Liu Hai-Su Art Gallery

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I guess it always feels good to escape the normal routine. Last Wednesday, I went to the Liu Hai-Su Art Gallery in the morning. Taking a stroll from the light rail station to the gallery, I walked on the pedestrian area, in between an open green space and elevated highway. To reach the gallery, I needed to walk into a well-design mini-park (with lawn, little ponds) through well-paved passages.

Alas! There it was! A very modern architecture with a beige colour. The two wings were similar but not exactly identical, adding another layer of the three-dimensionality.

Maybe because it was a weekday, or maybe because it was a new site (the original museum was located at another place where I have never been to), only a few visitors could be found (at least fewer than the staff).

The paintings on display were selected from the permanent collection, mostly modern and contemporary pieces of work. I enjoyed the gallery curated under the theme ‘Abstract versus Concrete Style’, juxtaposing paintings of two styles together.

One painting in the other gallery on the ground floor caught my eyes: one depicting ‘The Fate of Cities’, with a zigzagging track of jammed traffic. It was just the impression that a city gave. As I moved back to this big metropolitan, I could feel the pain (whether sitting in a car stuck on the road, or squeezing myself into a packed underground compartment.

The museum had a spacious place, a big empty area in the hall, where one could also find a cafe and a museum shop. Since I travelled a long way, I thought I might well visit the temporary exhibition about the artwork of an artist called ‘Du zhi-wei’. I had not known this artist before. Then I learnt that he had been exploring new ways of Ink wash painting. Having practised art both in China and in the States, Du had tried to combine the Chinese spirit and the western elements. His paintings covers a wide range of different landscape, e.g. the Grand Canyon, village cottage. The way he applied ink wash to paint geometrical shapes was quite innovative, at least I did not recall seeing something like that before. He was also a great calligrapher, and he was very bold in trying out different styles.

It was overall a pleasant visit. And being alone, I had the freedom to wander around, though it was sometimes a little intimidating to be ‘watched’ by the guards. I love the architecture, especially the outdoor design-the merge of a mini open-space garden and the gallery. Yet it is still a very traditional white-cube art gallery, and on a weekday when visitors are fewer than working staff, I found it hard to be at ease.

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The Museum of the Six Dynasties, Nanjing

It was my fourth trip to  Nanjing. And this time,  I was travelling with Terry and my parents-in-law. On the night of our arrival, I looked for museums as we were planning where to go the next day. I thought about the Nanjing Museum, where I visited the last time. It is the first public museum in China and it would I assume attract my parents-in-law who had never really visited a museum and who would be interested in the old and precious objects on display. Terry then mentioned ‘The Oriental Metropolitan Museum’ (in my opinion a literal translation ‘The Museum of the Six Dynasties’ would be more appropriate). I skimmed through a few comments by visitors and located it on the map. It might be a better choice, as it is so close to the tourist attraction ‘Office of the President’.

So the next day, we travelled to the museum by underground. The museum was in a modern building, next to a cafe and hotel. Upon entering the hall on the ground floor, Terry yelled excitedly as he pointed to one of the wooden carriage on display in the open air. The vehicle could measure how many distance it travelled, etc. He began to explain the mechanism: how the little man (a small statue) would strike the drum when it covered one Li (half kilometre). By counting the strikes, people could record the distance they had travelled. It was called ‘Mileage Recording Chariot’. At another corner, we also saw a ‘Compass Chariot’. The two vehicles looked extremely new and they were certainly replicas. I suppose they were exhibited because they were considered great inventions during that period of time.

The Chinese name of the museum is the ‘Museum of the Six Dynasties’ because Nanjing had served the capital of six dynasties in ancient times (Eastern Wu Dynasty, Eastern Jin Dynasty, Song Dynasty, Qi Dynasty, Liang Dynasty and Chen Dynasty). We watched the video shown on a big screen on the ground floor. The location of the screen was well selected, as it was just outside the toilets and served as an excellent place for visitors to have a rest. But to be honest, the cartoon video was not well-designed and did present any appealing ideas nor images.

As we went to the lower ground floor, we saw more archaeological objects and also the site of the ancient city wall. Then I learnt that the museum was only built a few years ago, following the archaeological discovery of the ancient city wall. That might explain why it was so modern and also most objects upstairs were replicas.

One of the most famous type objects were perhaps the ‘soul jar’, made of ceramics with complicated decorations of architecture and animals on top of the jar (Terry first thought that the jar was for preserving ashes, but the guard heard our conversation and approached to tell us what it really was). It was said that the little holes were supposed to hold the ‘soul’ of the owner of the tomb. As there were only few soul jars and they represented the burial rituals and beliefs during the Han Dynasty, Three Kingdoms and the Jin Dynasty, they were extremely valuable artefacts.

Overall, the museum did show us some aspects of the lifestyle during the Six Dynasties. The biggest disadvantage is that it does not have plentiful objects on display. But the settings were well designed, and I especially like the ambience on the first floor (decorations with stones, bamboo, and lotus).

While the lack of objects can be one disadvantage, the museum does offer much space for walking around, and it matches the Taoist philosophy. It would be better if the exhibition can highlight the geographical importance of Nanjing and how its role changed over time. I saw many objects about the eating habit, and transportation of that time. It would offer a more comprehensive picture if more objects about costume and music.

Prologue (‘Ripple Ideas’ Series)

This series has emerged from a rough idea that I have been nurturing (not too closely) for quite a long period. Academically, I can say that it relates tightly to my doctoral project of advocating an imaginative space while engaging with objects. I have also been inspired by experiments and practices of creative writing by using objects as stimulus. It is beyond cross-disciplinary study. It is itself a creative initiative. To this end, I find that pursuing a theoretical meditation is not of much help in further developing this little thought.

At present, I am only writing this for fun. And I call it ‘Rippling Ideas’. The idea is that I select one artwork/object from Google Art Project, and, without doing any research, start free forms of writing. I assume most of my writing will be in the form of poetic language or stories. Then, I refer back to the information given by Google and pursue more research to find out the details that I am interested in.

With my humble prediction, such writing and thinking exercise will at least help myself in the following aspects: 1) further advancing my writing skills (integrating different styles of writing); 2) improving creative thinking skills and poetic meditation; 3) encouraging me to read stuff in certain domains (which I might not be interested in at the first place); 4) learning more about famous and not-so-famous artworks around the world. And there might be many more benefits, or maybe I shall say, dimensions of learning.

Right now, I am working on the first post, and it takes longer than I expected. Anyway, I hope I can keep the momentum. Hope you will enjoy this series as well and feel free to leave your comments on my blog.

Creative Writing at Kettle’s Yard

Well, that was quite a long time ago. February 28th, Friday. It was a workshop late at night, but awkwardly also dinner time for me. I had an early dinner with Terry at Prezzo by the river and headed to Kettle’s Yard for the workshop on creative writing. I was there quite early, well, around 7-8 minutes before 6 p.m., and there was already another participant waiting outside the gate.

It was a rainy day and surprisingly, I saw Rosie (who I know) who came and opened the door to us. Soon after I paid the 5 pounds workshop fee, Sophie, the workshop leader came and introduced herself to each one of us. The gallery space was now much different from last time, with the new exhibition ‘Art and Life’ being on show. And the exhibition would be the stimulus for our writing.

Well, I know I need to grasp every chance to practise my creative writing skills, and when I saw the workshop I immediately decided to participate. And it is in Kettle’s Yard, the contemporary gallery!

We each could have one drink from the so-called ‘mini-bar’ in the education room (which was in fact some drinks on a small table) and there were two to three volunteers who helped to facilitate the workshop. The assistant learning officer Lucy was also there. The first activity was much fun.

We were asked to walk around the exhibition on our own and to look at a particular painting (or pot) for five minutes and then start writing for around 10 minutes without stopping. One painting exhibited on its own just outside the education room caught my eye. And after I toured around the whole exhibition, I decided to go back to the painting.

This is the draft I created:

A mirror dumped, left alone by a lady.

Two supportive feet, can they be real feet?

It was the place that she used to making up, in front of the mirror, absorbed in her own world–a peaceful world, a world filled with elements from Nature: grass, garden, a little vase of violets. Though the mirror looks quite dumb, yes dumb, heavy wooden frames, a big size comparing to other delicate small accessories: her white bracelet, her accessories.

Now, it’s so quiet. She’s grown up. She has another well-furnished room, much bigger, with a big making-up desk. This little corner has been dumped. The mirror has been dumped. It is sad. The fake left from several weeks ago started to go bad, emitting a strange unpleasant flavour, but overlooking the garden, the mirror gets a good view. The lady seldom takes a stroll in the hard now. Before, she holds the mirror as a treasure, now she doesn’t even care to wipe of the dust away. In fact, she seldom comes back.

 

When I was writing, I did what Sophie asked. Just let the words flow, without too much thinking about structure and grammar. She read my little vignette and made a few comments. She said she liked the repetitive tone, and pointed out how the sound of some words really corresponded to the whole flow: the delicacy of “vase of violets” and heaviness of the word “dumb” itself. And the contrast between the past and the present.

 

It was after we created this little vignette that Lucy gave as a tour around the exhibition and highlighted the theme behind the exhibition. I was amazed that the two parallel pictures were painted by different artists who were looking at the same scenery. And how different they were! Especially the way Winifred Nicholson mastered the colours. I thought we were then going to work on the basis of what we had just wrote.

But we in fact did something else. We started to talk about creative ways of describing colours and Sophie asked us to think about a piece of childhood’s memory and to capture moments of particular emotional engagement. We then delved into writing for about 15-20 minutes and shared our writing.

This is what I wrote:

I remember.

I remember the rain drops clustering on the window panes. But they soon distorted as a group of naughty kids of “Wind” shouted hilariously. ‘Bump!’ I remember the bump. Then before I knew which dream I was chasing, my legs danced their way next to my head.

Strangely, it felt so quiet. We all crept out through the right side door, then onto the edge of the road by the mountain. Maybe it was then that I saw blood, mixed with glittering pieces of glasses. the blood was streaming down, slowly, elegantly, stylishly, on the limbs of my grand auntie and grand uncle. Everything got wetter, and brighter under the rain. I felt I was looking at an aquarium. The blood was streaming down, like watermelon-skinned goldfish, swimming in water. It was still raining. And I was so cold. My head still hurt. Did the window pane get stuck on my head? And I felt cold. I felt cold in my little shot purple dress. I looked down at my legs. They slowly turned purple as well. There I was, standing at the side of the water ditch by the mountain. I was like a little fig, lying on a vast piece of wet earth, covered only with half of the skin.

 

As I was writing, the image streamed in my head like a movie. It was the only car accident I had in my life when I was very young, but I could still remember it. And I volunteered to read the piece I wrote. I was the first to volunteer. Others captured beautiful moments of their past as well.

For the last proper writing task, we were asked to drop down a few words to summarise the whole impression of the memory and turned it into a succinct piece. I didn’t do well on that one. I wrote down “wet” and “helpless”. And the little piece:

‘Bumps’ window panes struck by my head inside

and rain drops outside

Looking at the blood streaming down

as watermelon goldfish in an aquarium

Little I in little purple dress

with little purple legs

A helpless half-skinned fig, lying at the foot of a mountain.

All wet.

 

Apart from these three exercises, I really liked the one of playing around with words to make up “found phrases”. The words were cut out from the letters that artists sent to Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle’s Yard. I did a few and really enjoyed the event:

blueberries get lonely in the mist

a light secret glittering in dark water

writing fresh letter in the morning

 

It was an two-hour session. Two hours of reflecting and writing and experimenting. Sophie was very friendly, and humble person as well. I asked her what she does, and she told me she teaches creative writing in secondary schools with kids and she also runs a creative writing course at the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. Oh, how I wished I knew that earlier. But hopefully it will restart later this year.

 

I shall write. Keep writing. And then I shall never be afraid of writing.

Three seminars that have something to do with museums

So, over the past few weeks, I attended three seminars. They all share something in common as they are all in some way related to museums.

The one that most impresses me was at my faculty (Faculty of Education) by a famous British illustrator: James Mayhew. I have not been brought up in this country, so I should be forgiven for having not heard him before. But his old work Katie’s Picture Show seems to be very famous. It is about the adventures of a little girl in red in art galleries where she interacts with the characters and landscapes in the paintings. Many of James’ later works also embody his central philosophy of making art: to make classic work more accessible to young audience. Well, maybe all audience. His presentation was straightforward and he seems to be a very genuine person. The highlight of the seminar was his demonstration of his recent projects: in situ painting in response to classic music. He first narrated the story behind the Finnish piece of music: a folklore story about a young Finnish guy in a village. The scene he depicted within less than 10 minutes proved to be the darkest place as described in the story where the hero was confronted by a swan in a lake. If he fails to shoot the swan before hearing the swan’s voice, he would die miserably. Magically, James used watercolour to create the horrible dark place on a piece of black paper. He simply used the colour of blue and white.

If this seminar is centred around the question: how to make classic work (be it fine art work, music, famous literary piece) more accessible in the form of illustration, then the second seminar organised by the Digital Humanities at Cambridge seeks to address the concern: what are the challenges and promises of the application of digital tools in evaluating visitor experience at arts and cultural events? The big philosophical assumption is: we have best access to our subjective feelings. But how can research approach visitors’ experience? The researcher from the Warwick university claims that traditional computer programmes fail dramatically in marking twitter comments. But beyond their failure of ‘correctly’ coding the comments, I wonder to what extent the portion of negative/positive/neutral can tell us about visitor experience? As the researcher mentioned, when people make comments on twitter, they usually have their own readers in mind. They could be talking to their friends and close families and use a lot of slang words. Therefore, many comments could have little to do with their actual feeling about the event. And though we are now better equipped with digital tools, can they really help us? When people smile within the visual fields of the machine that captures automated smiles, does it really mean that they are ‘happy’ with the event? Maybe the picture is that technology does help to ‘obtain’ massive data with relatively little effort, it is after all ‘fragments’ and even ‘false impressions’. Digital tools can only be ‘add-ons’ and it is almost impossible to replace human-involved research with computers, Apps and other smart technologies.

The third seminar is the one I attended this afternoon at the English Faculty by the Cambridge Performance Network. Usually, the seminars they organise are about dramas and theatre. But this time, it was by an independent curator who worked at the Natural History Museum, London. Well, honestly, I didn’t like the seminar. The drama studio is not a proper place for such seminars. The chairs are quite uncomfortable and the seminar is basically a lecture, and a very long one. I would agree that the presenter might be a very good curator, but she is certainly not a good presenter. The powerpoint slides are full of words and she just talks in such a monotonous tone and it was really hard to get myself focused for over one hour. And though they arrived 15 mintues before the seminar (I was even earlier), they still hadn’t done enought preparation. She didn’t test the CD-Rom and she didn’t even connected the power. So, we had to wait for quite a long time twice in the middle of the presentation. Fortunately, there were drinks to direct people’s attention. But not my drinks… The talk was filled with professional terms and was not organised in an engaging manner. She promised to talk about her ‘curating’ as a process, but the major focus seems to be on the introduction of how the artists worked on the project. She didn’t talk too much about her efforts during the process, which I was most interested in. So, it was rather disappointing and I left once the Q & A session kicked off.

Anyway, all these seminars are helpful and it is good and pleasant to know that many interdisciplinary works are being done in connection with museums. And I come to realise that being a good presenter is extremely crucial. Otherwise, it is difficult to communicate one’s thoughts and works. Well, I have to work on that. And I have signed myself up for two occasions already. More preparations and more practices ahead!

Museum (House) with Lots of Chairs

Yesterday, I wasn’t very productive with my writing. I was just a bit agitated and I knew I should just get away from my desk and do something else. The sun shines and what a pity if I could just stay indoors staring at my computer screen. I suggested to mum that we could go outside but I wasn’t sure where to go. We already did much shopping, and I could not think of anything special.

Anyway, we finally walked out and I took my mum to Kettle’s Yard. We actually went there the other day, but it wasn’t open yet by then. So, that was around 1 p.m. and the gallery was open. We saw the exhibition of Victor Skipp, a collector and artist who bestowed his collections to Kettle’s Yard. I had expected that mum would not be used to contemporary art galleries. She had hardly been to one. I was watching a video, about the countryside house owned by Victor and some of his collections. I called mum over and she wasn’t as excited as I was. And she simply commented how a video like that could be an artwork on display. I totally agree that the gallery is a very typical contemporary art space–

White wall with small sometimes tiny black characters simply ‘announcing’ the name of the ‘artpiece’.

I don’t know Victor Skipp. But I could imagine how the collections would look very differently when they were displayed in his house. Or maybe ‘display’ would not be a proper word. They would simply be there, as part of his house, his surroundings and his everyday life. But then, in the gallery, everything looked so lonely. The video was beautifully shot and the display was carefully arranged and there were leaflets for visitors on which the general outline of the display was mapped out. The leaflets became a kind of ‘portable labels’. But apart from the silhouette and the numbered title of each object, I didn’t find any information on the stories of how Victor collected and treated these objects when he was alive.

Mum seemed to get impatient and she asked me to confirm that ‘that was it’. Nothing more. Yes, nothing more. I told her I would take her to the house, which would be very interesting as it was the real residence of a ‘friend of artists’. When I was in the gallery, I discerned those white doors where I used to walk in and out as an volunteer. But they were all locked then. And I now had to find my way to the house as a visitor. There was no shortcut.

We went outside the gallery and found the door to the house. I had never enter the house by that door before and it seemed that I need to pull the bell. I tried and soon someone opened the door. A friendly face welcomed us and we went inside the house. She told us that we could store our bag and hang our clothes by the hooks under the staircases. She also helped us to put our bags in a locked closet. It was truly like visiting a friend’s flat. We were the only visitors and I signed on the visitors’ book as the volunteer asked me to. And she explained the rules and said that we were very welcome to sit on the chairs but that we were not allowed to touch anything.

I walked mum all the way to the bathroom on the ground floor. I pinpointed a few aesthetic arrangement to her: the swirling pebbles, the lemon on the plate against the dark background, the three stones that resemble a family of three, a few feathers elegantly lying in a glassware … We then went upstairs and the staff who welcomed us was talking to another guy. They both said hello to us. Again, I highlighted a few things to mum, especially the little ‘greenhouse’ with a magnifying glass plate. It was a pity that the sunlight was gone when we were inside and the lighting effect was not that perfect. I also encouraged mum to sit on one of the sofa chair, but she didn’t have much interest and only symbolically seated herself for a few seconds after I insisted. We seemed to cover all the areas, including the attic with lots of artworks.

If I was there alone, I would really like to lie in one of the sofa chair and read books. It was a short visit. Not too bad though.

What reminds me again of those chairs is an article I read today. Bradburne was memorating Kenneth Hudson who once talked about museums with charm and museum with chairs. It is a very short article, but it just touches me. The whole philosophy of museum with chairs is so different from that linear viewing method by the traditional ‘walking’ route. How come that this simply, succinct, but wise idea hasn’t been picked up by the museum world?

But the house of Kettle’s Yard is one living example. As visitors, we are invited to sit down, to just relax ourselves, to have time and space to look and think and ‘feel’, to just enjoy a moment of peace, to ‘look’ at the objects from different angles.

Why can’t museum be a space to just sit back and enjoy? A space that encourages meditation? I would certainly want to visit the house at Kettle’s Yard again, alone or with some other friends: to sit down and relax myself. And maybe I would see the place differently. Maybe that would be a totally different experience.

But aren’t we tuned in that way of ‘walking through exhibitions’ that we would naturally ‘reject’ to sit down, as what my mum did?