Stay In Between

Leafy Yeh on how photography can be used to understand identity, culture and place 

American Home

Photography has many purposes. For Leafy Yeh, they make use of the camera as a means of exploring their identity. Born in China and currently based in LA, Leafy studied Media at The State University of New York and pursued roles as a designer and freelance photographer while working on their own art practice (not to mention the fact that they’ve recently joined Activision as a game capture artist). At the very beginning, Leafy centred their image-making on the more conceptual. Further down the line, however, and as they started to “grow”, Leafy began to steer more towards documentary, transfixed by its ability to “slow down and observe life more closely”. 

Applying this to practice, Leafy’s ongoing series Stay In Between encompasses their ethos as a photographer – and ultimately the reasons why they take pictures. It’s a long-term project that explores their traditional Chinese and Chinese American identity, having spent a decade in the US and constantly feeling adrift between these two cultures. Toeing the line between familiarity and disconnect, Leafy responds to feelings of unsettlement by taking pictures, using their lens to produce almost surrealist photography that channels their interests in heritage, place and the environment. Below, I chat to the photographer to find out more about the series. 

Chinese Takeout

What inspired you to start working on this project, what stories are you hoping to share?

This project comes from my experience as an immigrant. I live and work in the United States but China will always be my home. When I first came to America for college, I allowed myself to be very westernised so I could blend in. I started to loose a big part of myself and this has brought me a lot of pain. As I grow, I am embracing a unique space – where I am in between traditional Chinese culture and Chinese-American culture. My photos reflect the complexity of this journey through abstract forms in natural and urban settings. 

Having not been back to China for three years due to Covid-19, I’ve spent a lot of time at San Gabriel Valley and Chinatown to feel the familiarity again. Documenting these places evokes a lot of memories of my childhood, from ordinary objects to the architecture and language; they are reminiscent of China in the 80s. Based on my memories, I photograph this liminal space to imply concepts of continuity, isolation, transition and the overlapping of two cultures. This project is a way for me to navigate through them in search of a reconciliation of my inner juxtaposition: a home and a trip into normality. 

Courtyard

Can you share a few key moments from the series and explain their significance?

My favourite combinations are the bright red tree in the forest and the centre planter inside an office building in Chinatown, occupied by Chinese businesses. They’re the opposite of each other. One is so alive and outside, while one is trying to breath through the open air from inside. I love the connection and contrast between the two. 

Another two photos I really like are the long exposure of an airplane flying through electrical lines and the fan on fire. They share a sense of surreal-ness in reality. I photographed the fan when it was just lit so the original form is still showing. As the fan is burning away, the fire is opening up a gap. It’s reminiscent of the light beam slicing through the electrical lines and the sky over time. Both of the photos have a feeling of division – the power to break through space. 

Fan on Fire

How important is the environment and sustainability to your practice, is it something that you consider while making imagery? 

I try to keep a minimal impact on the environment when I am going into the nature. If I create something, I make sure it’s not harmful and very easy to remove. As I photograph more landscapes, the smaller I feel and the clearer I see the space inside. Environment and sustainability are more metaphorical elements in my practice – about finding balance in internal and external worlds. 

I think a good balance is finding a flow that overlaps the two worlds; I keep these themes in mind when I work on projects. But this could be a roadblock if I am overthinking. For a while, I didn’t know how to move forward, and I learned to let go and photograph with instinct. The action of photographing brings me inspiration later on when I see the connection to other photos in the series. I think if you are overthinking about the meanings, the photos lack flow. Overtime, as I go deeper into the project, some meanings change or I encounter other perspectives to talk about it differently. This is what I am still learning from this project. 

Cultural Publicity

What message do you hope to evoke from the work?

Most of my projects focus on looking inwards and finding a sense of home from within. The narrative of this project is a process of accepting and finding beauty where I am. I hope this project can speak to others that are like me – feeling in between things. When you can find a place inside, you can reflect that onto the outer world. There will be people telling you that you can only be one thing, but that’s very limiting. I hope you can find that space for you. 

What’s in the pipeline for you?

I am working on a story about a Shanghai hair salon located in a strip mall in San Gabriel. Strip malls are quite unique to American urban planning in my opinion, so it’s interesting to see how the Chinese community adapts the look of the architecture and turn that into a mixed style. I want to use this hair salon as a centre to document the people and surroundings as they look like they are stuck in time from when they immigrated. 

Lunch Break

Overtime

Self-Portrait

Water Pond

The dual nature of Rachel Holmes

In a commission for Atmos, Wade Schaul photographs the eclecticism and courage of the firefighter-cum-Flamenco dancer

Photograph of Rachel dance atop of an overlook near her home in New Haven, CT. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

The video footage of drivers slowly and cautiously edging through the burning hillsides of California will forever remain in my memory. Appearing like something from the apocalypse – or what I imagine it might look like – the scorching, hellish landscapes were transformed by way of the August Complex in 2020, the single largest wildfire in California history. 

This wasn’t even the beginning or end of it, with wildfires continuing to tear through our planet’s forests and environments. Just a few days ago, Arizona was marked as the next victim with fires engulfing more than 24,000 acres; Athens recently evacuated local residents due to threatening flames; south and east Asia have reported numerous outbreaks; while California endures another blaze, the Dixie Fire, its second largest to date. Wildfires are not only becoming more frequent, they’re also increasingly angrier and more widespread. In the past few weeks, for example, more than 100 people have been killed with thousands left homeless. Urgency is needed. A UN report blames human activity for the rise in wildfires, stating the warming climate as a key protagonist in it all. So what can be done, and how can we – the culprits – make our amends?

Traditional flamenco shoes of Rachel’s. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

In a recent story for Atmos, photographer Wade Schaul was invited by site editor Daphne Chouliaraki Milner to document the work of Rachel Holmes, a firefighter-cum-Flamenco dancer who’s spent 10 years working with the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew. Originally from New Jersey, Rachel is on frontline amongst the woodlands, combatting the vicious flames in the area. Wade, who’s based in New York, travelled to Connecticut to lens the day-to-day life of Rachel and to illustrate her personality – alongside her goals and ethos. The project fit with Wade’s own artistic mission as a photographer entirely: “As a photographer, I’m always trying to make something that’s visually interesting and authentic in relation to the subject,” he tells me. “The interaction between the subject and myself also plays a large role in shaping the photos.” 

