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The NI Star rating system. Books

Parable of the Sower
by Octavia E Butler
(The Women’s Press, ISBN 0 7043 4421 1)

Parable of the Sower Set in a ‘fortified’ town in California in the year 2024, Parable of the Sower seems to have stepped both forward and backwards in time. The world inhabited by the young narrator, an African-American girl called Lauren Olamina, is in an advanced state of social, economic and environmental decay. The energy crisis means you can see stars in the sky and people go around on bicycles instead of cars. But rarely do they venture out, except as armed groups of families, cycling out into the corpse-ridden hills for essential target practice. School is an anachronism. Lauren, a preacher’s daughter, is one of the few who can read. Her mother’s drug addiction while pregnant has left Lauren with a shameful condition – ‘hyperempathy’. If she sees a creature in pain she feels their pain and becomes temporarily disabled by it. This gives warmth, feeling and hope in the otherwise harsh world of Butler’s vision. But it also means Lauren has to adopt a shoot-to-kill policy when attacked.

Parable of the Sower is a disturbing dystopia, made more so by the fact that it’s entirely plausible. What Butler has done is to extend and accelerate trends which are evident in the world today. Her harrowing description of a massacre is no more violent than recent events in Rwanda or Bosnia. The social decay she describes can be seen today in Somalia – and in LA. Slavery makes its comeback in the book – as it has in contemporary Northeast Brazil. And the public space is filled with desperately poor, homeless people who can only survive by stealing or killing.

The central character – with her pocket full of seeds, her survivor’s instinct and her own homespun spirituality – saves the novel from total despair. Unlike many of those around her, she does not avert her eyes from reality. At times, however, she seems a bit too good to be true – as though the author has been seduced by her own creation.

After an excellent start, the book tends to flag in the second half – ironically just as it gets increasingly action-packed. It becomes one damn violent thing after another, punctuated by a few, too few, tender and thoughtful moments. That aside, it’s a compelling, vivid and convincingly imagined parable – and Butler’s lucid prose is a treat.

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Music for the Gods: The Fahnestock South Sea Expedition
by Various Artists
(Rykodisc RCD 10315)

Sacred Spirit: Chants and Dances of the Native Americans
by Various Artists
(Virgin CDV 2753 7243 39881 2 9)

Out of the Woods
by Dr Didg
(Hannibal HNCD 1384)

In 1941 brothers Bruce and Sheridan Fahnestock boarded their schooner and charted a passage for Indonesia. With state-of-the-art recording equipment on board – which in those days meant weighty disc-cutters, 16-inch cellulose acetate discs and two miles of microphone cable – they captured the rare, beautiful sounds of the gamelan that can be heard on this album. If the Fahnestocks’ trip seemed a little over-zealous for two rich, young New Yorkers to undertake, so it was. They were also under secret orders from President Roosevelt to observe military defences in the area which the Japanese were planning to invade.

Such ulterior motives do not detract from the captivating quality of Music for the Gods which is the second release in Mickey Hart’s Endangered Music Project. The music resounds with gentle chiming and hollow wood-block rhythms, its difficult syntax explained in some careful sleeve notes. Music like this will never exist again. Gamelans will, but tourism and technology have had their insidious effect on the music produced.

While Music for the Gods may provide pleasure for the purist, Sacred Spirit almost definitely will not. But it might delight the dancer. Its 11 tracks combine native American language chants with… well, to say ‘non-native American’ music would be putting it mildly. There are cellos, rumbling drums, Spanish guitars and strange aeolian sounds from banks of synthesizers. Images of a stark landscape inhabited by stoic people are conjured up. And the pitter patter of a subdued disco beat? Well, the record’s (unnamed) creators could argue that dance is a liberating ritual in all cultures and point out that for each record sold a donation will be made to the Native Americans Rights Fund.

Dr Didg: a happier model for culture mix. Dr Didg’s debut album – Out of the Woods – provides a happier model for the meeting of cultures. The doctor, American-born physicist Graham Wiggins, took up the didgeridoo 13 years ago and after playing with the acclaimed band, Outback, went off to Australia’s Elcho Island to live and study with aboriginal didg masters. Accompanied by guitarist Mark Revell and percussionist Ian Campbell, Wiggin’s didg becomes an adaptable rhythm machine, leading the other musicians through some jazzy, ambient, African high-life and Latin shuffle numbers. Wiggins mainly avoids trying to replicate Aboriginal music, though he has a profound feeling for it. The breath-generated rhythms of the didg, he says, represent life itself. Which helps explain the feel-good factor pervading this most unusual album.

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Before the Rain
directed by Milcho Manchevski

Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski’s inspiring, though bleak, debut film is a rare thing these days. There is something quite old-fashioned in the headlong way he treats political strife and manages to investigate nationalist struggles. Structured around three stories that interconnect, the film plays with notions of time to profound effect – Quentin Tarantino could learn a lesson here. The film’s theme is the vicious circle of violence. It commences in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, where a young monk finds himself sheltering an Albanian Muslim girl wanted by a local gun-waving posse. Breaking his vow of silence, he offers to escort her to safety but this gesture proves to be futile in the end.

