Sunday, August 25, 2013

Drawer # 2.6: Cicada

Today's drawer is selected in honor of my nephew Tim & his friend Molly who yesterday reached Mt. Kathadin in Maine, having walked the more than 2100 miles between there & Springer Mountain in Georgia: the whole Appalachian Trail done & dusted! 

Only some 500 people a year accomplish that entire length.

Along the way, they passed thru the emergence of the 17-year brood of cicadas & Molly, in her entries in the trail's logbooks, celebrated the cicada's loud & mysterious ways. In Chinese symbology, due to the nature of its life cycle, the cicada represents regeneration & immortality. As I listened to the daily susurrations of cicadas here in Shanghai, I pictured Tim & Molly in their entirely different reality out on the trail...

From Tim, about 300 miles ago: 

I'm spellbound, and find it difficult to see that there is an actual end to this, the trail. That it could in its most abstract essence end, this lifestyle that has permeated me, of sunrises and sunsets, of not knowing where you'll be at the end of the day, feeling small yet full against the swathes of space all around, and well, simply happy. These things just feel timeless now, stretching on beyond any mileage, they go to the horizon, even if it is obscured by mountains in our path, and the horizon, I suppose, goes on endlessly.

Drawer 2.6 from the top: 1. & 2. Plastic net for catching your pet cricket 3. Cicada, found on the street on the way to the Metro,  held in place by two pearl-headed pins 4. Mysterious curled up leaf entirely & perfectly perforated by small round holes, also found on the street. Casings for the "specimens" are meant to imitate display boxes in dusty old collections like those in the Shanghai Natural History Museum (below). The cicada's container is made from the shipping boxes required by the post office; the leaf's is made from the packaging for a popular juice drink. Photo credit for full drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Drawer #7.8: The Lotus Pond

The Japanese writer Mishima begins his tale The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love with a vividly detailed description of  "the joys of the [Buddhist] Pure Land." Its "fifty million halls and towers are wrought of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, coral, agate and pearls." There, great bands of heavenly angels are singing and playing sacred music and, in emerald ponds, the myriads of faithful are performing ablutions. The skies are filled with every known species of bird plus "hundred-jeweled" ones, "all raising their melodious voices in praise of Buddha." There are treasure bells suspended on jeweled cords in the air and exotic musical instruments "which play themselves without being touched." But, writes Mishima, the "uninitiated sightseerer cannot hope to penetrate deep into the Pure Land."

We live near Lu Xun Gong Yuan, a large & leafy public park, that for all the visual & aural stimulation it provides, might be the terrestrial counter part of the Pure Land. Should the sightseer, uninitiated or otherwise, have a mere 24 hours in Shanghai, and spend the hours when the park is open (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) wandering within, the sightseer could witness nearly everything that amazes tourists about public behavior in China. At any given moment, within feet of each other, there might be an 8-person harmonica orchestra with ampilifiers; a goodly number of middle-aged couples ballroom dancing in a style more military than romantic; a huge gathering, sometimes easily over a hundred seniors, belting out "red" favorites with revolutionary/nostaglic fervor; a dozen chinese opera singers, a few western opera singers and several dozen players of traditional instruments; practitioners from every school of tai-chi & fan dancers & qi-gong-ers who are walking backwards & slapping themselves; water calligraphy writers and fan painters; serious badminton players; miscellaneous characters on vehicles for the disabled with boom boxes broadcasting latin beats...besame, besame mucho; people strolling in their pajamas or swimming past the gigantic no swimming sign in their underwear. (I'll leave the phlegm hackers & spitters out of it for now.) The sound level... well, it is just as Mishima has to acknowledge in an aside about the birds in Pure Land: "However sweet their voices may sound, so immense a collection...must be extremely noisy." Only on Weds mornings is the park both packed & quiet: it is the morning when the deaf community gathers, a great racket of fluttering hands, utterly, disconcertingly, silent.

