What I’ve been reading ‘The Vegetarian’ – Han Kang

As a sun lounger read during my holiday in Mexico, The Vegetarian doesn’t instantly spring to mind, as most ‘holiday reading’ recommendations I’ve come across online and in magazines tend to sway towards writing about lighter themes than are found contained within the pages of Kang’s novel.

It was the promise of something subversive that intrigued. What can I say, I studied subversion in gothic literature and fin de siecle works during my undergraduate degree, so am always drawn back to this area of interest expressed through contemporary works.

The novel itself recounts and unremarkable housewife’s declining mental health following her turning vegetarian after experiencing reoccurring gruesome nightmares. Her behaviours gradually become more shocking and socially unacceptable, effecting all members of her somewhat traditional family.

The journey from conformity to subversion is a page-turner that could easily be devoured in an afternoon and reminded me of such work as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. However alongside the shocks and darkness, there is along heartbreak of losing a loved one, that makes it so much more than merely sensationalist.

Overall, The Vegetarian is an extremely readable and gripping novel, which isn’t for the squeamish.


Speed Mating with Girl Gang Manchester

Texture, Manchester, 16 August 2017

As someone who has lived in Birmingham, London and Manchester, I know that living in a big city has the potential to be a lonely experience. So when I found out a group of women were putting on a ‘Tinder for Friends’ event, I not only thought that it was a great initiative to enable people to make connections, but decided to go along and give it a go myself. 

The event itself was put on my Girl Gang Manchester, the Manchester arm of a collective of female artists, creatives and thinkers, who have previously organised events such as slumber parties and an immersive screening of Bridesmaids.

Even though I’d describe myself as quite chatty and open person, as I approached the trendy Northern Quarter venue that ‘Speed Mating’ was taking place in, I couldn’t help feeling a bit nervous, and it seems that I wasn’t the only one as I chatted to several similarly nervous attendees in the queue on the way in.

However, as the night went on it turned out I had no reason to feel nervous. Initial conversations were sparked with a use of a friendship bingo sheet, where you had to find someone who matched a feature listed – for instance, I was the person who loves pineapple on pizza, which definitely leads to debate!

We then circulated round the room, meeting a new person every 5 minutes, prompted by questions and tasks like ‘what’s the book you would take a a desert island?’, and ‘tell your partner 5 things you like about yourself’. There was also miming films and drawing portraits of the person opposite you. It couldn’t be more different from some of the dull ‘networking’ events that I’ve attended in the past!

There was such an infectious vibe of openness and positivity that it was infectious, and the team had certainly made the effort to make the event as inclusive as possible. I met some fantastic, interesting people, and got way out of my comfort zone – I’ll definitely be on the look out for more of Girl Gang Manchester’s events in the future!

Beyond the body: Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus

Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus
Tate Liverpool, exhibition runs until 3 September

(Image Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, Saatchi Gallery, used under Fair Use)

What is it about Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' that captures our imagination? Is it the fact the mundane objects recognisable from our own lives have made their way into a gallery? The depressive phase it encapsulates? Or is it the uproar it caused among the artistic community in the late 1990s?

For me, one of the most compelling things about the piece is the absence of the artist figure. We are only left with the curated remains of three days, which gives the piece a transient feel, a glance into a time and situation that is no more.

I also feel that 'My Bed' provides a powerful juxtaposition to 'traditional' or 'classical' art which is overflowing with nude forms, particularly female. In Emin's work, the viewer is denied the ability to gaze on the woman's form that has long since moved on and left us with remains. There is a palpable sense of the woman missing from the scene.

It is the removal of the body that makes this work so suited to the pieces by William Blake that surround it, as unusual as the pairing of Emin and Blake may seem on the surface.

Although, the body is present in Blake's work, it is often obscured, contorted or vanishing into it's surroundings in a state that appears particularly transient when he depicts spiritual bodies.

(Image William Blake, Nebuchadnezzar, 1795-c1805, from Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND)

For example, in the work 'Nebuchadnezzar' Blake poses his figure in a somewhat animalistic way, with veins in the leg mirroring the tree in the background , and elongated beard and nails melting into the surrounding scenery.

Likewise, in 'Soul Hovering Over a Body Reluctantly Reluctantly Parting with Life' (1805), both the soul and the body are drawn so faintly they almost disappear into the blank paper behind with an airy barely- there quality. While, in his copper plate prints of Dante's Inferno, Blake contorts and merges together the various sufferers in hell, making it hard to make out where one ends and one begins.

At the far end of the gallery Blake's work is further complimented by a selection of Emin's gauche paintings that abstract female nude bodies so that at first glance they are barely recognisable. As if to further obscure her subject, in 'All for You' in this series, the face of the subject is bloated out with frenzied stokes in thick black ink. I can't help wondering if 'All for You' is an ironic title, as the painting denies the viewer a whole view or 'all' of the subject.

