Spiders and Mosquitos

A Bit About Louis Bourgeois' Life:

    Just about to close at the Northumbrian University Gallery is a small Louise Bourgeois print exhibition. Bourgeois (1911-2010) worked with drawing, print, textiles, sculpture, and text. Probably best know for addressing topics of motherhood and the body, along with her giant metal spiders, Bourgeois expressed the intimacies of her mind through various media and phases over the many decades of her life. She began making prints in 1938, in New York at a printmaking studio and with a small intaglio press in her home as she raised her three children. In 1949, she focused her practice on sculpture until 1951, when her father passed away.  Falling into a severe depression, in the next decade of her life she barely made art or left the house. In 1964, she finally exhibited new sculptures exploring psychoanalysis, fleshy, spirals and organic shapes for which her later work is known.  From 1973-1977, she was a printmaking teacher at the School of Visual Arts. She continued printing until her death in 2010.

         Louis Bourgeois,  Mosquito,  1999, Drypoint on Paper

 

     Louis Bourgeois, Mosquito, 1999, Drypoint on Paper

THE UGLY AND THE FIERCE:

    In 1999, Bourgeois was the first woman to make a new commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London. This work, her most famous sculpture, was Maman: a 35-ft tall bronze spider. Bourgeois said it is her “most successful subject” and that the emblem of the spider is,

An ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.

    In the Northumbrian University Gallery, there were no spiders, but there was one animal representation: Mosquito (1999, drypoint on paper). This warm red print is a simple line drawing that addresses complex ideas in a minimal manner. Morphing female human and mosquito body parts with what may be a fetus element in the insect’s abdomen, Mosquito is an evocative metaphor for motherhood and femininity.

   What was it about insectival structures that reminded Bourgeois so much of the female life and mind? It is certainly not a typical approach to express the depths of one’s mind with such historically negative symbols. What makes the metaphors of Maman and Mosquito so incredible is that they are not, in fact, negative. She is neither condemning motherhood nor herself. She is expressing a complex life full of positive and negative experiences in a direct, personal manner. These forms, that were so unique for the time and made so much sense to her, do make sense to the viewer if perhaps only after a culturally learned hesitation. Bourgeois’ delicacy conveys the raw beauty of harsh realities (of a woman’s body and life, but also of all humans). The subject is left exposed and vulnerable, yet never weak. Finding strength in flaws and open communication, Bourgeois' works helps to transition the common use of animal metaphors in contemporary art.

Bourgeois' Comfort with Anthropomorphism: 

    In the essay Why Look at Animals?, John Berger discusses a brief history of western European and North American tradition, and break in tradition, of linking humankind to nature: in particular the relationship to animals and the cultural use of animal metaphors and symbolic thought.

Until the 19th century, however, anthropomorphism was integral to the relation between man and animal and was an expression of their proximity. Anthropomorphism was the residue of the continuous use of animal metaphor. In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy. - Berger, pg. 21.

   Bourgeois aptly redefined anthropomorphic creatures, that are typically symbols of fear and evil, to suit her own artistic needs. In Maman and Mosquito (along with many other works), Bourgeois tenderly uses the pitiful and dangerous to represent uncomfortable subjects about the body, mental health, and womanhood. I greatly admire Louis Bourgeois' work and strength, much of her content resonates deeply with me. Bourgeois pushed the boundaries of self-expression and exposure and succeeded in creating individual works that relate to a far larger audience and, I suspect, will continue to do so for years to come.

Karla Black's Plastic Pastels at the IMMA

Karla Black's IMMA Installation. 2015

   From the first of May until the 26th of July, the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin) is exhibiting the work of Karla Black. Black (b. 1972 Alexandria, Scotland) was educated, lives in and works in Glasgow. She attended the Glasgow School of Art for her BA, MPhil and MFA degrees. In 2011, Black represented Scotland at the 54th Venice Biennale and was nominated for the Turner Prize. Her work has been exhibited in Germany, USA, the Netherlands, UK, and Switzerland. Considered one of Glasgow's vibrant contemporary artists, Black practices a type of autonomous sculpture. She has developed a personal vocabulary inspired by ideas of psychoanalysis and feminism's impact on visual art. Drawing from various art historical backgrounds, Black describes her forms as, "physical explorations into thinking, feeling, communicating and relating." 

