notebook pages: imagined dialogue between 3 artists (baby steps away from euro-centric art history) by Tina Xu

It's been fascinating, these past two weekends, spending long stretches of Sunday afternoons coaxing books off shelves at the TCDC (Thailand Creative and Design Center) and teasing the pages of huge, heavy, hardcover art books of an Asia-centric collection. Here's my own little self-study course, "designed" by confluences of personal interest and whim, on mostly modern art and photography of various cities and cultures in Asia (Afghanistan, India and Japan). A piecemeal, scattered and relatively arbitrary selection of subjects and styles and time periods:  

• All one hundred of Hiroshige's ukiyo-e woodblock print series "100 Views of Edo" (1853)

• Luke Powell's "Afghan Gold," landscape photography of Afghanistan from 1973-2003

• Raghubir Singhs' "River of Colour," street photography of India over the past half century

What caught my attention beyond the artwork is the introduction and explanation of the works, elucidating the context of the artist's life within the tides of political, economic, social history, and how they spun that into what became aesthetic history — the world as understood and expressed by humans in a specific time and place. What mythology and lineage did the artists draw inspiration from? What ethical questions did they grappled with around power and representation in their art practice? There are so many unexpected conversations between these three volumes! 

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ETHICS OF CULTURAL DISTANCE + CROSS-POLLINATION IN ART

In depicting the foreign country of Afghanistan, Luke Powell writes the mission statement:

"I tried to work the way one should approach an ancient forest, recording but not disturbing things, and I chose to work independently as an artist, not as a scholar or a journalist. I went out each day open to what Afghanistan could show me, instead of searching for ways to illustrate ideas that I already had in mind."

You can see this respectfully dispassionate ethos reflected in his photographs — views at a distance, beautiful gradients of light and shadow on country roads and the shapes of mountains full of majesty and awe, the coexistence between people and the grandeur of a harsh physical landscape. Sometimes there appears a horseback figure, or kids flying kites, or a veiled woman stooped doing laundry, but Powell writes that this is largely to show scale, a technique Powell actually says he borrowed from his studies of ukiyo-e and Song Dynasty paintings. In fact, Powell specifically cropped his photos to the proportion and size of Hiroshige (1:15)! In Hiroshige’s works, too, the horizon comes in layers: "Hiroshige unfolds the whole range of his vision: the lofty and sublime are shown side by side with the profane and everyday" — for example, a fish market in the foreground, a shogun's castle in the distance, and the snow-laden Mt. Fuji in the distance.

Bamiyan Road, Bamiyan, December 2001 , by Luke Powell

Bamiyan Road, Bamiyan, December 2001, by Luke Powell

The Blue Burka, Faizabad, Badakshan Province, November 2001 , by Luke Powell

The Blue Burka, Faizabad, Badakshan Province, November 2001, by Luke Powell

While Hiroshige’s dispassionate distance comes from the influence of Zen Buddhism in ukiyo-e or “floating world” art, for Powell it could be limited social access, as an American photographing in rural Afghanistan. (However, Powell deserves some credit: living there three decades made him pretty fluent in the language and culture, and he studied the religion and history deeply. Powell sometimes returned to show his subjects their printed photos, but this was often difficult in rural areas.)

Meanwhile, Raghubir Singh depicted his own country of India as a supposed cultural insider (though from an elite family whose reality overlaps little with many of his fellow Indians). As a street photographer, his aim is to photograph passionately: “[In Calcutta] my subject is never beauty as seen in abjection, but the lyric poetry inherent in the life of India: the high range of the colouratura of everyday India. Those delicious notes, those high and low notes, they do not exist in the Western world,” he declares. 

Singh's self-declared mission is, rather, adopting the western medium of photography into his lineage of Indian aesthetics. Singh invokes the words of his heroes and predecessors:

“Tagore wrote in the teenage Satyajit Ray's diary: ‘I have spent a fortune travelling to distant shores and looked at lofty mountains and boundless oceans, and yet, I haven't found time to take a few steps from my own home, to look at a single dew drop, on a single blade of grass.’ The India I set out to photograph was not the India reflected in the lenses of the British colonial photographers but the India in the dewdrop that Tagore talked of … I had to dive into the depth of the dew drop in order to know not only the ecological and moral foundations of India, but also that other important aspect of the inner source: the art and culture of the country. Simultaneously, I had to dive into the history of photography — wholly Western — as well as the arts of many faraway places.”

