Wednesday, September 10, 2014

China Builds a Cultural Legacy

Good Morning Shanghai!

Making Orchids Work in Shanghai
Metal Paper in Red
After 12 hours on Thai Airways (and an extraordinary movie “Railway Man” about forgiveness and reconciliation that seemed to be such an omen ), we landed in Seoul, Korea, for a airline change and a two hour wait and lots of walking to find our gate. Then, peace appeared on Asiana Airlines, a slick, spacious airplane served by beautiful, tall, thin stewardesses with hair  tight in buns, aprons embroidered with flowers,  and constant attention. We cut through the haze of the morning that blocked the view of the largest industrial port in the world, I was told. It was Shanghai. Oh, no, I thought. Pollution. I’ll have to deal with it. But once we were on the ground at Pudong airport that is so huge, a triple marathon could be run around its edge, I was one of 24 million people sucking in the air. Now that can make you feel insignificant and wonder if there will be sufficient space for all in heaven. Haven’t seen anyone wearing masks. 

Peter and Vicky Entertain Us
We were met by Abercrombie & Kent guides, to speed  us through immigration, retrieve our burdensome bags (heavy) to dash to the Bullet Train and in 7 minutes 41 seconds we had traveled 32 kilometers to a station in the middle of downtown. It claims to be the fastest in the world, and they are working on even more rapid transit. No, you don’t realize you are going so fast. We passed through the areas where tall tall apartment complexes stood like giant Lego structures on the landscape, and true, most are empty and many are still under construction. The huge burst of wealth and a soaring economy had rather out-sized itself. But hope hangs on the horizon that, now that things have settled after the change of policy after the death of Mao ZeDong and his movement,  all will settle into a prosperous future for all the millions that make up China. I was told the rich people live in the city, the poorer in the country. 

Dim Sum Shanghai Style
There was, and apparently has never been, military presences in China.  No soldiers or police standing watching your every move. The simple unflattering uniforms we associated with the Mao era, the sameness and lack of individualism that seemed to frame Communism in its early days, has definitely been dumped and streets are filled with fascinating people in all kinds of dress. (I was told that in the Red China days it was the intimidation, the fear of opening one’s mouth too wide or inferring something against the ways of Mao  that was controlled by the Red Guard Army and that kept people dressed in trepidation.I was impressed by the lack of obesity in the public,  but also the creative touches of dress - a young man in camouflaged high-topped Keds had hooked a thick chain around his ankle. Young girls wear the shortest of skirts and shorts as wild and bold as anyone in New York or Tokyo. 

Sucking the Juice From a Dumpling
In the Bund area,where our hotel stands, huge buildings still wore the style of old colonialist British, German or French times. And they line wide streets packed with sometimes immoveable traffic (normal in most big cities).  I was told that the Chinese always believed they were the center of the world and it still draws young people from all over our earth to start their careers here. It is lively.

Mao's Space Gallery
We met some amazing friends of  art friends, who are powerful movers and shakers in the China art world. Art is always a way to see how people think, feel, and respond to living, and of course it is something I have pursued as long as I can remember. China has probably the most exciting and innovative art on the planet today - even more so than the US, which seems to me to be short on “newness.”  Peter, Vicky (a native Shanghai lady), and Quin, her assistant, who own the Mao Space galleries, welcomed us for my first Chinese style meal at DTF - a wide open space of blonde wood and glass. It was Shanghai’s version of Dim Sum, though that’s not what it is really called, and the challenge was for me to learn how to “suck the juice” out of a dumpling without it spilling all over the place. Well, I failed the first try but after about 3 dumplings, I got it - and all this trying to master the chopsticks with my arthritic fingers. Among the savory dishes were black fungus with gochee berries (chewy), spinach with rolled tofu fingers, gluten squares with hairy beans (- and we in the US are attacking gluten as a bad influence to our intestines), long thin green beans  (xiao ong bao zi) with noodles made from them with kelp; and a fish, tofu and coriander soup. Now this was quite a culinary opener for me and to be in such joyful company was a refreshing start.

