Monday, 30 November 2009

A visit with Wang Jun

Day 13
Sunday 15th Nov

501 is a significant number – it was an old military secret code and our studio building, now named 501 Artspace, was used for military purposes in the last world war. Chongqing was the wartime capital of China, a contested city. Not only was there an uneasy alliance between the Nationalists and the Communists, who were persecuted by the Nationalists, it was also bombed by the Japanese. There is a postcard book of significant Chongqing wartime headquarters buildings available, for those people who like to point at a picture. Exactly what the wartime story of 501 Artspace might be still eludes me, like the Yangtze.

Nearby, on the University campus, is a little double row of engineering sheds with corrugated roofs. Koko and I passed close by them today on our walk. These are now also studios, collectively called Tank Loft. At the end of the avenue formed by the buildings is an old Russian T34 tank, tarnishing in the weather but with its red star repainted. It seems that there was a Russian contingent here in Chongqing producing T34 tanks - again, the story is intriguingly fuzzy. The ID number on the side of the turret is 105.

So when we visit painter Wang Jun in his 501 studio, we are in a place that has many layers of paint, real and metaphorical. Wang Jun is my main helper on the Speech is Code works – our two writings, eastern and western, seem to occupy space well together. Our problem is that his English is nearly as limited as my Mandarin, so conversation needs to take place with a bi-linguist mediating between us.

Both Wang Jun and myself us have vocabularies which we hate losing and stubbornly we dash ourselves against the language barrier. Yan Yan has given up translating for the pair of us – “You use such difficult words! Use some easy ones!” But fortunately one of Yan Yan’s students, the grave and gracious Deng Chuan has agreed to help out and so she patiently sits with us, untangling the knotted thing that our conversations become. They are long conversations about artists and the Tao Te Ching and what it is we’re trying to do and which pieces work/don’t work and why. It’s shop talk, the kind that Trehy and I chew over and is immensely tedious to bystanders. I worry for Deng Chuan’s boredom threshold.

It is with Deng Chuan and Wang Jun that I first drink formal Chinese tea. We sit around a little slatted wood rack that is a kind of draining board, boxed underneath to hold spills. On this is placed a clay teapot that might hold no more than a pint and tiny cups, the circumference of my fingers and thumb if I circle them. The pot is brown at first sight, but its colouring subtly reveals itself to contain a purple too, apparently the local clay from which it’s made is known for purple colouring. I have a little childhood déjà vu, mixing up my plasticine colours together so that they became brown, but within the brown other hues…

The cups and pot dry quickly if wetted and also are very slightly porous, which helps remove impurities from the liquid they contain. The first brew of tea is considered inferior, you are merely washing the leaves. It is with the second that the taste begins to be released. It is a bright, delicate tea, good even the first time - and yes as we continue to drink I detect a richer quality to it. Like the clayware we’re drinking from, it reveals itself gradually.

The whole process is measured, calm and meditative, completely at odds with the history of the walls around us. Deng Chuan tells me that Chinese people often use glasses for green tea (lu cha): the sight of the leaves unfurling in the hot water is considered to be a very beautiful part of tea-drinking, particularly bamboo leaf tea. The famous teahouses in Chengdu add sunlight to this effect. Teabags would spoil the visuals.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Day 12 Saturday 14th Nov

Adrenalised, I drink by myself and write thru Friday evening and into Saturday morning. When I wake, it’s to a bleary hangover and the Chongqing mist has descended too. The neighbourhood dogs finally get me out of bed with explosive yapping that bursts inside my sore head. I blunder around the flat cursing all dogs and trying to find socks.

Today I’ve planned to make a journey into the centre of Chongqing, using public transport. I’ve been equipped with a list of bus stops and metro stations in English, Pinyin and Chinese, I have money and a camera. It’s time to be a tourist. I’m nervous as hell – this will be my first time on Chinese public transport and I wonder if not only will I be able to get to where I want – but will I get back again? Yan Yan obviously has similar worries – I’m under orders to call him if my famed sense of direction leads me astray.

I’m in a whirl of panic as I get onto the bus – stuttering out my explanations in a toecurling burst of ugly Chinglish. The driver takes one sympathetic look at me and waves me on – “For free!” The bus passengers usher me to a seat, point out landmarks and discuss between themselves when I am to get off and who will make sure I do it.

