Tuesday, March 3

visible structures

Here is my text for Critic on the Dunedin Public Art Gallery exhibition "Visible Structures" by Gabriella and Silvana Mangano. The show ends on the 15th of March so make sure you visit the gallery soon (if you can)!

C onfronted by a wall of text that partially blocks Gabriella and Silvana Mangano’s “Visible Structures”, the viewer can experience only a slice of the show from the outside. These glints of colour and light from one of the show’s projected films, mixed with ethereal, overlapping sounds, lure the viewer beyond the first wall into a visual landscape of solid white walls with films flashing and glowing across their surfaces.

Within this new landscape, the viewer is never quite alone with one film. As she faces one of the five walls (none reach the roof of the space) the light and sounds from other screens beckon and interact with each other — surrounding the viewer with a world of repeated and sometimes echoed imagery. By avoiding the use of the four outer walls of the room and, instead, projecting the films on their own walls as objects that stand by themselves and at angles to each other, “Visible Structures” mirrors the works of Fiona Connor, which are exhibited on the same floor. Connor’s works feature paintings by three celebrated New Zealand artists: Colin McCahon, Milan Mrkusich and Toss Woollaston. Each painting has been taken from its “normal” place on a gallery wall and displayed on movable white frames (like those used for portable whiteboards at school). Rejecting tradition, Connor’s works play with and critique the gallery as an institution whose ideas of exhibition formation can seem unchanging. In the Manganos’ works, however, instead of mail addresses and other scrawls marking the paintings’ journeys, the backs of the walls are lit with flashes of the journeys of surrounding films.

On the three smaller walls (one of which has a projection on either side) are films that show parts of a landscape rolling by, often in strange hues of pink or green-blue. Although these films’ contribution to the overall effect of the show is not less important, they are more simplistic, outlines of ideas or “sketches” that manifest themselves more fully in the films shown on the two larger walls. These two larger walls have some of the same imagery featured on the smaller screens spliced with black and white scenes of one of the artists (the collaborating artists are identical twins, which makes it difficult to identify who is performing) interacting with or wandering around an open space that sometimes features towering rock faces or dusty, rocky surfaces. In these glimpses, which are somehow both familiar and otherworldly, the viewer recalls segments of sites seen from the back of a car in between dozing off on summer road trips. 

In these two films, the performer carries a large circular mirror, which sometimes reflects a smooth grey colour, almost creating a hole within the work. The held mirror also segments the artist’s body, creating a link to Joan Jonas’ groundbreaking “Mirror Pieces”, which incorporated mirrors into performance works and fragmented the audience’s perception of her art in shows that were almost Surrealist. The use of the mirror creates a second, alternative perspective by reflecting what the artist sees and creating another gaze within the filmer’s. In other shots, the mirror (held off-screen) is used to reflect a circle of light that wanders across different natural surfaces.

The Melbourne-based artists filmed the work for this show during daily expeditions in the Otago region in a six-week residency as part of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s Visiting Artist Programme. Perhaps unintentionally, the deliberate ambiguity of the landscapes they chose to film reflects the feelings of students new to Dunedin who are attempting to form connections with the unfamiliar territory that they find themselves in. Experiencing the Manganos’ works is oddly reassuring; although the strange hues and compositions are initially alien, the rhythmic and repetitive patterns of the work calm the viewer. In contrast to the hustle of a new year, especially for students, “Visible Structures” gives us time to watch, listen, experience and wander in an artificial, dreamy reality.


Sunday, March 1

a constant companion

I have returned to work for my student magazine, Critic, once again! This time I have two roles, one as the Culture Editor (which involves managing and editing the columns and sections of the magazine) and the other as the Arts Editor (my only written contribution to the magazine). For the first issue, I wrote an introductory piece about several musings on art as a companion.

I n a taxi one night in Beijing the taxi driver told me he dreamt of travelling — out of Beijing, around the world — but never could because of a lack of money. The driver explained, speaking slowly in simple Mandarin, that he travelled instead through his passengers and the stories of their lives in worlds beyond China’s capital city. For many, physical travel is something that cannot be a part of their lives, but this doesn’t stop exploration. Just as for the taxi driver, there are so many other ways to be transported and go beyond. One way is through art.

