Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The mirror

Day 26
Sat 28 Nov

I saw three Caucasian people today and one yesterday. These people constitute the only such faces I’ve seen in near four weeks, apart from my own in the mirror. In all these meetings, we nodded at each other and moved on quickly. I wonder why we are so reluctant to engage with each other – perhaps it is something to do with the idea of having a China ‘experience’? To be here and sink into the uncomfortable fabric of otherness is compelling – it feels as though something important is happening (perhaps it is). Other people from one’s own culture tear away this stranger cloak.

When I walk thru CQ, I collect a certain kind of trophy – little eye-movies of streetlife here un-policed by tourism. There are no gewgaws snagging my vision, apart from the ones that local people buy in the course of their own lives, no postcard stands, prancing folk artistes or offers of Full English Breakfast. I breathe in pollution, sewer stench, food aromas, hear street pedlars, traffic altercations, sirens, see soldiers and militiamen – it all seems more full-real than my Manchester everyday, or the Costa del Sol.

But I have no stake in it, just like any other tourist – and in moving thru these authentic tableaux I suspect that I feel that they’re of heightened significance only because I am always in movement. The novelty means that I never settle, even when at rest. This travelling means nothing particularly, only imputes its own importance. And in a mirror of what I’m doing, I am myself captured in the gaze of the inhabitants here.

I have days of utter exhaustion, because the new piles onto the new and I have to dream it thru in order to make a shape for it.

I slept 11 hours or so last night and woke groggy, moped in the studio yawning and tried to cancel tonight’s dinner invite, despite Deng Chuan’s tutting. Yan Yan swooped in – “We go! Goat soup will be good for you!”

So this evening I go for a meal with my Chinese friends here and am surrounded by company and generosity. I notice Yan Yan’s own tiredness – it transpires that he’s been awake in the night worrying about work. I wonder if there are other things happening too: between his light times there are dark stabs. And in that moment I realise that if I lived here, I surely would also be disrupted by the tension of holding oneself in existence.

For now I slip between astonishing dream images that interlock as streets, cars, people, sounds – and I avoid faces like my own, because of the jolt of awakening.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Day 25

Fri 27 Nov

Then, from Tony again:

“Just after I wrote to you about the question of absence, I read this from Charles Bernstein about presence: ‘The question of presence, the plurality within being present, is of fundamental significance of poetry. The presence of the text (the written document) within the performance but equally the presence of the performance inside the text means that there are, at any one moment in time, two irreducible modes of being present. As presence becomes the site of irreducibility, this will mean that presence can no longer be absolutely present to itself. The anoriginal marks the possibility of the poem being either potentially or actually plural, which will mean that the poem will always lack an essential unity.’”

Friday, 18 December 2009

Day 24

Thur 26 Nov

This in an email from Tony Trehy, discussing a draft of the poem I’m wearily fighting – and in fighting it I’ve divided myself into a maze of oppositions and quandaries:

“…think when one is struggling with an idea, it usually means that one has not asked a deep enough question of the subject. So in the question of missing, why is this something you are concerned with? I would rephrase the question to ask: what is the nature of absence?”

Thursday, 17 December 2009


Day 22
Tues 24 Nov

Xiao Q is the exception in this locale simply because he’s big. Most of the dogs I see here are toysize. Now the cold weather has come, the little critters are dressed in garish dog coats and carried in their owners’ arms like kitsch prizes. They have spoiled faces and big scared eyes and if Xiao Q plays with them his friendly sniffs knock them staggering.

It’s the cats that are the contenders, serious animals with a job to do. One of them is opposite me right now in the noodle shop, purring at me to see if he can beg some chow mien. He’s a hefty ginger tom with shoulders like a rugby player. He’s friendly but has a purposeful demeanour.

Two days ago I saw one of his brethren carrying a rat with the size of its own head. The cat looked pleased, as if it knew it was earning its keep, as well as eating it. Rats are a constant problem here and cats the Burroughs-ish exterminators, pale eyed and brusque.

Writing this, I feel sorry for Xiao Q. The walks that we take him for are tiny hour-long excursions that hardly tax his huge frame. When he paces thru the shrubs in the University he looks happiest, akin to a big predator. But he has nothing to predate and so he chews his own plastic bowls to pieces, nibbles my artworks to get a rise from me, howls, or places his sad face on our knees.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009


Day 21
Mon 23 No

It is unexpectedly my trickster companion Koko who leads the way to the Yangtze River.

