Sunday, September 29, 2013

Marathon Man

Hats off to Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich, who set a new world record (2:03:23) in the Berlin marathon today. Will anyone ever run it in under two hours? The only marathon I've run, and am ever likely to run, was the London Marathon. I did it in 3:59:44. Those 16 seconds shaved & saved were worth the unheroic grimace, captured on camera, as I crossed the line.  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Anime Evening

A leisurely day indoors doing 'stuff', finishing with a Studio Ghibli film we'd never seen before - Whisper of the Heart, from the mid-90s. It was directed by Kondo Yoshifumo, not Miyazaki, but it's otherwise typical of the Studio. 
A young, bookish teenage girl befriends a boy who has a passion for making violins. He chooses to drop out of school to take up an apprenticeship in Italy, she yearns to do the same with her writing. It's quite slight, with a cheesy ending, and nothing like the full-blown fantasy epics of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away which followed soon after, but we liked it. 
The animation is actually quite basic but what I love about the Ghibli films is the banal detail of the sets: untidy, cramped apartments in ordinary neighbourhoods with combini stores, pre-stressed concrete and mess of telegraph wires. And the innocence, yet feistiness, of the young - and seemingly always - female lead characters. Made us homesick for Tokyo. See also Arietty

Friday, September 27, 2013

Quackers

Time for the annual Beijing Design Week, and this year the star attraction is Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant rubber duck. Here it is at the Garden Expo earlier this week - before it waddles over to the Summer Palace. At 16m high, it’s the biggest version yet. The artist declares that “The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn't discriminate people and doesn't have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them.” Well, whatever. What’s certain is that cities around the world are desperate to have it. Us, us, us! We want the duck! The question is, why?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Progress

Forty years ago today, the gorgeously sleek Concorde made its first non-stop Atlantic flight in 3hrs 32mins. Nowadays it takes over double that time, in a rather bulbous Boeing or Airbus. Similarly, in 1973, it would probably have taken 20 mins for the sexily streamlined E-Type Jag to get from Chelsea to Westminster, while now it would take double that, in a bulbous, ubiqutous SUV. A weird kind of progress? 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Toilet Humour


Can't speak for the ladies but, for me, taking a leak in China is an educational experience...

And this, for both genders...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Car-Free Day

Today is Car-Free Day, when the citizens of numerous cities around the world take to public transport, bikes or simply walk into town. It started during the oil crisis of the early 70s but has picked up momentum with all things Green. Notable examples have been Jakarta (a major coup, if you know the city), Bogota, Montreal, Toronto, Munich, Reykjavik etc. That said, it's still a patchy affair and my guess is that very few people have ever heard of it. 
Apparently 150 cities in China observed it this year, limited to certain neighbourhoods. In Beijing it took place around the Olympic Stadium (largely empty) and Wangfujing Street (mostly pedestrian); everywhere else was pretty clogged, not helped by the irony that today - a Sunday - is a workday for most, thanks to the knock-on effect of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Tokenism? Perhaps. But at least it's getting media coverage and awareness is growing.
Me? I hopped on my bike to do the shopping, today being no different from any other really.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

Data Made (Fairly) Interesting

It's official: CAFA Museum has the best exhibitions in town. Last week a Joseph Beuys show opened, today it was Information in Style - a modestly-sized look at how design, art and technology are combining to present information and statistics in new and interesting ways.
The works were mainly from London colleges like the RCA and Bartlett. I like the one on the right which visualises - in 3D form - Twitter trends during the London 2012 Olympic Games. 
What was missing though was a different way of presenting the opening ceremony's speeches. There were six of them, including mine. It would have been fun to apply some software which took out all the duplication and projected a composite reduced from 40 minutes to four. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mooncake Modesty

Public holiday today, courtesy of Mid Autumn Festival which celebrates harvest and a full moon. Traditionally people give each other mooncakes, small sweet pies usually filled with bean paste. In recent years the fillings and packaging have gone progressively over-the-top, all part of showing off one's wealth or casual bribery. But following the new government's crackdown on corruption, gold-encrusted mooncakes stuffed with shark's fin are out and regular is in. The country will probably still spend around £1bn on them though.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The End of Lemony Snicket

