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Small relief

Once upon a time there was an artist called Lucia. At least, that is what it said on the card:

lucia pintoretta

conceptual art
on the margins between 2D and 3D
oil / mixed media / miniature screen prints

@smallrelief

But deep in her heart, Lucia knew she was really a house painter. A wall-coverer. A primer. A coater.

Mornings, she would arrive in her studio and with a sigh take up her brush to finish an abstract portrait or satirical landscape which she had started months earlier. She hated the delicate dabbing and the minute mixing of colours that seemed to be needed to create her works. The endless search for fresh ideas. The pressure to surpass herself every time, as her critics demanded. To excel. To ‘help art ahead’.

She was fed up with art fairs, prize juries, artist-in-residence applications. She was tired of twittering about her own work. Every morning she was unsure how to make it to the end of the day. How to stay on her chair, staring at Illustrator or at a bit of canvas the size of her phone. Every evening, she had grown a little humpier, a little lumpier.

But she would spring back into shape whenever she allowed herself to stretch a big new canvas. She would gesso it with all the violence of a herd of cows on first leaving their byre in spring.

She knew that the larger works did not sell that well. Miniatures were her thing, miniatures was what she had been in the New Yorker for, so miniatures was what she had to produce. Ever since she had been little, teachers and scholarship committees had begged her to use her talent: her ‘sensitive touch’, her ‘delicate shadings’. So much practice, so much sweat. So much sensible investment. A waste to let that go unused.

Beneath the window, the primed canvases were piling up.

But that is what she dreamt of: covering surfaces; measuring her progress in square metres. Changing the entire aspect of a room in a single day. Flinging paint at walls by the pot-full. Instead of creating subtle satires for a sniggering collector to explain to his private guests, she would brighten up someone’s day with a yellow footbridge, or a sky-blue brick wall bounding with the train track. And at the end of each day, something material would have been accomplished.

While doing her work, she might stumble over an old nail or a rusty spot. But she would simply paint them over! And even if she missed a bit here or there, it would not make a difference in the grand scheme of things. O wonderful meeting of light and labour! O concrete paradise! Acrylic dream!

O, flimsy dream…

Abby Flat-Coat, Hogeweide Bridge near Utrecht (2010). Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

But one night, Lucia’s followers were able to read the following message:

#greatrelief @smallrelief

And that was that.

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3

Carefree in China

I have just returned from a month in China.

Before I went, I was not sure how much I would like it. I had been reading things like Een barbaar in China and Carolijn Visser’s travel stories, both written in the 1980s. I held on to the comfort that, if the worst came to the worst, the excellent food would pull me through.

I have a completely different image of China now. In fact, it has been the people that I have come to love most of all.

My overnight stays in China. Adapted from Joowwww’s map on Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, China is vast and varied, but in the places I visited, I encountered one cultural feature again and again, one that completely differs from the European North-Sea culture I am used to. This was the people’s openness, their physical freedom, their carelessness almost, but an accommodating, elegant sort of carelessness.

Of course, most of the places I visited were very crowded. You may argue that this makes it simply impossible for people to maintain some distance to each other. Still, when you look around you on the London underground, you notice that people can succeed at this, if they want. In eastern China, however, people did not seem to mind touching each other. In fact, I have often seen strangers touch each other on the back to ask them for room to pass, instead of only saying ‘excuse me’.

And then there is the infamous pushing and bumping into each other on the street, which annoys a lot of visitors (yes, that includes myself). I received the impression that, instead of estimating the way of least resistance through a crowd, most people just walked; and instead of giving way to pedestrians with a determined look on their face, as in Europe, they stuck to their own swerving path… and let the bumping happen. Or perhaps I should say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’, because by the end of my journey, I was doing the same.

In motorised traffic, this habit gets a little more dangerous. Cars as well as the uncountable electric bikes, scooters and mopeds, all approach you uncannily closely before giving way. What is more, the lanes for pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles are usually one shared space, and usually they contain traffic both ways.

And yet, I did not often feel unsafe. With all the millions of people I have seen pass during that month on the road, I did not witness a single accident.

Most of all, I think this is because 1) drivers keep to a modest speed, much more modest that you would expect in a place where most formal traffic rules become irrelevant. And 2) people look at you. They ‘do’ traffic through a continuous visual and aural negotiation with each other, rather than by ‘blindly’ obeying traffic lights. The result is a general worming and pushing, rather than people flashing past (or into) each other.

The same happened on the sleeper trains. You share a single space with 66 people. Everywhere, bodies sleeping or eating or brushing their teeth. Feet and heads sticking out from the berths. People happily come by for a chat or for dinner on your bed. I was not always ready for this, but that was just me being from a different culture. So I had to get used to it!

But what I wanted to come back to, was the fact that people look at you. Of course, I was obviously a foreigner, and this seems to have been quite a bit of an attraction to many Chinese. However, a strange person in Wiltshire or Drenthe is not looked at in the same way as a European in the prefectures of Guilin or Yichang (which are both popular tourist destinations). In Europe, I think parents would admonish their children: ‘Don’t look!’ In China, they might sooner ask their child to take a photo. People stare at you unabashedly in the street – and they smile. I don’t think I have ever smiled back at people so much in my life. In fact, much of our interaction was so weird (to me), that a giggle was always lurking near the surface.

In this highly touristic place - for Chinese tourists - people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: 'Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!' (in Mandarin)

In this highly touristic place, people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: ‘Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!’ (in Mandarin). After all, the place is primarily touristic for tourists from China itself. They received some laowai spectacle for free. (Photo by author)

A lot of strangers also came to us with, for us, rudely personal questions. Most were just either being friendly/curious, or showing off their English (this group did not understand our answers anyway…). Yet it made me realise that there is a third option between either getting angry or complying completely with demands you do not feel comfortable with: you can always laugh and move on to the next topic. As a visitor, you want to respect the fact that norms are different in different places, and what is impolite in one place may be polite in another. However, at the same time, you have to protect yourself from your own cultural ignorance that makes you so vulnerable to abuse from the more mercenary types. Accommodating to the people you are visiting does not need to be an all-or-nothing question.

I won’t go into any post-colonial issues now, or the current goverment’s policies, though of course these also played a role in creating my experiences. But the simple fact that so many Chinese people whom I met, were so easy in looking at you, touching you, sharing things with you (or from you), talking to you (or shouting at you), made me in fact feel very free. It was not always nice; it was not always pleasant; but I felt a certain carelessness come over myself as well.

A fellow European tourist may have experienced something similar as we visited a hot spring. In order to take her mud bath, she had to change into her bathing costume. Afterwards, she reported that there had been no other option than to change in an open space full of strangers, women and men. As she told this, the horror in her voice mixed with elation and carefreeness.

By the end of the journey, I was no longer minding other people’s bodies so much, nor my own. I no longer cared so much where it was, what it was doing, whether it had the right degree of visibility or invisibility or normalness, and what or whom it might bump into.

3

Give Us an Ordinary Bearded Lady

The Eurovision Song Contest of 2014 ended with the winner pleading for tolerance and respect. In her press conference, Conchita Wurst said that her winning the contest

showed me that people want to move on, to look to the future. We said something, we made a statement

Her performance was certainly brave and her victory real. What’s more, in the face of the homophobic backlash that has also been going on in Europe (but do these people watch the Song Contest?) and a song that was less than catchy (I left the couch with Dana International’s ‘Diva’ stuck in my head rather than ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’, even though I had just heard the latter twice) the audiences and juries of Europe have decided to make a statement indeed.

But was it simply a statement of progress? Did we indeed ‘move on’? Could Conchita Wurst not have performed her song a hundred years ago?

Wurst’s image reminded me of a character in a novel I read a long time ago: Mathilde, in Ted van Lieshout‘s masterly Raafs Reizend Theater.

Conchita Wurst with her hair down. Photo edited from the Salzburger Nachrichten.

Conchita Wurst with her hair down. Photo (by unknown photographer) edited from the Salzburger Nachrichten.

Mathilde with her hair up. Drawn by Ted van Lieshout for the cover of Raafs Reizend Theater (Amsterdam, 1986).

Mathilde earns her living as the Bearded Lady in a show. Precisely: a little bit like Conchita.

But we can go further back.

Nineteenth-century fairgrounds formed the workplace of many people with ‘curious’ bodies: from the ‘miniature man’ to the ‘fat boy’, from ‘Anita the Living Doll’ to ‘Lofty the Dutch Giant’. Relics of these and other performers can be found in the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield.

To what extent they were performing voluntarily must have varied. To what extent the features they were known for should be seen as disabilities or, quite the opposite, as skills, is an equally nuanced matter. But what is, I think, true for all of these people, is that they lived with certain bodies and minds every day of their lives: that to themselves they were their ordinary selves: ordinary selves which they had to cope with; ordinary selves which they might enjoy.

As soon as they got onto the stage, however, their bodies and/or minds became a spectacle, a curiosity, a matter of entertainment.

And that is, of course, also exactly what Conchita Wurst was at the Eurovision Song Contest: a stage performance.

The Bearded Lady as a stage performance is not new. Bodies that cross the borders of what is deemed normal are not new. To display them is not new.

If people want to truly ‘move on’, as Wurst hoped, they must be able to see Conchita’s beauty off stage as well as on stage. They should see her feminine beauty and her masculine beauty all at once, in the dressing-room as well as under the spotlights. And the same, of course, applies to the ‘midget’ and the ‘giant’.

I am not sure such a thing will ever happen, because if the extraordinary becomes ordinary, what will we watch on a Saturday night? We crave the spectacular alongside the normal.

But in as far as it concerns the ‘freaks’ I have been writing of – that is, in as far as it concerns real individuals who are turned into curiosities – it may be something worth striving for.

Conchita, I hope to meet you drinking an ordinary Eiskaffee on an everyday Vienna terrace this summer!


N.B. As far as I know, Raafs Reizend Theater has not yet been translated.