March 3rd, 2008


A post-Blink essentialist, looking at Asian space

Threading, grouping, clustering is something I do which often gets, ha, essentialised as essentialism and, ho, generalised as generalisation. This tends to happen when people from cultures dedicated to individualism encounter my "essentialist generalisations" about collectivities, or when people dedicated to empiricism encounter my rather more mythopoeic, archetypalist thinking. In other words, it's not just an individualist-collectivist misunderstanding, but also an arts-science misunderstanding (C.P. Snow's "two cultures").

I think artists rely on the kind of thinking Malcolm Gladwell describes in Blink. We're rapid, judgemental, we make unexpected associations which persuade, perhaps, because they're, at first sight, unlikely, or perhaps repressed, or which amuse or annoy for the same reason. But I think also this kind of intuitive leap-thinking improves as you get older and more experienced, so you could substitute "old people" for artists in that sentence if you like. Although it sucks that nothing feels fresh any more and you've seen everything before, this is one of the good things about getting older; you get quicker and better at running a conceptual thread through things, grouping things with other things you've encountered, clustering stuff and perhaps finding a response you already made last time you ran up against the thing you're confronting.

In a sense, then, the blink-style human intuition of artists, and of the experienced, has come by a different route to something rather like the highly calculated, high-tech associations made by internet clustering technologies like the YouTube program that throws related video thumbnails up when you've finished watching a clip. Purely algorithmic, these suggestions nevertheless resemble the very intuitive way a poet's mind works when he comes up with a metaphor or a simile. Something links to something else; I thread, I group, I cluster. If it's right it's right, if it persuades momentarily, fine, and if it's wrong it might still be original (after all, no metaphor is ever "wrong", just "stretched" or "fanciful").

The pictures on this page are snaps of semi-transparency prints artist Kuo-min Lee (born 1969, Taiwan) showed in the Taiwan pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. The series, called "You Only Die Twice", documents Taiwanese rooms endangered by urban redevelopment.

Now, there are lots of ways of looking at these rooms. You can use the sequence as "eye-training", helping you improve your skill at recognising what the photographer's interests are. You might want to use the images to sum up a particularly Asian organisation of space (I personally cluster them immediately with Kyoichi Tsuzuki's Tokyo: A Certain Style pictures), or to distinguish Taiwanese spatial organisation from that of Japan or even Mainland China. Since the environments are "endangered", you might want to say that this is a retro spatial organisation. You might even want to dwell on the paradox that to endanger characteristically Asian space is, itself, characteristically Asian. That's certainly an argument I've used against supporters of Alex Kerr, who complains that Japan's beautiful heritage is disappearing under concrete. Essentialist Japan is dead, long live essentialist Japan!

The other day someone called Samantha left an interesting -- and obviously well-informed -- note under my piece about Emmy the Great. "Hello," she said, "I like pictures of creative girls' bedrooms as much as the next creative girl, and Emmy The Great's is certainly cute. But I've got to say I don't really see any visual connection to a typical Hong Kong bedroom or domestic style".

Samantha went on to list why Emmy's London bedroom couldn't be in Hong Kong: "1) Too big (even judging by the single wall that seems to extend beyond the edges of the frame!), 2) Riotous plants (rare in HK, especially of the non-lucky bamboo variety), 3) Vintage-seeming patina to the furniture and some objects (instead of everything looking like it was bought at Ikea or Price Rite, or for wealthier girls, G.O.D. or Franc Franc), 4) The large rawly-rendered drawing of a woman's face (not cartoon-cute, or graphic designy-slick), 5) Not enough STUFFF! No plastic/shopping bags stuffed here and there to maximize space, no books stacked beneath the desk, etc. For a much more typical view of HK interior spaces, check out the great HK artist Warren Leung Chi Wo's series Domestica Invisibile (these photos are not staged in any way)."

It's true that Emmy's room has more patina than it should, is too big, lacks visible computers, has stuff on the walls which isn't manga-like enough... it's clearly not a typical Hong Kong room, just as Emmy isn't a typical Hong Kong girl, although she was brought up there. Zoom in closer and you might want to say something like "This is a half-Chinese girl brought up in Hong Kong, who then switched to London and got involved in a twee-ish indie folk scene..." If you were Emmy's sister or her psychoanalyst or her boyfriend you'd add all sorts of other biographical data to explain why her room looks the way it does. If class was your thing, you'd talk about Emmy's caste, and the links between caste and taste. None of this would be wrong, but it might begin to lose the clarity of the first impression.

Gladwell calls this "thin-slicing" and explains that "as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience". This might sound lazy, but there's something rather elegant -- and sometimes startlingly acute -- about it. "In a psychological experiment, normal people given fifteen minutes to examine a student's college dormitory can describe the subject's personality more accurately than his or her own friends." It's why I always scribble down my first impressions of a new city within minutes of arriving. It's not just that first impressions are lasting, they're also some of the most penetrating thin-slices you'll ever get. "Reality", said Willem de Kooning, "is a slipping glimpse".