What further emphasises the sense of abstraction, obscuring and absence of the body in the works is a soundtrack of opinions on 'My Bed' from Liverpool residents that visitors can listen to as they make their way round the gallery. It seems rather apt that our guides to this work are disembodied voices, who have experiences the work before us.

Had a chance to visit this exhibition? I'd love to hear your opinions of it!

Party Skills for the End of the World 

7 July 2017, an abandoned building in Salford, part of Manchester International Festival.  

Wearing a party hat and handmade tissue paper flower, I’m rushed down corridors amoung a stream of people being told to ‘move faster’, and ‘go now’. All around the sounds of planes and bombs blare out, while red flashing lights guide us down abandoned passageways. It’s not a real emergency, but it might be an apocalypse: it’s Party Skills for the End of the World. 

Surreal starts

Having received the tickets for free from my work and going along on somewhat of a wim, it’s safe to say I had no idea what to expect.

Upon arrival, I was ushered across an empty car park and into an abandoned building, down more empty corridors and finally into a room full of fellow participants trying out their martini making skills. We then had to evacuate into another part of the building for a disaster themed sing-along and orange stitching session to prepare us for having to stitch wounds together. ‘Word of advice…don’t get injured..’ a cast member advised my partner after seeing my stitching attempt – I was truly awful at this part (as you would expect from someone who flunked textiles classes at school). 

Suddenly, music started up as a homemade bar sprung up, and from that moment we were free to roam and learn.

Picking up the party skills

Unless you were the world’s fastest  learner there’s no way that you could have visited all the learning spaces available to explore. So instead of trying to catalogue everything from knife throwing to gas mask making on offer, here’s a run down of what I tried:

  • Magic tricks – not the most practical of end of the world skills, but a good laugh. I have to admit I have insuccessfully tried the trick learnt on a couple of friends now I’ve returned to civilisation…
  • Knot tying – If you have an ex-Boy Scout partner like myself, steer clear! I got shown up in style, but at least I know what a wreath knot is now…
  • Pepper spray making – presented in such a fun, bubbly tone. Baby oil is what it’s all about to make the good stuff apparently. 
  • Vegetable animal making – look at this little guy! I’d be able to build on army of bird companions in the apocalypse!

  • Flower making – the calmest, most relaxing apocalypse experience. Despite the screams and helicopter noises, we were all very chill and chatty in the flower zone. 

Into the belly of the beast

The screams, helicopter noises and bomb sounds all ramped up as tension become palpable – then, the evacuation began. We were ushered down flights of stairs and through corridors, all the time told to go faster by stewards and disorientated by coloured strobe lights. Occaisionally a figure appeared in the darkness of rooms we were passing in a gas mask or waving, as we fast walked/jogged towards a seemingly distant rumble.

As we hurried along more corridors, it became apparent that we were moving towards drums before emerging into what looked like an abandoned office met by a band playing and people starting to dance. ‘I can’t believe it’, whispered my partner, ‘this is my old uni library’. 

What followed next was in keeping with the surreal tone of the night, that skipped between serious and silly. A singular figure emerged on stage to list off every possible regret one could have about their life in a doom-ridden poem before PowerPoint slides exclaimed ‘How to Dance’ and the whole room erupted into silly routines. As weird as it sounds, the juxtaposition of contemplating your own worst fears and then bursting into the most-cringeworthy dance moves you’ve ever performed in your life was actually very life affirming! Like dancing off the list that precided it.

Afterwards we were ushered into another room with a DJ, board games, tea and coffee that was decorated with fairy lights, strewn about lamps and paper party emphemera. Now it was time to put those party skills into practice a let our hair down! I’m not sure exactly how much time I spent dancing, playing bowling or relaxing with a drink, but if it weren’t for the thinning crowd I would have happily stayed there for even longer.

On our way out we were given a goody bag and spent the whole of the walk home dissecting the crazy and fun-filled experience we had just had. And I’ve been annoying my friends by not shutting up about this event ever since. 

Arcade Fire

Thursday 6 July, Castlefield Bowl (part of Manchester International Festival) 

It’s 10.30pm on a Thursday night, normally you’d find me catching up on my to-do list or sweating it out at the at the gym, but on this Thursday, I was belting out the words to Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ as it’s covered in a hypnotic, ethereal way by Arcade Fire. And all the time I was thinking – in live music terms, for me, it doesn’t get much better than this!

In case you haven’t heard of Arcade Fire, they’re a Canadian indie-rock band consisting of artists who can turn their hand to multiple instruments including the hurdy-gurdy, omnichord and gadulka. They’re currently touring in advance of the release of their album Everything Now. 

