Thomas Hardy. Not that one, the other one. Wrote books, late 1800s. Not the biggest fan of his Tess of the d'Urbervilles but probably nothing to do with the fact that it was one of our A Level texts, and we all know how they turn out.
However, he did manage to be acclaimed to speaking about time and the experience of it:
‘To-day has length, breadth, thickness, colour, smell, voice. As soon as it becomes yesterday it is a thin layer among many layers, without substance, colour, or articulate sound.’
Particularly poignant when talking about travel and experience, and, well, blogging really. Our memories get squished together. They are no longer separate from each other. Now we’re digging them up - yes, digging, separating. They’ve lost something and we need to sort of revive them, but not in that ah sad times we’re not still there, but in so far as we can inject them with new life. These temporal thoughts are fleeting and often not jotted down.
How can we, as artists, most effectively show them?
For me, the photograph is a beginning point. Leaving Shanghai refreshed and raring to go, we made our way to Fujian - home to a good cup of tea. We arrived late in the evening and were welcomed by the most stunning roundhouse. They lit up the lights just for our arrival.
Ok, didn’t exactly get any good shots here, but trust me it was breathtaking.
The next day was a bit of a whirlwind visiting the oldest roundhouses and trying some of the local tea with the experts. These types of buildings are also known as Hakka villages. They are designed to be super easy to defend: round walls, no windows at the ground floors, one door.
They are a huge part of southern Chinese history and these guys were supposedly 300 years old. There are communities inside them (they house up to 800 people) which make each building very unique.
One of the UNESCO world heritage clusters we visited was the Tianluokeng Tulou cluster. It is shaped like a hot-pot. I didn’t really understand whether that was a modern interpretation or the architect’s intention, but went along with it anyway. One soup, 4 dishes.
The walls of these things can reach 6ft in thickness. It also happens to be earthquake proof, windproof and most other -proofs. Classic building materials of earth, stone and bamboo make the structure warm in winter and cool in summer.
Tea-tasting in one of these was a particular highlight. Tea has always been a significant part of Chinese history, often driving the country economically as well as socially. We went to visit some of the tea-trees out in the fields.
Top tips were to serve it in small quantities, drink it hot (its nutrients diminish over time), drink it weak (so as not to upset your tum), drink it in between meals (to not ruin your appetite).
Capturing the beauty and community of these places would take more than just photographs.
Lets talk about Howard Hodgkin for instance. One of my all time faves, Hodgkin extracts specific feeling and interlinks it with time and place so his paintings culminate into an experience of instant involvement. This gives rise to an excitement to be in the place of the artist and what he was feeling and seeing at a particular point in time.
We can respond to the arrangement of the marks and the environment suggested by these paint stokes and marks, the created, fictive place of the picture. We understand by his instinct the time of making individual marks, the moments of decision, the speed of execution on the canvas.
Our awareness of the construction of the painting is not merely a formal exercise, however; what we discern of its evolution prompts thoughts about the forces of memory in retrieving experience.
Hodgkin talks about the moment of decision.
He talks about the speed of execution.
He talks about having an awareness in building the dynamics of his memory in the retrieval of an experience. There’s that reference to T. Hardy again.
Sounds super easy, right?
Well aside from a million other choices you have to think about in constructing a work of art.
As a viewer and not the artist, I (you) stand there looking and staring into a space that is supposed to represent everything this person felt and saw. We try to respond with to the marks suggested, tumbling together our own experiences in order to understand what we might be seeing.
The trick is getting people to relate to that. Actually, maybe it’s just trying to get the people into a room and to be open to experiencing that.
Now that’s something worth working on, especially when it comes to Fujian.