Concrete Flux | Soy Sauce Noodles
Natural Resources-A Captured Instant
Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, I stayed in New York a little while. It seemed that nobody had yet gotten over this event; aging white people, especially, as well as media professionals, really failed to understand their own country, and still appeared to be in a state of shock. On a typical New York afternoon, I met with curator Howie Cheng on Union Square near 14th Street. The sunlight flickered through the branches of the leafless trees; there were pigeons and passersby everywhere. Howie was very busy at the time, as he had just started his residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP), and had also arranged many workshop interviews. He told me that the elections had made many artists feel anxious, or even desperate. In contrast to his usual studio interviews, which aimed to provide professional advice and artwork appraisals, he found that these meetings had recently turned into psychological counselling sessions to artists in distress. Indeed, these artists needed someone with whom to discuss whether, in such a rotten political context, it was still so necessary to pursue artistic creation.
Later, I met in Chinatown the three Chinese artists who run Practice, an alternative art space. Each of them was busy preparing their respective contribution to the group exhibition they were about to take part in, at the 47 Canal gallery. They are not snobbish in the least, and such an opportunity is particularly rare. While each of them still pursues his or her own career as an artist, together, these three people have also succeeded in forging a collective entity through this open space—or to put it in the simplest terms, a friendship. Cici had cut her hair; she had not changed over the past two years, since I had first met her, although she might have become a little more caustic. She was still hoping for a war. As she drank, she criticized young Chinese artists for having no political enthusiasm, and lamented the corruption in which artistic creation was drowning. Out of self-defense, and due to my aversion to words like “war,” I almost quarreled with her once again.
For a few weeks thereafter, I hid in a little village on the West Coast, and decided to stop thinking for a time about the entreaties of art and artists. I lost track of time in the winter wind blowing over the Pacific. Occasionally, I would stare transfixed at enormous abalone shells on the beach, or discuss the cultivation of marijuana with hippies in collective saunas—various scenes that reminded me of Joan Didion’s experience when she returned to the West Coast in 1968. On a characteristically peaceful morning, my stroll was interrupted by a female archaeologist (if I correctly remember her self-introduction), who was bubbling enthusiasm; upon learning of my nationality, she started effusively discussing how she concentrated “qi” and meditated there. This strange episode of friendliness and cultural exchange made me quickly lose interest in that temporary cozy nest. I could not help but think of Cici’s passionate advocacy of “radical action,” and of my own feeling of powerlessness a few years back regarding political action, at the time of “Occupy Wall Street.” I started wondering whether I had become corroded by the environment of China, a country which is seemingly open as part of the world and yet is full of local rules; at the same time, I felt nostalgic of the summers spent drinking Yanjing beer with artists in Heiqiao.
However, short-term travel always grants me a kind of intermediate space: in the irregular variance of cultural life around the world, I ceaselessly discover the self-evident and yet profound mysteries of everyday life—or even experience enigmatic instants. For example, I once saw that certain Californian cliffs, where picking plants or going hunting was forbidden, had grown covered in Chinese cabbage that had escaped from the yards of newly-arrived Chinese immigrants. Many such plant migrations, without requiring any theories or justification, constitute a perfect process of globalization; and this patch of natural coast, whose protection was ordered by Barack Obama, rather seems to be a sophisticated artificial landscape, a projection of the world overflowing with extraneous choices. Comparable scenes frequently appear during instances of rapprochement between two former enemies. Explorations and metaphors as regards poetics, sex, or identity, are being developed in the Scottish Highlands, the Californian deserts, the south of China, or in the landscapes of Central Asia, like so many everyday activities; they bring about brief instants of alienation, exteriority, dissimilarity, or uncanniness. And yet generally speaking, in reality, such instants have already been excessively pondered over before they even appear, which robs one of the happy surprise of encountering them. But these impotent encounters seem to be our fate, reflected onto the pupil of the world. Or in other words, identifying history, politics or power seems no longer to be the final purpose of our cognition. In this moment in time—an awkward and even painful moment—finding out how to discard long-familiar burdens and presuppositions, and how to rebuild confidence in one’s expression, has naturally become our present responsibility.