Monday 15 April 2024

The Mud Man: Walking Art in Macao

On a random Wednesday morning in April I climbed over a tall barrier that blocked off the beach. I was covered in mud head to toe and carry office furniture.

To be precise, I was pushing, pulling, carrying and dragging an office chair, a folding desk, a computer and a monitor. This was a mobile office that was being pulled through the city to the obvious bemusement, not to say disdain, of well dressed passers by.

The small wheels were not designed for pavements and slopes. I had to try really hard to control it all and it became quickly clear that this was not going to be an easy task, it was physically demanding. I threw myself into it and became very focussed on the action, this was the only way I would get it done. Most sensible people would give up here, then again, most sensible people wouldn't do something like this in the first place. 

The first part of this walk cum drag took place on flat reclaimed land next to the casinos. All of a sudden a steep hill rises from the ground and, fortunately, there was a public lift that I was able to squeeze into to take me to the top. I was already feeling wrecked.

Now into the old city proper I pushed on. I don't particularly want to explain why I did this, I rather like the fact that the whole thing was unannounced and people in the street, here too for that matter, had to find their own explanation. I think there is a lack of things in our cities that don't fit but which provoke interesting questions even wonder. More often the things that come out of nowhere are less obvious or less benign. You lose your job because of technology developed half-way around the world or your bills jump sharply because a war. Life itself makes less and less sense and is unstable. 

And onto one of the Portuguese style areas which are beautiful but have these small stone cobbles which are a nightmare to pull a loaded office chair over. Well I guess they were not thinking of that scenario when they paved the streets in traditional Portuguese Calçada. There is an interesting history to these stones, which are not as old as they appear. They were put in place in the dying days of the colonial administration leaving a residual Portuguese mark on the city which has come to be embraced. For me they were not welcome at all! 

An hour and much sweat later I arrived at Ox Warehouse where the exhibition will happen next month. One part of it be the video of this walk, which these still are taken from; another part will be the office equipment itself. If it's still working, it might even be used to show the video, let's see. This question of gallery presentation is a persistent question that many artists have worked with: how to show or share a walk? In this case the walk is a spectacle too so the focus is on the walker as much as on the terrain. I might return to this subject in a further post and look at a few examples of walking art presentations but first things first, a long deep shower, a video to edit and an exhibition to install. Opens May 6th.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

The Tour of All Tours: Shanghai Xintiandi video

Every now and then I find bits of video on old phones or wherever and that's precisely what this is. Some footage of The Tour of All Tours in Shanghai. Seeing as there is rather little video of this show online, I thought it would be good to share it.

The thing that made this performance stand out from the other iterations of The Tour of All Tours was the fact that it was banned by the authorities. To be perfectly honest, I think that says more about Shanghai local council than it does about the show; there was nothing particularly aberrant in this version, it was meta-tourism as usual. 

In terms of video, this does remind me of a plan I have to adapt a tour for the camera. I made one such effort for the Beijing tour and that was part of the exhibition On Tourism (Xiamen 2022). I would like to make a proper effort to do it for the camera, however, rather than piece together bits and pieces. It had struck me that this Shanghai tour might be suitable but the area has changed and is less welcoming. It has turned into a luxury shopping and red tourism site that would make it harder to pull off this sort of thing nowadays. The tour moves on and will happen elsewhere.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

From a muddy mangrove to an ex-slaughterhouse: a promenade through Macau

I'm in Macau preparing a performance that I'll film tomorrow. It's a tour in the sense that it is a promenade style of show that travels through the city. The original inspiration was land reclamation, of which Macau has a great deal. The video below shows how Macau has evolved from being three small islands to two substantially larger ones.

The performance will trace a path first over the flat reclaimed land and then up onto the higher ground. It taps into the fear of flooding, something that Macau knows about only too well. The city experienced devastating typhoon flooding in 2017 that left much of the city inundated. That scenario looks only too likely to return with greater frequency now that our global weather patterns are going rogue

The performance is not simply the tracing of this path. I'll be emerging from the mud and sands with a basic office in tow: desk, chair, computer, screen etc. Caked in mud I'll push it through the city and make my way to Ox Warehouse, the contemporary art gallery that is supporting this. It's going to be another hot day, 29 degrees, and the route will probably take over an hour. Even if everything goes right, which is a big assumption, it will be a tough tour. 

It's already looking less straightforward as the gate onto the beach where I start has now been sealed; it was previously unlocked. I'll have to pass everything over a fence and climb over it myself, too. We have permission to do this performance from the local government, so hopefully it won't get stopped, but it is hard to really predict how it will all turn out. That's half the fun.

The locking of the gate may be a blessing in disguise. It means I will begin in the sandy mud at the bottom of these steps, beside the remains of a mangrove forest. The vast majority of it has been uprooted and covered in rocks to make way for casinos, but a small pocket of it hangs on. Since I learned that these rare natural environments sequester up to eight times more carbon than regular forests, I have a special regard for them. They are forests growing out of the coastal mud flats; dense, liminal, teaming with life, they are one of nature's enigmatic zones that holds hidden wonder. I'll be bringing some of that with me through the polished streets tomorrow, a climate refugee from the future on his way to higher ground.

Monday 25 March 2024

Barefoot on Sand: a walk about walking

I was in Shanghai recently and went for a walk. I realized that my gait could be improved if I let my arms swing more loosely and made more of a point to get posture and muscular control right. I have both taken and made tours on all sorts of subjects and about a crazy assortment of places but it was a revelation to make a walk where the subject of the walk was the physical act of walking itself. Arriving in Xiamen I had a hunch I should continue with the experiment and take advantage of the cities clean beaches. I resolved to walk barefoot on sand for an hour as an experiment. 

I began at this tall statue, the emblem for the Golden Rooster Film Festival, the Chinese equivalent of the Oscars. The festival is held in Xiamen annually and is an excuse for the film industry from Shanghai and Beijing to have a few days of gorging themselves on seafood in the sun. On the other side of the water, the Taiwanese version is called the Golden Horse and this got me thinking about Golden animals, prestige and films. It sparked the idea for a film festival of my own which might well just happen: The Golden Cockroach! If only for that, this walk was a success as it gave me a name and concept for a future event.

The walk began with the shoes coming off and the ever so slightly smelly feet coming into contact with the warm dry sand. Starting from a standing position, I spent time feeling the weight passing down through the feet and the spine reaching up, getting a sense of relaxed verticality. When walking, there is so much else going on that it becomes much more difficult to focus on these basics so it is good to start off with good posture. I found my feet became much more sensitive and alive when in contact with the sand released from the prison of shoe ware. This in turn gave me more feeling about where precisely my weight was distributed. 

I set off along the beach leaving a trail of footsteps behind me. I settled into a rhythm that let the arms swing fully and lungs breathe in the sea air. Focus was more up and outwards as the sand didn't present obstacles or contain sharp objects that might damage the feet. It was only after a while that I looked down and I realized I was not alone. There are worms living in the tidal area of sand near the shoreline. I'm not sure if it's the same ones, but I was once convinced to try eating worms dug up from the sand here. To be precise, the skin of these worms, set in jelly with a hot sauce smeared over it; it's a local delicacy. All I can say is I tried it once and won't be touching it ever again.

The walk continued and I was in luck, the tide was right out so I could pass around the rocks and continue a long way, walking solely on the sand. The angle of the sand sloping down to the water makes the weight falls more onto one foot than another. This gentle asymmetry made me more aware of what I was doing higher up in the body, I could feel it all the way up to the neck. 

After a while I became more sensitive to the differences between coarse sand and fine sand, dry sand and wet sand. Each behaved very differently underfoot. I never would have expected to have found so much variation. These subtle changes in turn improved my posture as I was getting so much more sensation in my feet than I normally do when wearing shoes. It would be possible to do this for five minutes and experience this as information but doing it for longer was so much more rewarding as it becomes ongoing and sustained feedback. If you want to correct bodily habits, retrain bodily use, this longer sustained work is almost certainly more effective. It requires time and repetition for it to get inside your body and become second nature.

While the focus of this walk was on the act of walking itself, I was not on a treadmill, I was still walking somewhere. The sound of waves is quite good for letting go of chatter but thoughts keep popping up regardless. One thing that kept coming to me, for instance, was that I always used to hate the two towers in the distance, and now there's a new one currently being put up. They are dumb landmarks, notable only for their height, which turn into screens for kitsch once night falls. This mild irritation with them as they symbolize the wrong turn the city of Xiamen has taken, is perhaps why I ended up lived in one of them for a while: so I didn't have to look at it.

It's ironic that just as I was about to finish, I walked past a beach stall selling plastic sandals. I had gone further than anticipated and the hour walk turned into 90 minutes. I could already feel the skin between my toes getting worn down by the abrasive sand so I understand why people spending longer on the sand might want footwear. What this barefoot walk did for me, however, was to make me much more mindful of walking surfaces and gait. The first thing I did when I got home was to go through my shoes and make a careful analysis of each pair, seeing how it impacted my walking. This walk about walking was, therefore, not so much a performance as a really useful exercise. I will surely try it again and most probably also use it when teaching.