A musician, Thyagaraj Festival, Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu, 1994 , by Raghubir Singh

A musician, Thyagaraj Festival, Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu, 1994, by Raghubir Singh

Catching the Breeze, Hathod Village, Jaipur, Rajasthan, 1975 , by Raghubir Singh

Catching the Breeze, Hathod Village, Jaipur, Rajasthan, 1975, by Raghubir Singh

Singh declares the “four cornerstones of the continuous culture of India” to be: “beauty, nature, humanism and spirituality.” His earliest artistic memory is “a folk singer's mastery over his uneven voice. In those mysterious moments between dusk and darkness on a small and deserted Rajasthan railway platform…" (what a beautiful description!). Meanwhile, Singh cites the Western lineage of photography as: “landscape, light and shade, chiaroscuro, and the street as subject.” Even so, he borrowed from this vocabulary, especially the photographer Cartier-Bresson, whom he claims was “the first artist-photographer to look at Indians as individuals, investing his photos with what Satyajit Ray called ‘a palpable humanism.’” (My own opinion here, but don’t Luke Powell’s photographs also exemplify this landscape chiaroscuro and ooze ‘a palpable humanism’?)

Even so, Singh defends borrowing from other cultures in art. He responds to Indian nationalists who condemn borrowing in art that they “do not understand that India, like the Ganges meeting the sea and therefore another world, has a thousand mouths.” This mutual redefinition of style by the meeting of two cultures can be seen in Hiroshige's time as well. I was really excited to learn that one of my favorite impressionist paintings, “Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge” by Whistler was directly based on Hiroshige's “Bamboo Quay by Kyobashi Bridge.” Whistler avidly collected Japanese prints, and Van Gogh directly re-interpreted several of Hiroshige's paintings, including “Plum Park in Kameido” and “Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge.” Meanwhile, Hiroshige had incorporated western notions of vanishing point perspective into his own paintings as well, breaking from his Japanese predecessors. My take-away, which my friend Ningyi has said often: cultural purity in art is usually an absurd idea.

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A MORE COMPLICATED, COLORFUL AND RESPLENDENT HUMAN HISTORY

Another unexpected parallel — both Hiroshige's woodblock prints and Luke Powell's photographs depict a relative idyll, a society in a period directly prior to rapid change brought about by American intervention in foreign affairs. For Luke Powell, it was leading up to the American invasion of Afghanistan. (He consciously decided to leave out his more journalistic "photographs of burned-out buildings and maimed people," dedicating this volume solely to Afghanistan's beauty.) Hiroshige's commissioned "100 Views of Edo" series was made just three years after American commodore Matthew Perry landed in Japan demanding the opening of ports. Hiroshige nods to this reality in subtle visual cues, such as cannons erected around Edo Bay in one of his landscapes. While I’ve seen America’s actions on the world stage unfold from a mostly American perspective, here is what history looked like from the other side.

Even as both portray the coming encroachment of American hegemony, militarily and economically, the pieces created for me a portal to the splendor of other civilizational golden eras: Luke Powell notes that under the Timurids (1370-1506), Herat had “a population five times larger than London or Paris,” and was “one of the most important artistic centers of the world with colleges, libraries, public baths, monumental architecture, and painters like Bihzad.” The Taschen book on Hiroshige mentions that in 1725, the population of Edo was “over a million, the largest of any city in the world.” Even though art history in America is often taught in an overwhelmingly eurocentric way (my AP art history class in high school was all European, with a few units called 'ABE' — literally 'Art Beyond Europe'), it reminds me that the period in which European civilizations became so dominant is relatively recent: just a few hundred years in a much, much longer and more complicated, colorful and resplendent human history. 

Luke Powell

Luke Powell

Hiroshige

Hiroshige

Raghubir Singh

Raghubir Singh

A UNIVERSAL TENDENCY TOWARD AESTHETIC HARMONY

And perhaps the most salient quote to wrap up my thoughts is a word from Sri Aurobindo, invoked by Singh in the introduction to his book:

There is that universal beauty which is seen by the inner eye, heard by the inner ear … but different race or individual consciousnesses form different standards of aesthetic harmony.

