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Why is a Delft vase like a zipper bag?

Europeans can have an uncanny sense of recognition when observing certain aspects of Chinese popular culture. I just had such a moment when, absent-minded, my eyes fell on a zipper bag I bought in China years ago:

Food bag, acquired in eastern China, taken home to western Europe, photographed by author.

Not only had I transported words such as ‘sweet’ and ‘breakfast’ back from China to Europe – this was weird enough, because these words mean completely different things in China where the bag was sold (in as far as English words in Latin script make any sense at all), than in Europe, the place where the words had come from and which I had now brought them back to.

But the bag also pictured a series of household items which, in this style and combination, seem designed to evoke a snug English cottage, or perhaps a Polish farmstead kitchen, a nice old-fashioned home in the Romanian country-side, or any other place sitting firmly on the European continent. The coffee-pots, the loaf of bread, the stew pot, the single-leafed apple: they are European images, or else images associated with European settler cultures – please correct me if I’m wrong. And these images have become part of a European nostalgia, a nostalgia for the perfect home, imagined perhaps to have existed in the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century, a home, one might daydream, where there would always be a mother, a grandmother, a sister at home to tend the flowers in the garden and put them in the old coffee-pot.

Yet as if such nostalgia isn’t unsettling (and delicious) enough, the European viewer is here also confronted with an outsider’s perspective on his or her private nostalgia. To the Asian producer of this bag, the existing, European nostalgia apparently made enough sense to use it for marketing purposes. Although the objects on the bag and the nostalgia attached to them probably have a different meaning to its Chinese users than to most Europeans (for one thing, bread in China tastes completely different from bread in Europe) – something must ‘click‘ for them.

And although a rooted European will never be able to gauge exactly what these images mean to someone raised within Chinese culture, the European user nevertheless senses that the images have changed in the process of cultural transfer: not just because they are now surrounded by Chinese characters, but because they have been reimagined by someone with a different cultural baggage. The coffee-pot, the loaf of bread, all so familiar to me, have undergone a process of estrangement, of alienation. They have left my kitchen, circled the globe, and come back to me with a twist – a twist that might feel uncanny, because I do not know what has happened to them.

However, if I were to go and live in China, the uncanny feeling would no doubt weaken: my alienation is only a lack of cultural knowledge.

And the feeling also becomes less strong if I take a look at our shared history. For many Europeans, China has the name of being a culture of imitation: Chinese factories, Chinese pop singers, Chinese fashion designers, they say, take ‘western’ ideas and reproduce them more cheaply. Of course this stereotype ignores a vast range of ideas, fashions, technologies and tastes that originate in China itself. But what’s more, it ignores Europe’s own history of imitation.

Painted pot and lid with Chinese figure in landscape, made in Delft (Holland) around 1750. Public domain; made availably by Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, object BK-NM-12400-114.

How will Chinese traders have felt when they first saw Delftware, which imitated Chinese porcelain including even representations of Chinese landscapes and Chinese people?

And what did the image on this vase mean to its first buyers – probably Dutch – in the mid-eighteenth century? It seems plausible that part of their satisfaction was the same as the Chinese owners of Chinese ceramics will have felt – admiration of the crafted pot, the painted surface, the landscape with the dotted bushes and the fashionable flaneur. The Delft buyers, however, will have experienced something extra: as a bonus, they were in touch with an exotic culture, one that was all the rage across the globe.

Although a plastic food bag is no dainty vase, I can imagine that the coffee-pot and the white loaf, too, bring a tiny element – not too much, because European-American images are more accessible to today’s Chinese than Chinese art was to early modern Europeans – a tiny element of the exotic into the Chinese kitchen. And back into mine.

Box the bag came in, photographed by author.

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How To Be a Good Tourist

Photo by Hans Olofsson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, 2011, on flickr.

Photo by Hans Olofsson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, 2011, published on flickr.

The European holiday season has started, and, with it, the season of sight-seeing and snapshots.

On recent holidays, it struck me how many tourists take photos of famous monuments, of works of art or of landscapes, instead of looking at them.

This week, I came across a marvellous example. It was in an article on the Ghent Altarpiece, a famous set of religious paintings dating from the fifteenth century (local name Het Lam Gods, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck). Every year, thousands of visitors flock together in Ghent’s Saint Bavo Cathedral to see it. Or do they?

The altarpiece itself has been sitting in one of the chapels in the back of the church for the past few decades. (At the moment of writing, it is being treated for conservation elsewhere.) But immediately upon entering the church, visitors encounter a life-size copy of the work. It is this copy in front of which tourists linger the longest.

One wonders whether a certain confusion about possibly having reached their destination already plays a role here. Anyhow, according to the article I read, tourists stay with the reproduction longer than with the original because it is the version they are allowed to take photos of.

It is easy to be dismissive of this kind of behaviour, and perhaps with some ground, too: a photo taken of a painting will never be as good as either the original (which the photographer paid little attention to) or the professional reproductions (which they did not buy). The photographer missed their one opportunity to see a stunning work of art in its full size, its most flamboyant colours, its moving texture, and its original setting – in this case the very church it was designed for. From now on, it will only be a small rectangle on a screen again, or a pixelated print in an album.

Nevertheless, such dismissal also serves to emphasise status differences: who knows best how to enjoy art?

And anyway, it is more interesting to try and understand the photo tourist than to be annoyed by them. So: why might taking a photo be the most important thing to do for some when faced with a famous sight? So far, I have come across two important reasons:

  1. Many people find it important to have some sort of evidence that they themselves have in actual fact been present at this or that famous location and seen the famous object. Especially an amateurish photo is probably an asset rather than a hindrance in providing such evidence.
  2. Taking a photo is a way of engaging with a place. Because, okay, we have arrived in this church: now what? We’ve established the painting is there; now do we walk away again? Ah, we are supposed to look at it? Just stand and look? What is that, looking – what does one actually do? What I mean is that it may take an upbringing in a specific milieu to become comfortable with the kind of behaviour that museum curators, church sextons and other cultural hosts expect of their guests. Enjoying a static image can be hard. What do you do with your eyes, with your hands, and what should you be thinking about? Photography then becomes a way of knowing what to do with yourself.

I am curious to find out about other people’s experiences with (non-art) touristic photography.

Pierre François de Noter, 'Het Lam Gods van de gebroeders van Eyck in de Sint Bavo te Gent', 1829. Now in the Rijksmusem Amsterdam, SK-A-4264.

In this nineteenth-century view on sixteenth-century church-going (so before the days of photography), the famous altarpiece does not command much direct attention either, which is odd in the nineteenth-century nationalist context of art-historical pride. Painting by Pierre François de Noter, ‘Het Lam Gods van de gebroeders van Eyck in de Sint Bavo te Gent’, 1829. Now in the Rijksmusem Amsterdam, SK-A-4264.

 

Want to know more about the interesting behaviour of tourists? Read Dean MacCannell, The Tourist (London, 1976).

The article on the Altarpiece appeared in a book on the collective memory of the Low Countries: Wessel Krul, ‘Het Lam Gods’, in Jo Tollebeek and Henk te Velde (ed.), Het geheugen van de Lage Landen (Rekkem, 2009), 172-9.