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China Works 2007

In October and November of 2007 I travelled in China, specifically the Pearl River Delta in Southern China and Shanghai. The six weeks I spent travelling round the Delta had been long-planned. It is the fastest-growing urban region in the world and I found, as I had expected, an image of all our futures. Shanghai is also accelerating rapidly towards the future and the two weeks spent there was also full of discoveries about the way the world is shaping up. The New China is a fascinating place indeed.


My trip was performance research, and I was researching both the situation of transgender in the New China, and new ways in which a Live Art performer can connect with people in a truthful way. In the end I found out more about the second than I did about the first, but, by taking transgender into the Chinese urban landscape, I discovered a lot about that landscape. Whilst much of the work I made on the journey features a very prominent Mandy presence it is actually China which comes across strongest – at least I hope you will think so.


What you have here are photographs which are one kind of documentation of work. I was very fortunate to have as my collaborator and fellow-traveller a first-class photographer, Vincent Assante Di Cupillo, who is based in the Delta, in Shenzhen. The brief I gave him was not only to document my actions – which he did with wonderful skill – but to work with me to create visual works capturing the Delta and Shanghai for others to appreciate. I also invited him to record some aspects of myself as an Artist At Work. I spent a lot of time taking notes, writing and recording sounds to complement the pictures.


The results fulfilled all my hopes and expectations. At the same time I must say that the huge amount of visual material I have brought back to the UK is not always destined to be photographs for exhibition. It is, much of it, the raw material from which I will be creating a number of art-works for performance, installation and unconventional exhibition and sharing, supplementing the visuals with all sorts of actions, materials and experimentation with space. Sharing it now is simply a way of helping others to understand the range and depth of the work I carried out in those two months.


What is shown below is some indication of each of the nearly 30 art-works I created (many with Vincent) and they fall into a number of categories,-
Actions in Public Spaces
Photo-Essays
Ritual and Personal Works
Public Performances
Research Actions


I hope that you will find some special interest in them.


For a look at the geography of the Pearl River Delta go to
This Map

Actions in Public Spaces

Princess In The Park – Hong Kong - Kowloon Park


I wanted my first Chinese action to be exploratory. I needed to find out how ordinary people would react to my appearance and presence. I chose an almost fairy-tale persona and took the Princess one bright morning into Kowloon Park, in the heart of mainland Hong Kong. I chose the park because I was familiar with its varied landscape. I had no particular intention to interact with people but of course such interactions happened. As a result of this action I knew that my future work in China would be received with interest, curiosity and a cheerful sense of wonder. I hope to make an interactive installation to show the full sequence of images.

The Kuan Yin Project – Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Macao, Shanghai

Kuan-Yin is a kind of goddess, the Buddhist Boddhisattva of Mercy and Compassion as she has become in China. She interests me very much because she arrived in China from India nearly 2,000 years ago as a male and the Chinese re-invented her as a female. She is greatly loved and devoutly worshipped throughout China but particularly in the South where she is also the patron of seafarers. I planned to incarnate Kuan Yin during my China journey, partly to find out if deep popular religion still had a place in the New China. In four cities, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Macao and Shanghai, I took on Kuan Yin and, starting from one of the temples dedicated to her, progressed through the city, on foot and in (mainly) public transport, to other temples dedicated to her, most often ending a journey in a public place, or melting away into the streets. The experience, for me and for those who encountered Kuan Yin on her travels, was always sensational, as you can see in these few photographs from the sequences which record those four journeys.

The Garden Is Everywhere – Shenzhen – Railway Station Piazza

I have been pre-occupied with gardens for some time now and had researched Chinese gardens in particular. In Shenzhen I took the making of a garden to a very public and impersonal space, a place where many people in the busy and fast-paced city would pass. On the way to the site I collected a lot of natural litter, leaves and stones, and laid out the garden for all to see. I hoped it would act for a moment as a focus for a less frenetic attitude to existence. The local security eventually became concerned about my action and after I left the space the garden was swept away into a refuse bin. Even in its short existence some people learned to cherish it.

Rainbow Fountain Encompassing Everything – Shanghai Surprise – Shanghai

I wanted to create an action which responded very personally to the commercial and pragmatic maelstrom which is Shanghai. It had to be slightly surreal and yet neutral enough to avoid police arrest. The “surprise” I created, “Rainbow Fountain Encompassing Everything”, was a short action involving a toy mobile phone, a magic trick, physical actions borrowed from the musical routines used by shops to rally their staff, and a handbag full of coloured feathers. I carried out the action all along the main pedestrian shopping street, Nanjing Lu, in the People’s Park and at Yu Yuan, another retail area with gardens, about 50 times in total, I guess. I was always tracked by security but never stopped and the reactions from passers-by were remarkable. The action was often interpreted as a gesture of peace.

Queen Of The Bund – Shanghai

 

I went to Shanghai to engage people in the idea of Liverpool’s role as “European Capital of Culture 2008” in my role as Liverpool Queen Of Culture. To do so I went to many art-events and openings but I also carried out the action of giving out my own Chinese “Queen Of Culture” flyers on the Bund, the Shanghai waterfront. People were very interested and welcoming.

Photo-Essays


Glamorous Hong Kong – Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a glamorous and sophisticated city, but it is also, like all cities, a place of heavy work, crime, dereliction and solitariness. The pictures taken capture both aspects of the place and getting the shots involved some strange adventures.

The Construction Of Happiness – Window On The World – Shenzhen - Theme Park

Shenzhen has several theme-parks, each quite odd until you get to them, when they seem quite natural. “Window On The World” is the whole world in one theme-park and gave me the opportunity for some quite surreal views of the New China and the New Chinese who were very happy to have company in their many photographs. I was interested in Shenzhen in the idea of constructing happiness out of material things. In “Window On The World”, judging by the pleasure people take in their visits, the construction has been successful.

Shenzhen By Night – Playing With Light – Shenzhen


Shenzhen is a remarkable city, fast-grown and futuristic. At night it looks different again with many buildings newly alive with lights. Vincent and I experimented with all kinds of hand-held and pin-point lighting to create shots which bring the bright city into focus.

The Garden Is In The Details – Ke Yuan Garden – Dongguan

Dongguan, a sprawling city where it seems most of the world’s goods are manufactured, yet has one of the gems of Chinese history, the beautiful Ke Yuan Gardens. I didn’t want to record them in a clichéd way so I concentrated on the details of the created artificiality of both the Gardens and my own appearance. I have plans for an interactive installation piece involving the images we created.

Dongguan Gone – Dongguan

Seeking out Ke Yuan we stumbled by accident on an area of old Dongguan, clearly in the process of being demolished. The contrast between my perfected appearance and the “Old China” quality of the people and their district comes across in the pictures I think.

Pearl River Reflections – Guangzhou – Shamian

Guangzhou is an old city, the original gateway to China for many Europeans for centuries. The legacy of French and British occupation can be seen on Shamian Island on the Pearl River waterfront, which is sometimes purely Parisian in atmosphere. I tried out being a ghost there and we met some interesting characters.

The Missing Element – Zhuhai

The Chinese have five basic elements in their cosmology, rather than the European/Western four. I set out on day to find all five in Zhuhai, an environmental new city with some rough edges. In the end we got all the elements mixed up. These pictures will. I think become part of an installation called “The Missing Element”. The audience will have to work out where I went wrong.

Ghost – Zhuhai

One of the terms used for transgender in China is “ren yao” which can translate as “ghost person”. Transgender can seem a half-life to Chinese people. At the same time they have a long tradition of ghost stories in which the souls of dead individuals, unreleased to Heaven, wander the earth taking on uncanny human form. I wanted to create a single image characteristic of those stories where a beautiful (ghost) woman, hungry for human warmth, stands in cool isolation at the roadside waiting to lure men into her arms, an image straight out of the deep Chinese psyche.

Imperial Mandy – Zhuhai – New Yuan Ming Yuan Theme Park

Zhuhai also has a theme-park, the New Yuan Ming Yuan, a recreation of part of the old Summer Palace gardens in Beijing which were burned down by the English in the 19th Century. Apart from engaging with visitors interactively I took advantage of the location to produce some images which emphasize the extravagant and sometimes kitsch environment.

Astor Mandy – Shanghai

The Astor House (formerly Pujiang) Hotel where I stayed in Shanghai is an old hotel full of atmosphere. I asked Vincent to capture some of the feel of the place in some portrait pictures.

Winning Ways - Venetian Casino - Macao

We visited the newest and grandest of the Macao casinos, The Venetian, where I tried to win the cost of my trip at roulette. Vincent shot "from the hip" to capture some illicit pictures of my (failed) attempt and the atmosphere of the place.

Ritual and Personal Works

Buying A New Mandy – Shenzhen - Markets

One thing Shenzhen is about is shopping. It’s the place across the border from Hong Kong where people go to get bargains which are cheaper in mainland China. Shenzhen has some very busy markets in Luouhu. To celebrate my arrival in mainland China I decided to buy a “new Mandy” for China, all from those markets. The hair, skirt, top, shoes (and a new dress) I bought in the markets I wore as soon as I’d bought them returning a very different girl from the one who had left the hotel in the morning. Vincent’s bartering skills secured some great deals.

Sketch for “Kou” – Guangzhou

Guangzhou was where I began to get a hold on the ideas behind the Delta journey. I started to work on a performance (also print and exhibition) piece called “Kou” (the Chinese word for “mouth”). “Kou” will take a while to create but I did a kind of sketch for it before I left the city where the Pearl River collects itself before fanning out into the Delta. It involved casting specially-inscribed Chinese chess pieces into the River at Esha Island, each sealed with a lipstick kiss.

Feeding The River – Zhuhai

This could be another sketch for “Kou” since it also uses the magic number 32. 32 unbroken pairs of chopsticks, each inscribed with a word from a specially composed poem and the name of someone with whom I’ve had close and sometimes awkward emotional engagement in recent years, were parted and cast into the Pearl River, on a day of restless seas. I had planned to hire a boat and carry out the action in Mid-Delta but the seas were too restless for the trip.

Public Performances


The Empty Dress &
Make A Fashion Pose – On The Move Festival – Hong Kong waterfront

These were actually interactive works and the location was the Hong Kong waterfront where until recently the famous Star Ferry had docked. “The Empty Dress” invited passers-by to inscribe a name for me on my blank white paper dress, a way of my finding out what people might call a transgender. The names were all fanciful and positive. I still have the dress and will use it in future works. I have carried out “Make A Fashion Pose” several times before. People pose me as they like, a picture is taken and they receive a copy by mail.

The Construction Of Happiness – Greetings From Shenzhen – Macao International Festival Of Performance – Ox Warehouse, Macao

On arrival in Macao I didn’t know what space I would be working in. In the end I did my performance in part of an old cattle warehouse (now an art-space), bordered by the old stone feeding trough. My piece was an action, lasting about two hours, in which I attempted to express my understanding of the city I had just come from, Shenzhen. The compartments of the space were laid out in poured salt and in them I, amongst other actions, made up, turned one compartment into a dormitory, consulted the I-Ching, and read a poem in Mandarin written to my parents (the day before had been Grave-Sweeping Day).


Research Actions And Interactions


The Construction Of Happiness - Mangrove West Coast – Shenzhen

Mangrove West Coast is a top-end residential development looking out onto Shenzhen Bay. The apartments cost about £2,000,000. I managed to get a look at one, saying I was in the market for buying it. Which I would be if I had the money.

Ni Qu Nar? – Guangzhou – Railway Station

Guangzhou is the transport hub for all people coming to work in the Delta or going home from the area. Its railway station is very busy, the forecourt always thronged. I engaged with individuals waiting there, asking them where they were from (“Ni qu nar?”) and Vincent took a photograph of us. It wasn’t an easy action – people were quite suspicious – but I gained something of a insight into the vast travelling geography of China.

Sex Show – Guangzhou

Picture by Anonymous
Guangzhou holds many huge trade fairs and the Chinese now flock to fairs given over to sex – products, health advice, historical exhibits. I went to the one in Guangzhou and found out a lot about the Chinese view of sex.

Sex Institute – Zhuhai

We had a contact for a Sex Institute based in Doumen in Zhuhai. The travel there and the experience of meeting the people involved in the place gave me the single most unforgettable experience of my journey.

Give Me Your Wisdom – Zhuhai – New Yuan Ming Yuan Theme Park

At the New Yuan Ming Yuan I invited visitors to the theme-park to write down a greeting in my notebook, which has since become ”The Book Of Kou”.

Guangrun Office Furniture Factory – Dongguan

I wanted to visit a factory in Dongguan where there are very many. It wasn’t easy, but, thanks to Vincent’s negotiating skills and the kindness of Tristan, who works at the Guangrun Factory, we got a close look at one of the city’s more superior industrial sites.

Baden Baden Club - Shenzhen

I wanted to interview the tranny girls who performed there – in the end I got to talk to two of them and gave a performance in the club that night in return for the favour.

Since my trip to China I have been performing a stage-work called "Kou" which is the Chinese word for "mouth". there are many versions of "Kou" - to date I have performed "Kou - China Story" at the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool and "Kou - A Trangender Odyssey" at the Green Room in Manchester and at Warehouse 9 in Copenhagen. It is available for booking.

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Thanks to the Liverpool Culture Company for the financial support for my airfares to China as part of an Artists Development Grant. It's '08 - come to Liverpool!
If there's anything you want to know about the works here please get in touch.
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