Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Virtual Drawer #5: The Writing on the Wall

/chai is the Chinese character for "tear open, take apart, dismantle, demolish." It appears graffitied onto walls overnight. The neighborhood those walls encircle will be gone within weeks, if not days.

For me, the writer who best captures the experience of living in this ever-changing China, is Peter Hessler. His first book, River Town, about his time with the Peace Corps in the city of Wuhan on the Yangtze River, served as boon companion and guide in our first years here. In Oracle Bones, written while he was a correspondent in Beijing, he describes chai:
As Beijing changed, that word gained a talismanic quality. Residents cracked jokes, and local artists riffed on the character. One shop sold baseball caps with encircled embroidered onto the front. When I hung out in Ju-er Hutong, a neighbor named Old Wang liked to make puns. "We live in chai nar," he used to say. It sounded like the English word "China," but it meant "Demolish where?"
Shanghai's an ideal place to practice the Buddhist lessons on impermanence & non-attachment: any corner of the city that you discover & come to love is imminently capable of disappearing forever. It  definitely can make one feel "tear open."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Drawer # 2.4 : Shadow Puppet Laundry

(Aww, my first .gif...& something that feels much more like "my" aesthetic...)

4 bits of laundry drying on a clothesline suspended in the middle of the sidewalk.  A windy day.  Shadows re-drawing the clothes over and over again...

Drawer 2.4: Graphite drawing & milk paint on cardboard
Photo credit: Bruno David

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Virtual Drawer # 4: Shadow Puppet Theater of Qibao

Julie Kesti, artist, bodyworker, Shanghai-based blogger recently introduced me to the work of shadow puppeteer Annie Katsura Rollins...& Annie's wonderful website on Chinese shadow puppetry inspired  Julie & me to set off to Qibao where years ago I'd seen a shadow puppet performance. Given how things here disappear from one moment to the next, we were thrilled to find the "Qibao Shadowgraph Museum" still in place, still on its old schedule. Performances are on Weds & Sundays at 1 and last aout one hour. The older locals wander in & out of the performances adding to the charm of it all.

It's an easy little trip from Shanghai: Line 9 to Qibao, just 20 mins from Xujiahui, then a few blocks of walking to "Old Town Street."

For a video preview, click here to witness the ferocious fight that leads to that tiger in a cart in the lower left above.

For another vicarious day trip, check-out Art Critic/Writer XhingYu Chen's post about our visit around the Shanghai art scene.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Drawer # 6.7 : Opera Mops

There are not a few days when I wonder what exactly happened to my aesthetic in China, "shanghaied" by a color palette too highly & discordantly keyed for my "real" taste, by a maximalism of decoration & pattern & tacky materials not at all in keeping with my pre-China work. I mean, was there any way to even imagine ten years ago, while welding rusty steel sheet into industrial forms, that I would some day arrive at this drawer?

Sometimes, when I look at this Shanghai work from outside myself, it puzzles me: is it my real work or some crazy detour down a road somewhere between the Beijing Opera Props Shop & the peddler's cart...

There's a piece of art school advice that I sometimes hear in my head. Not a piece of advice I'd think to give, but I've heard it from students who have heard it from their teachers: that the trick to making work that's authentically yours is to make art as you did when you were a a kid. And this work I make now, without much in the way of tools or equipment, certainly is that: a return to making something simply out of what's at hand.

And then there's what I think of as the DP [displaced persons] thing. A friend here, the writer Lisa Movius, likes to point out that while we foreigners think of ourselves as "ex-pats", we're really economic migrants just as much as the "floating population" of laborers come to the city from the Chinese countryside.

Which is an ironic turn in life for me, the child of immigrants, albeit political rather than economic refugees, people who found their way to America post WWII via DP camps. The experience of which was vivid to me as a child as it dominated the conversations of the adults around me. "Oh," they'd slap each other on the back after church & say, "I haven't seen you since Camp." By which they didn't mean Summer.

It struck me one day, at the performance of an english-language theater company, that life here is in its way kind of like DP Camp: a microcosm of the world left behind recreated in a foreign place. Theater erupts as soon as any group of exiles congeals: there was a theater company in the DP camp at Bertesgarten where my mother & her family were interned and even in some of the concentration camps. There's clearly some essential human need that's satisfied by the interpretation of life thru drama. Art doesn't even need community, just materials, as witnessed by the things that made it from DP camp to my parents' house in Queens: from packages of silk stockings, scrap bits of backing board used for paintings; parachute silk for embroidery; aluminum cans for bracelets... not unlike the detritus of Shanghai that end up in the drawers.

That's what I'm thinking when I'm outside the work.

When I'm inside the work, at my best, I'm amusing myself, indulging in the over-the-topness that the material world here inspires...wondering how to turn this latest stripey mop on its head...with an assist from a willing student in an American Culture class... and into Beijing Opera headware. Taking it from functional object to gesture to object transformed... the quotidian become theater.