Knitted Paper
We headed out to Peter and Vicky’s galleries - there are two spaces, but the most fascinating was a gallery they had composed in the house where Mao ZeDong had lived in the city. It was two story, wooden with ornate balcony, and had been divided into three sections: a gallery space, a small museum to Mao, and then another gallery space. The art work was part of an extended exhibit - The Ways of Object Being Named, which explored new artists’s works as they decompose and re-thinking objects with new forms and meanings, and it is a long way from the shocking almost vulgar and attacking art that emerged once the hammer was down and the Cultural Revolution had ended in the ‘70ties and 80ties. These artists in Mao Space are creating hope and change and new life. Very moving. As the curator wrote: Today, the grand narrative of contemporary Chinese art starts to decline while daily life becomes a hot issue. The returning to Nature and art ontology becomes mainstream, which leads to the de-contextualization of art language to give hope to Chinese aesthetics as artist seek an identity in the national conscience. 

The winner in my heart, having been a journalist and a needlecrafter,  was work by Bei Jing called “Strands and Weaving Techniques”. His material was newspapers. He stripped and rolled and condensed a year’s worth of newspapers and built bricks with some, cut faces out of the dailys and glued them to long strips of paper about 3 feet wide and maybe 12 feet long that spilled onto the floor, and best of all, he had rolled news paper like a thread of yarn and knitted it into 100 squares. It was the most original technique of needlework I have ever seen, and that’s my field.

Painting With Ashes
Another outstanding artists, Ren Zhitian, works in patterns to make fabric out of freaky sources:  “Elegant and Exhausted 57” was a 2ft-10ft strip that had been painted with ashes, which he called “pollutant gray.” I  couldn’t stop thinking of cremation and what a way this could be to keep a loved one in constant memory, but then I think a lot about end of life things. 

Heart of Gold (Sort of)
We snuck into another simple but lively art space called Arario Gallery to see the work of  Indian artist Subodh Gupta. His metal heart spoke of so much of China and his own country, the tongues of metal coming at you so you couldn’t escape. He also made a sculpture of 24-karat potatoes because potatoes were metaphors for poor, ordinary people in art history. Another installation called Round the corner was a pile of thousands of simple, cheap metal pots, pans and utensils which the artist actually collected from the populace, giving them new ones in exchange for the used beaten up ones. About 20 faucets are opened with water endlessly circulating  to symbolize the strict class discrimination in India where even water and milk are being taken from the poor and the public well is off-bounds for the lowest class of untouchables. 

White on White
Finally, we were guests at the gallery of the famous Diva of Shanghai, Pearl Lam. Her gallery director met us and we walked through an amazing giant art space to view works by Mehemet Ali Uysal, a Turkish artist. (It’s interesting how the art dealers are displaying foreign artist, speaking up about art being a great communicator between folk. Uysal’s work takes the breath away: on a massive white wall (with reverse reflective mirrors above) is an all white frame which has been covered in white plaster but looks like it is floating in white foam or ice cream. At first it seems like a white wall, but then when you get closer the image of the frame appears as eyes adjust to the image. There is no real work of art in the frame, it is just the frame as the art container. His other theme is “Suspended” which are enormous polyester frames hanging on hooks and falling into curves and twists, and once again, no work of art in them, because the distorted frame is the work of art. Makes you think what has value.

Ice Cream Cone Tree
To top of the day - and I’ve never been so weary in my life having not slept on the plane or anywhere else for probably 36 hours - getting hours and days confused and compounded - as we returned to the hotel, I had to try the ice cream tree being offered at tea time. It was a salute to my grandchildren who  I always miss.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In 1985, we flew first class from Bangkok to Memphis on Thai Airlines. It was the nicest flight we ever had. Thai Airlines is the best.
Our grandson, Ritch Longoria, worked for six months at the Children's Research Hospital in Shanghai. He said it is a fabulous city and one of his favorite places.
Loved the photo of you trying to suck the juice out of the dumplings. The dinner you had looked delicious.
You have been to so many interesting places. Where are you going next year?
By the way, the temperature here has cooled off quite a bit and has dropped to the sixties and seventies at night. Fall is a nice, pleasant time!
Take good care of yourself and know you are loved and missed very much,
Geraldean and Judge