Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Drawer # 2.3 : Beauty

In Colum McCann's fictionalized story of the life of Rudolf Nureyev, Dancer: A Novel, the ballet teacher, Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin, writes to the young dancer:

The magic of a dance, young man, is something purely accidental. The irony of this is that you have to work harder than anyone for the accident to occur. Then, when it happens, it is the only thing in your life guaranteed never to happen again. This, to some, is an unhappy state of affairs, and yet to others, it is the only ecstasy. Perhaps, then, you should forget everything I have said to you and remember only this: The real beauty in life is that beauty can sometimes occur.
- Sasha

             Drawer 2.3:  From top: 
1. Emptiness 
2. Green dormer window (Cardboard, glass, corrugated paper, milk paint) based on a window once glimpsed from the car while speeding by on the elevated highway.   
3 & 4. Stems of Long Yan, "Dragon Eye" Fruit tied with pink plastic string, found on the street (held by pins, cardboard with milk paint.) The fruits often hang in bunches by their stems from the ceilings of fruit stands.    
For  a companion drawer, click here.   Photo credit: Bruno David     

Friday, April 19, 2013

Drawer # 4.4: Emptiness

I had a post ready to go for today but the bombings at the Boston Marathon have put me in a darker frame of mind.

By weird synchronicity, i.e. without my planning, Drawer 4.4 remained empty. The number 4 in Mandarin Chinese, si 四, is a homophone for the character si 死, meaning to die or to be dead. So like our number 13, it's a bad luck number...& doubled, like in this, it's super inauspicious for the superstitious. Drawer 4.4 is also, as it turns out, the dead center of the cabinet.

Although I didn't plan its position, I did plan its emptiness. In the treasure hunt of searching through the drawers I wanted moments of...maybe disappointment... or maybe stillness. Or of emptiness, in the way that I, at this moment, understand the Buddhist concept of sunyata.

Writes Buddhist psychologist and teacher, Jack Kornfield in A Path with Heart

True emptiness is not empty, but contains all things. The mysterious and pregnant void creates and reflects all possibilities. From it arises our individuality, which can be discovered and developed, although never possessed or fixed.

Here's the story that embodies the idea for me: He-Whom-I'm-Trailing, recently arrived from Shanghai & full of Christmas dinner, falls asleep sitting on the sofa. My aunt, whose sofa it is, is thrilled as it signals to her that he feels fully at ease in her house. My aunt's sister, my mother, is mostly keeping to herself the fact that she's a little appalled by what seems to her like anti-social behavior. For my part, I know that He-Whom-I'm-Trailing is in that state of jet lag where you can be in standing in platform heels at the Glamour Bar on a window ledge above the Huangpu River, watching the burlesque show at their tenth anniversary party & still fall asleep.

[V]oidness does not mean nothingness, but rather that all things lack intrinsic reality, intrinsic objectivity, intrinsic identity or intrinsic referentiality. Lacking such static essence or substance does not make them not exist —- it makes them thoroughly relative.
                                                                                       Foreword of Mother of the Buddhas by Lex Hixon

So any given situation is "empty" or open & we fill it with what we will.

My heart goes out to all those hurt physically or psychically by the bombings in Boston and especially to the parents of the young Chinese student who lost her life mid-stream. May they all find strength in their recovery.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Drawer # 2.1: Jam's Drawer

In a completely different mood: the one drawer in the cabinet created by someone else, the very     talented young Chinese artist, Yu Ji (于吉.) 

I met Yu Ji some 8 years ago, in my very first months of living in Shanghai. In anticipation of my 2005 show for Laumeier Sculpture Park in St Louis, I and a slew of Shanghai University students built miniature bamboo scaffolding all around the furniture in my apartment. The students were recommended to me by their teacher at Shanghai University, the artist Petra Johnson. There was lots of excitement around working with a foreign artist: some days there was up to 10 of us in my very small apartment on Tai Yuan Lu. It was my introduction to chaos China-style & it was great: cultural questions flying in all directions.

Yu Ji, or Jam, as she's known in English, was among those students. Though we are in generations & cultures far apart, we recognized a kinship in our sensibilities & so we continued to work together through the years of compiling the Cabinet. Most of the patterned boards that line the drawers are thanks to her good work cutting & gluing; in her great charming way, she has negotiated many a situation on my behalf for which I am very grateful.

I had thought of asking a number of artists friends to fill drawers but somehow, in the end, I only asked Jam. She filled hers in the weeks just after the death of her grandfather. He had been, at one time, a successful shop owner but persecutions by his neighbors during the period of the Cultural Revolution left him forever changed & fragile. He spent his days, as do many older Chinese men, tending to his birds, building and repairing their cages: the rails in the drawer are ones that Jam found while clearing his workbench. Her drawer stands as a memorial to him & has an eeriness like nothing else in the Cabinet. I feel really honored to have it; it preserves in the cabinet something of the quality of our conversations together over the years.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Drawer # 1.2 : Hell Meds and More for Ghosts

It came as a great shock to me that I was still going to need medicine after I was dead. Silly me, I'd imagined that dying was the hard part & then you'd...I don't know...just sort of coast after that. Leave behind bothersome, tedious things like cold germs & pinched nerves. But no. Apparently, even in Hell you have to take your meds.