N is on the 13th and last book of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket being Daniel Handler in real life). It tells the story of the Baudelaire orphans and their trials & tribulations at the hands of Count Olaf, a distant relative who's after their inheritance. It's a strange series: a cross-between gothic and sci-fi, tragicomedy and absurdism, Michaels Morpurgo and Moorcock. 
Aged 9, my reading matter was probably limited to Richard Scarry, Tintin and Arthur Ransome. The sophistication of Lemony Snicket, its themes of children alone in a timeless, sometimes fantastic adult world, mixing despondency with dark humour, reminds me, strangely enough, of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius series - and I didn't read those until a teenager. We're back to the debate about dark subject matters in children's books: good or bad. My two love Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson and I don't think they're fostering psychological disorders for later in life...
So, we're on the last book, appropriately called The End. But will it be the end?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bloom

Spent an enjoyable, frivolous half hour mucking around with some apps which Gary has installed on his iPad. One of them's an interactive music-art piece called Bloom by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. Little raindrops of colour and sound created by your finger tips which loop, aggregate and fade in tasteful, soporific fashion. They've since done two more: Trope and Scape. The 21st century equivalent of worry beads, or those swinging ball-bearings that were once de-rigeur for desk tops (as opposed to desktops - although there's probably an app for them too)?
The contrast between this and Tehching's art (see post below) could not be more pronounced. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Extreme Art

Experienced a minor epiphany this morning. While mooching around 798 with Gary & Pat, we caught the last day of an exhibition, Time Clock Piece, by the Taiwan-born, New York-based performance-artist Tehching Hsieh. I'd never come across him before, but what an oversight. 
Basically, his works are 'actions' - making art and life simultaneous. In the late 70s / early 80s he made five exceptional - and exceptionally long - pieces. They are:
One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece) - In this piece, which lasted from 29 Sept 1978 to 30 Sept 1979, the artist locked himself in a wooden cage, furnished only with a wash basin, lights, a bucket and a bed. During the year, he was not allowed to talk, to read, to write, or to listen to radio and TV. A lawyer, Robert Projansky, notarized the entire process and made sure the artist never left the cage during that one year. A friend came daily to deliver food, remove the artist's waste, and take a single photograph to document the project. In addition, this performance was open to be viewed once or twice a month from 11am to 5pm.
One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece)For one year, from 11 April 1980 to 11 April 1981, Hsieh punched a time clock every hour on the hour. Each time he punched the clock, he took a single picture of himself, which together yield a 6 minute movie. He shaved his head before the piece, so his growing hair reflects the passage of time.
One Year Performance 1981–1982 (Outdoor Piece)In his third one year performance piece, from 26 Sept 1981 to 26 Sept 1982, Hsieh spent one year outside, not entering buildings or shelter of any sort, including cars, trains, airplanes, boats or tents. He moved around New York City with a backpack and a sleeping bag.
Art / Life: One Year Performance 1983-1984 (Rope Piece) In this performance, Hsieh and Linda Montano spent one year between 4 July 1983 and 4 July 1984 tied to each other with an 8-foot-long rope. They had to stay in a room while not allowed to touch each other until the end of the one year period. The performance was notarized initially by Paul Grassfield and later by Pauline Oliveros.
He followed these with two more works: One Year Performance 1985-1986 (No Art Piece) in which he did no art, spoke no art, saw no art (an impossibility I would have thought), read no art and did not enter a museum or gallery; and the epic Tehching Hsieh 1986-1999 (Thirteen Year Plan) in which he declared "Will make art during this time. Will not show it publicly". 

