Thursday, 16 February 2017

Three Year's Tours in Review.

There is the rather wonderful looking 15th Urban Research Plaza's Forum taking place in Bangkok next month which I had hoped to attend but will be unable to make it to. In my stead there will be this short video outlining some of the creative tour output of the last three years. Putting it together made me realise what a lot of travelling I've been doing and recall all the people and institutions who've helped make it happen. Thank you all, and may it continue over the next three years.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Tour of Geyuan Garden: a heritage nightmare

Geyuan Garden is, apparently, one of the four most prestigious gardens in the whole of China. I would never have guessed. Numbed from a 24-course Spring Festival feast the night before in which the baijiu toasting went on long and hard, I dragged my way around the residence and formal gardens. It was piercingly cold and despite the many layers I was bound up in, I was still freezing. I was here thanks to a family outing which I got hoovered up into and before even setting off I was saying to myself, this was an absurd moment to come sightseeing. It truly was, and yet so many did.

Rather than following any one single guide, the way this place seemed to work was that the place was flooded with so many guides you could hop on and off their tours and surf your own course around Geyuan. The guides all seemed to be women, mostly under thirty, wearing costumes that featured dashes of shocking pink. The look was of history tarted up according to the tastes of someone lacking in any deep sophistication.

The guides congregated around the built up areas explaining thing like, who this was the former home of, or what that assemblages of stones meant. They looked like they were following a tight script and there were no questions except the obvious ones like, where are the toilets? And the most inevitable one of the lot, where is lunch?  

The crowds were nothing short of crazy. I am used to China, I've been here a while now and learnt how to switch off and find privacy in public, but this was something else. This was the third day of Spring Festival. There didn't seem to be any limit on the number of visitors, this was the moment for Geyuan to fill the coffers. The crowd was very accepting, however, sardine tourism probably came as no great surprise and most people simply made the best of it. The guides cranked up their microphones, great big bottlenecks swelled around gateways and some  boys got bored and ran wild: it was the usual low-level tourist chaos.

There is a certain level of ennui I have come to associate with Chinese heritage sites: once you've seen one you've more or less seen them all. There may be exceptions but Geyuan isn't one of them: we trudged from one unconvincing restoration job to the next. When you look around the backsides of the buildings you see hastily slapped together concrete, wires poking through rough holes in the walls and air conditioning units. I was reminded of what Paul Theoux wrote about sightseeing in China, "It has all the boredom and ritual of a pilgrimage and none of the spiritual benefits."

Guyuan has a bamboo garden and this was probably my favourite part of the experience on account of it being ever so slightly less packed solid. That said, I was not crazy for it either as it was all a bit too intentional in its aesthetic for my tastes. 

The garden worked well enough as a backdrop for selfies and group pics, which seems its primary purpose these days. I watched a constant stream of people with phones in hand carefully framing up shots, finding the right expression and then waiting for the moment that the crowd thinned enough so the background no longer resembled the Shanghai Metro rush hour. I think the attraction of the place is that it lets visitors imagine they are in one of the immensely popular costume dramas, but it was doomed to fail on a day like this. There is a paradoxically repressed yet rampant and distinctly Chinese strand of postmodernity at play here. Geyuan is not precisely a pastiche or simulation but a thorough restoration that approximates these in form and function and which offers temporal continuity to the Han who voraciously consume it in a very contemporary and disconnected way. Some sort of narrative continues, whether it has any veracity or not is irrelevant, the point is it must go on, like Burroughs word virus, to reproduce itself and continue being told.

Some distance away from the garden is the Yangzhou Slender West Lake which is truly the cherry on the cake. Actually, I shouldn't get started on Chinese copies of Western cakes, that is a whole sorry topic in itself. This scenic spot, clustered around the water, is in a similar vein to Geyuan but more expansive and thus less crowded. In places it is beautiful, but it is also deeply frustrating. As I looked around a Buddhist monastery I asked myself, what went on here during the cultural revolution? What about other ups and downs? When, how, why and by whom was it restored? The site could be very interesting if there was a way to unpick the different layers, or even more so if there was a desire to make them visible, but there was none of this. The site had been designed to smoother questions and promote historical feel-good. This is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, British stately homes often give me the creeps too with their Downton Abbeyesque faux historical projection. The lingering impression I was left with here was that heritage used this way can never be true to itself. It is a fiction that refuses to recognise itself as one even when the cracks in the visage are glaring and there for all who want to see. 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Wood Green Revisited Tour