He has become my afternoon walking buddy and he complains bitterly if we delay or postpone. For the last week he and I have wandered the University Campus, which is a public park, a housing community, an old tank factory, a roller-skating meet and his sniff ground and lavatory. Our walks are a mix of stroll, snuffle and wrestling match with some idiotic (from Koko’s POV) dog obedience lessons added. He goes thru the motions of ‘sit’ and ‘go’ with contempt, pretending not to hear, or sitting down sarcastically when we’re walking.

But today Deng Chuan is coming on the exploration too and we go to Longyin Lu, setting off point for all my Yangtze searches. It turns out that Longyin Lu was the wrong road all along. One of the men coming up from the river with a rod and a pocket of fish advises us: “Follow the dog.” We let him off the lead and he dances ahead along the main road, traffic-dodging down the middle just to show off his reflexes, then zags a side-road I’ve not tried before. He steers us for 20 minutes or so, past some old cottages, then alongside a railway line, jumping the sleepers and to the top of a steep flight of stone stairs. He’s not a patient guide and although he faces off with the lorries that hurtle down the narrow roads he is also jittery, rushing us past the danger points. I’m being wary of my footing, eyes to the ground, but look up briefly and in a heart-thump there it is.

The Yangtze is on the other side of a screen of trees, a big pale wash of light in the sunset. The stone steps take us to some wooden houses festooned with drying underwear, the buildings are rickety looking structures, contrasting the brutalist power station above us. We’re at the top of a set of earth terraces, a steep field divided into vegetable allotments. Rushing between the plants are many little waterways, spanned by tiny bridges – it’s a Lilliput Holland. The water source is a murky, steaming downfall that spews from the power station at hundreds of gallons a minute. Some of this broth is also diverted into a network of fish pools. We drop down earth paths between the vegetables and then we’re among the fish, thousands of them basking in the warmed water, or jumping for food; their bodies gleam like mercury, rolling grey shapes. Koko peers in at them, clearly tempted by the potent! ial for large-scale mischief, but he gets scolded away.

Deng Chuan’s pronounciation of Koko is so different to mine that I ask her why. She tells me Koko is actually called Xiao Q, but people anglicise it for Euro-visitors to spare us struggling. As a point of pride from herein I use the slippery ‘Xiao Q’ (pronounced Shee-ow Q) which changes emphasis dependent on situation. Now muddy from wrecking vegetable beds, he leaps into the river to annoy the fishermen.

Above us are evening swallows and before us the river, with a faraway fishing boat on it that looks like a sampan (舢 舨) in an antique painting – but this vision has a sky full of apartment blocks and pollutants. The little hamlet under the power station feels ancient, poised on the lip of a moment that is already slipping, following the arc of Yeats’ gyre towards change big and possibly bad.

Deng Chuan nods at the new build apartment blocks on the other bank, she pulls a face. “The people who live there don’t speak to each other. My sister lives in a place like this and she won’t even tell people her job. Why are they keeping secrets? When I was little everyone near me knew me. Those people over there are sick but they don’t know it. They are poor because they have too much money.”

The far side of the river is losing its contours in the mist and the darkening day. A suspension bridge pours traffic towards the distant skyscrapers and overhead the swallows come close and low, trying for the meagre supply of November insects.
Deng Chuan points to the twin pillars of smoke rising from the power station chimneys: “I went to art school here. We called those my school gates.”

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Day 19
Sat Nov 21

Sitting opposite my first Chinese pagoda experience, at Qi Xing Gang. The sun is being our friend, I’ve a bei of green tea and am sat on plastic garden furniture in an old fort surrounded by the people of Chongqing, relaxing among the skyscrapers. The fort is stepped up along the contours of a typical CQ hill topped by an elaborate 4-storey pagoda that’s peeling paint. It towers over us, and the skyscrapers over it.

