Joshua Sofaer

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Hats Off

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Deoksugung (Deoksu Palace) just opposite City Hall, is one of the ‘Five Grand Palaces’ of Seoul, inhabited by various royalty in the 5 century long Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). The changing of the guard is reenacted for tourists. This is quite different from the changing of he guard at Buckingham Palace, which however archaic and for the benefit of visitors, is nevertheless the actual changing of the actual guard. At Deoksugung actors play the part.

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The musicians are real enough and I loved the piercing sound of the double reed taepyeongso, which you can imagine as a very very loud oboe.

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For the most part, however, the beards were stuck on.

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This was my first full day in Korea and my first introduction to the plethora of hats in their social and cultural history.

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The guy on the left here (another stuck-on beard) is wearing a ‘Samo’ (translated simply as ‘official hat’) which was a formal hat worn with the normal-duty uniform by government officials from the late Goryeo period to the late Joseon period. Over 500 years and it never went out of fashion!

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Here is one in a glass case in the National Museum of Korea.

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And here, rather beautifully, is the ‘hat box’, or rather the ‘case of official uniform, official belt, official hat’. You put your uniform in first, then your belt, and your hat on top of that. Closing the lid everything fits perfectly.

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On scrolls in the National Palace Museum, you can see lines of rather comical officials, parading around on various duties. The ones at the back are wearing Samo.

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This is a portrait of Bak Mun-su (1691-1756) a Royal Secret Inspector, famous for protecting the Korean people from corrupt royal officials. No doubt he deserved his Samo.

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In the National Folk Museum (one of my favourite museums in Seoul) there is a recreation of a traditional upper-class Joseon period wedding. The groom here seems to be wearing a Samo but without flaps (flaps indicated rank). The bride is wearing a Jokduri (women’s ceremonial coronet) which is the formal bridal hat worn during the Joseon period.

In the background several men are wearing wide brimmed Heungnip, a formal hat made of horsehair, worn when conducting rituals.

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At the 10th Anniversary Special Exhibition of the National Palace Museum, a series of Royal Portraits are exhibited. Many of them have been damaged over the years, but are nevertheless considered, if not quite sacred, then kinds of national treasure. (There were plenty of ‘intact’ portraits but I actually preferred the imperfect half visible fire and water damaged ones.) In this portrait, the King can be seen wearing a Heungnip with a very high cap, so that the brim sits almost on top of the head.

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Here the King is wearing an Ik Seon Gwan, which was reserved for royalty.

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That is also the hat worn by King Sejong the Great (reigned 1418-1450) in the 9.5 metre bronze statue in central Seoul. King Sejong the Great profoundly affected Korean history with his introduction of hangul, the native phonetic alphabet system for the Korean language. Prior to its introduction, Korea adapted a version of Chinese characters but it was cumbersome and difficult to learn. Hangul is supposed to be one of the simplest and most effective alphabets in the world, and transformed a largely illiterate population into a literate one.

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A few more horsehair hats. On the left is a Sabanggwan and on the right a Jeongjagwan, a three-storied hat. Both from 18-19th Century.

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And I’ve thrown this one in but I don’t know what it is.

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Back in the Folk Museum and we can see some hats of the less wealthy, including this hardcore rain gear.

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And these beautiful straw hats which are amongst my favourite.

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Here are ‘Three Koreans’ in hats in a print from 1934 by Paul Jacoulet (1896-1960) a French woodblock artist who was known for a style that mixed traditional Japanese ukiyo-e and techniques he developed himself. Born in France, Jacoulet spent most of his life in Japan (right through the Second World War, where he survived in the countryside by raising chickens and growing vegetables). He must have made this after a short trip across the Sea of Japan.

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In the National Museum of Korea there are some very early examples of pretty splendid headgear: crowns, diadems, ornaments.

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These gold diadem ornaments for the Baekje queen feature symmetrical scrolling vine patterns and flame motifs. They were most likely attached to a silk hat worn at official ceremonies.

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And here are a similar set for the king, only his have spangles! One of the Three-Kingdoms of Korea, the Baekje ruled the South West of Korea from 18BC to 660AD.

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Wearing this thing on your head must have caused quite a stir at court.

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This gilt-bronze cap is of a type normally found in the tomb of rulers. A current reproduction proposes how it might have been cushioned on a red silk lining.

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Another gold cap from the Three-Kingdoms period is this 5th Century Silla example, composed of several gold plates engraved with symmetrical patterns. Experts suggest that it would have been part of a larger ‘crown ensemble’, again probably on some kind of silk base. It looks so contemporary to me. More like something from modernist abstraction than a 1,500 year old hat.

