My last visit to Hong Kong was in 2007, ten years after “the Handover.” At that time, the Norman Foster’s Beijing Capital Terminal was not quite finished. And the Hong Kong airport still looked freshly built. Its renovation was part of an immense infrastructure investment Beijing to reassure Hong Kong after Tiananmen. They called it the Rose Garden Project. For a person like me who grew up in Northern China, even the name Chek Lap Kok sounded charming. The immaculate underground trains, the efficiency, the friendliness of the people, and the Cantonese cuisine made it a delightful journey. The closed doors of Peninsula hotel, which separated it from the contemporary world outside, retained for me a sense of romance from another century.
Everywhere, there were massive construction sites—not only in Hong Kong, but also in Beijing and other cities. The economic bubble before the financial crisis, combined with the preparation for the Olympics, lent a feverish pitch to the whole country. The internet and social media did not yet wield as much power on policy and democracy movements as they do today. The Hong Kong 1 July marches (the pro-democracy demonstrations held annually since the 1997 Handover) flashed across the TV news in mainland China for a few seconds once a year from 2003 or 2004, but these events meant little to the greater Chinese public. We didn’t understand why they marched, and did not understand that the marches represented something important for Hong Kong and for us.
In a letter written a couple of months before Machiavelli’s death, he wrote about Florence, ‘I love my native city more than my own soul.’ Sadly, this doesn’t prevent the citizens of one’s city from being ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers.
—— Simon Critchley The Book Of Dead Philosophers
I remember a little girl’s colorful skirt waving in the breeze, and the sun casting swatches of light through the leaves. It was summer, five years ago. I was outdoors at the café of Berlin’s Literaturhaus. At that moment, I fell in love with Berlin, which seemed to me a city full of green trees and bicycles, images that fused with those from when I was a little girl in Beijing. Berlin remains the center of new art production in Europe. This fact, combined with idyll of that summer afternoon, sealed my decision to move to Berlin as quickly as possible. But Berlin isn’t Beijing. I still see very few Asian faces on the street, and until now, I probably know fewer than ten Chinese in the city. It was a shock to learn that there is no Chinese bookstore.
Global strategist Pankaj Ghemawat published World 3.0, a book on how limited globalization really is. This condition may have its benefits. I learned that the inhabitants of my adopted city know very little about China, but they have plenty of curiosity. Being asked all the time about China by my friends, and living seven thousands kilometers distant from Beijing makes me think of my home country all the time. James Joyce lived most of his adult life in Trieste, Zürich, and Paris, but he only wrote about an Ireland he could neither escape nor forget. Nostalgia is an eternal theme of literature and art. When I think about China from the vantage of Mitteleuropa where I have no personal history, looking back helps me to understand better the gap between traditional Chinese civilization and the tsunami of Western trends that has swept over China. On the one hand, Chinese have been excited and curious about new influences from the West. But since we are still struggling to find our way through these cultural connections and differences, we often get lost and abandon our own culture. This problem especially afflicts the young.
I am able to confess because, unlike these patriots, I am not ashamed of my country. And I can lay bare her troubles because I have not lost hope. China is bigger than her little patriots, and does not require their white washing. She will, as she always did, right herself again.
This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
Woke up from the nightmare and got the title and the epigraph for my book…
In 2014, it was my privilege to have my work in an exhibition at the Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, entitled Secret Signs: Calligraphy in Contemporary Chinese Art. This was perhaps the first Chinese contemporary art exhibition in Europe to move beyond the didactic socio-anthropological survey format, to a thematic group exhibition strategy, one that already assumes a higher degree of knowledge, experience, and intellectual curiosity on the part of the audience, and reveals a distinctive and illuminating tendency within contemporary art practice.
