At Art021 (an international art fair at the NIB Building in Shanghai), Art Review Asia provided a counterpoint to the city library’s motif that “Knowledge is Power” – their posters loudly proclaimed: “Power Eats the Soul”. Although I don’t believe in souls, I think I understand what they are getting at – the urge to power fundamentally corrodes. OK. But what is such a statement doing here in the midst of what is, given the numbers of red dots everywhere, a highly commercially successful art fair? To whom is this statement addressed? Why is it in English? Is it a cheeky swipe at rich and powerful collectors? Is it sarcasm? Is it a call to arms? No. It’s just a lazy advert!
There are 5 floors of art in the NIB building. It is a shame that the 1940s architecture has been hidden away behind the usual white plasterboard and polite vinyl lettering – none of the work shown really has a chance to zing, but then this is a fair, the point is to sell work to people with big clean walls, not to impress scruffy foreign artists like me.
On the whole, the work is small-scale and safe (which makes sense for selling purposes). Painting is abundant. Much of the work is decorative or illustrative so doesn’t particularly command my attention. However, there are pieces here and there that are about more than the fact of their material presence: a porcelain sculpture from Beijing Commune artist Lu Jianhua; a horrible but compelling video of ducks yoked together in a push-me-pull-you configuration and the odd painting that is not merely pretty, such as Chen Liangjie’s Blue Box. There’s also a lovely Olafur Eliasson glass piece, but its presentation is a bit limp.
On my way out I bump into Lu Di who used to be at Rogue Studios a couple of years ago! I can’t believe that I have travelled to the other side of the world, to a city with 23 million people in it and I meet someone I know from Manchester. Meeting him makes me realise why I haven’t enjoyed the fair as much as I could have – I haven’t had anyone to talk it over with; just listening to my own thoughts has made me a bit irritable and so this happy coincidence puts a spring back in my step as I walk out into the hazy sunshine. Thank you big small world.
Are you a thinker or a dreamer?
Wandering around Shanghai Library with my camera this morning, I asked myself this question after finding two statues: the first was a life-sized, brooding and prominently placed version of Rodin’s “Thinker” and the second was a small, pale, unnamed carving, hidden in an alcove on an upper floor of the library. The latter piece was of a woman clutching a book, eyes closed, not asleep, but dreaming all the same.
Leaving aside issues of gender bias, the sculptures made me think about the relationship between thinking and dreaming – how the two combine to form imagination.
As I looked again at the “Knowledge is Power” inscriptions repeated across the library’s walls, I suddenly realized that I disagree.
Knowledge is important of course, but imagination is where the real power lies. There are limits to knowledge, but imagination has no limits whatsoever, which is perhaps why some cultures discourage it…
Inspiration and illumination
Breath and light
In and out
Woke up at 6.30am and couldn’t back to sleep so I had an early start and headed out to the library again. This time however, I took my trusty manual Pentax instead of my digital camera, as I have brought a load of slide film with me and it’s about time I started using it. After a long session at the library, I had an even loooonger session of trying to get out my thoughts as images.
Libraries are necessarily quiet places, but as I sat there today I imagined I could hear what the books wanted to tell me. It was a cacophony of thoughts, ideas, schemes, dreams, plans, propositions, strategies, policies and speculations – I was torturing myself really, as it is such a strange feeling to be surrounded by so much knowledge, yet not to be able to understand any of it. I looked and I saw, but I could not read much.
This unnerving sensation was heightened because I was going over notes I had taken on “Linear A”, an un-deciphered writing system that was used on ancient Crete circa 1800 – 1450 BCE. It contains hundreds of symbols whose meaning remains a mystery. There have been several theories put forward about how this language might have worked, but ignorance prevails. We simply have no idea what they were saying, which is simultaneously frustrating and pleasing, much like my library experiences here.
I said goodbye to Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts today and took one last look at the big peeking eye of its showcase building before making my way back into the city centre. As I looked at that building looking back at me, I remembered something I read a few nights ago. It was Tessa Hadley’s review of “The Woman Reader” by Belinda Jack (London Review of Books, Vol. 35, No. 18):
“As for secular images of women lost in their reading, who knows what’s in their books? There’s seductive power in a woman who neither returns nor avoids your gaze, because she’s absent even as she’s present; but there’s an envy as you look at her too, and longing for whatever hidden realm it is that she has access to, closed to those who can see only into the painting and not into the book…”
I find it difficult to imagine the picture of the “solitary reading woman” of the future. Unlike the pages of a book, a screen reflects: it is both mirror and eye, and as such does not offer a hidden realm. What is accessed on a screen will be read simultaneously by countless others, so that the “present absence” mentioned above morphs into shared, controlled distractedness rather than sustained private contemplation – and this applies equally to men and women. Perhaps this suggests a kind of equality, but what is lost in the transition?