Meanwhile in London, a picture editor called Anne is working on a war-photography project and de-liberating over her personal future. She finds herself torn between her husband and her lover, Aleksander, a prize-winning photojournalist who left Macedonia years ago. Each story impinges on the other as Manchevski meditates on the religious roots of the current conflicts in Eastern Europe as well as intimating how media coverage of the fighting implicates those who produce and consume the images. Everyone here has blood on their hands. With current debates about violence in cinema, Before the Rain is a searing reminder about the higher stakes. The guns and poses of the movie mob men seem pretty hollow compared to the real brutality experienced by those living and dying in various civil wars at the moment. Strikingly composed – Manchevski proves to have a painterly eye – it’s a haunting film which tackles issues that are not easy to walk away from.

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Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Hand to Earth
...being the book that captures the joyous and unusual art of Andy Goldsworthy.

Andy goldsworthy is one of a kind. He is a sculptor in so far as he moulds and shapes natural materials but he is worlds away from the monumentalism of a Moore or an Epstein and even further from the strutting power games of the Turner Prize bratpack. Born in Cheshire, England, in 1956, Goldsworthy began to gain recognition for his outdoor pieces in the early 1980s, with exhibitions and projects throughout the world. He is based in Dumfriesshire, Scotland and much of his best work has taken inspiration from the surrounding countryside.

If a label has to be pinned on what he does, it is best described as Land Art; work done in the countryside, utilizing natural materials. Working on site, Goldsworthy uses what is to hand – stone, water, earth, ice, leaves, twigs – to create pieces which draw on their surroundings but, in a variety of visual puns on nature, could only have been created by human hand. These relate to and become part of the landscape and have a finite life-span, determined by the materials and the conditions. Goldsworthy is happy to see this process of decay: ‘Decay is part of the work. Implicit in each structure is its collapse.’ This sense of collaboration with nature, working with the grain of what is there rather than imposing a dominant human vision, is central to an understanding of Goldsworthy’s art.

Although all artworks inevitably become ‘commodities’ in the marketplace, Goldsworthy to some extent side-steps this dilemma by making a photographic record of his work. His approach to photography is deliberately simple; he uses standard film and lenses and no filters, emphasizing that the intention is not to replace the original work but to document it.

Goldsworthy’s breakthrough came in 1989-90, with his ‘snow sculptures’ made at Grise Fiord in Canada’s Northern Territories and during three days spent at the North Pole. The book which resulted from this trip – Touching North – is a haunting evocation of his experience.

Hand to Earth.

In 1990 he had a major retrospective exhibition at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. This brought rave reviews and a much wider public. The accompanying book, Hand to Earth: Sculpture 1976 -1990, is an affordable and comprehensive overview of his career, from early work such as intricate leaf and twig constructions to larger permanent works such as the Grizedale Forest tree sculptures or the monumental ‘Earthworks’ in County Durham, England. His most recent book Stone brings together work from the past three years, including some stunning pieces in the Australian outback.

Goldsworthy digs at the roots of our relationship with nature. He is conducting an interrog-ative dialogue with the fundamentals of our world: water, stone, earth, growing things and latterly, in his work with volcanic rock, fire. His work throws into serious doubt our presumed centrality in the ordering of things. Nothing emphasizes these doubts so much as the recurring image of the hole. He has made sculptures featuring holes in just about every conceivable material, sometimes to precarious effect. In 1982 an exhibit of his in the grounds of London’s Serpentine Gallery had to be fenced off because it was considered a danger to the public.

There is – physical danger apart – a palpable, almost primeval sense of menace in all the hole works, no matter how prosaic or unthreatening the materials. Goldsworthy says: ‘I am drawn to holes with the same urge I have to look over the cliff... The black of a hole is like the flame of a fire. The flame makes the energy of fire visible. The black is the earth’s flame – its energy...’

Although he is not party-political, he is a supporter of the Green Movement and his ecological concern counters the criticism that he is primarily out to shock. He says: ‘If shock were the only purpose of my work I’d use bright paint – the shock beyond the shock is that these materials are there already.’

As well as his joyous enthusiasm for his craft, there is in Goldsworthy’s art a deft and witty juggling with our preconceptions. For example, in ‘The Wall that Went for a Walk’ an otherwise unassuming dry-stone wall weaves drunkenly between a row of trees. And when he constructed a giant snowball for an exhibition in Japan, he was delighted to find the following day that, quite fortuitously, the surrounding snow melted overnight, leaving his snowball standing incongruously in the sunlight.

To see a Goldsworthy piece is to be exposed to an innocent wonder combined with an open and inclusive spirit. We are invited to carry on the process of asking questions about nature, about sculpture, about what it means to be human. Goldsworthy has described what he does as ‘trying to touch rainbows’: the marvel is that he can convince us that it might just be possible.

Peter Whittaker

Hand to Earth: Sculpture 1976-1990 is published by Henry Moore Centre, 1990;
Touching North is published by Fabian Carlsson/Graeme Murray, 1989; and
Stone is published by Viking, 1994.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

New Internationalist issue 267 magazine cover This article is from the May 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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