Portrait of Rachel at fire station. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

When photographing someone, Wade thoroughly enjoys learning about the subject’s life, stories, opinions and ideas, “I think this shapes the work tremendously”. So when it came to photographing Rachel specifically, not only did he want an accurate representation of her character, he also wanted to capture the critical subject matter at hand – a “well-rounded look at who Rachel Holmes is and finding a way to document the dynamic levels within her work and of Rachel as a person,” he notes. Proceeding to meet with Rachel and her publicist, Ann, the team worked together to align their own visions and to produce the “most impactful” images in a day. With six week’s planning time, Wade felt he was able to build an “intentional” plan that would enable the story to thrive. 

Rachel and her dog Banjo. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

Flamenco figurine inside Rachel’s home. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

This becomes evident through Wade’s sensitive imagery, where movements of Rachel’s Flamenco dance interests are paired with the more serious undertones of her firefighting job. It’s not often that you hear of a firefighting-dancer, but as seen through this portrait of Rachel, it works. A photo depicting a flamenco dancer figurine reminds us of this duality, featuring Rachel’s “electric” nature and decor choices in the home. “Once we had Rachel’s living room and dining area lit the way we wanted, I quickly knew this might end up as one of my favourite photos of the day,” Wade says. “Rachel’s home is so unique, which makes so much sense when you learn more about her and her story.” In another, Wade has snapped a candid moment between Rachel and her dog, Banjo. The four-legged companion is caught mid-jump, reaching the ball in Rachel’s hand. Both are smiling. “Throughout the day, one of the things that I was most attuned to was the relationship between the two,” he explains. “The work Rachel does is very serious and often dangerous. I think having that playful, loving connection with Banjo is a bit of reprieve from the serious nature of her work.”

The project is a subtle nod to the old (and a little cheesy) saying, ‘not all heroes wear capes’. Amidst us all, from teachers to writers, artists to builders, there are people out there doing good, risking their lives for the people and the planet. “I think a key takeaway from the story is how cool and inspiring it is to be 100% true to you” concludes Wade. “Rachel gives you her full authentic self at all times. I’m hopeful that there’s a sense of dynamism as a through line between Rachel’s persona and the photos. Rachel has so much energy and passion for everything she’s involved in, so it felt right to try and deliver photos that were intense and warm. Hopefully I did her justice in that regard.”

One of Rachel’s flamenco dresses in her living room. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

Decommissioned fire truck. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

Work truck door graphic at station. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

Rachel sitting in truck amidst conversation with coworkers. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

Rachel’s essential gear. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

Left to right: Steve Gromala, Rich Schenk, Rachel Holmes, Anthony Flamio. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

Sign out front of fire station. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul 

Rachel dancing atop overlook. Commissioned by Atmos @ Wade Schaul  

Limbo Accra

The spatial design studio infuses architecture with art to transform unfinished structures in West Africa

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

“We all need each other” is a phrase that suitably defines both the output and ethos of spatial design studio Limbo Accra. Founded by Dominique Petit-Frère and Emil Grip in 2018, the work of Limbo Accra is cyclical and non-wasteful as it operates amongst unfinished structures in West African cities; it puts the planet and its people first. By doing so, decaying buildings are given new narratives, while public spaces are provided for the local communities. Below, I chat to Dominique and Emil to find out more about their impactful work.

Can you begin by telling me a little about your backgrounds?

Our backgrounds are within urban development and education – so our approach to design and architecture has always been from an intuitive and autodidact perspective. The whole process for us has always been informed by the multicultural essence in our relation to each other, since we are constantly moving between Accra, Copenhagen and New York. We met in Ghana in 2014, but we didn’t form Limbo until 2018. In that sense Limbo is a culmination of all the experiences and ideas we had over those four year. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

When we started Limbo Accra it was out of pure curiosity to transform and investigate the architectural and built conditions of modernising West African cities as we were keen on exploring the intersection between art, architecture and sustainability within this new-age context. The studio’s name is a nod to the many incomplete and since-abandoned buildings in Accra and other West African cities. 2018 was a truly transformative period in Accra and we both felt compelled to take action in that transformation. For us it was very evident that this large scale of uncompleted property developments littered around the city of Accra held a vast amount of opportunities for activations and conversation among the growing creative community and city at large. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

What’s your ethos as a studio, what types of projects do you usually like to work on? 

It’s not like we have a stiff value set at the studio, but more a set of current observations from society in general and the spaces we navigate in, that we choose to act and react to. Our practice exists in this fluid space between juxtapositions, because we never allow ourselves to be stagnant; Limbo is constantly evolving, morphing and growing. Essentially, we are simply here to question and investigate the reality of the world we see, and how we can be more intentional about our role within in it as spatial practitioners. 

We are quite selective about the projects we engage in. At the core of any of our projects is a story. We honestly see Limbo as a way of communicating stories through architecture. The fascinating thing about telling stories using architecture is the opportunity to materialise an idea in a simultaneously expressive and material way. That impact on society is immaculate. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

You operate within unfinished buildings in Ghana and beyond, which is super interesting. Can you tell me more about this? 

So the Limbo sites are interesting for us in an African context because it poses the opportunity to bridge two societal issues within the urban landscape: extensive voided structures and lack of public space. Essentially we are experimenting with the idea of using these sites as soft activations for people to question the neighbourhoods and cities, asking “how are we being intentional in the way we design and create spaces for people?” 

How important is sustainability to your practice, and what does this mean in terms of how you approach a brief and the design process? 

Sustainability is important. We try to think of our approach to a project as regenerative. Our logic from the very beginning has always been to work with what already exists – to maximise the re-usage of what we already have, simply re-adapting what already is into a new meaning. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku 

Can you talk me through a recent project of yours?

We just wrapped up an amazing exhibition titled WET by Ghanaian-American artist Araba Ankuma. As an artist working internationally, Ankuma’s stories focus on the importance of perception and the need to shift it in order to illuminate the invisible narratives that bind us as human beings. Composing narrative through photography and collage, Ankuma acts as a tour guide, transporting viewers from existing perspectives to new perceptual ground. Our studio is always about collaborations and working together. The whole logic is that we all need each other, and that we all need a space. This is what we offer as Limbo. Everyone has something to gain by working together. 

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

WET exhibition in collaboration with artist with Araba Ankuma. Photography by Komla S. Darku

Do you think the design industry is currently doing enough in terms of sustainability and the environment? Are you hopeful about the future? 

I mean, how can we define that? The world is such a big place with so many different spaces each within their own context. It’s obviously a part of the current discourse within the industry, which is positive, but the question of how intentional the movement is remains. The interesting thing about the environment and sustainability within architecture and design is the fact that it’s hard to see how anyone can ignore addressing those issues. People are starting to feel some of the consequences of the world changing, so the simple need for change will only increase. In that sense I’m hopeful. 

What’s next for you, any upcoming plans or projects that you can share?

