Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Drawer #3.1: Units of Air Conditioning

Back in June, just before I left for the States & the blog went into radio silence, we moved out of our Shanghai lane house, where, somehow, 10 years had passed by. And we moved into an apartment in the “small” (pop 3 million) Chinese city of Kunshan. Which is to say, we moved into my idea of a nightmare: a classic Chinese tower block compound in the [empty] suburbs. 

You may remember this from Drawer 3.6, the one about White Tile Buildings with Blue Glass Windows: me, in my first week of Shanghai living, in a taxi on the elevated highway, with the weather a simulacra of the atmosphere of Venus, in a state of near-suicidal despair at the prospect of living amidst the dismal grimy brutalist architecture of this ugly place.

And now, the view from our new flat:

That, you may well ask, is a sports arena/indoor stadium/theater/cinema/bowling alley complex. It's where the World Badminton Championships take place. It also contains a Starbucks. For which I am deeply grateful. Tell me, why would an architect, with such a choice commission, design something in metal that so closely resembles dated & dirty white tile?

As for today’s drawer, the companion to #3.6, well, because if brutalist bathroom tile buildings are #1 for ugliness, a/c units helter skelter over every face & nook & cranny of brutalist buildings are #2.

According to a recent article in NYTimes: “During the 1990's, 5 percent of urban residents in China owned air-conditioners. A decade later, it was nearly 100 percent.” Two decades later, even the pigeons have a/c:

Since the tower blocks hardly ever have central cooling systems, each occupant solves the question of where to put their personal a/c unit in their own inimitable way.

To start, you need a hole. Right hru the concrete facade of your building. No safety code or building inspector need be involved; only one of the hole driller dudes. They can generally be found in posses on busy intersections near new construction, smoking Double Happiness or Zhonghua cigarettes, hanging on electric bikes with a wire bin on the back full up with giganto-size hole saw bits. I think of these guys as kin to Harry Tuttle, the guerrilla plumber in Brazil

Once you've got a hole thru which to run the lines between in the interior unit & the compressor outside, you call the a/c installer guy; if he's lucky, there's a ledge or even a pre-built a/c shelf...

but often enough he’s just launching himself out over space at a terrifying angle to secure an L-bracket to the facade. 

Once he has one bracket in, he in his faux-leather-soled slip-on shoes steps out on to it, & sets in the second bracket further out of reach. No pics: I can’t even watch this procedure much less document it.  

Once it’s all in place, you'll have to insist that the hole, thru which you can see daylight, be filled to keep the weather out. He'll look at you like you are a real pain & then he'll go out to the corner hardware store for a can of spray foam. Which he'll squirt into the hole until foam oozes out of the wall into your bedroom. He is not interested in the aesthetics of the problem.

But I digress. What it means is that all those randomly installed units absolutely litter the building facades adding an amazing amount of visual chaos to the city scape.

But apparently it wasn’t just my pet peeve. When the city began gearing up for the World Expo in 2010, its “Better City Better Life” campaign (apparently) decreed that all the a/cs on any building that might be in an any area that a visitor might pass through en route to the Expo needed to be hidden behind a screen. 

Think about this. In 2010, it was estimated that there were 22 million people living in SH. In the lane house across from us, there were 4 adults & plus at certain times 2 children.  In 2006, they had 4 a/c units; I watched them put in at least 2 more. People to a/cs: 1:1 ratio. 

But they’re middle class so let's say only 75% of the population was represented by an a/c: that’s still 16,500,000 units to cover. Even if they did only 50% of those, the logistics boggle the mind.  Inventorying them all,  hiring who knows how many thousands of fab shops (as ubiquitous here as hair salons & massage joints) to make and installing them all…. And what’s more they even individualized designs & painted them to suit the building...

And it worked! It made a HUGE difference to the city’s appearance: like a kid with brutal acne suddenly having normal skin. To say beautiful would be overstating the effect.

But back to our view. Redeemed by night:


Drawer #3.1: From top: Box 1, 3 & 4: Cardboard, milk paint, glass, straws; Box 2: Empty tin for  Traditional Chinese Medicine Photo credit for drawer: Bruno David; all others, Christina Shmigel

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Drawer 4.3: Wish You Happy Year of the Monkey!