Castlefield Bowl, a concrete amphitheatre was a rather intimate venue for a sweeping and expansive performance, both in terms of the staging which consisted on ambient projections, huge clouds of smoke and colourful lighting, and the music that was in true Arcade Fire fashion was full of soaring choruses, synthesised beats and vocals that fluctuated between catchy and atmospheric.

I’m usually very skeptical about bands saying how much they love the current city they’re performing in. After all you’re hardly going to say you’re not fond of a place in front of a crowd of locals. However Win Butler’s between-song assertions that Manchester was an inspiring city did seem to give off a palpable love for this place, that only increased the positive energy bouncing round Castlefield’s concrete arena. 

I quickly found myself swept along with the music and the dancing of the rest of the crowd in what was  joyous gig, featuring songs like ‘Sprawl II’, ‘Everything Now’ and ‘Rebellion’ that are favourites of mine and that I’ve been enjoying listening to for the following week after the gig. 

In my opinion, the sign of a good live musical performance is when you can’t wait to hear the artists’ music again and I’ve certainly been eager to revisit their albums at every opportunity over the last few days, especially because it’s given me a chance to reminisce over what was an enjoyable gig featuring impressive, skillful and completely entertaining performances. 

What I’ve Been Reading: The Path by Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

the path

As a 25 year old millennial, I’m at the prime point in my life to experience the dreaded Quarter Life crisis. Although, I’ve not found myself in the midst of one yet, I have found myself increasingly pulled towards self-help books and even have even looked on enviously as my peers post pictures of themselves on ‘profound’ trips to find themselves. 

Personally, the idea running away from everything to find some authentic version of the self – although it might work for others – has never sat completely well with me as an idea. I adore travel, but this approach doesn’t seem for me. Likewise, the advice in many self-help books to pin down who you are and want you want has never stuck for me. So when The Path was recommended to me as a book which offers a different perspective on development and life, I was immediately interested. 

The Path, written by Professor of Chinese History at Harvard Professor Michael Puett and writer Christine Gross-Loh, presents the teaching of several Chinese philosophers from the Axial Period (3rd-8th Century), in an attempt to relate

The Fetishisation of Eastern Philosophies 

When I first picked up The Path and read the blurb I was initially rather hesitant to delve into it’s pages. References to itself as ‘a profound guide to living well’ drawing on ‘the timeless wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophers’ on the back cover made me dread that I might be about to indulge in a text that fetishises Eastern philosophy or displays Orientalist tendencies.

However, I was relived to find that this book is not guilty of any of the above. In fact Puett and Gross-Loh, address misrepresentations of philosophies that have become prominent in Western society. They argue that there exists an assumption that ancient China was a tradition-based society that was inherently more in tune with nature and peaceful. As someone, who admittedly hasn’t studied or read much Chinese philosophy  it was refreshing to read a text that took such a pragmatic and tone and approach to the focal material.

Starting small

Big questions can be absolutely paralysing to approach. The thought of sitting a contemplating what you want to do with your life, what the point of existence is and who you truly are, might fill people who are philosophy majors with unease.

Luckily, Puett and Gross-Loh choose to focus on the small actions of everyday life rather than the tackling the big questions, from Confucian rituals of the mundane to Zhuangzi’s preposition that training is the way to spontaneity, whether it be through learning how to cook, play piano or approach your career. I found this a very accessible way to approach an unfamiliar philosophy, as everyday examples made it very easy to relate to my own life and having a go at applying some of the principles didn’t seem too intimidating.

An antidote to “finding yourself”

Unpack your bags, people! For the philosophers Puett and Gross-Loh discuss there is no ‘you’ to find, as everything is always changing.

In fact, creating a unified idea of who ‘you’ are and attempting to build up this one view, is described as been limiting to chance and transformation. For instance, if you’re a painter and that’s how you define yourself, you might be reluctant to try other artistic  disciplines that could lead to growth. The Path covers ideas for growth and transformation in much more detail, providing ideas from various sources on how to cultivate passions and skills, along with the dangers of devising unnecessary assumptions and divisions.

For me, many of the techniques and approaches outlined my these ancient philosophers, seem a lot more grounded than trying to get your life to fit some grand narrative or chasing an allusive truth. Great for someone like myself, who isn’t seeking a radical life overhaul.

The takeaway 

While The Path is a very interesting text and is accessible for those that don’t know much about Chinese philosophy, it certainly isn’t holiday reading, especially when Puett and Gross-Loh discuss concepts such as ‘qi’- something that I hadn’t heard about until picking up this book, and found it tricky to wrap my head around some of the nuances about.

Additionally, I would have very much liked more translated passages from the discussed texts in the booked. As it would have been interesting to see how elements were framed and presented by the philosophers, before Puett and Gross-Loh discuss them.

Overall, The Path is fascinating and contains useful perspectives for living life that I will certainly take-away from it. I am glad that it has a recommended reading section at the back, as it has sparked an interest in philosophy from ancient China and I look forward to indulging further.