Right now we are doing a few things with the Brooklyn Museum that will come out this summer. So stay tuned! 

Photography by Anthony Combder Badu

Photography by Anthony Combder Badu

Photography by Anthony Combder Badu

 

A Certain Movement

Soft and meditative, Sam Laughlin captures the ebb and flow of the natural world

Wood Ants (Formica rufa), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

It’s not uncommon to hear of an artist’s key influence as being that of a parent or familial figure. Growing up, Sam Laughlin’s father, a zoologist, would hand over an abundance of field guides for him to look at – Sam would sink into the contents, memorise the illustrations, and identify the different species of insects in the process. His dad would also joyfully spout out many interesting facts about the natural world which, inevitably, had a large impact on Sam – later inspiring him to study documentary photography at university. What’s somewhat surprising, though, is that although nature has been a primary pillar for Sam, it wasn’t until 2014 that he started working creatively in this field. “I found my way back to that childhood fascination through books and walking,” he tells me, “and my work quickly followed suit. Now, I can’t imagine my life without walking and birdwatching.”

Alongside various photography commissions, Sam pays extra attention to his personal work – the side of his practice that enables him to explore his deep-rooted interests in nature. He also cites The Jerwood/Photoworks awards as being hugely catalytic for his photography, which is how he debuted his most recent accomplishment: a project named A Certain Movement. Lensing topics of the environment and how animals interact with the space, the work is a quiet, meditative depiction of the world, albeit a curious contemplation of the cyclical nature of earth and its inhabitants – the type of relationship that’s in a constant rhythm, flow and movement. Currently on show at Serchia Gallery in Bristol, I chat to Sam about the project, what his personal relationship is like with the environment, and why it’s such nature has become such an enduring muse.

Adders basking (Vipera berus), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

How would you describe your own personal relationship with the environment?

My personal relationship with the environment is probably a blend of love, fascination and obsession. Some of the experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have border on the ‘religious’, like listening to a dozen nightingales singing in the dead of night last week, or standing in a vortex of 5,000 terns forced into flight by a peregrine falcon. These are just some of the ‘happenings’ in nature that go beyond words and enter the realm of the profound. The world is – for now and despite us – still full of such happenings and most go unseen. I think essentially I walk around in awe half the time, simply because I always try to be receptive to what’s happening around me day-to-day, particularly in relation to birds. Incredible things happen all the time which it seems most people miss entirely.

Nature is an enduring subject for me because my fascination only deepens the more I discover and experience it. But the word ‘subject’ is slightly problematic for me; I take great pains not to turn nature into a ‘subject’, but rather try to let things speak for themselves through my pictures. 

I continue to focus on it out of love, but also concern, at the rate of disappearance and decline – the ‘thinning out’. 

Deer browse-line (various species), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

And similarly, tell me more about the relationship between animals and the environment. Can you describe the synergy and how they affect and shape each other?

The myriad relationships between animals and their environments can be almost overwhelmingly complex. In simple terms though, as I see it, other animals are ‘at home’ in the world in a way which we humans no longer are. We radically alter the surface of the earth to suit our needs, taking far more than we need. But most animals live in such a delicate balance with their environments that they are inseparable from them–  they live within and are part of their surroundings, usually altering them only in subtle ways that are actually a natural extension of the places themselves. Birds nests are one perfect example of this: materials gathered from the immediate area are made into a structure that supports life there. A manifestation of the bird’s way of living, its behaviour and a material expression of the locale and of the bird’s relationship with it. Then, when you’re talking about migratory birds, the nest is also an expression of those annual cycles of movement, and by extension the tilt of the earth on its axis and the seasonality this causes.

A snail could be seen as an expression of a set of relationships, and so could the song thrush which feeds upon the snail by first breaking its shell on a rock, which it uses as an ‘anvil’. The snail is, in a sense, made of plants, just as the song thrush is made of snails, but that rock is part of the equation too. It’s all inseparable and this is what interests me. So I try to make pictures where interconnections express themselves, often manifested through the movements of animals and the traces these movements leave behind. 

Honeybee swarm (Apis mellifera), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

Can you give some examples from A Certain Movement, are there any favourite pictures that you could tell me more about?

Water Striders (Gerridae) is a favourite picture of mine, chosen for its subtlety and for certain elements of the composition, but mostly for what it symbolises. Water Striders (also known as Pond Skaters) live much of their lives on the water. Their lives are defined by surface tension, which prevents them from sinking. If one looks closely at the picture you can see the ‘meniscus’ around each of their legs. Their movements cause ripples in the water; each one represents a movement and moment in time, with a significance that is briefly visible before it dissipates, rippling out, as I feel all things do. The title of my new exhibition comes from a text written by Adam Nicolson to accompany the project, in which he references this picture and all that it symbolises about the quiet events unfolding through time – Ripples in the Surface of Things.

Then there is a picture which is more ‘obvious’: Tawny Owlet Branching (Strix aluco). I love this picture because it results from one of the purest and most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. After hearing some unusual bird calls emanating from a thicket, I ventured inside and found two fledgling tawny owls (owlets) perching on branches. A phase of their lives known quite poetically as ‘branching’, where after leaving the nest they wait on nearby perches to be fed by the adult. One of the owls was in a good position for a picture, but I had to edge very close to it. I work mainly with large format film and therefore don’t use ‘zoom’ lenses. In those moments as I made the photograph, the owlet was no more than two or three feet away from me, but remained completely still. Time stretched out, and although I didn’t linger so as not to disturb the birds, it felt like an eternity as I stood face to face with it.

Lime Hawk-moths Mating (Mimas tiliae), 2021 ©Sam Laughlin

What’s the purpose of the project, what can the audience learn?

I hope that my audience will feel the same sense of quiet awe that I do. There’s a kind of reverence in the way I approach my work, which stems from the way I feel about the natural world, and I want the viewer to feel that; not a ‘quick fix’ of the spectacular, but a slow-burning sense of wonder. My work has been called melancholy, but I simply don’t see that. That’s the nice thing about art though; people can get different things from it.

I don’t really want to reduce my pictures to ‘illustrations’ with captions that say ‘here is X doing Y and they do this because… ’, but I do want people to understand better the beautiful intricacies of the lives that are lived all around us, that go on regardless (or despite of) our human activities or our awareness. I think if people understand more, and are more aware, then they might cherish these small things as I do, and hopefully try to do a little more to stem the tide of losses.

