Shoots, Sleeps & Leaves
On our way to camping on the oh-so-anticipated Great Wall of China, I Fought the Law by Olivia Locher comes to mind.
Locher has collected the weirdest laws she can find in America, and represents each law with a photographic illustration of it being broken. Some of the laws remain on the statute books, some have been removed and some are often cited conversationally but are in fact myth. They’re crisp, geometric-advertise-y photographs. Almost with that classic All-American hue but the thread of artificiality is woven in tight to her aesthetic.
Locher’s decision not to tell us which are law and which are legend makes even more obvious the stubborn irrationality of each. It’s an irrationality that can similarly be observed in China.
There’s a freedom in Locher’s playfulness, a safe place that we can laugh and know that we have done/or not done these things with no serious consequences. As we drive through China, there is no playfulness to challenge the whispered rumours or hard facts that are known about their legal system. Camping, for instance, is illegal.
The recurring presence of fake artefacts in museums directs our attention to the authenticity of literally everything in China, as we question Locher’s photographs. The Chinglish doesn’t really have a word for ‘replica’ or ‘altered state’ or ‘edited landscape’. It has been denied UNESCO status for many things because of the bad repair jobs (to make way for all the tourists), and even the Great Wall has sections that are regarded as ‘basic and crude’. It somehow cheapens the historical artefacts, and you’re constantly second guessing whether what you’ve just seen is fake or real, or a terrible collab.
Danxia, or ‘Rosy Cloud’ was paid a visit. It is a land-form/mountain-scape made from a reddish stone that is very similar to the rainbow mountains in South America that everyone is more familiar with.
They are pretty cool, but googling them was not an accurate representation. It was probably just the light we observed them at, but they’re not as bright and colourful as photoshop suggested.
Basically, they’re super easy to make. You just need a whole load of mineral deposits laid nicely one on top of the other and you need to leave it for millions of years. THEN, you need another 40 or 50 mil or so years to get the tectonic plates to move these shapes around and collide with other plates.
These guys were still working on it.
I feel like this would be more of a natural phenomenon if you could find a quiet spot somewhere with a book and a gin and a picnic rug, but that’s not really how things work around here.
On to the Jiayuguan Pass, we found the furthest western point of the Great Wall which was marked with a fort. Silly me, thinking we were going to see some original wall bits for the first time! This fort was built in the Ming Dynasty by the founding general, Feng Sheng, and would take us to approx. 1368 - 1644AD. BUT: a couple of refurbishments have happened in the 60s and then the 80s and then a little bit of concrete touch up and a lick of paint in 2015, so it's really more of a 'guess when'.
The only bit they actually tell you is that it was built in the Ming Dynasty. That's spanning from Black Death sort of time, to English Civil War/Great Fire of London time.
These guys weren't guessing.
Legend has it (you’re welcome, I know you love a good story), the official in charge of the building - not Feng, he was too good to sweat the small stuff - but the actual official asked the designer to estimate how many bricks he would need. His number was 99,999.
“ARE YOU SURE?” asked the official. “That’s a silly number."
So the designer said, “Nah only kidding - I need 100,000.”
When he finished building the fort, rumour has it that there was 1 brick left over, which meant they just had to put it at the front of the gates where you can see it today - legit - just a cheeky reminder to always trust your designer friends with their maths.
A couple of miles on from the vast fort we came to our camping spot.
In China, laws are usually broadly drafted, so that local authorities can implement punishment how they see fit. This is why there is no playfulness when it comes to testing them.
Soooo camping isn’t technically legal as foreigners in China are supposed to register each night they stay in China with an address and phone number of a hotel. In Beijing they have realised how much the economy could benefit from allowing people to camp on the Great Wall, so they sort of decided it could be allowed, sort of, but only there. As we were not in Beijing, we found a spot that was off their radar (we hoped) and off the beaten path so we wouldn’t draw any attention to ourselves.
Sunset and sunrise were a OIALT sort of thing, but cooking for the group with limited truck resources and sassy-attitudes weren’t: potato potato.
A recently divorced 60+ year old man questioned my ability to dice onions, so I respectfully (nah) bowed out to the vodka and fire and joined in a game called PMA (drink for a Positive Mental Attitude) whilst watching the sun go down.
A bit like the rekcuf situ, it helps.
The off-the-track views were going to be hard to beat, but on we drove to the Yungang Grottoes. A seriously long day’s drive was abruptly met by a wonderful speed-boat ride in the sun to access the grotto entrance.
As a cherished UNESCO site, it promised 252 caves and 51,000 statues brimming with more Buddhist cave art from the 5th and 6th centuries. Dreamy!
Once we arrived we found out that the place had shut that morning due to an avalanche (classic), so we took our photos, our drawings (and an unfortunate clingy smell that could have only come from the toilets), and left with our heavy hearts.
You know, what’s interesting is trying to truly understand a culture. Why do I feel the NEED to make something from these travels, to make something to hold - that is tangible? To write something. It comes to me that artists tend to put their bewilderment of not understanding something into their work.
I have the incessant need to do, to understand. As I come across people living, moving through China, both inside and out of my direct experience, they leave traces of their finite time on this planet, we all do, and that's what i'm observing and recording. Maybe it’s an experience of that fading time - witnessing the passing by of history and people I have little knowledge of.
There’s something going on in our heads, as artists, that we’re trying to work out. When you see retrospectives in the museums, it’s easier to imagine that a psychological thing is going on - a yearning for something in each of the works. I reckon that contributes to the presence of a work, to the atmosphere of a solo show - which really just runs parallel to the presence of the artist's human consciousness - they're totally part of it. I want to make myself part of that, and these travel posts are just the beginning.