People are playing cards next to me, newspapers are being read, street traders are yelling below us and the ear-cleaner is plying his trade, ringing his scraping tools together like a bell. He wears a surgeon’s mirror-light in the centre of his forehead, a third eye. Oddly, no one is playing mah jong – my little square off Huang Jue Ping Street will be rattling to the sound of the counters by now. Apart from the pagoda, this place reminds me of nothing so much as Katsouri’s sandwich bar in Bury Market where people gather to eat arguably the best sandwiches in Britain, smoke, gossip and drink excellent coffee sitting under an awning to escape the Manchester rain. The luxury of good food completes the experience, fills the gaps in the other pastimes. CQ residents are also accustomed to the rain and like Mancs they grab the sunshine when they can. S! o the fortress is busy with relaxation, the green tea stall is doing excellent trade.

The pagoda is stupendous, a thing that designed to overwhelm – like European cathedrals, its lines tweak perspective and because this one is on a plaza approached from below, it looms very effectively – even if it is ersatz ancient. The curves of the roof recall curved horns on an antique warrior’s helmet. Huge paper globe lamps hang from the eaves, outsize droplets. Guarding the four corners of each level are the heads of mythic beasts, like gargoyles. One level is phoenix-ish bird heads, maybe Huang the female dragon consort, at another level snake heads with stone faces so ferocious they seem to spit anger, at the top, dragon heads lord it. At first look, they seem to have mouths full of frills, but then I make a guess that these are teeth of fire and the four dragons (dragon the male is Feng) wear a necklace of flames. The! mythology of the dragon is more complex here than our general understanding in the West. Perhaps the Church suppressed all but their propagandised evil reptile? A book about the layeredness of Eastern dragonology has been written by Professor Qiguang Zhao. I’ve heard that Hai Zi was holding another of the Professor’s books – one about Joseph Conrad – when he jumped to his death in front of that train in 1989.

The green tea starts to settle my stomach. Last night I again broke my abstinence from the street vendors’ food stalls. The work had been bothering me again and I ate and drank wine in a little burst of self-destructive petulance, knowing I’d pay for it in stomach cramps and the rest later. But I also have an optimistic streak that Julia sweetly nurtures and today the problems seem to solve themselves. The air suffuses with the delicate scent of green tea and occasional cigarette smoke from the card players.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


Days 16-18
Wed-Fri 18-20 Nov


With the evening comes translation and Chinese calligraphy, usually embodied in the person of Wang Jun who hurtles into the writing with force that uplifts me from my glooms. He also brings alcohol, snacks, and humour.

The poems are made from fragments of poetry, and textworks, disparate idea streams crossing East and West and crossing time too. Each pair of separate fragments fits together to germ an idea. Juxtaposition like this is called parataxis - common in Japanese haiku, and in contemporary Western text art too, tho unrecognised as a literary manoeuvre. (Think of Jenny Holzer’s famous neon ‘Protect me from what I want’ installed in Times Square, in which the text is one half of a proposition and the neon adverts of Times Square itself the other half. I once asked Holzer whether she might consider herself a poet and she dodged the issue – Weiner flatly refutes it.)

We argue the ideas across language, Deng Chuan, Wang Jun and myself, with Yan Yan as the voice of reason refereeing (and often providing the most elegant translation ideas). It’s easy to lose the poem in all of this and I feel it slide from my understanding. Perhaps it should be elude me, like the Yangtze, after all it is shaping to be a poem about absence and the missing. In it, the figure of Hai Zi becomes more and more foregrounded: he is a Chinese poet who committed suicide 20 years ago and has become a postmortem celebrity. He is a fogged face for the word pictures we are making in English and Chinese.

My pieces are about separation, apart-ness, they are measurements of human distance. This shared loneliness is of course the human condition, we are divided by our own skins – and yet crave contact. I find pieces of text that can riff this theme, using translation to crowbar the gap wider. I scoop material from Pound (I like the idea of retranslating his translations back to Chinese) Olson, Sophie Calle, Holzer, Beckett, HD, Fiona Banner, Yves Klein and others - people who might be said in several senses to write images. I try on a new title, a quote from Yves Klein – My Paintings are Invisible.