Well, here we go: another China year for us. We've been working our way thru the 12 year cycle of the Shengxiao (生肖), the Chinese zodiac. Our first Chinese New Year in Shanghai we met the Rooster...which means...omg!...we arrived in a Monkey year! We thought we'd stay 2 years, maybe 3 & here we are full cycle! 

Those of you who are Monkeys...born in 1932, 44, 56, 68, 80, 92, 2004...might want to visit Drawer #1.4 to catch up on protecting yourself in your ben ming nian (本命年), your zodiac year. It's all about Red Underwear. Don't say I didn't warn you.

I've been in North Carolina all of January with my head happily down at a Winter Residency at the Penland School of Crafts. I was there, at the invitation of Kathryn Gremley, Penland's Gallery Director, (super big thanks, Kathryn!) to work on an installation for an interesting wedge of outdoor space created by the addition of a new gallery building. 

But I also had fun with the yards & yards of the red fabric called Dong Bei Large Flower Cloth I laid it out as part of my April installation at the Hillyer Art Space in D.C. Dong Bei is a province in  Northwest China (though in Chinese that's Westnorth.) but the fabric is favored all over China. By color - red is for happiness - & imagery - the cloth is associated with domesticity & marriage; it's traditionally used for marriage bed duvets (and to decorate Dong Bei restaurants in Shanghai.)  Older Chinese women have a way of putting patterns together that we'd consider mismatched but utterly sings out to me (though I'm too shy to shoot the pics...)  I gave it a try, mixing four different versions of the Dong Bei cloth - some vintage, some contemporary. I learned a lot about pattern and color values but whether it's going to be an audacious addition to the show or an over-the-top failure is yet to be seen...

A few weeks ago He-Whom-I'm-Trailing came home to a pink notice on our front door. Once we got it translated, it forbid the use of fireworks inside the city limits. We were skeptical that this would dampen the show but, indeed, word on the street from Shanghai is that this year there really were no fireworks inside the city limits. I guess that's the safe & prudent way to go but I'm sure glad we were there for the glory days as it gobsmacked us every time...click here for a minute's worth of video of what used to go on for hours & hours...So, this drawer, with its images taken from the spent firework castings that would land on our balcony, is in honor of all that thrilling firepower. Thank you for looking thru the Cabinet with me & Wish You a Happy Year of the Monkey!

Drawer #4.3: from the top 
1. The Chinese Character for Firecracker & a snarl of dragony-looking green tape 
2. A dragon, the highest animal in Chinese mythology, symbolic of males; with a sticker offering services to those migrants in need of a residency permit 
3. A fenghuang a  mythological bird, part phoenix, part peacock, part other things, symbolic of the females; w/ "happy clouds." 
4. Another fenghuang, more happy clouds, all images taken from the decorative wrappers of firecrackers. 

Photo credits: Full drawer, Bruno David; all others, Christina Shmigel

For more Chinese New Year items, check out Drawer #1.4: Chinese Zodiac Animals;
 Drawer #2.2Things That Don't Fit in a Drawer #4Things that Don't Fit in a Drawer #3

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Drawer # 6.6 : Auspicious Phone Numbers

These days we pre-pay minutes by plugging our phone numbers into a credit card processing type of widget at our local convenience store. But it used to be that we needed to buy phone cards and so we’d head to the shops festooned with hand-painted lists of phone numbers. My preferred shop was not much more than a hole in the wall, its assortment of local & international (IP) phone cards displayed in a glass case, out front, on the sidewalk. The phone cards listed long strings of numbers, all of which had to be entered into the phone, with various press 1’s & press 2’s, instructions all in chinese. I relied heavily on the kindness of the phone card seller to get me thru this task; while he plugged away on my phone, I pondered the aesthetics of the painted lists.

Across the street from my shop was another, also covered in phone number paintings and a street or two further away was “phone number street,” its every facade bedecked in phone number paintings: long lists of cell phone numbers, the occasional number crossed out or checked, always drawn by brush in red paint with blue, sometimes black, embellishment, always arranged schematically in rows & columns in accordance with some established convention.  

