Erenlai - Looking at the World from Other's Eye 透過他人的眼睛看世界
Looking at the World from Other's Eye 透過他人的眼睛看世界

Looking at the World from Other's Eye 透過他人的眼睛看世界

 
 
Here is an offering of the traditions, insights, experiences and stories of others so as to enter into their world, enrich our personal development, stir up our consciousness and open our eyes. A path to embracing everyone everywhere…

就算我們的生活經驗再豐富,總有我們沒看到的、沒想過的或沒體會到的事物。在這裡,讓我們一起來分享不同的觀點、論述與生命故事。但願因心界的開放讓我們學會更大的包容力,讓我們能全心去接納那些跟我們完全不同的他者

 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A Tale of Three Lands

Everybody thought she was a lucky girl, set for life. She worked at the small library of this huge and important boiler factory, one of the few young people there with a college degree, from a nearby provincial university. Her boyfriend, a young engineer in the same factory, was known to be gentle and attentive. They would get married when they qualified for "late marriage". The only quibble people could find was she cared too much about her appearance, compared with other Chinese women in the late fifties: she wore her silky black hair in two long braids, had a light mauve summer dress with elastic collar and dark mauve polka dots, even her jacket was fitted because she made alterations... But she had the redeeming quality of being really friendly, always smiled before speaking. Her warm presence made the library one of the favorite gathering places for the employees' lunch-time breaks.


Then came the "Hundred Flowers Movement." People in the entire country were encouraged to criticize the Party and the government. Meetings after meetings were held to pressure people to contribute to socialism through their criticism. She really did not have much to say, spending her days in the library with her nose in the books. When pressed, she finally said one thing: a famous poet from their province wrote better poems in the twenties, but his most recent collection of 101 poems, which he wrote in 10 days, was simply full of slogans. By writing more slowly, he might be able to produce socialist poems as beautiful as those written by Pushkin. Nobody in the factory paid much attention at the time to her bookish comment, which in the end got her into trouble in so many ways: praising poems written before the "Liberation" over those written after it, a foreign aristocrat over a socialist Chinese poet, and slowness over high speed. She was designated a "rightist", dragged from meetings to meetings to be criticized and humiliated. She lost her job in the library and was assigned to work in the cleaning crew. Her boyfriend disappeared from her view and publicly announced that he "had a clean break" with her. When running into her, people looked aside when they did not have enough time to walk away. For the first time in her life, she found herself in complete isolation.


The day Soviet expert Alexander walked towards her, she caught sight of his eyes looking straight at her before she had the time to turn hers away, and their blue gleam shone upon the darkness of her life. He used to go to the library frequently during breaks and had always felt a special connection with her. Knowing that she had fallen into misfortune by praising Pushkin, he came to her defense. Like before, they managed to communicate with his little Chinese and her little Russian; every new word or phrase they learned seemed to bring them closer to each other. When he read to her one of Pushkin's most famous poems "If life has deceived you", although she did not know enough Russian to understand the original much beyond the title, she was so familiar with its Chinese translation that she wept, bitterly.


After a few weeks though, he was called to a meeting with the Party secretary, and the director of the Women's Union came to see her. In order not to "damage international relation between two brotherly countries", they either needed to get married or avoid contact. They were by then inseparable and agreed to be married. Their marriage improved her situation. She stayed in the factory while other "rightists" were sent into exile in the countryside or the border provinces. Alexander enjoyed the warm weather and lush landscape of this picturesque southern town. They forgot themselves in the nearby bamboo forest dotted with ponds dyed green by bamboo reflections. When spring arrived, they immersed themselves in the clouds of peach blossoms on the hills, and ocean of undulating golden rapeseed flowers in the fields, under the splendid luminosity of the southern sky.


When the Great Famine (officially called the Natural Disasters) hit in 1959, they were largely spared thanks to the special treatment afforded to the Soviet experts and were even able to help her parents, but they could not have foreseen the split between the Soviet Union and China, and the abrupt withdrawal of all the Soviet experts. There was no choice but to follow Alexander back to his country. From the day she unfortunately talked about the Chinese poet and Pushkin, she felt like a small train driven by an invisible and silent conductor, never knowing where would be her next station or what landscape she would encounter. Alexander went back to the aviation plant where he used to work, in a mid-sized city near the Ural Mountains. They arrived in summer when the weather was mild. She gazed at this hilly city by a river, a tributary of the famous Volga, and was determined to make it her new home.
- We will go downtown so that you can get a haircut and buy some new clothes, he said the next morning.
- Haircut?
- Yes. There will be a gathering with friends and co-workers tonight.


bendu009decv11He was looking at her braids. He used to enjoy playing with them. He never had to change his hair or clothing styles while in China. Then it occurred to Anna that he was in China as a Soviet expert and she came to his country as his wife.
As weeks went by, Anna made increasing progress in Russian and met more people. Each new person encountered was like a new word endowed with its multiple meanings and shifting forms, wrapped around a sentence and surrounded by a paragraph, except that words do not look back at you and judge you, making you feel clumsy or awkward. They patiently wait for you and welcome you to discover their hidden messages. She started to work a few hours a day in the library of the city's technical school, completing simple tasks such as dusting the shelves and reshelving the books. Shy and meticulous, Anna felt a great satisfaction working in the library.
Then winter set in, and it seemed never-ending. Anna had never seen anything more than a few flurries that melted as soon as they hit ground, but now snow blanketed the entire mountains and the city, while the river was frozen, and gusty bone-piercing wind made her stumble as soon as she stepped outside. Before winter was over, she received her older sister's "last letter": Their parents had died during the continuing Natural Disasters. Food had to be rationed; there was not enough even for blameless people, not to say a family with a rightist relative who left for an enemy country.


As Anna spoke more and more Russian, Alexander was losing the little Chinese he had acquired over his years in China, as if the more she moved towards him, the more he was drifting away. To make matters worse, none of the doctors they consulted was able to determine the cause of their infertility. Meanwhile, the relationship between their two countries – yes, China still counted as Anna's country even though she could no longer go back to it and had nothing there to go back to – worsen, until the border disputes escalated into a military confrontation in 1969. Alexander lost his security clearance as a senior engineer in the aviation plant and was reassigned to teach in the technical school where Anna by then worked full-time in the library circulation department. They started to have those silly arguments which left them both upset and frustrated, even though she never knew how they started or why they mattered. She tried to make peace by apologizing.
- I am really sorry to have made you angry.
- If you know you were wrong, why did you do (say) it?
- Until you became angry, I did not realize it mattered.
- Are you trying to justify yourself?
- No, I am really sorry.
- How many times have you done the same thing? You always apologize, but there is never any improvement.
- I would be happy if you apologized just once.
- Are you apologizing or you want to make me apologize?

Anna realized when Alexander became angry there was no way to bring him around. Words were useless. The only thing she could do was to wait, for hours, days, or weeks. Patience was what she needed. She was grateful that he always returned home. She had nowhere else to go, and the small apartment felt so much warmer when he was there, even in silence. She would sit quietly close to him, but not too close. By observing him she could tell how a storm was gradually fading, and when a faint ray of sunlight was about to reappear. She learned to stop digging, stop talking as soon as she sensed a small trace of upset in him. She would watch him while he looked away, and her eyes would try to tell him how grateful she was, and how sorry she was to have messed up his career, his life. Marriage is a box. You feel safe inside not only because of where you are, but also because how people think of you: since you are so neatly "arranged" they would not wonder about you, try to figure you out, or project their inquisitive gaze on you. A natural librarian, Anna liked things neat and tidy.


The year Gorbachev visited China, Alexander had a stroke. He suffered speech loss and partial paralysis, with the ability only to move his left arm and hand. Anna retired from the library to take care of him. She learned to understand what he wanted by looking into his eyes and, in the most unexpected way, she finally felt her heart at peace. Words can hurt. Now that they could no longer talk with each other, they were safer than ever before. She would hold and stroke his left hand, let time drip away in the sand of eternity. To paraphrase Rilke with a twist: their story consists of two solitudes that met, warmed and comforted each other. For about a year, his condition fluctuated. One day, he fell asleep and never woke up again.


bendu 007dec11Anna continued to live in their small apartment. A year later, the Soviet Union dissolved. With inflation skyrocketing year after year, Anna's small pension became barely enough for bread and butter, while breathtaking changes were occurring all around her: highways, tall buildings, and new stores sprang up before she even noticed when the constructions had started. The worst part though was the weather, the monotony of seasons. She dreaded winter even in summer, as if she were waiting for the other shoe to drop. She felt like she was on a train, a preprogrammed automated train, which circulated predictably from short summer to long winter, very long winter, with snow everywhere, and gusty bone-piercing wind. What if she jumped off?


On a late summer day when she could already feel a slight coldness in the breeze, she walked by a newly opened travel agency, which displayed attractive photos of faraway lands. She had her eyes set on one place: tropical islands surrounded by the warm blue ocean, luxuriant forests with splashing waterfalls, cascades of unknown rainbow-colored climbing flowers and abundant fruits: mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and coconuts... no winter, no visa required for Russian citizens. The native people on the pictures somehow bore resemblance to her.

She sold her apartment to a crafty developer who had been pestering the residents of the building where she lived, and went back to the travel agency. She bought a one-way ticket to the only place she had ever chosen.

Drawings by Bendu

 

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Giant Fish That Sees All

This article was written after we spent one night in the Fish Market in Keelung, North Taiwan. It left a strong impression on me, and although it was almost one year ago, I can still remember every minute, every impression; the magic of this night will stay with me for a long time.

Friday, 29 March 2013

The life of a Puerto Rican Jesuit in Taipei

Fernando Luis Barreto Mercado talks to us about his life and calling as a Jesuit, what it's like to be living in another country far away from home, and the hardest parts about not being in Puerto Rico.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Preaching Tenderness

When you are playing Word Association I guess that "Papacy" usually does not trigger the response "Tenderness" - neither does "Tenderness" elicit the word "Papacy"...

Still, "Tenderness" was the central word in the homely pronounced by Pope Francis at his inaugural Mass on March 19. He repeated the theme several times, saying: "We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness! Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!"

Let me say something that will sound strange to many people: I think that Francis has learnt something about tenderness not only in his family and through his whole life (which is obviously the case) but also in St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits... Strange indeed! Most of the time, the Jesuits do not have the reputation to indulge in tenderness. Stern, rigid intellectuals – such goes the cliché even up until this day, and I must confess that sometimes the cliché is not without truth, at least in part... But I have found in many of my brothers a real, discreet and truly delicate tenderness. Let me recall here René-Claude Baud, a big, strong tower of a Jesuit whom I got to know during my noviciate in Lyons – Rene-Claude had spent most of his active life as a caregiver in the emergency room of a hospital, and the delicacy of his presence was a testimony to the humaneness he had fostered while confronted daily by the naked presence of Life and Death.

Ignatius and his first companions had not given to the Jesuits a more precise task than the one of "helping the souls" as they were fond of saying, when the Order was founded, in and around 1530-1540. Early in the history of the Jesuits, this general direction translated into tasks that have been called "ministries of consolation." "To console" was a master word for Ignatius: Console when you preach and confess, when you visit prisoners and sick people, when you reconcile enemies (those were indeed the first missions that the Jesuits embarked upon) and even – yes- when you teach...

There was a spiritual, even mystical foundation to this focus on consolation. The experience that the "Spiritual Exercises" (the spiritual guide for advancing in spiritual life) that Ignatius wanted to nurture was the one of the Consoling Christ, the one who comes to heal our most secret pains and mourning when one progressively opens up to his presence in our heart. When inviting meditation on the Resurrection, Ignatius asks the one doing the Exercises "to consider the office of consoling which Christ our Lord bears, and to compare how friends are accustomed to console friends." Deep, real, overwhelming, often unexpected consolation is indeed what the Spiritual Exercises are meant to bring to the soul. It comes with a refining and an enlargement not of our reason but rather of our emotions. Ignatius himself was a man of emotions, as testified to by his friends, who recalled him sitting on the roof of the Jesuit house in Rome at night and looking at the stars, tears rolling down his cheeks. One of his companions wrote: "From seeing a plant, foliage, a leaf, a flower, any fruit, from the consideration of a little worm or any other animal, he raised himself above the heavens." Tears of consolation were so abundant in Ignatius that he asked for the grace of not experiencing them anymore, fearing for his sight.

For sure, such an inspiration – which was actually very close to the spirit of St Francis of Assisi, a saint most dear to Ignatius – was often betrayed in the history of the Society of Jesus. But it always remained present, at times hidden like a spring under the ground. Pope Francis seems to me to have drawn from the spring, and now shares its water with the whole world. I rejoice deeply that what he is proclaiming first is nothing else than the centrality for life and faith of tenderness, and of heartfelt consolation.

Image source: Wikimedia

Monday, 18 March 2013

In Praise of Readers

This essay was initially inspired by Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness". It was gratifying, upon reading it, to realize that I had been spending my (too little) leisure time in ways that he might have approved. While I find Russell's essay illuminating, I am not worried about repeating his thinking though, because the distance between my mind and that of a great philosopher remains insurmountable. My praise does not involve a concept, however tangible, but a familiar figure, the reader.

Let us celebrate the readers in us, who chose to read the books that to some extent raised us and shaped what we have become. The books we choose show us alternative ways of thinking and life in distant lands, different from the immediate surroundings where we happen to be confined. They provide opportunities for us to exercise our freedom and to follow the path we otherwise might not have imagined, beyond what is obviously within our reach. It is readers who grant true existence to books, whose meanings remain in virtual state, waiting to be activated and constantly renewed. By readers I mean those who give their books undivided attention, the gift of attentiveness, and who enter a book with the willingness for dialogue, communion and transformation. Such readers may be in the process of becoming an "endangered species" in a world where an abundance of distractions compete for our attention. We are always in danger of losing the readers in us, because temptations lurk everywhere, even, or perhaps more so, for those of us who apparently chose reading as part of our profession: reading for summaries, in order to select elements to fit a pre-established theoretic framework, reading with little joy but the pressure of publishing... For several years I did not have time to read any new books unrelated to my research projects, and quite a few colleagues, reputable scholars in my field, made the same confession. It then dawned on me: it is less important for me to study an author's marginal notes than to read the books that he would have enjoyed had he been my contemporary.

Books worthy of our attention may require more than one reading in order for us to appreciate its value, as we grow with each of our re-readings. Over the years, the books that I reread have taken on the role of friends who accompany me in my meandering trajectory. One such example is Flaubert's Education sentimentale. When I first read it, as a teenager avid for any books I could get hold of, in a Chinese translation, I was struck by the beautiful and moving image of Marie Arnoux but rejected Frédéric Moreau as a feeble, indecisive and useless person, and to some degree, this novel as well. In my subsequent reading, enriched by years of learning French language and literature at Peking University, as I gained knowledge on its literary history and acquired its tastes, and coupled with my own experience and observations in the world of emotions, I came to appreciate the truthfulness and complexity of feelings as expressed in Flaubert's language. Later, when I spent a year in Paris through an exchange program between Boston College and the École Normale Supérieure, my familiarity with the city helped bring to life numerous scenes in the novel that previously I had only imagined, making me more sensitive to individuals' fate through historical changes, complexity of their particular situations, and their solitude facing the inevitable passage and damage of time.

Reading nourishes writing. It is through intimate knowledge of tradition that we can create something truly innovative. A young man once told me that he would like to be a writer. When I found out that the last book he read was a required one from his high school, I encouraged him not to write immediately, but first to read. Given the abundance of book productions, the world would be a better place with one more reader and one fewer writer, who, like the spider from Jonathan Swift's essay, weaves elaborate yet fragile webs out of thin air. The bee would be a more fitting metaphor for a writer who produces tasty honey with a fertile mind nourished by numerous flowers encountered through his wandering journey. On the other hand, in the bee's fanciful flight may lack gravity or pain (except what it inflicts on other creatures who accidentally come into contact), an often necessary creative dimension. The silkworm, a frequently adopted metaphor in Chinese literature, can complement the bee's shortcoming. Its fidelity is exemplary: feeding on a single substance, mulberry leaves, and producing, with the dedication of its entire being, a unique cocoon for silk. If we could somehow imagine a strange animal which is partly a bee and partly a silkworm, it could make an appropriate metaphor for a great writer.

Readers not only fulfill the meaning of existing texts, they can be part of the creative process as well. Few authors write without readers in their mind and even those completely disillusioned against their contemporaries place their hope in posterity, readers to come. In some cases, a writer probably would not have created a work without the existence of a special reader; this may be true for all creative works such as music and painting. A Chinese legend illuminates such a rare bond: Bo Ya, a consummate player of Guqin, an ancient seven-stringed music instrument, had a privileged listener, Zhong Ziqi, who perfectly understood his music, his mind and his heart. When Zhong passed away, Bo Ya broke his instrument in distress and ceased to play music for the rest of his life. In Chinese tradition, this legend is typically used to illustrate one's faithfulness to a rare friend who truly knows his mind (zhiyin), while some might reproach him for having such an exclusive taste that only one person was able to fully appreciate him. There is, however, the possibility that even if he had tried, Bo Ya simply would not have been able to play the instrument at the same artistic level he had attained in the company of his soul mate. Bo Ya, therefore, was not only faithful to his friend, but also to the idea of art that he chose to uphold. Considering that he must have played his instrument for many years prior to his encounter with Zhong, his ultimate renouncement also reveals the intensity of pain associated with an irreplaceable loss. The reader can thus be a metaphor for the selective person whose intelligence, receptiveness and resonance become instrumental in the creative process. To the extent that each of us can be viewed as a "work in progress", we can all benefit from the "reader" whose presence allows us to fully discover and achieve the unique potential in our being. The reader, in this sense, is not a passive recipient, but an inspirational partner, and people can be mutual readers to each other.

There are ways for the act of reading to become a collective event shared by many readers. Blois, France, a beautiful historical city by the Loire River and my home away from home, hosts an annual literary prize awarded to a first French novel published in France, the Prix Roblès. Reading committees are formed throughout Blois, the department of Loir-et-Cher, and worldwide, currently including Europe, Africa, North and South America, perhaps one day Asia as well? From March to the Award Ceremony, usually held in June, readers choose a winner out of 5 or 6 books selected as finalists by a committee composed of librarians in conjunction with the Académie Goncourt. There are two or three public forums led by literary critics where foreign committees can participate by sending their comments. Each committee has only one vote, and therefore needs to hold discussions and arrive at a consensus. The actual voting, full of suspense, is held in the morning of the award ceremony, a televised event followed by book signing. Since Prix Roblès takes place during my annual stay in Blois, I have witnessed how the Blésois were engaged in the selection process, caring deeply about its outcome and showing up enthusiastically at the Award Ceremony and the Book Signing. This year, I finally decided to take the time to form a committee with francophone colleagues at my university. At the time I write this essay, I am waiting for the books to arrive at my home across the ocean, mountains and rivers. I look forward to this shared reading experience, anticipating it to generate echoes that amplify the joy felt by readers in Blois and all over the world, each in our own corner.

