Notes from a Residency
1. I could be sitting on an upturned bucket in a former retail space in Shanghai. I could be staring at the ceiling: electrical wires, pipes, brownish-yellow stains from the air conditioning. I could be outside, on the street, face pressed against the window, squinting at a pile of miscellaneous clothing store leftovers: mannequin stands, hooks, coat hangers, metal shelving, empty cardboard boxes, unidentifiable shiny things. The floor is wet, reflecting the ceiling. In one corner: smashed brick, plaster and mirror. Empty plastic bottles of water and energy drinks. Geometrical outlines along the walls left by fixtures now removed. If I showed you a photograph of the space and said nothing you might ask, was there a flood? If you looked a little closer at the same photograph you would probably notice the patterns on the floor left by different boots and wonder, as I did, how long has it been since people walked through here? If you looked – really looked – at the far left edge of the photograph, you would see a sleeping bag hanging from a hook on the wall. Are these the marks, you might ask, left by those who dismantled the store – stripping it back, drinking energy drinks, piling the debris in the centre, and moving on? Did the people who left these boot prints also sleep here at night? Did they finish a long day and get into sleeping bags in the very place they had been laboring? Or, maybe you want to travel further back, before the photograph, before it was decided that this store would be converted into an exhibition space, and ask: when did people stop shopping here? What did people buy here?
2. About one month earlier, the artist who will host me sends his driver to pick me up from the Beijing Capital Airport. We drive for about an hour and a half along twenty-lane highways, past towering blocks of pastel colored housing, past rice, soybean and lotus fields, until the road becomes narrower, bumpier and, finally… dirt. The artist is building his house in an artist village in Huairou, in the northern suburbs of Beijing. When it’s finished, it will double as a gallery for his work. At the moment (that is to say, when I arrive) it looks more like a ransacked museum or an institution that has had its funding cut mid-renovation. Half-built walls, exposed wires, mounds of sand, stacks of bricks and terrazzo tiles. Shovels, brooms and plastic sheeting. The noxious and compelling smell of glue, plaster, paint, cleaning products. Industrial quantities of dust.
3. Later (days have passed) a routine develops. Because my room is next to the kitchen the first sound I hear in the morning is the click-click-click-click of the gas stove being lit. Egg, spinach and noodles in broth in a large pot, always placed in the centre of the table. Tea. Conversations with the artist (translated by his cousin or assistant) about work, always logistical: how, when, what, and the cost. Outside, concrete is being mixed and poured. Before it sets black stones will be thrown from a height, now embedded, to be polished later. Pan-fried onion pancakes or sometimes rice with dry-fried green beans with chili. The phone rings so often it begins to feel strange when it doesn’t. Objects are being moved from a studio or a gallery to a different studio or a museum or another gallery. Shanghai, London, Basel, New York. Tea. Sawdust through the window, illuminated by sunlight. From the television – which is in the kitchen, always on and always loud – Japan-China relations are tense over the Senkaku/Diaoyuislands: eight uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, close to shipping lanes with potential oil and gas reserves. Taiwan, not mentioned by the news presenter, also claim ownership, but there the islands are called Diaoyutai. Many visitors come by the house: a poet named Jinglan who brings her new book of poetry titled [missing]; a student named Hao who had travelled a long way from [missing] to Huairou for advice; assistants coming and going; Molly, an old friend of the artist’s, a translator and professor of Chinese modern literature; a curator named [missing] with pink hair who tells me what she thought of the Taipei Biennale.
4. The artist’s driver drives us to a large complex where building materials are sold: high stacks of blue foam; rebar sorted into piles according to thickness; showroom displays of tiles, drains, fittings and doors. Every material hides another material. Timber, glass and granite are cut here. Faces and gestures become familiar. The artist always asks for discounts, and is usually successful. He’s buying materials for both his house and his artworks. He’s buying sinks for his bathrooms and metal sheeting for a sculpture. He’s smoking a cigarette with a man covered in tile dust. He’s buying plastic pipes next to a child playing with a goldfish in a bucket. Later, I learn that the artist has a son who lives with his mother.
5. In the early evening dumplings are made by rolling out dough, cutting it into circles with an upturned glass, filling the circles with a mixture made from cooked egg, spinach and onion, and with two hands – as shown, you must use two hands – fold the dough over the small mound of filling and press down with both thumbs, letting the shape of your hands do the work. Every dumpling should look like a fat half-moon. Sometimes music. Sometimes sorghum wine, also known as baijiu, also known as firewater.