    Filling the South East Wing of the museum, Black's connected pieces links four galleries and a corridor into one in situ installation. For her first solo show in Ireland, Black- inspired by the IMMA's architecture- installed a row of vertical supports to run along the corridor as the focal point of her exhibition. Prospects, 2015, has 20 plaster casts of approximately 3' tall, thin tree trunks that are bound loosely and partially veiled with a transparent cellophane sheet that twists and swells into various knots. The casts have been set into a plank of raised soil that crumbles and feels overly delicate for the public walking path. The earth, trees, and plastic are daubed with makeup and spray painted with pastels of yellow, pink, green, and blue. The stereotypical female cotton candy palate is just balanced by the deep, dry brown of the soil that one may conceivably overlook as it blends into the gallery floor. The extended installation track is centered in the corridor as viewers are lead to look down one end and then take the circling loop to more closely investigate the Seussian meets Candy Land landscape. 

    Running parallel to the corridor on the righthand side is a strip of four square galleries connected by open door frames. In three of these rooms hangs a single and ethereal sculpture tailored to fit the space (each an individual, titled work). These floating sculptures are constructed of draping and pinned soft polythene sheets suspended by thread. Each room has a dominant color: pink, blue, and blue again. But within each eye-level bulge little scrunched plastics of other colors represent Black's entire pastel palette. The final gallery contains three constructed and suspended clouds made from cotton wool, sugar paper, ribbon, body and oil paint. These forms are significantly less delicate than the plastic rooms, and yet less suggestively aggressive. The plastics contain a smothering capacity and restrained life-like motion that has been sophistically masked with dirty baby pink and blue paint powder. While Black's emphasis on tactile aesthetics harkens back to the 1970's feminist's artists application of non-traditional materials used to order to challenge multiple aspects of the art-world hierarchies, Black's works do not read as pointedly political. In fact, at the first impression is a sense of creative play and flexible hands aiming to suggest a type of foreign communication. Her work has been described as a type of escapism, and her installation of magical trees, earth and clouds  do indeed have a sense of other worldly or dreamlike construction. Despite this partial creation the viewers of Black's exhibit followed the predictable path of the gallery's architecture- passing through, pausing here and there, then ultimately floating away often without the significant consideration Black's installation is worthy of enticing.

-SRLS

 

A Little Show and Tell at the Tyneside

    Last Wednesday I went for my first time to the 'Show and Tell' event at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne. Running since early fall 2014, these free monthly events allow local students and recent graduates a chance to show their moving image work. Any form of moving image is acceptable and in the past people have shown fine art, animation, film, interactive media, documentary and commercial work. Last week there were six presentations that took the form of art video, artist/scientist digital video collaboration, narrative short, and documentary. Before showing the work, the artist(s) was introduced and given the opportunity to comment. Most preferred to wait until after screening, but a few people took the time to set the scene or tell the audience it was still a work in progress. After each screening the artists had a chance to get feedback and discuss their work with their peers and the 'host' who had screened all the works and prepared conversation topics for a generally quiet audience. The event ran for two hours with a short leg stretch in the middle. This is an interesting program that has the potential to expand experimental works, bring exposure to new artists, and help the artists improve their craft. At the current moment, the audience is still a bit quiet and the presented works are defended with the term 'incomplete' too much to really bring strength to the event, but given time this may develop. 

    Below is a quick summary of the April 29th presentations and links to the available works. A few of the concepts and videos were very promising and worth a browse. Enjoy!


