Saturday, February 13, 2016

Drawer 4.3: Wish You Happy Year of the Monkey!

Well, here we go: another China year for us. We've been working our way thru the 12 year cycle of the Shengxiao (生肖), the Chinese zodiac. Our first Chinese New Year in Shanghai we met the Rooster...which means...omg!...we arrived in a Monkey year! We thought we'd stay 2 years, maybe 3 & here we are full cycle! 

Those of you who are Monkeys...born in 1932, 44, 56, 68, 80, 92, 2004...might want to visit Drawer #1.4 to catch up on protecting yourself in your ben ming nian (本命年), your zodiac year. It's all about Red Underwear. Don't say I didn't warn you.

I've been in North Carolina all of January with my head happily down at a Winter Residency at the Penland School of Crafts. I was there, at the invitation of Kathryn Gremley, Penland's Gallery Director, (super big thanks, Kathryn!) to work on an installation for an interesting wedge of outdoor space created by the addition of a new gallery building. 

But I also had fun with the yards & yards of the red fabric called Dong Bei Large Flower Cloth I laid it out as part of my April installation at the Hillyer Art Space in D.C. Dong Bei is a province in  Northwest China (though in Chinese that's Westnorth.) but the fabric is favored all over China. By color - red is for happiness - & imagery - the cloth is associated with domesticity & marriage; it's traditionally used for marriage bed duvets (and to decorate Dong Bei restaurants in Shanghai.)  Older Chinese women have a way of putting patterns together that we'd consider mismatched but utterly sings out to me (though I'm too shy to shoot the pics...)  I gave it a try, mixing four different versions of the Dong Bei cloth - some vintage, some contemporary. I learned a lot about pattern and color values but whether it's going to be an audacious addition to the show or an over-the-top failure is yet to be seen...

A few weeks ago He-Whom-I'm-Trailing came home to a pink notice on our front door. Once we got it translated, it forbid the use of fireworks inside the city limits. We were skeptical that this would dampen the show but, indeed, word on the street from Shanghai is that this year there really were no fireworks inside the city limits. I guess that's the safe & prudent way to go but I'm sure glad we were there for the glory days as it gobsmacked us every here for a minute's worth of video of what used to go on for hours & hours...So, this drawer, with its images taken from the spent firework castings that would land on our balcony, is in honor of all that thrilling firepower. Thank you for looking thru the Cabinet with me & Wish You a Happy Year of the Monkey!

Drawer #4.3: from the top 
1. The Chinese Character for Firecracker & a snarl of dragony-looking green tape 
2. A dragon, the highest animal in Chinese mythology, symbolic of males; with a sticker offering services to those migrants in need of a residency permit 
3. A fenghuang a  mythological bird, part phoenix, part peacock, part other things, symbolic of the females; w/ "happy clouds." 
4. Another fenghuang, more happy clouds, all images taken from the decorative wrappers of firecrackers. 

Photo credits: Full drawer, Bruno David; all others, Christina Shmigel

For more Chinese New Year items, check out Drawer #1.4: Chinese Zodiac Animals;
 Drawer #2.2Things That Don't Fit in a Drawer #4Things that Don't Fit in a Drawer #3

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Drawer # 6.6 : Auspicious Phone Numbers

These days we pre-pay minutes by plugging our phone numbers into a credit card processing type of widget at our local convenience store. But it used to be that we needed to buy phone cards and so we’d head to the shops festooned with hand-painted lists of phone numbers. My preferred shop was not much more than a hole in the wall, its assortment of local & international (IP) phone cards displayed in a glass case, out front, on the sidewalk. The phone cards listed long strings of numbers, all of which had to be entered into the phone, with various press 1’s & press 2’s, instructions all in chinese. I relied heavily on the kindness of the phone card seller to get me thru this task; while he plugged away on my phone, I pondered the aesthetics of the painted lists.

Across the street from my shop was another, also covered in phone number paintings and a street or two further away was “phone number street,” its every facade bedecked in phone number paintings: long lists of cell phone numbers, the occasional number crossed out or checked, always drawn by brush in red paint with blue, sometimes black, embellishment, always arranged schematically in rows & columns in accordance with some established convention.  

Besides phone card sales, the business of these shops was a bit of a mystery to me. Why you would buy your phone number there rather than at one of the two phone companies, I didn’t know. Why were only one or two numbers crossed out or checked? Who actually knew what those few marks recorded: the signs never changed over time, no additional checks or crossings out from one visit to the next. And why would you make 150 0085 8588 your entryway number? (Though, admittedly, it's rather magical with its rhymes & symmetries.)

I never thought to ask; I just worked up an explanation to suit myself. Tying the Chinese penchant for numerology to the signs’ wealth of auspicious 8's & 9’s & 5’s and dearth of foreboding 4’s - go ahead, count ‘em - I concluded that they must be… Auspicious Phone Numbers! Since I never asked, no one told me different: Auspicious Phone Number Paintings they were & shall remain. Sometimes the imaginative flight is so much more satisfying than the plain truth.

I studied the patterns & the scripts endlessly, admired the fluidity of the vernacular Jasper Johns’ brushwork, pondered their organizational systems. The signs as paintings were a wonder to me, each individual sign on the verge of revealing something of its painter’s character. But what really sent me was what the paintings did to disorient the spaces they occupied. A different artist than me, one of greater energy & audacity perhaps, might have dismantled the best display (the one where they also made keys?) & simply re-installed it somewhere to great acclaim. 

Alas, not being that artist, I, instead, shrunk those spaces into the drawers of the cabinet. And then later, expanded them again, into glass vitrines. By virtue of which mimicry, I came to admire the signmakers yet more.

"The View in Fragments: Auspicious Numbers"  Cardboard, milk paint, glass vitrine, 13.5 x 14.25 x 9" Collection of
M-Restaurant Group, Shanghai. On view at Glam, Shanghai.

The newly arrived often say to me how much change I must have seen in SH in my time here. Now I get the dazed look that I saw on the faces of the “old china hands" to whom I had made the comment on my arrival. The changes have been huge, of course, but also, so continuous, so incremental that one can be hard pressed to quantify them. 

Back when my archiving began, locals, Chinese and foreigners alike, easily recognized the contents of the drawers and laughed at their nostalgic familiarity. Now, ten years later, there are things in the drawers that the newbies can’t recognize because those things don’t exist in the Shanghai anymore. 

The auspicious phone number shops are now all gone.

Before: My IP man.* (see below.)          After: The Q that replaced the auspicious numbers shop. 

I don’t know what my phone seller thinks of having moved in from the curb to the antiseptic, climate-controlled environment of the Q. Probably he’s glad to be part of the great Chinese accomplishment of pulling millions out of poverty into, at the very least, a modest middle class-ness. There’s no arguing with that. But me, I miss the liveliness of the street, the paintings with their telling scripts, the quirky spaces that evolved out of their owners’ needs & ingenuity, all those small moments of individual expression.

A Chinese friend describes spaces as "organized' & "not so organized." On the left,  the corner of the fruit & phone card sellers on Shan Yin Lu back in the days of  "not so organized"; on the right, same corner post-organizing. Better or worse?

In the end, I don’t think my miniature versions really capture much of what I loved about the Auspicious Phone Number shops. It turned out that the dizzying spatial effect of the number paintings requires a full-bodied scale and that the combination of chaos & order that is the street eluded me. What’s left in the drawers is maybe like the transcription of a lost language as rendered by the last remaining non-native speaker but, if only for me, it gives a bit of immortality to the anonymous sign painters & display constructors, recording & preserving just a trace of the endeavors that once gave me so much to admire.

*Re the IP man:
 Inside the shop , maybe 5x7',  were sodas for sale & a tiny side room in which the man's wife cooked. Their little boy sat on a small chair inside the shop at tiny card table that served as his desk & their dining table. A ladder led from the tiny room up to a sleeping space. We were almost the only foreigners in the 'hood then: the man, off to somewhere on his electric bike, gleefully waved if he buzzed by me like he'd spotted a favorite stray cat. One day, just back from the States,  I found the small shop transformed into a Q, a chain convenience store. When I went in & congratulated the IP man, he didn't much respond. Apparently, there's still some market for phone cards, as his old case is now just inside the doorway (you can see the IP behind the bike wheel in the photo.) The pitched roof above the Q sign is the space that was the bedroom for the old shop; perhaps it still is...

