Friday, October 25, 2013

Drawer # 8.1: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Beyond their textural beauty, the characters written on the faces of the cabinet drawers, oddly, held little interest for me. Distributed on the four cardinal directions, each set of characters describes a medicine   found in one of the four compartments of that drawer. Written as they are in traditional characters, they are difficult to read for most contemporary Mainland Chinese who use the simplified characters introduced post-Liberation in the drive to increase literacy. Only one visitor to my studio, an artist who was raised in a household of practitioners of TCM, knew anything of the names & usages of the medicines: one drawer she recognized as containing medicines for the regulation of menstrual patterns, another for gastro-intestinal disruptions.

The traditional manner of prescribing the medicines is in their natural form as roots, plant parts, the occasionally animal bit or substance (bear bile being a particularly worrisome one, due to the method of extraction.) The prescribed assortment of 10 or so items is then boiled together in great quantities of water into a "decoction" to be imbibed several times a day. The smell of these brewing decoctions is vey familiar now as it often wafts out of my neighbors kitchens as I walk down the lane; it's very particular, a kin to the smell/taste of blackstrap molasses if you hate it, more bitter than that if you don't mind it. 

In the modern version, boxed as above, TCM comes, in pre-packaged powders, kind of like Emergen-C without the fizz. You mix the powder into a glass of warm water, throw it back & quickly follow that with a chaser of anything strong enough to get the acrid aftertaste off your tongue.

In the Cabinet, there are 27 tins of medicines; this one holds dried bitter orange & (maybe) lychee seeds. For a curious list of TCMs, including human & animal parts, click here, or here for a fantastic  gallery of herbs & cicadas & their uses, and here for TCM student Julie Kesti's post on "medicinal lizards."

There are other mysterious remedies to be had in SH... green oil for external use on aches & pains, bug bites & headache (though the smell just drills my headache in deeper)... Or the substance recommended to me by the local pharmacy when I was in search of a heating plaster for backache: the squirt bottle label features an elk-like creature; the liquid within, extracted from said animal, turns out to be illegal in the US...except, after yet further investigation, it turns out that the version I was sold is "synthetic."  Thereafter, known at our house as "NearDeer."  We suspect it's steroidal as the label prohibits its use by athletes but I gotta tell ya, if you've got muscle pain, nothing kicks it like NearDeer.

One of the operating principles behind TCM is a system of 12 meridian networks that run through the body; illness occurs when the flow of energy through these networks is disrupted. Acupuncture can restore the flow; acupuncture needles are applied at points where the meridians come close to the surface of the body & are mapped as in the hand model above. It's way complicated: see the Wiki explanation here or check out Julie Kesti's posts from her summer studies at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese medicine and especially her TCM resources page. 

In a nod to the meridian idea, I arranged all the tins of medicines in the cabinet on an internal meridian: they can be found in the 3rd box of the each of the drawers along the outside perimeter of the cabinet, meaning the drawers in the  top & bottom rows  - row 1 & 8 - and in the left & right columns - every 
#. 1 & #.8 position. (Click here for the map of the cabinet.) Sometimes things worked out differently - a disruption of the qi/energy - so 4 tins got displaced: 1.3's tin went down to 3.3, 1.5 to 2.5, 8.3 to 7.3 & 5.1, mysteriously, just plain disappeared. In x-ray vision, the tins (almost) line up to form a rectangle on the interior of the cabinet.

In my mind, it's a kind of an invisible life force: one of those things you do as an artist that no one else can see and has no grand significance but you do it anyway because somehow it gives order and meaning to what you are making.

Drawer 8.1: From the top: 1. Boxes of pre-prepared TCM 2.  Tin containing TCM substances 3. Green Oil, external analgesic 4. Rubber model of acupuncture points of the hand purchased at the DongTai Lu Antiques [Mostly Interesting Junk] market. Photo credit of drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

And That's How It Started...

A month away in the States followed by the usual agony of re-entry plus two new "real world" jobs to boot...I've lost track of myself. So maybe I'll begin again at the very beginning...

April 2005: The Big Reveal, Hu & Hu Antiques, Warehouse...

My friend, Marybelle Hu, deals in wood furniture, antique & custom-made, here in Shanghai. She's just created a lovely new shop on Qing Xi Lu, but back when I first arrived here, in the glory days, when people lived large on big ex-pat packages & the RMB-to-dollar rate made you (me) feel rich, Marybelle held court in a compound of warehouses out towards the edges of the city.

One could while away a lot of time at Hu & Hu Antiques. The exterior walls of the warehouses were painted a shade of warm yellowiness that was a sweet reprieve from the cold concrete & tile of the city & the place was its own cabinet of curiosities: one building housed antique chinese furniture - classic Ming style chairs, long-legged altar tables, canopied wedding beds from Shaanxi with their masterful dimensional carvings restored by Marybelle's workshop; another was filled to the rafters with precariously tall stacks of Tibetan cabinets, their exuberant decoration hidden beneath patinas of dust & grime; a third had mountains of small chinese stools & woven baskets & stone buddha heads. The newly arrived bits, their pasts still thick upon them, were stored under a shed roof.

Which was where a visiting friend & I discovered the Cabinet.

To our wonderment, its drawers still contained some of the roots & herbs & ground powders used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)... and, Marybelle speculated with disgust, not a few insects & mouse turds. The sheer bulk & darkness of the cabinet, its sculptural mass, grabbed my soul at once but it's really not my nature to "seize the day." On my own, I'd probably have let the moment of covetousness be washed away by the complete ridiculousness of spending a lot of money on a monstrously heavy, entirely useless piece of furniture...but my friend Bennett's assuredness overroad my hesitation with lightening speed. He-Whom-I'm-Trailing was game & the cabinet was ours.

Before giving it over to the workshop for restoration, I did what for me passed as a careful archeological excavation of the cabinet: photographing each drawer's face, archiving its contents in zip-loc bags, and eventually, scanning those contents with the intention of creating a pictorial record book for the cabinet to hold [which book is still, after all these years, on the to-do list...aiya.]

Looking at the picture above, I regret a bit not thinking of some way to preserve that rich patina...but my choice then came out of my dislocation from my usual means...

The "medicines" were powerful with heady aromas ... even now, years later, with the cabinet having been disassembled, scrubbed, and sealed, scent surprises, rising up out of the wood of an opened drawer. 

Eventually, a portion of each of the medicines was returned to the drawers, contained in small tins made for me by a local tinsmith

whose shop, in classic SH fashion, disappeared one day without notice (meaning, that there was a posted notice which illiterate me did not heed) hence no photos...

He was a funny character, the tinsmith, with a huge potbelly that his pants & belt rode up over the top of, a knit beanie on his balding head and, hanging from the corner of his mouth, always, a cigarette. I mean, always: even when he spoke, the cigarette hung in there, bobbing up & down, making his Chinese entirely unintelligible to me. He'd speak & I'd turn to our driver, who speaks no english, to hear the "translation," into a Chinese that I could maybe understand & so we did business.

The smith's shop was no more than 10' deep by 12' wide, with an open front facade; I suppose there was a metal grate that got pulled down over that opening but not at any hour of night or day during which I ever went by. In this small space, with hardly any equipment, squatting on the shop floor, the smith produced large duct systems & the fanciful bar-b-que grills favored by the Muslim Uyghur street vendors, all these wares spreading out from the shop across the pedestrian walkway & out up against the base of the raised roadway that hid the shop from the street. 

Perhaps 3' of the shop were occupied by the smith's wife, who was usually seated near the brazier that passed for kitchen, on a heavy wooden stool with which my assistant, Jam, eventually absconded, to the great hilarity of the smith's wife. Actually, just in general, my appearance at the shop with my paper patterns was killing funny to the smith's wife while, for his part, the smith seemed to think not a thing of it, merely grumbling about the mafan (bother) of the dimensions of my work, charging twice for a small tank what he charged for a tall smokestack. I loved the smith's own small wares, his watering cans & funnels, boxes & oil pumps. I can only imagine what mirth Mrs Smith would have had at the smith's pride of place in my studio installation...

But before the time of the smith and the tins, the restored cabinet moved in with us for several years. Its drawers stayed largely empty as they tend to in the possesion of anyone that gets seduced into buying one of these apothecary things. There's really nothing that fits handily into the deep square box of the drawers' divisions...spare keys, balled up gloves, small souvenirs that one neither wants nor throws away. Until, suddenly, that souvenir thing clicked & I thought that I'd just start housing things in the cabinet as a kind of memory palace of our time here, a bigger & better souvenir... and so it went for a year or two, drawers coming to & from the studio, where I fitted the mounts that seemed necessary for the depth of the boxes, until finally, He-Whom-I'm-Trailing pointed out that my quibbling over the 100 bucks/mafan it would be to move the whole cabinet to my studio was just gutless fear of suffering.

In my own defense, the move to the studio, up 5 flights of very tight radius stair landings, was indeed fraught with thrills & chills: at one point, the cabinet rested against a totally untrustworthy iron railing, attached by bolts to a crumbling cement wall, three quarters of the cabinet's mass hanging out into the lightwell with 4 small (under 120 lb) moving guys holding on it by its legs & me, on the landing above, anticipating the Wyl E. Coyote moment when the whole lot would fly up, over & down...

But, in the end, we got it into the studio & it turned from souvenir to obsession, and then, of course, as obsessions will, it took on a life of its own...

January 2011, The Grande Finale, Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis

Mental objects in bottom photo are all fabricated by the tinsmith; the oil pump in the center is his design,  all other metal structures are made by the smith based on my paper models.  The two on the right are based on local watertowers. 
Photo credit: two bottom photos, Bruno David,  installation view of "This City, Daily Rising," Bruno David Gallery, 2014; all others are mine.