On the escalator up to the metro station, I am raised high above an enormous ruined factory. It is being shredded by bulldozers as I watch. On the ride into Chonqing (CQ) central we negotiate a mountainside and then drop down a little to follow the line of the Jialing River, which joins the Yangtze here. The Jialing is a sad, soft green and the sight of it wrenches me – I have explored so many new places with Julia, and today I feel her absence.

Kindness of folk. All thru this day in Chongqing I am buoyed up by the people around me. It feels that if I slipped, then someone would be there to catch me. An old man taps me on the shoulder – the banana in my bag is slipping out. A little girl introduces me to her whole family on the metro – Renshi ni hen gaoxing. There is a sense of the common good here – that the UK flushed away in the heyday of Thatcherism and has not regained. I miss it, this gentleness.

I don’t venture far in Chonqing, this is only a recce. I end up in the large central bookshop, browsing the DVDs, marvelling at the cheapness. The shop assistants puncture my rosy tint bubble with their silly officiousness. One of them stamps a beautiful artbook I’ve bought with a rubber stamp, as proof that I’m not stealing it. She looks at me with flat disinterest as I gasp at the vandalism.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Day 11 Fri 13th November

I’m a poet in an artist’s studio, I have accidentally bought enormous pieces of tracing paper because my Chinese is bad, I’m in a social scene complete with artists dropping by to drink tea, hangout – and out of this grounding the Speech is Code pieces grow.

In fact I began them over a year ago – I’d constructed some short stanzas, using the picture credits for conceptual artworks. They were just sketches, little fragments that perhaps had some potential.


it ends
it ends
it ends


In the studio, with paintings stacked around me, these words taken from artists feel right. Brush/inking the pieces onto tracing paper, I shorten them to four-word verses, one on each side of the tracing paper – so that the words tangle together in the eye. Then I ask one of the Chinese artists if he’d write a stanza out.
“In Chinese?” he inquires.
Seeing Chinese calligraphy being made well is akin to watching dance – I observe the makers with both joy and envy. The characters that they conjure are so exquisite, I feel I should take a Neo-Trappist vow never to make a pen mark again.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Day 10 Thurs 12th Nov

Koko (pronounced Q Q) is the studio dog, a big, handsome, raffish-looking hound, white fur and brown eyes. He paces the studio like Beuys’ wolf – chewing bits of bric a brac and seeking attention in a series of random acts of naughtiness. Somehow he’s ended up as a mascot/guard dog here, though his owner Jiang Liang Liang (as I’ve been told to call her, tho Dan Dan collapses into hysterics of laughter when I use this name) still comes to walk him and incidentally to clean the studio too. It’s another story I don’t fully understand.

Koko is clearly in need of more walking than he gets, and as I love walking, I offer to take him around today. An offer made out of naivety with no serious consideration of consequences. (Why do I so often seem to default this excuse?)

Once we step outside the studio and start dodging early evening traffic, Koko has a trial attempt to wrench my arm off with a bid for freedom. We head for Longyin Lu, but once again are destined to fail. Koko doesn’t want to go to Longyin Lu and clearly couldn’t give a toss about the mystic Yangtze. Koko wants to find the University park and the girlie dogs. And so we go to the University park. Just before we cross the road I see Yan Yan waving us a reluctant farewell - like a parent leaving a child off at school for the first time. I’m not sure if the wave is for me, or Koko.

Nobody mentioned to me that many Chinese people, at least in Chongqing, are nervous of dogs, especially ones that look like barely controlled wolves. Add to this my status as a freak occurrence in the daily street life, plus the rapidly failing light and we amount to a visit from the circus. We actually cause two eruptions of screams among the students, which Koko exacerbates with a few good-natured lunges at people’s crotches. Finally, he pisses in the flowerbed right next to the sentry box, complete with glaring guard, as we leave.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Speech is code

Day 8, 9. Tues/Wed 10+11th Nov

I don’t heed differences between text artists and poets anymore. In the 1980s I went to poetry readings with a feeling of heaviness – I knew that the real game was done here, that Elvis, Pound, Eliot and Bunting had vacated the building. What was left was leftover, warmed and rancid. I didn’t realise that the heart was still ticking underground. At the same time I’d go to art shows and see works by Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer et al that adrenalised me. They were sharp and they were of the now.

It took my brother Ian to make the point to me: Trust your instincts: if the artists seem interesting, follow the artists. If you don’t respect the poets you’re supposed to like, find some new ones. Which is what I did, which led me first to Bob Cobbing, then to Tony Trehy, to the Text Festival and now to Chongqing.

