Saturday, August 3, 2013

Drawer # 3.6: White Tile Buildings with Blue Glass


I cried nearly the entire 12 hours of my first return flight from Shanghai.

Now, nine years and several weeks later, when I think of that great outpouring, what comes to mind is a moment on the elevated highway: I’m in a taxi, stuck in traffic on the elevated highway, heading north of the city to the university office of He-Whom-I’m-Trailing.

Surrounding the highway, as far as the eye can see, there are apartment complexes, high rises of 20 stories or more, grim & grim. Reinforced concrete faced in bathroom tile. With blue glass windows in white aluminum frames set into unadorned concrete window openings. Elsewhere, that blue glass is a beautiful cobalt blue but here it seems an affront, a charade, a cynical masquerade to deny the entirely blueless, denatured sky which hangs above & all around. A hazy of grey that we now recognize as Plum Rain Season and which HWIT likens to the atmosphere of Venus. 

The tile of the buildings is glazed white porcelain, with the occasional embellishing trim of powder blue; or there’s a kind of pepto pink or a beige that I hate on principle or mauve, all equally ravaged by rust stains and layers of greasy black dust. One might think that glazed porcelain tile would wash off in the Plum Rain but it does not.

I look at the tile buildings for hours from many nerve-jangling Shanghai taxis, sitting in the blare of the radio (“Sex Bomb! Sex Bomb!” one memorable day), windows opened by the driver who is saving himself the expense of the a/c (should it be working at all), bus exhaust streaming in on the hot humid outside air. 

The tile has the rectangular proportions of a brickface but it is not laid like brick. It is laid all in a row with its long side standing up vertically. The grout in that row, between the long sides, is laid in thin lines; the grout between those rows is laid in a wider line, which together results in a kind of stripeyness. It is my very first moment of …not exactly affection… but some kind of positive regard for these buildings when I notice this pattern. 

To me, up until that moment when the stripes reveal themselves, those tile buildings are the very incarnation of the dystopic city. It is those tile buildings that make me cry. How will I, with all my craving for beauty, ever survive in a place so ugly.


Years later. In the studio, the milk paint surface of a piece of cardboard recalls perfectly the surface of the tile in its element-beaten state. I draw the stripey pattern. I score it. And suddenly, a new body of work opens up. Suddenly the aesthetic that rises out of reinforced concrete, with its cantilevers and curves, is endlessly inspiring; elevated highway rides an opportunity for research.

The constructions as they sit on the studio table breathe so happily…and choke off as they are put in place inside the deep (& deeply restricting) boxes of the cabinet drawers. On a whim, I place one into a glass vitrine bought some weeks earlier for its own loveliness…and the two together sing out with the autonomy that marks for me a work’s “success.”  There in begins a new installation, the companion work to the cabinet. If the cabinet holds all its archived treasures hidden, the vitrines set their contents on display, marking them as precious, no matter how mundane they might actually be. 

The other day a student in a safety-yellow t-shirt walked towards me. His chest proclaimed:

   HAS A     

I need the final beat. I let him pass me. I hope that the word that is stuck in my throat is emblazoned across his back. It isn't.

So there you have it: every cloud has a silver.

                                      Drawer # 3.6: Cardboard, milk paint, graphite, blue glass. 
                                      On the right, the original version; on the left, as it is in the cabinet today
                                      Credits: Drawer photo: Bruno David; Vitrines: Hugo; Gif by Picasion
 all others c.shmigel

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