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. 

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