This is a place where the link between language and image is absolute. It is a place where to write properly you must inhabit the characters as you make them – you are painting, not spelling. To be fully present, to focus during the physical act of writing is the fundament, the fountain of meaning. And the characters themselves are cousins to an ancient script in which words are pictures of rivers, faces, mountains, birds. No wonder I am drawn to it.

It is in these two days that my project, the heart of why I’m here, starts to move.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

China. Day 7. Mon 9th Nov

I awake with a ton of energy and with a raging appetite for breakfast noodles.

50 yards from the studio is a noodle bar in which you can watch the food being peeled, chopped, cooked and served as you wait. On one of the tables at the back they’ll be folding dumplings while the manager of the place walks among the customers making smalltalk and hustling the troublemakers. The cook’s knife moves so fast that the vegetables seem to melt against it.

The breakfast noodles are fresh-made and come swimming in a wondrous soup of red pepper, chilli, spring onion, and occasionally some coriander. They are a breakfast to blow cotton socks off. As you eat, your eyes mist over, nose runs, tastebuds dance strange shapes previously unimagined, and then you wipe the tears from your glasses. If a cup of strong coffee is your wakeup call, noodles max it. Add to that the walk to the noodle shop thru the high stink and the traffic velocity of Chongqing – you’re awake, or roadkill.

In the studio, Yan Yan is playing Alice Coltrane’s Journey to Satchidananda, a CD that I brought along from England. It sounds enormous, buzzing with eternity, on the big speakers. It’s one of my pleasures that Yan Yan has welcomed Alice/John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett into his listening. (One of my sadnesses that he sucks his teeth with exasperation at Pharoah Sanders.) So along with operatic extracts, Chinese folksongs and Schubert quartets, we now have a small free 60s jazz thing.

I start working.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

China. Day 6. Sun 8th Nov

A morning given back to my neglected Mandarin studies. (Plus a little DIY, in the course of which I managed to electrocute myself twice through improper use of my own saliva - but that’s a tale for another time). It’s ironic that being surrounded by Chinese people and the whole panoply of here has been such a distraction that I’ve somehow not found time to keep working at Mandarin. Foolish too, because not only is it my lifeline, it is also a subtle mirror for China itself, another lens to see by. But, the jetlag and the culture jump caused such a flutter of panic in me that I reverted to one-word sentences and pointing. So the morning was spent on the sofa in the apartment, listening to variants on ‘He does not want to see you now because he is watching television’, a state I sympathise with.

I am learning to build sentence structures, rather than memorising a few handy tourist phrases. This is slow work, but long-term rewarding. My big pleasure is actually writing the Chinese characters, however spoken communication is the priority right now. My guide thru this is Harold, a thickly accented New Yorker, who is the course leader on the Michel Thomas Mandarin learner CDs. Julia plays them on her work commute and with that phenomenal memory of hers, comes home chatting in Chinese. I’d recommend this set of CDs to any English person who is learning Mandarin – Dr. Harold cracks jokes so excruciating that you remember them and with the pain comes the mnemonic.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Day 5. Sat 7th Nov. London Calling

A day for writing emails and for sleeping in. I have moments of utter exhaustion and today was a long lie-in. I missed Julia this morning. Our weekend breakfasts in bed seemed impossibly far-off. Muesli and coffee was not on the menu and I couldn’t find my usual enthusiasm for noodles. I listened to London Calling by the Clash, which was kicking around when I was a 6th Former. It’s a grand swaggering rocknroll album, so chockfull of British anger and humour, that it made me yearn.

Slowly however, I’m acclimatising to difference. I generally hate change – am a creature of habit and regime, albeit in a disorganised way – but the new street sounds are less jarring to me now, they harmonise. The electronic songs that I heard on my first morning are the megaphones used by streetvendors, singing their wares. The strange cooking smells are the particular herbs and spices that constitute Chongqing hotpot - there are two restaurants at the base of my apartment block and the morning cookery aromas rise up to me. (One morning I saw the chef heaping chillies into a vast wok with a shovel.) The ominous rumbling noises from the road are tanks and armoured troop carriers, which I will see maybe once a day. The continual traffic horns don’t signify a pileup, they’re simply a conversation held between motorists. They dogs haven’t bitten yet and no one has mugged me. Perhaps it’ll be OK.

