by Alistair Noble
The world is full of odd magazines, weird journals, and sinister periodicals. White Fungus, a magazine published by New Zealanders living in Taiwan, is one of the oddest I’ve met for some time but it is odd in all the right ways. It is subversive and polished, intelligent and arty, attractive and unsettling—all of which was complicated for me by the fact that I bought my copy of this avowedly anti-establishment publication in the suffocatingly distinguished confines of the bookshop at the National Gallery of Australia. You probably won’t find this one at your local newsagent.
We are immediately struck by the pointed absence of advertising. It feels strange to pay $20 for an anti-consumerist magazine, but there it is. It does make us wonder how they pay their way. Presumably, that imported fashion mag you bought last week (90% advertisements for things you and I can’t afford) is making an eye-wateringly unnecessary profit but still, we wonder who is paying for what exactly in White Fungus? Certainly, I paid for it, and in return acquired nearly 200 pages of dense text in both Chinese and English, with a great many diverse and curious pictures.
Slowly, over the next few days, it dawned on me that I had rather more than I had bargained for. This is a magazine with as many words as a novel, with footnotes, with wonderful photographs and illustrations (and a comic story)… but all of that is just the surface detail. Underneath, this is a journal of ideas. In the same sense as slow food and similarly pleasurable, this is a slow mag: it takes time read, to ponder, to digest, and no doubt, it took considerable time to create.
The leading edge of Issue 13 is a series of large-scale feature articles. First, polymath Ron Drummond imagines the first woman on Mars, and much more besides. In what I think may be a very important piece of writing he dreams up a future for humanity that is soundly based in a realistically pessimistic view of our limited human capability but also proposes startling solutions to current problems. He draws inspiration from the Apollo space program—essentially a great work of Cold War period theatre—and notes that it cost each US tax payer only $120. How small our collective imaginations have become in the 21st century, bound by the petty fears our economic and political masters cultivate in us. Our parents used to worry that either reds or capitalist/imperialists would take over the world… we are reduced to scrounging a smaller tax bill for next year.
This is followed by a beautiful essay from Tessa Laird, ‘in praise of bats’. Lyrical, philosophical, and scientifically informed, this is a heartfelt and delightful work. We are drawn into Laird’s thoughts through the elegance of her writing and the palpable romance and peculiarity of her subject: ‘My love affair with bats began in the early 1990s when I visited Sydney’s botanical garden for the first time. Sydney is like Auckland through the looking glass, or on acid’. Well, indeed. Did you know that 2013 is the Year of the Bat? Now you do.
This magazine began as a very local New Zealand publication, now eccentrically translated to Taiwan. I feel that the editors retain a strong affinity for the local over the global, yet the publication has patently developed larger aspirations of its own: concerns range beyond both New Zealand and Taiwan to many other parts of the planet (contemporary music in the US, art in Indonesia, etc.) and taking sights on other parts of the solar system.
At the heart of Issue 13, a series of shorter articles pick up themes that circle around art, music, politics and society. White Fungus editor Ron Hanson writes about the contemporary art scene in Taiwan with curiosity and insight, Kurt Gottschalk provides an interesting introduction to the career of the strangely self-absorbed US composer Robert Ashley, while one ‘Mattin’ reviews some disturbing recent work of conceptual artist Hong-Kai (disturbing in so far as her art is based upon the exploitation of the work of other artists, whose wishes about the outcome of the collaboration are purposefully ignored).
As a virtue of the small editorial and production team, the magazine has a well-curated feel, with a focussed style and an energising undertow of consistent themes. If I find fault with this issue of White Fungus at all, it would be in this: for a magazine ostensibly concerned with society, arts, and politics, it could sometimes push a little further (and a little harder) beyond description and into the realm of analysis and critique. Hanson and Nick Yeck-Stauffer writing about the remarkable (and genuinely puzzling) musician Thomas Buckner exemplify this shortcoming by relying too much on stories of the “and then he met X who introduced him to XX and they went to XXX” type, without telling us what this means in relation to the artist’s work. In general, I appreciate a light touch in political writing—tending toward the implicit—but a few more signposts and moments of analysis would be helpful.
Having said all that, White Fungus (which, by the way, is traditionally a rare delicacy in Chinese cuisine) is a significant and ambitious publication that not only deserves your attention, but is also good for you. Get a copy, carry it around with you to read and re-read as antidote to the shiny ad-filled trash that cycles its way through commercial newsagencies on the way to landfill. This is a magazine to keep around and annotate in the margins (matte paper, so you can use a pencil), to savour and discuss.
Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime project.