1. Nico Amalfitano and Ilaria Spiga "NO!3E"

Amalfitano (animation) and Spiga (concept) created NO!S3 as an experimental animation based on Datamoshing and Glitching techniques. The sounds combined city noises with wave patterns of sound being played underwater to record the startled reactions of fish to loud noises. The moving animation included waves, video game references, and city forms to help stand as a metaphor for human's react to loud noise distractions- particularly those found in urban societies. This video was a gesture to Spiga's scientific research but the two hope to create a new video matching actual sound waves to the reaction patterns in the future.

Video in above link

2. Hossein Nayernia "Lullaby"

The Newcastle University graduate's short film "Lullaby" (2012) is based on short story by an unknown author that Nayernia originally saw on Facebok (funny, I know). The short is a direct humorous and moving narrative about an elderly couple's sleep and morning routines and the battle of marital snoring. The video has a high production feel to it, using professional actors and a clean, stripped back film style with minimal dialogue. The overall storyline is melodramatic but Nayernia tells it in a captivating manner well worth the 8 or so minutes. I enjoyed this video quite a bit: the snoring made my ears twitch, the actors made me laugh, and the plot made me a little emotional.

Video in link

3. Mani Kambo

Northumbrian graduate, Kambo presented a video work in progress revolving around ideas of life and death, fire and water. This non-narrative, flashing, sketch-like work would ideally be realized in a multi-screen installation. The soundtrack dropped in-and-out as images of particles, flames, grey figurative blurs, animated circles filling with water or fire, and unidentifiable flashes linked together to create a fast paced short video.

No video available

4. Michael Lee Toas "Club Resistance at the People's Bookshop"

Cumbria film and television production graduate, Lee Toas, presented the longest work of the night running around 13 minutes long. The documentary on the Durham independent bookshop introduced the audience to the People's Bookshop through shaking pathways and a traditional documentary-style format. The story is informative and interesting but the video lacks a driving message and the polish it appears to strive for. Despite some awkward cuts and a lack of wider scope, this short documentary is a solid introduction to a local business that the artist clearly feels passionate about. 

Video on Youtube

5. Callum Costello "Big jump"

Costello is a 2012 Northumbrian graduate who recently completed an arts residency at the Tyneside Cinema. "Big Jump" is a micro-short narrative video (3 min 40 sec with credits) about a granddaughter reenacting a photograph of her grandmother on the day of her funeral. This video is seeping with the classic dry and dark British humor while the dialogue is an exercise in reduction. Polished off with special effects and an excellent young actress, "Big Jump" is an enjoyable quirky and poignant short.

Video here.

6. Luke Robson "Gregg"

Luke Robson is a Newcastle Uni BA art student who is presented the work in progress "Gregg." The NCL Uni film club is currently producing the film and the writer Calum Wheeler is directing. The voiced-over story tells a tale like Kafka's "Metamorphosis" in reverse.  A beetle turned into man discusses his hardships at adapting to the drastic and permanent life change. A bit sad, a bit funny, and a bit cliche- this work is not there yet, but is on its way to an entertaining watch.

____ ____ ____ ____ ____

If you would like to present your work, please get in touch with artsprogramme@tynesidecinema.co.uk.

If you'd like to be part of the audience, reserve your free ticket now at the Tyneside Cinema Box Office in person or by calling us on 0845 217 9909. T: @TynesideArt

The Sounds of "SeaWomen" by Mikhail Karikis

Preface: As my last couple entries have been centered around Katie Wright and my WILD OBAN kickstarter proposal (which ends very soon on April 30th - still a few hours to donate!) I have decided to transition away from my own practice back into the review of another. SeaWomen by Mikhail Karikis is an inspirational art film that addresses sea life, international exploration, and insight into a fading way of human life - all on a contemporary art platform. Many of the fundamental elements I adore in SeaWomen are aspects Katie and I hope to explore in WILD OBAN. Below is my review of Karikis' video installation from the Listening: Hayward Touring Curatorial Open curated by Sam Belinfante at Baltic39 from September 2014- January 2015. 

  Photo courtesy of Colin Davison at   www.rosellastudios.com

Photo courtesy of Colin Davison at www.rosellastudios.com

MIKHAIL KARIKIS

    Mikhail Karikis is a Greek/British interdisciplinary artist currently based in London. He studied architecture at the Bartlett (UCL) and completed an MA/PhD at the Slade School London. Noteworthy exhibitions include: Danish Pavilion 54th Venice Biennale, MANIFESTA 9 (Belgium), the Barbican, 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale (Greece), Tate Britain, Coreana Museum (Seoul), Arnolfini, and Galeria Eduardo Fernandes (Sao Paulo).  Since 2007, Karikis' work has incorporated musical recordings and performances including compilations with Army Me, Björk, and DJ Spooky. Both his artistic and musical work revolves around the investigation of the voice as a sculptural material with which he may explore ideas of community, human rights, and identity. 

THE HAENYEO

    The haenyeo, literally translating to 'sea-women', are a fast disappearing community of female-only sea workers. On the North Pacific island of Jeju, these free diving women have been operating for centuries outside of traditional gender-roles and professional and industrial modernizations. The diminishing community consists now of mainly 60-90 year old women who dive without oxygen up to 20 meters, for 2 minutes, and up to 80 times per day to catch sea-food, collect seaweed, and find pearls. The use of an ancient breathing technique called sumbisori (breath-sound) allows the great depths achieved and produces a unique aural whistle that contributes to the singular identity of this community. The high-pitched breathy whistle or shriek is released at each resurfacing in order to help adjust to the frequent pressure changes. The technique entails rapid exhalation of held carbon dioxide followed by quick inhalation of fresh oxygen. It is this sound that first attracted Karikis to the haenyeo community.

                          "(I) Asked why they don’t take advantage of the modern development of scuba gear and breathing apparatus they reply, ‘well then we wouldn’t be sea women’". - MK

    Traditionally, the practice was passed on from one generation to the next starting at the age of eight when new girls began diving. A combination of intertwined physiological, economic and cultural reasons exist for the gender-purposed nature of this profession including the fat distribution in women’s bodies and historical attitudes towards nudity being shameful and reserved for those of low social status. In the 1970s the haenyeo community was the leading economic force on Jeju island and the women often served as the primary financial providers for the family. This unusual matriarchal system within an otherwise patriarchal Korean society helped alter ideas of female value and pride (if only locally). At the haenyeo's peak 40 years ago, the community that worked commuted, worked, bathed, ate, sang, and prospered together numbered north of thirty thousand women. Near extinction, the work still provides a sense of pride, economic sufficiency, and life purpose for these strong and agile, aging women.

THE AURAL ALLURE OF SEAWOMEN 

The Baltic 39's video installation SeaWomen, 2012, by Mikhail Karikis was comprised of a multi-speaker sound installation, a 30-minute looping video, and 10 floor pillows on a large straw mat in the blacked out gallery space. Mikhail Karikis' simple but immersive installation focused on emphasizing the aural qualities of the work by presenting a video with only limited Korean words and without subtitles or voice-overs. Karikis feels that to understand and interact with people, one does not need to understand every bit of linguistic information. The only sounds in the video are those of the ocean, the boats, and the women working and communicating with one another. Images of the diving - viewed dominantly from the water's surface - are broken with prolonged scenes of the elderly haenyeo eating communally, cleaning and weighing their catch, washing, singing, and commuting on boats and scooters. The entire day and work process is represented throughout the film, though not always in a chronological fashion.

The stripped back video style allows for sounds to be clear and attention grabbing and for each scene change to be a deliberate addition to the narrative. In the haenyeo's story, each various vocal sounds connects to a certain activity in their day. The whistling marks the dive, the work-song is used in transport, a distinctive shower splash marks the end of the day, and chatter vibrates in the communal dining hall after work. Central to Karikis' research has been vocal sounds that are beyond or without language. Without a frame of reference the sounds of shrieks, gibberish, yelps... are meaningless but in context these specific sounds can help mark the identity of a community. Karikis arranges the different sounds elegantly and with very little self indulgence with the exception of some overlaid singing and wave audios on longer transitions. Despite conflicting with the seemingly unaltered representations of the rest of the work, the audio track additions do aid in creating sensations of time moving on without change.

