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2017.08.25 Fri, by Chang Yuchen Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
Dear ______

Dear ________:

Since the start of summer, every time I go to Prospect Park I get lost. The scenery in front of my eyes doesn’t match up with my memory: what was bleak during winter is now filled with all shades of green, and the large trees that once served as landmarks have now taken on a different contour and bearing. Casper said that nature is always changing. And I think back to when it was all wintry and cold here a few months ago, when strolling in the snow felt like walking in Levitan’s Russian landscape paintings. Is this exuberant summer’s day as ephemeral as dewdrops or flashes of lightning? After all, modern science and philosophy appear to be founded on the ruins of certainty: any concrete image or concept is merely a fleeting illusion, whereas objects, thoughts, or humans are all dynamic processes. In fact, I’ve heard how the difference in scale between an electron and an atom is like the difference between an apartment and the whole of Manhattan, of how the rest is just empty, just energy. At the very limit where the flat bottom of a glass meets the surface of a table, particles invisible to the eye are hurtling about, rendering that boundary between the glass and the table radically and yet undetectably tremulous.

I’ve changed, too. I no longer agree now, thinking back at how I answered some of your questions in our conversations a few years back. Or to put it this way: what I can’t identify with is any firm stance or the move to take such a stance. It seems ever harder for me to express myself clearly and succinctly; the nebulous, flickering possibilities and forking paths, now bright, now dim, can’t be ignored—say if we round out the specifics in history, we would end up with the crude narrative of a victor’s justice. Perhaps, to a certain degree, almost, somewhat, sometimes…these weak, gummy terms have become my intellect and righteousness. Is this connected to reading and writing more and more in English? In English (or in that Chinese inflected by English), the endless succession of conjunctions turns a sentence into a long interminable corridor whose end cannot be seen, while on both sides a series of doorways branch off to one clause after the other, and every clause is a room, some of which even have windows. The wealth of layers and space can indulge a writer’s irresolute indecisions, self-contradictions, delaying and even canceling the conclusions. Though I do admire that style in The Commentary of Zuo or that punkish crystal clarity in Lu Xun; I do admire people who are resolute.

Like Lisa. You remember her, she always dashes off email responses on her cell phone. Reading them, it’s as though you could feel that gush of wind around her words from the speed. Fast but accurate, like a chef who has mastered the arts of the kitchen. In her last letter there was this line: keep making art and life and art and life. It is all intertwined for artists such as you. Reading up to this point I suddenly realize this is exactly the direction I have long been striving towards. I thought I was resting, or waiting, but these passive postures are decisions I actively took on at a certain point in time, all too naturally—so I have forgotten about them. While I might not look like I’m working hard, I do strive at blurring the lines between life and art. In my practice, this includes: 1. Leaving the contours of art in tatters, and affording life a more rigorous structure; 2. Making art happen trivially, ordinarily, and granting life a greater sense of form and ceremony; 3. Not commenting on art, but ruminating endlessly on life, etc. Imagine two tanks of water: one gradually drops while the other gradually rises, until they are level; the water flows towards the other, becoming the other.

For example: I only work two days a week at the book store and earn very little money, so doing housework is also my duty, or should I say, another job of mine. Every day, I make the bed, wipe the table, sweep the floor, do the dishes, feed the cat, shovel the kitty litter, water the plants, take care of the clothing for Casper and me. Every week, I do the laundry, change the sheets, mop the floor, take care of the trash and recycling, wash the sink, tub, and the water stains around the faucet, and so on and so forth. The charm of housework lies in its never-ending state, its Sisyphean circular cycles, its Kafkaesque mercilessness: cups and plates, pots and pans, clean clothes—the meticulous construction of everything made for recurrent destruction. In such labors, I discovered I was rather talented and possessed the necessary patience and perseverance to do this job well. I thought of Mom and Grandma; our family does indeed have the genes for backbreaking labor. When does someone become an artist, and when does someone become a housewife, lover, teacher, and shop assistant? I use the same pair of eyes, the same pair of hands, the same passion at work.

Recently, on the occasion of a new book out on Chris Marker, Metrograph showed some of his films. I hate this cinema but I still went. I saw A Grin without a Cat yesterday, and I naturally thought of you. Not only because the last time I saw this film at Gene Siskle was with you, but more because it violently reminded me all that in you which I most esteem and cherish, and which I have never been equipped with: that care for others and for the world. I study critical theory, lingering over Benjamin’s exquisite, labyrinthine texts, over that disposition where hope and desperation coexist, yet I do not understand nor care for the real world. For me, politics is abstract philosophy, science, literature; I make use of it, but I don’t read the news, I don’t take part in debates, I don’t give money to panhandlers on the subway. Rather randomly, I heard this line: “Real thinking has to be done on one’s feet.” I felt I was being criticized, and thought of famous thinkers who were homebodies, like Proust, or Kant. Perhaps some ways of thought require some distance from the crowd? And I still believe what is most private is the most public. Yet amid the vast opening between these two extremes, is this merely surrendering to violence, apathy, ignorance, and superficiality? How to say this: Chris Marker overcame the contradiction between “devoted belief” and “detached realization”, even to the point where the contradiction has been twisted into a wick of a candle by which a warm light is actually produced.

A similar stirring happened a few months ago when I went back to Beijing to see “Salon, Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective”, an exhibition Lu Yinghua and Liu Ding did at Inside-Out Museum. I have always admired Lu’s work. After graduating from university, I took part in a contest, and the exhibition of shortlisted artists was curated by her. That was the first time I joined in at a scene of revelry and applause because of a work. My deepest impression was her introduction to the exhibition, etched on a wall, entitled “The Length of Time and the Shape of Profession”. The accuracy and concreteness of these words seemingly pinned down something as flighty and fleeting as a sheet of paper, securing my memories of that event. It was the same this time. What exactly is that accuracy and concreteness? Treating each image earnestly and not rushing to pigeonhole them into pre-existing types and descriptive habits, and attentively reading each historical source and not trying to command them into a unifying centrism; on the contrary, allowing for independence and autonomy to these materials, thereby having the ecology they carried with them  unfold naturally…these which are sensitive yet dangerous, mutable and contradictory—and real.

Why is history necessary? Why is there an absolute need to know what happened in the past? I thought of a new answer: for the sake of the imagination. Contemporary reality is righteous of its own justice, and overwhelming; examples include the law, international boundaries, language. Yet a trivial search will reveal how reality is often the result of a certain event or intellectual current, of a group or even an individual; it is not merely natural. The power of imagination will be produced here: then or now—are there other possibilities? Or perhaps, such an imagination means a certain open and fluid understanding of reality. Instead of viewing reality as a wall, make an effort to see it as a temporary assemblage of certain materials and energy, a frame or a tableau in movement over time. That perhaps will give rise to greater courage.

I took a long while writing this letter. I have been making changes to it, and it has been making changes to me. Meeting up with a few friends yesterday, the words I uttered gradually became the words I wrote to you in this letter. Sometimes I don’t know who is really in charge, my words or me.

Summer is fading fast.

Yuchen

July 24, 2017

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