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