Sunday, July 20, 2008


Christina Shmigel

The 18th century Chinese poet, Shen Fu, left behind his job as a unsuccessful civil servant to live what he described as “a floating life,” retreating into his cloistered garden to enjoy his wife, reading, designing and writing. My own floating life as a “trailing spouse” has me in Shanghai, a vast city, hectic and vibrant and in the midst of radical change. As a sculptor I have always been inspired by the places in which I live but never more so than here where my making is mostly about making sense for myself out of a place so culturally different from any I have ever known. From Shanghai, I’ll be writing about the amazing ordinary things I see every day – recycling men hauling loads so beautifully stacked a sculptor can only be envious, hardware market streets w/ an array of materials whose possibilities far outstrip my imagination, chaotic accidental compositions of fluorescent plastic washing bowls stacked at the dry goods stalls - and about the process (or struggle!) by which those observations get transformed into my work.

Shanghai is at least two cities, the city that was here before the foreigners returned (because there is also the city that was here before the foreigners left) and the much-hyped city that is coming into being everyday. Ex-patriate or local, all of us inhabitants negotiate between those two cities everyday and their interstices is what all of those who visit, and many of those who make art here, aim to capture. The fun’s all in the contradictions: the futuristic pinnacles of skyscrapers looming over the enclosing walls of a traditional Chinese garden or the street sweeper with his bamboo broom taking a break to scribble into his Blackberry or the stooped old woman, on a low stool warming herself in the sun, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a text you are pretty sure she wouldn’t be wearing if she could read English, maybe “Life Is Short Live It Blond” or “Bust Connection.” It’s the ideal city in which to heed Julio Cortazar’s observation: “When you concentrate your attention…in the void between two objects…then at that one moment, you see reality.”

A week ago Friday, I went into the emerging city to see Mining Nature, the inaugural show at James Cohan Gallery’s Shanghai space. It’s the first gallery here to showcase the artists that dominate the international art scene, and for me it comes as a great boon; it’s just so thrilling to again see work with this kind of conceptual density and presented so professionally. For me, the most moving work in the show, was Bill Viola’s Oak Study, a 30-minute video created from 24 hours of footage shot from a single point of view of a single CA oak. At a glance, the image on the screen appears fixed but if one watches for a bit, it changes minutely all the time. Emerging slowly from pre-dawn, at first a still silhouette, eventually the oak’s leaves glow green and begin to tremble in the breeze. As the day progresses,
the sun, in companionship with the camera lens, fractures into a star of light shining from between the tree’s branches until its very brightness dematerializes the tree into…well, it would be a spoiler if I told you so I’ll just say that by the end you are fully rewarded for being attentive to the passing moment.

On my way to the opening, walking to the metro station, I passed thru the large public park that is the center of our part of town and squarely in the old city. Our neighbors, whom a local visitor once described as “still living in the old ways”, come to the park to escape their tiny one or two rooms. They gather in groups to do various things that you’d never see in an American park - rousing conductor-led choral singing, athletic ballroom dancing, calligraphy drawing with water & brush on pavement, tai chi & fan dances & badminton, walks taken backwards and trees being hugged and caressed and patted - all done with a gusto and lack of irony that I never fail to be heartened by.

On this particular day, escaping from the blazing heat of the street into the cool dark cathedral of the park’s unpruned trees, I stopped to watch an old man at his practice. (Another boon here: one is released from the prohibition against starring by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be one here.) The old man with his gleaming bald pate, dressed in an immaculate white t-shirt, perfectly pressed khaki trousers belted high up on his belly moved his arms slowly thru the arm positions of ballet.

The park and its players arranged themselves as though scenery flats: almost upon him, a group of middle-aged dancers moving awkwardly out of sync to their scratchy dancehall recording; behind them, rows of park benches with their various occupants; still further back, silhouetted against the light, several overlapping rows of ballroom dancers, moving with unexpected fluidity from left to right and back again to an inaudible tune; behind them all, framed into odd ovoids by the arcs of tree limbs, a startlingly vivid green lawn. So much movement, so much stimulation, so many competing energies, but the old man moved thru his positions as if there was nothing there at all and I stood in his stillness for quite sometime before rushing back to the city.

Next day, same walk , one more t-shirt, orange with black type: Time
Is Imaginary. I’m not making this up.

Christina Shmigel is a sculptor and installation artist currently practicing in Shanghai, China. You can see her work at and at and you can contact her at

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