Illustration by Bengua

Friday, 08 March 2013

A visitor's glimpse into life in Taiwan

Maddy King, a Pacific Studies student from ANU learning Chinese in Taipei gives her opinion on a variety of topics related to her stay, such as what she has learned from it, how experiencing Taiwan has shaped her view of the Pacific, and what she misses most about home.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Stories about Money and People

I should be the last person to want to write about money. Growing up in China during the waning years of Mao's reign, I thought happiness, or lack of misery, was when we did not need to think about it. To this day I still believe that wisdom consists of spending just enough time taking care of money matters so that we can free our mind from it the rest of the time. It is also wise to avoid the topic unless you are endowed with Benjamin Franklin's ease and wit. But then no matter where you hide yourself (such as in academia), how hard you try to turn a blind eye, at some point a thought creeps into your mind: money has permeated all aspects of human relationships. Workers, no matter how hard-working how talented, have become costs to be shifted, reduced or eliminated by the (job) creators with capital. The well-intentioned slogan of "the customer is king (God)" has perversely become an excuse for some "paying customers" to behave rudely, without necessarily realizing that the real king (God) is not them, but money. In some corrupted and money-worshiping societies, more and more human interactions are "translated" into monetary transactions. In such societies, incivility has increasingly become a common occurrence, because why would people bother to be polite unless they are, or expect to be rewarded with money, or its equivalents. Faced with such an invisible, dehumanizing force, I would like to attempt a contrary, almost quixotic act: to shed some light on the complex fabric of human relations interwoven with our money stories, which are seldom purely about money; they are almost always and sometimes foremost, about people.

One of my earliest money stories involves my best friend from high school. On my way back to Peking University after my first winter break in the early eighties, my train ticket and my student ID were stolen in Chengdu, because I committed the stupidity of putting them in my coat pocket. I had to buy another ticket, at full price, and had so little money left when I arrived at Beijing that I spent the entire month eating rice or steamed buns with salted preserved vegetables. Later, when I incidentally shared my unfortunate story with my friend, she was very upset that I had not written to her, because she would have reduced my misery by sharing part of her monthly stipend; by not even informing her, I denied her the opportunity to show how much she cared about me and at the same time signaled, due to the reciprocity of Chinese culture, that I would not do for her what she would have done for me. Her reaction made me wonder if maybe my self-abnegation actually reflected my selfishness, or maybe there exists a difference between what we would gladly do for others and what we can comfortably expect from them. I accepted her blame as her caring expression. By now the memory of my one-month hardship has long faded but she has remained a friend.

At Peking University, Michel Gauthier was a professor for both undergraduate and graduate studies. He taught a wide range of courses in French culture and literature, always including plentiful digressions, which offered glimpses of insights into French way of life and cultural reflexes. I learned how to write academic papers in French by working on my Master's thesis under his direction. We left China almost at the same time: he went back to Paris and I went to Boston College. During my years as a poor PhD candidate and beginning assistant professor in the USA, he hosted me on several occasions for two weeks at a time, until he passed away in 2002. It is important to note that the French are much more likely to host their friends than Americans. In fact, the finer points of French culture I absorbed during my stays with him through conversations and observations constitute an invaluable part of my apprentissage. Among Chinese friends, those who host usually pay for everything, and visitors are expected to bring appropriate presents; reciprocity is achieved when roles are reversed. This arrangement would not have worked as I went to Paris frequently and he was by then too old to contemplate trips outside of France. Michel would not let me pay for any restaurant meals either, which I do for my other French hosts, because he was an old-fashioned gentleman in that regard. Since I knew his favorite brands, I managed to buy groceries for him sometimes as a small gesture to show my appreciation. There was no way to make the situation "fair" financially. Like water that flows naturally to lower lands, in a true friendship, those who have the ability tend to contribute more, and reciprocity may be approximated when people genuinely enjoy each other's presence and give each other the best they have. In some circumstances, in a humbling way, we simply have to honestly recognize our debt, of which money is only a small part. This recognition may constitute our ultimate effort towards reciprocity.

I met Magali in China in 1987 when I was a graduate student and worked in summer as a tour guide for French tourists, an accompagnatrice who traveled with the group for the entire trip, which is different from local guides. We stayed in five-star hotels, had our meals with the group, and made less than 5 RMB per day. Young female guides sometimes received late night phone calls from mysterious personnel checking if we were alone. No matter how late we came back from sightseeing, the French would always insist on having some drinks, their sacred aperitif, in hotel bars before dinner. Each of those drinks cost at least 5 RMB, which explained why I always found a way to disappear during that time. It was the first group I accompanied and except for being a competent interpreter I knew very little about tourism service, but most people did not seem to mind. While the local guides delivered authoritative information about the cities and the sites we visited, the tourists asked me all kinds of questions about life in China, as if I were literally its embodiment. Magali and I liked each other right away, and within a few days she had shown me her fiancé's picture, let me know how nice he was, how they met, how many times her monthly salary the trip cost, etc. In White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, their final destination, instead of accepting my excuse, she insisted on asking me to join them for aperitif and offered to buy me a drink:

- Tu me feras plaisir.

I liked the idea and the expression. By drawing my attention to her pleasure, she showed me how I could reciprocate. We remain friends to this day, through many visits and trips together, mostly in France, and recently in my home, followed by two weeks in California and a series of national parks. The more things we do with our friends, the harder it is to avoid dealing with money-related issues, but the most important part to remember is why we get together to begin with. The underlying principle of reciprocity manifests itself in various ways across cultures and evolves with time. Those of us who live in "multiple worlds" sometimes have a difficult time assessing which sets of rules to apply in each given situation: you need to figure out who you are with, their cultural reflexes; if they have lived in different countries at different times, which country's rules at which time they currently follow; how to be generous without appearing condescending, taking into account personal situation and susceptibility... I prefer to be flexible and spontaneous: if we enjoy someone's company, we do not need to do careful calculations and split things exactly down to the middle. Some rough estimations of turn taking or division should be enough. Of course, I respect people who need to do calculations, which is probably the most practical way in some cases.

Due to the wide disparity of our social situations, true reciprocity does not necessarily mean equal amount of money. The quintessentially Chinese book "The Dream of the Red Chamber" contains an emblematic story. Zhen Shiyin, a country gentleman, had a new neighbor, Jia Yucun, an impoverished scholar from an old aristocratic family. Zhen intended to help Jia but did not find the opportunity until one beautiful moonlight night at the Mid-Autumn Festival. They spent the evening doing what traditional Chinese scholars enjoyed the most: drinking, conversing, composing and reciting poems inspired by the moon... Zhen appreciated Jia's talent and ambition as revealed in his poem. When he found out Jia needed money to travel to Beijing for the Imperial Examination, he eagerly seized the occasion to offer him money and two sets of clothes. Based on traditional Chinese ethics, the most important component of Jia's debt towards Zhen was the "debt of gratitude", contracted when a person's merit was recognized by someone in a position to offer help (zhi yu zhi en), never to be forgotten. Chinese novels and folktales are full of similar stories of "generously opening one's purse", based on needs, between people with congenial minds and mutual appreciation. It does not include the expectation of returning the money but carries numerous implicit understandings, of which Zhen mentioned the desire to see each other again, "what a delightful thing!". However, Jia, who succeeded in his examination and became a government official, did not make any attempt to be reunited with his benefactor. Meanwhile, Zhen renounced the world to be a Taoist monk after enduring great misfortune due to the abduction of his only daughter and a fire that destroyed his entire estate. When Jia chanced upon Mrs. Zhen's family, the amount of money he sent to them far exceeded Zhen's original gift. If this were a financial transaction, Jia would be a blameless man, but stories about money and people are always more complex... When Jia had the opportunity to rescue Zhen's daughter, he did not want to risk offending a powerful family and looked the other way. Jia's excessive ambition foreshadowed that he would fail the test of friendship, as his name suggests, phonetically, fakeness.

