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.

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