6. In one studio: Two dead geese on a table. Featherless, eyeless, made of silica gel. The neck of one is splayed out snakelike; its legs extended outwards behind its body, as though it had suddenly collapsed. The other goose is curled into itself, its feet tucked under its rear and its beak buried into the crevice of its wing the way living waterfowl often rest or warm themselves. Both are very real, or realistic; the skin has all the bumps, creases and pallid translucence of a raw and plucked chicken. I say something like a wing without feathers is a peculiar thing and the artist nods coolly, but doesn’t speak. Perhaps there’s not much to say. These wings never had feathers to begin with.
7. This is his ‘silicon studio’. Earlier, around midnight, the artist insisted that we see it. When we arrive, his assistant (a young man with long hair and a broad smile wearing a paint-stained tracksuit) greets us but quickly goes back to work. With tweezers and a needle the assistant is inserting fine white hairs into the scalp of a naked, withered old woman with sagging skin. It’s an odd scene, and I tell myself to pay attention. The old woman’s eyes are closed and she’s sitting in a deck chair. It’s not clear if the deck chair is part of the work or simply a convenient abutment. The old woman has to be finished, packaged, and sent to New York for an upcoming art fair. The artist reaches behind her and presses a button and her chest starts moving up and down. I hear the faint sound of a motor working an air pump and I’m reminded of the aged care home where my grandmother lived with senility during the last years of her life. It was thought to be a good idea to place battery-powered ‘sleeping pets’ – kittens and puppies whose bodies rise and fall to simulate breathing – on coffee tables next to recliners in the common space. I never saw my grandmother (or any resident or visitor) interact with one of these breathing pets, which only now makes the animals seem oddly neglected, breathing as they did until the batteries ran out.
8. In addition to the geese and the old woman in a deck chair there are silicon dogs, cats, piglets and calves – all furless and asleep (or dead, depending) on different worktables. There are fiberglass casts and ceramic molds scattered about, labeled jars of pigments and small bowls filled with colored gels – pink, white, yellow and blue.
9. Towards the end of September, on television, the motley color of a crowd. A burning Japanese flag in front of the Japanese embassy in Beijing. A silver Japanese-made car, overturned and beaten. White text on a black banner that reads (Molly translating) ‘never forget the humiliation’. A silver car, not the same one as before, in flames outside a hotel. A map of the Diaoya islands (also Senkaku or Diaoyutai, depending). A man holding an image of Mao and speaking to the camera (Molly doesn’t translate). Now, in Xi’an, another crowd. Another Japanese-made car, this time white; its windscreen smashed but not broken. The driver? Male. Hospitalized. In a critical condition. A shaky, pixelated video gone viral. Captured by a bystander with a phone, replayed and slowed down on the news frame by frame: here-is-a-man-with-a-metal-object-suddenly-emerging-from-the-crowd-and-here-is-the-moment-when-he-swings-this-metal-object-and-it-hits-the-driver’s-skull. A dense thud. The blood comes later.
10. When we sit down to eat a lunch of steaming boazi, the volume on the television is turned down but the news continues to hold our attention. ‘Are there riots like this in Australia?’ The artist’s friend asks. We look back at the television as though it might offer an answer. Like this. Without sound, the riot looks less violent. Do riots share a language, or is that they spill out of language – spill over it – and in that way look similar? All riots are in the business of reclaiming something, real or imagined (and remind me of the difference?). I mention the 2005 Cronulla riots, when text messages circulated, such as: ‘Every fucking aussie. Go to Cronulla beach Sunday for some Leb bashing Aussie Pride ok.’ Convoys of cars carrying men driving up and down Sydney’s beaches. Self-appointed ‘patrols’. A man of ‘middle eastern appearance’ targeted and beaten by a crowd. Australian flags worn as capes.
11. The television is turned off, which makes the room feel strangely empty. Molly mentions that in the early 90s her house in Sydney was a refuge for poets and artists who had recently arrived from China. This is where the artist and Molly met. She tells us about how her visitors would eat, drink and smoke her house empty, how conversations were always about where people were and who knew who, about how Australian citizenship could be obtained for family, about what it would mean to be an artist or a poet now, after Deng Xiaoping, after Tiananmen. (A year later, I’ll meet up with Molly at a pub. I’ll walk her home and see this house. It’s down a laneway, hidden behind the bright purple of a jacaranda tree.)