Having lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years, I cannot possibly end my rambling without adding a somewhat optimistic note. A few years ago, when my daughter Lydia was about 10 years old, she spent three weeks in Shanghai with my sister-in-law's family, who enrolled her in a summer camp with children from the Great Britain and Shanghai. The day the camp went to the Old City God Temple, the children were allowed to shop. Lydia told all the shop owners, in Chinese of course: "Uncle (auntie), I came from the United States of America, and need to buy presents for my friends. Would you please give me good prices? Thank you!" Now it is no secret that street sellers tend to rip off tourists, not to say those from foreign countries. Apparently all the Shanghainese children knew that, and one of them told my sister-in-law about it. I could imagine all of them laughing, splitting their sides. My sister-in-law was still laughing when she told me the story, but assured me that, amazingly, based on Lydia's purchases and receipts, all the prices were quite reasonable. Perhaps the merchants cared about their international reputation, but I would rather believe, or hope that, on a human level, it was simply too difficult to rip off a sweet and innocent little girl who addressed them so politely, and decency can overcome greed.

Illustration by Bendu

Wednesday, 09 January 2013

The Width and Depth of the Ocean within Me: In Memory of Yves Raguin

In 2012, we celebrated the centenary of the birth of Father Yves Raguin, founder of the Taipei Ricci Institute. Born in November 1912, Father Raguin died in December 1998 at Tien Educational Center in Taipei. After having studied theology in Paris and Sinology at Harvard, Yves Raguin lived in China, Vietnam, The Philippines and, for most of his career, Taiwan. He was a prolific author, mainly but not solely on comparative spirituality, and also a lexicographer who for many years directed the Ricci Dictionary project – the largest Chinese –foreign language dictionary in the world – and a beloved spiritual director.


The connection between his centenary anniversary and Pacific studies may seem an odd one, but there are several reasons for associating the Pacific with Fr Raguin's life and spirituality. First, there is the creation of the Taipei Ricci Institute in 1964-1966: Fr Raguin made the Institute a place of encounter, research and creativity till he left its direction in 1996 – and it is because of fidelity to his inspiration that the Institute later on shifted its focus towards Pacific studies. Second, Fr Raguin himself was no stranger to the Pacific world. Not only did his long stays in Vietnam and Taiwan make him a man of the Asia Pacific, but he also directed spiritual retreats and gave courses in The Philippines, Canada or Papua New Guinea among other places.


The main connection between the celebration of his birth and Pacific studies is that Yves Raguin focused all of his life on the quest for resonance and encounters between the different spiritual experiences that humankind has engaged in – and the spiritual style he slowly developed has oceanic undertones; pondering over his experiences may help us integrate the melodies and resonances we are gathering these days into the polyphony of world spirituality. I still remember Yves Raguin telling me one day, shortly before his death, how much he had always desired to see Chinese spiritual resources "fully integrated into humankind's spiritual computer." Yves Raguin used a typewriter all his life and never browsed the Internet. He had only a vague understanding of what a computer was like, but knew well enough the point relevant for his metaphor: a computer was a machine processing the data entered into it as an integrated whole, in which connections could be drawn in all directions.


Yves Raguin always placed the virtue of attentiveness at the core of any spiritual adventure. In "Contemplation East and West" he writes:


Contemplation is not a means of attention towards things beyond this world but rather an attention to things as they are. All things possess within themselves a mystery, and the more knowledge we have of these things, the more we realize the depth of the mystery within them. (...) If I practice what is called in Confucianism, investigation of things ge wu , I will be facing a mystery of things and I will be taken in by a kind of contemplation. It is the concrete awareness of the essential nature of things which puts me in silence before the mystery of this same nature. It is this essential nature of reality that science cannot grasp. This deep inner attitude described by the two terms serenity and a quiet being together with all things, has always been what wise women and men have been searching for in all parts of the world."

Elsewhere he notes:

Prayer is nothing but a simple awareness that in the beginning can be very painful. (The soul) feels cutoff from her normal activity and so, from herself. This barely perceptible presence forces the soul into deep solitude. She has no felt support outside this presence that draws her attention.

It seems to me that the primal role given to the "attention to the mystery of things' in spiritual development is what anchors Yves Raguin's spirituality within a multifaceted tradition open to what the writer Romain Rolland, in his correspondence with Sigmund Freud, called the "Oceanic feeling." Through this expression he was trying to encapsulate a feeling of infinity that palpitates beyond all structured religious belief. Nowadays, Rolland's "Oceanic feeling" has become no more than a footnote in the history of religious psychology. Freud was not very appreciative: "How foreign to me are the worlds in which you move! Mystique is as closed to me as music" he wrote to Rolland – who replied," I can hardly believe that mysticism and music are foreign to you. I rather think that you are afraid of them, as you wish to keep the instrument of critical reason unblemished."

Going one step beyond Rolland, one may say that, for the one who through attentiveness enters into the mystery of things as they are, the presence of the ultimate mystery in the soul is like the triumphant sound of the waves - and this "like" means two things at once: first, it speaks of the universal character of spiritual experience; and secondly, it recognizes the fact that no comparison can account for the way this mystery makes itself present within the depths of man. What the Oceanic feeling helps us understand is that joy arises in our soul always as something nascent. The joy that comes from the light of the day within the darkness of our depths is sung and evoked by the movement of an ocean everlasting and yet nascent, by the rhythm of the waves engraving and erasing their writings on the sand with a finger trembling and yet assured. Eventually, the Oceanic feeling makes us glimpse at the mystery of the birth of the divine within the soul: a gift eternally offered – and always new.

As an example of Yves coming into contact with this "oceanic experience", let us look at this passage from his spiritual diary in February 1979:

My internal being was enlightened, and an intimate touch of softness was entering into me. It was like a tenderness that was invading and attracting me, but without uprooting me from my humaneness. On the contrary, it was like the constant realization within me of a new incarnation. (...) Departing from Paris on January 5, I have given retreats in Thailand and in Papua New Guinea. I am now in the Philippines and in a few weeks I will be again in Taiwan. I can only say 'thanks" for all the love shown to me by the Lord during this trip around the world started in June. Everything has become very simple. This love of the Lord asks simply from me to be myself so as to let him be himself within me.

