Monday, September 15, 2008

Scenes from a Floating Life: An Artist’s View of Shanghai

Christina Shmigel

Eric’s Call For Grandeur

When I’m in the uncomfortable phase of transition between cultures that overtakes me like a flu each time I come back to Shanghai, I think of an account I once read from one of the early European expeditions in Africa. Each day, in keeping with the explorer’s pace, the expedition’s native porters broke camp and moved forward, up until the day on which they didn’t. The explorer, purple with frustration, demanded an explanation for what he saw as their insolence. The porters replied simply that they were waiting for their souls to catch up. With which, obviously, there’s no arguing. And so it is with me as I try to catch up on myself from the dislocation of traveling to the States. But while my soul lags behind, the lost NYC post has caught up with me and, with lovely synchronicity, it lines up with Eric’s call last week demanding “grandeur”…
I grew up in NYC and it’s where my parents still live. If Shanghai is two cities - old and new - at once, then NYC has almost entirely re-invented itself. The version that I knew in the 60’s and 70’s is now only occasionally visible in some native New Yorker’s prickly humor or inside the corner hardware store that somehow manages to hang on amidst the gentrification and affluence. I really miss the grit, the prostitutes on the Lower East Side warming themselves in their hot pants next to fires lit in trash cans, but the change is exhilarating, too: the Waterfront Greenway that lets you walk, cycle, or rollerblade all along the waterfront, well, there’s just nothing anywhere in the world that beats it for cool. (

This summer, the waterfront was made grander still by four elevated waterfalls, created by Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliason, as a commission for The Public Art Fund. ( Not everyone thinks they’re a great idea: I overheard the guy behind me on the Staten Island Ferry grunt to his girlfriend, “Dey spent 15 million dollahs on doze! What a &*#$!% waste a money.” (This being NYC where the f- word flows just like that big money.) And I suppose in the face of bigger issues, maybe he’s right.

But for me, the waterfalls did exactly what I yearn for art to do: they profoundly changed the way I “see” something. Like the Greenway, the falls transform the waterfront from a generic place that one takes for granted, or even ignores, into a particular place, one that creates a feeling of community and bond between the people who share in the experience of it. Borrowing from the sense of the sublime that one feels in the face of great natural wonder and set among the great engineering wonders of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the waterfalls collect in the viewer’s mind the grandeur of humanity’s accomplishment and the depth of it’s capacity for meaningful experience… all while ordinary life goes right on going on, couples necking, old people dozing, sirens wailing, all along the waterfront.

Further on along the waterfront, inside the Battery Maritime Building, people were “Playing the Building,” thanks to David Byrne and another great commissioner of art, Creative Time. A small electric organ sat in the center of a vast and beautifully derelict 19th century warehouse space. Rectangles of light, cast on the floor and walls, were crisscrossed by the shadows of the steel armature of the clearstory above. At the keyboard, people took their turn triggering distant mechanisms that tapped iron columns or blew air past holes in steel pipes. The sounds produced weren’t much in themselves & even good musicians couldn’t draw especially good music out of the organ/building but I stayed on for a long time anyway for the pleasure of seeing the wonder on people’s faces as they pondered the space and the sounds and the wild audacity of the idea. (

The vastness of the physical spaces that the two projects occupy, the grandness of their ambitions, it makes one feel both puny and somehow connected to the universal all at once…perhaps it’s that old American sense of the transcendental in the vastness and beauty of the untamed landscape, but here surrounded by the remnants of the last century’s industriousness. It’s a kind of soaring one gets to do looking at work like this and I’m so grateful that someone thinks that it is worth spending money on.

No comments: