Merry Mart

First day abroad is always about settling in and figuring out the necessities. Where I am located, that means a trip to the Merry Mart, which is something of a Walmart on steroids in a far more interesting way.


The place is massive and overwhelming… mostly every food item that you can imagine with a side of toys, textiles and housewares. Photos make it look like a regular grocery store, but this place goes on and on… so much that you get confused as to how to find your way back out again. Loads of product, signage… and loads of noise—overlapping, layered noise with sounds of elevator music, loud advertisements, people talking, shopping carts clanging, and more.


As I was shopping, on this slow shopping hour, it seems that I was a bit of a wonderment to the locals. They all watched my every move and carefully examined what was in my cart. Hm. Super exciting stuff—haha. There was something like a row of five of them watching my every move down the dairy aisle… I bought butter and cheese and milk–three things that the Chinese don’t use a whole lot of and which you are sure to miss at least a little should you spend some time here.


I’m sure I was the butt of a number of jokes throughout the store after this shopping trip.

I find the shopping experience in China to be rather similar to that in Mexico—piles and piles of stuff and piles and piles of sounds, with bright color floating everywhere.

It was quite a high pollution day, and so I found myself with a terrible headache. Don’t misunderstand your headaches in China. Most of the time they are not due to your own physical ailment, but due to the terrible smog that can engulf the city on certain days. This was one of them, with a pain behind each of my ears and jet lag in full steam.

Smog in China has many causes, including pollution from industries and traffic, but it tends to happen more often in the winter, when plummeting temperatures cause electricity demand to soar. This pollution can come from many sources, but burning coal has been linked to the largest number of air pollution deaths in China. Beijing’s smog woes are compounded by an accident of geography. Beijing is bordered by the Xishan and Yanshan mountains. When a high pressure weather system moves in, air near the city’s surface doesn’t move up and over the nearby mountain ranges. It just sits there, getting more and more polluted, and residents keep breathing it in.

As I was walking and feeling misery behind my ears and in my head and my feet from the walking, a lovely thing occurred—this fantastic rainbow formed across the sky, and somehow everyone around was in the greatest awe, stopped in their tracks.


People were taking all sorts of photos, and it seemed like a bizarre sort of UFO sighting rather than a mere rainbow. Quite a wonderful thing. China is interesting and strange and beautiful in that way… how it can transform a nuisance or difficult experience into something rather inspiring. Your bad mood somehow becomes cheered by something out of the ordinary. These kinds of things happen every day here, and are a great part of China’s charm, despite the smog or whatever other thing that may be a bother to you. This place is like a good friend that somehow manages to do just the thing to make you smile after a difficult day.

Beijing time

Every time I travel, it almost never fails that I am just a slight bit overweight with my baggage. Ha. So, of course, I must open everything up in front of an adoring crowd and do some rearranging. I remember how I had to do this in Mexico, which led to me setting my cell phone down and leaving it by accident and a whole debacle with attempting to get it back again. That was quite a story. So, yes, mistakes always lead one fantastic adventures and great stories to be told.


Look! Perfect rearranging. Half pound under :)

And so I am headed back to Beijing. I had nearly forgotten about the impatience and perhaps restlessness of people in Asia. As I stood in the long line at customs, I heard two men discussing this. One was from India and perhaps the other from Japan. There was a huge line that went way beyond the stanchions that they had set up and up the airport hallway and this large group of people from Asia just decided that they would skip all of that and come in front of us all who had been traveling 20 some hours as well… oh typical. So, guess I must switch modes to Asia travel style where the sense of personal space is waaaay different than home and with the amount of people, I suppose one has no choice but to just dive in and get to where you need to go.


So, that’s what I’ll do.

Tip for the taxi: It’s a good idea to take a photo of the label with driver’s info when you get in, and do it blatantly (but not rudely, of course). This way, it will be clear to the driver that you know what you are doing and that they will be reported if they overcharge you. And also ask for a receipt.


shipping by sea

I spent my final morning in Beijing on a somewhat comical and fruitless quest to ship these stones and bricks by sea. This is what I mean to be as part of their “life” span, and I am curious to see how “weathered” they become in the process.

This all began yesterday afternoon when I took a trip to the Beishatan Market, which is just outside of the Beishatan metro stop—an amazingly huge and cheap market that not a whole lot of people seem to be aware of. I must say, that of all of the many markets that I have visited in Beijing, that this one is probably my favorite… no need to haggle too much, all sorts of every kind of “stuff” imaginable, super cheap, and never-ending!