Three books, three artists, three cultural and historical contexts, each stricken with passion for dearly beloved people and landscapes, and moved to immortalize them, ultimately weaving three distinct visions of a universal tendency toward beauty.

goodbye 22. by Tina Xu

From the bottom of my heart, thank you friends for the birthday wishes and more so for gracing my life with you presence; 22 has been a hell of a year, a million moments of euphoria, despair, shock, determination and gratitude. Above all, I will remember 22 as a year of doors swinging open. Standing on the precipice of another trip around the sun, I can't help but take a look back at some moments that defined the last one.

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Seventh to last day of being 22: Spent eight hours editing a montage of recent immigrants stating their dreams for themselves and their families for a Chinatown community organization. Sixth to last day: Sat through a fascinating three-hour lecture on the mating habits of birds. Fifth to last day: Interviewed the Director of Art Basel Hong Kong about the Asian art world for a magazine piece. Fourth to last day: Worked on the biggest TV show shoot of the year at NESN with 8 cameras. In the evening, sat on a panel with my co-director Nicole and producers Tessa and Claire after the screening of our Asian American short film Tomato & Eggs. 

Third to last day: Captured the voices of youth of color in Dorchester gearing up for their annual youth-led rally at the state house for racial and economic justice as part of the I Have A Future movement with Adiel. Second to last day: Shot the No-No Boy concert at Pao Arts Center, was shook by songs about family histories of Japanese internment and refugeehood during the Vietnam War. Last day: Wrote a 2,000-word essay for a Chinese magazine about a cross-cultural wedding I attended in Xinjiang. Today, I set up an experiment with ghost shrimp in a closed marine ecosystem, and spontaneously assembled with friends in HMart for dessert. Tomorrow, I conclude my full-time job at NESN and fly to China to spend Lunar New Year with my family.

In the last month of being 22 (Jan), I was flown to Singapore to write about contemporary Asian art, publishing three pieces, one dedicated entirely to politically provocative pieces. Second to last month (Dec), I traveled to NYC to write a piece centering the stories of recent immigrants who take intercity buses between Chinatowns across the United States. Third to last month (Nov), I was flown to LA to do a shoot with the co-creator of Glee. Found out that an economics paper I helped write in college got published as an NBER working paper, making me a third author yo lol but what is it good for idk??? Fourth to last month (Oct), I co-directed my first short film ever, with a dream team of Asian American and queer actors, producers, composers, etc. Fifth to last month (Sept), I started my first real full-time job with benefits at the TV network NESN. 

Sixth to last month (Aug), I traveled on a grant to film for Ahmad and my co-directed documentary in Europe, crying uncontrollably at unmarked graves on tiny Greek islands and releasing floating candles into the dark of waters where five thousand refugees drowned the year prior. Shot a video for Syrian women craft entrepreneurs with Jülide in Istanbul. And was reunited with Bükem after 17 years in Ankara. And got onto a plane to Bulgaria that accidentally landed in Macedonia. Seventh to last month (July), took dozens of drizzly summer walks with Sam in London. Eighth to last month (June), almost biked into a deer in Killarney National Park while visiting Shannon in Ireland. Lost one of my soul sisters and best friends since childhood and grieved for a long time (and am still grieving).

Ninth to last month (May), walked the stage at Wellesley. Tenth to last month (April), shot and screened the 80-minute long Stories From My Parents featuring students' tales about diaspora and love with Janjan. And nabbed the $20,000 prize of NESN Next Producer and used it to pay off my student loans. And buried my grandfather after a long battle with cancer. Eleventh to last month (March), was locked in a hotel room for three days with Sam, Doris, Chloey, Jamila and Juliette for the Wellesley CUPSI slam poetry team writing retreat. One year ago (February), shot a commercial for the Red Sox, "This Is Our City," still one of my favorite subtly subversive things I've ever made. Seems like just yesterday we were making earl grey tangyuan on snow days in the Scoop kitchen (Sabrina, Liku, Sophia, Charlotte)!

As I wrote on my 21st birthday, "It's been a roller coaster week. It's been a roller coaster year. Still trying to not wince as future pathways ossify too quickly to comprehend. Still straining sometimes to hear the birdsong in the cacophony of this human jungle. Still looking longingly out of and into windows. Still drinking five cups of tea a day and staying up too late, too often. Still compulsively hoarding books that I don't currently have time to read. Still don't have matching socks. Still can't play guitar." Nope, little has changed.

I can add: Grateful for all the people who believe in me. Grateful that I have mustered the belief in myself to throw myself off cliffs with faith that I will learn how to use these wings along the way. Found that I am capable of working 100-hour weeks if it's what I love. Found that the work is a lifetime's work. Found wonderful people to walk beside me along the way.

notebook pages & camera stills by Tina Xu

London / Dover / Calais / Paris / Barcelona

FROM MY JOURNAL I'm not crazy. I've learned too much history to accept today's hegemonic ideals as the Good, True, Fair and Just. I object to your means because I object to how you define the ends.

I know how to be in ecstatic peace, and so your threats lose their teeth. What I value most is the feeling of being utterly alive. This isn't a cheap adrenaline trick, like riding a rollercoaster or having sex, but marveling at the way light falls over the city, the graceful sweeping shadows, the ways in which we are all interconnected. These days, I swear I can almost taste the sky like a ripening fruit. I am addicted to my own sense of wonder, my own sense of discovery.

Sometimes I discover ideas sometimes people, sometimes places -- in all of it I am discovering myself, the ridges of my soul; I am the sum of each layered exposure of the light and shadow I have taken into me. I am curating the museum of the self with as much love as I can muster.

FILM STILLS FROM SHOOTING SAM'S STORY: LONDON/DOVER/CALAIS/PARIS

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SACRE-COEUR Just bought mom a Mère Therèse (Mother Theresa) rosary. I strive to emulate goodness, but without an organized religion as my backbone--just a fervent and passionate love of humanity. Religion is about collective moral refinement, yet I do that best through individual reflection.

Hunchback of Notre Dame playing on loop. Churchgoers: "I ask for wealth / I ask for fame / I ask for glory to shine on my name / I ask for love I can possess / I ask for god and his angels to bless me..." Esmeralda: "I ask for nothing, I can get by / But I know so many less lucky than I."

I keep thinking of that quote from my sociology class on dissidents: a man who has communicated with his god has the strength of his god -- somehow, faith unlocks this immense ability in us to be brave, take risks, persevere. I see it all around me.

A cathedral as a grand crystallization of an era's hopes, ideals, tastes and abilities. When we look back on our time, we will see the grand crystallization of our era in skyscrapers named after corporations. Not places of religious worship, but places of international trade and commerce. Glass and steel -- functional, sleek, efficient, straining toward the heavens, our challenge to the gods. 

A CAFE NEAR ARC DU TRIOMPHE Bourgeois comforts. How to feel about them? Classy cafés with candles and glass jugs of water? Well-groomed young adults conversing in hushed tones? // A prerequisite to "peacefully living your life" is an orderly society -- tolerant of different lifestyles and with clear routes of ascension through hard work. Viable recourses to manifest one's personality through passions and pursuits.

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LA SAGRADA FAMILIA I'm striving to minimize the amount of ego in my life.

BOOKSHOP "The old painter Wang-Fo and his disciple were wandering along the roads of the Kingdom of Han. They made slow progress because Wang-Fo would stop at night to watch the stars, and during the day to watch dragonflies. They hardly carried any luggage because Wang-Fo loved the image of things, and not the things themselves, and no object in the world seemed to him worth buying except brushes, pots of laquer and China ink, and rolls of silk and rice paper." Oriental Tales

Struggling for the "ethics of the free spirit" -- it's some sense of together-boundedness that pulls me back from the brink of a fringe relationship with society, like that of a reclusive monk, writer or artist.

FT ARTICLE "People with university degrees tend to dislike their jobs more than people without them. As we march to the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it is harder to enjoy the view from the top."

BUS TO GATWICK AIRPORT One lifetime is not enough for all the love a human can hold. I measure my life by the moments that transcend verbal expression. Bloodscreams. Heartshouts. Incandescent details. The soft edge of a cloud.