Culture - Issue 86 - Magazine | Monocle

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Magnificent obsession

Robert Bound

A new book purportedly about porcelain is really about its author’s own creative process, revealing it pays to pay attention to how things are made.

Do you care how and why something you admire was made? This magazine has asked you to consider provenance before – when choosing your coffee beans or when buying denim – but what of cultural provenance? Does context aid your understanding and enjoyment of the thing?

I’ve just closed the back cover of The White Road, potter and writer Edmund de Waal’s wonderful and unusual forthcoming book about the history of porcelain. Part history, part memoir, the book is subtitled, “a pilgrimage of sorts”. And off he goes. We read of De Waal’s trips to Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain capital since the discovery of the stuff 1,000 years ago, and of his fears that he might not be on the right road to find what he wants. We encounter our man having a headache the day after he’s forced to be a guest of honour at an impromptu booze-fuelled dinner; we learn that writing about discovering porcelain can be almost as trying as actually discovering it. De Waal echoes a thought that many of us have had since school maths classes: “always show your working.”

De Waal’s book is as much about what drove him to write it as it is about the “white gold” that has excited so much trade, jealousy and mania across a millennium. When De Waal makes it to Dresden, it’s plain that our guide does not suffer from precisely the same Porzellankrankheit as Augustus the Strong, the 17th-century elector of Saxony who ordered the discovery of gold and ended up with something for which he had an ever greater weakness (and with crossed swords branded it Meissen). But he is far from immune to a sort of mania himself. And happily so, because we get an intriguing, unusual, heartfelt and depthless account of the hidden corners of the history of trade, of industry, of the workings of royal courts, of what became known as geopolitics and of trend and taste.

Another marvel to cross the culture desk this month is the upcoming record from Bergen’s HP Gundersen, who trades brilliant blues, psych and country funk under the name The Last Hurrah!! The record includes fulsome sleeve notes by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke to put the work in context and as mighty fine as the album is, I loved reading Fricke associate it with Little Feat and Stephen Stills. It made me run out and buy records by those artists to further endanger the shelving in my flat. You don’t have to make like Hunter Thompson and go full “gonzo” to write a memorable account of how you wrote your memorable account but – and who knew we’d learn so much from our maths masters? – showing your working really works.


Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev



The 14th Istanbul Biennial (5 September to 1 November) stretches from the Black Sea to Trotsky’s house on the Prince Islands. Curator and art historian Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev “drafted” the concept for Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms.

How does salt bring this biennial together?
We are on saltwater – the Bosphorus – and saltwater is a synonym for life as our bodies need salt to survive. Salt is also the passage of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean. We feature Ellen Gallagher’s paintings; the works imagine the Drexciya people who live under the Atlantic, a reference to slavery’s catastrophes.

The biennial has more than 30 venues. Why slow the experience?
Technology has compressed time and there’s a need to slow experience for intellectual reasons, for our health and empathy.

How has Istanbul changed since the 2013 protests and the last biennial?
The Armenian question is becoming less taboo as young people know more about history from the internet. With this in mind I invited the artist William Kentridge, who was very involved in truth and reconciliation in South Africa. We also include the Bark Petition, an artwork sent to Australia’s parliament by the Yolngu people seeking land rights.

Culture Cuts

Top picks from the art world

Unforgotten New York is a land grab in book form to answer back to the real-life land grab that’s been taking place in the city for the past 20 years. But it’s not a hagiography to the good old days so much as a celebration of the subtitle’s insistence that New York was home to the “legendary spaces of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde”. Studio 54, Paradise Garage, the Stonewall Inn, stories, legends, myths, greatness! For nightlife and pop culture made smart, New York was pioneering territory.

If you’ve seen, say, Polish promotional posters for James Bond films you’ll know how weirdly wonderful and creatively strange other people’s ideas of classic fare can be. It’s the same with the writing in this collection of classic crime and thriller novels from Pushkin Vertigo, an imprint of Pushkin Press: you think they’re just genre novels but then they bust a hundred holes in pulp-writing conventions. Soji Shimada’s Tokyo Zodiac Murders is a chilling locked-room mystery; Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is a classy twist-junky’s nirvana; and Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo is every bit as strange as the Hitchcock classic it inspired.

On Record

Sounds from around the world

The Last Hurrah!!
HP Gundersen is a Norwegian dude with a wardrobe full of tasselled suede jackets and cowboy boots and a hatstand in the hallway home to a half dozen battered Stetsons. At least that’s what we imagine. As The Last Hurrah!!, Gundersen explores late 1960s UK pop and early 1970s Americana with magpie eyes beady for irresistible melody, seemingly effortless production and canonical greatness.

