China – Archive this, simplify that…

Ok so I haven’t had access to my blog for 24 days…I’m not sure whether China has banned WordPress, or whether it’s all blogs in general, anyway it has been frustrating. I arrived in Hong Kong five hours ago, gained immediate access and found this draft below was saved and ready to be published, all I had to do was write a few sentences to finish it off. A lot has happened since I last posted, so bear that in mind…there is three or four weeks to catch up on, and here is part one…starting on the 31st October…many words to be written! Apologies in advance for the information overload…but the images are pretty.

Another week has gone…and gone where I ask? Seriously, slow down a little world clock. I feel like I’m missing out on things, well, reality sometimes. I’m still in China. I forget for a second sometimes as I’m starting to settle somewhat, but then something will bring me back to earth and make me remember…like when you are riding home from work and you get stuck behind the recycling bikes that is balanced, piled and stacked high with huge mounds of plastic, card or polystyrene on the back, or the smell of stinky tofu that hits you in the face, or the constant almost rhythmical beeps of the car and taxi horns. Complete city life. It has made me think how each city definitely has its own personality…I’ve been comparing it to London…New York…LA…Berlin…Paris…Dubai…I could go on. It’s like I’m archiving their characteristics in my mind…their variances…differences…similarities…ultimately they are all somehow the same and affected by the same global or “glocal” (global-local) issues. I’m still content with that term. We all play a part though. I’m being vague today. I’m supposed to be writing a paper for the CCVA conference later on this month but as ever, I find things to distract me. I’ve already done the washing up, two loads of washing, a complete tidy up and overhaul of my email inbox – 22 emails sent. Anything else? Oh, and I’ve written two articles or “picture feasts” for Art Radar Asia…anything but writing the paper…I’m writing this for crying out loud! Come on Rachel…focus. So here’s the last week…a little brief but you get the main points.

Last Sunday evening (remember I actually mean the 31st October) I got a very last-minute invitation from a journalist and Shanghai associate Lisa Movius, to an exhibition opening of Christina Shmigel’s work at the artists’ studio complex located at 696 Wei Hai Lu, just round the corner from AIVA where I’m teaching. She was showing her five-year long project, ‘A Foreigners Cabinet of Chinese Curiosities’,  which is about to be shipped off and displayed in St. Louis, USA. Lisa called Shmigel ‘one of the best foreign based artists in Shanghai, and her studio is quite the photogenic fun house of interesting works’…both of these things encouraged me to go…more so the idea of a cabinet of curiosities…everyone knows my love of archival units and cataloging…I was renowned for it during my University days because of this installation ‘Untitled (Read Me – Be Me)’. As regards Shmigel’s cabinet…

“Compartmentalized into the 67 drawers of a massive Traditional Chinese Medicine Cabinet, as into the pockets of memory, resides a collection of those most ordinary things – pink plastic string, blue plumbing hose, a White Cat washing soap bottle, the booths of sellers of auspicious phone numbers, dormer windows, bamboo scaffolding – that give Shanghai the particular character it has at this time in history. Several small books expanding on the subjects and themes of the objects are also housed in the drawers.It is an attempt to preserve and catalogue (in an entirely idiosyncratic way) the experience of coming to know a culture through its material possessions. Following the traditions of the European “wunderkammers” and Ming & Qing Dynasty curio boxes, the cabinet invites the viewer to ponder the world with awe and wonder.”

That afternoon and evening, whilst drinking sparkling water and eating ginger snaps, I also got to sit and speak to Shmigel…Christina…a very lovely lady who has been in Shanghai for 7 years. I also met some of Christina’s friends including Mishi Saran (a well-known writer), Rebecca Catching, (Director of the OV Gallery), and artist Chen Hangfeng who actually knew my PhD supervisor Joshua (seriously who doesn’t?!), as well as seeing Lisa again.

I said I’d go and interview Chen Hangfeng as regards my research before I leave Shanghai. Also, Christina, Rebecca, Lisa, Mishi and I agreed to meet later in the week on Wednesday morning to see the ‘West Heavens’ exhibit as we’d all mostly seen it when it was still ‘in progress’ and unfinished. This trip never happened though as Mishi got an editorial deadline last-minute and we all seemed to be knee-deep in work. Such a shame but I’m sure our paths will cross again soon. It was kind of a saving grace though as I wasn’t really sleeping well at all that week, so I needed an extra hours z’s. On Christina’s studio wall, there was this piece of handwritten text taped up…it made me smile…

…”local knowledge is made to disappear by simply not seeing it, negating its very existence.” Very apt for what’s happening now, today…and for my research. I might quote it in the conference paper I’m supposed to be writing now.

Monday came again and I didn’t hear my alarm that morning making me so late for the days preparations for teaching at AIVA. The day was an ‘Introduction to Drawing’ specifically the use of single, one-line drawings. We started these in AIVA then later in the morning took a field trip to the artists’ studios at 696 Wei Hai Lu  that I’d been to the day before. The students really did engage with this session and i was overwhelmed by the silence as they wandered round, paused, and put pencil or pen to paper. Some of them have a real sense and ability to draw too.

I always like to post photos of my sessions so you can see the methods I use. I think it’s essential to shake things up and step outside the average parameters of teaching. Also I think trust goes a long way too, which is what I did that afternoon…I trusted them to go and do the photographic research and homework I had set them in the form of defining the terms photo-montage, photo-collage and photo panorama…then they had to go out and take photos to put together as a photo panorama for Thursday afternoon’s session. When I said the words “I am trusting you to do this…” they all laughed…but I did trust them and the work they created proved that they can be trusted. Always have faith in people and creativity as it gets you a long way.

