NZ Writer’s Week: Miranda July: Lost Child!

This, this right here, this is why we have literary festivals: so we can meet people like
Miranda July.

pp_miranda_julyI’m not sure how to describe her session. Based on the blurb in the Writers Week programme, I had mistakenly thought it was a screening of a film called Lost Child! followed by a q&a. It wasn’t at all: instead it was a talk, a multi-media presentation, a performance, an audience participation, a collaborative artwork.

Lost Child! is a book July wrote when she was a child, and she says it set up a theme running through her work, of leaving home, going into darkness, and surviving discomfort. “Origins are always the most interesting part”, she said, and told us about her life and her art, sharing recordings of past performances. She was warm and funny, wise and direct. I fell in love with her immediately – we all did. The atmosphere in the Opera House was convivial and intimate.

July told us about the plays she had written, and how she started her performing life in punk clubs, eventually moving to more mainstream theatre spaces when she started using film in her performances and was concerned for the safety of her projector. She set up a project called Joanie and Jackie – “I thought of myself as an organisation” – collecting films made by women, eventually moving into making films herself.

She was careful not to make it sound like it was easy, and throughout her session kept telling us which day jobs she had at which point. She found the interruptions of paid work annoying and jarring: “I lost my train of thought every time I had to go to work”.
cv_me_and_you_and_everyone_we_knowEventually she quit her jobs to make art full-time, thinking that if she stayed “in perpetual motion” she could try and live without working. One of the results was the feature film Me and You and Everyone We Know, which I watched this afternoon as prep for this session, and which she starred in and directed, as well as wrote. As her session progressed, my understanding of her film deepened. For example, I learned more about her artistic investigation of “the very real, sacred world of child sexuality”, and about the film’s title: “the audience for my first movie is everyone in the world. My second movie is for me and five women I know.”

As well as being a filmmaker (and author, hence her inclusion in Writers Week), July is also a fine artist. She told us about the art she created for the Venice Biennale: “Making art is less laborious [than performing onstage] because you don’t need to be there. I wanted to figure out how to make something that would automatically be shared. People like to pose with things, and the photos people take [of themselves with the art] are the pieces.”

She has also created an app called Somebody, whereby strangers deliver messages between friends. “I wanted to instigate performance without ever calling it that. Because there’s a smartphone involved, it looks like you’re doing something normal. I want to make audience participation feel necessary rather than arty.”

July seems to always return to performing: “the reason to keep performing is to be with people in the present moment”. We performed a sort of little play with her in the Opera House. At one point she told us to hold a stranger’s arm, and then she set out various scenarios for how the relationship between us could develop. It could have been weird and awkward; instead July created, for that brief time, a strangely genuine bond.

July spoke a lot about creating her own space as a woman and as an artist. After she moved to LA, she said that all the other directors she knew were men: “My way of doing things no longer seemed that magical … I continue to forget and to remember that I am free.”

Then we got to the Q&A section, which July said was her favourite part. There was the inevitable awkward pause when the house lights went up and people started shuffling towards the mics. July, though, thrives on awkward pauses: “This is my favourite moment, where there’s just total ambiguity and yet here we are … I feel like I’m swimming.”

The Opera House was packed with fans and the questions were of a generally high calibre (thank god no ‘where do you get your ideas’ or pleas for advice). She chatted to us further on various topics: “In marriage, the ups and downs of your mental state aren’t as fascinating as they were during courtship, you need to parcel out that burden.” And on making art: “You don’t need to have done well, you just need to have tried … you have to deposit terrible ideas into the bank in order to build the brain.” On performance: “Willingness to be vulnerable is a superpower. I can survive that.”

I came away from my Miranda July experience with the overwhelming sensation that art is possible and that I can make it. I’m thrilled to see what else Writers Week can throw at me. Bring it on!

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

cv_the_first_bad_manMiranda July: Lost Child!
Opera House, Wednesday 9 March
Part of the NZ Festival Writer’s Week 

Latest Book: The First Bad Man
Published by Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN  9781782115076

 

 

Book Review: The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan

cv_the_singing_bonesAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

These are Grimm’s fairy tales as they ought to be portrayed. The mix of the Grimm Tales and Shaun Tan’s genius was always going to be fruitful, and as a bit of a fan of both these tales and Tan, there was no chance I wasn’t going to love this book.

Every time my husband sees this book lying around he groans and says, “That would have been a brilliant Christmas book for you. Why did you have to go and get a review copy?” So I could tell the world, of course!

The Grimm Brothers’ biography is a fairy tale in itself: the eldest brothers in a family of six, despite their father’s early death, they were lucky enough to have wealthy relations send them to an elite school in Kassel, where they studied law and philology. They believed in the power of folktales to tell the essential truths of life in central and northern Europe. Fittingly, Shaun Tan’s sculptures were inspired both by the tales themselves, and by Inuit stone carvings and pre-Columbian clay figurines – used in a similar way in their own culture. This is a very concentrated way of expressing the tales.

Each sculpture is shown beside short excerpts – between one and three paragraphs – that tell the essence of the fairy tale that has inspired the creation. Those who are familiar with Tan’s illustration will see similarities in his approach to characterisation, particularly of the impish characters. The sculptures give such a unique view of the stories, they force you to reconsider the stories’ meaning.

I received the 2011 Taschen edition of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm for my birthday last year. This edition used the fairy tales to display the development of illustration in children’s books, from the very earliest to more modern interpretations. This is a valuable background book, if only to show the variety of ways this work has been interpreted. Tan’s translation is just as beautiful, if less ornate than those shown in the Taschen collection.
Chimney_cinderella
There are several sculptures that stopped me in my tracks, the first being Tan’s depiction of ‘Cinderella’ – a golden face staring out from the hearth of a clay oven, with a blackened chimney-top. (pictured left, ©Shaun Tan ‘In the evening, when she was exhausted from working, they took away her bed, and she had to lie next to the hearth in the ashes.’ Another was ‘The Two Travellers’, one with a simple line on his forehead, another with the same line lower in his face, as a smile. And ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ is a gloriously devilish imp.

There are fuller summaries of the fairy tales at the back for those who aren’t familiar with some, and I found that useful at that stage, but don’t be tempted to go there earlier. The excerpts are generally well-enough chosen to make the meaning of the art clear. If the publication is missing one thing, it is a ribbon, to keep your place.

Give this to your fairy tale (or Shaun Tan) lover this summer: be they young or old, they are certain to respond to these retellings of the classic Grimm’s fairy tales.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Singing Bones
by Shaun Tan, foreword by Philip Pullman
Published by Allen & Unwin Children’s
ISBN 9781760111038

Book Review: A New Zealand Nature Journal, by Sandra Morris

cv_a_nature_journal

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

A nature journal is a way to record your observations of the natural world around you. In this informative guide, Sandra gives many suggestions of artistic and creative ways to start noting down what you see. While the book has some cool facts on plants, animals and New Zealand terrain, its aim is to inspire young nature lovers to go out and explore the world around them. The activities Sandra has demonstrated will help the reader develop their own ideas and interests.

I would recommend this book for 8−10 year old nature fans who enjoy art and being outdoors. A younger child could read and enjoy the book too as it is not too complex and there is an informative glossary at the back.

As an eleven-, soon to be twelve-year-old, I found this book quite basic. I did like however that Sandra covered a range of environments, including cities and zoos, making it relevant to anyone. Although I do not plan to start a nature journal after reading this, the artwork is wonderful. Personally, I have been inspired by the level of detail in her colouring and have started to look more closely at the birds around me.

Overall it is a lovely book and an excellent one for your young nature-lovers bookshelf.

Review by Maia Gasson

A New Zealand Nature Journal
by Sandra Morris
Published by Walker Books AU
ISBN 9781921977657