Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Smoke Flowers of Cai Guo Qiang

In Chinese, there are firecrackers, 鞭炮, bian pao, in whose name the second character gives a nice little onomatopoetic blast. And there are fireworks, 烟火, yan huo, which literally translates as "smoke fire", which I misheard early on as the very poetic 烟 花, yan hua: "smoke flowers."

But in the case of the fireworks performance of the artist Cai Guo Qiang... they really were smoke flowers. Eight minutes of colored smoke (environmentally safe food coloring) on the themes of "elegy, remembrance & consolation" that gave me that feeling one sometimes feels so powerfully, of being privileged to be right here, right now, at this very moment in time.

Here's a little gif of images shot during the opening salvo of his current exhibition, "The Ninth Wave," at Shanghai's Power Station of Art. Thru 10/26/14.

gif maker

Click here for the artist's video of the full performance ('cause it's really not the same without the pao!),  here to experience Cai Guo Qiang's artistic power & charisma,  and here for Peasant da Vincis,
an early project of Cai's in Shanghai, that I also truly loved.

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.