English originals are processed by me, then translated into four Chinese characters by my collaborators and then written out by them onto the tracing paper sheets. Each helper transmutes the text doubly thru language, first translating, then rewriting. My four-character rule breaks the common usage, which more often pairs characters - a general ‘radical’ and a specific. Because I only allow four Chinese characters and four English words or part-words, the radicals have to be dropped, which cracks open some new possibilities in the perfection of the Chinese tradition. As for myself, I start to find myself thinking in unfamiliar new categories, which are second nature to everyone else in the room:

Xing shu – personal handwriting, a strong, fast torrent
Song ti – script for officialese
Zhuan shu – ancient script, closer to hieroglyphics than contemporary Chinese and with a female undercurrent
Ni shu – writing that is painting, a soft riverfall
Shui mo – water/ink combinations
Wen zi – written communication
Han zi – single character

Han zu – nation, derived from period of unity when China became a whole
Han Chao – dynasty
Han ren – Han people/nationality)

The above are massacred regularly in my pronunciation. I offer mental apologies to my patient Mandarin teacher Zhu Xun after these discussions.

I work til gone midnight, sometimes one or two in the morning. It seems I’m simultaneously cramming for an exam, composing a poem and learning how to make lettering by hand on a far bigger scale than ever before. The technicalities are blinding me to the poem itself and I know I need a new course, but can’t guess what it is.

When I get back to the flat I dry some washing, put some more into the basin and pummel it.

Reading this back now, my ideas sound over-complicated, full of holes – and smart arsed, when the experience of loneliness is simply raw. I’m swimming thru doubts again and it’s late again.

Friday, 11 December 2009


Days 16-18
Wed-Fri 18-20 Nov


are my quiet time in the studio, before the collaborators arrive. I draft and re-draft the texts, frantically trying to learn the subtleties of the hanzi (Chinese characters) nipping and tucking verses, puzzling them thru, building a vehicle for them.

The pieces have been my pleasure and precipice. The idea was originally that my handwriting and the scripting of my helpers would co-exist in visual space, tho on each side of tracing paper. The paper is 2metres x 1 metre and my first major technical problem is that my handwriting, when ten times its usual size, simply isn’t strong enough. The Chinese calligraphers are handwriting athletes – they’re schooled in their lettering for years and make my ‘hand’ seem clumping.

I think of the graceful copperplate handwriting of the older people Lois and I work with and wish I could call in those reinforcements.

By the time I realise that I’ll need an alternative, I’ve already lettered (and often wrecked) twenty or so large pieces. It’s triply unsettling. I enjoy my writing and suddenly my ‘hand’ has turned treacherous; I have a short timescale and limited goodwill can be asked of my volunteer helpers; I don’t yet really know if the poems work and I can’t master the means of transmission, so it’s hard to get a sense of them.

Both Julia and Tony T separately flag up the problem. The solution is simple – to use English alphabet stencils. But tracing stencil letters means sacrificing any spontaneity on my part. Stencils are also hard to find – I spend half a day scouring art shops in my district by the art college, and then the city centre – I only turn up English lettering stencils that are 1 cm high. My dad finds a sidestep around the problem in the course of our weekly phonecall – “Print your own letters, then trace them.”

I re-draw my tiny stencil letters ten times their original size onto a template I can trace from. It takes a full day to do this and as insurance Deng Chuan orders a stencil set over the internet. As added insurance, my sister Finella hunts stencils in the UK and posts them.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


Days 16-18
Wed-Fri 18-20 Nov

Having written the publicity, I then of course go into a spin of nerves and crises about the pieces. I know they’re not right, but can they be made right? This week already feels like a long stretch with the Speech is Code work and we’re only at Wednesday. I suspect that the way out is to go in deeper. From here onward, my work days become 12 hours plus of studio time, broken with dog walks and meals.

Mornings, I wash myself and some clothes, then step into the hurry of the streets. There’s a little outdoor market by my block and I meander that for my zaofen – watch the marketers and the shoppers, the toenail clipping and the fish sales, hold my breath past the piss-smell of the tripe stall, inhale the cake maker, the mah jong café – then up the steep hill to 501 munching bananas. If I’ve a yearning for miantiao I drop by the noodle shop near the gates of “Wu ling yao” to spiceblast my tastebuds with chilli.