In the Listening: Hayward Touring Curatorial Open exhibition the importance of the whistling sound and its role in identifying the community is well understood. But were it not for the themed curation, the viewer could easily overlook the significant aural qualities of SeaWomen in exchange for the fascinating subcultural issues of age, gender, and the communal eco-feminist dimension of the sea-working. This by no means weakens the work, but allows for the viewer to direct their attention to whichever elements they find most appealing. The inclusion of the floor mats mirrors the manner in which the haenyeo eat and discuss business matters. This informal viewing presentation lends itself to an intimate relation with the video as viewers relaxed, leaned back, and tended to stay far longer with Karikis' work than is often seen with video installations.

SeaWomen by Mikhail Karikis at first appears as a straight forward documentary but this is far from correct. The artist used the space to welcome the audience and link their bodies to the customs of the haenyeo. He cycled nonlinear scenes to emphasize the role of time in the sea, the women's work, and the women's lives. He paralleled this cycling to the natural filling and emptying of life sustaining breath and centered a video around a sound that marks the transitions between the two. This moment of transition is vital to appreciating the history behind the non-lingual sounds of the sumbisori. SeaWomen enticingly explores an individual sound that stands for a community with a long history of strength, pride, and love of the sea.

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https://vimeo.com/42216544 will lead you to a Vimeo promotion clip of SeaWomen. More information may be found on the artist's website: http://mikhailkarikis-seawomen.blogspot.co.uk/

 

THE REPURPOSING OF A GREEK STATUE

The physical and digital combine in a video installation that addresses the boundaries of time, myths, and the methodology of how those ideas are communicated by artist Hazel Brill.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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   Hazel Brill,  In Bardo: Act Two 2014  Image courtesy Colin Davison. 

Hazel Brill, In Bardo: Act Two 2014 Image courtesy Colin Davison. 

           It is rare that a gallery associated with a major art institution holds open submissions, and rarer still that one artist selected is capable of genuinely impressing and surprising the local audience. BALTIC 39 I FIGURE TWO was the second open submission exhibition at the Baltic 39 gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. The program, consisting of 10 projects by different artists for the duration of five days each over the course of five weeks, attempted to provide a space for artists to show experimental works in any media in a public context. During Week 2 of the Figure Two series (13-17August, 2014) the young artist Hazel Brill exhibited In Bardo: Act Two and, in retrospect, was the highlight of the series.

            Hazel Brill recently graduated in 2014 with her BA in fine arts from Newcastle University. In her degree show, Brill presented In Bardo (also called In Bardo: Act One), a 9-minute video installation projecting her film onto multiple shaped canvases, the floor, and a freshly painted university plaster Greek statue. The asymmetrical composition took turns lighting up with impressively arranged projections of three dimensional renderings and animations loosely illustrating a narrative presented by an eerie and slightly comical monotone voiceover. The content of the work addressed the retelling of myths, seemingly tangential facts, and instructions initially inspired by online tutorials and interactive videos such as Second Life and spiritual communication platforms. In Bardo: Act Two was a continuation and expansion of Brill’s degree work.

            Brill’s latest installation at the Baltic 39 was composed, this time, of an expanding symmetrical composition centered in the large gallery space. The gallery was completely dark aside from the 11-minute video played on loop. The narrative installation was projected onto two folded screens, another university borrowed statue and three smaller sculptural fragments. The video, made using computer-generated animation and projection mapping programs, washed overs the objects and occasionally framed a border that stretched across the gallery space. The virtual realm and the physical existed simultaneously in the constructed stage. The video, like her degree work, was a montage of images from online sources and animations that were smattered and blurred with information on the protagonist. The plaster statue transitioned from being the protagonist of the story, to a set piece the video played over: back and forth from object to wall depending on the needs of the script. Brill believes the plaster cast to be of the Greek god Hermes: the messenger god, the god of transitions and boundaries. If true, the statue is a fitting metaphor for Brill’s continued interest in liminal time and realities of the physical and the online realm. Bardo is a Tibetan word expressing the intermediary space between death and rebirth. The title of the two-part series In Bardo, speaks of these transitioning worlds.