I mooched about the studio awhile, catching up with emails and sorting thru ideas for next week. The studio is a palace among artists’ studios. It must be 4 metres high, and perhaps 100 metres in length by 8 wide. In a red brick building, like the old Manchester warehouses, it was originally used for tobacco processing. Then there is some haziness about use – perhaps military provisions? – some suggested it was a tank factory? – and now the whole building which is four storeys high and thousands of cubic metres in capacity, is broken up into a complex of artists’ studios. As well as capacious space, Yan Yan’s has a superb stereo, a relaxation area with sofas and tables, a small toilet, a wash basin, tea and coffee making facilities, a wide range of tables, shelves of art books, and even two raised platforms which constitute an upstairs. For a poet who tends to work in cafes, the immediate impact on me is that of scale. Suddenly instead of writing in notebooks, I can stretch out onto a much bigger page.

And then once again down Longyin Lu – still no Yangtze.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Longyin Road. Day 4. Fri 6th Nov

A good day. I have been making longer and longer walks out from my home base, as I grow in sureness. Today was one of my furthest expeditions, down Longyin Lu, towards the Yangtze, which as ever was misted. It is a long road that winds into the river valley, guided partway down by an ornamental balustrade. On either side of the road are industrial buildings, but also many old houses, often tumbledown with tiny shopfronts and kitchens, streetside cooking fires, mah jong gatherings, rubbish gatherers, hillside gardens, building sites.

The air is bitter with fumes from the trucks that rattle by and the power station and the many fires. It’s a road I love to walk down because I each time I venture on it, something happens and I don’t quite reach the Yangtze. Generally, I get lost – I have an almost supernaturally bad sense of direction. But interesting diversions occur too – I ended up in conversation with a shopkeeper, swapping compliments about how young we both looked. (A day later I was to try the walk again, only to be suddenly overtaken by a mild bout of diahorrea which necessitated a scamper to the flat.) I tried another turning but still no Yangtze. It has become a symbol to me of the elusiveness of all that we try to know.

Today was good for my own writing. I’d woken early morning with a string of words winding thru my head and the only way to straighten them was to jot them down in a notebook. Through the day, they were rewritten into the computer and reshaped until they became a draft poem. It is a luxury beyond compare to have nothing more pressing to do than birth poetry.

On the Longyin Road you will find gangs – many of them women and older men - breaking huge clods of soil with hoes, shifting sand across fields using shovels, chipping the mortar off old bricks for hours so that they can be reused. Their faces are hardworn.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Chongqing Day 3. Thur 5th Nov

This time it was brass band music that woke me. The car horns seemed to counterpoint it. I lay abed for an hour and a half, still jetlagged but suddenly scared. To would mean going out and facing another day of awkward social encounters, filthy corridors and streets, annoyed shop assistants, psycho-traffic. I lay in bed spiralling into glum.

I find it unpleasant being stared at on the street, I hate being trailed by pushy shop staff who want me to explain to them what I want, which of course I find impossible. The other artists who come here are people who use paint, they’re not poets. This is difficult, embarrassing, scary. China is a puzzle to me – warm and welcoming/distant as a far-off star.

Needless to say, it was a joyless day at the studio and it ended with a dose of the fears about this apartment block I’m in. Late at night it looks like a filmset designed to communicate urban hi-rise deprivation.

And the simple crippling fact of my minimal Mandarin hampers me at every turn. Earlier this evening I was at someone’s birthday party, most of which I spent listening uncomprehendingly, while between times I struggled to even feed myself because my chopstick manipulation is also minimal. A large rat sneaked along the side of the room and I felt kindred.

But, equal and opposite, one neighbour at the meal, Hao Lang, gently prompted me about the conversational direction with little translated phrases, while on the other side Yan Yan gave me tips on eating. What I started to learn was the deep sense of hospitality here, the urge to make sure that everyone is alright.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Chongqing. Day 2. Weds 4th Nov.

My host is Yan Yan, an artist I first met in Manchester and immediately warmed to with that curious chemical reactivity that we humans occasionally have for each other - he whisked me from the airport, cackling at my reaction to the mayhemic traffic. He is a slight man with an elfin face, full equally of intelligence and a kind of jauntiness.

Chongqing at high speed, accompanied by constant traffic blare. As will often happen in this journal, my words fail. I cannot begin to make a word picture of the complex city that we sped through, the busy-ness, the colour sequences, the pungent smells both mouth-watering and bilious, the goneinaflash faces and scenes. It was as if I was suddenly granted a new colour.

The evening meal was my introduction to Chinese hospitality, Chonqing style – which means hotpot. But this is not hotpot in the Lancashire sense, this is a pot that’s kept hot by means of a powerful gas burner underneath – each course is added into the pot, into the same cooking sauce, which becomes richer as the meal goes on. A gaggle of art students had come along and I insisted we talk about poetry, poor things. Not only that, but experimental poetry.

