Singapore Design Week 2016 – National Design Centre: Design and Make Fair

Singapore Design Week 2016 at the National Design Centre. This was the site of one of NAFA’s former campuses – I have fond memories of the place in its previous incarnation and the promising smell of watercolour paint that used permeate the place.

Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre

Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre

Design and Make Fair
The Design and Make Fair, said the official non-committal blurb,

is an introduction to the lively, growing community of designers and makers in Singapore, many of whom are small business entrepreneurs that produce delightful creations. It’s a fantastic opportunity for anyone and everyone to get started on the creative process of making, and appreciate design embedded in everyday living.

It was certainly more middle-class design-focused than Maker Faire (facebook), Supermama’s Trunk Show featured:

what was advertised as maki-e painting, but turned out to be another way of getting designed lacquerware – by painting layers of naturally-dyed lacquer onto a pair of chopsticks and then sanding off sections to produce a pattern. The originally-advertised maki-e, it was explained, would have taken too many days to do:

Design and Make Fair. Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre

Design and Make Fair. Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre
Design and Make Fair. Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre
For S$30, you could sand down a pair of lacquerware chopsticks for yourself.

In the foyer, you could make an abacus under the watchful eye of another Japanese craftsman (Mr Hidetaka Miyanaga?) for, I think, S$30 as well.

Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre

Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design CentrePrepared as we were to be educated and wowed by these Japanese master craftsmen, the lack of knowledge of the salesgirls, the regretable inability of the craftsmen themselves to converse in fluent English, resulted in little communication at all about the intricacies of each trade. Instead, the constant refrain to pay up for a go a chopsticks-sanding etc. just left us feeling a little vulgar.

  1. Why the push to vapid consumerism?
  2. And surely even vapid consumerism requires some hardsell? Ask any of the pasar malam salesmen with their sweaty portable microphones.

What a lost opportunity to really showcase the artisans Supermama (facebook) had taken the pains to find and partner with.

How far this was from the appreciation shown by Richard Sennett to craftsmen (in The Craftsman), whom, he says, glory in the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake; good craftsmanship involving hardship and struggle, developing skills. Not for them are those tedious superficial signs of self-promotion (“artisanal”, “atelier”).

On the ground floor though, the lack of aspirational figures in the One Maker Group‘s Make! Prototyping Lab space did not diminish the enthusiasm of the crowd. How could they get access to the 3D printer? When were the woodworking classes?, eager mothers-with-precocious children wanted to know.

Make! Prototyping Lab. Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre

Make! Prototyping Lab. Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre
Make! Prototyping Lab. Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design CentreLeather making (Atelier Lodge, The General Company, Stone for Gold, Lucky Apron Studio), woodworking, laser-cutting (Steammetry (facebook)), electronics, 3D printing classes abound in Singapore. If the maker movement really takes off locally so that amateur attempts mature into something more masterful (currently watching: Jeremiah Ang of J. Myers), and if making is thinking (qua Richard Sennett), then it will be very interesting to observe the relationship between Singapore society and artisanal products (qualitatively so, not just branding) in 10, 20 years.

Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre

Singapore Design Week (March 2016), National Design Centre
Would there be a general shift from passive consumption? Will we reach beyond quirky merchandisation? What mindset shifts would occur? How will values change?

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ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road and the Authentic Artist

Having grown up amongst paintings and drawings and their artists, I am particularly fond of art workrooms strewn with unfinished work, a paint-splattered floor, inspiration boards in a mess, smelling strongly of acrylic or watercolour paint. So was delighted for a free hour or two to mosey about the open studios at ArtWalk@Wessex (facebook) and chat with some of the residents.

ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeOther than the happiness of being in a workspace and discovering new art, I had two aims: (i) to subtly help artists sell their work; (ii) to see what sort of artists occupied the Wessex Work Lofts.

ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeTo achieve the first aim was relatively easy. Artists have different temperaments and worldviews:

  • some are in it for the alleged (mostly elusive) easy money. Lots of schmoozing ensues;
  • some want a lifestyle that is non-office droney (or, depending on your perspective, undisciplined) and gives them hipster and authenticity points with their friends and society. Lots of “hey look how cool and alternative and smart I am” ensues;
  • others just want to make art but obviously need to feed themselves so have put on their scratchy best shirt and try their hardest to be friendly to visitors. But they’d rather be in front of an unfinished canvas.

With the last, a few well-placed questions, especially when it was obvious that potential customers in the studio were not quite appreciating the art for lack of commentary, was just the push they needed to them them going. Many collectors like to know the story behind a piece of art, the vision of a work, and several stopped to look more closely after sullen artists started getting more animated and chatty. Hopefully some went from “I’m not sure this goes with our decor” to “actually, I think we can repaint the wall”.

To achieve the second aim, I’ve learned from years of attempting to extricate myself from the over-friendly hard-sell of schmoozers to dress down as much as possible: slippers, shorts, a t-shirt that has seen better days. Artists who prioritise sales more than educating people about their art would ignore someone like that, and a handful did. It was their freedom to do so, and it was great because it helped me concentrate on those who were less commercial-minded and who just wanted to chat about their projects and were curious about the lives of visitors as well.

Frances Alleblas. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Frances Alleblas. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Frances Alleblas. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeFrances Alleblas (2 Woking Road, #02-03)

Max Kong Studio, ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Max Kong Studio, ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Max Kong Studio. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeMax Kong Studio (3 Westbourne Road, #01-01) – sun and moon – he demonstrated how the pieces would look different in daylight and at night without artificial lighting.

Saya Yamaguchi. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeSaya Yamaguchi (also 3 Westbourne Road, #01-01) Tsujii Junko. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore girl adding to a painting by Tsujii Junko. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Tsujii Junko. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Tsujii Junko. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeTsujii Junko (3 Westbourne Road, #03-05) CdeM Atelier & Art School. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore CdeM Atelier & Art School. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore CdeM Atelier & Art School. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore CdeM Atelier & Art School (5 Westbourne Road, #01-02. facebook) by Patricia Cabaleiro. Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Milica Bravacic. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeMilica Bravacic (5 Westbourne Road, #01-01) – inspiration from Peranakan tiles.

d'Art Studio - Dick Lim (Chye). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore d'Art Studio - Dick Lim (Chye). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore d'Art Studio - Dick Lim (Chye). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapored’Art Studio (5 Westbourne Road, #02-03). Dick Lim who signs his work as “Chye”. Amazingly versatile artist. Particularly liked the black-and-white canvases with a little thing of red.

Beng (Benny Goerlach). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Beng (Benny Goerlach). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore Beng (Benny Goerlach). ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeBeng (8 Woking Road, #02-03. facebook), who isn’t the Hokkien vulgarity-spewing long-fingernailed man you thought he would be.

JoyClay Studio & Gallery. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore JoyClay Studio & Gallery. ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, SingaporeJoyClay Studio & Gallery (10 Woking Road, #01-01).

Authenticity in art, in terms not of provenance but artistic motivation, is a big criteria for me. It sounds a bit esoteric but owning a piece of art is like purchasing a sliver of the artist’s soul – and I would like one that is kind and generous and passionate and well-thought-through (about a cause or a message, not Mammon or ego).

Perhaps this comes from being used to people holding out the Christian gospel to others: they do so for the glory of God whom they think should, rightly, be worshipped, and they do so for the good of the people to whom they are speaking – for their salvation. While missionaries, evangelists, pastors, Bible teachers may be paid for their work (just as an ox is fed for treading out the grain), to preach the good news merely for monetary or other personal gain would be anathema!

ArtWalk@Wessex 2015, Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road, Singapore

Good Food and Street Art Wall Murals in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. And Goodbye.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia) -> Georgetown, Penang (Malaysia)

After several years away from south-east asia, my tastebuds were eager to be overwhelmed by the manifold spices of Malaysian/SIngaporean (please fight about authenticity and origination elsewhere) cuisine. A quick stopover in Penang would put that right, I hoped, before an overnight coach down to Singapore.

in the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
view from the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, PenangFoot passengers and vehicles occupied the same space on the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown on the island of Penang.

The UNESCO World Heritage site had retained many of its pre-war shophouses (the original SOHO):
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

There were old-timey signs, and fake old-timey signs (simulacra ftw!):
Gold Cup Mahjong, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Kedai Biskut & Kek Ming Xiang Tai. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

There were the commissioned Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculptures – a collection of caricatures installed on several streets by Sculpture at Work:
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

And then there is the recent street art or wall murals (or graffiti), both commissioned and, err, spontaneous:
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
faded wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaWould these wall murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic be less authentic as an art form because (i) they were commissioned for the 2012 George Town Festival, (ii) he’s not Malaysian, (iii) they have become objects of tourist adoration – marketed not only on official tourist literature but also reproduced on keychains, notebooks, pens, and other kitschy souvenirs?

Penang street artists sure like cats:
cat, wall  mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
cat wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaGeorgetown, Penang, Malaysiaor not:
Bruce Lee kicking cats, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaAnd when is it art and when just eyesore?
dog eating steak, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaGeorgetown, Penang, Malaysia
man on boat wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
I want to believe + altar, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
pink elephant, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
gangsta penguins, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
grafitti, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

man cleaning altar street art, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ballet girl street art, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaI remembered reading with amusement how some Londoners wrote asking Banksy to go do his art somewhere else, because the graffiti had been embraced by so many Gen Xers that it was no longer counter-cultural, and in fact was causing gentrification of areas and an increase in living costs for original residents.

kelong, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kelong. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kelong. Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaHis fellow graffiti artists, meanwhile, accused him of selling out for making money from his art. Why should it be less authentic to get money from art? Or why should his message be less real if more people embrace it so much they would pay for it? “Just take the f*cking donut!” says Amanda Palmer in The Art of Asking.

Joo Hooi Cafe (more of a coffeeshop really) at the junction of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Keng Kwee managed to retain both its old booth seats and an elderly grumpy drinks aunty. Later, she forgot to be grumpy in her amazement at the amount of food I was putting away. Everything I had was good and full-flavoured, with the right mix of ingredients, cooked at just the right temperature for the right time – something that many of the mainland Chinese employees of Singaporean hawkers could not replicate:

Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
rojak, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
assam laksa, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
teh o ais limau, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
char kway teow, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysiarojak, assam laksa, char kway teow (with duck egg)

Outside the coffeshop, two rival carts of chendol vendors faced each other on the narrow Lebuh Keng Kwee. The popular (and some say original) one is the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol (as opposed to the Penang Road Famous Chendol). It’s RM0.50 if you want to eat its icy treats in Joo Hooi, or there’s seating further down the road in a coffeeshop space rented by the chendol vendor:
Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ais cendol, from Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

ice kachang, Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaSpent a really comfy night at the newly-opened Muntri Grove – the first and last hotel of the trip. I was sold by the much lower rate per night offered by the nice manager.

Late the next day, strolled over to Toh Soon Cafe, where there was a crowd waiting for seats:
Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
charcoal grilled bread and charcoal heated water, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
iced milk coffee, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
packs of toast, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, tea and coffee, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Shared a table with two interior designers who’d come to Georgetown to see a client. Minimalist designs and the vintage theme, they said, were their most common briefs. The wait for the grilled toast wore on. Hungry, one of the girls went to the coffeeshop at the other end of the little alley and returned with a bowl of wanton noodles to share. The texture of the noodles was “very QQ”:
wanton noodles, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Food was so ubiquitous in Georgetown that every street had some cart or stall to pique culinary curiousity:

you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysiaa couple of ladies making and frying you tiao (dough fritters) – like all fried food, best eaten very hot!

Whilst taking a shortcut, saw someone standing outside a faded signboard that read “Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay” (facebook). Went to investigate and found an Aladdin’s cave of kueh delights!

Moh Teng Pheoh Nyonya Koay, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
framing, Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaThen, just before the Grassland coach to Singapore overnight, grabbed dinner at Lebuh Presgrave. The last of this whole London to Singapore trip:
Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
prawn noodles, Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ice kachang, Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Goodbye, freedom of the road. Farewell, the materially-simple backpacker’s life. Tomorrow, re-entry into society, with all the roles, responsibilities, and joys that that will bring.

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

(For reasons known only to my subconscious, everytime I attempt to speak a foreign language, what comes out is French before that segues somewhat into the intended vernacular. And it’s not like I actually know that much French. Useless brain. So after speaking French to several confused Penangites, I switched to Malaysian-inflected English. As my Singaporean-Malay teacher used to say, if you cannot make it, fake it lah.)

*the last part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

There has been no end of people gushing how my London to Singapore trip, over land, was going to be the journey of a lifetime. I just could not understand it – all I was doing was taking a really slow and tedious route from Europe to Asia.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamAnd many of the epic train journeys, like the Trans-mongolian Railway and now the Reunification Express were just normal means of commuting for many people. Perhaps it wasn’t the cost of train rides that were the issue, but the rarity of the experience in our little social circle?

Continuing my read-through Andrew Potter’s book:

The Authenticity Hoax: The Creative Self

“In the last couple of chapters, we have followed the turn in Western culture that began with an initial, visceral reaction against the three pillars of the modern world: spiritual disenchantment, political liberalism, and the growth of the market economy. As we traced it through the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this reaction gave rise to the ideal of authenticity, which culminated in a celebration of spontaneity, emotional transparency, and a fixation on the creative powers of the individual to provide meaning in a world that otherwise offers none.

This last development is particularly important. Once the authentic self becomes, in effect, an artistic project, that puts a number of questions relating to art and authenticity front and center. What counts as an authentic work of art? What threatens artistic authenticity?…”

“There is an ambiguity in the way we use the term authenticity when discussing art. The first kind of authenticity, what the art world refers to as its provenance, is concerned with the correct identification of the origins or authorship of an object or work…[the second kind is about] whether the work is a true expression of the artist’s self, her vision, her ideals, or perhaps her community, culture, or “scene”. What we are concerned with in this case is that there is a divergence between the art that is expressed and what we think the artist ought to be expressing, or is entitled to express.”

“The underlying intuition here is that there is an intimate connection between your upbringing and your identity: that the biographical question “Where are you from?” is a reliable guide to answering the existential question “Where are you coming from?” Further, there’s a normative dimension to this, insofar as your background (including your race, your class, your schooling, even what part of the country you are from) frames the scope and limits of what you can legitimately claim to speak, or sing, or paint, or write about.” [Comment: class distinction and social hierarchy smuggled in another form?]

“This intuition manifests itself all over the place. For example, it is what drives one of the longest-running battles in the culture wars, over “appropriation of voice” and the question of when, if ever, it is permissible for someone of one culture or racial background to speak in the voice of another.” [Comment: long-running assumption that “blacking-up” is politically-incorrect, but what about cripping-up then? ask some]

“…what the [Sonia] Sotomayor incident highlights is the way this type of identity politics quickly turns into a form of status competition, where the relative authenticity of one voice over another results in a game of moral one-upmanship.”

“According to the standard picture of cultural co-optation, what happens is an authentic art form emerges organically out of a given subcultural milieu. Eventually, members of the dominant culture (usually rich white males) come along and appropriate the superficial looks or sounds or techniques of this artform while taking some sandpaper to its rougher edges. This softened version is then sold to the masses as the real thing…What happens if we can’t tell the difference between the original and the fake, or between the authentic and the ersatz?”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam “We might think it is a straight-forward, empirical fact whether a painting is an authentic Rembrandt, and the connoisseur is the one who can tell us. But in a world where art can be copied, reworked, and reproduced in an indefinite number of copies, the very idea of the “original” work becomes problematic, and by the end of the twentieth century it had led to a serious crisis of authenticity in the world of art.”

“[Walter] Benjamin argues that there is a straightforward answer to the question of what distinguishes an original work of art from the perfect copy, since even the perfect copy is lacking in one crucial element, namely, its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…the sense of awe or veneration we have for an authentic relic or a work of art is captured by more than just its past. What we value is its aura, which consists in the history and individuality of the object, insofar as it is embedded in what he calls the “fabric of a tradition.” That is, an authentic work of art is an object that was created at a certain time for a specific purpose.”

“In secular cultures, the aura is preserved…by what Benjamin calls “the cult of beauty”, the secularised but quasi-religious worship of art for art’s sake.”

“So to qualify as an authentic work of art, it is essential that it be connected in some way to a community and its rituals, and the further removed an object is from this ritual power, the more the aura withers. This is why Benjamin thought that the early-twentieth century debate over whether photography and film are legitimate forms of art completely missed the point. The real issue was the way in which these had completely transformed the entire nature of art by dissolving the relationships within which the concept of the authentic work made sense. The two main solvents at work in the age of mechanical reproduction are massification and commodification.”

“In the age of secularised, commercialised, mass-marketed entertainment, what plays the role of the ritual in preserving the aura of the work is the artist’s life. Their past, their history, their lifestyle or persona is what provides the ballast that anchors the work in some sort of creative tradition or narrative, saving it from the frothy superficiality of mere commerce.”

“…in the age of digital reproduction, we treat art as a commodity – cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected.”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam“…in the age of digital culture it is not just access to art that has been democratized but its production as well…But when everyone is so busy creating, who has time to consume any of it? In an economy where what is scarce is attention, the spoils will go to the artist who is best able to command it, even if this requires some rather baroque or contrived setups to achieve.”

“Across the artistic spectrum, we are starting to see a turn toward forms of aesthetic experience and production that by their nature can’t be digitized and thrown into the maw of the freeconomy. One aspect of this is the cultivation of deliberate scarcity…Another is the recent hipster trend to treat the city as a playground…This fascination with works that are transient, ephemeral, participatory, and site-specific is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect.”

“But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle…now it turns out that authenticity is something for which people are willing to spend great sums of money.”

I wondered what people would have paid for a journey from Hanoi to Saigon in a compartment full of sweaty Vietnamese men…if it was sold as performance art or as an authentic trip unlike any other.

My compartment-mates were a few too many – it seemed that they’d only paid for two berths but were 6 (and maybe more). There was an older man in a uniform and two underlings who looked very uncomfortable. And there were three other men who drank frequently from a jerry can of moonshine, smoked cheap cigarettes, and played cards. All the space under the bottom berths and under the table were taken up with their large pieces of luggage. Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThey felt at liberty to sit on my berth as well, inching closer and closer to the ball I’d made of myself next to the window, until I told them to please remove their unwashed selves.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamStill, there were offers of moonshine, and then tea as they sought to deal with their moonshine headaches. I wondered how my perception of the situation would change if this were my weekly commute, or if this was the set of a interactive art installation. Food on the train was rather dismal after the tastiness of Chinese restaurant cars: bao and steamed corn for brekkie: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnama restaurant car patronised only by train attendants, and where it was made clear that I was unwelcome: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamafter which I decided to take my chances with the packed food coming round: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThis was the only station we managed to hop off for some food-shopping: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamSo, the glamorous authentic adventure of train travel.

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Onboard the Trans-mongolian Train 24 from Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) to Beijing (China)

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China)

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

PB130424Train 24 on the Trans-mongolian Express route from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (China) was such a nice change from the Chinese stock I took from Moscow to UB.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWhether or not due to the presence of the unsmiling Mongolian provodnitsa, the interior of the compartments were comfortingly clean and the bunks properly-made. The bed-linen wasn’t stained or dusty.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingOur compartment attendant was on her knees scrubbing the corridor several times during the 1 day-journey. And naturally, the stainless steel toilet almost sparkled.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingInstant coffee and salty milk tea were provided, and paper cups in which to mix your drinks with the hot water from the samovar at one end of the carriage. I shared a second-class compartment with an elderly Korean sailor who had been in Mongolia for the last 6 years. Or so I think he said – he either changed his story several times in the course of the journey or we were suffering terribly from the effects of Babel. Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWe shared food – I brought biscuits to the table, and he, some fried bread.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingHe proved to be quite a character – I would awake suddenly from naps to find him staring intently at me, not too far from my face. In the photo above, he is standing and staring into the provodnista’s compartment which she had just entered with a change of clothes.

For a change of scenery, I headed to the restaurant car: Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingThere were some Americans there, one of whom was throwing a tantrum about foreign food and how the cook was not doing his steak just the way he liked it back home. Felt bad for his friends who were trying to explain to a thoroughly confused waiter what the problem was, and then trying to counsel him that this was all part and parcel of travelling.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSat back and enjoyed the passing beauty of the Gobi desert. Here, a family of wind turbines; there a few yurts or gers; in the distance, a cluster of dots – cattle? camels? It was fun to speculate along with the rest of the restaurant car. “I see a hump!” “I see two humps!”

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSoon, we pulled into an assembly line to have our bogies changed at the Chinese border from the 1,520 mm Russian gauge used by Mongolia, to 1,435 mm standard gauge that the Chinese use. Now, life on board the train revolves, amongst few other things, around the loo and its availability. It’s usually locked at railway stations (for hygiene reasons) and here, it was out-of-action for more than 2 hours, causing a little distress amongst those who hadn’t the foresight to do a little bladder management.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingIn the morning, the view outside the clear train windows had changed remarkably. There were golden fields of wheat, and mountains just out of a Chinese painting. I finally understood the scenery my Chinese art teacher was trying to get us to portray.

Q: How much does the different sort of native scenery impose on artistic method (versus, say, easy availability of materials)?

Q: Further to a previous musing, how much do political borders delineate existing differences in genetic pool, culture, language, ideas, worldviews, and how much do they incite differences in these areas?

Curious minds want to know.

Meanwhile, here’s a gratuitous photo of what some fellow passengers claimed was toilet waste: frozen toilet waste, Trans-mongolian TrainYou’re welcome.