September 5, 2016

TINA HE | Castle of the Contagious

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Photo Courtesy of Tina He

“If you can bring this to the States…” He kept his voice low, trying not to make a fuss, but he could not dim the shine in his eyes.

Four weeks ago, I probed into the underground art market in China, where insiders trade information with hungry artists trying to exhibit their pieces abroad. The market was lively: drunk art dealers from Europe were laughing hysterically and handing each other different flavors of vapor cig, girls wearing night-club mini skirts were ordering cocktails with incomprehensible names that sounded like the Chinese translation of random German words, and a kid was screaming an “F” word embroidered on a shirt and asked his mom what it means.

Photo Courtesy of Tina He

Photo Courtesy of Tina He

Photo Courtesy of Tina He

Photo Courtesy of Tina He

It was loud and dreamy, and the air was infused with everything that was supposed and not supposed to be there. So when he kept his voice low, I could barely hear what he said.

“There is definitely a market,” I said, “there are people out there that know better than I do, but if you market your art well, like embroidering this pattern onto a shirt or something, I am sure people in the U.S. would want it.”

“I don’t know English, so I wouldn’t know how to make them want it. Unless someone like you can help me.”

“Your photography and drawing are haunting. Sorry if I sound blunt, but your art is the kind that only the emotionally oppressed could come up with—the scream is exuding from these cracks of contrast.”

“You really don’t understand how much it sucks to be an artist here. No one gives a f*** about art here.” He stared down his pieces with hostility, as if they were not his creations but inevitable enemies. “Well, if you happen to know of an opportunity, let me know.” He lit a cigarette, gave me a polite smile, and walked away, leaving his small art booth unattended. I lingered, taking took a closer look.

Photo Courtesy of Liu Tao

Photo Courtesy of Liu Tao

In one of the photographs, the men stick their heads out of the Great Wall, as if they are on a Guillotine. The execution happens silently, and the somber mountains looming in the background solemnly witnesses the process. Lying playfully beside that photograph were some colorful hand-made wallets embroidered with Chinese swear words; these wallets were made so thin that they would be reluctant to carry more than ten dollar bills.

Before he returned, a young lady in a bohemian maxi dress approached me from behind. She asked me to take the camera strap off my neck, removed one of the ten strings of necklaces on her neck and put it on me. “Beautiful, so beautiful,” she said. The necklaces made with beads, polished stones and feather tangled around her neck; I wondered how she got to move around so swiftly with an anthology of stones hanging on her body.

Her booth was across from the photo artist’s; it was also very small, but she set it up in such a way that the amount of items being displayed was actually quite admirable. Although the artifacts were beautiful, they weren’t anything special. Yet I still relished the opportunity that I could get something that looked like Free People or Anthropologie for only a tenth of the price.

“My husband has his booth over there.” She pointed towards a flock of people marveling at a shirtless man spraying paint on a plain white mug. I assumed the man spraying paint is her husband. They are cute together, I thought; in no time I ended up with two necklaces, a bracelet and a mug with paint on the interior where the water will go. I was almost certain that no matter how many times I would wash the cup, the graffiti paint will react with the water molecules and intoxicate me in some way–but at least I was willing to be artistically endangered.

As the crowd started to disperse, the husband came up to his wife’s booth, where the wife introduced me as “a young photographer living in the U.S.”

“I just had an exhibition in New York; cool place to be! ” The husband excitedly extended his arm from his six-feet, two hundred pound frame for a high five; when my palm met his, I was infected by his exuberance. “Wanna see something cool?” He curled into a fetus position under the small booth trying to look for something, and when he came back out again, he was holding a scroll painting. “This is called ‘Coming Home’.”

Photo Courtesy of Aman

Photo Courtesy of Aman

Traditional Chinese ink was used to depict a postmodern scene; people were drunk and lost and drenched in a voluptuous surrealism. It was the big shirtless man who just goofily sprayed paint on mugs who created such powerful work.

“You are asking what? advice on creating art? Seriously, just, study and make money in the U.S. You can do art whenever you want. The cost of creating is creating itself.” He put on his shirt now, and organized the unpainted white mugs meticulously, as if they were never meant to go through such brutal, artistic attacks.

Unlike the photo artist that had been gone since our last conversation and had not yet returned, the husband emitted an aura of freedom. He truly made me forget the fact that we drove an hour to this market merely for “finding some inspirations” — how luxurious.

I left the market with a few images in my camera but a lot in my head. I thought about all these conditions that I have been accustomed to as a prerequisite to creativity—a.k.a creating a workspace that simultaneously induces relaxation and energy—a.k.a build a routine that not only fits into your schedule but also makes you think outside of your schedule—a.k.a. Running at least 10k per day because Murakami does so and because he is totally creative after doing so, so should you.

These conditions are excuses that eventually suffocate me in a room with all windows opened, while these artists, happy or not, incessantly self-generate oxygen in a smothering situation, where one’s own production can be censored and snatched away by an omnipresent hand, where one’s voice might be muted at anytime, and where one’s vision cannot be appreciated by the majority.

The relationship between creation and freedom can be reserved as a story of another time, and the topic of creativity goes far beyond the realm of art. I sunk deep in the backseat of a Beijing taxi, thinking that soon I would be going back to the States—what have I done? what will I do?

Despite the drought, and my unquenchable thirst, Ithaca is vibrantly green and healthy right now, obliterating memories of the hazy sky, the howling wind and my frozen toes. Days seem longer when I am able to read through a book before the sun sets. I see a young man in suit going down the slope and talking excitedly on the phone, holding a big check, like a warrior returning from a just-won battle. This kind of excitement is common at a place like Cornell; it’s contagious, and the torrent of such excitement always carries me to places that I never imagined I would reach.

The beauty of this place reminds me constantly of that image of the smothering room, where possibilities are created through the impossible.  I know that while that room is all that they’ve got to create, I have a castle here.