I am not a critic. Instead, as an artist, I wish to offer a few observations not on the exhibition itself, but on the manner in which it was promoted to the Hamburg public using a specific image, or perhaps more accurately, a detail of an artwork that the decision-maker(s) converted into an image for the sake of the promotion. I have not inquired as to who was responsible for the promotion of the exhibition; my aim is not to assign credit or blame, but to consider the implications of the assumptions underlying such choices and their reception by the public.
The term automaton, first used by Homer, signifies self-movement or acting of one’s own will. Automatic are those material objects that seem to have the ability to think and move. Adam might then be the first automaton, created by God in his image from earth.
The automaton then is “a thing that thinks,” or at least it gives the impression of possessing its own will, or a soul, since it moves long after it has been activated, seemingly of its own accord. Descartes introduced this expression in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1647). After asserting that the first foundational truth is “I think therefore I am,” Descartes elaborates:”I am therefore precisely nothing but a thinking thing; that is a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason – words of whose meanings I was previously ignorant. Yet I am a true thing and am truly existing; but what kind of thing? I have said it already: a thinking thing.”
The idea that “ replaced the classical definition of the mind should govern the body appears in early Greek thought, but the notion of a “thinking thing” replaced the classical definition of man as a “speaking animal” with a more modern conception that constructs the human as a “rational machine.” With modernity, the mind becomes nothing more then the principle of movement that animates the machine. Its purpose is to direct, control and increase efficiency. But as long as the machine works all right by itself the mind might just be a disturbing ghost within the machine.
—— Roy Brand Machine Event
The taxi dropped me off in the middle of nowhere and left me to climb for twenty minutes up and down a maze of steps until I finally reached the entrance of the Second Istanbul Design Biennial, an experience that instantly allowed me to understand the implications of the motto of the Biennial borrowed from Paul Valéry: “The future is not what it used to be.” Originally this phrase referred to the social and political upheavals of the interwar period, but it is perhaps no less appropriate today. Istanbul is the largest urban agglomeration in Europe, the commercial, historical, and geographical center of Eurasia. Described by Biennial director, Deniz Ova, as “one of the world’s most vibrant cities and a unique platform for experimentation with different thematic approaches,” and Cornell Architecture Professor Esra Akcan added that the city’s 2013 Gezi protests, “were the biggest mass mobilization to date in the name of architecture.” It is the moment to find one’s direction in a different but somehow similarly chaotic situation.
I have been shutting down all the links from friends of internet reports and photos about the Hong Kong protests, but I still awaken in the middle of the night. The sound of shooting still lingers in my ears from the summer of 1989. I was 10 years old, and we lived not far from Tiananmen Square. In the beginning, we didn’t know what happened; probably we still don’t know. It was the only time I saw tanks in the center of the city that were not on parade. The local people opposed them and very soon, there were charred soldiers’ corpses hanging from the overpasses. Then we began to hear shooting from outside our classroom. We didn’t know where the sound came from, whether the shots were being fired in the air or at people. But we heard it every day. Then, suddenly, we were given a week’s vacation. As children, we were all happy to have time off from school. Many adults were happy, too. They seemed to sense that a new China coming, even though they weren’t sure what it was. My uncle was a doctor in one of the biggest military hospitals in Beijing. Before the violence, they had teams working 24-hour shifts at Tiananmen Square to attend the students in case they collapsed from dehydration.
When I was 4, one day at kindergarden my classmate snatched my toys as usual. It was the first and only time I got the courage to kick the girl with my new red shoes. She fell down and cried. Our teacher said that she would tell my mother what had happened and that no matter what the girl had done to me, I should apologize. I was scared of being scolded and punished by my mother and teacher. But in the end, the teacher only told my mother that often I was treated badly by others, and that in my place she would have done the same.
When, ten years ago, Lu Qing wrote to me, “Don’t be afraid,” I was not sure what she meant. It took me all these years until now. I just realized that, like the first right tune that springs from my throat, I need only sit straight and sing aloud. Even if the voice is not so perfect, it can still be beautiful and fill the space.