Last night at the Lit Fest, with this post nearly written, I got to see Chris Doyle, my favorite of all cinematographers, and, with director Wong Kar Wai, the creator of some of my favorite Chinese films, In the Mood for Love,  & Chungking Express. Doyle, his head shaved by Ai Weiwei, in a multi-media presentation called Away with Words, interviewed himself thru his Chinese incarnation, Du Kefeng, about process, motivation, meaning, language/wordlessness. It was transcendent: one of those [rare-ish] moments when you feel the glory of your calling.

I was too transfixed to take notes. What stays in mind is Doyle circling in, again and again, to the need for engagement with where you find yourself,  to revealing the things, masked by familiarity, that an outsider's eye can see and finally (the one quote I did write down) to manifesting "the bridge between what you see and how you respond to it."

So maybe it's not a detour, maybe I'm not as lost as I thought I was. Still, it's kind of a weird aesthetic...

If you happen to be in the northeast far-reaches of Shanghai, please come try on the Opera Mop & other hats made from household goods & pearls at "Shanghai Crowns & Fascinators." Opening Tues, March 19th, 3-5 pm. Thanks to the Center's director, Jenny Tarlin, for the opportunity!

American Culture Center
University of Shanghai for Science & Technology
516 Jungong Road, Yangpu
Shanghai 200093021 5512 3295 (China - Office)

From the top: 1 & 4.  Pompoms from Beijing Opera headware, fake pearls; 2 & 3 fragments from headware (metal screen, epoxy, paint, blue fabric, wire springs & fake pearls) in the pattern of "happy clouds"  See post # 16 for related images. Photo credit for drawer: Bruno David

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Shanghai Daily # 1: Laundry

From "Shanghai, Daily," an artist's book project that occupied me from Dec 2004 to April 2005.
12 thin school notebooks, variously lined as per subject matter (the pictured one for the practice of vocabulary/chinese characters) bound together; pages collaged with clippings from the English language newspaper, the Shanghai Daily.

Here, in a nod to today's sunny day, an article taking the city's citizens to task for hanging their bedding in the middle of the sidewalk..."in violation of a regulation adopted on April 1, 2002. Such a situation greatly affected the whole image of the city as an international metropolis, said Ge Fuping, an official with the [Shanghai Public Sanitation] bureau."

Which is funny because the oddly tender moment (oh, the trust, to hang your wedding comforter out in the street!) of encountering private laundry while traversing public space is one of the things that we foreigners find endearing about Shanghai...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Things that Don't Fit in a Drawer # 5: 2013 Shanghai Literary Festival

Fervent reader that I am, I've always imagined illiteracy to be a terrible thing. But it's one thing to imagine it and another thing to actually live your days unable to read all the text that flows around you...

So I'm always super grateful for March when for three weeks we of the english reading world are treated by M-on-the-Bund to scads of books and writers at the Shanghai Literary Festival. Founded 11 years ago by restauranteur Michelle Garnaut & friends over Martinis, every year the Lit Fest brings an incredible mix of writers to Shanghai, some of them speaking of things China, others ranging far and wide, from breadsticks with Nick Maglieri to the Simpsons with Matt Groening to Bel Canto with Phillip Eisenbeiss. (For this year's schedule including author interviews, click here.)

Some remarkable moments from years past:

Junot Diaz in 2010 inspiring a packed house of a much-younger-than-average festival crowd: "Silence, absence is the basic idiom for artists. What we do is take silence and we make presence...The power of silence is this: when you leave something off the table, people don't even know that it's a choice. Artists give people back their choices. We give people intimate contact with themselves. There's very few professions that do that." (Podcast here.)

Amy Tan several years ago: a Chinese woman in the audience began to ask a question about her daughter's choices in life and it was as though the character of Tam's mother had materialized from the novels to suddenly sit there among us. ("You don't look, you get smash flat. [Like fish, two eyes one side of face.]") It was so universally apparent that everyone in the audience began to laugh. Amy looked up to acknowledge the laughter, and with that look, gently silenced it. She spoke with great empathy to the worried mother, whose well-educated daughter wanted to become an organic farmer, a peasant to her mother's way of thinking. It was one of the greatest moments of grace that I have ever witnessed.

John Banville, the year he won the Booker Prize for "The Sea": the Festival newish then, so on that particularly foggy, dreary day only some 30 souls in the room looking out towards the Huang Pu as Banville read. The silver grey light, the black hulks of coal barges on the working river so in keeping with the novel's voice: "What a little vessel of sadness we are sailing in, this muffled silence thru the autumn dark." When the fog horns began their warnings, Banville paused & we all sat there listening to their echoing calls with great satisfaction at the rightness of it all.

And always, the great Michelle on stage threatening to through your cellphone out the window should it go off during an author's talk...