Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Drawer #3.1: Units of Air Conditioning

Back in June, just before I left for the States & the blog went into radio silence, we moved out of our Shanghai lane house, where, somehow, 10 years had passed by. And we moved into an apartment in the “small” (pop 3 million) Chinese city of Kunshan. Which is to say, we moved into my idea of a nightmare: a classic Chinese tower block compound in the [empty] suburbs. 

You may remember this from Drawer 3.6, the one about White Tile Buildings with Blue Glass Windows: me, in my first week of Shanghai living, in a taxi on the elevated highway, with the weather a simulacra of the atmosphere of Venus, in a state of near-suicidal despair at the prospect of living amidst the dismal grimy brutalist architecture of this ugly place.

And now, the view from our new flat:

That, you may well ask, is a sports arena/indoor stadium/theater/cinema/bowling alley complex. It's where the World Badminton Championships take place. It also contains a Starbucks. For which I am deeply grateful. Tell me, why would an architect, with such a choice commission, design something in metal that so closely resembles dated & dirty white tile?

As for today’s drawer, the companion to #3.6, well, because if brutalist bathroom tile buildings are #1 for ugliness, a/c units helter skelter over every face & nook & cranny of brutalist buildings are #2.

According to a recent article in NYTimes: “During the 1990's, 5 percent of urban residents in China owned air-conditioners. A decade later, it was nearly 100 percent.” Two decades later, even the pigeons have a/c:

Since the tower blocks hardly ever have central cooling systems, each occupant solves the question of where to put their personal a/c unit in their own inimitable way.

To start, you need a hole. Right hru the concrete facade of your building. No safety code or building inspector need be involved; only one of the hole driller dudes. They can generally be found in posses on busy intersections near new construction, smoking Double Happiness or Zhonghua cigarettes, hanging on electric bikes with a wire bin on the back full up with giganto-size hole saw bits. I think of these guys as kin to Harry Tuttle, the guerrilla plumber in Brazil

Once you've got a hole thru which to run the lines between in the interior unit & the compressor outside, you call the a/c installer guy; if he's lucky, there's a ledge or even a pre-built a/c shelf...

but often enough he’s just launching himself out over space at a terrifying angle to secure an L-bracket to the facade. 

Once he has one bracket in, he in his faux-leather-soled slip-on shoes steps out on to it, & sets in the second bracket further out of reach. No pics: I can’t even watch this procedure much less document it.  

Once it’s all in place, you'll have to insist that the hole, thru which you can see daylight, be filled to keep the weather out. He'll look at you like you are a real pain & then he'll go out to the corner hardware store for a can of spray foam. Which he'll squirt into the hole until foam oozes out of the wall into your bedroom. He is not interested in the aesthetics of the problem.

But I digress. What it means is that all those randomly installed units absolutely litter the building facades adding an amazing amount of visual chaos to the city scape.

But apparently it wasn’t just my pet peeve. When the city began gearing up for the World Expo in 2010, its “Better City Better Life” campaign (apparently) decreed that all the a/cs on any building that might be in an any area that a visitor might pass through en route to the Expo needed to be hidden behind a screen. 

Think about this. In 2010, it was estimated that there were 22 million people living in SH. In the lane house across from us, there were 4 adults & plus at certain times 2 children.  In 2006, they had 4 a/c units; I watched them put in at least 2 more. People to a/cs: 1:1 ratio. 

But they’re middle class so let's say only 75% of the population was represented by an a/c: that’s still 16,500,000 units to cover. Even if they did only 50% of those, the logistics boggle the mind.  Inventorying them all,  hiring who knows how many thousands of fab shops (as ubiquitous here as hair salons & massage joints) to make and installing them all…. And what’s more they even individualized designs & painted them to suit the building...

And it worked! It made a HUGE difference to the city’s appearance: like a kid with brutal acne suddenly having normal skin. To say beautiful would be overstating the effect.

But back to our view. Redeemed by night:

Drawer #3.1: From top: Box 1, 3 & 4: Cardboard, milk paint, glass, straws; Box 2: Empty tin for  Traditional Chinese Medicine Photo credit for drawer: Bruno David; all others, Christina Shmigel

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Drawer 4.3: Wish You Happy Year of the Monkey!

Well, here we go: another China year for us. We've been working our way thru the 12 year cycle of the Shengxiao (生肖), the Chinese zodiac. Our first Chinese New Year in Shanghai we met the Rooster...which means...omg!...we arrived in a Monkey year! We thought we'd stay 2 years, maybe 3 & here we are full cycle! 

Those of you who are Monkeys...born in 1932, 44, 56, 68, 80, 92, 2004...might want to visit Drawer #1.4 to catch up on protecting yourself in your ben ming nian (本命年), your zodiac year. It's all about Red Underwear. Don't say I didn't warn you.

I've been in North Carolina all of January with my head happily down at a Winter Residency at the Penland School of Crafts. I was there, at the invitation of Kathryn Gremley, Penland's Gallery Director, (super big thanks, Kathryn!) to work on an installation for an interesting wedge of outdoor space created by the addition of a new gallery building. 

But I also had fun with the yards & yards of the red fabric called Dong Bei Large Flower Cloth I laid it out as part of my April installation at the Hillyer Art Space in D.C. Dong Bei is a province in  Northwest China (though in Chinese that's Westnorth.) but the fabric is favored all over China. By color - red is for happiness - & imagery - the cloth is associated with domesticity & marriage; it's traditionally used for marriage bed duvets (and to decorate Dong Bei restaurants in Shanghai.)  Older Chinese women have a way of putting patterns together that we'd consider mismatched but utterly sings out to me (though I'm too shy to shoot the pics...)  I gave it a try, mixing four different versions of the Dong Bei cloth - some vintage, some contemporary. I learned a lot about pattern and color values but whether it's going to be an audacious addition to the show or an over-the-top failure is yet to be seen...

A few weeks ago He-Whom-I'm-Trailing came home to a pink notice on our front door. Once we got it translated, it forbid the use of fireworks inside the city limits. We were skeptical that this would dampen the show but, indeed, word on the street from Shanghai is that this year there really were no fireworks inside the city limits. I guess that's the safe & prudent way to go but I'm sure glad we were there for the glory days as it gobsmacked us every time...click here for a minute's worth of video of what used to go on for hours & hours...So, this drawer, with its images taken from the spent firework castings that would land on our balcony, is in honor of all that thrilling firepower. Thank you for looking thru the Cabinet with me & Wish You a Happy Year of the Monkey!

Drawer #4.3: from the top 
1. The Chinese Character for Firecracker & a snarl of dragony-looking green tape 
2. A dragon, the highest animal in Chinese mythology, symbolic of males; with a sticker offering services to those migrants in need of a residency permit 
3. A fenghuang a  mythological bird, part phoenix, part peacock, part other things, symbolic of the females; w/ "happy clouds." 
4. Another fenghuang, more happy clouds, all images taken from the decorative wrappers of firecrackers. 

Photo credits: Full drawer, Bruno David; all others, Christina Shmigel

For more Chinese New Year items, check out Drawer #1.4: Chinese Zodiac Animals;
 Drawer #2.2Things That Don't Fit in a Drawer #4Things that Don't Fit in a Drawer #3