Wednesday, December 31, 2014

线 Thread

Two days into my time at Da Wang my colleagues left for a 5-day field trip to Chengdu in Sichuan Province to visit the world's largest Buddha, sample the cuisine and explore the gallery scene. I was invited but with such short notice and only a month to work at the residency, I decided to stay behind. It seemed like the perfect situation to engross myself into working without distractions, and it was just that.

I wasn't physically alone. Ayi the cook, Miswang the housekeeper and Shiny the receptionist were there to assist me with anything I needed. But with the exception of Shiny, no one I interacted with spoke English. I ate several meals alone with sweet Ayi sitting across from me and us both just smiling at each other. I worked all day with many people around me but no one I could talk with. Add to this that most access on the internet is blocked by China's wall, which didn't matter since by this time we lost our wifi connection anyway. This type of isolation was a first for me. A strange social space for someone whose work is about engagement.

In the studio I was experimenting with the rubbings of the window onto the propaganda magazines and decided to add embroidery. I needed to find some needles and thread, preferably silk. So I enlisted Shiny and her dictionary to write out the symbols for all the items on my shopping list and off I went into Shenzhen city.

With Shiny's help I compiled a collection of chinese translations for my shopping list
and used them to communicate with in the city.

After a 20 minute walk to the village, and a 30 minute bus ride to Shaibu, I arrived at the fabric district armed with my book of Shiny's characters to be used like flashcards with any vendor who I could find. I was looking for thread and needles, but each person directed me to a bolt of a velvety fabric. After about 4 tries, it was clear that I didn't have the accurate translation. At this point I'd been searching for a few hours, and determined to return home with my tools, I was not ready to quit.

The fabric district is enormous with endless city blocks of tall buildings, each packed full
with hundred of vendors selling nothing but fabric. Seemed like a logical
place to shop for thread.

So the next time I was shown to the bolt, I pulled out a thread from the fabric and mimed a gesture for sewing. The young man, about 18, patiently spoke the word 'xiàn' and laughed. I once again shoved the book in front, with a pen, and asked if he could write it down (another mime).

For the uninitiated, Shenzhen is structured much like the internet, an unorganized wealth
of information that is unattainable without the use of a search engine like Google to find what you need.
For me negotiating Shenzhen was like working without a search engine.

With some encouraging and lots of laughing among his friends, he made me another flashcard, this time a single character for thread 线.... At least that's what I thought it was but who really knew?

My elusive chinese character for thread, xiàn.

It was in fact correct. I tried it out in the next building and was promptly led up 3 flights to a floor that was nothing but thread, zippers, buttons and other accessories. I felt victorious and happily went to work at trying to communicate with the lovely thread vendor who helped me choose colors.

Thank goodness for calculators as the universal communicator of numbers.
We negotiated pricing back and forth by punching in the appropriate amounts.
Where there's a will there's a way!

I left Da Wang for the city after lunch, and the sun was setting by the time I found my thread and needles. It wasn't silk like I wanted, but it's what I could get my hands on, it's what I had, and I would make it work.

Exhausted, I flagged a taxi and braced myself for yet another mime routine, this time with
the driver to get me back to Da Wang.

An embroidery study with my newly acquired threads!

The primitive character for thread.
A stamp I had carved to commemorate the day
and my new connection with China.

This post is part of a series documenting my experiences in China. 
Please follow previous entries by using the blog archive in the sidebar to the right. Or click here for the beginning. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fortune, Longevity and Wealth

One of my favorite places is the Oceania exhibit at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
There's something very compelling about the rawness,
immediacy and purpose of the making.

Folk art is produced typically in cultural isolation by untrained, often anonymous artisans with varying degrees of skill.  The designs are usually highly decorative with bright bold colors, flattened perspective, strong forms in simple arrangements, and immediacy of meaning.