Today's tour was of the stalwart North London neighbourhood Wood Green in the affable company of Hugh Chapman. I say stalwart because Wood Green is one of those areas that has the character of always being there but never being too obtrusive, like the waiters in the excellent Kervan Sofrasi Turkish Restaurant on the High Road. This is in complete contrast to attention seeking Dalston, for example. This can mean that the place gets taken for granted, which is a pity because changes, such as the imminent demolition of the gas holder, can just happen like weather: it lurches from grey to grey.

Our tour of Wood Green was not a rehearsed walk with a set script, but Hugh did have several locations in mind to take me to. That is what brought us to the Chocolate Factory, a former industrial building now housing creative businesses. It still bore traces of its history of sweetening the tooth of the British Empire but today it housed such things as overspill from Mountview Theatre Academy. As we were walking around this oversized shoebox and later waking beside some of the other refashioned industrial units in the area, I had a sense of familiarity that I now realise came from the old Middlesex University Fine Art School being based here on Western Road back in the 90s. I first visited it as an undergraduate student and then later as a judgemental life model; a cash-strapped 22-year-old performance artist who looked down on life drawing but had to keep his opinions to himself and humbly take the money. The school has long since moved elsewhere, the building changed its appearance and my attitudes to drawing softened.

Back out into the cool grey we ascended the multi-story car park in search of a view and this is the best we got. Whilst Wood Green's centre has some density, it is surrounded by rows of two-storey houses with cars parked out the front and little back gardens filled with patches of grass, bikes and children's plastic toys.

For an area whose name evokes a Robin Hood-like image of a clearing deep in the forest, the reality is resolutely urban with no wood to see and scarce little green either. The slither of greenery that we did come to was the New Riverreached by walking under the train tracks, which neatly slice the urban fabric in two. To the south we arrived at Turnpike Lane Station where the slender Ducketts Common stretched before us but which marked the limit of our walk: we turned around and headed back up High Road. That park is another old haunt of mine: many moons ago I directed A Goat to Grind a performance for six cyclists that briefly interrupted the assembled Special Brew drinkers. Whilst I have been away too long, they looked as if they were still there, still putting the world to rights and peeing in the bushes. It is reassuring that some things don't change.

One of the purposes of the tour was to test out an idea of mine to explore an urban environment via the reproductions of art that can be found in it. This picture on the left, sitting in a charity shop, is an example. I wanted to first identify its origin and with this see if there was a way to connect this Rembrandt (right) to its contemporary environment. The first thing that I noticed doing this was how unevenly art is distributed: there are vast swathes of the city that art barely touches. What you do see everywhere, however, are the byproducts of art, namely design. Looking for both art and the traces of it through the etymology of images, proved to be a quite fascinating exercise that offered an original method of viewing the city. How the art reflects back upon the city remains to be seen but it can be so rich in content - Balthazar's Feast, Rembrandt's life and the painting's history - that these will, without the shadow of a doubt, include stories that could be reactivated in Wood Green.

Hugh is working for the social enterprise Green Rooms, a hotel catering for the arts sector which has its own arts programme. Naturally, they have an affinity with independent local businesses such as the Big Green Bookshop, a sympathetic place tucked away off the main street. Here we met the people running the place who were happy to chat and willing to be involved in some sort of artistic tour too. This is quite a contrast to another one of our stops, the frozen food store Iceland, where a security guard asked us to stop taking photographs, afraid we might be stealing their stellar design concepts. This division between local stores and national chains was predictable but is worth bearing in mind when making a tour. The temptation is to make tours on a personable and local level, bypassing the brightly lit mall, but that would give a very false impression of the neighbourhood. Somehow, it seems to me the resistance or impersonality that you can encounter in the larger places is interesting in itself and a tone not to be avoided altogether. 

All the time that we were looking around the neighbourhood as a form of artistic research, there was also a secondary very practical task of looking for a suitcase going on. This took us up and down High Road in and out of large and small stores alike. I did finally find a decent case in a sale in one of the smaller places and it was put to use immediately as I checked out of Green Rooms. I expect to see more of the area and, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I will be back. Touch wood (Green).