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 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

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...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Drawer # 2.2: Slowly Trotting in with the Year of the Horse

I've been lost in life's sauce... finally surfacing today with the post that should have gone out for Chinese New Year's. But then again, given the state of the world these days (O Ukraine, O so many places & people & things), it's never too late to send out auspicious symbols. 

These being Chinese auspicious symbols, of course, there have to be a lot pertaining to what the street beggars call "moneymoney"...

The Laughing Buddha, Budai, is apparently laughing all the way to the bank, teetering on one gold ingot while hefting another upward. Perhaps better to share it with the God of Wealth, hovering on his own ingot, distinguished by the side flaps on his royal cap and flanked by clouds/yun/云 of
good fortune/yun/运 which are not just lined with silver but laden with gold ingots...

After money, there's food.

Fish/Yu/ you may have read about before on the blog...fishes wish you abundance & prosperity. These ones in the drawer are especially special as they are paired in two: marital happiness. Though they look a lot less happy in their twosomeness out on the street,

like the fate predicted by her mother for writer Amy Tam if she didn't look both ways before crossing the street: "smashed flat two eyes one side of face."

The word for peanut contains the word for "giving birth," not to mention that the nuts in their shell bear a semblance to twins in a womb, so no surprise here: they're auspicious for fertility & abundance. Oranges are the house gift of choice at CNY. The characters of their name can read as "lucky plant," their color associates them with gold, & roundness, in general, is a good thing. Pineapples have too many homophones to mention so let's just say, riches & good fortune. I love them best collapsible.

The character fu for good fortune 福 shows up several times in the drawer as well as, to my surprise, on our front gate, stuck there, I guess, by the neighborhood committee. A good thing as I got to say "fu is upside down" which sounds exactly the same as "good luck has arrived". In this case, the homophone works in my favor but, mostly, people wonder what the hell I'm talking about when I speak chinese. 

Somehow I neglected to stick a bat in the drawer. They're also fu 蝠, good for fortune & happiness, unless they get caught in your hair.

At the top of the drawer, there'a teapot charm: Teapot/hu/  is homophones with the hu-s that mean "protect" & "blessing" which feels exactly right when you think of someone fixing you a soothing cup of tea. But you've probably never thought of it in this way: according to Patricia Bjaaland Welch's book, Chinese Art, the teapot signifies fertility "ostensibly because of the manner in which the spout dips into the waiting cup." And you thought I was being over the top about those baby peanuts. This interpretation does, however, shine a worrisome light on all those non-functional/sculptural teapots out there in the craft world...

And finally, at the bottom, there's those funny fish bone looking things near where the fishes tails ought to be. Those are (meaninglessly upside down) the character shou 壽 written in the ancient seal script. The shou-s are wishing you a long life. (Here they are in their rectangular form. In their round form, they'd be wishing you a natural death at the end of that long life. It's a good wish but still...)

Even if it is just full of sequins & kitschy gold hollow plastic, this drawer sings out with radiant energy. May it bring good things your way.

Drawer #2.2: Plastic charms gathered from the city's markets, disassembled & reorganized; gold sequins, square & circular, sold in huge sacks at the notions market, more coveted by me than are ingots. Photo credit for drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine. Most of the information on the symbolic meanings of things are from
Patricia Bjaaland Welch's wonderful book
Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs & Visual Imagery.

And just for fun...a little Horse Year tune courtesy of Marybelle Hu...


Monday, December 23, 2013

iDtown Residency: The Artists

The floating corners on the left side of this image belong to the floating boxes that are the six studios set variously slant inside the shell of one of the former factory buildings at the iDtown residency. Inside the studios are:

Chen Hangfeng, a Shanghainese artist working in sculpture, installation & video, is the artist who invited all the rest of us. His recent 4-channel video documents an ancient Chinese village known in the Qing Dynasty for the beauty of its landscape, and in this dynasty, for its xmas ornament industry: it really changes your idea of "made in China" to see all the handwork & invention that goes into the "cheap crap" you buy at Walmart. Hangfeng's work walks a quietly political line between the art & traditions of China's past and the realities of its current culture of consumption.

Edwin Lo is a sound artist from Hong Kong. I am very curious to see what he captures here as the landscape seems to corresponds to so many of his themes. He writes about an earlier project: But something that is pretty hard to express are the emotion, isolation, solitude, nostalgia and romance associated with places I had been, which are unexplainable or even understandable. It probably is one of the key moments in my life that I really want to express and tell something anyhow...Ed comes from a seafaring family, with a fisherman for a grandfather & an oil tanker captain for a father, so it falls to him at every meal (and I mean, every) to answer the "what's this fish" question.

