Enjoy access to our current issue! For full access to our entire archive subscribe now

Principles of Bonding

With her essay “Social Distortions,” Laura Kolbe wraps up a brief but impressive run as a columnist for this magazine: six installments that brought more than three dozen works—from film to textiles to sculpture—to bear on essays that are exemplary in how they blend self-interrogation with a close reading of art. 

In her final contribution to Art & the Archive, Kolbe focuses on three documentaries that resonate with a particular strangeness of our time, of being stuck in the weird economy of the gaze. The films revolve around couples (not all of them romantic) in vérité experiments. Kolbe considers the power dynamic of watching and being watched, and asks whether art, no matter how intimate, can be truly unguarded. She alights, too, on one of the ironies of honesty, which shapes not only the performer-audience relationship but the experience of any couple growing closer, wherein “illumination is the pesky bane, as well as one of the chief operations, of love.”

Fraught bonds—and the hard work of being honest—color much of this issue. In the Spring fiction, the tension lies in uneasy revelations gained through taxing commitments. Kevin Moffett’s “Only Son” is a darkly funny collage of a son’s embittered memories of his mother, a woman who never gave him what he actually needed but tried everything else along the way. In Ji Hyun Joo’s “The Clapping Room,” a South Korean grandmother is forced to confront her belittled place in the world when her California-born granddaughter, bringing generational and cultural disruption, visits from overseas.

In our feature essay, “Little Seed,” Wei Tchou assembles a complicated family portrait within the frame of an obsession. When Tchou’s brother suffered a mental breakdown, she lost her most important emotional ballast. She found an unexpected outlet for grieving, though, in a kind of meticulous work—tending to a dying fern, of all things. Tchou never thought that in learning about this plant she would stumble into a world of taxonomic forking paths, that through the intricacies of botany she would discover parallels to her own upbringing. The essay is an extraordinary configuration of memoir and naturalist inquiry, and its spirit calls to mind the adage of the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, who advised us to “look for peace and calm in work; you will find it nowhere else.” 

This issue offers two projects that come at the theme of fraught bonds from an environmental angle. Lois Parshley reports from the edges of the boreal forest, whose ecosystem is rapidly transforming due to climate change. Birds have become especially vulnerable, with certain species on the verge of extinction. This is a familiar emergency that now raises unfamiliar questions—among them, how far should we actually go to try to save a species? Our cover story, meanwhile, is Mathias Depardon’s photo essay on sand extraction in the Maldives, part of his global coverage of this booming industry. As tempting as the sand market may be, its growth could lead to the same perils as the overharvesting of other natural resources. But, as Emmanuel Iduma puts it in his introduction to the portfolio, “this catastrophe isn’t immediately apparent…because it isn’t a catastrophe that can be truly seen until it’s too late.”

But even in catastrophe, the principles of regeneration tend to kick in. Amid collapse, new bonds form. Miroslav Sekulic-Struja’s mesmeric comic is illuminated by this thesis. Against the backdrop of a dissolving Yugoslavia, the titular Petar and Liza, already neighbors, discover a shared affection for disaster movies and dance. They fall in love, grow closer, and in doing so expose fears and insecurities that test what their attraction is really made of. In this sense, love itself becomes a kind of work, albeit one that brings its own peace.

Share —
Published: June 6, 2024