Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Do You Love Most About Shanghai...

...is the question I most dread while Stateside (where I have been these past few months.)

What, if anything even, do I love about Shanghai?

Do I love the food? Not especially & sometimes not at all.
The people? Only a statistically insignificant percentage of the population.
The air quality? Like Rick about the waters in Casablanca: I was misinformed.

Makes me feel like a complete curmudgeon.

So, in the face of The Question, it was a very good thing that, yesterday, I went for a walk.

(Actually it was a few days ago but technology has stymied me: the photos below are meant to be the slide show found here.) 

Because, as I walked, I was reminded that there really is a thing I love most about Shanghai & it's also the thing that the Cabinet of Curiosities is about.

The walk that I walked was mapped by the artist Petra Johnson for her multi-city project Walk with Me. Accompanied by another walker, usually a stranger to her, Petra walks a predetermined route. At 15 fixed points or "islands," her companion is given a small slip of paper with a prompt that frames the next section of the route: "observe a moment of kindness" makes the street a very different place from "identify a moment of tension" (which was marked on my walk by two parked bicycles suddenly falling over of their own accord.) The responses to the prompts are noted down & kept in an archive called the Composition of the Ordinary.


Starting at a kiosk on Shaoxing Lu, a very sweet street, well known to me as the street where Petra lived when I first came to Shanghai (& she was among the very first people I met here & was often a guide in those early years as well...) we wended our way thru streets unknown to me until, finally, we arrived, several hours later, at the Power Station of Art, the former power station that now houses the Shanghai Biennale & other mega-sized shows of contemporary art. Skirting new high rises, flashy commercial developments and broad traffic-filled roadways, the route ran like a hidden river, along streets & lanes seemly unchanged since I first encountered Shanghai 10 (!?!) years ago.


I walked with Petra (top photo) and sinologist & curator Anja Goette in real time but while I walked in Shanghai, they walked in Berlin. Anja opened the prompts in Berlin, & by way of WeChat, we overlaid the two cities with moments of surprising synchronicity. This world is a strange and mysterious place.

What startled He-Whom-I'm-Trailing & me the most, and constantly, when we were newly here was the intimacy with our co-inhabitants that the city imposed upon us: a man scrubbing inside his boxer shorts at a fire hydrant, a woman at the curb washing her hair, a child testing the aerodynamics of scrap of  paper in the sprawling sidewalk chaos of his family's fruit stand, sleepers of all genders & ages sprawled on cots & lounge chairs, escaping airless rooms for the slightly cooler air of the street... The line that divided private space from public space seemed hardly to exist.

But with the modernization of Shanghai, that feeling of intimacy subsided. The sense of a being one in a "school of fish" that I loved in the daily swarm of bicycles (see post re: Little Pink) disappeared with the advent of metro lines & automobiles; the open-air street life shuttered up into glass-fronted shops & air-conditioned mega-malls. Mobs of trendy(ish) young couples trawling for international brands replaced the small posses of card-players with their undershirts rolled to air their bellies in the summer heat.


And so it came upon me with a rush of feeling when I found that curious and disconcerting intimacy in tact & thriving on the streets of Petra's walk. It raised in me a revery of tenderness towards the city & its details, toward particular individual lives. It returned to me the sense of wonder & amused affection with which I began the Cabinet of Curiosities, the desire to preserve various small moments of extreme & delightful ordinariness, to build a collection of physical objects that would trigger this extraordinary mundane of which I already anticipated losing track. 


As seen on WeChat, Berlin, a vibrant place in my imagination, seemed quiet, historical, spare of objects & beings, almost stunningly so. Helsinki, on my first visit there recently, with its calm & order & the purity of its design sensibility, had me nursing a secret nagging wonder: wouldn't I, over time, feel lulled into boredom there? 

                                                                        
But Shanghai: the sheer busy-ness of what a Chinese friend calls "the not-so-organized" space, the unpredictability, the constant (or incessant & unremitting) stimulation. To walk out the door & see: a plastic basin of eels tip over, eels slithering by the dozen down into the sewer drain; slightly dated dresses catching the breeze on a laundry line, perhaps those of one of the park's ballroom dancers, a woman trying to retrieve the opportunity lost for lipstick & high heels during the androgynous monotony of the Cultural Revolution; a family on low stools, shelling peas, their son fully concentrated on his homework at a card table, the scrawny cat at his feet working over a fish head; a net sack full of bullfrogs 3 times the size of my hand. So many very particular details so very close, so available to one in a flood of strangers.