Jiang Hong Qing, a conceptual artist working in various media & teaching video in Shanghai, has out done us all for cool (la feng le in Chinese) with an exceptional pair of bicycle glasses. His quirky way of seeing the world slant comes thru in all of his work, including a project inspired by Roland Barthes in which he weighed against each other, on a scale, volumes of the Bible as translated into various languages. As we all hide from the [unseasonably yucky] elements at the local coffee house, Jiang Hong Qing is storyboarding a mythic history of the village, past & future, and ordering all sorts of curious props on

Commercial break: seriously, the coffee house here in this village is a complete outlier, like no other cafe I have ever been to anywhere. Molika, a.k.a. Vivi, who owns it, knows things about coffee that I didn't even know there were to know. In the evenings, she gives coffee lessons that include the science of brewing. She's been training a young man named Ah Baung, but, try as he might, his coffee has a bitterness that hers never ever has: it's all in the temperature, she says, so you can't really get a steaming hot cup but oh it is so sweet & smooth... and then there's the being whose favor we are all courting, the coffeehouse cat, Nai Pao...

Li Xiaofei,  artist and founder of a number of art spaces, does spectacularly grand - think of Frederic Church's icebergs - documentations in video & photography of factories that process elemental materials like salt & coal, & also incredibly touching interviews with the people that work in these factories. His is the kind of work that brings me sharply up against how narrow is my understanding of the world's realities.

Girolamo Marri is an Italian artist who worked in Shanghai for a number of years before heading off to the Royal College of Arts in London to do an M.A. in sculpture & performance. He's the Artist as Trickster, turning assumptions & pieties on their heads, in ways that are anarchic, funny, and revealing. Girolamo brings a whole cast of characters & false facts to every meal, recently  introducing into the English language, a Punjabi word, useful in art criticism, that describes dung so lowly that even a dung beetle refuses to roll it.

Savinder Baul, from the U.K., works in video animation, inspired by early film technologies like the zoetrope & the stereogram. Savinder taught in Shanghai for a year. In one of the videos that came out of that time, she attached a traditional Chinese kite of a falcon, a silhouette you often see in the Shanghai sky, to the ceiling fan of her flat. The bird rode around & around on the fan in a continuous loop. The existential futility of it could make you panic...or it could make you laugh.

And then there's me, the chirp. Writing this up, it strikes me that all these artists share a deep seriousness, a great sense of humor/appreciation of absurdity & an intense engagement with the human condition. I feel so honored to be included among them. Now, if only the rain & cold would quit so we could get ourselves from the coffeehouse to the studio...

At the coffee house.
From the left: me, Molika, the barista; Ah Baung, her student; Edwin Lo; Chen Hangfeng; Jiang Hong Qing.
Coffee house photo courtesy of  Savinder Baul; top photo, me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Drawer # 3.7 : Coral by Sand & by Design

This drawer, with its bits of coral collected on a beach on the Chinese island of Hainan, came to mind as I walked today along a different beach, this one at the edge of a small fishing village on the coast of the South China Sea, just west of Shenzhen. I had imagined, while I packed to come here, sunny weather, temperatures in the mid-70's. But it's raining. And, in order to stay warm in the chill wind, I'm wearing just about everything I brought in my suitcase. Still, it is quite lovely in the quiet emptiness - so unusual for China! - walking along the beach bathed in the violet light cast by my new purple umbrella, purchased at the single shop in Guan He village, the Guan He Department Store, a proper old-fashioned five & dime.

I'm here as one of 6 artists invited for the inaugural residency at iDtown, "an arts district betweens the mountains & the sea." We arrived last Tuesday to find studios not quite ready (surprise) for occupancy but the former factory compound has been wonder enough, leaving me too gobsmacked to even shoot many photos. I'll post more about the factory & the other artists soon but for now here's the view from my studio box out to the end of the studio building, including one of the "la feng" (chinese for "cool") bicycles we use for the 5 minute ride between village & factory...when it's not sheeting down with rain, that is...

The two circular objects included in the drawer are cast ceramic filters for I-know-not-what, purchased in a shop full of other unidentifiable ceramic wonders. Their delicacy & the logic of their design appear to me as the human mind channeling the cleverness of the natural world's design.

In good weather, the village beach is crowded with the froth of brides posing for wedding photos. At the farthest end, there are a series of tableaus, mixing up, like this drawer, the natural & the man-made, in one direction the sea, in the other a factory, plastic gardens in between.

The natural world the manufactured world the invented world colliding into each other...

Drawer #3.7: From top, boxes 1, 2 & 4:  coral collected on Hainan beach; box 3: particle filters made of cast porcelain purchased in the hardware market in Shanghai. Drawer liners: chinese brocade in wave pattern.
Photo credit for full drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine.