Reading the Collections, Week 48: David Mitchell / Kai & Sunny collaboration
The University of St Andrews’ new Special Collections acquisition, Caught By The Nest (2013), is an A3-sized art-meets-fiction collaboration by design team Kai and Sunny, and British author David Mitchell. The box set is one of only fifty limited edition pieces, each hand-numbered and featuring five letter-pressed images by Kai and Sunny, and an exclusive short story by David Mitchell, Lots of Bits of Star. Kai and Sunny’s works have been featured in exhibitions in London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and New York, and their work is also included in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Print Archive Collection in London.
David Mitchell has written seven novels to date, including Ghostwritten (1999), Cloud Atlas (2004), and The Bone Clocks (2014), as well as some twenty short stories, and the libretti for two operas, Wake (2010) and Sunken Garden (2013). Caught By The Nest is his second box set collaboration with Kai and Sunny, following his short story The Gardener, which accompanied their 2011 art exhibition, The Flower Show. The University of St Andrews proudly hosted the first academic conference on David Mitchell’s works in 2009 – which the author also attended – and he also returned to the town in 2015 to speak on his works at local book shop Topping & Company Booksellers. With this new acquisition, we hope to begin a collection of this contemporary author’s works, including other rare pieces and unpublished interviews.
Underneath Caught By The Nest’s slate grey, gold-lettered lid, and tucked inside its paper wrapping and wax seal, are five embossed A3 sheets filled with black and white designs, each an interplay of straight lines and sweeping curves, vertices, symmetries and shadows. The first image is an explosion of dark and bright moths radiating outwards from a single dahlia-like flower head
while the second shows a scattering of angular points collected towards one edge of the print, resembling wind-blown seeds, or thin shards of glass.
The third image takes the same monochrome seed-like structures and inverts them, the white-on-black points now arranged into the broken sphere of a ripe dandelion head, or a mouse nest in tall grasses.
Another stylised flower head – or perhaps a globe thistle – dominates the fourth print; this time, the image is sharper and more jagged than the first, a glass chrysanthemum making or unmaking itself.
The final print takes a softer tone, the jagged black points of the previous image becoming muted woven threads through which points of light emerge – a child’s-eye view through the weave of a blanket perhaps, or leaf-veins under a microscope.
Moving through each of the prints, a fragmented narrative-of-sorts begins to emerge – a geometrical study of the natural world and the invisible forces that draw its forms together, each image’s almost-mathematical precision underpinned by a ghostly sense of transcendence, of something above or beyond the physical which pulls these lines into bold and intricate forms.
It is only when you reach the final page of the box set that you encounter Mitchell’s short story, Lots of Bits of Star. This page-long tale describes a single incident from the perspective of Leo, an autistic narrator, as he accompanies his grandfather to find his mother’s lost mobile phone. From Leo’s viewpoint, the incident is anything but ordinary as he fights to stay calm and make sense of the world around him, helped by the intricate order of the natural world:
‘Shush. Look. A thousand birds fly by. Wind-swimmers. Wing-spinners.’ He touches the ‘fluttery petals’ of flower heads as they ‘explode into butterfly bombs. I fall inside how beautiful they are, and can’t get out, and don’t want to.’ He sees a thistle, as ‘big as a planet’ in close-up, all ‘splotches of sky and triangles and lines, like lots of bits of star.’
Kai and Sunny’s images come to life as the story progresses, the final print perhaps evoking Leo’s last gaze through his discarded T-shirt as he strips it off to venture through the garden, its foliage ‘Alive, buzzing and swarmy.’
In interview, David Mitchell has described his entire body of fiction as an interconnected ‘macronovel’, in which all of his works are interlinked, and shared characters and themes recur through his writing; Lots of Bits of Star is no exception. The narrator Leo and his sister Rose are also mentioned in The Gardener from Mitchell’s earlier box set collaboration, a moving tale narrated by Leo’s late grandfather. Reading Lots of Bits of Star in light of this earlier work of art adds a supernatural dimension to the tale, revealing his presence as that of a benevolent ghost in both pieces.
Kai and Sunny’s Caught By The Nest is just one of a number of designs that the artists have created in collaboration with the author, a process in which text and image augment one another to form interwoven visual narratives, each art form enriched by the other. They have designed several of David Mitchell’s book covers, including those for his first four novels, Ghostwritten (1999), number9dream (2001), Cloud Atlas (2004), and Black Swan Green (2006), as well as The Reason I Jump (2013), a memoir on living with autism by Japanese writer Naoki Higashida, and co-translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell. Each of the book covers transforms images from the natural world into bold graphical designs whose intricacies draw the viewer further into the image – and the text itself.
For example, Ghostwritten is a multi-layered tale which begins in Okinawa and ends in the Tokyo underground, its chapters tracing a narrative arc from East to West, crossing Hong Kong, Mongolia, Russia, London and Ireland; each of its chapters functions both as a form of individual novella, as well as part of an interlinked narrative whole. In its cover art, an archway of stylised cherry blossoms leads the viewer’s gaze down a stony path which recedes into a vast space beyond – into either luminous and distant mountains against dark skies, or out of the mouth of an overhanging cave and into the dawn glow beyond.
The cover’s optical illusion is reminiscent of Rubin’s vase – what you see is dependent entirely on your perspective, in a process known as ‘bistable perception’. Mitchell’s works also play on this principle. This is an author who is simultaneously fascinated with local spaces and unfamiliar territories, the convergence of the natural and the supernatural, and the individual’s interaction with their environment, themes which recur throughout his novels – and are also explored in both of his box set collaborations.
‘Caught By The Nest’ is now available for viewing in the University of St Andrews Library’s Special Collections. Thanks to the School of English, the University Library and Kai and Sunny for their generosity and help in making this new acquisition possible.
David Mitchell has also written an exclusive short story for Kai and Sunny’s forthcoming exhibition, ‘Whirlwind of Time’, which will be running from 3rd March – 3rd April 2016 at the Stolen Space Gallery in London.
Doctoral Researcher in English at the University of St Andrews