As well as moving the viewer, art is constantly on the move. It’s an exchange; it’s seeing the world and reacting to it. In Beijing I wandered around the white-walled rooms of the UCCA, which were filled with works by contemporary artists based in Los Angeles. This exhibition was an attempt to make specific cultural connections between Los Angeles and Beijing — connections that the UCCA believed were lacking despite their “imagined proximity” as Pacific Rim cities.

Art was on the move again in Caochangdi at the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (designed and built with the help of prolific Chinese artist Ai Weiwei). A second collaboration, between Amsterdam-based photography institution Foam and China’s He Xiangning Art Museum, was an extensive display of contemporary Dutch photographs. The travelling exhibition, titled Still/Life — Contemporary Dutch Photography, played with the art historical theme of the still life. In one photo by Ingmar Swalue, a plastic cup slowly spilled coffee onto a pile of napkins photographed against a background of black, sky blue, white and nude abstract shapes, reinventing and subverting the still life. This work and others in the show highlighted the sheer cleanness of the digital image — a change from the sole emphasis on pre-production, which is evident in original still life works.

In its loyalty to cultural exchange and strong efforts to reaffirm diplomatic and commercial ties with China, this year Foam will present the work of Chinese artists based in Amsterdam who are working in the field of photography. The excitement in the sharing of art and ideas between Beijingers and foreigners was everywhere I went.

But this exchange is not restricted to cities in the Northern Hemisphere. Exhibitions and performances that I saw in Dunedin last year manifested this global trend and interest in the mobile. Two examples come to mind: the impossibly long and realistic noodles hanging from hovering chopsticks in Korean–New Zealand artist Seung Yul Oh’s MOAMOA at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery; and a cathartic performance in Touch Paste Contact at the Blue Oyster Art Project Space of trauma and identity as a South Korean soldier experienced by the artist Samin Son. Both examples transported Dunedin viewers to “foreign worlds” last year, and I am sure new works will continue to do so this year. With most galleries being a mere 15-minute walk from campus, art couldn’t be more accessible.

Whether you are adjusting to a new hostel, attempting your first university assignment for the year or simply feeling reflective about the distance between you and your family, you can always trust one of the numerous art galleries or spaces in Dunedin to be there for you. Let the DPAG, or the Blue Oyster, or Brett McDowell take you away from these anxieties or bring to your attention details of the reality you are immersed in. Art is a refuge; equally, it is a conversation starter. In fact, I believe good art demands a conversation — it asks questions of you and also makes you ask questions. Why do Seung Yul Oh’s hyper-real bowls of noodles suddenly look haunting rather than humorous? How would I feel if I had to do military service in South Korea like Samin Son? And we also have to imagine what themes and narratives viewers around the world connect with and respond to when they see travelling work from Dunedin artists. As young New Zealanders who aspire to be global citizens, we must look at the art in front of us and learn to interpret it from different contexts — small and large, local and global. We all need to embody the wisdom of the Beijing taxi driver and see art as our “passenger” and our access to a global world.


Friday, February 27

the zajia laboratory in beijing

Photo from Zajia
Here is the text I wrote for White Fungus' website in November last year!

In a narrow alleyway between a public bathroom and courtyard residence a person on an electric bicycle beeped at me to move out of his way. Further along, I passed a small store filled with empty water containers and a dairy omitting blaring Chinese opera music from a hidden radio. It was dark. Apart from the intermittent orange light of street lamps, the only other light I had was from my phone. Lost somewhere in downtown Beijing, I felt an unsettling mixture of frustrated and charmed as I searched for Zajia Lab.

In some ways, my experience of finding Zajia, which is almost hidden in Doufuchi hutong in Dongcheng District, is somewhat captured within the bar and space itself. It is a space of history, of community and has a constant range of art practices and life flowing through its doors. This is further reflected in the name itself with “za” translating to mixed or miscellaneous and “jia” to home, family or a person engaged in a certain art or profession.

Forty minutes later, Ambra Corinti, who began Zajia with her husband Rong GuangRong (an artist and documentary filmmaker) in 2011, greeted me in Zajia’s homely bar. In the short time between us meeting and moving through to the performance space she spoke to the people around us in Chinese, Italian and English. Ambra then led me through two heavy doors into a large room with an astoundingly old, riveted roof. The room was dimly lit with several rows of secondhand seats facing an open area that had long curtains tied up around it and large boxes covering its floor (these boxes are used for storage and can be pushed together to make a stage). With only Ambra and I in the space it took on a spiritual nature that alluded to an intriguing idea of possibility - endless possibility.

