the beijing posts – part 2 – “it’s real pretty, but what does it say?”

11 08 2009

The Beijing series
Sometimes it was confusing, sometimes it was revolting, but always interesting.

Part 2 – use of text

Given the work I’m doing in the studio these days, I’ve become sensitive to seeing both uses of text and repair sights.  I’ll  deal with images of repairs I found tomorrow.

when text is exoticisized, unrecognizable as information, it becomes pure line and design language.  What I see looking at written Chinese is different than how someone who speaks mandarin views it.

But there’s also the element of the use of calligraphy as an art form that was different.  In it’s graphic dimensions, calligraphy was definitely used differently and in unusual places.

The best example is the practice of calligraphy by older beijingers in the temple of heaven park.

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It was easy to see the extension of writing skills into calligraphic line with this particular writer.  For all the writers, the posture was the same:  bent over, left arm behind the back, right arm perpendicular to the ground.  She was particularly fluid in her lettering and her movements were like ballet.

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Using brushes made of plastic tubing with tips of shaped foam

The ephemeral quality of the writing itself made it particularly beautiful to me.

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Painted with water, on a hot day the writing would simply evaporate in front of us.

Another odd and beautiful place that I found text was on these carved wooden figures at the panjouling market.  They were about 2 feet high and covered head to toe with text.
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A very happy couple.

The figures were not local, presumably coming from northern china, possibly Tibet.  The writing may represent essentially medical illustrations for acupuncture.  That’s only a guess.  What I do know is how much I wish I wasn’t afraid to buy big, huge, ridiculous things for fear of how to carry them.

Another place that I saw text that I enjoyed were in the imperial treasury in the Forbidden City.  There were lots of things worth noting in this collection and I’ll highlight my favorites later.  But these are two pieces that caused me to pause.

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Book in gold gift from Tibet. Prayers written in Tibetan and mandarin.

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Coral “bonsai” sculpture with prayer hanging from tree.

The summer Palace is quite outside the city situated on a number of man-made lakes.  The huge sight is now a park dotted with small pagodas and more intimate spaces.  Some of these intimate spaces become hang-outs for kids who mark up the walls with the ancient art of grafitti.

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In none of these cases did it bother me that I didn’t know what was being said.  It didn’t occur to me until it was too late that I might have been curious about the context of these writings.

But I have to say in many cases, I’m not sure that translations would have helped.

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The beijing posts

7 08 2009

Sometimes it was confusing, sometimes it was revolting, but always interesting.

Part 1 –Architecture and Human space
(the first of a series about a few of the things that were particularly compelling to me.)

For a good overview, have a look at this group of articles from last year on beijing’s recent architectural leaps of faith.
•    The architecture was overwhelming and the division of human space is, at turns, alarming and comforting.  The amount of contemporary, grand scale architecture is unlike anything since turn-of-the-century New York.  High rise apartment and office buildings stretch for miles in every direction.  Imagine the sprawl of los angeles but the majority of buildings are 15-20 stories tall.

•    Last year’s olympics had a huge impact on the face of Beijing.  And according to all I’ve read, “face” is everything for the Chinese.  How things look to outsiders is incredibly important. So on the surface at least, it has been critical for Beijing to appear the most innovative, the most progressive in it’s architecture.
The bicycles that used to take up so much space on beijing’s streets are far less than they used to be, although they are still in use for everything.

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The heavy traffic congestion is now mostly taken up by all new cars so one is left with the sense that everything in Beijing is either less than 10 years old or more than a thousand years old with little that is notable in between.

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Temple of Heaven with the National Performing Arts Center in the background

At the street level, however, things appeared quite differently. Interior space is at a premium in a city where the population has exploded.  In one tourist/night life area we passed by a men’s dormitory.  The space was approximately 14’x16’ and was packed with about 10 bunks beds stacked 4 beds high.  Most of the men who lived there were sitting outside watching the tourists go by and catching a breeze from the lake that was next to their living quarters. Inside, if you didn’t have air-conditioning (few older houses do), you were doomed to a very sweaty night.
Older neighborhoods also seem to have no indoor plumbing and people rely heavily on public bathrooms for both laundry and personal hygiene. In the neighborhood where we stayed, these public bathrooms were set along a green-space route that separated the noisy main street from the hutong (essentially, mandarin for barrio or neighborhood).  In the evenings, people would meet in this narrow, long green space, take their passagiata, do their bathroom duties, play music and dance, play checkers and let their little ones pee in the grass.

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Old woman dancing with fan and scarf surrounded by musicians in hutong.

•    I have to say, in terms of architectural achievement, the Great Wall is, in fact, quite great.  We hiked 10 kilometers of the wall, which at some points had an 85% grade, more like climbing a crumbling ladder.  (i didn’t lose consciousness once) But the views of the wall conjoined to the landscape were really spectacular.

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Sprawling more than 4000 miles built stone by stone in the middle nowhere.

Most interesting was how the wall faithfully follows the form of the landscape.  The Chinese point out the way the wall looks like the spine of a dragon as it moves over the hills.

In sections, workers in coolie hats were laboring (slowly in the heat) to restore portions of the wall as they have done for more than a thousand years.  Some 2 million Chinese are estimated to have died during the course of building the wall.  Watching old men hovering over the edge of the wall at a 15 ft. drop, it’s easy to see how.

It is the most dynamic piece of architecture I’ve ever seen.





July flew by without posts so catching up. Workroom in conversano.

5 08 2009

First arriving in italy for ten days allowed us some time to get our living situation sorted out here in the south.
In our apartment I have one room which is partially dedicated to studio.

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This has seriously enhanced the quality of life in italy for me.

You see, Italians are masters of what they call ‘la bella fare niente’ meaning ‘the beauty of nothing to do’.  They are extremely good at doing nothing and have many state holidays which celebrate doing nothing.  Unfortunately, I suffer with nothing to do.
Now that I have a little studio space, I can continue with some of the work I started in the spring. I brought a lot of tools with me this time knowing I would have a space to set up shop. I purchased a german version of a flexshaft which helps with many small chores.

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Francesco’s dad is a blacksmith so there’s an anvil, a bench shear and some other gizmos if I need them. Two doors down is eugenio, a violin maker from rome, who is helping me make a specialized bench pin since I didn’t bring one.  I’ll be talking soon the local orofo (goldsmith) about how one purchases a torch in italy.  My understanding is that the government heavily regulates who can buy tools and metal.

There are many small impediments.  Plugs that mysteriously don’t fit with old wiring systems.  An ancient wobbly work table constantly in danger of collapse.
But it’s sweet and it’s mine and I can feel like I’m making some progress.