I arrived there on a Monday afternoon, which appeared to be a shipment day. There were loads of people unpacking hundreds—likely thousands of boxes of goods. I first walked around to score some last minute gifts for friends and family, and then thought that this is a prime opportunity to try and snag myself a box or two to ship my stones with.


I thus began to attempt to haggle with these people, using my trusty itranslate as a poor device to try and offer them money for their boxes. I tried this with one woman and gave her my puppy dog face, which scored me one box…. And so I tried my luck to see if I could get three—oh, but no, no, no. Couldn’t have three… So, I sauntered around further amongst the stalls and tried to ask another woman, who just shook her head sternly… and then another… no, no, no… so finally I was getting desperate. I attempted to simply take one out of a large group of folded up boxes, but nearly had a mass of people chase me down! Really? Of all of these many, many boxes, they could give up just a few? Only one??? Shucks. I was stuck. Who knew cardboard boxes were such a hot commodity in China. So, I hung my head and headed back to the studio on the subway with my singular box in the hopes that I could make it work.


Back at the studio, I began to process of wrapping up the stones and bricks. I first dampened them a bit, and then wrapped them in the raw linen that I had dripped the gouache on, which served as something like a shroud for the stones. I liked this idea of the stone being wrapped and “buried” and shipped by sea, where it would arrive and be “reborn” or some such, with the linen carrying some remains of evidence of its travel.


So, I wrapped each stone and brick with each of the 8 pieces of torn linen. And dismantled my singular box that I had fought so sorely for and wrapped them into two smaller constructed boxes that I intended to ship off.


That morning, one of the residency volunteers offered to meet me to help with the language translation, and so we called a taxi and lugged these boxes of stones and bricks into the first taxi and set off to a post office near the 798 gallery district.


We lugged the stones into the post office, and stood in line for a while, only to discover from a woman that they don’t do international shipping there… And so the woman meant to just shove us off with only the most spare description of walking 20 minutes down the street. Yeah. That wasn’t going to cut it. Not with these things to carry. So, we get her to pull out this crazy map and we photographed it as she explained, and then lugged the stones back out to the street.


At this point, I was truly wishing that I had eaten something more for breakfast. Silly me thought that this would be a much easier task than it was. Ha.


Ok. Next taxi. We showed him the map and got to the next poste offic. Lugged the bricks and stones into the next place, where they indicated that I should cut the boxes open to show them what was inside. Oh my.


So, I unwrapped one of the shrouds and they all looked at my like I was crazy and this woman said that she had to call her supervisor…. So, chat, chat, chat… she talked to the supervisor, and then came out from the office laughing a bit and proceeded to tell us to take them behind the building to this other loading dock. Oh lovely.


I learned that the Chinese postal system has a connected off-shoot called EMS, which does air mail. This is where we were sent. Ok fine… But I didn’t want the stones to go by air. I wanted them to go by sea. Anyhow, we lugged the boxes outside, across a parking lot to this loading dock where we met a very nice man who wanted to help us out. He took them to the back and put them on the scale and proceeded to tell us that it would be around $800 to send these things, and that they did not ship by sea. Only air. How disappointing. So, at this point, I really needed to get back so that I could grab my things and get to the airport.


Back to the taxi for the stones and back to the studio for us all. I left that day being assured that they would try and find a way to ship them in the next few days after I had left…. So, we will see what happens! Quite the saga…

the life of a brick or a stone

I worked on giving some sense of completion to these “end weights” that I began working on here in China. This piece is something of a continuation in a series of work that I began while on residence in Ireland two years ago. I am interested in the life of the art object, in personifying the stone in a different way in these pieces than I do in the paintings.


These stones and bricks were once in their own place on location, awaiting use… to become a part of a larger whole of some sort, and then placed in a pile, still waiting, and then left over time… moving ever towards the forgotten and discarded, a weight. And then I came along to pick them up and give them a new life… as the end of the sentence. Their life began simply as a small part of a larger whole… the simple, empty words at the start of the sentence, and now ending with meaning and complexity as their weight becomes symbolic of life’s tensions and heaviness in contrast to the lightness of what reaches upward… a flag, a kite, the sky versus the grounding of earth.


I really only got one of these pieces more complete than the others, with the pattern that I intend on the raw linen and the drawing onto the brick/stone.


Since I was more limited in time, I went through and produced the dripping and dragging of the gouache downwards on all of these pieces, of which there are 8 in total. It is my intention to wrap these pieces up and ship them by sea back to the U.S. They will have their own adventure as they travel.


I am interested in this idea… creating an exchange of stones from one locale to the next. I will have to continue thinking about this. It is like skipping stones on a much grander scale.


I see these pieces as artifacts, like those that I have studied in the museums. They are one thing in their own time, then become buried or changed or incorporated into something else, then moved and changed again, to finally emerge and become cataloged and appreciated as a fragment of their former self or reconstructed into something entirely new.


As I receive these pieces after their long sea voyage, I will work to reconstruct them in a new way, perhaps stitching them together and utilizing the stones in a kind of pulley or weight system in order to give these things a new use… like the game of telephone that I so often see with history at the sites that I visit and research… this question of what is real and what is not, what is actual and what is fantasy in the history that is presented to us as fact. Is it fact at all? Only the object itself can tell us where it has been and the life that it has had. All we can do is make a suggestion.

stone circle

Today is my last full day in Beijing, and so I began to pack up my studio and took down the two paintings from my wall. These works are still evolving with regards to my ideas. It’s been good to experience China and think more about these contrasts between the daily life of the people here and that of my own back in the U.S.

I took some time to think a bit more about these pieces, which I still consider to be unfinished. The stone interests me for many reasons. A stone is simply raw material for building, and when thinking of it either large or small, is essentially a mineral that can take on any form. In the past, I have utilized water for my work for a similar reason in that it is transformative in this way. It is also a thing that is simply always “there” around us and often goes unappreciated and forgotten.

“The Chinese appreciation for stone stems from a deep veneration of nature. The three prominent schools of philosophy and religion in ancient China – Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism – all preached the importance of maintaining balance and harmony between humankind and nature. For example, early folk beliefs portrayed mountains as the abodes of gods imbued with sacred powers while towering peaks were believed to draw rain clouds necessary for good harvests. If you were connected to this aspect of nature, good things would happen. Rare minerals provided by the earth were believed to be connected to immortality. Connect yourself with these minerals and you would live longer. Whether these beliefs were rooted in reality or fallacy was less important than how they were propagated, which often came in the form of artwork.”

Scholars would contemplate and meditate on these stones, for they represented the world of inner thought. They were believed to connect the viewer to a deeper and more creative understanding of the natural world. They would look to this one object and see a vast world within it. This is quite a contrast to what one does in the West. Instead, we look outward to other things.


Some of these rocks came to be regarded as much more than nature and became personified, almost as a portrait. I tend to call these stone portraits for this reason, as well as in relation to my own personal history of being bullied as a child and given the name “Medusa” who would turn men into stone. As I mentioned previously, Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who used her head as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield. In this sense, she is also something of a protector.


With these new paintings, I am thinking about the significance of stones in all of these ways and am contrasting them with typical American landscapes… a field, a parking lot, small town strip mall, city scape, etc. The stone, as centered and to human scale, takes on a foreign quality and gains a different kind of presence in relation to its setting. I have been most recently thinking about how the physical nature of the stretched canvas can become a ruinous site within itself. This is something that I began with the project that I did for the Biennial last summer, and something that I am considering continuing with this new series.


I would like to set these pieces up somehow in the form of something like Stonehenge, and utilize the arrangement of them like a stone circle, which is significant in the British Isles. These sites display no evidence of human dwelling. This suggests that stone circles were constructed for ceremonies. The type of ceremonies (if any) is entirely unknown. An alternative hypothesis is that they were a form of amulet or talisman, i.e., an entity acknowledging and appeasing supposed spirits dwelling in nature, meaning that their ceremonial use was secondary to their talismanic value, or equal to it.


I am interested in these unknown aspects of history and these kind of hypotheses and the correctness and incorrectness as history plays a game of telephone with the present day. There must always be some aspect of interpretation or fantasy to the artifact. We can never truly know the actual significance of such structures to the people in past days. All we can do is interpret them for ourselves today.


And so on top of these stones, I have begun to place depictions of the trash that I observed on the streets of China…. It is something like this. This thing that is always there, thrown out “stuff” which was one part of daily life, which may be less ritualistic, but significant all the same. We all go through personal daily rituals of a sort. Perhaps they don’t seem that important. Perhaps they seem quite ordinary, but we do them every day, and they are a part of who we are… getting up, the ritual of getting ourselves ready for a day…. the ritual of cooking, and setting down to a meal that we give thanks for, etc. We have a need for these processes in our lives, and the trash that is discarded from them is representative of this flow of daily life and the rituals that encompass it.


These are the overlapping things that I have been thinking about in relation to these pieces… which may or may not make entire sense just yet, but it is good to get these ideas out so that I can clarify them more fully as I complete the works in the upcoming months.