Before I asked Ambra about Zajia, we talked about who she is and how her and her husband came to be running this space in Beijing. As a sinologist, Ambra was first drawn to China in 2004 to research material for a final paper on art critics in China. Quickly, Ambra “fell in love with Beijing.” “From 2004 to 2008 all the artists here were doing projects with everybody,” she explained. “There weren’t ‘underground/mainstream’ or ‘fame/unknown’ divisions. There were no walls. There was an excitement - young people believed they could do everything.”

Like the mission Zajia intends to permeate the history of the space and bar, which occupy the front hall of Hong’ En Taoist Temple, is fluid and mixed. The couple first set out to find a space away from the central art district and preferably downtown where they hoped for less limitations audience typology. When the couple first stumbled across the place in 2010 they were invited inside after the landlord noticed them taking photos of the surrounding area. At the time the space was being used in a commercial capacity as a Toufu shop ( Ambra describes it as“a stinky white cube”) and Maijiang (or Mahjong) room.

After renting the two rooms, it took three months of renovations to remove the white tiles and plastic interiors and expose the beautiful foundations of the old temple. Originally, during the Yuan dynasty, this temple was known as the “Thousands Buddhas Temple” however, during the Qing Dynasty, its name changed to “Temple of Peace and Quiet.” The nature of the space changed again during the Cultural Revolution when the temple was used as a factory for making nails (the red bricks of this factory can still be seen).

Ambra and GuangRong set up the bar in order to finance the space and allow it to be independent - the project space itself, however, has never made money. Once this bar was established and renovations largely completed Zajia was ready to become a space of experimentation (although its own process of coming into being was the true first experimentation at Zajia). At the beginning the couple “started the project without any consciousness of what we were doing, except to give space to any type of experimental thing - performance art, theatre, music - and especially to film screenings, which - in China - is a very sensitive topic.”

They had friends in art circles who were very happy to come in and do projects here. Soon, after three or four months, Zajia started to receive a lot of proposals from foreign and Chinese artists. For two years they were extremely busy with a lot of events but now they’ve started to slow down because of the demanding nature and lack of income, as Ambra explained, “even if you have tickets for events, the income from the tickets is only enough to pay some to the artists and then pay the bills to run this space.”

Ambra views the space as a vehicle - “what is happening outside passes through here. I never want to have a curatorial line.” This lack of curation is one of Zajia’s main characteristics and persists despite occasionally deviating personal tastes, “I’ve decided to host a lot of events that personally I do not like, but I’ve always thought of this space as a vehicle. Whatever is happening in the city, people need this space for that thing  - maybe I will think it’s not interesting but actually a lot of people might come, which means that they are interested.”

However, her stance is different when it comes to film screenings. Zajia curate a series of screenings of independent documentary films by Chinese directors every month - and largely rely on word of mouth to pull in audience members. “We are always told that these film screenings really needs space because it is forbidden in China. We only screen independent films and we always get in contact with the director first to ask for permission. In the past, a lot of independent film screening venues in downtown were made inside restaurants and bars because they were the only brave people who wanted to do it. There were no spaces like Zajia. But now, in the last year, I think there are much more.”

Before I had entered Zajia's premises (after finally realising it was up the stairs directly beside the Bell Tower Market) I had stopped to observe the group of old men smoking and laughing on the street outside. Other hutong residents sat down at the nearby fluorescent lit eatery for dinner and drink. When I asked Ambra what the community living around Zajia thought of the space she laughed, “They think it’s a bar where strange things happen!” However, Zajia has actively encouraged locals to come to performances despite their persistent but polite rejections. One of Zajia's long running projects (called “hutong”) brought the essence of Zajia outside. “To let everybody in the hutong and people passing by to see what we were doing we invited any type of artists to perform on the stairs on, usually, a Sunday afternoon. A lot of very funny things happened.”

