Today I decided that at six days into my residency (how did that happen?!), it really was time to sit down and study the photos I’ve taken and the sketches I’ve made so far.
Art materials are dead cheap here. I got a whole rainbow of fine-liners in a shop on campus for about £2! I also have several big sheets of really good quality paper, as it was being offered free in one of the installations at the Rockbund Emerging Artists show yesterday. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and all that.
I’ve had a glorious day of cutting and collaging and gathering my thoughts together for the Water Town project. It’s made me remember the luxury that a residency provides – time to just let things happen, time to play. With a constant slew of deadlines when I’m at home, that just doesn’t happen often enough.
I’ve made umpteen collages, many of them dealing with the abundance of lines, stripes, sticks, towers and heights in the landscape. Yesterday’s late afternoon visit to the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower (350 metres up) has clearly had an effect on me and perhaps that ride on the rollercoaster insider the tower (no, I’m not joking) scrambled my head a little bit… but where would an artist be without a little bit head scrambling?! Isn’t that why I’m here?
The “Hugo Boss Asia Art Award for Emerging Chinese Artists” is currently on show at Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai.
Of the 7 finalists NONE were women, which started me off round the exhibition in a right grump. However, some of the work brought me round soon enough.
Li Liao specializes in performance. For “Spring Breeze”, he was attached to an office building via a bike lock around his neck for the day. He passed the time smoking, looking at his phone and generally looking bored/uncomfortable.
Veronica Lu’s reaction to this made me chuckle, “I don’t understand why he is wasting time” she said… was she right? I’m not sure. I don’t think he was wasting time. I think he was feeling time, which is not quite the same thing.
Hsu Chia Wei’s film “Marshal Tie Jia” and its accompanying installation pulled me in despite there being too much Chinese history and anthropology to fully comprehend what was going on. I tried to embrace the mystery, but why did that bloke turn into a frog? And in what way is a pond a myth and an island politics?
No such questions arose with Kwan Sheung Chi’s genuinely funny video “Doing It With Mrs. Kwan… Making Pepper Spray” in which “Mrs. Kwan” guides the viewer through the preparation in the calm, cheerful and slightly patronizing way that daytime TV cooks do the world over. Some languages are universal.
Veronica Lu and I (politely) gatecrashed a conference this morning. It was held at the Folk Art Museum in Gucun Park and was organised by the International Folk Art Association (Chinese, American, Russian, Indian and African delegates).
Before we arrived, Veronica had translated “Folk Art” as “Intangible Heritage” which all seemed very mysterious, so I wasn’t quite sure what we were in for. “Folk Art” is easier to understand, but the alternative translation is more evocative… I am tempted to use it in relation to the boat piece, as the work I saw today sparked a lot of ideas.
When we arrived, we were treated to a tour of the artists’ studios within the complex. Many of the artists were there to answer questions. Although to my eyes the work was more “design” than “art”, the skills on display were breathtaking: delicate, intricate filigree work in the jewelry studio; interesting materials mixed with ceramics (eggshells, bamboo and “uranium glaze”); a large embroidery which had been made with silk thread thinner than human hair and a woman who worked only with straw, her hands and – occasionally – scissors. Many of the tools were also handmade.
Further ideas were sparked in the afternoon when we visited the Yuyuan Bazaar and Gardens. The Gardens contained a thousand year old piece of Jade that was full of holes thanks to water erosion – beautiful! – as well as lots of imported granite so that the ancient residents of the space could live near to the ideal of “mountain and water” despite the distinct lack of any mountains in Shanghai.
I can’t help but think that the work I make here needs to make use of natural materials wherever possible – they’ve been such a strong feature of everything I’ve seen and I want the work to look like it belongs here, even if it is made by a Westerner.
It was another bright but hazy day today. There are not as many people wearing masks out on the street as I expected, but I’m told that the pollution doesn’t feel as bad at this time of the year. My breathing is noticeably heavier though and anyone with asthma or other breathing problems must really struggle. Veronica gave me a mask yesterday, but it makes me feel claustrophobic and sweaty and when you’ve got a schnozzle as big as mine, that’s not good!
I took the Metro to the French Concession area today so I could visit Shanghai library. It is ENORMOUS, a planet of a building (see clunky composite photo). It was easy to join, you just need your passport. The reception area and stairwells repeat the phrase “Knowledge is Power” in several languages. I noticed that the French translation is “Savoir, c’est pouvoir” – that emphasis on voir, the looking, echoed the reason for my visit. I will be travelling to the library as many times as I can while I’m here as part of my research. I have several visual themes to explore: changes to the act of reading; the increasingly dualistic nature of the library; the collision of ancient and modern; the hierarchy of designated areas…
After spending the best part of the day watching and thinking, I felt that my overriding impression of Shanghai so far had been underlined all the more strongly by this first visit to the library. Shanghai is a place of simultaneous constraint and potential. There is so much energy here, but so little room for it to wiggle – what effect does that really have on knowledge, regardless of what the walls say?
Well, I got to hear the student proposals this morning. Ling Min and the Dean have arranged for the students to create temporary public artworks for the Water Town area of the city.
The students are in their fourth and final year, so they have strong ideas. They are working in teams and the proposals include: a floating lawn, a bridge covered in locally sourced fabrics, a musical instrument made out of ceramic pots filled with water and an ice sculpture.
I agreed to be a helping hand to the students during the making phase, but Ling Min also asked me to participate in this outdoor exhibition… so she’s giving me a boat (see picture)! It is 6 metres long – a hefty thing – and I have no idea what I will do with it. I have this week to come up with plans and materials. Looks like tomorrow’s trip to Shanghai library (one of the biggest in the world) won’t just be for my own research purposes: it’ll be for sitting down and starting to think this project out. I like a challenge… and this is certainly a challenge.
After a noodley lunch, Veronica, a fourth year art history student, showed me the highlights of Shanghai Museum. It’s right on People’s Square and, unlike most places here, it’s got a fair bit of light and space around it. Inside however, it is full to bursting with bronzes, jade, porcelain, furniture (I especially liked the “writing room” set up) and paintings. Coincidentally, we found an ancient instrument very much along the lines of one of the students’ proposals this morning and the day ended with a suitably watery theme –a walk along the Bund (glitzy skyscrapers facing down colonial architecture) at sunset.