It's usually characterized by the following six features:
1. It is the art of the people and by the people.
2. Meets the needs of daily work, food, clothing, shelter, as well as the social life of festivals and ceremonies, of beliefs and taboos.
3. Reflects the system of philosophy, art and color composition of the culture.
4. Interprets the tradition of literature and art development throughout history
5. Distinct by geographical region.
6. Created with commonplace tools and indigent raw materials

China's folk art is like the country itself, complex, unfamiliar, not intuitive, steeped in history and oftentimes contradictory. Some images appear garish in color and design. Some others feel more refined and the result of a practiced hand to accomplish.

Papercut "Rat eating oil," in which the oil jar is a metaphor of mother's body,
and the rat a symbol of having a lot of children. Unlike the cubism in Western modern art
in which circles and squares are formed geometry figures; Chinese folk art structure
is counter perspective, based on the concepts of Chinese philosophy.

Folk art symbolism flourished due to the anxiety about the mysteries of nature. Humans felt vulnerable against disasters and the invisible world of ghosts, evil spirits, demons and monsters. Creatures with supernatural qualities became totems for protection against the evils of nature and vicious man-made struggles. Fish, toad and frogs are yin or female totem figures and strong animals like snake, tiger, ox, or boar are yang or male figures. When used together in a totem they connect heaven and earth and maintain harmony in the universe.

Colorfully painted wood ladles take the shape of strange animals and hang on front doors
of homes.The animal looks grotesque with a wide open mouth as if ready to swallow the demons
and goblins that dare to invade. A talisman designed to ward of evil and disaster.

The practices were continuous from early times to the present with the emphasis on maintaining established techniques, compositions and colors rather than imposing individual artistic expression. It is a link to the past, perpetuating tradition and reinforcing the message of good will and fortune without challenging superstitions.

This brings me to Shenzhen, The Overnight City. As touched upon in an earlier post, Shenzhen has not existed long enough to have much history and its residents have migrated there from all the middle provinces of China. They are young, usually in their 20s, and in search of a new future and identity.

With some investigating, it became apparent that to see the different folk art techniques I would have to visit the particular provinces all over the country, and that Shenzhen was not a place for seeking out traditional practices.

After a brief moment of disappointment, a stronger concept for my review of common folk art became apparent to me. Instead of the presence of it, it is the absence that is important and worth considering.

With this idea I began developing an Overnight Narrative for the Overnight City. A new age totem to personify the hopes, fears and superstitions of a contemporary life in industrial China where the major concerns, 4000 years later, are still about good fortune, longevity of life and prosperity.

A presumptuous ambition for this first time visitor. But by working with this naive art, and some curious impressions, this naive spectator hopes to gain insights into people, history and culture.

Next up...  making it work with the materials I have available to me.

This post is part of a series documenting my experiences in China. 
Please follow previous entries by using the blog archive in the sidebar to the right. Or click here for the beginning. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Ayi is the cook and housekeeper at Da Wang.
She shops the market in the village daily and miraculously whips up two freshly
cooked meals 6 days a week. Monday is her one day off.

Ayi is an endearing term for 'Aunt'. Many people have housekeepers and they refer to them as their 'Ayi'. For the first couple of weeks I didn't know this and thought it was Ayi's actual name! She often mused how funny it was that Joop and I would call her Ayi since we were both a little older than she was. 

The kitchen is outdoors on a stone patio out the back of the building and at the base of the mountain. Ayi would perform her magic with a propane tank, single burner gas range and a rice cooker. Daily we would be served an enormous variety of fresh veggies and protein that wasn't always identifiable but always delicious. Ayi introduced me to fresh bamboo, lotus root, all sorts of radishes and a variety of greens so numerous that there aren't names for all of them.

The Chinese include bones in all their cooking. They enjoy the flavor and tactileness of moving the bones around in their mouth and chuckle at the disdain of westerners. When ready, they gently release the bones directly from their mouths onto the table next to their bowls. It is considered rude to use your hands to move the bones from your mouth to the table but that was a difficult habit for me to change. 