The deceiving simplicity of this paragraph should not hide the depth of meaning it opens: a given spiritual tradition – here, the western mystical tradition, with undertones coming from St Bernard, Meister Eckardt and St Ignatius - becomes somehow "globalized' by an operation of "rarefaction" or "distillation" that connects it not only to so-called Eastern spiritualities but to spiritual experiences as lived in many tongues, many customs and many settings. The experience here related is about the realization of what one is really called to be, in one's given tradition and calling, so as to let one's particularity become the creative humus in which other people will learn to similarly recognize what they are themselves called to be. Universality is not an "essence", but rather a process, awakened by the creative fidelity to what I come from and to what I am called to be. The ocean on which Yves Raguin tirelessly traveled was certainly that of the infinity of god – emptiness and plenitude – dwelling within our limited self; it was at the same time the ocean of the astounding variety of our human spiritual experiences, scattered like islands among the Sea of Unknowing. In his view, these two immensities were revealed and illuminated by one another. His writings and his example still encourage us to explore both the width and the depth of the Ocean that gave us birth and carries us beyond even our dreams.

Excerpt of a speech pronounced during the 2012 International Austronesian Conference in Taipei, November 27th

Tuesday, 08 January 2013

Knocking on the door of Taiwan's entertainment industry

This is the first vlog in a series in which Daniel Pagan Murphy talks about his quest for Mandopop fame, in which he documents his experience singing on TV shows in Taiwan, as well as going over the highs and lows and offering some tips to people who aspire to break into the entertainment industry.

You can follow Daniel's progress on his facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/DanielLiLiDaNian

On youtube: http://www.youtube.com/dannypamu

Or on twitter: https://twitter.com/dannypamu

Photo: Daniel (right) with fellow wannabe Mandopop star Justin (left) 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Olive

There are many ways to tell a story. The concept for this one starts from the shelves of a supermarket, from a can of stuffed olives. This snack that makes a drink with friends more enjoyable is associated in the mind of the story teller with the country of our hero.

How trivial a beginning for a story that will bring on stage Saint Ignatius of Loyola!

Some time ago I asked a friend to design a poster for Saint Ignatius Day. He had the very good idea to draw the outline of a medieval knight and inside Jesus welcoming Ignatius still wearing his helmet as to show that his frame of mind was still the one of a knight. Leaving the vanities of the world, at the junction of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, taking seriously the call of the Lord, Ignatius is still a knight. “The Olive” tells us the story of a knight with big dreams, not only a dreamer but a fighter that against all odds decided to battle the French when the outcome of the fight was a certain defeat for the Spaniards. The bitter defeat left deep scars in our hero and that was the beginning of another story. All the vanities of our medieval knight were left behind on his sick bed. The closed world of the Middle Ages then vanished and Ignatius was thrown into spiritual warfare. In this other world, interior and spiritual, in this new era of culture with all the discoveries and openings of the Renaissance, Ignatius with the same singleness found his way. He was now led by God on a pilgrimage that brought him to the foundation of the Jesuit order. And the story is still going on. Let “The Olive” tell us what happened.

An animation written, produced and narrated by Jason Kapell of the Fairfield University Media Center.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Headphones required: John McBain's psychedelic guitar

Finding a decent picture of John McBain is not easy. I'm not talking about John McBain from General Hospital or The Simpsons' Teutonic action-man McBain. The net is awash with their likenesses. And don't get me started on John McCain. He can stay in 2008.

The John McBain I am sharing with you here is an American underground guitar hero. So underground not only have you never heard of him, you can't easily find his likeness online.

Through the series of videos and commentary below you will be able to chart McBain's evolution from psyching it up in New Jersey's most THC encrusted basements to soloing in Seattle's grunge supergroups, from jamming in the desert with Josh Homme to laying down some of the most subtly dense recordings of modern times.

He may not be famous, but McBain has managed to play an important part in a number of emerging scenes over the last 20 years. And just as these scenes threatened to get huge, McBain either walked away or was passed over. It is not always easy to distil McBain's influence in each of the acts he has played with although there is a common thread: an unremitting commitment to explore the possibilities of psychedelic rock.

I cannot pretend to have heard every McBain track nor am I overly familiar with his life and ideas. The obscurity of work makes such biographical details all the more difficult to find. But this is just reason why the world needs to be introduced to John McBain and his psych guitar. Through his work we can track a path across the margins of American alternative music. And the best way to assess a figure such as McBain is through what he does best - play the guitar.

It's a satanic drug thing...

Having played in a string of garage projects in late 80s New Jersey, McBain and his buddies hooked up with "Dave Brock lookalike" Dave Wyndorf and started getting some local attention gigging as Monster Magnet.

Monster Magnet is still chugging on at venues around the world, turning out ever more processed and unimaginative albums. Some would say that in spite of the band's rise to mid-90s alt fame and a fleeting flirtation with mainstream success in the late 90s, Magnet's best days where when McBain was part of the set up. Two 1991 recordings characterise this era: Tab and Spine of God.

The Tab EP is notable for the track ‘Tab…’, a 32 minute trance-inducing meditation on the realms of analog recording. Held together by a metronomic bass and drum loop, Monster Magnet seemed to want to make ‘Tab…’ as trippy as possible. McBain's rhythm guitar floats around Wyndorf's processed vocals as all manner of distorted and indulgent sounds compete to be the most outrageous. A sound engineer at the time applauded this as "the return of drug rock" and I think he was right. This fuzzed out groove became one of the foundations of the dopily named ‘stoner rock’ sub sub genre.

More compact than Tab, Spine of God is no less extravagant in it's homage of 70s rock. Beginning with a flanged drum solo, Monster Magnet pays closer attention to the dynamics of song writing and the listener is rewarded. While ‘Ozium’ is cruisy and drawn out, the album's highlight is undoubtedly ‘Spine of God’. Centred on a hypnotic guitar riff, ‘Spine of God’ rises from the slightly paranoid medina of the verse to the crunch and roar of the epic chorus. All cloaked in unapologetically acid-soaked histrionics.

Unfortunately as Monster Magnet's profile and responsibilities grew, McBain's discomfort grew too, and his anti-social behaviour led to his dismissal.

Following on an invitation from his friend and former tour mate, Soundgarden's Ben Shepherd, McBain moved to Seattle.

Sad McBain

Early 1990s Seattle is a place of myth. For a guitarist seeking respite from the pressures of rock ‘n’ roll, Seattle would not seem an obvious choice. In his time there, McBain lent his hand to some classic underground recordings. 1993's self-titled Hater was the first.

