Monday, May 8, 2017

Drawer #7.7: Bamboo Scaffolding

I had this very clear vision the other day of something new I wanted to make. It was going to be  beautiful, a quality that I’ve been yearning for in my work. I pictured a yards-long drawing of the bamboo construction scaffolding used here, its sheath of green screen drawn line by line onto the pages of the chunky accordion-folded albums that I'm always coveting at the Traditional Chinese Painting stores. I started some experiments with green ink pens & then, the clear vision got deeply murky.

The murkiness got me to thinking of this drawer, #7.7, and the myriad times over the past 12 years that I have addressed myself to the scaffolding. What is it about the scaffolding that in all those myriad times I have yet to capture in a such way as to put the subject to rest? 

If you’ve been to Shanghai or to Hong Kong or to any Chinese city at all, then you know what it is I’m going on about. Every visitor notices it: construction scaffolding made not of steel but of tapering, not-so-straight bamboo poles, lashed together with either wire or the fibrous flat cord, really a gigantically long twisty tie, in compartment 2 of this drawer. In Shanghai, the scaffolding goes up 5 or 6 stories, mainly around existing structures, for restoration projects. But in HK, to this day, even skyscrapers get bamboo’d: in effect, an eighty-story-tall basket. 

The very first thing I built in Shanghai: miniature scaffolding around all the furniture in our sitting room (not so great for He-Whom-I'm-Trailing after a long day at his first overwhelming welcome-to-China job.) The sticks were real bamboo, made by someone’s hand, split & split & split from thick bamboo poles into the thin rods used for the bars of bird cages. I bought them in large bundles, much to the bemusement of the lady at the bird and insect market, then tied them together (with the help of half a dozen art students from Shanghai University) with the ubiquitous pink string that was then & still remains a local favorite material of mine. 

Photo credit: Qilai Shen
The images from that install eventually became the windows/lightboxes of the pavilion in the center of the first room of an 8-room installation at Laumeier Sculpture Park in St Louis. The poor curator! He’d invited me to do the show on the basis of the minimalist sculptural installations that I made pre-China & instead, he got an entire Shanghai Circus event…

Photo credit: Britt Bailey, 2005
Emerging from under & behind the Pavilion was a red pipe also clad in scaffolding, a miniaturization of actual building works projects I'd glimpsed on a train trip, massive pipes making crazy curves as they traversed canals & culverts…

Photo credit: Britt Bailey, 2005

And, in another room, the dismantled sitting room scaffolding, just hanging about…
Photo credit: Britt Bailey, 2005

With few opportunities for installation work in SH and the massive cost & logistics of shipping work back to the States, I resorted to a foldaway site: the pop-up book. A slightly nutty idea for me to pursue, given my preternatural inability to measure but, during a residency at the Doulun Museum, I  managed to complete 6 pop-ups. Which didn’t go a long way towards filling the museum’s massive exhibition space at the end of the residency with a show. I suddenly had a wild urge to collaborate with the scaffold builders.

One look at my model and the scaffolding crew leader (on the left holding the model) saw right away all the deliberate choices that I couldn't get the museum staff to explain. Through our shared experience as makers, without a common spoken language between us, the crew & I understood each other perfectly clearly. It was so exhilarating [especially as there were oh-so-many cultural misunderstandings that did not go well with that show…]

The bamboo poles were delivered to the back of the museum but since they were extremely long, the only way to get them up to the museum’s 6th floor was hand-over-hand up the outside wall:

The crew brought shiny wire for binding but understood right away when I asked for “the other material” & then up they went…twisting the ties until the ends spiraled into pigtails…

To the visitor ascending the stairs into the the glass atrium, the space appeared to be under construction (like everything everywhere) but once he or she entered the structure, it slowly revealed itself to be built according to the logic of Chinese Gardens, with the meandering zig zag paths that cannot be traced by demons & the framing devices of the Gardens’ windows. The pop-ups were made of paper cut from magazines about treasured historical examples of calligraphy and were set into hinged frames within the bamboo structure. Of course, there was a pop-up scaffold.