Never really got the name of the protein in this photo but it tasted a little
like a sausage but not with pork.
Legumes with tofu (similar to Fava but called something else that I can't remember);
Unknown greens with garlic; Spicy pepper condiment with red pepper and cilantro; Radish soup. 

Ayi is one of the warmest and sweetest people I met in China, and she is a general too. We were to be on time and make sure to wash before and after eating. The dishes were washed several times, then stored in a sterilizer and then washed again. To look at the setup one wouldn't expect it to be so hygienic but it is. I found this everywhere I visited in China. 

A typical scenario in this part of China. The tableware at a restaurant is served shrink-wrapped.
They were sent out to be cleaned and sterilized. The custom is to wash again using the tea in the pot to the left. A process of filling the cup cradled in the center until it overflows into the vessels below.
Then you dip the spoon too. When done, you empty everything including the wrappers into a larger
bowl in the center of the table (not shown here).

The meals were social events where we all sat around with our bowls, rice and chopsticks;  communally sharing the offerings and the events of the day. I really looked forward to them.

This post is part of a series documenting my experiences in China. 
Please follow previous entries by using the blog archive in the sidebar to the right. Or click here for the beginning. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

To the Studio

Two days after arriving I had visited the Village to pick up essentials, and managed my first trek into Shenzhen. It couldn't be avoided any longer - I had to get to work. My studio was a wonderful, large room with lots of natural light. I set up a table in front of the window and settled into taking an inventory of my space and materials.

All the details were new and different. Even the keys had a different shape than anything I've seen before. All the doorways have tall thresholds you need to step over (ADA would have a field day). The light switches are push button. No screens on windows and many don't function. My space was generous in size, allowing me ample area to pace back and forth while ruminating, there were several tables and chairs, and it had an air conditioner - it was perfect.

The terrifying blank canvas. The space was wiped clean and ready for me to make my mark. 

I loved working on the table in front of the window where I could watch all the goings on outside.
Unfortunately, so did the flying cockroach that landed in front of me one day before scuttling off to parts unknown
and seriously affecting my day.

To jumpstart I started by rubbing onto paper the fun textures around me. Everything seemed rich in pattern, even the manhole covers. One texture in particular was the embossed glass in the windows. So with my new rice paper and graphite pencil, I started working with these new designs.

Which way to the toilet?

A painter, Gideon Rubin, occupied the studio before me and left behind a stack of Chinese propaganda magazines from the 1960s. I couldn't read the text and didn't know exactly what the stories were about, but the images were provocative and full of innuendo.

The delicate embossed design from the window felt instinctively Chinese to me. I had nothing to base this on but a naive impression, but I continued following that muse and started rubbing these patterns onto the magazine pages. Interestingly, during a studio visit with some Chinese designers later in the month, I found out that this window design is in fact a traditional one that was used in most houses a long time ago. My visitors were feeling nostalgic since most of Shenzhen is new and no longer has these windows.

I followed this thread of impressing traditional glass patterns onto propaganda newsprint, and watching it emerge into new patterns. Then decided to add to this configuration yet another layer, embroidery.

These studies were labor intensive which made me very nervous and conscious of the time, but I couldn't help it, and worked on them anyway. They led me to other ideas and I brought them home to continue exploring over the winter.

In parallel to the embroidery studies I also started playing with some found materials and building sculptures. There was a container full of rusty clamps that are used to hold scaffolding together. They worked by attaching in two directions to stabilize both vertical and horizontal bars together.

As Daniel very perceptively pointed out to me, fiber artists want to make everything into an interlocking structure, and that's exactly what I was doing. They are symbols of the construction and frenzy that is happening in Shenzhen and China. Each bracket is an individual entity that is just like the next one. Each exists in large numbers and performs the same singular function. In my beginning sculpture, they were all brought together into a tenuous vertical form, like a skyscraper.

So happy that I remembered to bring the gold leaf from home.

Daniel is a recently graduated fiber artist from Liverpool England and has been in Shenzhen teaching english for two years. Working with him over the course of the month was one of the highlights of my residency. We both spoke the same art language (English too though I did learn some bloody slang!). We shared artists and artwork and it was amazing how our different nationalities added so much interest to our conversations. On this first Sunday, we walked around Da Wang scavenging for all sorts of things.

The walk to get to my studio was an adventure. I was situated in the middle of a work area for the company that owns
Da Wang Culture Highland. I still don't have a clear picture of what goes on there but apparently there are many departments to this company with galleries and venues in other parts of Shenzhen and in Beijing. 
The property is used for storage and as a work area for anything that needed to be built or maintained.
I often stepped over workers on my way to the studio who were in the middle of welding, or painting I beams, or assembling mysterious wire grid frames. 
There were so many inspirational tableaus of color, material and texture.
And what was even better, I had permission from Tom to use ANYTHING I found.
This environment enhanced my narrative of visiting a strange land. Observation was key and for someone like me, who loves to eavesdrop and construct other people's tales, it was a heavenly temple on earth
(insert Chinese folklore here:).
This world of found objects was my oyster. All I had to do was beware of the snakes!

Daniel was looking for wire, I was less specific but hit the jackpot with this box of rusty scaffold connectors. We went our separate ways and got to work. It was a good day and a very good start to the month.

This post is part of a series documenting my experiences in China. 
Please follow previous entries by using the blog archive in the sidebar to the right. Or click here for the beginning. 

Friday, December 12, 2014


Dafen (Chinese: 大芬; pinyin: Dàfēn) is a suburb of Shenzhen. In the early 1990s a group of about twenty artists took up residence in this town. They specialised in the making of large numbers of replicas of oil paintings by masters such as Van GoghDalída Vinci or Rembrandt and more.
Most paintings we see in western hotels come from Dafen. It is common for these village painters 
to receive an order for 5000 of a particular artwork for a hotel chain in Dubai for example.
Many are trained at art academies in the required techniques and produce dozens of replicas daily.
Most of the artists reside elsewhere but spend a portion of the week living and working in the tiny alley spaces.
Today, the village sells both originals and replicas at very reasonable prices. One of my colleagues at the
residency ordered two different Mondrians and another a Mona Lisa to bring home as gifts.

I'm not sure how I feel about it. It seems like too much of a caricature of how China is viewed in the world – as a copier. We place high values on innovation and originality so it's difficult to understand how a culture that seeded civilization with game-changing inventions like paper and language, could seem to be so plagiaristic. But in the end it's a business that requires both skill and discipline.
Cultural questions to research and think about, but one thing is for certain, and that is when the Chinese organize themselves, they do it methodically and in a big way. There is a respect for detail within these systems that you don't necessarily see in other parts of their everyday life, more about that later.
I also feel like there's potential for a crazy interactive installation. Like a Hall of Mirrors sort of thing where you would have a painting copied, then have the copy painted, ad infinitum and watch to see if any aberrations emerge into new compositional elements over time.  
One of the art stores I frequented often.
Wonderful and affordable papers and brushes in all shapes, materials and sizes.

The real purpose of this trip into Shenzhen was to pick up some supplies. My plan for this residency was that I didn't have a plan. Traveling so far and to China, the source of all things manufactured, I thought that it was most efficient to purchase my materials when I arrived and save all that shipping back and forth. Seemed like a sound approach but I soon learned how time consuming it is to navigate Shenzhen and with only a month at Da Wang, I was beginning to panic that I wouldn't have enough. I came with an interest in China's folk customs and craft that I wanted to explore, but didn't yet know what media I would be working in, so I did my best to anticipate some basic tools and hoped that inspiration would hit once I got to the studio.
I met a master craftsman carving traditional stone stamps. A friend of Tom's who works in Dafen.
I became so enamored by his talent and the compelling antique Chinese pictographs that I ordered several stamps
to bring home. Thanks to Tom's help with the language and translation,
we were able to have a few meaningful words and concepts hand carved into beautiful stones.

