Dasniya and I have had, separately and together, a plan for years to go to the Thaipark street food market. For which, we made firm plans to go on Sunday. Good to know we checked it was open on Sunday. Might have helped if we checked what months it was open. April to October for youse who want to turn up and eat. A couple of hours later, we ate pizza at Mastro Pizza, over the other side of Schöneberg as we lazily lost our way walking east back to Kreuzberg.
I bought my camera ’cos I am still learning it and now it’s sunny I have no excuse.
Dasniya had a residency at Ballhaus Ost the last couple of months, thanks to pandemic and pandemic arts funding. I got to see a private showing last weekend, with Tara (yup, Tara!) and Yui. Yeah I’m a long-time fan of her work and Glutamat confirms it.
A month after I was in Wuppertal, I finally finish editing all the images from the Von der Heydt-Museum, which I sprinted through on a Friday morning before Gala and Michael’s dress rehearsal, two hours of indiscriminate camera-ing. Michael said, “I’ve lived here two years; never been.” Well it’s a regional museum, so you never know if it’s going to be banging, sad, or somewhere in-between.
Somewhere in-between, with moments or rather bloody good, plus fuck that was well done why don’t more museums do it like that? Lighting was a bit crap, lots of the natural stuff, which is good, but not diffused enough and pointing at heavily varnished old paintings, which is not, and some rooms where the clowns took over the illumination, so I’m wondering if the museum people even look at their own art. They don’t like people photographing though, that’s for sure. Cheap entrance price and utter thieving gouging ten euros to flop out a camera. Kinda stunned at that, like, you’re not the Louvre, you know that, eh?
Not much mediæval stuff, which is always my first stop, but there is a 1563 print of Martin Luther (minus nail holes), plus a stack of Albrecht Dürer copper engravings, which are achingly beautiful. I especially love the bagpipe player and the more disturbing works that didn’t photograph well, so no wild boar with an extra set of legs on its back, nor his mythological stuff. Past the wooden sculptures covering 500 years in a room, and into into another dim room with holy crap!
Francisco Goya’s Los caprichos. Everyone knows him for his Los desastres de la guerra series, but Los capricos was the my inspiration for bitches 婊子 and is by far my favourite work of his. And here’s half a dozen (they probably have the whole series buried somewhere) lined up along a wall.
Then what happens is that “Why don’t more museums do it like that?” thing. Nearby a Rembrandt engraving (the Zweiter Orientalerkopf one) is a 19th century Japanese watercolour, heavy orange sun setting over a turbulent wave, followed by Jan van Bylert’s Singende Hirte. It’s just the beginning. Some rooms later, when we’re deep in 20th century German Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit all over the walls, the centre of the room is Japanese and South-East Asian sculpture and works on paper. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen artwork from across the globe arranged like that in the same room … same museum? Coming up a blank. It’s rare even to see, say, Buddhist sculpture in the same museum as European art, outside of monster museums like London’s V&A where multiple departments are under one roof, but even there that former stuff is anthropology or The Asian Collection, and somehow implicitly not art — it’s craft or religious iconography, or Other … anything other than proper art coming from proper artists. So to put the two together, two thousand years East and South-East Asian mingled with half that of European; the head of a stone Ghandara Buddha figure from the first to third century next to Adolf Erbslöh’s Blaue Reiter period Schwebebahn; Javanese Wayang kulit shadow puppets and a folding screen by Kano Mitsunobu beside hard 21st century works by Sabine Moritz, Tamara K.E., and Tatjana Valsang; they work together so well and it isn’t an imperative to see the former as art like the latter but it becomes very uncomplicated and unremarkable to do so.
To see this stuff that’s always less art than art because it’s ‘for a purpose’ or whatever, be seen firstly and even solely as art is unexpected and radical. See the colour and that delicate but relentless Expressionism in the tapestry of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s from his time in Switzerland, facing off an equally colourful and delicate Chinese or Japanese Buddha / Luohan from centuries earlier. If nothing else, even if this arrangement does nothing for you, at least these works are being seen. And I’d totally be up for a big museum that does it like this. Imagine being in the Louvre or on Museum Insel in Berlin and not going into separate museums for each arbitrary delineation, but wandering through European mediæval art, and Ghaznavid Islamic art, and Japanese Kamakura art, and Chinese Song and Yuan, and South-East Asian, and the mediæval Americas and Africa and Australia … a global mediæval art exhibition mashed with a 20th century one. Sometimes I think museums are just going through the motions of museum-ing and exhibition-ing — however awesome their collections are — and then I find something like this, not this neo-liberal museum bollocks infestation, but something profoundly Museum: here is art, let’s look at it all together and find out what that looks like, what it causes, how it enriches all the artworks.
Complete divergence here. Back whenever Alte Nationalgalerie had the Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende exhibition (almost two years ago), amongst all the sublime brilliance they had this Degas piece. He’s a sleazy tosser, but I have a love for his ballet pieces, like Tänzerinnen im Probensaal, which I cried over. Fucking art. So I’m in Von der Heydt-Museum, and there’s a Degas! And it’s the same one. Didn’t cry this time, I’m hard, me. There was another of his too. Yeah, I know he’s a cliché, but it’s because he started it. All of that was to say, same work, different exhibition, different museum, different wall, different lighting, different companion works, different audience (a lot smaller and quieter for one), all that makes a different artwork. I didn’t even recognise it as the same one. I was talking with Robert Bartholot about this, how to photograph art, and how the work changes as fast as the light moving outside, and I dunno, maybe compare the two. Same, different.
Other special works. Besides Adolph Erbslöh’s Schwebebahn, cos I was in Wuppertal and the Schwebebahn is the best Bahn. How about Bahnhof Gesundbrunnen? My home station. I know that bridge so well even if that station hasn’t looked like that since the ’40s. There was also an Edvard Munch, which I got mad excited about, cos I don’t think I’ve ever seen his stuff on a wall. A whole bunch of 20th century post-war German art, almost all by men until the century flips over, Kuno Gonschior’s massive yellow minimalist / colour field / abstract expressionist piece was definitely a fave. So much I missed and haven’t even mentioned.
Worth going to? If you’re in or near Wuppertal, then yeah, says Frances who lived in Melbourne and went to the NGV maybe once — and didn’t pay attention. It’s difficult to modulate this for people who aren’t like me, who don’t travel hours with an agenda of binging art. If I was in the Ruhrgebiet or Düsseldorf for a bit, then it’d be a no-brainer: go to Wuppertal, see museums, see Pina Bausch. See Pina Bausch, ride the Schwebebahn.
I am getting such a kick out of reading this. Definitely going to be on my Book of the Year list.
The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng was published last year, so it’s been on my Want List for, I dunno, pushing a year, I guess. And I have no idea where I heard about it. Not io9 with its monthly list of what’s new (and what will I do for skiffy if io9 vanishes — any more than it already has?); not on Islam and Science Fiction, so that rules out the obvious ones; possibly on Twitter, but searching social networks is the 4Chan of the internet, so, no idea. Whoever brought it to my attention, and into my grubby mitts, well done!
Funny thing is, I’m not much into either steampunk or short stories, yet here am I blabbing about both. My ambivalence for short stories I have a feeling I’ve mentioned recently; it’s primarily that I like sinking deep into a story and the characters, for at least a day, ideally much longer, though my reading speed nixes the latter. Short stories at 15 minutes a pop leave me wanting more, it’s like reading the first chapter and being denied the novel.
Steampunk on the other hand, in its typical form, there’s no ambivalence: I find it contrived, a literary and cultural cul-de-sac dangerously uncritical of itself. And this is me talking about context again. The signifiers steampunk plays with are rooted in high industrial colonialism, sliding between mid-19th century Age of Steam proper, and early 20th century post-steam final years of the European imperialism. In fact while technologically rooted in a non-internal combustion engine alternate timeline, steampunk often sits firmly in pre-war 1914 in cultural, social, political signifiers. And I’m basing this on a rather small population of books read, but of those I have, and of my other reading, this is my impression. I also just don’t get the brass, clockwork, steam aesthetic. Partly because the era it fetishises sits atop colonialism and genocide in the real world, and partly because for me it’s even less plausible than dragons and magic.
So, we’ve established my hostility to short stories and steampunk, and yet here we are, me saying this is an excellent collection, I’m loving reading it, I want another, Volume 2: The Sea is Still Ours (2 Sea 2 Furious, or something). I love it because of the list of countries I’ve categorised and tagged this post under, countries I don’t mention enough these days, and though I never lived in any of them, I passed through most at one time or another when Guangzhou was my home. There’s a familiarity in the writing and stories, it’s like coming out of Hong Kong airport into the glorious damp heat on Chek Lap Kok and physically remembering where I am.
There’s another thing in the stories I’ve read so far (about half), which is requisitioning the signifiers of steampunk for use by the other side. It’s another alternate timeline, where the colonised got their hands on the technology of the European empires, merged it with their own technology, culture, world, and turned it against the aggressors. A world where the Maya civilisation resisted the Spanish empire enough to trade with the Philippines, where the Philippines themselves charted a different course. When I’m reading these stories, I keep thinking steampunk was made for this, using the technology of the age of colonialism to imagine other potential histories. It’s a far more satisfying genre written like this.
I was also thinking — and this is thanks to the work of editors Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng — how refreshing it is to read stories that aren’t coming out of the United States (putting aside that it was published there, by an American publisher, and that a couple of the writers live there). Dasniya and I spent an afternoon on the grass in front of the Reichstag yesterday soaking in the warm sun, the conversation moved — as it usually does — to those awkward words, inclusion, diversity, how to talk about one’s work while avoiding the reductionism of these terms yet also needing to make clear that the concerns these terms signify is central. And this is where this collection succeeds for me: certainly within the domestic situation in the States it would be categorised using these terms, but the stories themselves, it’s like a chorus of an entire world from somewhere else, and in this world these words — if they even appear — are framed on their terms. It’s like when I made the fantastic shift from reading feminism coming from Anglo-Euro-American countries to that coming from Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Chinese writers and never looked back.
Bill Campbell, Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng: more please! And I’d love one with Taiwanese, Cantonese (Jihng Yāt and steampunk pirates!), the sea-facing countries of the north.
A couple of months ago, I decided I needed some more fiction to read—right about now I’m in the same frame of mind, so will probably go off on a book-ordering spree shortly. One of the first to arrive was Tricia Sullivan’s Shadowboxer. I read her Double Vision a long time ago, I’d bought that in Zürich when I was going through two books a week during rehearsals. I hadn’t read any of her since, but being in a mood where I want to punch stuff, this being a book about mixed martial arts and sitting somewhere on the fantasy side of things, it slid onto my shelf with minimum of fuss.
I read it a couple of months ago, which shows clearly how far behind on book blogging I am. It also means anything I write is through a dim blur of partially rememberedness. I do remember liking the main character, Jade, who was quick to punch on and anything that needed ending she would end. Fists before thinking. Which of course gets her into all kinds of shit and sent off to Thailand to train in a not-posh establishment, the kind foreigners would only pay to avoid.
It’s around here it got a little wonky for me. I’ve read a lot of fiction which has either been set in or at some point of the narrative has ended up in Asia. The further south it goes, the more it generates something suspicious in me. Hong Kong stories in the ’90s are a good example of this, as are quite a few expat-y ones set in Bangkok. The last thing I read by Neal Stephenson before deciding he was serious in his ’Murica parochialism, Reamde was right up in this for southern China. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is another recent one so full of problems, yet so loved by an audience that really needs to read Orientalism.
Lately, another exotic locale getting its own orientalising is trans women. William Gibson had one in the otherwise pretty fucking good The Peripheral, as did Rachel Hartman’s Shadow Scale. There’s one here too, probably because if a book is set in Thailand it has to.
Gibson based his trans-signifying characteristics around ‘big hands’ (Fukkin’ WTF? I know!) and a propensity to cry (LOL trannies, amirite?) It was so obviously a weak attempt at a cash-in on what someone somewhere—ok what Gibson has decided is cool right now, and so very poorly executed. Lately I’ve been wondering how this can happen. A book—or any work of art—doesn’t exist in a vacuum, there’s always editors, proofreaders, blahdeblahers who are reading this shit long before it goes to print, and when not one of them picks up on it, it’s clear either no one in the room has the skills, or no one gives a shit. I have to wonder if cis people should be allowed to make art about trans people when they so evidently fuck it up every time.
I don’t remember so well the bollocks in Shadow Scale (a book I did like a lot), except it was a bro smashing things on top of a mountain who later on—when met in real life—was a chick. So, the angsty transition cliché. Yeah, ok, this stuff is real, but about the only good representation of a trans character I’ve seen lately is Nomi in Sense8, and that’s got Lana Wachowski writing/directing/producing so you’d kinda expect absence of fuckery. (Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black somewhat counts. She’s brilliant, but the series itself has big problems beyond just the awful white fool front and centre.) I want to see cis writers not falling for the trans clichés which cis people themselves manufactured and if they can’t bring themselves to do that, I want them to fuck right off.
Then there’s Shadow Boxer. I’m still not sure what I read, though I think the male Thai martial art star was supposed to have been kathoey of the beautiful, extremely feminine female type. Or it could have been the other way: beautiful feminine female got up on T and turned into international male kickboxing hero. My first problem here was—presuming the former is correct—the interpretation is Sullivan wrote a trans female character who detransitions. (I’m obfucating here between trans and kathoey; they’re not interchangeable, however I do think Sullivan is writing a Western cliché of kathoey which does not see one as different from the other.) The subsequent problem is she wrote that for the sake of some narrative trickery, cos it’s all about this bro in Las Vegas and this other chick in Bangkok and woah! Same person!
In fact, this is exactly what Gibson did, so neither of these novels had a character who was trans, instead they just used trans identities to pull a bait and switch. It’s important to remember here that not telling your lover you’re trans can result in a person being changed with sexual assault (in the UK and elsewhere) and that ‘trans panic defense’ is a real thing which men who’ve just beaten a trans woman to death can and do successfully use to get acquitted. So writing in a trans character just to use them for this kind of gimmick is … currently I’m listening to Syringe Stick-Up Mama, Te hare cavar tu tumba.
I don’t want to go into an excruciating analysis of this, but I have some highly dodgy feelings around Sullivan and her fiction. Even more than with the Gibson stuff she should have known better. She gets the MMA and Muay Thai, has all this down convincingly (less so when the setting moves to Thailand and partakes in quite a few clichés), yet around kathoey and trans stuff it turns right shady. It’s the downside of representation. We all want to see ourselves in works of fiction (look no further than the response to Empire for evidence), yet once this becomes a selling point, we end up with an ocean of shoddy ‘representation’ that demonstrates the lack of diversity within the industry (be it publishing, television, whatever) by virtue of being allowed through.
Had planned to go to Historiska Museet and look at mediæval stuff. Made it as far as Skeppsholmen and going to the Östasiatiskamuseet. “We close in an hour. But an hour is usually enough. For most people.” Even for me. Small and average. The collection of Chinese (and pre-China) pottery and ceramics was the best part. Also the stone sculptures of various Buddhist, Daoist (I know!) deities. The Japan collection was mediocre. I wanted to steal quite a bit of the Tang and Song dynasty. And use it. The Ming stuff looked like Lack of Subtlety by comparison. Even cheap tea would taste better in a Song Dynasty bowl.
And that’s Dasniya off to Thailand at 2am via Mitfahr to Frankfurt then Colombo, arriving 30 hours or so after we stood rather cold at Osloerstr, in Bangkok. Excitement! Completely unexpected and unknown excitement for her three weeks ago also. (Shall wash the dishes, ja, ok?)
Probably when this was first published, amidst all the noise about it, I picked it up and got through a few pages and put it back down, or at least I have a memory of that. This time, well, it was cheap and on the shelves at St George’s but honestly, I should have put it back down.
It’s won a lot of awards, a Nebula, a Hugo alongside China Miéville’s The City and the City, which while that isn’t one of my favourites, I far prefer and it’s probably a good counterpoint to why Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is a dodgy work of science-fiction despite seeming quite well-written and obviously appealing enough to snarf awards.
I’ll start with the lesser issue, which has been annoying me in such abominable works as Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, and even some of Charles Stross’ more recent stuff. I call it authenticityism, and it’s a plague on literature. It’s the idea that by getting everything right, all the science and setting and ‘world-building’, you make a good story. In its useful guise, it’s called continuity, and it’s really useful: it makes things coherent. But lately it seems to be manifesting as an obsessive fixation on pseudo-accuracy, that the science in the science-fiction makes sense, and is ‘true’ even at the expense of being comprehensible to the reader — Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Fractal Prince falls into this at times, whereas Miéville’s Embassytown doesn’t, despite being equally demanding — or in a hyper-correct location and setting; believability reified through the ceaseless application of detail, which is both in this book’s Bangkok, and Stephenson’s southern China city.
This authenticityism causes a particular sensation in me, that it’s not authentic at all. Stephenson’s city in China seems true in the same way that scraping detail from Google Maps and Street View, Wikipedia, querying locals found by way of blogs and other sources, images from Flickr, videos from YouTube and staring at This Other, willing it to be genuine can give a veneer of authority on a subject. But it’s more an authority like Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, a Japan of Japan never visited, though entirely without the critical awareness of Barthes.
There’s a similarity in this writing method with the lot of internet trolls, who flame every small continuity or factual error, as though this scorched-earth correctness is necessary and renders the whole worthless. Possibly unsurprisingly, the writers who I find are most likely to fall into this style are white males who have some background in science or technology.
On to the major problem with this book, then. Oh, yes, I’ve read it. So much for not reviewing. Well, it’s in two parts, so I’ll dispense with one sharply. It’s reminds me a lot of John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, or other works by westerners set in the exotic, inscrutable Orient, in that everything Other is mentioned repeatedly until it becomes a blaring wall of noise against which the story is set. This could be partly another case of authenticityism, but I rather think that pointing Edward Saïd’s Orientalism at it would result in revealing something messy.
The main, fundamental, inescapable problem with The Windup Girl is that it is very much not work that’s good for women. It’s possible that the author genuinely believes he’s writing a work that is like a science-fiction reportage on the atrocious, beastial lives of women (of the genetically modified type, and of the trans type as embodied in two of the characters, one major — the windup girl of the title, and one minor, a plaything for a sleazy genetic engineer) in a third-world post-apocalypse Asian megalopolis, but in fact shows such a profound lack of imagination, empathy, or understanding of what a character who is female might be, that the only way he can illustrate this is through a similar blaring wall of noise comprised of degradation and rape.
It helps that this is so clear, because it also manifests insidiously in the place of the female characters — and there are quite a few. There are approximately five main characters (though one dies part-way through and hangs around till the end as a ghost), of which two are female, and we spend considerable time in all of their heads. The giveaway is that both the female characters are stripped of agency and autonomy, unlike the male characters. Kanya, despite performing the grande Coup d’état in the final scene, is never more than protégée to her dead captain, constantly at her side, judging, assessing, commenting on her actions. Of Emiko, the windup girl, she is (or at least she thinks she is) genetically programmed to obey her master, and even after killing her pimp moves directly on to the next great white saviour, even in the epilogue where she has arrived at some degree of selfhood. Other minor female characters are also there to be saved by a plethora of males, in fact I can’t think of a single female character whose role doesn’t circulate around a male.
Fundamentally, this is a work of a lack of imagination. The best Bacigalupi could do to represent a near-future dystopia is one where sexy, smooth-skinned, lithe and athletic, genetically engineered women are sex slaves, only fit to be saved by a heterosexual white alpha male from the west, who she of course happily fucks. And to underline just how dystopian this near-future is, she has to get raped. A lot. And Bacigalupi writes out pages of it with diligent authenticityism.
I’m really, really, really trying to blog more often but dialup connection that drops out every few minutes and a dead laptop that only works because i run everything off my external drive and is prone to serious crashes … boringness in technology. Anyway, in no particular order, trannys that make me feel good about myself…
Ultron!!! “… is a totally awesome android supervillain, and two months ago she became the first male-to-female transsexual cyborg supervillain.” Tranny supervillains. We are the future.
Newsweek, not really known for being cutting edge unless it’s conservative did a large feature on transsexuality in their last issue. Lots of gender people and trannys around the interweb think it’s rather good. Rethinking Gender: What Makes Us Male or Female?. Still it’s fifteen years behind Judith Butler.
The China Blog gets all boring with The Appeal of Fakes.I wrote about the 香江大舞台 Fragrant River Showgirls a couple of years ago, and think the boring straight white male angle that can’t look past the freak value that is both China Blog and some of their commentators is a fairly good indication of why so many Asian countries are so far ahead of English-speaking western countries in getting the gender thing.
Harisu got married a couple of weeks ago. She said, “I will become a wife who cooks well and is sweet, sexy and like a friend,” … uh yeah, whatever.
Some newly discovered blogs: My Taste in Transsexual Videos and Photos is not as porno as it sounds, more like an endless stream of Miss Tiffany. Fransexual, who I love just for sharing the same name is a glamorous escort and musician in London writing like a demimonde about shagging and music.