12. It takes over twelve hours to drive from Beijing to Shanghai and it’s after midnight when the truck arrives. The artist hasn’t arrived. When he does, much later, he’s wearing sunglasses and smoking. Two men jump out of the truck and immediately begin unloading heavy, miscellaneous objects, passing them along to other men in a line, like a bucket brigade. This is the artist’s artwork for the Shanghai Biennale, delivered in pieces, to be constructed on site.
13. Li, who is responsible for making most of the artist’s works, is darting in and out of the truck; he’s concerned that a thin, large glass panel the size of a billiard table will break. This glass is to be placed on top of an industrial freezer. Water will drip from a chandelier-like contraption onto the glass so that it freezes to form an ice sculpture. This is the artist’s artwork: an evolving sculpture; a monument that makes itself.
14. And then it happens – the sound of breaking glass is always rude and unambiguous. Li jumps down from the truck holding his left forearm with his right hand. There’s a moment when there is no blood but then there’s a lot of blood, flowing out of his forearm and over the fingers of his other hand like water over rocks. For what seems like too long – but only and always in retrospect does it seem like too long – everyone stands motionless in stupid silence. ‘It’s a deep cut’ – once that’s been said people get moving. But Li doesn’t want to call an ambulance. Impossibly, he seems unfazed as blood doesn’t drip but flows. Another man who I haven’t met and won’t meet takes his t-shirt off, or had it off already, or either way his t-shirt is tied around Li’s arm and the fabric quickly turns from white to red. A taxi is called. Li gets in with the shirtless man and they drive off at normal speed. Tomorrow, when the new glass arrives, Li is there with his arm bandaged and in a sling. But the water won’t freeze and the artist’s artwork is a wet mess.
15. Earlier, in Beijing, Li was working on a plan with us to make walls that would move when pushed. By pushing one of these walls, plastic and glass bottles that had been collected and found would be propelled though a chute and accumulate in a pit. By pushing another wall, water would flow through a pipe into a large tank, located near the bottles. There would be a pile of concrete, a shovel, and metal molds for making bricks in the space. If all the materials found their way – that is, if the walls in the space were pushed on a regular basis – objects that were somewhere between a brick and a vessel could be made by mixing the concrete with the water, pouring it into the molds, inserting a bottle into the mixture, and leaving it to set. Or not: the materials could simply amass in the space unused. But if these brick-vessels did get made, nearby pre-paid postage forms could be filled out and attached to these objects, and at the end of the exhibition, they would be delivered by China Post. This was our work that would share the space with the artist’s frozen sculpture. (Now, as I write about it, it seems overly complicated and not that important, but we were immersed in the technical problems at the time.)
16. To make moving walls, large metal frames had to be welded and placed on tracks like awkward, windowless trains. Li, before he sliced his arm, spent hours working on getting these walls to move along metal tracks. A constantly breaking pulley system meant that one wall, which was meant to roll back into place once pushed, would either get stuck or hazardously rebound at great speed. The pipe that the water ran through had a hole, or many. The chute that the bottles moved through worked only occasionally. The water that leaked from the pipe found its way (as water usually does) to the concrete, creating solid clumps on the ground. Now, in photographs, these clumps look like accidental sculptures, which I suppose they were.
17. In Shanghai, we are on our way to the opening of the Shanghai Biennale at what is now called The Power Station of Art – the firststate-run museum for contemporary art in Mainland China. The artist is somewhere else, possibly in Taipei. We drive through the city past buildings of green, yellow and pink glass, past a sign that reads ‘We deliver clean energy towards a harmonious world’. Before, in 1897, The Power Station of Art was known as the Nanshi Power Plant. Established as Shanghai’s first nationally-owned power company, it was built to counter foreign-run monopolies on urban lighting. Prior to the plant, only the colonial districts of the city glowed at night. By delivering gas and electric lighting to the ‘Chinese city’, Nanshi was a symbolic victory over colonial illumination. Now, we look up, without comment, at the old Nanshi chimney (165m tall, I read later) which has been converted into a giant working thermometer with flashing white and red lights. Inside, The Power Station of Art reminds me of the artist’s house. In the rush to convert the space for the opening, some of the aesthetic details that go into making museum spaces what they are – near perfect voids of white walls, polished concrete floors, politely designed barriers that stop you from getting too close to works – remain unfinished or missing. There are buckets of paint stashed in corners, cords not tethered to walls, projections of default blue or rainbow wheels that indicate something is loading. It’s a great place. Various artists have complained that their work has been damaged, badly installed or simply neglected. I take note of three works.