From the top: 1. Collection of IP cards for international calling 2-4. Variations on a theme...
Photo credits: Vitrine & full drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Drawer #7.3: Mop Knobs Tutorial

So here’s how it goes if you are me: you’re planning just a quick simple post - a visual ode to the humble stripy mop - sparked by something you’ve heard on the “radio,” (1) which leads you to thinking of a certain Chinese artist’s Mop (2) and when you look him up, you find his planning drawing (3) which leads you to wondering: exactly how are those mop knobs made anyway? (4) which leads to taking one apart (5, 6, 7) and which then - you can’t very well leave it undone, 
can you - is harder to reassemble than expected…and so on until the afternoon is done & the post is not.

1. The spark, a story from Adam Gopnik as told to On Being's Krista Tippett:
John Updike was once asked why — for an ad, I think, like a whiskey ad or some crazy thing — why are we here? Why do we live? Sounds like a ridiculous question, but he had an instant answer for it. He said, “We’re here to give praise.”  We’re here to give praise.
2.  Black Broom, 2000, by Chen Zhen, a Chinese artist from the 90's, drawn to the same sorts of humble objects that I love - street chairs, mops, t-shirts - but who infused them with great scale & explosive energy, creating exuberant, life-affirming installations…and sadly, passed away too young.

Chen Zhen images via design boom
3. Chen Zhen’s drawing for Black Broom depicting how the mop “strings,” attached at the top in the direction of the mop handle, are flipped over - like a chignon! - to form the mop knob.

4. But that, as it turns out, is not how the real mop is constructed.

5. Mop dissection shows that the strips of stripy t-shirt material are actually laid in both directions from the end of the handle. It’s the strips laid along the handle that make the mop full & dense; use Chen Zhen’s drawing as a guide, you end up with a very stingy mop.

6. A thick band of an alternate fabric, folded on itself & wrapped around the intersection of the two sets of strips, is nailed in four places into the pole. This is the part where you wonder what tools the maker had at hand: it’s a right pain getting that cruddy nail to pierce thru all those t-shirts layers & then it all bounces back as there’s no hard resist on the opposite side of the handle…

7. And then, stripy strips in place, you flip, and voilá, the chignon/knob! Wrapped twice around with…ha! aluminum wire! So there’s no rust! (You are probably bored to tears by now, but me, I am so pleased to discover this detail…)

The great John McPhee, in his wonderful essay, Writing By Omission, makes the argument for putting less than the writer knows into an essay, leaving more “white space” for you, the reader. I’m here to say that I did leave a few things out - the man occupying a street corner, all his mop-making supplies laid out on the ground beside him (but you can read about him here), and the university student w a mop on his head (who is here.) 

From "The View in Fragments," the Stripy Mops vitrine. Shmigel 2011,  Mixed media, 8.5 x 12.5 x 6.25"
Photo: Bruno David
But what I still must tell is what I realized while writing: that I need to turn one of the knobs in the drawer on its side; while the stripes & colors give me great pleasure, it’s the knobs that really make me love these mops.  

Quietly handmade, crafted where so little here is, crafted just to the level they need to perform their function, therefore elegant but entirely humble. And ubiquitous: in the entryway of every household goods store, & there must be at least one to a street, over stacks of bad-quality plastic bins & all matter of cheaply manufactured goods, there they are, reminding me of some one individual maker, some “fellow traveler” out there working away by hand.

So there you have it. If you are me, your sense of life purpose is confirmed & renewed: we are here to give praise. 

Photo: Bruno David
Drawer 7.3 from top:
1. Mop knob, bought in a cranky old neighborhood in the north of the city, at Qiqiuha’er Lu,
irresistible during lunch break from an project planning meeting at an architecture studio 
2. Medicine tin (see post on TCM 
3. The rest of the mop #1
4. Another irresistible mop due to classic pink & orange color scheme, from a shop on Jixiang Lu,
just around the corner from home & a bit of found wire, one part I always pick up scrap metal bits on  the street, one part homage to Henrik Drescher's Nervenet