My friend gave me her copy of Hater because, in her words, “it was too country”. Compared to Soundgarden, perhaps. But compared to Garth Brooks, not at all. Hater has the feel of a bunch of talented guys letting loose from their grungy day jobs. Compact but loose, it is an enjoyable slice of early 90s alt rock. This track, ‘Sad McBain’, opens over a furious McBain solo while vocalist Matt Cameron reels off what seem to be a collection of McBain’s notable sayings. Notably, “LA rock sucks”.

The Evil McBain

The Desert Sessions series of albums are best know as Josh Homme and a bunch of his mates jamming in the California desert from 1995 onwards. The project's evolving sound reflects its revolving membership and, unfortunately, is a bit hit and miss.

While most albums see Homme and his merry men making punch tunes punctuated by wacky interludes, it is on Vol.1 and Vol.2 where they take off in space rock mode. No doubt due to McBain's presence. These were Josh Homme's first easily available post-Kyuss recordings and it is one of the great shames of modern rock that McBain and Homme didn't collaborate more. These recordings easily fit into the “robot rock” mould of early Queens of the Stoneage, where driving fuzzed out guitars are well complemented by soaring analogue keyboards. Initially released on vinyl, Vol.1 And Vol.2 were compiled on a CD released by the late Man’s Ruin label. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can listen to the full EPs here:

Escrito por Homme/McBain

For those who got past the "features former members of Kyuss" sticker on the cover perused the liner notes of the self-titled Queens of the Stoneage LP, a line in Spanish might have caught his or her eye:

Escritas pr Queens Of The Stoneage Exepto por 'Juan Regular' Escrito por Homme/McBain/Bomb The Sun

McBain and Homme's collaboration on ‘Regular John’ is the epitome of Homme's then oft-quoted “robot rock” and yet possibly typified his desire to make music that "Girls want to dance to". The tight riffing floats over the bouncing beats of drummer Alfredo Hernandez. As big beat electronica was wooing punters across America, Queens of the Stoneage were returning a dancing groove to rock at the end of a somber decade of grunge bookended by the twin inanities of hair metal and rap-rock. John McBain only helped out on ‘Regular John’ but this song remains a QOTSA live staple to this day:

In an interview from 2006, McBain noted :

I`m not interested in fame. Music is an outlet for me that I appreciate and take very seriously. It`s a really personal part of my life. I make music for myself. And I`ve seen too many "famous" friends of mine either completely fall apart physically and spiritually from the pressures of the "music biz" or transform into ego driven assholes. And in every case their music suffered. No exceptions.

Importantly, McBain’s anonyminity is in contrast to his friends and former bandmates from groups such as Monster Magnet, Soundgarden and QOTSA. This quote pointedly decries the pressures of fame.

John Paul McBain

Releasing four albums of garage-psych between 1997 and 2003, it remains a mystery how Wellwater Conspiracy didn't capture the imagination of rock fans. Remember, it was in the early 00s that “rock was reborn”, as retro-tinged bands such as The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Vines and the The Hives all released popular albums that played around with the meat and potatoes templates of garage rock. However, none did it as well Wellwater Conspiracy. If only they added a 'The' to their name, fame and alt-adulation could have been theirs.

‘Sleeveless’ from their first album is McBain's favourite and perfectly encapsulates Wellwater Conspiracy's twin muses of the freakbeat and 60s psychedelia, infused by the vision and experience of these Seattle grunge survivors.

Asides from the Soundgarden rhythm section (and fellow Hater and Desert Session collaborators) of Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron, the Wellwater Conspiracy was joined at times by Josh Homme, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and other Seattle Musicians.

Centaur Of The Sun

Undoubtedly his crowning achievement, The In-Flight Feature (2006) is a cornucopia of stereo textures and warm wah-wah work. Utilising all the available effects of the studio and drawing on his years of experience, McBain crafted a delightful excursion into the potential of sound. Ten tracks long (with three bonus tracks), the echoes, tremolos and drones of The In-Flight Feature evoke the comfort and indulgence that the album's title alludes to while not getting bogged in retro trimmings. I recall reading at the time that McBain expressed interest in soundtrack and production work. If that's the case, then this is the best business card on offer. It is decidedly fresh. All the songs are brilliant but I shall include this one as it the fan made clip was endorsed by none other than McBain (see the video's comments)

Carlton Melton

This most recent (2012) recording offers the latest McBain incarnation. Jamming with the grizzled looking San Francisco three-piece Carlton Melton (who I amusing saw referenced as "psych lifers"), McBain adds some layers of fuzz and overdrive to what amounts to a heavier and more sprawling continuation of the ambience of The In-Flight Feature. This vinyl-only release is fortunately available on YouTube:

Myth making is integral to rock. Much of the time it is unfounded, as in reality the artists neither have the skill or charisma to warrant such adulation. However, the sublime and sustained guitar work of John McBain is enough to generate an aura of respect, if not a myth of its own.

Whether he was behind the times or ahead of them, for the most part John McBain remains part of none of them. To this end, he exists as a footnote in the annals of alternative rock. It is fitting that for a man who worships the underground sound, it is in relative obscurity that he will remain. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful for the future.

I’m not really sure what McBain is doing these days. Fingers crossed that he is bunkered down in his studio and laying down tracks for some more epic sonic excursions.

(Photo by Boolve under Creative Commons License)

 

Monday, 01 October 2012

Revising Reality Through Sound

A Review on Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project

TheCube Project Space is in the Gongguan area of Taipei, near the Cineplaza theatre, hidden on the second floor of an obscure apartment building. Although National Taiwan University lies just across the street, the atmosphere nearby bears no trace of scholarly temperament. A strange mixture of traditional Taiwanese food stalls such as stinky tofu and Taiwanese fried chicken and a peculiarly large amount of sport equipment shops dominate the whole block. The asphalt is always stained with oily muck and the myriad of bicycles and motorbikes makes it hard for one to maneuver about.

DSC00066

I was thus amazed when a small flight of stairs revealed an entirely different world: The dusty fragrance of wood and dried hay immediately shot through my olfactory nerves at the slide of the glass doors. A spacious white room was decorated with rectangular wooden boards and people were arranging themselves comfortably upon the beige tatami mats spread across the floor. Intently, they were listening to the booming of tractor engines, the murmur of old farmers in Taiwanese dialect and the crackle of feet stepping on dried hay that were sent across the room through eight devices: two pairs of stereo speakers hanging on both sides of the wall, and four other sound devices that were placed on the tatami or hanging from the ceiling. These devices came in different sizes and shapes. For example, the sound device placed on the ground was an electric megaphone, and the device hanging from the ceiling was an old radio. One speaker was even hidden inside a wooden box, in which the reverberation and vibrations of the box created a peculiar acoustic effect.