Three albums in he has succeeded thanks to that aforementioned greatness and the voice of down-home (and actual Southern belle) Maesa Pullman, who lends these 10 tracks the feel of a lost classic in the vein of Loretta Lynn wittily reminiscing with Karen Dalton. Dixie, folk, psych-rock, hayseed confessional, motel-room break-up? This dressing-up box happily has it all.

Depression Cherry
Beach House
Could there be such a thing as a premier power-couple in dream pop? A Kanye and Kim of shoegaze? Because if there can... The Baltimore boy-girl duo release their fifth album to great expectation this time around, having gotten all big and stadium-y (the U2 of hazy indie?) of late. While the rooms got big, the songs have stayed small, tight, focused and fashioned from the most precious natural materials: haunting melody, heartbreaking harmony, ethereal choruses. There’s a subtlety with these songs that make this their finest record to date, a grower that could easily grace a troubadour dive-bar or headline a main stage. There is grace and wonder on offer here; give in to it.

The show

What we’re tuning in for

Crime drama set in a small Icelandic town where a body is found before a snowstorm traps inhabitants. The show is the most expensive Icelandic drama to date with a budget of ISK1bn (€6.8m); thematically it’s part The Killing and part Fortitude.

The content
A man is found brutally murdered in a fjord in a small town after an international ferry arrives. Meanwhile a blizzard blows into town...

The talent
Trapped was created by Baltasar Kormákur, best known for directing Jar City and Denzel Washington-fronted action film 2 Guns. It features True Detective star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Bjarne Henriksen, who played Hans Christian Thorsen in Danish political drama Borgen.

The schedule
The series was commissioned by the Icelandic public broadcaster RÚV and will air later this winter. It will then be launching on BBC4 in the UK, France Télévisions, ZDF in Germany and on television stations all across Scandinavia.

The close-up

Just try looking away

Tarkan, 42, can still make many Turks weak at the knees with his Arabesque-lite lothario pop. He has sold more than 15 million records – not bad for someone from a generation of Turks born in Germany whose parents headed west in the 1970s. Tarkan became the face of Turkish music after his 1997 single “Simarik” went gold in Europe. A few years later, Aussie popstrel Holly Valance released her cover, “Kiss Kiss”.

After a long stint in New York in the 2000s, Tarkan returned to Istanbul and has kept up his public profile via concerts on the Turkish Riviera and regular green-tinted spats with the environment minister over dam-building on the Ilya River, which Tarkan feared would flood nearby Roman ruins. The media’s endless speculations over Tarkan’s lack of a spouse mean he’s never off the newsstands for too long.

Tarkan has challenged a few taboos: not only did his close-shaven image and willingness to bear (almost) all onstage set him apart from Turkey’s macho troubadours, but a feud with the authorities unfolded after he failed to show up for military service. Following threats to strip the singer of his citizenship, Tarkan returned to serve – Elvis-style – for a reduced (albeit gruelling) 28-day stint in 2000 and paid a hefty sum to charity.

Finest moment
A seemingly innocuous incident in 1994 when Tarkan told an interviewer “I’ve got to pee, man” – unaware he was on live television – has become a byword in Turkish media for a very public gaffe.



New British Cinema

Jason Wood and Ian Haydn Smith

A series of Q&As that allows the tone of voice of titans Joanna Hogg, Steve McQueen and others to resound, this will have you gobbling up the contemporary UK film canon on DVD. Knowing the authors, we expect they would never be so gauche as to suggest that this is a definitive overview of British cinema – but it is.

Memoir/Art History

The White Road

Edmund De Waal

Subtitled a “pilgrimage of sorts”, this is exactly that – and a beguiling, jet-setting history lesson on porcelain (who cares?) encompassing kings, mathematicians, potters, seers, visionaries and hucksters. De Waal writes beautifully, wears his learning lightly and charmingly and makes sure anyone and everyone else will care deeply about the white stuff too.


The Beechwood Airship Interviews

Dan Richards

As a conversation piece, the author built an airship in his art-school bar under which Bill Drummond and Jenny Saville and others talk about what they do, why and how. Airship Interviews is a charming memoir defined by its epigraph from comic Simon Munnery: “Many are prepared to suffer for their art, few are prepared to learn to draw.”


Genoa La Superba: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower

Nicholas Walton

Whether it’s Christopher Columbus or Beppe Grillo, the Genoese have made a huge impact on Italy’s development. Hotbed of Italian unification and medieval gem, the city is explored by Nicholas Walton’s travelogue. Striking the right balance between history and observation, it is essential for those interested in Liguria’s capital.

Short Stories

New American Stories

Edited and introduced by Ben Marcus

A big old collection of fresh short stories edited by a master of the form, Ben Marcus. He’s a charming guide who writes in his introduction that an anthology is like an old-fashioned mixtape: “An act of love, a plea, a Hail Mary, an aphrodisiac.” This wonderful book is a wunderkammer of strange ideas, haunting silhouettes and zinging opening lines.

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