What is he trying to say with his art? Does one has to say anything? Why does he push himself to such extremes?  Who knows? Maybe even he doesn't?  Apparently he now lives fairly quietly with his wife in Brooklyn.  I've just got one word: Respect.
  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Camden Hutongs

Took the day off to wander the hutongs with Gary & Pat. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, no residential building within the city walls could be higher than one storey and they had to be grey - much like today's weather. Interesting how gentrification is creeping in. Not just the renovations, but the cool little cafes and boutique shops. Hope they don't all end up like Nanluoguxiang Street though, which has become a long, stretched-out version of Camden Market with the crowds to match.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Alone

Today NASA announced that the space probe Voyager 1, launched in 1977, has now left our solar system, the first man-made object to do so. Originally intended to check out the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, it has kept on going, sending back data, careering into nothingness. It will continue... although by 2025 will cease sending back data and effectively 'die' as its batteries pack in. What an amazing journey. I know it's only a hunk of metal & wire & stuff but I really feel for it. Could there be anything related to mankind that has ever been more lonely?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Keeping Up with the Germans

A German feel to the day...  A meeting with Peter Anders, Director of the Goethe Institut, to hear about their 25 years in China celebrations (and finding out that Dusseldorf band Stabil Elite did a gig in Beijing last week, unbeknownst to me); lunch at Backyard Cafe - a particular favourite among local German businessmen; a listen to Stabil Elite's Douze Pouze (which made my missing them in the flesh even more frustrating); and reading a book called Keeping Up with the Germans: a History of Anglo-German Encounters - written by a German who's lived in London for long enough to know the score - which I guess would involve penalties.
As a teenager I was fascinated by Germany: starting with Grimms fairy tales, Porsche and Borussia Monchengladbach, the Olympics & World Cup of 72 & 74... Krautrock, the whole Cold War Berlin vibe, Herzog & Fassbender...  
By the 80s it had waned a bit, but by then I'd met Wolfgang through music and he's become one of my oldest friends. So Germany, Zum Wohl! (as Cluster would say). 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Teachers Day

Today is Teachers Day in China, when students show their appreciation of their teachers with small gifts (as opposed to castigation during the madness of 1967-76). Why today? No-one really knows, but back in 1985 someone chose 10 September and it's stuck. But not for long: last week the Government approved a bill moving it (next year) to 28 Sept - Confucius's birthday. 
Other countries do the same on different dates, and there's also a World Teachers Day on 5 October though it doesn't seem to be widely acknowledged - least of all in the UK. Do British children doff their caps to their teachers, or perhaps place an apple on their desks? I think not. To be honest, I don't recall any of mine being particularly inspiring, but I can remember all my form teachers, from year 1 at primary school to upper 6th: Mrs Howard, Mrs Chase, Mrs Mann, Sister Maria, Mr Hutchings ('Sir'), Sister Scolastica, Mr Ashton (Baldy), Mr Read, Dr Elphee (woe betied you if you called him mister), Mrs Simmonds (two years running), Mr Craig and Mr Fenton. Lists. What would we do without them? 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Wanda

This morning I had a meeting with a company called Wanda. Like most big Chinese companies, they haven't been around for long, although Wanda have been around for longer than most (1988). Initially dealing in property and department stores, they've recently taken an interest in the UK and bought a luxury yacht company and land in Nine Elms, near where the new US embassy is being built. But it's their interest in cinemas that has piqued my interest. They have 115 across the country, of which 67 are IMAX. All are digital. They've also just bought the American chain, AMC and are investing in a Film Technology Park in Wuhan (part of which was designed by Mark Fisher - see earlier post). So perhaps they'll be interested in our British Film Week?  Oh, and their CEO Wang Jianlin is now officially the richest person in China.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

56 Ethnic Minorities in 4 Hours

Beijing is full of surprises. Today we took the girls to the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park, out near the Olympic stadium. We weren't expecting that much to be honest, but it was really impressive. Basically it's an outdoor museum which presents - through traditional homes, clothes and customs - China's 56 ethnic minorities, ranging from the larger groups like Manchu and Uyghur (both about 10m) to the tiny Hezhen, Gaoshan and Lhoba (each just a few thousand). And not forgetting the Han, who are presented like any other, despite their 1.2bn.
The park is huge, with around 200 buildings dotted around pleasantly contrived hills and lakes. There's an impressive Qiang village from western Sichuan, a covered bridge typical of the Dong people from southern China, a tastefully done Tibetan potala atop a hill, rice fields, a Naxi old town square in which a colourful ethnic fashion show took place, actual-size pagodas & temples, crafts-sellers, geese, you name it.
It was like we were on holiday, blitzing around China's lesser-known regions. Very good signage in Mandarin and English (though apparently it was once mistranslated as the Racist Park!). And so peaceful. Amazingly few visitors. We were the only westerners. Very glad we went.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Election Day

Election Day in Australia, and the embassy was open for voters. Our friends Colin & Vanessa and their colleagues laid on a barbie as expats drifted in to vote for Abbott or Costello - sorry, Rudd. I didn't know this before, but voting is obligatory in Oz and you face a fine of $20 if you don't (which doesn't seem much of a penalty, frankly). But who wouldn't vote for a guy whose campaign included such crackers as: "If you want to know who to vote for, I'm the guy with the not bad looking daughters."

Friday, September 6, 2013

Magic Bus

Been reading Rory Maclean's Magic Bus: on the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India. Ah, the sixties and seventies... Of course it started before The Beatles sojourn with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but that was probably 'the moment'. Thereafter the floodgates opened and beatniks, flower children and other enlightenment-seekers hit the road. All you needed was a clapped-out Bedford bus, a Ginsberg or Hesse paperback, some roll-ups and a change of tie-dyed clothes. 
Maclean re-traces the route in 2006, seeing how it's changed. The answer is of course a lot. When once it was a relatively straight-forward, if bumpy, dusty drive, stopping only for repairs and to flash passports at a few sleepy border crossings, it is now a dangerous undertaking, and even Maclean is forced to fly through central Afghanistan.
He meets all sorts of characters along the way, some of whom were around at the time, stayed, dropped out, converted to Islam, or zoned out in ashrams. Some of my favourite German musicians went in the 70s - Deuter, Embryo, Peter Michael Hamel, Stefan Micus, Peter Baumann etc - and it's apparent in their music.
Anyway, good book - provoking a sort of yearning for more 'innocent' times. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Odd, I See

Bed-time story for the girls this week is Homer's The Odyssey - an abridged version, so tolerable for my two. I probably read it at school and have vague memories of cyclopses and sirens, but what I hadn't realised was that only half of the book is about his journey. The second half simply concerns itself with getting rid of a load of suitors who had occupied his house during the intervening 20 years, bothering his wife Penelope. It's a rather long-winded, domesticated conclusion to what is otherwise a fantastic (in the true sense of the word) adventure. 
Having said that, the denouement is deeply gory. He kills all 106 suitors with a bow, arrow & sword, hangs twelve of the household maids who had slept with them, and dismembers the goatherd Melanthius who had unwisely mocked him on his return. So obviously he hadn't got Troy out of his system. Thankfully the abridged version spares us the detail - they are simply 'despatched to Hades' - and my two girls went off to bed laughing. "Why didn't he just tell them to leave?"

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Homework

This evening Liz and I went to A's new school for a curriculum meeting. Ten days into term and the big difference - apart from its physical size, the number of children, getting up earlier and back later - is the amount of homework. An hour or two of it each evening. I don't remember getting that much when I was 11. I've only just learned of the '10 minute rule' - assigning 10 minutes of homework per day per grade, starting with 10 mins at grade 1 (aged 5) and increasing to two hours by grade 12 (aged 16). The research also came up with the following unsurprising statement: "The benefit of homework is lost when the parent completes all or most of the assignment for the student". Duh, really?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Books in Brum

Europe's largest public library opened in Birmingham today, holding 1.5m books and other facilities. Not sure about the design, by Mecanoo and Buro Happold, but great that a new public cultural institute can still be built in these times of austerity and also that, in this digital age, there's still a place for physical books. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Daytrip

To Shanghai for the day. Sounds crazy - it's actually further than London to Berlin, say - but actually surprisingly do-able. Up at 6am, leave home by 6.30am, check-in at 7am, flight took off on time at 8am, arrive Shanghai 10am, no luggage & efficient taxi rank meant that I was in office by 11am. Seven hour day. Left office at 6:15pm, flight on time, home by 10:45.  Wouldn't want to do it every day, mind.