May 19 2020

Reading List: Murder, Memory, and Modern Dystopias

by The Editors

Image by Peter Chung for ArtAsiaPacific.

When we’re not tuning into online art programs or visiting galleries that are reopening in Hong Kong, the AAP editors like to curl up with some good old-fashioned printed matter. In our new blog series, we’ll be sharing some of the zines, art books, and novels we’ve been reading. 

The Overstory

By Richard Powers

Published by W. W. Norton, New York: 2018

It’s rare for me to find a book so beautiful that I don’t want it to end. This is one of them. A Pulitzer Prize winner, a shortlisted Man Booker nominee, and a staple on top-book lists since it was first published, The Overstory hardly needs further recommending, but it couldn’t be recommended enough. I was utterly transfixed by Richard Powers’ prismatic portrayal of the life of and around trees. When I remembered to breathe while reading, it transpired that this type of poignant, life-changing writing is what happens when one looks closely


RE/Search No. 6/7: Industrial Culture Handbook

Edited by Andrea Juno & V. Vale

Published by RE/Search Publications, San Francisco: 1983

V. Vale founded RE/Search Publications in 1980 to document the underground culture at the time. Schizophonic, daring, and gross, The Industrial Culture Handbook is a complete report of artists who created “in spite of art.” Deviants back then, many artists mentioned have since been recognized today, and their strategies prove to be still useful.

Interviews, references, and photographic evidence fill the pages. Readers can trace the artistic mutation of the late Genesis P-Orridge  (pandrogyne, occultist, vocalist), witness the flame-throwing robots of SRL, and find the link between exotica and drone music. A notable source is noise group SPK’s manifesto: named after the Socialist Patients’ Collective, the band invites us to “turn illness into a weapon” against the capitalist system.



By Aslan Gaisumov with contributions by Anders Kreuger, Georgi Derluguian, Aleida Assmann, and Madina Tlostanova

Published by Sternberg, Berlin: 2018

K̇ayçu-Yuxe (Keicheyuhea), along with the 142 other places named on the cover of Aslan Gaisumov’s first monograph, is a settlement in Chechnya that no longer exists. The region was depopulated in late February to March 1944 when the Soviet regime deported the Chechen and Ingush peoples from the North Caucasus to Central Asia. Among the deportees who miraculously survived was Gaisumov’s grandmother, who returns to the ruins of her birthplace in the artist’s film Keicheyuhea (2018). The monograph examines the themes of exile and return, oppression and resistance, in the recent video and installation works of Gaisumov, who spent part of his own childhood displaced from his home following the outbreak of the First Chechen War. Noted historian and memory scholar Aleida Assmann offers a particularly clear-eyed contextualization and analysis of the artist’s practice, considering his subversive use of “silence as a form of language.”


It Can’t Happen Here

By Sinclair Lewis

Published by Penguin, London: 1935 

Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 dystopian fiction is eerily relevant today. Written nearly a century ago amid the rise of fascism in Europe and as the United States was ravaged by the Depression, Lewis chronicled the ascent to power of the charismatic populist demagogue Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who eventually makes it to the White House as president with his promise of bringing back dignity and prosperity to the country. Windrip goes on to invade Mexico, build concentration camps for political opponents, inflict death penalties on those who support communism, and declare martial law—a series of alarming actions made possible by supporters driven by a surge in nationalism, collective ignorance, and a disregard for the principles of democracy. The tale serves as a dire warning for contemporary societies dealing with new catastrophes.   



By JG Ballard

Published by Jonathan Cape, London: 1975

An architect designs a new vertical residence stratified by class, with the ultra wealthy at the peak, the professional classes on the higher altitudes, and the middle class on the lower floors. All the new residents are excited by this new kind of modern living outside the city, with immaculate views, until, of course, the human experiment in communal living begins to go horribly wrong as resentments and antagonisms escalate between the groups. The wild descent into social upheaval is narrated through the eyes of a vacuous medical lecturer who bathes in the ironic spectacle of the have-it-alls fighting with one another over swimming-pool access and elevator speeds, and an earnest documentary filmmaker who attempts to climb the tower in order to confront the architect of this monstrosity called civilization.    


北京零公里 Zero Point Beijing

By John Chen Guanzhong

Published by Oxford University Press: 2020

Located on the central axis of Beijing—the line that connects Mao’s Memorial Hall, Tiananmen, and Forbidden City—“zero point” refers to the beginning of all national highways in China. John Chan’s latest work of historical fiction retells the changes that took place near this center over the past 800 years. In a disconnected, stream-of-consciousness style, the novel’s phantom-like narrator traces the mysterious deaths of historical figures within this time span.


Chloe Chu is ArtAsiaPacific’s managing editor; Peter Chung is photo editor; Ophelia Lai is associate editor; Lauren Long is web and news editor; HG Masters is deputy editor and deputy publisher; and Pamela Wong is assistant editor.

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