A Certain Movement is on show at Serchia Gallery until 17 July. All photography courtesy of Sam Laughlin

Linnet (Linaria cannabina), 2018 ©Sam Laughlin

Nuthatch at nest (Sitta europaea), 2020 ©Sam Laughlin

Seabird Colony #2 (four species), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

Tawny Owlet Branching (Strix aluco), 2018 ©Sam Laughlin

Water Striders (Gerridae), 2019 ©Sam Laughlin

Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), 2021 ©Sam Laughlin

Beyond Recipes

Umami Journal explores the culture, history and ancient methods of food

The history of food is rich and fascinating; it betroths a shifting timeline that sees seasons, cultures and discoveries affect the very ingredients that enter the fridge, pot and mouth. In a time before now, the meals that were consumed were much determined by the weather and geography, meaning that palettes were in some cases limited and dependable on supply. But equally, they were in synchronicity with the environment. Now – with advanced technology, globalisation and travel – we have ingredients and cuisines at our finger tips. The immediacy and expectation of what arrives on a plate has overshadowed its roots, diminishing the thought and consideration that comes with its origin and meaning. How often do you spend a moment to observe and appreciate what you eat, and more importantly, learn where it comes from?

Umami Journal takes its readers beyond the recipe as it delves into the culture of food, looking at its history as it celebrates ancient methods of eating – as well as the new. Sustainability is therefore intertwined with Umami’s ethos, where vegetarian or vegan sourced ingredients make up the entirety of its menu. Not to mention its delectable illustrations created by London-based multi-disciplinary artist Diogo Rodrigues which further exemplify its attention to craft. Here, founder and editor in chief Poppy Mist discusses the relationship between food and culture, the importance of sustainable cooking practices, and her favourite dishes published on Umami Journal to date.

Who makes up the team, and what led you to set up Umami Journal?

I’m the founder and editor in chief. Growing up with a mother who was a chef, I have always been passionate about food and cooking. I have a background in anthropology, specialising in migration studies, and have a particular interest in how the movement of people shapes food culture. I launched Umami Journal during the pandemic as an attempt to bring these passions together.

Diogo Rodrigues is the illustrator. Originally from Northern Portugal, Diogo’s background in sculpture is the foundation of his later works, with current expressions focusing on illustration and tattoo art – particularly influenced by Japanese and tribal imagery.

What does Umami Journal stand for, what’s your goal?

Umami Journal is an online platform that takes people beyond recipes, investigating their cultural nuances and history. Every recipe has a story, whether that’s related to the style of cuisine, a particular ingredient, or the dish itself. We also feature other types of articles that celebrate ancient methods of eating whilst simultaneously recognising new, innovative techniques and ideas, and have recently begun curating events as well.

What is sustainable eating, how does this translate through the ingredients and methods you use to cook?

Consuming less animal-based products, and eating more local produce are both vital to tackling climate change. All of our recipes are vegan and/or vegetarian and aim to utilise seasonal produce as much as possible. My aim is to produce delicious vegetarian recipes where people won’t miss the meat.

Can you pick out a couple of favourite recipes and tell me how they’re sustainable, how they’re made and their history?

One of my favourite recipes at the moment is Koshari, Egypt’s national dish. Its origins emblematise the country’s cultural history. It consists of a marriage of Arab, Indian and Mediterranean flavours, a hearty blend of rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni, topped with a rich tomato sauce and finished with crispy fried onions. 

Imam Bayildi, otherwise known as ‘the priest fainted’, is a classic Turkish dish that comprises whole stuffed aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, Urfa chilli flakes and spices. I have such fond memories of my grandmother making it for me when I was a child. Although its exact origins are unknown, it dates back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, and the name ‘İmam bayıldı’ translates as fainting priest, referring to a Turkish legend in which an elderly Imam fainted after eating the dish, apparently due to its abundance of olive oil.

Besides cooking delicious meals following your recipes, how do you hope your audience will respond to this project – do you hope they’ll switch to more sustainable food habits, for example?

I definitely think people should eat less meat, but I’m not one to impose my beliefs on others as I think this is incredibly polarising. No doubt, not all dishes have been historically plant-based, and I’ve had to adapt them. But I think this is part of food evolving! 

Ultimately, I want to get people thinking more about the historical and cultural context of food. It’s constantly evolving and this is really exciting. This is largely influenced by migration which should be celebrated.

What’s next in the pipeline?

We recently collaborated with HOME by Ronan Mckenzie to host an event titled Walls Have Ears. This featured a multi-sensory journey into the ancient art of the tea ceremony presented by tea sommelier and R&D chef, Genevieve Lenette, and musician Cassidy Hansen. Blending ancient tradition with modernity, this improvisatory event utilised a synthesis of abstract sound and traditional movement as a medium, in order to investigate how an age-old ritual manifests within an unconventional setting. I’m hoping to do more events and supper clubs, and write more features on exciting and innovative producers and cooks.

All imagery courtesy of Umami Journal

Just Dance: 7y98D

Ouro, the Vancouver-based dance collective, addresses the climate emergency in its hypnotic dance project with RubberLegz

Global warming on the cusp of becoming irreversible – or perhaps it’s already there. As I’m writing this, I’m gazing out the window at a divided sky; one half is clear blue, the other is expelling snow. Today marks the beginning April, and this icy, interchangeable weather is highly unusual for the dawning days of spring. This is just another noticable effect of climate change.

In response to the impeding doom of the heating planet, many artists and creatives are utilising their practices as a way of steering action. It’s far less about raising awareness, now, for we’ve gone far beyond conversational points or discussion. Now, it’s about actionable response. Ouro Collective is doing just that in its work, a Vancouver-based dance collective merging hiphop, waacking, breaking, popping and contemporary dance in its evocative works. Founded in 2014 by Cristina Bucci, Dean Placzek, Maiko Miyauchi, Mark Siller, and Rina Pellerin, the collective has since evolved from a group of artists “looking to share and learn from each other” into something much bigger, and more impactful. The group have collaborated with artists spanning all mediums over the years and, in its eighth season, this is its most exciting yet with its roster of Ash Cornette, Cristina Bucci, Eric Cheung, Maiko Miyauchi, Rina Pellerin, and Shana Wolfe. All of which hail from diverse cultural and dance backgrounds, wherein they forge a collaboration that demands a need for “dialogue, creative innovation and community building”, the collective explains. 

The result of which has been merged into project named Just Dance: 7y98D, a mesmerising piece composed in collaboration with Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit. The work is inspired by The Climate Clock, a public installation created by an Golan and Andrew Boyd located that counts down the days until unrepairable climate catastrophe – where no longer can we reverse the burns, scars and wounds of humanity’s impact. Below, I chat to the collective about collaborating with RubberLegz, who’s “well known in the street dance community”, learning the hypnotic choreography over Zoom, and how dance can be a vital tool for addressing the climate emergency. 

It’s interesting to hear that you learnt the choreography through Zoom, how did this pan out?

In 2020, we received the Chrystal Dance Prize, an award from Dance Victoria, which supports projects with international collaborators. We began rehearsals through Zoom, in our own homes, as Vancouver was on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic and RubberLegz was in Los Angeles. As rehearsals progressed, the ban on international travel was not yet lifted, and we were forced to continue the project virtually. 

Learning movement online is challenging in a number of ways, but learning RubberLegz’s movement online is a game-changer. His movement vocabulary stems from breaking and threading concepts which results in various limbs folding and threading into one another, and with Zoom, everything is backwards. Though challenging, this opportunity created space and trust between the dancers and choreographer.

This trust also extended into the film’s direction as the storyboarding and filming preparations took place online. Co-director David Ehrenreich said: “It’s the first dance film I’ve made, and I enjoyed the unique collaborative process. I imagine it’s similar to adapting a play into a film; this live performance is being created, and we got to go watch it and design the film around what you see at the rehearsals. Rauf approaches movement and the human body in such an idiosyncratic way—we wanted to champion the exploration they were doing.”

The project raises awareness about climate change, a highly pertinent and relevant topic of today. How do you do this in the choreography and wider project?

The title of this project was inspired by The Climate Clock, a public art installation created by artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd set on Manhattan’s Union Square. The clock counts down the time left to avoid climate disaster. Ouro became aware of The Climate Clock in 2019 when seven years and 98 days remained. Faced with this stark knowledge, OURO was inspired to bring “the most important number in the world” – as described by the creators of the clock – to dance audiences. 

During the filming of 7y98D, we endured extreme weather conditions. On one of our filming days, Vancouver had the worst air quality in the world, and on another, temperatures reached over 40℃. The air was thick from the smoke of neighbouring forest fires. We had to alter quite a bit of movement to adapt to the environment, so in a way, the choreography underwent its own type of natural selection.

The choreography begins with dancers moving in a harmonious link, mirroring the cyclic nature of the earth. As the piece progresses, the dancers begin disconnecting and linking onto themselves. The tone shifts and movement becomes faster and more urgent as they adapt to new environments. We are currently in rehearsals for our full-length theatre piece and are adapting the choreography seen in the film for a live audience.

What reaction do you hope to receive from your audience?

We hope audiences reconnect as a community during this critical window for action to prevent the effects of global warming from becoming irreversible. Making small personal changes in our lives can pave the way for a better relationship with the earth. 

“It’s a challenge to make a film about how little time we have left to save our planet without it feeling depressing or preachy. Dave and I wanted to present this film in a way that allowed the audience to connect to the movement of the dancers on an emotional level first and wait till the end to provide some context.” Co-director, Jeff Hamada explains. “Hopefully it leaves people feeling just as inspired to go out and do something.”

In what ways can dance and art be an agent for change, especially in relation to the warming climate?

Art can be an agent for change, as it inflicts subconscious responses and emotional connections that impose lasting meaning for the viewer. With a topic like climate change, it is easy to feel disconnected and complacent, as its effects are often regarded as gradual and not fully visible. We wanted to find a way to encourage our audiences to recognise our current situation and empower them to make changes while we still have time. Jeff Hamada said, “The rotations that happen throughout the film are meant to be a reminder that the climate clock is always ticking, but also to convey that there is still time.”

What’s next for you?

We are currently adapting 7y98D into a full-length stage piece, which will premiere in summer of 2022 in Vancouver. Following that, we will be touring the work, and running our summer programming and workshops.

Dates for our community and ocean cleanups will be released in the next few months. They will be open to the public and followed by workshops led by our team and collaborators. We encourage everyone to come, learn and contribute to reversing the Climate Clock. 

A Symbol of Love

Strength and resilience rise to the fore through the first major UK exhibition of artist Robert Indiana, currently on show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park 

Robert Indiana, LOVE (Red Blue Green), 1966–1998, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Arriving at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on a cloudless morning in March, it was strange to think that just days ago one of the worst storms in years had wreaked havoc here. The 500-acre park had lost three of its ancient trees; the grounds were left muddy and the branches bare. But, in a moment of respite, there was a refreshing sense of hope and resilience in the air, as well as the welcomed scent of spring exuded through the dozens daffodils sprouting from the earth.

Celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, the park has been at the epicentre of contemporary sculpture for the past four decades. There are currently more than 80 works from major sculptors peppered amongst its grounds including Phyllida Barlow, Ai Weiwei, Joan Miró, Damien Hirst and Barbara Hepworth, with site-specific works from Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and James Turrell. It’s a treasure trove for art lovers, nature enthusiasts and dog walkers alike; there’s something for everyone whether it’s a leisurely stroll, a picnic, a gawk at the 18th-century Bretton Hall estate, or to revel in the work of some of the world’s best-known sculptors. 

Robert Indiana, Exploding Numbers, 1964-66, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

There’s much to explore, not least in the park’s ongoing exhibition programme located in six indoor galleries and the outdoors. For 2022, the YSP opens the doors to the first major UK exhibition of American artist Robert Indiana, spanning 60 years of his magnanimous sculpting career with many works previously unseen. Additionally, there’s a selection of drawings by sculptor and land artist David Nash presented in The Weston Gallery and Bothy Gallery, while Yukihiro Akama’s miniature wooden houses are shown in the YSP Centre. A common denominator throughout it all is a profound feeling of love and strength, addressed through the key topics of the major exhibitions – that being politics and sustainability. This is oozed through the works entirely but most prominently at the entrance of the site, Indiana’s iconic Love (Red Blue Green) (1966-1998), stands proudly as if it were watching over us all, reminding us of one of the most universally felt emotions.

Clare Lilley, who’s recently been appointed the new director of YSP, spoke of the “incredible coincidence” of making this exhibition at this point in time. The moment she saw Love being installed at the park, for instance, she sobbed. The invasion of Ukraine had just been announced and – holding back her tears greatly – she remarks how “love is symbolic for the current world”. Love couldn’t be more symbolic or more pertinent, despite the fact that it was crafted decades ago. 

Robert Indiana, LOVE WALL, 1966-2006, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

The tone was set for the remainder of the day as Clare took us on a guided tour of the park, first beginning with Indiana’s outdoor structures allude to his fascination with the graphic, numerical form. “Numbers fill my life,” he stated, penned in the release. “They fill my life even more than love. We are immersed in numbers from the moment we’re born.” Heading indoors, we gazed at the surprisingly mixed-media works; brass pieces constructed to look like wood, earlier collage forms, or phallic columns addressing the impact of the AIDS crisis to name a few. Tracing six decades through 56 sculptures, we saw the artist’s practice in full swing as he depicted his own version of the American Dream – a darker one at that. Forging a connection between politics, society and art, Indiana’s momentous career has poked hard at the world for its discrimination of LGBTQIA+ communities and racism. It’s a hopeful reminder of love and unity. 

The day continued as we strolled through the luscious grounds, inhaling the fresh air and either avoiding or ingesting the Marmite pieces from Hirst in the nearby distance. David Nash was our next stop – a painterly depiction of our relationship with nature perceived through an evolving study of trees – before heading to witness James Turril’s Deer Shelter Skyspace, a moment of calm as we peaked through the cut out roof of an 18th-century Grade II Listed building (an old deer shelter). Swapping the foot for a sturdy Land-rover, the final steps of the day were observed through the window as the helpful guide navigated us through the on-site sculptures and artworks. A personal favourite being the biodegradable pavilion created by Studio Morison, where timber, thatch and compacted earth has been constructed to allow visitors in for a moment of peace and quiet. Eventually, the piece will fall in on itself and decompose. It’s a stark comment on the fragility of nature, echoed by the fallen trees and bent branches from the storm.

YSP is undeniably a tranquil setting, and the final moments of the day were with concluded with calm, wind-hit faces and an unanimous feeling of contentment. Consumed by nature-rich parklands and the evocative artworks on display, I couldn’t think of a more apt location for discussing themes of love, resilience and our relationship with the planet – a greater reflection of what’s happening in the world right now.

 

Robert Indiana: Sculpture 1958-2018 is on show at YSP’s Underground Gallery and Open Air between 12 March 2022-8 January 2023

Robert Indiana, American Dream # 5 (The Golden Five), 1980, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, AMOR (Red Yellow), 1998-2006, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, Ash, 1985, cast 2017, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, Love Is God, 1964, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, Monarchy, 1969, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

The Very Fire They Sit Beside

In a new exhibition at Huxley-Parlour, Dan Wilton in collaboration with ClientEarth addresses the calamitous impact of the coal industry

Towerfest Country Music Festival, Drax power station, North Yorkshire, 2019 © Dan Wilton The owners of North Yorkshire’s Drax power plant, formerly a coal-only plant, have pivoted towards a variety of future options – including heavily contested biomass (the burning of wood pellets). For this, they have received millions in subsidies from the UK Government.

It’s no secret that the coal industry is impacting the planet in calamitous ways. Mining, burning and usage all have their profound and consequential disadvantages; it’s the most polluting way of producing energy. From toxic chemicals and soot released into the atmosphere, to broken environments, abolished habitats and relocated homes; coal is a cheap and dirty alternative to renewable sources. The human reliance on coal comes at a large cost.

A third of the globe’s population currently uses energy fuelled by coal, despite worldwide access to renewable energy. It’s the largest contributor to the increase in carbon dioxide, so action needs to happen promptly and cautiously to curb the affects of climate change. This is a topic that’s currently being addressed by photographer Dan Wilton in a new exhibition at Huxley-Parlour Gallery, launching this weekend and made in collaboration with ClientEarth. Titled The Very Fire They Sit Beside, the works involved depict Dan’s journey across Europe to document the impact of the coal industry on both the landscape and the communities who live amongst its open wounds and scars. The project started in 2019 and Dan ventured across Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain and the UK. “Coal is still the number one contributor to climate change,” says Dan, “so it’s incredibly important that we move away from it as soon as possible.”

Povrchový lom ČSA Lignite Mine, Czechia, 2019 © Dan Wilton A long tussle over the end of coal in Czechia has resulted in a recent announcement that the country will go beyond coal in 2033. This is later than climate science allows – but better than the original 2038 proposal.

Before now, the Croydon-born and Walthamstow-based photographer had originally trained as an environmental biologist before experiencing his first black and white darkroom at university. Self-taught – he describes this as both a “blessing and a curse” – Dan’s craft has allowed him to tie both worlds as he strives to raise awareness of climate change. As such, he’d met environmental law charity ClientEarth in 2018 during a shoot for Monocle. “I’d been looking for the right charity to work with for a while and they basically just fell into my lap,” he explains. After which they discussed various environmental issues and a few simple facts were laid on the table, enlightening Dan about Germany’s coal usage, for one, which inadvertently caught his attention. “I’ve always thought of Germany as a green leader in Europe. I’ve visited Cologne many times to visit friends and had absolutely no idea that just a half hour drive away are some of the biggest lignite mines in the world, encircled by a ring of power plans that combine to be one of the biggest carbon emitters in Europe.” In fact, still to this day, Germany relies on coal for a third of its energy requirements.

Triggered to do something, Dan set out on his quest to capture the crumbling landscapes. He’d visit villages on the brink of collapse, observing buildings and homes as they gradually fall in on themselves as a result of over mining. “They’ve had their natural water supply cut off because of heavy metals leaching into the supply from nearby coal ash deposits,” he explains. In Germany, for example, the large lignite mines – harbouring brown coal which produces a low heat content – stretch for miles in a sea of mines, “as far as the eye can see”. They’re forcing people from their homes. “I was there to witness demonstrations against the demolition of the village in Manheim, which included the deconsecration of its church.”

‘Yiorgos’, Coal Miner, Akrini, Northern Greece, 2019 © Dan Wilton Yiorgos works in the lignite mine that encircles Akrini. The village’s natural water supply previously had to be cut off after the cancer-causing hexavalent chromium leached from coal ash deposits from nearby coal plants. Those responsible were later imprisoned – but the site is still not managed properly. Yiorgos wants to move on but, like many villagers, he is caught in an impossible position, with the coal industry being a key employer in the region, and the mine affecting house prices.

In the city of Katowice, Poland, the smell of burning coal lingers in the air – “it hits you as soon as you get off the plane,” explains Dan. Awash in high levels of pollution, the children living near the coal plant were exposed to four times the amount of cancer-causing black carbon in relation to France. “But at the same time, the coal companies are often the key employer in the region – so people are reliant on them for their income, and have been for decades. So it’s quite complicated to transition from coal in a fair way that doesn’t simply punish people who have made sacrifices to power our homes and countries for decades – to guarantee them a stable future.”

Throughout Dan’s imagery, the more visible repercussions are paired with the subtle; decaying landscapes are sat next to pleasing yet emotive portraits of the people he’d met along his journey. Some of which were those who worked with ClientEarth to fight their cases, including Marina and her son Zhelyazko in Bulgaria who were being evicted from their home due to building plans for a local mine. “Marina, who’s in her 90s, had already been evicted once in her lifetime because of the coal mine, whilst Zhelyazko is reliant on the mine for his employment.” Meanwhile, other meetings were more impromptu, like the children in Bobov Dol, or Yiorgos, who Dan met while waking through Akrini village in Greece. “Photographing the Ende Gelände protests around the Garzweiler mine was one of the most emotional moments of the whole process for me. To witness thousands of young people protesting breaking through police lines, storming the fine, blocking train lines to shut the plants and force mining to stop, all in the face of a very heavy handed police response was very moving.”

‘Zhelyazko’, Beli Bryag, Bulgaria, 2019 © Dan Wilton. Zhelyazko and his mother Marina are battling to keep their rural home in Beli Bryag, where they have a smallholding, growing vegetables and fruit, including plums for traditional liqueur. Marina has already been evicted for coal once in her life – but with Zhelyazko at the mercy of the mining company, the villagers are in an untenable position and planning legal recourse.

Art has the magnitude to educate and inform – proving a powerful device in relation to the climate. Through this body of work, Dan invites his viewers to learn the impact of the coal industry and, ultimately, to steer action – even if we might have a rocky road ahead of us. “I hope this project helps highlight the work that still needs to be done in Europe to move beyond coal and also to highlight that it’s not just a simple black and white issue. We can’t just close all the coal infrastructure and replace it with renewables in the same area to replace the jobs that will be lost in one fell swoop. It’s not that simple.”

The Very Fire They Sit Beside by Dan Wilton in collaboration with ClientEarth is on view at Huxley-Parlour Gallery from 10 – 12 March 2022

Tourists, RWE’s Hambach Mine, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 2019 © Dan Wilton The Hambach and Garzweiler mines are truly colossal, stretching further than the eye can see. Bulldozers the length of rows of terraced houses seem like specks on the horizon.

Sines Power plant, Portugal, 2019 © Dan Wilton At the time this picture of Sines was taken, the power plant was active and one of the most polluting plants in Europe. But 2021 marked the closure of Sines, nearly 10 years ahead of schedule, followed by the country’s last coal power plant, Pego, in November. Portugal is now coal-free.

The Residents of Anargyroi, Anargyroi, Northern Greece, 2019 © Dan Wilton Anargyroi was half destroyed when the 5km-long Amyntaio mine on the doorstep of the village caused a catastrophic landslide in 2017. Most lost their homes and were unable to return. Remaining houses still contain fragments from the day of the collapse – cracked walls, open cabinets and unused vinyls. Residents have long been campaigning for compensation for what they lost.

Aboño Power Plant, Gijón, Spain, 2019 © Dan Wilton The soil of the land around the Aboño power plant contains levels of mercury 7 to 10 times over the WHO legal limit. Water from the natural springs in the area is undrinkable due to contamination with mercury and other heavy metals. However, people still grow vegetables and crops.

Ende Gelände, Protesters Storm RWE’s Garzweiler Mine, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 2019 © Dan Wilton Each year huge groups of activists periodically invade RWE’s massive mines in North Rhine- Westphalia in an effort to halt coal production and bring pressure to end Germany’s continued reliance on coal energy. Germany touts its green reputation with gusto, but nearly a third of its power still comes from climate-killing coal. While climate science says EU countries must phase out coal by 2030, the date stated in Germany’s coal exit law is 2038.

 

Mario Tsai Studio

The Hangzhou-based research studio on conscious craft, manual processes and why most sustainable design is “pseudo and gimmicky”

Origin Collection by Xu Xiaodong

2019 was an especially prominent year for Mario Tsai, a furniture designer born in Hubei and currently based in the western suburbs of Hangzhou, China. It was the year that he and his design team of four held their first solo exhibition in Milan Design Week, presenting his “masterpiece” Mazha Lighting System that caught the eye of international media and brands. This led to two solo exhibitions the following year called Poetic Light, and in 2021, he set up his brand Mario Tsai. Under guise of this new title, Mario Tsai now sells lighting and installations designed and developed by the design team of Mario Tsai Studio. 

But it’s not just the tight-knit team and eye for structure, composition and materiality that paved the way for such large success in his business. Mario Tsai is a keen advocate for sustainability – and not the green-washing kind that’s only surface deep. “I believe that sustainability should no longer be just a concept or a gimmick in our work life,” he tells me, “I personally want it to be in my works as a guideline and a responsibility that binds me.” For Mario, sustainable design must be timeless, and designers – himself included – have a responsibility in thinking about the life cycle of a product. “But also if it can be easily recycled or repaired at the end of its life cycle,” he continues. “Whether the production process, packaging and exhibition presentation related to the work can be sustainable should be our concern as designers.”

Origin Collection by Mario Tsai

Sustainability therefore guides all that Mario Tsai Studio puts its mind towards, whether it’s a product, installation, strategy or exhibition. To achieve as such, the studio is driven by research, innovative thinking and, of course, eco-design processes, which resultantly forms a poetic depiction of what a  product should ultimately be, do and look like. “Personally,” adds Mario, “I prefer projects that can fully present the ins and outs and clear logic, and can deeply explore the essence. I hope the projects we are pushing can bring new thinking, design methods or social responsibility guidance to the public. Often such projects require a lot of effort, but the income will be relatively small.” On the business side of things, the studio prefers companies that share the same ethos, goals and ideals, “whether they are well-known, big or small”.

When beginning any given project, the team will first begin by using the “brain”.  Second of all, they will decipher the best techniques and technologies needed for the project – those that are more “advanced and difficult”. This means it will modernise the product they’re designing, and equally it will “build up technical and production barriers,” explains Mario. Before diving in with the pieces, though, the team will set up production, a mass production method and cost consideration. “We only use computers and simple models to test the new designs in the studio,” he says. “After many years of development, and also thanks to a strong supply chain in China, our studio was able to find suppliers for the production of any material and technology.”

Mazha Lighting System by Xu Xiaodong

Because of the studio’s detailed and research-guided approach, this means the team are able to test their hands at a plethora of different pieces; the portfolio is diverse as anything. One example can be seen in its Mazha Lighting System, in what Mario deems as the “most representative work” of the studio’s. Designing for eternity, the system has been made to last. “Low voltages can be transmitted electrically through the structure of the lamp, allowing the lamp to be free of wires and to build diverse and endlessly changing systems as a free unit,” explains Mario. The first iteration of the modular lighting system was inspired by traditional Chinese seating apparatus, composed to give a “more diverse expression” and renew its circularity; it’s how the Mazha Lighting System was borne. 

Each generation thereon consists of tube lights, a metal pole or metal connector, plus the wire ends. “Without the slightest intention to hide the structure, each component is extremely delicate and independent,” says Mario. “When a part of the product is faulty and needs to be replaced, only the point of filature news to be replaced, not the whole lighting.”

Mazha Lighting System by Xu Xiaodong

Origin Collection is a comparatively different project yet one that succinctly aligns with the Mario Tsai ethos entirely. A design performance piece, Origin Collection reflects on the idea of using modern technology and tools to make life and work more convenient. But on the other side, according to Mario, “they also gradually hinder our human instincts and sensitivities”. In response,  Mario hired a carpenter from the Hangzhou countryside to structure the furniture through manually processes like log-cutting and fire burning – the antitheses to digital methodologies and one that equated to a refreshing design experiment to inspire people to rethink their footsteps. “All the processes used to complete The Origin are based on instinctive human wisdom. The process of creating tools to carry out the project, using native materials and existing conditions, was also the best way of expressing the idea of locality in contemporary design.”

Clearly, Mario Tsai and the team go beyond the expected when diving into a project, be it a more critical or conceptual piece or one that’s more functional. Shying away from the wishy washy displays of ‘sustainable’ design, Mario Tsai Studio strives to be honest, functional and long-lasting. Speaking of whether the design industry is currently doing enough in terms of combatting climate change, Mario says: “I think it’s far from enough. A lot of sustainable design is pseudo and gimmicky, and many people use the concept of sustainable design with the ultimate goal of business and personal fame. I hope that sustainability can be incorporated as a norm in the way people live and work.”

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Origin Collection by Mario Tsai

Town of C

In the rural lands of the Rocky Mountains, Richard Rothman exposes the unsettling truth of American culture and its reliance on the environment

On the introductory page of Richard Rothman’s Town of C, a book published by Stanley/Barker, a naked couple pose starkly in front of the camera. The image, shot in a tonal shade of monochrome, depicts the pair in an embrace, standing amongst a prison cemetery located in the rural lands of Colorado – the part that’s allocated to the state penitentiary for inmate burials. This is unusual for a prison to be located in the middle of a town, but this one in particular was first a territorial prison (meaning medium security) that housed 25 prisoners, which was then formed into its own prison around 1874. The couple, more so on the woman’s side, instigated the idea to pose nude upon meeting with Richard, and this inadvertently set up what the photographer now goes on to describe as a metaphor “tied up with a bow” – that which hints to the biblical, spiritual and the natural.

“I met the woman in this photograph when she was a child,” says Richard, stating how the couple now live particularly close to the cemetery. “The man in the picture is the father of three of her five children, two of whom feature in another picture, in the doorway of a rehab house. He had a long association with LA gangs before moving out to Colorado. Anyway, she persuaded her partner to pose nude with her for me. As soon as I set up for this picture it began to rain, so I was in a hurry and it hadn’t occurred to me that this was going to be an Adam and Eve picture. Months later, on a visit to the Morgan Library, I came upon a postcard of the Dürer etching depicting The Fall of Man, and the expulsion from the garden. It had been an unconscious connection, because I grew up with that story and that particular image, which I was fascinated by, and I realised, much later, that it was a fitting opening to the narrative of the book that unfolds, that it spoke to the current environmental situation, and that it is an enduring, eloquent myth about the universal experience of loss of innocence.”

In this part of the world, more specifically the Front Range of the Southern Rocky Mountains, the landscape reigns supreme. The summits tower over the valleys, stretching around 300 miles from Colorado to southern Wyoming. Hikers and mountaineers are drawn to its vast populous of treks, climbs and views, where peaks exceed 4,000 metres and wrap around a variety of rivers. In contrast with this almost inimitable backdrop, there are also vast cities and towns resting on the banks and outer edges of the ranges. This includes the small rural town that Richard photographically paints through the pages of Town of C, one that remains unnamed. “I wanted to tell the biggest story I could, starting with a portrait of a small town, reflecting on the national culture at large and moving out to the mystery – the world beyond our planet – that we’ve all come from,” he adds. And it’s through the very town, its people, its architecture, roads and undeveloped lands, that Richard aims to shed light on the relationship between these two beings: the human and the environment.

A shy away from the typical American road trip conceived through the work of photography greats like Robert Frank and Walker Evans, Town of C does things a little differently. Instead, Richard looks at the archetypal town and, more specifically, a settlement that he’s visited regularly over the years, revealing the societal and economic complexities of the place through considered compositions and adequate time spent in each location. “Almost everything about the way we live in America, and so much of the world now, is obviously unsustainable and drastically out of tune with the environment we inherited,” he explains. 

“When I began work on the project, climate change wasn’t as widely understood. Today, you have to be wilfully ignorant not to be aware of it. I think there are people who are there because they appreciate its beauty, and I think there are many more for whom life is so challenging they don’t have the luxury to enjoy the beauty around them. So many of us are forced to look down at our shoes and live month-to-month, just taking one step at a time to survive. Americans in general aren’t encouraged to appreciate beautiful land. We don’t teach aesthetics to children in most schools, and it gets in the way of businesses that want to exploit natural resources for profit. Our relationship to nature is deeply troubled and ill considered.”

There are multiple layers hidden throughout Town of C, the most notable being the portrayal of nature’s fragility. Humankind’s reliance on the environment is massive, and in this book, we see this brought to the fore through the energy of the river that runs through Colorado and the Rocky Mountains – the lifeline to all that settle upon the water’s edge. Then, as we meander through the remaining parts of the book, this consuming visual narrative expels themes of the American dream and how, especially in the American small town, these ideologies and dreams of endless natural resources are dwindling. What does the future hold for these lands?

As the book comes to a close, I’m reminded again of the first image of the naked couple and its explicit synergy between place and person. For Richard, this single picture resonates with him for its rich symbolism, as well as its relationship to the Grant Wood painting called American Gothic – “of the stone-faced man and his ill-at-ease-partner, pitchfork in hand, all business and no joy,” he says. “I felt the graveyard picture had a potential iconic quality. The myths of American small town steely resilience and self-sufficiency have collided here with the relentless forces of contemporary socio-economics, and the finite nature of land and resources. The little metal places in the picture serve as gravestones, all of them identified with the initials CSP, which stands for Colorado State Penitentiary. The prison used to make the license plates for Colorado vehicles. The grave markers were made in the same workshop by prisoners for their fellow inmates. They represent people whose families couldn’t afford, or didn’t care enough, to place actual stones on their burial plots, and I couldn’t help but think that said something revealing about their lives, and perhaps why they ended up there in the first place.”

All photography courtesy of Richard Rothman

Town of C is published by Stanley/Barker