Petra's walk returned to me the opportunity here for ceaselessly just plain noticing. The crazy density of textures - not necessarily of beauty or culture or history - just of everyday life. The closeness of all these individual souls living out their individual days as part of a huge anonymous blob of 22 million beings living all together in this one spot. 

So now next time someone asks the dread question I've got the answer...




(Much thanks to Petra for designing the opportunity & to Anja for the company! That really was a great walk!)


Thursday, April 17, 2014

iDtown #3: The Factory

Girolamo in his studio box
The three of us for whom the factory was the thing began by scrounging. Maybe there's something in a western art training that encourages that? Girolamo pulled all sorts of broken pallets & crates & scraps of wood into his studio, Savinder collected artifacts from the still unemptied rooms of the former living areas of the factory and I snapped up as many as I could find of the plywood jigs that the workers had cut for gluing hardware to the giant glass studio doors.


Ours was iDtown's first residency & so the workers had no idea yet that what was refuse to them was art supplies to us. No sooner would Giro fill his studio with the detritus he needed for his installation than the workers would diligently return his studio to a pristine state. It got to where everything in his studio wore a label identifying it in chinese as "the artist's work." I, on the other hand, while on a bit of R&R in the big city of Shenzhen, got a call from Hang Feng on behalf of the workers: could they take down my installation as they still needed the jigs...artists stealing from workers, workers stealing from artists, made Hang Feng hysterical with laughter.



Savinder Bual had one of the best finds of all: a fragment hanging on an abandoned bedroom wall, portraying, as it turned out, the young woman chemist who steered the former dye factory's process. The collaged flowers were a weird synchronicitous confirmation of Savinder's preoccupations as she came into the residency. As various toys & gizmos arrived from Taobao to be promptly dissected,  Savinder's worktable grew into a wonderland of mechanical objects ready to bloom. Her playful experiments finally lead to a, for her, rare video in color, a celebration of the beauty of the peeling mint-colored factory walls & the spiral mechanism found inside a disassembled measuring tape.

To see the delightful thing that became of the blue green bulbs on the worktable, click here for "unfurling."


Without Savinder's help & encouragement, my own first foray into video would probably never have happened...still working out how to get it embedded here so for now just a still teaser...

Photo credit: Chen Hang Feng

Girolamo Marri loves to work that moment that so many of us would most prefer to avoid, that tense time when some idle interaction stretches out into profound embarrassment: the invited speaker, while remaining at the podium, never actually begins his speech; the TV interviewer, waiting for  the equipment to be "repaired," keeps the interviewee standing absurdly by...

At iDtown, Girolamo prepared a meal that could not be eaten...resulting in an extra factory run for resident artist Li Xiaofei. In yet another illuminating moment about "Made in China" really means (see Chen Hangfeng's Xmas ornament village), the factory turned out to be a workshop, stocked with PVC & microwave ovens & an extended family with the artisanal skill of creating, in plastic, extraordinarily faithful reproductions of real food. For Girolamo, they conjured up the remains of a chinese meal: a metal bowl smeared with sticky red sweet & sour sauce, another full of discarded fish bones, a small porcelain bowl holding the final grains of rice... all labeled "the artist's work" just in case...


Giro further put us all in an state of anxious suspense with his Nine Gentle Ghosts, 9 Moka Espresso pots rigged to eventually spew their contents out with a loud retort (a small anxiety of potential that I experience every morning as our own pot hisses to fullness...) I've since learned that in Rome, during a period of political unrest in the 70's, Moka pots replaced the traditional glass bottles as containers for molotov cocktails. Their handles made them easier to run with & to hurl, & that little factoid confirmed for me that there's a certain anarchic pleasure that Girolamo takes in the world.

For what I got made, stay tuned for the next post... 

For the first post in this series, an intro to the artists, click here.
For the post on the other artists at the residency, click here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

iDTown Residency #2: The Beach




Finally, a series of long overdue posts to bookend the post introducing the cast of characters at the iDtown residency...an amazingly productive time for all & here's what got made...

I was so entranced by the factory that I might not even have mentioned that we lived a stone's throw (or really, a leap over the prefab worker's shelter on the far side of our garden) from the beach of the South China Sea. But, interestingly, for all four of the Chinese artists (out of the seven of us), it was the ocean & the beach that were the thing. 

Ed Lo, perhaps answering his ancestral call to sea, spent his days on the beach harvesting sound. You might imagine this sound as that of the waves breaking on the empty shore during the lonely off-season but you would be entirely off the mark. This is China & even in a deserted village there is ceaseless human activity. Each day of even marginally good weather the beach filled with wedding photographers & dressers & stylists & their prey, the [very young!] newly- or soon-to-be- weds.

photo credit: my bad studio snap of Ed's beautiful b&w photo...
for more beautiful images go to "Ears & Eyes" at www.auditory scenes.com

In Ed's black & white still, it looks like La Dolce Vita but it's actually Happy Island Photography, working to the susurrations of the charismatic photographer's "xiao xiao Xiao." (smile smile Smile.)


At the end of residency, everyone's studio box became their exhibition space...a new experience for all to remove the traces of a working studio & transform the space into gallery. The transformations were lovely in every case but it was in Ed's studio that I stayed on & on, listening to the stones & cement speak the quiet that was in hiding at the beach... Click here for something of the experience in Ed's "Eyes & Ears: Homage to Rolf Julius." And here for his take on the tranquility of the factory, "Eyes & Ears Special Project: Concert for the Empty Loft."

While Ed was trying to grasp the current moment, Jiang Hong Qing had flown off in his mind to the future history of Guang Hu, to a time when China is the world's only superpower & deeply invested in the genetic engineering of humans.

Photo credit: Collected from our WeChat exchanges...I think it's shot by Vivay, Glorious Barista.
On Guang Hu Beach, employing a plastic doll allegedly modeled on the Chinese-American basketball star, Jeremy Lin, and a slew of props ordered from the amazing Chinese online marketplace Taobao,  Jiang Hong Qing staged "Dust Harbor," a short animated film that somehow managed to fully capture the inner life of a young soldier yearning for home. Seemingly abandoned by his command, yet continuing to serve out of a sense of duty, he ponders the meaning of existence & of selfhood as reflected in the individual grains of sand on the beach. 





Jiang Hong Qing received a classical academic art training but eventually turned to video & animation. Film, he says, allows him to explore what he feels is the essential human condition, our existential loneliness, the way in which we are each ultimately unknown to the other. But, as He-Whom-I'm-Trailing observed, it was probably Jiang Hong Qing's skill as a figurative sculptor that gave the plastic doll the range of expressive postures & gestures that allowed one to so fully empathize with the young soldier, so completely believe in his identity and personality.


Li Xiao Fei whose work is all about factories - to date, he has filmed in some 190 of them - was often away from our factory, filming in the nearby industrial cities of Guangzhou & Shenzhen. Not so surprising as it's the factory work life that fascinates him & our factory was hollowed out of all but us "creative industry" types. But, in the end, it was not the factories but the stories told by the Guang Hu villagers about the dark tankers that hovered off the beach that inspired the video Li Xiao Fei showed in his studio box.

Juxtaposing the wonders of wedding photography & the silent menacing presence of the tankers illegally dredging sand offshore, Li Xiao Fei's video was poignant & amusing & quietly provocative in the mix that makes all of his work so absorbing to watch. As with Jiang Hong Qing, there's a central premise that informs Li Xiao Fei's Assembly Line videos, an epiphany that came to him as he rode the Circle Line Cruise around NYC, the reality that all of us in our way are on an assembly line, each of us finding meaning where we can in what we do. He writes: "Assembly lines, large or small, uphold social systems and maintain a surface appearance of order... This order is constantly being cut up, restructured, transformed and rebuilt into an illusory reality."

photo credit: all above snapped by me from videos playing in the artists' studio boxes
The little bell sound that Taobao's Chat makes is now forever associated in my mind with the artist who made it possible for us all to be at the iDtown residency in the first place, Chen Hang Feng. Those of us who don't read Chinese kept him so busy ordering materials on Taobao that he unfortunately never got to make any of his own work. But he did get to the beach. To all of our awe, in a wetsuit bought on Taobao, for up to an hour each day, Hang Feng swam in the cold cold sea.


Next up, what the factory inspired...