22 July 2016

Traces of Absence - Shanghai

My friend James Bollen’s latest book, Wallpaper, The Shanghai Collection (2015), is visual meditation on the aesthetics of absence. Inspired in part by seeing an exhibition – Aestheticism: The Cult of Beauty, 1860-1900 – at the V&A Museum in London in 2011, and by the ruined buildings he encountered in Shanghai when working on his previous book, Jim’s Terrible City: J. G. Ballard and Shanghai (2014), Bollen reflects on the disappearing shikumen districts of China’s most international and forward looking city.

Nowadays people outside China are probably most familiar with the riverside skyline of Shanghai’s Pudong area, an ultra-modern forest of gleaming skyscrapers – the heart of big business and banking in modern mainland China; but some might be aware of the Bund on the opposite bank of the Huangpu river, equally renowned throughout the globe as glitzy and modern in its own day at the start of the last century. And some may even be familiar with the phenomenon of ‘nail houses’, which have provided some iconic images of resistance to this fast paced rush towards urban renewal. Such houses are a contentious political issue in China, where the land is state-owned and tenants who dispute the official offers of re-housing and compensation put to them often face acts of unofficial coercion designed to compel them to leave. 

Smashed roofs and windows, power supplies cut and piped water turned off are just some of the tactics used in attempts to make such houses uninhabitable. Once the tenants are gone, both those buildings vacated without fuss and those eventually vacated by pressure, are striped bare of every salvageable and saleable commodity. All that remains usually are the memories of their former inhabitants etched upon the very fabric of those walls; the former homes which have witnessed generations being born, growing up, and growing old beneath those sheltering roofs. Often several families at a time during the Mao era crammed themselves into tiny rooms within a single home, with rows of such tenements forming tight knit communities without much space for privacy. All that’s left is often only the wallpaper.

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

These are the words of William Morris, from his Hopes and Fears for Art (1882). Morris and his ideas about art and profit form the keystone of Bollen’s project in this book. Inspired by Morris’s own work, a pattern book from the V&A’s collection and closely mirroring its Golden Type typeface, Bollen’s Wallpaper is a series of photographs punctuated with quotes taken from Morris, these excerpts become the headings under which Bollen’s images are grouped; they form the themes that explore these deserted shells, leaving us staring at the haunted qualities caught within a moment’s shutter-click. But it’s these haunted elements that speak most clearly of the human. These images capture the transience; they speak of lives laid bare. The disowned decorations of lives which have chosen to move away or been forced to move on, unknown lives which once were here but have now passed on

“History (so called) has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people, because they created.”


Find out more:

Read an interview with James H. Bollen about Wallpaper, The Shanghai Collection by Anne Witchard in the L.A. Review of Books

Further Reading:

Read my review of Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life, by Jie Li (Columbia, 2015) for the LSE Review of Books

11 July 2016

Language & Landscape in West China & Tibet

The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet
By Erik Mueggler
(University of California Press, 2011)

In a sense this is a book of binary opposites. Archive and experience. Language and perception. Reading and writing. European explorers and Asian explorers. Outsiders and insiders. Collaboration and conflict. Exploitation and support. Man and Nature. This is a dialectic study in fascinating conversation with itself.

At first glance The Paper Road appears to be an examination of the lives and careers of two distinctly different botanists working in the same area of West China in the early decades of the twentieth century, but it is in fact centred upon a single indigenous community. The book pivots upon a small Naxi village and a group of local men, who through two generations assisted the two botanists - George Forrest and Joseph Rock. These local Naxi men, as Erik Mueggler amply demonstrates, are the silent experts operating tirelessly in the background with great devotion, applying their own detailed knowledge of the flora and terrain of their native region to both guide and inform their two western patrons - as such, they are the unsung collaborators which this study seeks to unearth afresh from historical obscurity.

George Forrest
Forrest and Rock could not be two more radically opposing personalities. Temperamentally and operationally they were quite different men. Forrest was a steady, methodical, hard-working scientist with ambitions to climb up from his modest social background, using his expeditions to "get on" by pursuing botanical collecting for both commercial and scholarly ends. Rock on the other hand was a flamboyant drifter, a man of all-consuming but flighty passions. He arrives in West China as a sponsored botanical collector but eventually leaves, after many expeditions over the course of many decades, as a patronless collector of books. Forrest is altogether uninterested in his largely nameless native guides, whereas Rock, although despising many of the locals he encounters, nevertheless becomes fascinated by their curiously unique pictographic language. Having disappointed, let down or offended his various botanical sponsors, he shifts his focus away from plants and instead studies the Naxi language (and there-by-extension, Naxi culture too) almost obsessively throughout the course of his later expeditions, becoming immovably bogged down in his own language in the process. Forrest is neat and methodically scientific, whereas Rock, who is also rigorously scientific in certain capacities, nonetheless is prone to flights of fancy and exaggeration - the showman who "plays it" up for the editors of The National Geographic Magazine (who are sometimes funding him), declaring he has found a mountain which is higher than Everest, but then ultimately fails to submit his promised copy.

Joseph Rock
Both men are prejudiced against the local populations they encounter and as a consequence each can be decidedly heavy-handed in their dealings with local authorities and ordinary lay-people alike. Forrest abhors being the constant focus of their vapid gaze, Rock despises and obsessively rails against the excessive filth he encounters everywhere. Forrest is there to get his job done in order to satisfy and impress his patrons back home. Rock is a restless wanderer who always seems to circle back to the same location, either fantasising about settling down there to an idyllic pastoral life or hastily running away at the prospect of impending trouble or upset. Whilst Forrest seeks to use the enhanced prestige he automatically enjoys as a foreigner (protected by the exemption from being subject to local laws under the terms of extra-territoriality), he ultimately hopes his expeditions will make his name and enable him to move on in society back home; Rock, on the other hand, doesn't seem to fit in back home, and so he is constantly on the move; also enjoying the foreigner's natural sense of privilege, but, it is suggested, he is perhaps striving to find fulfilment in a life socially removed from the restraints and taboos back home in Europe and America.

Zhao Chengzhang, one of the foremost Naxi botanists
This book is not a work of straightforward biography however. Nor is it a simple history. Erik Mueggler is an anthropologist who has himself worked in this particular region of West China. He is primarily interested in the interaction of text and landscape, hence he uses Forrest and Rock as cultural-historical lenses through which to 'read' the local societies, in particular the Naxi; using the personal records - diaries, letters, labels, photographs, maps, and notes - associated with the collecting expeditions of Forrest and Rock which survive in various institutional archives, to examine how both the two Western botanists, as well as their Naxi counterparts, each read, interpreted, codified, and transcribed the landscape around them. Such a novel and highly nuanced technique renders the book's wide-ranging subject matter into a fascinating composite of 'archival' readings which operate on multiple levels. As a complex cultural study the book is a dazzling and eloquent work of scholarship, easy to read and internalise. This is a book of ideas as well as interpretation. It's an enthralling adventure of a read as well as an ambitiously accomplished and thought-provoking study. 
Joseph Rock, dressed in his Tibetan finery

As this is a work which relates closely to my own area of research (Western travellers in East Tibet in the early 20th Century), it is undoubtedly a book which I will return to and pore over in far greater detail in times still to come. But as an initial read, my main impressions are that this is a work which will appeal to a wide range of interest areas - for those concerned with comparative studies of colonialism; those interested in Chinese minority cultures; borderland studies; historical geography and exploration; ethnography, etc., - it will sit welcomely on the bookshelves of many different disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. The only real problems I had with the book, as such, I later realised were essentially derived from the main personalities the book is devoted to - the book is structured in two halves, and each half essentially mirrors the man who is its focus. Part one is neat and concise, rather like George Forrest; whereas Part Two, appears longer and looser, and is somewhat unpleasant, rather like the personality it sets out to portray - to which I conclude I'm not much enamoured of Joseph Rock, despite the fact that I clearly recognise, for all his many faults, he was and remains a fascinating figure of study. I was, however, wholly enamoured of this book, and so I recommend it highly.


Erik Mueggler
You can listen to an interview with Erik Mueggler on how he came to research and write 'The Paper Road' here.

Related Reviews:

'A Historical Atlas of Tibet', by Karl E. Ryavec (LSE Review of Books)

Betrayal in the High Himalaya - Sikkim & Tibet 

Reviews of Some Recent Histories of Asia