Just as in the Pure Land, in the center of all this activity, in the months of June, July & August, deeply silent in its own way, is the lotus pond. Nelumbo nucifera. It doesn't take a thing of explanation to appreciate why the lotus is symbolic of Buddha in his enlightened state. Out of a pond that is usually non-descript & mucky, in the summer, arises the great beauty of the lotus, each flower opening in the morning & closing at night for a mere three days. All stages of the lotus are visible at all times: its closed bud rising on its tall stalk (the potential for the enlightened state rising from the mud of suffering), its glorious flowering, a translucent bowl of petals that holds light (the state of full enlightenment & self-awareness,) its green seed pod with its edible seeds that in Chinese medicine "clear heat",  and the beautiful brown husk the seeds leave behind once they have dropped down into the muddy murk to begin next year's cycle (rebirth/reincarnation.)

The flower opens at 5-6 o’clock in the morning on the first day and closes at 7-8 o’clock at night. The size of the closed flower bud is not big. On the second day, the flower opens at 5-6 o’clock in the morning and closes at 10-11 o’clock at night. The size of the flower bud at this stage is double the size compared to the first day. The flower will open again at 5-6 o’clock in the morning on the third day and begin to close at 3-4 o’clock in the afternoon. The lotus will slowly wither on the fourth day as the seed in the lotus seed pod matures and can be harvested at about three weeks. 

I visit the lotus quite frequently & always there are many other admirers circling, photographing, contemplating, maybe taking solace. The other day a fellow lotus stalker, filled with wonder, tried & tried to point something out to me but I just couldn't see it. Finally, he brought his camera over & showed me the close-up: a dragonfly harbored inside the curl of a lotus leaf.

Not far from our old house in St Louis, there's also a lotus pond, at the Missouri Botanical Garden. I  loved that lotus pond too, wished that I could step out on to one of the great waxy viridian leaves & curl myself into the spot at its center where the water bead forms. But in StL, the lotus was an exotic stranger. In Shanghai, nearly every park has a lotus pond in summer; they are as common as pigeons in New York City. And that's what makes me love the lotus pond here most: such spectacular serenity & beauty, a refuge from "the clamors of the world," entirely commonplace.

Imaginative power can provide a short cut for escaping from the trammels of our mundane life...If we are endowed with a rich turbulent imagination, we can focus our attention on a single lotus flower and from there can spread out to infinite horizons.
                                                            -The Priest of Shiga & His Love
                                                            from Death in Midsummer & Other Stories by Yukio Mishima

Drawer 7.8: From the top 1. Artificial lotus bud & red light bulbs from the Buddhist  Supply shop on Bao'an lu, now closed 2. Tin & glass container, Traditional Chinese Medicines; in the large photo, the container is missing 7 the liner is made from a box of a popular juice drink 3. Lotus flower w/ Chinese knot, macrame 4. Small lotus flower lamp w red light bulb from a shop in the street of the Jade Buddha Temple
Photo credit of drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pull Out a Drawer. Any Drawer....

It's a bit of a programming experiment as yet but hopefully this schematic will let you click on a drawer & see its related post...I'll be adding to it, post by post, until all the drawers can be opened...kind of like an advent calendar...

(Update: Hmm, isn't posting quite like designed thanks to my naive use of html...I'll be workin' on the look but for now, run your mouse over it...if it's live, the number will underscore. Clicking on it will take you to the post...)

     1.1   1.2   1.3   1.4   1.5   1.6   1.7   1.8     
     2.1   2.2   2.3   2.4   2.5   2.6   2.7   2.8     
     3.1   3.2   3.3   3.4   3.5   3.6   3.7   3.8     
     4.1   4.2   4.3   4.4   4.5   4.6   4.7   4.8     
     5.1   5.2   5.3   5.4   5.5   5.6   5.7   5.8     
     6.1   6.2   6.3   6.4   6.5   6.6   6.7   6.8     
     7.1   7.2   7.3   7.4   7.5   7.6   7.7   7.8     
     8.1   8.2   8.3   8.4   8.5   8.6   8.7   8.8     
             65                 66                 67            

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Drawer # 5.6: Tea & Blankets

It's 104 degrees as I write this, the hottest day thus far in three weeks of stunningly hot weather: I'm getting cabin fever from staying in all day everyday in my air conditioned 9' x 12' studio/office.

So why am I posting about blankets!? Because our ayi (housekeeper) says it's a good time to wash all our winter ones & because I've finally finished my patchwork!

Drawer # 5.6 is somehow about marriage & domesticity.

