Where we are welcoming more works of fiction than in our summer reading list, and many other works that are good companions for those who dream of the world as a fairer place

Curators Bool Club #6

This November list of books was compiled from the books curators mentioned in Curtain, either because they were reading them at the time of their interviews or because they marked them in some significant ways. We progressively slide from works of non-fiction to works of fiction, and I have included links to authors’ talks and conversations, in order for us to explore further the various subjects presented, or to serve as introduction into their worlds.

For a good foundation, we might as well start with the work of Hannah Arendt. For Andrea Torreblanca, a grounding book in her life is “The Human Condition” by Arendt. Published in 1958, this classic political and social theory book was reedited in 2018. Its contents are still very relevant today and often considered as Arendt’s most influential work. This year, The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, broadcasted an eighteen-part series on The Human Condition (available here), delving into her research and thought, and accompanied by many discussions and select readings. And for a look at Arendt’s life, for those who haven’t seen it yet, there is also the multiple-award-wining feature film “Hannah Arendt” by foremost German film director Margarethe von Trotta.

A society based on cooperation and the sharing of wealth. At the time of the interview, María Inés Plaza mentioned carrying with her, “Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons”, by feminist American-Italian scholar and activist Silvia Federici. In this work, Federici challenges the legacy of capitalistic history and exploitation, and the necessity for a feminist reconstruction of the commons. Federici is one of the most important thinkers of Marxist and feminist theories today. You can also watch the talk she gave at the Havens Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, in February 2018, on “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons” to better understand her views. Among other concepts, she defines and speaks about the commons as a possible alternative to capitalistic relations in society.

Pandemic and art institutions. River Lin, who has been researching the dynamics of the pandemic extensively, especially in institutional contexts (you can see some of his findings here), was reading the accompanying reader to the 53rd edition of the steirischer herbst festival in Austria “There Is No Society? Individuals and Community in Pandemic Times” edited by Ekaterina Degot and David Riff. The title of this collection of essays comes from a quote by Margaret Thatcher, and questions neoliberalism, its control of the public space, and how the pandemic brought to the surface its dysfunctional grip. 

Object-oriented philosophy and Zen. What if we stop referring to nature as something exterior to us, even, or especially when we aim to protect it. Everything is interconnected, is a concept that seems simple at first yet takes practice to absorb. It is one of the ideas that emerged from Seiha Kurosawa’s reference to Timothy Morton’s “Ecology without Nature”, a book, and an encounter with the author, that the curator said was very relevant to him. Morton is known as an object-oriented philosopher (OOP, see an outline in its relation to science here) and wrote numerous books on the subject and its crossings with ecological theories, imagination, and even science-fiction. If you are intrigued and not yet familiar with Morton’s work, they have a blog here, a conversation here with Verso Books (who BTW, are running a special 40% promotion on all their books until the end of the month) on the occasion of his 2019 book “Humankind Solidarity with Non-Human People”, and here they are in conversation with Olafur Eliasson. Also, Kurosawa mentioned revisiting Daisetsu Suzuki‘s works on zen in today’s context—as opposed to that of the ‘60s. While he warned me about being discreet and avoiding clichés while pursuing this research, I still believe some of you might be curious and benefit from this reference. 

Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu share an interest in the work of Hong Zicheng, a professor of contemporary Chinese literature in the Chinese Department at Peking University, who writes about the literary scene in China. Notably, a comprehensive history of Chinese literature from 1949 to 1999 titled, “A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature”. The volume is a reference for scholars and students of Chinese literature alike. The curator-duo also brought up the work of Qian Liqun another professor of Chinese literature at Peking University, who among other things worked on the writings of Lu Xun (1881-1936), often described as the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century. To know more about their interests in these authors, see their Curtain interview here.

I was impressed by the very poetic books recommendations made by artist and curator Camille Pradon in her Curtain interview here. It included a collection of poems, “Sol Absolu” by Hungarian-born French poet Loránd Gáspár; “Stones Of The Abbey” by architect Fernand Pouillon, an historical fiction about the construction of the twelfth-century Thoronet abbey, in France; and the evocative “Homo Spectator” by Algeria-born French philosopher, art historian, and image theorist, Marie Jose Mondzain, where she departs from Palaeolithic art and the first art gestures made by human hands and bodies. Here is a five-minute speech Mondzain gave at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry Berlin (ICI Berlin), in 2014, for the event “Image Operations”. But if you are a French speaker, there are many more of her addresses online.

Dystopian future. In a near American future, the government established limitations on the speech of women and girls, such is the premise of “Vox”, the first full-length novel by linguistics researcher, author, and self-proclaimed flash fiction and Stephen King addict, Christina Dalcher. This book was highlighted by curator Madeleine Filippi in her Curtain interview, as the book that still haunts her. Dalcher gave an entertaining talk in 2018, when the novel came out—with endearing deliveries such as “I started writing because it was a fantastic way of staying in my house and not talk to people”—and you can see it here, on Penguin Random House’s YouTube channel. 

For Vincent Ruijters, the book that keeps haunting him is Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. Ruijters draws from this classic novel for the way he approaches his artistic and curatorial practices, see more here. Indeed, one of Kundera’s most known work is a fragmented story of love and infidelity abundant with philosophical and psychological musings that will either absorbs or deter you.

City flânerie. The book that is still haunting curator Charlie Levine is Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin. In this part biographical, part historical research, Elkin conjures city meandering with creative endeavours, taking the readers to walks through New York, Paris, Venice, Tokyo, and London, and insights into the lives of great women creatives, writers, and artists, who walked those streets before her. Elkin is originally from New York, but she lived 20 years in Paris before moving to London. You can listen to a candid conversation she had in “P&P Live! Women Write the City: A Conversation with Lauren Elkin and Leslie Kern”, on the YouTube channel of the Politics & Prose Bookshop, with feminist author Leslie Kern. In this light-hearted conversation they both interview each other about writing, mixing personal narratives with research, the urban space and the female body, the right to be left alone and walk for fun in a city, and so much more. 

Enchanted. Artist and curator Laura Spivak’s book-highlight was “The Baron in the Trees“, a 1957 novel by Italo Calvino, that even inspired her for a series of paintings. You can learn more about her process here. This fairytale-like story is about an eighteenth century nobleman who climbs a tree one day, after a quarrel with his parents, and decides to never come down. In his new forest canopy life, he has all sorts of adventures and games, with plenty of interactions and even romance. Notably, it’s the second time Italo Calvino is mentioned by a curator on Curtain, not only as reading material but as a source of inspiration (the other mention was by Hitomi Hasewaga, who took Calvino’s tale “Invisible Cities” as a departing point for an exhibition, more here). If you are looking for an inspiring fairytale, look no further.

Art critic and writer.

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