Thu, Apr 16, 2015 - Page 11 News List

Book review: A Far Corner: Life and Art with the Open Circle Tribe

Scott Ezell, a US musician, artist and poet, has written a magnificent book about his bohemian life among Aborigines in southern Taiwan

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

A FAR CORNER: Life and Art with the Open Circle Tribe, by Scott Ezell.

The moment I started reading A Far Circle, an account of two and a half years living with driftwood-carvers and musicians on Taiwan’s south-east coast, I recognized what it was. Despite being published by a university press, this is another item in the long history of Bohemianism, a way of life that involves giving up on the rat-race, living among “marginal” peoples, putting art before profit, and embracing what used to be called the “counter-cultural” principles of free love, strumming your guitar as the sun sets over the ocean, sharing rather than buying and selling, and generally living a peaceful and uncompetitive life in harmony with whatever’s left of nature.

Scott Ezell arrived in Taiwan from his native US in 1992, worked in Taipei for 10 years as a translator and musician, then moved to the coast north of Taitung in 2002. His subsequent problems with the authorities over his visa gained him some unwelcome publicity — an apparently over-zealous police-officer became convinced his musical activities violated the conditions of his ARC, and he eventually left Taiwan of his own free will. An article on his case, Singing the Deportation Blues, appeared in the Taipei Times on June 20, 2004. Earlier this year he returned to Taiwan to take up an artist’s residency close to where he used to live in the coastal village of Dulan (都蘭), following a brief return visit in 2013.

Almost by definition, people who opt to take up the Bohemian life-style come from a very different background. Ezell’s appears to have been essentially academic, and the resulting combination of earthy experience and a scholarly awareness makes for a strong book, as well as a highly readable one. But the tale it tells is an old one, and early on I was thinking of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, describing impoverished Beats with a Buddhist vision in 1950s California, only to find the book mentioned twice in Ezell’s text.

A Far Corner: Life and Art with the Open Circle Tribe

By Scott Ezell

324 pages

University of Nebraska Press

Hardback: US

The world Ezell embraced in 2002 was one of Amis and other Taiwanese Aboriginals carving sculptures using chain-saws from often huge pieces of driftwood, drinking rice wine, chewing betel-nut and generally living a life of communal ease in Taiwan’s relatively pristine south-east. The group of friends informally called themselves the Open Circle Tribe, and have since become known as significant and saleable artists; they’ve even had doctorates written about them. But 13 years ago they were unknown to the outside world.

Life-style and artistic creativity are different things, though, even if it’s part of the Bohemian credo that to some extent everyone’s an artist. Ezell did build the only beach sculpture to survive a particularly ferocious typhoon, but his preferred art was composition. His “landscape painting in music” evoking the ocean, also called wordless songs or “organic folk,” was exemplified by his 2003 album Ocean Hieroglyphics, recorded in what he calls the only analog studio in Taiwan, situated in a remote house for which he paid NT$2,000 a month rent.

But Ezell is also a poet, and it’s this aspect of his personality that’s most strikingly in evidence in this fine book. On one page alone he describes July as “the gut and groin of summer,” clouds as “coronations of white,” plus “the crash and roar of the sun,” and the sky “a bored god, butane blue.” Elsewhere someone is as “inexpressive as a sea urchin,” a snake is “a squiggle of lambent, scintillant green,” and cell-phones ring “like stranded birds.” The spring sun leaps out “hot and wet, like some jungle animal close and panting, blood on its lips and teeth,” the stars are “senescent and receding,” and the sea’s “turquoise and ultramarine, cobalt and indigo, like a field of violets and irises churning.”

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