The day actually went very fast and finished with a last-minute delivery of the 8th Shanghai Biennale ‘Rehearsal’ catalogue from curator Li Ning at the Shanghai Art Museum. She sent it over by courier arriving within the hour and I had this strange moment where the courier called me and spoke in Chinese and me having no idea what to do. Luckily, Lily in the AIVA office saved me. Sometimes I’m not sure what I’d do without them there. I must get on with learning Mandarin. It slowly starting to sync in my head…the tones, the sounds, the words…

Come on Rachel, let’s keep it brief…Tuesday began with an egg pancake breakfast with RJW from our usual street food seller on Shaanxi Lu and a trip with Lisa to get materials from the art materials warehouse on Fuzhou Lu by Shanxi Lu. An artist’s paradise! The materials are for the bookbinding workshop I am doing the following week, and also for the ‘Introduction to Printmaking’ session I was doing that afternoon. I wanted to do single, one-line mono prints, but the problem was there was no printing ink…anywhere…no one had the stuff I use at home. I had to use acrylic paint in the end which turned the session into somewhat of a failure. However, they did have good bookbinding materials in the way of paper, glue, brushes, card and ribbon. All for under 250RMB. It always baffles me how cheap things are here. We also found some vintage electroset letters which made my day…Lisa got to see me geek out a little as I pawed over the sheets and sheets of typographic wonderland. “I heart text”. So I indulged buying 20 sheets small and large…who knows whether they will get used. They’re just nice to look at.

During the day a chap called Robert Simons rang me. My Dubai friend Jodie Cummings who I am seeing over Christmas had met him whilst holiday-ing in Vietnam in October. He works between Holland and Shanghai building cultural exchange through supporting contemporary artists, organising and curating exhibitions, so Jodie recommended I speak to him, or him to me. We met him at 6pm just down the road from our apartment outside the Jade Buddha Temple and found a local eatery straight away. Robert selected an average Chinese restaurant where they had partially translated the menu, written by hand into English, done very badly though…but a linguistic and semantic dream for me. Look at it…

…to me this means a hearty meal or portion a bit like an English stew, but it wasn’t. I ordered it in order to feed my curiosity. It was merely a small plate of soy soaked tofu. Right, not quite what I thought. Between us, we spoke of all things to do with the Beijing and Shanghai contemporary art scenes, as well as design consultancies and educational establishments that might be good for RJW to speak to and visit. He was an incredible font of knowledge, where it was particularly interesting to hear abut his transition from being a journalist for over twenty years in the Middle East, to leaving it all behind to work on more creative and cultural ventures in China.

Onto Wednesday, after another fraughtful nights sleep (have I just made a word up? Let me know), as for some reason my head is too busy to calm down and relax, 4am is not a good time to stir…I went into AIVA to prepare and then teach a session on painting, in real-time and virtually on computers. Students were working with the prints from the day before, altering them with paint, pencils…any mark making materials into something different. These images would all go into the handmade books they would make the following week. Thursdays session then looked at the finalised photo panoramas I had entrusted them to complete earlier in the week, which most of them had…I had one issue with it all though….I wanted them to piece the images together manually, one-by-one, only for one of the students to show everyone how Adobe Photoshop can auto-stitch them together for you with a click of the mouse, a bit of patience and a keyboard shortcut…instantly. Right. Ok then. That session therefore ended a little early. Thanks technology? Whilst I was teaching, RJW went to the ‘100% design shanghai’ show at the Shanghai Exhibition Center with the AIVA team and returned to the office with a beautiful paper sample for me called “mino washi” from a Japanese company called ‘FLAT Inc.’

…and informed me of a short film he had watched about how the paper was made which you can see here… (which I’ve only just managed to see now that I’m in Hong Kong). RJW thought it would be perfect to show my students during teaching sessions either here or in the UK, and what a great idea. So it’s in the future teaching ideas document ready for use and reference, and yes that does exist. In the afternoon, RJW continued helping Lisa Juen, the jewellery tutor at AIVA, polish sections and pieces of metal for her future use…when in actual fact, he was making me one of her rings…therefore a ‘Juen Rocks’ by RJW…isn’t it beautiful! And such a nice surprise…that makes me smile a little.

He presented it to me when we were having dinner at a very small restaurant that only had three tables inside called ‘The House’ just down the road from where we live. I had an open smoked salmon and asparagus sandwich on wholemeal toast with wasabi mayonnaise. Perfect.

Already Friday, another morning and another trip to another market, this time to the fashion accessories market, all things textiles and sewing and another overwhelming experience, this time to get the remainder of the materials for the bookbinding workshop including string, needles, felt bookcloth, a “fraynot” material substitute and what else? Oh awls that cost about 20p each, when I pay about £10 in the UK, so some are definitely heading home with me. I also managed to find these beautiful archiving cabinets…I seem to hunt them out wherever I am…an archiving radar in my head. I wish I could read all the little notes on the draws.

The day and afternoon were finished off with a group photo-montage and photo collage project. All I asked of them of them was to create a cityscape from squares and rectangles of images…and this is what they came up with…clever I think, and it was really fantastic to see them all so quickly engaged and enthusiatic. Another week of teaching completed…now onto the best week involving bookbinding and a whole lot more…an Ai Weiwei protest party you say? So much news…

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