DSC00068_r

Wooden boards were placed across the room to absorb echoes

DSC00080

A speaker is placed inside the wooden box, creating a peculiar acoustic effect

The exhibition piece was a montage of sounds recorded from Chiayi, a large agricultural area in southern Taiwan. Sounds were arranged according to different themes, such as aboriginal tribes, religious ambience, agricultural activities or ecological surroundings. They were broadcast in a fashion that recreated our general perception of aural space. For example, the grinding noise of an ancient tatami machine was presented through stereo surrounding speakers, creating a sense of immediate, enveloping presence. The sounds of people speaking, on the other hand, were broadcasted through monophonic sound devices, such as the radio or the electric megaphone, which denoted the sound object’s specific position in space.

While the montage may seem random at first, it doesn't take long to perceive a certain order. For instance, the religious section at first featured the clatter of the divination blocks, signaling God’s will as they fall to the ground, followed by a mother’s clicking high heels and a child’s nagging whines. The soft chanting of Buddhist nuns emerged, shifting towards the grunting of men which in turn acted as a prelude to the festive religious music filled with gongs and suona, the Chinese oboe. Finally, the section was finished off with the loud explosions of Chinese firecrackers, intensively broadcasted through different speakers in an alternating fashion.
 

Aside from the main installation, two smaller pieces were also present in the gallery. One is a sound recording of a tour guide in a sugar factory, the other a thematic presentation of various aspects of Chiayi, such as the lost art of Beiguan music. These were accompanied by slides containing dictations from interviews with the locals.

 

2339072824

Album cover of Sounds of the Underground

21207065929722_551_m

Album cover of Taiwan Sound Archive, Religious Music Vol. 1
(tai wan you sheng zi liao ku quan ji bian qian ji si wu dao pian
台灣有聲資料庫全集《變遷祭祀舞蹈篇》), produced by Hsu Tsang-Houei.

 

The “Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project” is a collaboration between Yannick Dauby, Yen-Ting Hsu (許雁婷) and Wan-Shuen Tsai (蔡宛璇). In 2008, poet Chung Yung-fung (鐘永豐), the then Director-General of the Cultural Affairs Department commissioned Dauby and Hsu to collect sounds from the eighteen townships of Chiayi County, in hopes of building a sound archive that could one day be shared with the citizens of Chiayi. Had it succeeded, one could say that it would be a project of great historical significance, since the only notable works in Taiwan that were close to field recordings were the folksong collection movement carried out by musician Hsu Tsang-Houei (許常惠) and Shi Wei-Liang (史惟亮) and the ethnomusicology studies of Liu Bing-Chuan (呂炳川) in the 60’s and 70’s, followed by the more recent Sounds of the Underground (lai zi tai wan di ceng de sheng yin來自臺灣底層的聲音) compilation by Crystal records during the 90’s, all of which were still situated within the song-based musical realm and not field recording, strictly speaking. Unfortunately, due to bureaucratic reasons, the project came to halt after one year. The artists, however, having already built tight bonds with the locals, continued to collect sounds. Three years later they selected several sounds from their archive and composed the “Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project.”

“Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project” is the 6th installment of the Re-envisioning Society series curated by TheCube art gallery. According to their website, the goal of this series was to uncover an authentic relationship between human beings and their surroundings; a relationship which is hidden beneath the layers of artificial constructs that govern modern society. Furthermore, they sought to “construct a new vision for society” by observing the transformation of individual and collective experiences in specific aspects of contemporary life.
 
 

So how can a sound exhibition live up to such a grandiose purpose? We could say that humanity in modern society is dominated by images, or rather, that human civilization has always been preoccupied with sight. The saying “the eyes are the windows to the soul” is self-evident. Sight is the organ that determines boundaries, the boundaries upon which interpretations are made. One can say this is the initial step towards an abstract, conceptual world that is the premise of a society of spectacles. Sound, on the other hand, is more ambivalent. During the exhibition, it is often hard to make out the original sources of the sounds. Bird sounds that come from grainy radio speakers have a metallic quality that resembles a machine, thus the boundaries between organic/inorganic are blurred. Attention is given not only to the sounds presented but also to the media through which that sound is represented, which in this case is the radio speakers that convert melodic bird chirps into abrasive mechanic noises. In other words, sounds retain the noise of the media, the qualities that are generally filtered out/ignored/neglected by sight. Through close listening of sounds, attention is lowered to the materiality of things, and not the abstract concept it represents. From this site it is possible to start something new, to view our surroundings in a new light.

 
 
It is also from this site that a new construction of identity is possible. The clue may lie in the Chinese title of the exhibition: “Sheng Tu Bu Er” (聲土不二). The phrase is a word play on the phrase “Juan Tu Bu Er” (身土不二), which originally was a Buddhist phrase that explains karma, but was appropriated by Japan and Korea for its literal meaning, namely that body (身) and soil (土) cannot be separated (不二), in order to promote local food movements. The exhibition’s substitution of the word “聲” (sound) for“身” (body) can thus be interpreted that sounds cannot be separated from the soil.

DSC00079
Orientation of Revitalization of Chiayi Sound Project

In the orientation following the exhibition, Chung Yung-fung gave an illuminating example of this concept. He mentioned how he couldn’t recognize the Hakka singer Lai Pie-Hsia’s (賴碧霞) voice in Hsu Tsang-Houei’s recordings, because the sound quality was too clear and lacked the noisy ambience that usually accompanied the singer’s performance. That was when he realized how crucial the recording environment is to preserving aural memory. It is thus reasonable to say that the identity of the sound is inseparable from the environment that produced it, whether in a noisy night market or in a church full of echoes. The awareness of the importance of noise, that which was initially considered as a threat to the recording of “pure” sound, evokes a categorical redistribution of how we perceive the world.

Furthermore, as our perception of the world changes, so our perception of ourselves transforms. During the orientation, Dauby explained how a man from the countryside might move to a big city and attempt to forget his memories of the countryside, perhaps ashamed by the hegemonic developmentalist ideology that defines the countryside as a backwater, inferior place. Chiayi, in many ways, is precisely such a place. However, if these field recordings are presented to him, perhaps he will be able to pick up messages that lie beyond the limits of the developmentalist discourse. He will perceive the different nuances of Chiayi, nuances that were not captured by a developmentalist interpretation of Chiayi, and subsequently discover the different nuances concerning his own identity. From this perspective, it is indeed possible through field recording to discover genuine relationships between men and other men, as well as men and his local environment; to surmount the spectacles of society and to arrive at new conclusions.

Written by Julia Chien with further editing by Daniel Pagan Murphy. Photos by Julia Chien.

Help us!

Help us keep the content of eRenlai free: take five minutes to make a donation

AMOUNT: 

Join our FB Group

Browse by Date

« July 2019 »
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31        

We have 3678 guests and no members online