Thursday, 28 January 2010

The invisible

Dec 18
Day 41

Deng Chuan and I make sorties with my ‘invisible paintings’, hanging them on clothes lines around Huang Jie Ping. The drying clothes frame them like metaphors for absence. Ciao Q comes along occasionally, but the chaos that inevitably accompanies him scuppers all attempts. He’s lately taken a fancy for the chickens that peck around the little campus gardens and when he’s not chasing them he picks dogfights. On our first afternoon we catch the best light and the fewest chickens.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010


arthur+martha is delighted to announce the launch of our experimental poetry project Eyebright, a nationwide schools collaboration commissioned by Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January 2010.

Eyebright uses visual poetry to challenge the discrimination and prejudice which can lead, stage by stage, to genocide. A teachers’ pack can be found at
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, arthur+martha and New Vic Borderlines worked with teachers and students in Bacup and Rawtenstall, Evesham, Stoke on Trent, Glasgow, Deal, Kirkintilloch and Delamere Forest to pilot Eyebright. Professor Robert Sheppard has supplied an essay for a supplementary part of the project scheduled to be launched for the anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen on April 15th.
An online legacy for Eyebright will be curated by arthur+martha.

Photo Photo courtesy of New Vic Borderlines

Friday, 15 January 2010


(My Paintings are Invisible, Davenport 2009)

Dec 17
Day 40

I try to show work in public spaces wherever possible, rather than hiding the poems away in obscure publications, or galleries. The pieces seem to gather energy and significance from being framed in everyday bustle. The idea of an exhibition outside of 501 has been at the back of my mind for awhile. I’ve come across two artists here whose text works I like and so I ask Wang Jun and Yao Bo if they’d be happy to be in a show curated by me. We talk the idea thru whilst sitting on the floor of Wang Jun’s studio, scribbling notes on paper scraps. We can’t decide on a title for the exhibition and dither around the possibles. I mention my old working title for the poems, and Yao Bo repeats it back, subtly corrupted: “Speak is Code?”
And so the exhibition has its title and I put together a press notice:


Jiao Tong Teahouse 28 December 2009

Yao Bo, Philip Davenport, Wang Jun

Jiao Tong Teahouse is a mesh of conversations, meetings, deals made, gambling, gossip and over it all, parrots swing on their perches, aping the human noise. It is an intersection and into it the work of three artists is placed for Speak is Code. The works explore the space between us all, locate the holes in language and - as Davenport’s poem says – “The impasse between skin.”

Yao Bo, ceramicist and painter premieres a version of her continuing major work On Reading Beckett: a long text response to Beckett is handwritten in Chinese script onto manuscript paper. “I was murmur-reading Beckett, muttering to myself. The poem shot sunlight from faraway into my thoughts…” As counterpoint, a series of collapsed pots – like collapsed lungs – are placed onto each piece of paper. From some of the pots comes the sound of the piece being read aloud. Yao Bo’s work explores the delicate seams of identity – where we join and where we fall apart. “These pieces of pottery are like the organs of no-body. Some silent, some murmuring, some…”

My Paintings are Invisible by Philip Davenport is a poem sequence combining Chinese and Western alphabets. The work is dedicated to Hai Zi (1965-89) the Chinese poet. Alphabets of East and West entwine to make word pictures, ‘invisible paintings’, each given an imaginary colour. They are on translucent paper, scripted half in Chinese (by Chinese artists) and half in English. The two alphabets sometimes join, sometimes separate. These are ‘paintings’ of absence, images that never grow clear – and Hai Zi becomes a symbol for all who are missing, all that we cannot say.

(txt/work, Wang Jun 2009)

Wang Jun is an artist whose works balance meaning against nothing. His recent pieces cross-breed industrial processes with the landscapes of hanzi that fill his paintings. He crunches together the Tao Te Ching, Wittgenstein and postmodernity into mould-pressed misfits. He will install a bookshelf of unreadable materials in the teashop.

Exhibition curated by Philip Davenport, artist in residence 501 Artspace. Contributing artists to My Paintings are Invisible; Dan Ting, Deng Chuan, Mao Yan Yang, Pang Xuan, Wang Jun, Xu Guang Fu, Yan Yan, Zheng Li; translation Deng Chuan, Yan Yan and Zhong Na. Philip would like to thank all for their kindness and for the beauty of their writing.

“I am trying to achieve a pre-verbal state by stacking layer upon layer of language. It is an impossible task, but it is my life.” (Yao Bo)

Curated by Philip Davenport

Supported by 501 Artspace/Arts Council England

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Yin Yang Logo

Sun Dec 13

Day 36

The Yin Yang Logo

Wang Jun is constructing a miniature city skyline on his studio floor. The buildings are made out of street bric-a-brac moulded into cylinders and bound together with a light concrete. Little pieces of plastic and electronic wiring are trapped in the concrete like fossils. Each unit is roughly the size of a corporate chain coffee cup, grande size. The heights vary from a couple of millimetres to 6 inches. He uses them to mark out an approx S-shape curve on the floor.

“S for Sheraton?” I suggest. “Starbucks?”

He looks at me wryly and starts to speak, Deng Chuan translating the gaps in his English and my Chinese: “It’s the yin yang. Very ancient, a shape for change. The piece is about change Fei Li Pu, about China changing. The line is buildings, maybe. Or could be a river. If you look at floor level, they could be a mountain range. It is a line drawn in 3D.”

Closeup, they are exquisite, the bright plastic fragments frozen amongst the grey. They are a sequence, but each one is an individual. “Like people,” says Wang Jun. “Or buildings, concrete and metal social units. But the materials of people’s lives are not industrial. The piece is gentle, small-scale - it is also very cruel, I think. Some people say the thing that hurts most is not a blow, but cruelty that is delivered gently.”

We sit on the floor among the tiny buildings. Yan Yan comes in. He thinks they should be bigger. I think they should be raised off the floor. Deng Chuan thinks they should be piled on top of one another.

Wang Jun shakes his head and talks to Deng Chuan who relays: “He says, they belong on the floor, it’s where the rubbish that made them comes from. After the exhibition, they will stop being art and they will be rubbish again. He says he wants his work to be gentle but within that it is cruel.”

Why cruel? But Wang Jun doesn’t answer directly. Deng Chuan says: “You know in China, balance is very important. Maybe this is something we can teach your culture. I don’t agree with the purely economic way and most Chinese don’t. But for a long time we have been poor, so new we grow up to be strong. We won’t be like Africa – we use the economy to arm ourselves. We have been poor and sick for 100 years and our people are afraid, they need to build confidence... But now the living standard is not so bad, I think that some people need to try living a different way, that is not just about money. Wang Jun feels this too, that’s why he uses the Yin Yang – we need some living one way and some living the other.”

What about the disastrous ecology summit at Copenhagen? “In China,” says Deng Chuan, “people care about their balance with nature, they have done for a long time. It is in our tradition. But they have been so poor and now they want to have a good life.”

“In China,” says Wang Jun, “They knock down poor people’s houses and put up buildings like this - ” and he nods at his little city on the floor. “They build on poor people’s lives.” We study it awhile. “A soft line to show hardness.”

The line begins and ends with the smallest pieces, broken fractions, so that it seems to grow up from the floor and sink back into it again. For me, it becomes an eye-metaphor for time – you don’t know if it’s coming toward you, or rushing away.

Wang Jun’s new work will premier at the Chinese Art Centre in Manchester as part of an exhibition which opens mid-January 2010.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The beautiful old buildings are sad

Sat 12 Dec

Day 33

Maybe this is the last industrial revolution, here in China before the earth gets to closing time for human business. There can’t be room to squeeze in many more and this place has some of the craziness of an end of season sale. The centre of CQ has been completely rebuilt and the rebuilding is being rebuilt it seems before the concrete is fully dry. They tell me that a CQ map (ditu) is out of date within 3 months, the city features so rapidly become unrecognisable. It’s a facelift being performed by a surgeon who is simultaneously having a facelift.

Riding into the epicentre, I carry the ache of my Friday massage with me. It’s as if I still have the man’s fingers in my shoulder muscles, clawing into me. But along with the pain has come mobility. The people on the metro into the city centre are for once not staring at me because of my skin colour, but because I’m behaving so oddly. For the whole journey into town, I exult in my new neck turning abilities, looking around behind me with the closest to 360-degree rotation that I’ve had in maybe 15 years, grinning happily at the passengers behind who look away in confusion.

While I write this over a drink, a young man who is time-killing in the café with his friends asks who I am. We have a brief spoken conversation and then resort to the computer, which converts my question into hanzi: what is China’s future? He taps into the machine and hits translate:

“China’s future is certainly more open, more harmonious and now many of the world incomplete knowledge of China who has been promoting China threat theory there are a lot of people’s understanding will remain in the era of last century, 40, 50. China’s future is definitely a very open beautiful and peaceful country.”

(Zhang Ming Jie, via computer translation)

It’s a diplomatic answer. I push him gently on it – ask isn’t it hard to lose all your familiar surroundings? He grimaces: “The beautiful old buildings are sad,” he tells me through the machine.

I talk him about my project and the homage to Hai Zi and he quotes a line from the famous Facing the Sea, with Spring Blossoms (《面朝大海,春暖花开》) – I write “I will hang my poem on washing lines, like clothes drying in the wind.”

On the metro back to Xie Jia Wan, the far bank of the Jialing River disappears into mist. The suspension bridge by Da Xi Gou station seems to deliver its evening traffic into an abyss lined with grey cotton wool. The closest twin is the London of old Sherlock Holmes films, all shadows and pea-soupers, with Basil Rathbone’s cheekbones the one sure guide. It’s tempting to conflate the two times and places, but that would be another layer of fog. The idea of an Industrial Revolution belongs to an era pre-Holmes. For the second time since the Cultural Revolution, China is ripping away the old skin – as if angry with itself. And the repayment for this loss comes in fast food outlets and designer brands in the town centre. Looking out at the river now, the only sharp visuals are neon signs.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Fri 4 Dec, Day 32

I’m writing this painfully, my shoulders feel beaten raw. The source of my pain is a little open fronted store on the Huang Jie Ping main road, which is staffed mainly by people with visual impairments. It is a massage parlour that Wang Jun goes to every week. This time he suggested I come along – the previous English artist at 501 had blissed out with the relaxing massages.

Ten minutes after arriving, I’m facedown on a massage table squirming with pain. The masseuse working me over is supposedly the best here. He certainly has a way of finding the least mobile parts of me, then grinding them together with enormous force. Wang Jun waves to me from the next bench and Deng Chuan who is behind me calls over: “He thinks your shoulder is a little sick.”

My right shoulder got damaged over a decade ago when I tried to chop down a sapling with an axe. I’ve never had much luck with axes, I get a bit crazed by them and start swinging around. I hit the sapling both hard and inexpertly and have spent many hours with physiotherapists since, regretting it and trying to patch the damage. My only consolation is that the tree is good and dead.

This massage isn’t like any I’ve come across before. I actually sweat with the pain of it. The masseuse checks with me, via Deng Chuan – am I OK? He knows that this hurts a lot but says that my shoulder muscles have stiffened so much he can hear them crack as he works into them. If I stick thru the pain I will feel better later.

I try reciting childhood poems to distract myself – Owl and the Pussycat, Lady of Shallot, Lake Isle of Innisfree, attempt to remember Bob Cobbing’s Alphabet of Fishes – but the pain volume dims out my words. I resort to counting in Chinese, then in English, then I simply endure it as best I can, crying out at the worst.

He works on me for 45 minutes or so, by which time I’m punchdrunk, dizzy with endomorphs. When he’s finished I tell him if I come again it’ll be in a suit of armour. I sit on a chair and shakily eat some of the local grapefruit (they come from Dan Dan’s hometown) dropping the pieces into a newspaper on my lap. Wang Jun is having his arm pulled vigorously and Deng Chuan has her face scrunched with discomfort.

But the star turn is a man at the back who has a vacuum suction jar placed onto his back – a big fold of skin and muscle is drawn up into the jar and the masseuse moves it rapidly back and forth across his back. The patient cries out over and over and the skin reddens as I watch. Another jar is added and another until there are maybe a dozen. Part-hidden under a sheet, he looks like a man who is morphing into a weird beast, a glass alligator perhaps.

I watch it numbly and eat my segments of grapefruit. I intended to work the rest of the day and into the evening but instead when we get back to wu ling yao I sit on a sofa in the studio and watch the walls tangoing round me as I crash from my body’s painkillers.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Day 31 Thur Dec 3

This is part of an email I send to

my friend Carol Watts the poet:

Speaking of which I’ve been

sequestered here awhiles now away from my dayjob - struggling

to keep the head above water in a different way cos pretty much all I’ve done in the last month is exist

in the studio, making calligraphic work with various artists here - its alternately wonderful and stressful - I feel that I’m jumping into something big and complex and with an enormously misted surface.

“I’ve entered a language and signage that is simply and utterly not mine, but am trying to employ it to make a piece about human distance – I’ve used some people who are very naive writers as well as calling on experts so some of these works are going to be dismissed here because the adherence to calligraphic tradition is hugely ingrained and any deviation is seen to be simply coarse - then there’s the grand old habit of the West appropriating culture from here - eg. most of my deeper held reference to Chinese poetry is Pound's Cathay, which is itself an appropriation of a semitranslation - so I’m damned there too - but I note within myself alongside the nerves a certain glee at the prospect… cos the pieces are in a sense paintings, I’ve bound the idea of the thing together with dulux colours - and of course we none of us know if we're seeing the same colour.”

On the way back from the studio at 1am or so, I see an old lady the size of a small child, litter-picking to scrounge a living. She must be in her late 70s. Strapped onto her back is a basket far bigger than herself, filled with bits of cardboard and paper. She wobbles, looks as if she might sink under the weight. In that moment, I regret my flip comment to Carol about ‘keeping my head above water’. I mention it here to remind myself.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Killing a puppy

Days 29-30

Tues/Wed Dec 1-2

A puppy arrives on my doorstep, a skinny little thing, looks scared. It has hidden itself behind the large dressing table that my neighbour has dumped in the hallway along with his daily rubbish, cigarette ends and snack packets. I wonder if the dog is his too? It’s one of the toys – when I first saw it I thought it a rat. It has fouled the corridor several times and itself. When it sees me it bolts for cover under the dresser. I find the sight of the miserable little thing depressing. If I feed it, it’ll stay; if I leave it, who knows what’ll happen to it?

It howls once in the night, catches my eye in the morning and I sneak guiltily away to the studio. Give some money to a beggar instead, it’s emotionally cheaper.

Next evening the dog’s still there and the entrance to my apartment is a picknmix of litter and shit. In a fit of cruelty, I fill a bucket with hot water and detergent and sluice away the muck, leaving the puppy hidden under the dresser with a pool of water around it. It tentatively tries lapping at the hot stinking mess.

I shut my door on it, tell myself I can’t adopt a puppy and walk the anarchic Ciao Q. Cockroaches, rats, dirt and dogs are crowding me at the same time as my poem’s falling apart. My boundaries are dissolving and I cling to the poem like a left luggage ticket. I feel that I’ve not just left the UK, but am starting to float away from myself.

The puppy’s imploring eyes have freaked me. I fantasise about putting the dog in a box and dumping it in the streets so it’ll die quicker, out of my vicinity. If I wait til the early morning hours when I’m back from the studio, no one will be around and the thing can be easily done. I plan to dispose of it the following night. There are boxes stacked in the street after the night market finishes, just before the ragpickers scavenge the cardboard.

I want to talk to Yan Yan to check alternatives to murder, but he’s not around, tied in meetings. When I finally see him he’s worried-looking, overwrought with his job. He barely registers my presence then gives me the brush-off. I lose myself in work, solving nothing, sinking further into the mire.

Come midnight, I pack up. It’s raining and the night market is slush, boxes ruined. I ride the lift up to Jiu Lou (9th Floor) wondering if I can fit the dog into a plastic bag. But it has gone when I arrive and the sound of its howling comes from behind one of my neighbours’ doors. I sit on the edge of the bed and marvel at my own cracked brain: I am not like this.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


Day 28

Mon 30 Nov

Cockroaches upset me not because they are terrifying per se, in fact the babies are very pretty, like cartoons of themselves. In the UK they are a taboo, while in China as in many countries, they’re just a fact that’s less welcome than some, like ants or rodents or rain. But I remember struggling to keep a Council flat in Ardwick clean while roaches poured out of the wall partitions. They invaded the walls, the waste pipes, the cupboards, the fridge, the food. One night I forgot to check my salad before eating it and found myself with a wriggling mouthful. They carry a memory cargo to me in those little brown body cases.

“Meanwhile back, on Penny Lane…”

Meanwhile back in the studio, Deng Chuan likes The Beatles, Nick Cave, folk music, and syrupy Chinese ballads. Yan Yan votes for heartbreak Classical music, especially when delivered via piano. I’m free jazz, ancient crackling blues sung by people without teeth and rockandroll. Therefore when Yan Yan is away we crank up the stereo and go gothic or play The Beatles, as common ground.

I’ve picked up Revolver and the White Album, remastered for about a quarter of the UK price and Deng Chuan has Sgt Pepper. We put them onto Yan Yan’s fabulous machine. The energy blast of them jumpstarts us and we work late, laughing at the sheer happiness of the sound.

For the past godknowshowlong recording engineers have slaved on Beatle recordings, meticulously cleaning each Beatle-instrument, each Beatle-voice on the original tapes and then reassembling the mixes. It seems churlish not to listen, especially as I can bag up a couple of the gooduns for a fiver.

I played The Beatles to Beatle-death, time ago - they are as familiar as the hymns we used to sing at school assembly and memory patina is so deep that I don’t actually hear songs, I hear remembering. But the cleanup they’ve been given changes the texture of the whole thing - the joy in the recordings jumps and catches me unexpectedly. Sgt Pepper’s music bounces, while the White Album is heartbroken, the song Julia sweet and forlorn and crystal, as tho sung here and now.

Both Yan Yan and Deng Chuan get listless and deathly when I play atonal music - or sing, which amounts to the same thing as Trehy observed. Mostly we flit across Chopin and Schubert to Keith Jarrett and Alice Coltrane to Deng Chuan’s Chinese folk mixes. But in the evenings, working late it is to the dayglo of Deng Chuan’s Sgt Pepper, or the strange unravelling White Album, with its black holes and beauty.

(I get up from writing this in my apartment in Chongqing to make a drink and sure enough a baby roach disappears under the cooker.)

It seems to me that the biggest legacy of The Beatles is their pleasure at finding newness – of writing the future. That’s why I have such a problem with Fabnostalgia – it misses the alchemical fever that the music was made in. The John Lennon of 1966 would’ve gagged at the thought of a Beatle Experience museum.

So for me, the biggest wakeup comes just after a shot of Sgt Pepper, when Deng Chuan and Wang Jun find download after download of traditional Chinese folks, Siberian throat singers and eerie mountain music on the zithery gu qin. For them, this is history but for me it is as bright and new as those shiny remasters. We listen into the small hours, gathered around the little charcoal fire bowl, the lights of the laptops twinkling around us.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Rolex and the People’s Liberation

Day 27
Sun 29 Nov

Today is greyest in CQ since my records began. The view from my apartment window is ghosted with the rainy fog (wu) which becomes beautiful in the early evening neon but is just depressing in the morning. I’ve been listening to Cornelius Cardew while late writing and my head is a mess of his blurred lines.

I scratch a plan together, catch a bus, a metro. The grandiose derelict factory by Xi Jia Wan metro station is now a flattened field, pocked with blue plastic debris. Within a month of being here, one of my landmarks has gone.

Next the tram and after a few of my habitual wrong turns I’m in Starbucks, an excellent place from which to observe the People’s Liberation Monument. The coffee is sweet bilge, as ever was, but it’s a vantage point and it also has the luxury of a flush toilet.

The monument is a ringer for a lighthouse, but sadly without the white stripes. It’s set on top of a chunky stone plinth approached by marble steps. Where the lighthouse beacon would be, the monument has four illuminated clocks, each prominently branded ROLEX (the Rolex store is opposite).

The monument would once have been impressive, but now the department stores and offices of the city centre out glitz it with consumer disposables and illuminated logos, and out-scale it too, their top storeys dissolving in mist. It seems a far-flung outpost from 1949 when the PRC was born. The people of CQ now do march bys in anoraks and puffa coats and undistinguished 21st century rainproofs. Their real glory today is their umbrellas, which come in many varieties of delicate primary colours, like an ever-changing Spring flowerbed.

From here, sat so close to the Starbucks sign that I can touch it - there, I just have - I can see logos for Mazda, Lexus, TODs (who?) Kinderlite (also?) Sheraton (tho the S is backwards, curiously) and Cartier who are on the other side of the plaza to Rolex and obviously lost the battle for branding the monument. Down aways are McDonalds and KFC.

But people seem to love the Liberation monument, whatever its aesthetic shortfalls. It was actually built to commemorate liberation from the Japanese after World War 2, but it seems to have become a beacon for a greater Liberation too. Every few minutes a new couple have their picture taken in front of the inscriptions detailing its importance. They have a relationship to their history and how it disjuncts with now that I don’t begin to appreciate. At once proud, mocking, decrying and idealistic – perhaps people here don’t fully understand it themselves either, as we all move around the pivot of the future. And whatever the future was and what it will be is changing fast as the patterns of the umbrellas below.