One my stamps in original pictograph Chinese language.
Translation: 'By Hand' or 'Handmade'.

This post is part of a series documenting my experiences in China. 
Please follow previous entries by using the blog archive in the sidebar to the right. Or click here for the beginning. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


After flying from Boston to NYC to Beijing, there was a final 3.5 hour flight to Shenzhen. The Shenzhen Airport opened a new terminal last year. It is another architectural marvel with inventive materials, ephemeral use of light and a very funky design. After being jettisoned halfway around the world, it felt very space-like and surreal. 

Da Wang Culture Highland, an hour from the airport and on the southern fringe of Shenzhen, is situated at the end of a sparsely lit remote backroad that passes by two fresh water springs, an outdoor athletic facility with bike rentals and a couple of restaurants. It's not well known to anyone who hasn't been there and most Shenzhen taxi drivers, including mine, have not been there. Add to the mix that neither of us could communicate with each other. Lots of extraneous hand signals and smiles later, his determination paid off and we found our way. With his persistence, and making many stops for directions, he found the very dark entry to the very dark road that would eventually lead us to the residency.

It was a bit unnerving to be left alone in the back seat while the taxi driver repeatedly ventured out to ask for help from local people. Since I had just arrived, I was still imbibed with my city-girl instinct to approach every situation with trepidation. I fought the impulse to lock all the doors. Over the next week, however, after experiencing how peaceful,
kind and safe China and its people are, I quickly set myself at ease.
The entrance, in daylight, to the long road that leads to the residency.
We drove by it several times before we realized where we were going.  

The road is lined with a tree that is native to the area called Rong Shu. They grow to be very advanced in age with branches that sprout offshoots that fall to root in the soil. Each shoot adds a concentric layer to the growing trunk so that mature trees grow very thick with many fibery layers. Driving in the dark, the headlights would illuminate these viney fibers that hung from the branches into the road and it felt very magical.

My very first impression was how dark it was. I felt this often when in China. Unless you were in a main city square, where they have large neon signs constantly flashing like in Times Square, the exteriors and interiors of China are very dimly lit if lit at all. Most rooms have one fluorescent light in the ceiling for illumination and most streets only have a single post or light for every block. Being energy conscious, it makes sense to use fluorescent light but it isn't very attractive or conducive to coziness.

One night when walking the road back from the village.
A section of the path just before the entrance to Da Wang.
Red lanterns hanging from a tree.

My taxi finally pulled up at 11:30 pm and I was met by Tom Hayes, the art director of Da Wang, who led me to my room and helped me settle in. So I literally wasn't able to see where I had landed until the next morning when I woke up. It was like opening a present to see the surprise.

The first floor housed staff and some permanent residents. The second floor is where most of the artist residents lived.

Like most residencies, the accommodations are sparse but clean and just what you need. It didn't take long to fall into a routine with my morning Nescafe, yogurt and fruit while sitting at my desk listening to the rhythmic sweeping of the workmen in the circle and the birds chirping in the trees.  

I was lucky to have my own water cooler. A privilege to be able to make my
instant coffee while still in pjs - just like home.

A roommate living on my balcony. Easily 5 inches long. Being in a tropical zone the critters are very exotic.
It's creepy enough to have these large species around, but even worse that they also have special powers.
This spider can jump, the 3 inch cockroaches can fly and the snakes are poisonous. 

I left Boston the morning of October 29, arrived at Da Wang at 11:30 pm October 30. My first day there was October 31 and my first stop that morning was to go to reception and sign in. I was met by Shiny who congratulated me on my holiday, the American Festival of Halloween. To celebrate we were to go out that night to discos in Shenzhen and Ayi the cook was making her special noodles for the occasion too.

This post is part of a series documenting my experiences in China. 
Please follow previous entries by using the blog archive in the sidebar to the right. Or click here for the beginning.