Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Gen Dequan, the famous Dai folk musician, passed away last night of an apparent brain hemorrhage. He was a master of the Hulu, a reed instrument fashioned out of drinking gourds which is popular among the Dai and many other ethnic groups throughout Yunnan and Southeast Asia. He was fifty years old.
Known as King of the Gourd, Gen Dequan was instrumental in popularizing the folk music of the Dai people, and making their music a household name throughout China, synonymous with the cultural diversity of Yunnan Province. Throughout his career he toured many cities and countries, sharing the musical traditions of his people.
I was fortunate to know him. We first met on the Yunnan Revealed tour in 2005, when I was tour manager and he was a performer. He came again with us to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2007. He was a good man and a phenomenal musician.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Hosting the opening ceremony
Last weekend I made a journey to the virtual city. Though it doesn’t really exist, the portal to this city was on the west side of Shanghai. Shanghai was boiling with artists that weekend that flocked there for the three major art expos that happened last week. Though the city definitely plays second fiddle to Beijing in the China art scene, this time it was host to probably the most important art happening of the year with thousands of artworks and dozens of satellite exhibitions.
Virtual City was one such satellite exhibition. It was conceived by Yuan Gong, Shanghai real estate mogul-turned supersized art patron. He recently established the Yuan Gong Art Museum, Artra Space and Yuan Gong Art Organization at a complex of buildings on Gubei Lu near the old Hongqiao Airport. He’s been tossing around money and doing some really cool stuff over the past few years.
Visitors descend on the Virtual City
The concept behind Virtual City was to manipulate the environment in a way that created an impossible space, one in which the physical environment interfered with reality in absurd ways, and in which virtual reality expanded the experience into another dimension. The complex was filled with installation, sculpture and new media works by over fifty artists, and the complex itself was transformed by a web of obstructions and labyrinths which made navigation all but impossible.
I was there to serve as one of the hosts for the opening, as well as general translator. I had friends in the show and friends who came out to see me, and between them and the needs of the event, I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. The obstructions created by the space and the massive crowds – especially around the installation with a live exotic dancer on a mechanically bouncing bed – made the day next to impossible. I was constantly cursing the labyrinths and hidden stairwells as I ran back and forth, and I barely had time to look at the artworks. But of course I knew that this feeling was exactly what the curators had intended.
One of the creepier works on display
I did have time to see some of the stuff, though. Unfortunately much of the work would have been unremarkable if it weren’t for the stellar presentation. The best artwork of all was the exhibition itself. Two pieces, however, stood out. One was “Sounding off for 5.12”, an interactive media installation about the May 12th Sichuan Earthquake by an artist whose name escapes me. A crushed truck had been removed from the wreckage of the earthquake and shipped to the exhibition space, where it was placed in a cavity in the floor. It was covered in stripped down speakers and lights, and more importantly, an array of motion and sound sensors. The speakers and lights reacted to the sensory input from the audience, and emitted sounds and lights accordingly. The most striking thing about this installation was the sound. Two separate sounds were recorded. The first was the sound of every car horn, factory whistle, siren and other noisemaker in the country, which were sounded off in unison during a nationwide day of mourning for the nearly 70,000 victims of the earthquake. The second sound was that of survivors hammering away at the ruined buildings looking for scrap metal they could sell to supplement their food rations. These were sounds of solidarity, sounds of despair, and sounds of the invincible human spirit. I’d like to spend some time alone with the piece some day.
Cang Xin's tower
The second piece that struck me was a three-story scale model of Shanghai’s new World Financial Center, the tallest building in China, in wax. It was a perfectly executed replica by artist Cang Xin and his crew of workers. The building was in an atrium inside one of the compound houses. As it towered over the other artworks and by the various balconies, it was being slowly melted by a massive torch suspended over the artwork. I always have trouble reading into Cang Xin’s works, but there’s never a dull moment with that guy. In fact, though it was much different from a lot of his other work that I’ve seen, I knew it was his without even looking at the label. The first thought that ran through my mind was “only in China”.
Before long I was pulled away to catch a really cool experimental dance piece directed by Wen Pulin, followed by an academic forum. The original idea was that I would translate for any foreigners who wished to attend, but they were all lured to other exhibitions by the free booze. Since I was seated at the main table, it would have been rude to leave, and besides, these were some of China’s top critics. I had translated many of their essays, and was keen to get to know them a bit better. The forum was quite interesting, because on top of some of China’s best critics and curators, there was also a philosopher, Philip Zhai, who happens to specialize in the philosophical concepts and issues of virtual reality. He had captivated our dinner and drinking session the night before, and did the same with his opening remarks at the forum. He argues, among other things, that as virtual space becomes a larger part of our lives, it may one day become more important than the real world, and when that happens, the virtual will become the real, and the real, virtual. Interesting guy.
Halfway through our forum, the speaker was interrupted by the sound of approaching sirens. Someone joked that maybe Cang Xin’s wax tower had set the building on fire, and we all laughed. The forum continued for another hour or so, during which time I got a text message from a friend, San San, Ms 33, saying, “We’ve been evacuated to the parking lot and are trying to decide where to go next. When are you finished up there?”
San San is an attractive young artist and event promoter that I met on a previous trip to Shanghai. She had a piece on the roof of the same building as Cang Xin’s piece. Her installation was a cluster of small structures covered in clippings of newspaper headlines and other media info, in a statement about how much media shapes our world these days. She had kept a fire extinguisher next to the work as she put it together all week, just for safety’s sake. When she finished the artwork, she decided that she liked the fire extinguisher, and also covered it in newspaper, placing it in the center of the installation.
That made her the guardian angel of the virtual city. Sometime in the afternoon, the torch above Cang Xin’s artwork managed to burn through the ceiling, surprise surprise. Falling embers ignited the entire wax tower, which promptly collapsed and sent flames flying everywhere. My good friend, Huang Zheng, true to his style, helped evacuate the audience members, and joined with Cang Xin in trying to put out the flames; a job made that much easier thanks to San San’s fire extinguisher. The two men were the last to leave the building just as the fire brigade arrived.
Imagine the firefighters’ rage when they found they had to navigate a labyrinth to get to the fire site and that there were no evacuation routes. Our forum was in a building on the other side of the compound, oblivious to the whole thing. When we finished the discussion, we were astonished to find that the labyrinths, the obstacles, the entire virtual city had disappeared without a trace (except for maybe a smoldering blob of wax) on orders of the fire brigade. I congratulated the curators on a job well done. They had succeeded in creating a truly impossible space. Had it ever really existed in the first place?
Oh and by the way, San San retrieved her fire extinguisher. Maybe one day when she makes it big we can put it in a museum next to Duchamp’s urinal.