              The monologue that echoed through the gallery was composed of roughly three main scenes interspersed with repetitions and bits of information on Hermes’ story. The information Brill used in her videos were all found online from sites with varying degrees of reliability. The ‘facts’ are from blogs, online tutorials, Wikipedia, outdated websites, enthusiasts and other public platforms that lack authenticity.  While the information remained skeptical, the voiceover was presented in a confident, authoritative tone that the audience would normally be expected to trust. The scenes contained versions of an instructional video on how to be a clairvoyant, cooking instructions of meat that was related back to the human body, and on sensory deprivation as a recommendation for finding clarity in mind and spirit.

              The whole work itself was an overload of stimuli from the sound effects, to the voiceover, to the set pieces, and to various animations including those of waves flooding the set, rotating meat pieces with fans, collaged images of the body, religious iconography, text, gravestones spinning in darkness, and a vase and cloth that slipped around in space shifting from marble to fabric. The monologue helped explain the images as they unveiled themselves over the various pieces of the set, yet at times the voice simply added to the sensory confusion. One of the most hypnotizing animations involved the viewer entering a cemetery gate and ‘walking’ through the cemetery on a nonexistent wheel as it rolled forward and then later revealed its form from the side, only to start rotating again. The first-person video game element transformed the viewers from voyeurs to participants.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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   Hazel Brill,  In Bardo: Act Two 2014             Image courtesy Colin Davison at   rosellastudios.com

Hazel Brill, In Bardo: Act Two 2014          Image courtesy Colin Davison at rosellastudios.com

             The stimulus overload all cumulated in a captivating visual display that could impress any viewer without need for deeper meaning. But it is those deeper issues that took In Bardo: Act Two from an exploratory process to a professional standing work worthy of contemplation. Brill expertly merged multiple inspirations and themes into a singular, coherent piece. The more accessible themes dealt with trust of online sources, technologies and realities in the physical versus the digital world, spirituality and clarity in cyberspace, appropriation of past stories into relevant metaphorical teaching tools, and the how the ideas of liminal time and space play into those topics listed above. Boiling all these ideas down to a singular theme is challenging and possibly overly simplifying Brill’s work, but the transitions of the in-betweens is a possible contender. The Hermes sculpture in a contemporary artwork represents it. The title word Bardo represents it. The text seeking to connect the physical world and cyberspace addresses it.

             Brill does not always provide a clear preference in these comparisons. It seems she is posing and exploring the topics herself and encouraging the viewer to find their own opinions with her. This refrain from clarity is essential to the success of Brill’s work. In Bardo: Act Two contains so many themes and collages so many ideas, that allowing room for the viewer to recognize and then process the metaphors themselves becomes the greatest success of the work.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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   Hazel Brill,  In Bardo: Act Two 2014    Image courtesy Colin Davison. 

Hazel Brill, In Bardo: Act Two 2014 Image courtesy Colin Davison. 

            If any critiques were to be made of Brill’s In Bardo: Act Two it would have been in the presentation of the set elements. The smaller, sculptural fragments drifted away from Hermes loosening the relationship between the objects as the symmetrical composition removed valuable tension and form found in the first In Bardo. As the small pieces became peripheral objects, they were rendered unnecessary which, in a work where all parts needed to contribute, is a small disappointment. The purpose and placement of the fragments aside, In Bardo: Act Two has few weaknesses for an exploratory work that brings so much new and refreshing to the projection installation art form. Projection videos are increasingly popular in contemporary art and can be found in art festivals and public artworks worldwide. Brill took this trending technique and brought it to a rare level of sophistication with her developed metaphors. The perplexing and at times absurd work was presented at a professional standing rarely found in small, contemporary galleries.

