There is a Chinese proverb which states: “The best memory is not so firm as faded ink” – this is something I will be exploring as I spend a month on a research and development residency in Shanghai courtesy of Metal, Liverpool and Shanghai College of Fine Arts.
Goodbye Shanghai. I will miss the haze and height, the whitewashed trunks, the red pearlescence, the “rooms pretending to be boats”, the clasp of the fog, the kindness, the hard work, the optimism and the open mouths. I will not forget the contradictions: the wealth and obedience, the constraint and potential, the attention and distraction, the one-sided opinion in the impossible search for identical pairs. The feeling tall but small.
I have filled up my notebook, my cameras and my head with attempts to record sensations, memories and ideas for new work: intangible heritage; broken eggshells; the stone’s curve, weighed down by thoughts; the pecking process of short fragments; beige tiles, plastic ivy and concrete spider; invisible stumbling blocks in the path of human development; worm-eaten pre-destiny; what knowledge is and what it is not; the modern ruin; the satisfaction of order; nature plus life support and “those for whom all space is one single point.”
A few years ago, I attended a talk about the senses. I learned that there is widespread disagreement about how many there actually are. Some of the disagreements are cultural, some scientific. There are arguments for 5 or 6 or 20 or even more of them. I’ve been thinking about that talk and wondering whether the number of senses should be rounded down, rather than up, because aren’t they all, ultimately, to do with touch? Our environment literally touches us: light bounces into our eyes, sound hits our eardrum and so on. We all know what someone means if they say a smell knocked them senseless – again, it’s touch that is emphasized…
One of my aims in coming here was to study further the differences in eye movement between paper and screen reading. I’ve been noticing this in myself for a while already – my eyes move differently when I’m at a computer, than if I am reading a printed page or book. Whilst at the library, I have watched young people studying at their laptops and old men reading the free newspapers: the way they use their eyes clearly differs too. What I hadn’t previously thought about however, is the effect of the digital world on our sense of touch and how changes to do with looking and seeing are actually bound up in this. This is all neatly summarized in a commonplace word that I noticed as if for the first time today: touchscreen. Touch. Screen. Touchscreen. I can’t believe I never thought about this before!
I spent a fantastic day with Vicky yesterday and have a hangover to remind me of it. That yellow wine (a bit like sherry) really does slip down too easily. We spent the day wandering round various markets – from the Insect, Bird and Plant Market at Laoximen where you can buy a pet cricket or purchase walnuts which have been painstakingly matched from hundreds (if not thousands) of others, to a four-storey tea mall (tasted tea that costs £1000 per kilo, bought tea that costs £10 per kilo), to the artsy, boutiquey Tianzifang shopping area which was bathed in moonlight by the time we arrived and felt quite magical (though that may have had something to do with the wine).
Fate has been very kind to allow me to meet Vicky again. We chatted and laughed non-stop all day. We talked a lot about the difficulties of making a living as an artist too. Han Feng, Vicky’s partner, is a case in point. He has had a fantastic couple of years – Saatchi has collected his work, he has shown in the Aichi Triennial and he is preparing for a big solo show in Shanghai, but money and opportunities are still a major concern. I asked if the couple have a similar experience to Darren and me, in that we have a nice mixture of both being asked to do things and applying for things. From what I could gather there doesn’t seem to be much of a mechanism for applying for things here and extra bits of work, like running workshops via galleries, are not an option. I’m sure it must be changing though – Ling Min’s hard work in getting the John Moores Painting Prize into China is surely a sign of that. I hope the pace of change speeds up for them.
What is so pleasing about the neat, repetitive content of books that make neat, repetitive lines on shelves in neat, repetitive floors of a library? Part of the answer lies in the comfort of order: there’s a sense of reassurance that all those ideas can be contained. But there is another reason too.
There is nothing quite like the sense of expectation from the first page of a book, or the first corner turned in a new place. You are there at the beginning – you can feel the weight of the pages ahead, see the road winding into the distance. As you start to read or walk, the journey holds your attention, your brain and body move you through it. You think new thoughts, see new sights; you’re moving, it feels like floating.
Time passes. The remaining pages feel thin in your hands; the horizon has come to meet you. Your eyes are tired and your feet are sore. Expectation has turned into memory, but that sense of touch will linger. When the process starts again it is similar, but you know it is not the same because you have been given a new perspective. Your senses are keener, the view is clearer.
“Imagine the life of a sceptic who doubted the accuracy of the telephone book, or, when he received a letter, considered seriously the possibility that the black marks might have been made accidentally by an inky fly crawling over the paper.”
This whimsical aside is from Bertrand Russell’s 1926 Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the Theory of Knowledge. It’s a very minor point in the article, but it set me off on a train of thought at the library today.
When I wrote my proposal for this research and development residency, one of my aims was to think about the dualistic nature of the modern library: how it both contains (holds/encompasses/controls) official knowledge and simultaneously releases unofficial information (especially via the communication technologies that people use within it). Rather than focusing on either the former or latter, what I am finding most interesting about this is what happens at their intersection: what’s growing there is damaging mould for the library, but it’s fertile ground for the digital world, which happily houses fact with fiction in a way that no library has ever wanted to.
If he time-travelled to 2013, Russell’s sceptic would be right to question the accuracy and authorship of much of what he reads, but would it still be his primary concern? Perhaps not, because the act of recording and the generation of information are becoming more important than the acquisition of knowledge, which, bizarrely, might even mean that the unintelligible markings of an inky crawly fly have some value out there.