The blue & white bowls are the most common of old tea cups,  decorated with the character for "double happiness" and the drawing/pattern known as "auspicious clouds." The red cloths that line the boxes, & from which the flowers are cut, are the fabrics, now out of fashion, traditionally used for marriage blankets, as seen in the first of the blanket photos.  

In the top most box of the drawer, the liner cloth is the indigo & white batik known as Nankeen Cloth, another traditional fabric fast disappearing from production, seen, in the photos above, hanging in the secret garden of the  lovely Shanghai Lan Lan Handprinted Blue Nankeen Cloth Museum.  The object in the top box is the remnant of a firecracker casing that landed on our 3rd floor porch one morning as a rousing barrage of firepower kept the demons away from the bride departing her family home next door. 

Drawer photo credit: Bruno David; all others are mine.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Drawer # 3.6: White Tile Buildings with Blue Glass


I cried nearly the entire 12 hours of my first return flight from Shanghai.

Now, nine years and several weeks later, when I think of that great outpouring, what comes to mind is a moment on the elevated highway: I’m in a taxi, stuck in traffic on the elevated highway, heading north of the city to the university office of He-Whom-I’m-Trailing.

Surrounding the highway, as far as the eye can see, there are apartment complexes, high rises of 20 stories or more, grim & grim. Reinforced concrete faced in bathroom tile. With blue glass windows in white aluminum frames set into unadorned concrete window openings. Elsewhere, that blue glass is a beautiful cobalt blue but here it seems an affront, a charade, a cynical masquerade to deny the entirely blueless, denatured sky which hangs above & all around. A hazy of grey that we now recognize as Plum Rain Season and which HWIT likens to the atmosphere of Venus. 

The tile of the buildings is glazed white porcelain, with the occasional embellishing trim of powder blue; or there’s a kind of pepto pink or a beige that I hate on principle or mauve, all equally ravaged by rust stains and layers of greasy black dust. One might think that glazed porcelain tile would wash off in the Plum Rain but it does not.

I look at the tile buildings for hours from many nerve-jangling Shanghai taxis, sitting in the blare of the radio (“Sex Bomb! Sex Bomb!” one memorable day), windows opened by the driver who is saving himself the expense of the a/c (should it be working at all), bus exhaust streaming in on the hot humid outside air. 

The tile has the rectangular proportions of a brickface but it is not laid like brick. It is laid all in a row with its long side standing up vertically. The grout in that row, between the long sides, is laid in thin lines; the grout between those rows is laid in a wider line, which together results in a kind of stripeyness. It is my very first moment of …not exactly affection… but some kind of positive regard for these buildings when I notice this pattern. 

To me, up until that moment when the stripes reveal themselves, those tile buildings are the very incarnation of the dystopic city. It is those tile buildings that make me cry. How will I, with all my craving for beauty, ever survive in a place so ugly.


Years later. In the studio, the milk paint surface of a piece of cardboard recalls perfectly the surface of the tile in its element-beaten state. I draw the stripey pattern. I score it. And suddenly, a new body of work opens up. Suddenly the aesthetic that rises out of reinforced concrete, with its cantilevers and curves, is endlessly inspiring; elevated highway rides an opportunity for research.

The constructions as they sit on the studio table breathe so happily…and choke off as they are put in place inside the deep (& deeply restricting) boxes of the cabinet drawers. On a whim, I place one into a glass vitrine bought some weeks earlier for its own loveliness…and the two together sing out with the autonomy that marks for me a work’s “success.”  There in begins a new installation, the companion work to the cabinet. If the cabinet holds all its archived treasures hidden, the vitrines set their contents on display, marking them as precious, no matter how mundane they might actually be. 

The other day a student in a safety-yellow t-shirt walked towards me. His chest proclaimed:

   HAS A     

I need the final beat. I let him pass me. I hope that the word that is stuck in my throat is emblazoned across his back. It isn't.

So there you have it: every cloud has a silver.

                                      Drawer # 3.6: Cardboard, milk paint, graphite, blue glass. 
                                      On the right, the original version; on the left, as it is in the cabinet today
                                      Credits: Drawer photo: Bruno David; Vitrines: Hugo; Gif by Picasion
 all others c.shmigel