When I finally found a studio space of my own, miniature scaffolding continued apace, now in gridded red line structures (reed from IKEA of all places) that actually got the scaffolding "wrong".  For these were dimension grids, where the scaffolding in fact surrounds either a volume (an old building) or a void (a building coming up.) A visiting sculptor/friend cleverly recognized that the grids could be built so as to collapse on to themselves, saving me from a shipping disaster…(Blessings on you, redballproject.) 
Installation at Bruno David Gallery, St Louis, MO, 2011. Photo credit: Bruno David
I tuned into the sheathing & its particular shade of green when Great World (Da Shi Jie 大世界) was suddenly clad for restoration. A structure of telescoping tiers, the building had most recently served as a children’s entertainment palace, reformed from its earlier function, pre-revolution, as an adult entertainment palace for bawdy foreigners. The sheathing enclosed Da Shi Jie, transforming its banal faux-neo-baroque architecture into a fabulous green-glowing wedding cake tower that I took for my own…


Installation at Bruno David Gallery, 2011 Photo credit: Bruno David

And then there was stripey scaffolding: what about that! Red & white…

Collection of M-Restaurant, Shanghai, China; currently on view at Glam
And diagonal yellow & black striping:
On view at the Ukrainian Museum, NYC until Sept 2017. Photo credit: Bruno David
And eventually, in another search for an accessible/mobile site…

Opening at Frontline Gallery, Shanghai, 2011


As I puzzled out loud to HWIT about this ineluctably attraction of mine, he said, “Well, it’s work-in-progress, when that stuff is up.” And that got it exactly right in my head: it’s a fixed moment of flux! It’s a signifier of becoming, not the thing, completed, contained, that it’s going to be, or that it was, but rather a sign that something is coming into being. And it is also a thing in itself, a form & a volume, but one that is transient, ephemeral, a thing that will eventually reduce down to a pile of lines & a heap of netting. It’s a thing that contains a void that eventually itself gets voided. A form for the fleeting nature of things-coming-into-being; the mutability of reality made manifest. 

Back to the drawing board.

(Thanks, dear reader, for your visit!)

Drawer #7.7 From top: Compartments 1, 2 & 4: painted bamboo, pink string; 3. Green twisty tie material used to assemble full-size scaffolding. Photo credit: Bruno David

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Native Repair #2: Wheels

There's a truism that runs something along the lines that once you've been an ex-pat for over 10 years, you can't go "home." I doubt that He-Whom-I'm-Trailing & I have acculturated here in any way that would make "home" tricky for us but I do occasionally ponder what it is from this China life that  I'll some day miss. Like this situation today...

Having done a heroic job thru twelve years of hard riding & living outdoors, the foot pedal on Little Pink, my trusty bicycle, finally gave out. From anywhere that I've lived in the States - NYC, NC, StL - just finding the local bike guy would be an issue but here, he's just a 5 min ride away, over in what a Chinese Gov't friend of ours designates as a "not-so-well organized" neighborhood, adjacent to our  organized (& infinitely duller) one.

I can be count on finding his little caravan cart of a repair shop parked just past the entrance gate to the "not-so-well organized" wet market. Everything he needs is all there: cart festooned with #type-in-the-wild electrical tape graphics; giant umbrella to protect him from the elements; low wooden stool, whacked together from wood scraps, for work close to the ground; sling-back lounge chair for between customers.

Used to be, first few times he did things for me, he was kind of gruff. But today, he greets me with a big grin of familiarity & quits assembling a brand-new-outa-the-box fluro orange bike to see what it is I need.

Yup, we agree, pedal's broken. Digging around in the cart of all repair wares, uhn, there's a pedal but none to match. Do I care? I do not. Old pedal comes off, new pedal goes on. No getting him to change the other one because it's not broken [yet.] Transaction time: under 10 mins. Cost: 10 Kuai...that's maybe USD1.50. Which tells me that I now have lao pengyou/old friend status as the first time I came, he charged me 2 kuai just to put air in my tires.

I love doing business with the bike repair guy: I love the smallness of scale of the set-up, of the interaction, a scale you hardly find Stateside anymore. I'll definitely miss that.

And, speaking of rides, these rather rarely-seen-but-much-delighted-in strollers...



Click here for earlier adventures with Little Pink...

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