              Brill’s works are so much more than a segmented narrative with stunning projected animations on repurposed screens and borrowed sculptures. They are inspirational stories capable of deep analysis where the content of the work is of equal importance to the artistic technique resulting in a balanced and satisfying installation. Brill has all the promises of a contemporary storyteller. She uses tales as they were originally designed- not only to entertain- but to communicate metaphors that examine contemporary society or everyday life and morals. Hazel Brill bridges the gap of time by repurposing the myths of old into a new context relevant to today’s electronic society. In Bardo: Act Two is well worth the 11-minute viewing time and I fully expect to see more from Brill in the near future. For the time being, you can catch up on the In Bardo series at hazelbrill.com. 

 

SRLS              October 10, 2014

 

 

Mixing Realities: 'A Tale for the Time Being' by Ruth Ozeki

 

“And if you decide not to read anymore, hey, no problem, because you're not the one I was waiting for anyway. But if you decide to read on, then guess what? You're my kind of time being and together we'll make magic!”
- Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
 

Published in over thirty countries, A Tale for the Time Being (2013) tells the story of Ruth, a Japanese-American writer living on a small island on the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada shortly after the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Ruth is a New Yorker who moved to the rural island for her husband and environmental artist, Oliver. While struggling to write her novel she comes across a freezer bag containing a diary washed up on the beach shore. This diary, written in purple ink, belonged to the troubled schoolgirl Nao living in Tokyo. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary, she becomes increasing obsessed with 16-year-old’s fate.

 

Nao begins her diary and the book by defining what a “time being” can be- and that she, and we the readers, are all “time beings.” This introductory statement begins the tone of the book: blunt, humorous, rough, and philosophical. Nao spent most of her life in Sunnyvale, California before her father lost his job in the dot-com bubble burst causing the family to return to Tokyo in financial crisis. Nao is miserable, lonely, bullied, and in desperate need of help but her parents are struggling to keep it together as her father repeatedly attempts suicide. The first summer after moving to Tokyo, Nao is sent to live with her 104-year-old great-grandmother and Zen nun for the school holiday where Nao is taught meditation as a “supapawa” for overcoming obstacles and enemies. For Nao, this diary is meant to tell the life story of her great-grandmother so that she may have accomplished something before committing suicide herself.

 

The book is riddled with footnotes of character and French definitions and supplementary information from Ruth analyzing the diary. Ozeki even includes appendices for lengthier information of scientific ideas, religious philosophies, and information tangential to the plot. This use of format is thrilling and well inline with the idea of the free-flow diary and the human thought process. Ozeki explores and touches upon so many themes; it would take hours to describe them all. Some of the more prominent themes include: death and life of individuals and the planet, theory of infinite possibilities, Zen spirituality, magical powers and linked fates, dangers of the internet, bullying, fiction/fact blending, writer/reader relationships, uncompleted intentions, family history and genetics affecting the present, seeking the ‘now’ in time, linking times and distances over the world and history, and the final choice of trying to live or how to die. Moving, deep, thought provoking, humorous, and disturbing: Ozeki pulls simultaneously at various heartstrings while weaving her multiple storyline together. A Tale for the Time Being feels incredibly and universally human.

 

Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest splitting her home time between New York City and British Columbia. Her most recent novel, A Tale for the Time-Being (2013) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has won multiple awards including the LA Times Book Prize for Fiction. Running parallel to the characters in her recent novel, Ozeki is the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Caucasian-American father and is married to a man named Oliver. This highly praised novel deserves all of its recognition and I cannot recommend it enough. The themes take time to develop, but rarely does a novel make me stop and ponder life from so many perspectives. Ozeki’s website and blog is a great place to get little snippets of information on her writing, biography, and research that fuels her writing practice.

Good reading!

http://www.ruthozeki.com/