Says a Mrs Zhao in the New York Times: "They [in the afterlife] probably have the same system as we have on earth," & so there's all manner of things that can helpfully be sent on by smoke. 

Mansions with their own private security guard:

Vintage peasant wear:

Full course meals of hairy crab, complete with condiments & hot sauce... & sports cars:

And these days, it's getting even more upscale.

via MacRumors via BSN

The Bright Side of News reports that "unscrupulous paper offering sellers"  are selling paper iphones complete with  paper chargers so that "the ancestors don't come back to ask them to recharge their iPhones." 

The Communist Party banned the celebration of QingMing & the practices that went along with the holiday to move the country away from so-called feudal & superstitious behaviors. Near the bottom of page 2 of an article detailing what products are available where & for how much ("The most expensive paper villa on Taobao [massive e-market] was priced at [$2725]16,888 yuan..."),  the People's Daily reports that a 1997 law "explicitly prohibits the making & selling" of the paper offerings. Like the law that prohibits hanging your laundry out on the street, this law doesn't hinder much: the PD goes on to say that "more than1,000 metric tons of paper products are burned across the country as offerings during the festival period, costing more than 10 billion yuan [over $1.6 billion]."

But about those Hell meds. I'm still hoping Poet Billie Collins has it is right:
While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They are moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
You go to the place you always thought you would go,
the place you kept lit in an alcove in your head. 

From top: 1. Tin & glass container with Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs 2. & 3.  Paper offerings in the form of  medicine packages from Hell Maedicinelo Ltd. purchased in Hong Kong 3. Mentholatum in Chinese packaging
Drawer Photo credit: Bruno David. All others: Christina Shmigel

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Drawer # 8.2 : Ghost Flowers

The smell of things burning floats anxiously thru the house, dozens of ghost circles in the lane before the torrential rains wash them away, Buddhist Supply shops doing a hopping business: it's Tomb Sweeping Day.

Qing Ming Jie, 清明节, Clear Bright Festival, arrives on the solar calendar, on April 4th. It's the time for visiting family graves and bringing gifts to those who have gone ahead to the afterlife.

But not all ghosts stay peacefully in that afterlife; some ghosts are restless. They roam the earth, disturbing earthly life. They can be appeased by the burning of paper lotus flowers.

Or so I'm told by someone seeing these in my studio. I bought them for the beauty of their folding... & for how they looked in their cheerful yellow box. I've been shy about buying the folded gold paper pineapples but one of these days...

In the weeks preceding QingMing, one sees the older people passing their time folding dozens & dozens of pieces of joss into the shape of chinese ingots. At the temple, the paper ingots go into large red sacks inscribed with the names of their recipients in the afterlife. The sacks go into the fire cauldrons in the temples courtyard & the smoke carries the goods into the afterworld. As seen at the Jade Buddha Temple. ( Please forgive me the quality...it's this luddite's very first imovie.)

Drawer #8.2:  From the top, compartments 1, 3, & 4: ghost flowers made from folded paper bound with thread; backing cloth is a traditional Tibetan pattern; 2. Tin & glass container 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Things that Don't Fit in a Drawer # 6: University Students

A big thank you to the students from the University of Shanghai for Science & Technology that came to my workshop at the American Culture Center last Saturday! The workshop theme was hat-making out of ordinary household items like the specialty hangers for drying underwear (see row 3, left & center, & below.) Not everyone bought into the idea but a lot of fun & invention filled the day. The students come to USST from all over China, and even from as far away as Ulan Bator, Mongolia (top center) and are as sweet a group as I have met in a long time. (Photos above are thanks to the photographers of the Center's new Media Center...below thanks to a Snake in my neighborhood...)

Jenny Tarlin, the director of the American Cultural Center, does some amazing programming (I say humbly) in her mission to introduce students to American Culture beyond Hollywood & the Big Brands. Two days after my show opened there, we had the wonderful culture-juggling experience of attending a workshop version of Pearl: the Opera, conducted by Sara Jobin.

Named for the daughter of Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the libretto for the opera was written by Carol Gilligan and her son, Jonathan Gilligan. Jobin, the first woman to ever conduct the San Francisco Opera, and Gilligan, the author of In a Different Voice, a hugely influential book on women's notions of morality, have together founded the Different Voice Opera Project; their mission is to foster the production of contemporary operas in which female roles come to something other than the traditional dire end. The music for Pearl, DVOP's first production, was wriiten by Amy Scurria. Click here to hear the "A" duet of the child Pearl and her mother.

(Fair warning: it's a long one...)