversations are punctuated by a series of stories within a story, as Molina relates the plots of various movies for his cell mate’s entertainment. Thus, there is a powerful intertextual relationship between literature and film. The prison environment is described in the barest of terms, while the films are relayed in microscopic detail, with Molina revelling in his fantastical accounts of the female stars’ beautiful outfits and hair styles. Kiss of the Spider Woman was itself later adapted for both film and stage, and I’m determined to seek out the movie.

From the opening lines of the novel we are, disorientatingly, thrown right into one of Molina’s stories:

“-Something a little strange, that’s what you notice, that she’s not a woman like all the others. She looks fairly young, twenty-five, maybe a little more, petite face, a little catlike, small turned-up nose. The shape of her face, it’s … more roundish than oval, broad forehead, pronounced cheeks too but then they come down to a point, like with cats.”

Impressively and perhaps inspiringly, Puig was confident in several languages and he worked in tandem with his translators in producing the English, French, Italian and Portuguese versions of his books. The book’s unusual form works to weave together a critique of patriarchal societies while it entertains, and perhaps to suggest that gay people might play a revolutionary role in changing society for the better.