18. The last work that the artist shows me before I leave for Shanghai is Bonsai, and the title isn’t a metaphor. I’m looking at a bonsai tree in a typical blue-and-white (qīng hua) Chinese porcelain pot. The image on the pot is also typical: mountains partially covered in mist. What isn’t typical is that the bonsai tree has been imprisoned in an elaborate steel contraption. The trunk is being pulled up by some wires and pulled down by others, and it’s clear that this isn’t to educate the tree for its future growth; it’s not your typical arboriculture. This contraption is permanent. The wires will remain. The work is finished.
19. A few days earlier, on a trip to buy more materials, I take a photograph of a small plant in a modest clay pot perched on a stack of grey tiles. I keep returning to the image. There’s nothing particularly special about it. If anything, you might describe it as quiet. But for this reason, in my mind, it seems to counterbalance all the struggle, labor and time that had gone into making things meaningful – the exertion to shape materials so that they speak, to make stuff into art. It’s not at all radical to say that some things are meaningful and some things speak precisely because they haven’t been subjected to rigorous analysis or artistic intervention. These things might carry a confusion that’s generative or a feeling that’s difficult to place. A thing that reveals itself but doesn’t, like the shape of furniture covered by a blanket or a friend that never sits still. This feeling works on us, or in us, or both. It can be frustrating not to see what’s right in front you, but also compelling. Is this one reason why we keep returning to some objects but instantly forget about others? Somehow, the artist’s Bonsai is contained within this photograph of a plant; unrelated and connected.
20. On the train home tonight I started thinking about all the meals, tea, cigarettes, translated conversations and materials, all the collective time, labor and lack of sleep, all the dumplings and television, all the water, concrete and emails, all the phone calls home, all those who, because of poorly paid work, weren’t sleeping at home, all the dust and the blood – all of that flowing into artworks that no longer exist. I started thinking about the way objects have a knack for unraveling the plans we have for them, or shrugging off our beloved theories, or leading to other objects, or getting in the way, or vanishing the first chance they get.
21. Revisiting this residency in writing makes me wonder what George Kubler, the Pre-Columbian art historian concerned with the temporality of materials, would say about the relatively recent proliferation of residencies and blockbuster art exhibitions. ‘Let us suppose’, he wrote in The Shape of Time, ‘that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of [hu]man-made things, including all the tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful, and poetic things of the world’.‘We are discovering little by little all over again what a thing means is not more important than what it is’, he wrote in hope of a new approach, ‘that expression and form are equivalent challenges to the historian; and that to neglect either meaning or being, either essence or existence, deforms our comprehension of both.’
22. It must be late in my stay when I discover that the artist is building a moon. It’s a side project, he says, an addition to his garden. In his garden, bamboo scaffolding extends well beyond a large dry-stone wall. An old concrete mixer and a pile of gravel in the middle of a half-finished amphitheatre. A little stream incorporated into the landscape design. But it looks as though goldfish were added too soon or too late because a few of them are floating belly-up. There are frogs, too. I can hear them calling to each other, or to themselves, but can’t see them.
23. For weeks I don’t see anyone working on the moon, but one day I notice a large, flat circle at the top of the scaffolding – a wooden circle covered with LED lights. Did Li make this overnight? One evening, days later, the artist turns on the circle and we sit there eating pieces of apple and drinking beer, more or less in silence, staring directly into its brightness. Above and to the left of the artist’s moon is the moon, though it’s not full and, next to the artist’s moon, not that bright. In this moment, in the silence, looking at his finished moon, in the garden that’s more or less complete and now brightly lit, I think I detect a sort of backstage moment of extending sadness; the kind of loneliness that waits for a quiet place to unfurl.
24. Recently, I came across Ma Lin’s Waiting for Guests by Candlelight, a fan painting on album leaf from around 1230, which shows a member of the imperial family, possibly the emperor himself, sitting insignificantly but confidently within impressive architecture, surrounded by mountains and trees. Ma Lin’s figure, whether he’s the emperor or not, is present and postured, surrounded by his property and secure in his authority. He’s not wandering off anywhere; people are coming to him. Attendants in white robes, in preparation for the guests’ arrival, have lit candles to mark a path, and the moon is a small yellow spot, more of a stain, barley perceptible in the sky. But then I think, until his guests arrive the emperor will have to wait (he’s still waiting). And then I realise, from where he’s sitting he can’t see the moon.
Tom Melick is an artist, anthropologist and writer. He co-edits the pamphlet series Slug and is a member of Camanchaca, roaming publishing collective.
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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence