anxious masses: Thinking about Gu Wenda´s Ink Alchemy

Yesterday at the opening for experimental ink artist Gu Wenda, I was struck by the unfolding of scale in his work. His early work could be completed by one person. There were large paintings, like Surreal Horizon (超现实地平线) or images from Lost Empires (遗失的王朝) but nevertheless the actual works themselves conformed to a human-sized world as I have come to know it. I felt myself and the art to be at the same scale. Indeed, often I was larger than the pieces and some, like the Red Heart Series (红心系列) of seals on small, abstract ink paintings, I could hold in my hand. However the later work, such as the Ink Alchemy Series (水墨炼金术系列 – above image) was large scale industrial. As such, these pieces could not be completed by any one person or even by a group of people working with their hands. Instead, the artist became both an industrial designer and an organizer of human labor and machines over time.

Made entirely of died braids of human hair, Gu Wenda’s most recent installation Black Gold (黑金)  fills the entire OCT Art Terminal. In the middle of the cavernous room, a large rectangle of ink powder lies flat beneath a canopy of black braids. To the left and right of the canopy, evenly spaced sections of died braids hang from ceiling to floor in fine, delicate loops. The installation is deceptively simple – blocks of color shimmering neatly beneath gallery lights. However, Black Gold took three years (2008-2010) to complete and thinking about what would be necessary to complete such a project left me feeling both frightened and exhilarated. Frightened because I imaged thousands of woman, who had given several years of their lives to grow their hair, scalped to make an epic statement. Exhilarated because the level of coordinated precision needed to execute Black Gold spoke to me of how one might go about representing Chinese society – massive blocks that from a distance seem a well-organized whole, but which upon closer inspection dissolve into idiosyncratic anonymity.

Neatness or tidiness (整齐) of large groups or objects is one of the mass aesthetic values that I have had difficulty appreciating. Not that I don´t enjoy watching several thousands of people making the same motion at precisely the same time, but when I think about the level of work that is necessary to achieve such precision, I feel the same anxiety that I felt upon seeing Black Gold. Several examples of mass coordination come to mind: military marching, classrooms full of Chinese students taking tests over and over and over again to prepare for the gaokao, highways full of cars, miles of grazing pasture in the American West and wheat fields in the Mid. Massive, national bureaucracies. Each of these instances of mass coordination exemplifies the human potential to submit to external hierarchies that take sameness and repetition to be the signs of unity and belonging.

And here´s the rub: one what?

Military marching and mass test-taking provide living metonyms for the modern, industrial state. Nevertheless, these mass exercises also remind me of feudal traditions, in which being born into oneś place enabled large societies to hold their form for generations. In other words, for many to become one, for each to find her ¨place¨ takes a lifetime of practice. This taking one´s place in a larger order is natural insofar as to be human is to belong to various groups of various sizes. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this is the whole point of education – helping young people figure out how to inhabit diverse sets of coordinated relationships.

The anxiety I feel when thinking about Black Gold, specifically and mass coordination, more generally has to do with the means and goals of mass practices. Military marching, mass test-taking, driving on the highway, planting acres of wheat: each of these practices takes an abstract idea of what it means to be human and imposes it on the diversity of the world, creating conditions of idiosyncratic anonymity. Moreover, these practices aren´t particularly healthy. Armies go to war, Chinese students become test-taking machines, carbon monoxide kills as do the pesticides necessary to maintain wheat fields.

In contrast, if there is such a ¨one¨ out there, I’m Buddhist enough to believe that the point is to create conditions of mutual recognition. Creative collaboration rather than mass coordination, so to speak. I’m not sure what this means in terms of reorganizing nations or highway systems or college entrance requirements. Yet I trust the process. When I take the time to understand each of my students, something happens between us. And that state of sharing between – elusive, delicate, and quite beautiful – could transform mass culture in unexpected and wonderful ways.

Gu Wendaś Ink Alchemy retrospective is currently up at the He Xiangning Museum of Art and the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. Worth a visit.

the cultural work of tests


Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

the gaokao is over and shenzhen feels more relaxed. it’s as if the entire city has sighed and thoughts turned to summer. of course, the zhongkao still hovers darkly, but for the rest of us, life is good.

this gaokao season, i’ve been thinking about the cultural significance of tests and testing because so many students have asked me about the SATs and TOEFL. these students are particularly interested in perfect marks and, in order to achieve those scores, are willing not only to spend weeks of their summer locked away in cram schools, but also to retake the tests 5, 6, and yes 7 times. inquiring minds want to know: why is a perfect score so important? Continue reading

revolutionary shenzhen

the revolution haunts shenzhen. revolutionary promises, kept and disregarded, successes and defeats erupt in conversation in part because we are still only sixty years from the revolution and in part because so many revolutionaries came to shenzhen a mere thirty years ago. the present only feels worlds away from mao. in fact, traces of socialist dreams still infuse everyday life.

just yesterday after yoga, for example, i chatted with a classmate named ‘ming’. i had thought he was shiny bright ming, but it turns out he was ‘free airing of voices and expression’ ming (大鸣大放). mao had encouraged free airing of views and expression at the beginning of the anti-rightist campaign (57-59) and my friend ming was born in 1958 and named accordingly. indeed, off the top of his head, he could name four friends, who shared his name. Continue reading

what’s the point of college?

last night, went to cameron indoor stadium to watch the lady blue devils defeat the nc state wolfpack. well, we watched the first half and then returned home. mascot basketball at halftime was a bit much, even for my father who was thrilled to be there because (rumor has it) cameron is a shrine of sorts. certainly, yang qian found the pageantry fun. in contrast, nico (by way of italy) was somewhat nonplussed: how is such a display possible? he seemed to wonder and this was only a women’s game?! yes, those were students camping outside the stadium to purchase tickets for men’s home games, which do sellout. every time. i mentioned that in “utopian verses” wang anyi described her sense of alienation and acute loneliness when attending a university of iowa football game. nico nodded wisely, but remained silent.

watching a duke basketball game with two non-americans made me viscerally aware of the distance between the cultural meaning of “preparing for college” in the u.s. and china. Continue reading

futures – yuanling 2

jijian kindergarten

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

even as yuanling’s factories are upgraded to retail storefronts, the old neighborhoods – especially the old courtyard residential areas – are being razed to make way for highrise developments.

watching the chickens feed in the courtyard of new yuanling village remind us (1) that shenzhen was imagined and built in a very different social economy and (2) that value is not simply a matter of upgrades, but nevertheless remains tied to how we imagine the future.

new yuanling village is not an actual village, but an example of the first generation of work unit courtyard residences in shenzhen. in the early 80s, homes here appear in some of the first corruption scandals as early cadres scrambled for homes, which they used as investments and rewards (in turn).

housing in yuanling is still some of the most expensive in the city because with each home comes one elementary and one middle school seat (学位). this is important because yuanling schools are ranked first provincial (省一级), a ranking that suggests students from yuanling do well in the national college entrance exam (高考).

although much of the old housing is rented out, those school seats are coveted and circulate not only with the sale of the house, but part of rental negotiations. not unexpectedly, many have bought in yuanling, but live elsewhere, simply so their children can go to school there.

in addition, the area has been approved for redevelopment, which means that within the next two years, all this will be razed and new housing built. homeowners in yuanling will be compensated with replacement housing (based on square footage conversions, but i’m not sure what precisely the terms are.)

housing and education are two of the great goods in shenzhen. indeed, many women will not marry unless they have a home; many parents spend time, energy, and money trying to provide for their child’s education. consequently, it is useful to think about what new yuanling village signified to early shenzhen residents because housing and education are sites where we actively and vigorously create the future.

yuanling looks battered and worn, but the shenzhen dreams of a house and providing for one’s only child still resonate. moreover, the importance of this future to shenzhen identity explains how corruption may have been built into the city. it is hard to imagine how communist cadres may have been reduced to scrambling for moldy bits of concrete and in retrospect, the object of their scrambling appears ridiculous. however, it is more than easy to understand how private hopes and dreams for their families’ future might have gotten entangled in what those cadres saw when they drew up blueprints, laid foundations, and built a post-mao, post cold war future at yuanling.

when i asked if there were any other benefits to buying a house in yuanling, the salesman looked at me somewhat confused – after all, is there anything more important than a new house (even if many years down the road) and a child’s education? – and offered lamely, “you could open a ground floor store.”

i like yuanling in its current incarnation. the streets are narrow, quiet, and clean, the buildings shaded by banyan trees, and the occasional palm tree straggles into the sky above working class residents. pictures, here.

Choices PK 机会

This year, I began working as a college counselor, advising bright and talented students on the value of a liberal arts education and the concept of fit, as well as more mundane matters such as crafting essays that answer the question and making sure that an application is filled out correctly. My students willingly do homework, take tests, join clubs, and volunteer in order to craft themselves into highly desirable candidates. They are, no question, great students. Yet as the semester has progressed, I have found myself angry, frustrated, and screaming at my husband because the telephone is ringing.

Why the pissy attitude?

At first, I attributed all this unpleasentness to stress, comforting myself with wishful thoughts that after the first rush of applications, I would calm down, teachers would submit recommendations in a timely manner, and students would follow instructions. The question, as I first saw it, was procedural; all we had to do was figure out how to cooperate and everything else would fall into place. Nevertheless, despite major adjustments, minor tweaks, and a general policy of bribing and bullying students as necessary, my irritation only increased.

Several days ago, a student came to me and said, “I want to apply early decision.”

I asked, “What school are you thinking about?”

He replied, “What school do you think I have the best chance of getting in?”

I rolled my eyes and repeated, “Where do you want to go?”

“Recently, the University of X has admitted many Chinese students. Do you think I have a chance?”

“Why do you want to go there?”

“I want a good study environment and it has a high ranking.”

“But what’s special about this University?”

He stared at me. I rephrased, “How will you answer the application question – Why do you want to attend University of X?”

He reassured me, “That’s an easy question to answer. Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll have something to say.”

Another college application standoff. I wanted to convince him to choose a college that fit him, he wanted me to get him into the highest ranking college possible.

This student typifies how my students have approached looking at US colleges and universities. They look at college rankings with an eye to how famous a school is in China and then compare the requirements for attending that university with what they have thus far achieved. They apply to a range of colleges based on these criteria – how highly ranked, how famous, how likely am I to get in? This is a highly rational approach to selecting a college and it has bothered me no end.

Only in retrospect have I unpacked my frustration in how my students have approached US college applications. I believe, unthinkingly, that which college a student attends is a choice. I maintain that the proper way of making a choice entails reflecting on one’s values, passions, and intellectual stregths. In this sense, academic achievements are necessary but insufficient to make a choice. The deciding factor is how a student wants to live. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the student to understand who she is and choose accordingly. This is a crude definition of “fit” – the idea that schools have different strengths, allowing students to flourish in different ways.

My understanding of “choosing a college” is based on a larger American valuation of choice in general. To my mind, a “good” person makes choices, a “bad” person opportunistically maximizes options. I value choice because it is where I express my commitments, ethics, and personality. I believe that society should be structured in such a way as to provide fair and equal opportunities to make choices. Indeed, I understand “freedom” to be defined through choice, experiencing the absence of choice as not only emotionally intolerable, but also unjustly oppressive. Moreover, I interpret other people’s actions with respect to my valuation of choice. I understand critical moments in a life to be defined by the choices that an individual has made – the choice of friends, the choice of where to go to college (or not), the choice of a spouse (or not), the choice of jobs… At each moment, I see that the self must express itself by making choices. A not B, C rather than D.

Here’s the cross-cultural rub: My Chinese students don’t operate out of the same valuation of choice. Instead, they value contexts of possibility. They understand that if they attend a certain high school, they will have the possibility to meet a particular set of friends, attend a given set of colleges, and find a related job. At each moment, they see that one’s options are context dependent. Consequently, they work to make ensure that at any moment they have as many options as possible. Indeed, they see the greatness and expansiveness of the self in terms of endless possibility.

Clearly, choice and opportunity as organizing principles have different consequences, both good and bad. On the upside, those of us who value choice making, craft highly defined selves. We also tend to see ourselves as shaping the world. [Good morning, America!] Those of us who value an array of options, craft highly fluid selves. We also tend to see ourselves as adapting to an already formed world. [Hello, China!] On the downside, Americans who value choice making, often miss opportunities to live and experience the world otherwise because our selves are so firmly fixed through definitions of what “I” should choose. Likewise, Chinese who maximize opportunities, often live passively and without passion, taking what is offered as if it were an unchangeable fate.

可想而知 – as can be well imagined – when I, a muddled and American teacher meet up with bright but Chinese students to discuss the future, we often talk at cross purposes. Fortunately, we become vexed when the misunderstandings become too obvious to ignore. In turn, this irritation allows us to re-think how different points of departure might nevertheless lead to common ground.

Another highly speculative post from the depths of Shenzhen. What do you think?

three more text messages

Recent text messages on gaokao blues, the meaning of life, and lived common sense.


Gaokao got you down? Future prospects uncertain? [Go abroad connections] will help you get into a famous Canadian University (no English necessary), and have a better chance for a green card! Student interviews on July 20 at 2:30, tel: XXXXX


Only three Chinese characters gloss all the important points of a human life. The character for sharp (尖) can be both big (大)and small (小); the character for refinement (斌)can be both cultured (文)and martial (武); the character ka (卡) can go both up (上) and down(下): human life is complicated, three characters make it clear.


To complicate simple matters is culture, to simplify complicated matters is science. To muddle obvious matters is philosophy, to clarify muddled matters is law. To brainlessly cure a patient is Chinese medicine, to wisely medicate a patient to death is Western medicine. A teacher is someone who straightens out the confused, a leader is someone who confuses those who know what’s what.