Besides phone card sales, the business of these shops was a bit of a mystery to me. Why you would buy your phone number there rather than at one of the two phone companies, I didn’t know. Why were only one or two numbers crossed out or checked? Who actually knew what those few marks recorded: the signs never changed over time, no additional checks or crossings out from one visit to the next. And why would you make 150 0085 8588 your entryway number? (Though, admittedly, it's rather magical with its rhymes & symmetries.)

I never thought to ask; I just worked up an explanation to suit myself. Tying the Chinese penchant for numerology to the signs’ wealth of auspicious 8's & 9’s & 5’s and dearth of foreboding 4’s - go ahead, count ‘em - I concluded that they must be… Auspicious Phone Numbers! Since I never asked, no one told me different: Auspicious Phone Number Paintings they were & shall remain. Sometimes the imaginative flight is so much more satisfying than the plain truth.

I studied the patterns & the scripts endlessly, admired the fluidity of the vernacular Jasper Johns’ brushwork, pondered their organizational systems. The signs as paintings were a wonder to me, each individual sign on the verge of revealing something of its painter’s character. But what really sent me was what the paintings did to disorient the spaces they occupied. A different artist than me, one of greater energy & audacity perhaps, might have dismantled the best display (the one where they also made keys?) & simply re-installed it somewhere to great acclaim. 

Alas, not being that artist, I, instead, shrunk those spaces into the drawers of the cabinet. And then later, expanded them again, into glass vitrines. By virtue of which mimicry, I came to admire the signmakers yet more.

"The View in Fragments: Auspicious Numbers"  Cardboard, milk paint, glass vitrine, 13.5 x 14.25 x 9" Collection of
M-Restaurant Group, Shanghai. On view at Glam, Shanghai.

The newly arrived often say to me how much change I must have seen in SH in my time here. Now I get the dazed look that I saw on the faces of the “old china hands" to whom I had made the comment on my arrival. The changes have been huge, of course, but also, so continuous, so incremental that one can be hard pressed to quantify them. 

Back when my archiving began, locals, Chinese and foreigners alike, easily recognized the contents of the drawers and laughed at their nostalgic familiarity. Now, ten years later, there are things in the drawers that the newbies can’t recognize because those things don’t exist in the Shanghai anymore. 

The auspicious phone number shops are now all gone.

Before: My IP man.* (see below.)          After: The Q that replaced the auspicious numbers shop. 

I don’t know what my phone seller thinks of having moved in from the curb to the antiseptic, climate-controlled environment of the Q. Probably he’s glad to be part of the great Chinese accomplishment of pulling millions out of poverty into, at the very least, a modest middle class-ness. There’s no arguing with that. But me, I miss the liveliness of the street, the paintings with their telling scripts, the quirky spaces that evolved out of their owners’ needs & ingenuity, all those small moments of individual expression.

A Chinese friend describes spaces as "organized' & "not so organized." On the left,  the corner of the fruit & phone card sellers on Shan Yin Lu back in the days of  "not so organized"; on the right, same corner post-organizing. Better or worse?

In the end, I don’t think my miniature versions really capture much of what I loved about the Auspicious Phone Number shops. It turned out that the dizzying spatial effect of the number paintings requires a full-bodied scale and that the combination of chaos & order that is the street eluded me. What’s left in the drawers is maybe like the transcription of a lost language as rendered by the last remaining non-native speaker but, if only for me, it gives a bit of immortality to the anonymous sign painters & display constructors, recording & preserving just a trace of the endeavors that once gave me so much to admire.

*Re the IP man:
 Inside the shop , maybe 5x7',  were sodas for sale & a tiny side room in which the man's wife cooked. Their little boy sat on a small chair inside the shop at tiny card table that served as his desk & their dining table. A ladder led from the tiny room up to a sleeping space. We were almost the only foreigners in the 'hood then: the man, off to somewhere on his electric bike, gleefully waved if he buzzed by me like he'd spotted a favorite stray cat. One day, just back from the States,  I found the small shop transformed into a Q, a chain convenience store. When I went in & congratulated the IP man, he didn't much respond. Apparently, there's still some market for phone cards, as his old case is now just inside the doorway (you can see the IP behind the bike wheel in the photo.) The pitched roof above the Q sign is the space that was the bedroom for the old shop; perhaps it still is...

From the top: 1. Collection of IP cards for international calling 2-4. Variations on a theme...
Photo credits: Vitrine & full drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine.