Thursday, April 30, 2015

Drawer #5.1: Calligraphy & the Rat

To honor the birthday this month of He-Whom-I’m-Trailing, it’s the drawer of his celestial animal, the winner of the Great Race, that Cat Out-Smarter, the Rat. (Me, I’m a Dog. Despite being the strongest swimmer among the racing beasts, Dog came in just one before last, distracted by the loveliness of the water into taking a leisurely bath. There’s a theory that divides work into “tasking” & “musing”: me/Dog, very big, HUGE in fact, on musing. Hence the long gaps between posts. Rat, on the other hand, definitely a tasker.)

The novelist David Mitchell [tasker] once likened the state of mind of the writer working on a novel to that of a person who has left a bathtub running on an upstairs floor. My Running-Bathtub-Thought/Question, while working on the Cabinet, was: what exactly are the criteria by which objects make (or not) the cut. I chose things by intuition, sensing my way to "rightness". But what the parameters for inclusion actually were, I could never quite make out. Obviously, there was the practical considerations of how the thing would fit into its cube of space (see Drawer #5.3.) But what was it that made the object worth preserving?

The Rat Drawer maybe helps define the sort of stuff that didn’t make the cut. It contains things associated with the Four Treasures of the Scholar, the tools of Chinese calligraphy: the inkstick, the brush, the xuan paper (mistakenly called rice paper in the West, its main ingredient is actually the bark of elm trees) & the grinding stone on which the inkstick becomes liquid ink. The Chinese pride themselves in, are exceedingly fond of reminding you of, China’s “3000 years of Continuous Civilization” (3000? 5000? I’ve hear it so often that I stop listening as soon as I see the conversation heading in that general direction…and don’t even start on the subject with HWI’mT.) Calligraphy, inkstones, literati scholars, decidedly all part of the 3000 years of Continuous Culture story. 

I’ve got lots of reasons for avoiding that story. One is that those 3000 years of continuous history do not permeate life as it is lived here in the way that they do, for example, in Japan with its National Treasures that have been dying with indigo in the same complex way for 9 generations, etc etc. Another is that when the traditional does shows up in China, it’s often as a cliché, easily grasped & favored by a newly arrived foreigner (leading to what I now think of as “souvenir art.” I could name names but I’m as guilty as anyone. See below.) And, maybe most importantly, the traditional art of China, with its precision & mastery & refinement, well, it just doesn’t speak to me. Not to bring the Japanese into again, but Chinese art is very short on wabi-sabi, the honoring of that which is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete, the qualities that, for me, add excitement to objects. And - let me be honest - imperfect & incomplete is just about my level of craftsmanship.

For my first show in Shanghai, at the Duolun Museum, I made a series of pop-up books depicting various things of old: teahouse, moon gate, calligraphy, chinese garden. Looking at the pop-ups now, they seem much too tasteful to me, charmed by the clichés & connected hardly at all to the experience of living here.
Pop-ups, inside operable bamboo windows modeled on classic window styles in Chinese gardens, supported in turn by the bamboo scaffolding used for construction; "The View From Afar," Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art,  2006.

But the scarps from the pop-ups were much too lovely to throw away…so they became the tabs for a “flag book,”  a structure invented, not by the Chinese in all their years of civilization, but by Hedi Kyle. Miraculously, when placed spine up & out, the book not only fit into the cube of drawer space but showed off one of its wonderful features. And that set the theme for the drawer.

Treaure #1, the inkstick, is made by mixing the carbon soot of various substances with a binding agent & forming the mixture in a mold. I’m partial to the cicada-shaped ones (see drawer 3.8) but here we’ve a Rat. Where there's calligraphy, there are red "chops," stone stamps, that identify the artists & all their commentators (yes, they write in the margins & sign themselves with chops.) The red tin holds the vermillion paste that pigments the chop: quality pastes of ground cinnabar are kept in lovely containers but here it’s the local stationary store’s stamp pad variety, a Shanghai brand. The fan, of course, is standard issue chinese art & beauty, represented here by a signifier… 

A chop created for He Whom I'm Trailing & me by our friend Petra Johnson on the occasion of our wedding: note the box, the stone & the vermillion paste...

So maybe it’s Sausserre that holds the key. The objects that are included in the cabinet are almost entirely drawn from quotidian life: dishwashing soap, packaging string, cigarettes, sleeve protectors, medicated soap, unremarkable architecture. In themselves, as signs, the objects are of very little value. At first glance, what they signify is often the negative value that we associate with “made in China,” cheap & ugly & disposable. But in their associations, there’s often another value, a signifier of things that the Chinese deeply value - marriage, numerology, spiritual practice, culture, the ancestral past - the 3000 years of Continuous Culture.  And that’s the space that was interesting me to preserve:  the place where ugliness becomes beauty, banality turns out meaning-full. Not the obvious manifestations of Culture but where it perks out of everyday life with its collisions, its unexpected flashes of magic.

(See drawer #1.4 for what you need to know about the Chinese Zodiac… Click here for the story of the Great Race & here to finding out just which animal are you…) 

Drawer #5.1: From top: 1. Tin of vermilion paste used with chops 2. Box of Fan Medicated Soap  3. Flag book made of scraps from Chinese calligraphy magazines featuring famous classical texts. 4. Boxed inkstone. The lining material, cheap brocade, features the chrysanthemum which, according to Patricia Welch in her book on Chinese art motifs, "is a symbol of intellectual accomplishment." She goes on to say (see it coming?) that "the Chinese have been cultivating chrysanthemums for more than 3,000 years..."  Photo credits; Full drawer: Bruno David; all others, me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Drawer # 4.7: Bonsai by Another Name

Sometimes the streets of Shanghai can feel all wall.

It took me not a few walking tours to understand that the secret of delight in this city is to pass thru those walls, whether by gate or by lane or by [sp]iPhone… 

Like here, just down from us at #18, secreted behind the gate at #25: a front courtyard entirely filled with penjing. (See also Drawer #5.3) All for the benefit of a renovated lane house in which no one seems to have lived, ever: the windows stand ajar today exactly as they were left when the house was completed nearly two years ago…A quick spy yesterday showed evidence of an ayi (housekeeper) in the form of a plastic broom by the door but the goldfish (oh surprise) are (no doubt, long) gone...

Stash of ceramic penjing accoutrements at the cricket market.

Look to your right just as you enter Shanghai’s classical Chinese Garden, Yu Yuan, into the corner where the garden’s surrounding walls should meet, and you will see a tall pile of seemingly randomly dumped rocks. If you walk towards that pile, officially known as a "rockery", you will discover that its arrangement is not random at all but has, in fact, a structure, created by an interior passageway. Follow the passageway and, to your surprise, you will find an opening in the garden's enclosing wall. Step thru that opening & the vista expands vastly outward, onto a large, shadowy pond, a covered bridge, pavilions of various sizes, walkways over waterways, all beneath dozens of towering pine trees whose limbs start nearly out of sight above your head. It’s magical, a sleight of hand, the shift from the contained architectural space of your first encounter with the garden to this soaring forested watery space. 

I love that opening in the wall beyond everything: I linger there in that liminal space, in the line with the wall, teetering between the two spaces, like Alice jumping in and out of the looking glass, savoring the reality shift.
Drawer #4.7: From top 1. Ceramic temple for penjing 2. Cardboard structure based on  temporary pre-fab housing for migrant workers. The numbers are scraps of stickers found all over the city advertising services, particularly ones for obtaining various kinds of residency permits (more on this in a future post...) 3. & 4.  Various small ceramic objects based on tradition Chinese architecture, some monumental like the pagoda, others pedestrian like the row of humble single story houses. In the Ming Dynasty, only nobility were permitted to build a two story house. Top right in number #3 is a  lead pagoda with a crane perched atop. Photo credits: Full drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Drawer # 5.3: Bridges

A lot of water under the bridge since the last post…

Little lead bridges from the Bird & Insect Market, [irresistible] gaudy brocades from the Fabric Market, sticker labels from the Haberdashery & Notions Market.

Bridge specimens: the arched bridges of the Summer Palace in Beijing, the zig-zag bridge that leads to the Tea House in the center of the pond at Yu Gardens in Shanghai, a pavilioned bridge for West Lake in Hangzhou: bridges in your pocket.

A detour to Process...

Each of the drawer compartments is a rough cube of space, approximately 5” deep by a little less than 4.5 wide and 4.75” high on the face, offering up several design challenges: The depth of the box inviting all things to disappear into its darkness; the static square which, in the days before Instagram & the iPhone, was so far removed from my preferred compositional shape, the panoramic landscape rectangle…& then, how to get something dynamic, or with a narrative thread, going across the dull rhythm of a 4-square-beat row...

And thus the nature of the project developed: display mounts would have to be built & what to do with them…the solution borrowed in the end from the packaging of goods here, chunky cloth-covered boxes, with little blades of (alas) plastic for stab closures, interiors formed & padded & lined for their content’s safe harbor. In my resistance to altering the cabinet itself - something too venerable & grand in its mass & age for me to permanently impose my dreamings on to it - the liners needed to be removable. Not finding the market of the fabrics that clothed the boxes, (though I know it now: the Chinese painting stores on Fuzhou Lu), I settled on the cheap chinese brocades, with their vivacity of color & pattern, raw & punchy, kin to the plastics & the neon of the city.

As I write this, I'm suddenly reminded of my very first Shanghai purchase, from the shop inside the Jade Buddha Temple. (Buddha, unlike his fellow traveler, apparently did not throw the buyers & sellers out of the temple.) One of the spookier things I’d ever seen for sale. A pale pinky porcelain hand, perhaps that of Buddha, or maybe of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, rising out of a bed of lotus petals: I’m not much of an acquirer but this thing I had to have. As I stood paying, the clerk whisked off with the hand, and on her return, it was yet more a thing of wonder: contained in its very own cloth covered box (whetting my appetite for said boxes), resting on cheap, electrically school- bus-yellow satin (now very familiar as the liner of choice) & secured by red satin ribbon tied in a bow. Like the Cabinet in miniature: formal & sober on the exterior, a racket of color & consternation & delight on the interior…]

(And if you though my Buddha hand was over the top, you should see the one I gave my brother as a wedding present…) 

General wisdom here says that evil spirits are incapable of negotiating zig-zags. He-Whom-I’m-Trailing says that he is relieved to know that one’s demons are so easily out-witted.

Drawer #5.3: each compartment contains one or more cast lead bridges. Miniatures of famous classical Chinese bridge types,  the bridges are from among the objects used in the classical Chinese art form called "pen jing."  A variant of the Japanese tradition of bonsai, in pen jing miniature figurines & buildings are inserted around dwarfed trees & stones to create "a world in a teacup."
Photo credits: Full drawer: Bruno David; all others, the artist.