Yan Yan will be in the studio already and Koko too, who bounces with enthusiasm when I come in. He asks politely for a walk, then pleads, then gets angry and finally huffs. I don’t like to be bossed by him so I wait until he’s calmed – tho I talk with him if he’s barking. When he’s mollified, or sulking quietly, I look at the pieces from the previous day, hustle the inks, brushes, pencils and rulers in one place, make some tea and make a start.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Speech is code

Day 15
Tues 17th Nov

Today I send this publicity release to David Hancock at the Chinese Art Centre in Manchester:

Speech is code

Experimental poet Philip Davenport’s residency at 501 Artspace in Chongqing, China (2 Nov-31 Dec) features input from several Chinese artists, in a sequence of English/Chinese text art works, titled Speech is Code.

Davenport has made a sequence of 8-word poems, which collage together ancient Chinese poems, lines from iconic conceptual and text art sources and modernist and postmodern poetry, finding parallels in form and intent – and knitting together new meanings completely unintended by the originators.

Davenport frequently moves between literary and visual modes, exhibiting works as in situ billposter/poems in cities throughout Europe, in galleries and as 3D objects. His 2006 Heartshape Pornography series was handwritten onto artificial apples; in 2008 he relabelled street debris; 1998-2008 his Imaginary Missing People, poems made from missing person notices, were billposted/exhibited in Berlin, Edinburgh, Reykjavik, Paris, London, Bilbao.

The Speech is Code pieces are written onto large pieces of semi-transparent paper, one side scripted in English the other Chinese – they co-exist and intermingle calligraphies, significations, syntaxes.

Principal artists involved are: Wang Jun, Mao Yanyang, Xu Guang Fu and Deng Chuan.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Day 14 Monday 16th Nov

Today was stricken down by the aftermath of a stomach upset. The cold weather didn’t help either. I’d felt ominous pains throughout Saturday and spent a large part of Sunday evening squatting over my toilet, erupting the weekend meals in stylish fashion, between watching Gone With The Wind with Chinese subtitles.

Monday morning is grotty, grumbling stomached. I surface half way thru the day, feeling sick and with cramping guts. It is part of living somewhere new that you develop new flora and fauna and occasional wildlife in your digestion. It’s never a comfortable experience and it often seems to involve getting rid of all previous foodstuffs.

I post some things to Julia (upcoming birthday) at the local post office and for the first time am staggered by the expense of something in China. You might be able to shop here at cutthroat rates, but once you’ve got it, you can’t get it out of the country. I gape at the postmistress and she smiles sweetly at me, while counting out a lot of my Yuan. A friend of hers peeps over her shoulder at the pile of money and murmurs “Beautiful.”

I walk up the hill to the studio. On the way I haggle for a small electric heater and when the price doesn’t go my way, stomp off in a sulk, leaving the shopkeeper yelling after me. Yan Yan is in my noodle shop, cheerily slurping a bowl of miantiao. I sniff them enviously but my stomarch lurches and I give up on food for the moment. The manager looks worried as I leave unfed. The studio is bitter too. Deng Chuan is wrapped in a coat and bids me goodbye as I arrive – “Too cold. Need soup,” she mutters.

I send some emails and bail out for a walk with Koko, who approves of the cold and is looking sprightly. Most of his walk companions from the studio let him cross the road and wander the park off the lead happy and freeroaming. But he also runs rings around them, so I keep him on the lead the whole way. Anyway, I am bad-tempered and determined that others will suffer too. Koko doesn’t care. He actually is quite biddable 20 minutes into a walk, once he’s got used to the lead and trots along happily beside me, making the occasional random lunge to keep me off-balanced. At intervals I get him to sit and wait until I give the order to start again: ‘Qu!’

This time he seems to be charming the student populace. He gets his photo taken, small children come and pat him, old ladies come and pet him and by the end of it all, he’s preening. Just as we are exiting, he half climbs a small tree and performs an enormous, leg-shaking defacation in view of a crowd of his admirers and of course the guardhouse at the campus gate. The guards look at me icily as I leave.

I spend a couple of hours working on the Speech is Code tracing paper poems – I think I’ve botched one, but the other feels alright. The pressure of these is that you only get one attempt and only about 20% actually work, because either I or the other writer (or both) make a poor version. Even if the other side is great, the whole thing has to be scrapped. One of the most striking was written by Xu Guang Fu and I screwed up the reverse side of it. But as I observed to Dan Dan, it was too lovely for this world anyway.

I bring the electric heater that Yan Yan has loaned me back to the flat and toast gloriously, while watching a DVD of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. Over my head, rats skitter around the ceiling cavities, enjoying the warmth too.