I woke to the sound of a strange keening song, played through a distorted speaker. The origin wasn’t to be explained on this day, but would come later. Getting myself over to the studio was a major feat of will. I was walking streets that had very few of my recognisable markers. To stop navigating by street signs and use landmarks instead is a kind of leap of faith, back to pre-language self, steering by eye and the other senses. I find that smell is important here – particular restaurants have a style of sauce and that is a location clue.

The studio is fabulous and deserves a journal entry all to itself. I played about with ink and paper for most of this first day. Chongqing has a well-known art school and the area around 501 Studio, where my residency is to take place, is peppered with little art shops. The art materials are cheap here for a Westerner, which takes some pressure off the making process. Added to this was an unexpected serendipity - my Chinese communication skills are such that I didn’t end up with quite the things I intended – but the things I got were better.

My brilliant mistake was in selecting large sheets of tracing paper rather than plain white. When I got them back to the studio I realised that what I had was a kind of 3d paper – which when inked on both sides would become a see-thru poem. I got to work at once, bastardising together bits of conceptual art, imagist poets and of course a slew of Chinese poets, esp. Li Bai.

Inbetween all this, I worked on my ongoing project, Spreadsheets of Light, poems written using Excel. I’ve already done a little preparation work for a Chinese sequence of these, and so started right on in, borrowing a computer from Dan Dan, one of the students. .

Returning home that evening, I was excited by the pleasure of moving through this alien environment. The street vendors have stalls all the way down our high street and I picked my way between the many obstacles that the stalls present – the most worrying being electric power cables, which are impossible to see in the dark, but very possible to trip over. While looking down for trip hazards, I banged my head on an awning. The sudden pain burst my little confidence bubble and thrown by it, I missed my turning. It took an extra 15 minutes to locate the uneven steps that enter my block. In that short time, the newness of everything lunged in and I felt tired, baffled, defeated. I slunk into bed and slept amid miserable dreams.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

A shared loneliness - Philip Davenport, China residency 2009

Continuous mountains
Day one

I'm writing this circa 30000 feet above China, on the flight from Beijing to Chongqing. The ground scrolling under us is the biggest expanse of mountain range Ive ever seen, snowdusted. The inflight TV is showing tourist friendly footage of Beijing, the colours so pumped it looks like old technicolour. I havent slept for 24 hours and my perceptions feel skewed - I keep flaking out and just at the point of sleep the adrenalin jags me again and Im staring out of the cabin window once more.

In Beijing the air was cold and the airport vast, lit by the early sun. As we came into the customs area we encountered a line of officials in uniform, many wearing flu masks, each standing under a sign saying FOREIGNERS. I wandered the airport, dazed by lack of sleep and in a shock of the newness of my surroundings. My Chinese has confused everyone Ive spoken to and I in turn was confused by a grumpy customs officer shouting at me through her mask. But smiling seems to work the world over. Outside, the snow pretties the runways. The snowfall was made by firing rockets up into the atmosphere. And the newpapers say that the people are sad because the Father of the Chinese Space Programme has just died, after an exemplary life.

On the connection to Chongqing, my lunch companion is a businessman from Beijing who has kindly tolerated my mispronounced Mandarin, tho we end by speaking English. We talk about the mountains: as we fly over, he names the ranges for me, writes the characters on a sick bag for me. We end up chitchatting about ourselves and what we do. He outlines his day (a meeting and flight back) and then asks me about my plans for the time in Chongqing. "Why are you here?"

I stumble an answer. The truth is I don't exactly know why I'm here, what solid reason can I give? This is a stepping beyond oneself and the point is that it's into unknown.

Three years ago when I was in the midst of wrecking and remaking my life, someone mentioned an aphorism to me (it's what we all reach for at crisis times) which stuck. 'You have to lose sight of the shore before you can find new land.' China is literally new land for me. I'm here by myself (Julia will come over to explore with me later) and that doesnt hold as much fear for me as it once did. But what WILL this new land hold for me? Seeing it 000s of feet below, smudged with mist, it feels huge and completely unknown. Even the voices around me give me only tiny fragments to hold onto - the language is so utterly new.

The mist is thicker now, great ribbons of it lit sheer white by the sun. I cant see snow gathered in the valleys anymore. It's getting hotter, we're headed south to Chongqing.