“There was one particularly funny thing that I liked very much.  There is a 90 plus year old man who comes to sit just beside our stairs with a chair every afternoon. One day we invited Yan Jun - who is a very famous writer, poet, sound artist and experimental musician - to record people’s hearts beating as part of our hutong project. He used the sounds of the heartbeats of people sitting on the stairs and mixed with other creations. It was very beautiful. Then the twenty people who were sitting on the stairs were given headphones to listen to what Yan Jun just created along with the sounds from the surrounding environment. This old man sitting beside the stairs was very curious. Usually he doesn’t talk to anybody then Yan Jun gave him headphones to listen to the strange, experimental music. Yan Jun was very excited by this - he said this man was the oldest audience member he has ever had!”

Despite (or perhaps because) of the leading nature of what Zajia provides for the arts community in Beijing, the space exists in an alluring state of temporality. Any day the government could decide to close it down, or Ambra and GuangRong could decide to embark on a new project. But it is this unknown that creates intrigue and, in turn, intrigue is what Zajia will continue to both facilitate and stimulate in a city that it loves.

Tuesday, February 24

lost in time

In an embarrassingly, sleep-deprived fumble, I lost all the film photos I took in China. To (not really at all) redeem myself, I took some photos on Great Barrier Island where I stopped-over to visit my parents on the way back from China to Dunedin, New Zealand. When there aren't many people around and clouds cover the island, the entire place feels haunted and otherworldly. It's great for the imagination and, occasionally, terrifying.


Thursday, February 12

but this is what love is for, to be out of place

Wulai, Taiwan
Wulai, Taiwan
Jiufen, Taiwan
Jiufen, Taiwan
Tokyo, Japan
Yokohama, Japan
Although the adventure is never over, my time in East Asia has come to an end for now. As I make this post I am surrounded by every shade of green set in motion by a building wind. There is no one around - no power lines, no cars, no towering buildings. A place like this now feels other worldly and in its remoteness from the rest of the world it probably is. But those worlds I have experienced within China, Taiwan and Japan are still out there and they have set something in motion within me; I can't imagine my future without being back soon. Despite the challenge and sharp contrast of Beijing's environment to home, it is addictive. It is in a state of constant change, always redefining itself, always exciting - filled with a history so large and turbulent I could find myself lost within it forever. My home on Great Barrier Island will always be a place of insurmountable tranquility for me but my adventures in East Asia have only just begun. Goodbye for now, China.


Wednesday, December 31

looking back then looking out

Almost at the same time my shampoo finished, this year has too. My days in China are also fast disappearing. Shampoo, the year that's been and my exchange have all led me to reflect a bit.

Extracting myself and taking a wavering step back, I am still uncertain. Immediately, rather than work or school life, I see hurt. Something I have felt throughout the year and have been very slow to come to terms with it. But, after several deep breaths, I can spot something beyond this. The challenges caused by this hurt and the experiences certain changes have led to made me grow as a person in ways I haven't before. They opened doors within my world that I did not know existed - many I am still learning to walk through. My year gave me more (beautiful, forever undeserved) friends to be cared for by and who inspired new curiosities within me. My year brought me closer to the world, although I'm still quite scared of it. It also took me to China - an experience so equally challenging and fascinating that I now somehow have to find a way back here. 

My year also slowly taught me the wonder and terror of being - being both alone and more aware of the crucial idea of "presence." Presence reminds me that the future does not exist and, rather simply, focuses on fully attending each day. 

Crawling back into the entanglement, I end this year with some pain, some confusion but also as a changed person. I end it in awe of the kindness of close family and new and old friends. I also end it with a thankfulness - for all the moments where my curiosity was satisfied and for the incredible, incredible luck and generosity that I have continually encountered. Really, why me?

For next year, I wish for the continued freedom to unravel my curiosities.

Now, wherever you are at, here's to a happy New Year!


Monday, December 22

grischa rueschendorf captures louis kahn

Photo of the book from here.
In the small, busy interior of Club 71 in Hong Kong my friend Oriana introduced me to the German photographer Grischa Rueschendorf who had just happened to finish a book on Louis Kahn's parliament building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. From his bag, Grischa pulled a draft of the book, which was filled with beautiful photos of this rarely photographed or seen architectural masterpiece, also know as "one of the wonders of modern architecture." Updates from my parents' splendid travels around Iran and Turkey (which most recently show a visit to Kahn's Indian Institute of Management) reminded me of this encounter. The book - a treasure for any follower of Louis Kahn - can be purchased here.