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And then there are the crowns themselves. The stories of the people they adorned maybe lost but it is easy to imagine the impact they would have had.

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This gold crown, excavated from Geumnyeongchong in Gyeongju is decorated with standing ornaments made in twig and antler shapes, symbols that mediate between heaven and earth.

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And from the Hwangnam-daechong Tomb in Gyeongju, this Three-Kingdoms 5th Century Silla designated National Treasure: A gold crown with ornamentation in the form of tree branches and deer antlers attached along the headband.

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It really is a beautiful and impressive construction.

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Hats were clearly a sign of status in Korea. This has, of course, been the case all over the world, with crowns, laurel wreathes, mitres and so on, all of symbolic significance. Personally I haven’t seen such an array of headgear in other historical cultures as I did in Korea. Only a tiny proportion of which is represented here.

I leave you with this 19th Century portrait of Buddhist Monk Cheongheo Hyujeong (1520-1604), commander of the monk army during the Imjinwaeran, the Japanese invasion of 1592. His extreme piety and humbleness is depicted by the complete lack of hat. His bald head a symbol of his duty to the nation above his personal ambition.

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Freezing Seoul

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Seoul is freezing. It’s well below freezing. Today it is -15 degrees celsius. In these temperatures even the trees and the ground need to wrap up warm. I have seen these kinds of winter wrappings before in Japan, although I’m not sure I ever saw the ground itself wrapped. There is a kind of perfect meeting of utility and aesthetics in this practice. The bare trees are made accidental sculpture. (Perhaps not so accidental.)

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Metal pegs and a lattice of ropes keep matting in place, giving an almost button-upholstered effect.

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Rows of pots have straw hats on.

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Dead plants protect living ones. In a country where ancestor worship has been a fundamental part of the culture, this seems very fitting.

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Grayson Perry: A House for Essex

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‘A House for Essex’ created by Grayson Perry and FAT Architecture is unlike any other kind of art experience that I have had. One of a series of houses built for Living Architecture that you can rent outright, it is nevertheless different from the other buildings insomuch as it is a kind of total artwork, a narrative conceit that you can inhabit.

To rent ‘A House for Essex’ you need to enter a ballot with your preferred dates, hope that your luck is in, and then pay upfront. You are then sent a bunch of paperwork with a considerable list of rules, an inventory, and links to local sites. The house is on the edge of Wrabness, a village on the Stour estuary.

It is a kind of fairytale. Like a matryoshka doll, or a series of nesting tables, the structure fans out in a series of repeated shapes that grow in size. Both outside and inside are decorated by a series of tiles which depict details in the life of Julie Cope, the woman at the centre of the fictional narrative, which is the ostensible reason for the building’s existence.

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‘A House for Essex’, we are asked to imagine, was built after Julie’s premature death (she was knocked down and killed by a motorbike courier delivering takeaway curry). It is a tribute by her husband Rob, sited a short distance away from their shared home. A kind of contemporary Taj Mahal, the house then is a love token, albeit by a man who never existed, for his fictional late wife. Apart from her unusual death, Julie Cope’s life is ordinary. Born in Essex in 1953 we learn that she fell into a relationship with Dave and for want of a better plan she became pregnant, giving birth first to Daniel and then to Elaine. Dave has an affair and the two split. Later she enters University as a mature student, meets and falls in love with Rob, and becomes a social worker.

While the narrative is radically unremarkable, the treatment is not. The house is a series of ‘reveals’. Hidden doorways in the tiled kitchen wall…

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…lead through to a double-height chapel-like space.

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The chandelier that hangs above the space is the bike that killed Julie. (It is also the mount for disguised CCTV cameras which are focussed on the artworks which are worth thousands. Fair enough.)

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The room is full of Perry’s work and is, at the same time, an artwork in itself. The larger than life-size figure of Julie (as a kind of secular saint) dominates the space. There are also two large pots, the type for which Perry is perhaps most well-known, which also depict key moments in Julie’s story.

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The narrative unfolds most literally in two large tapestries, which face each other. The first depicts Julie’s birth, childhood and young adulthood.

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A narrative poem in the form of a booklet left on the kitchen table, presents the tale. You go between reading and looking. Details emerge. Julie is holding a bunch of flowers, presumably from an apologetic Rob. The card reads: ‘I am so sorry’.

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The other tapestry depicts scenes from Julie’s later adulthood and her untimely death.

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A map charts key locations in her life journey across Essex: Canvey Island, Basildon, South Woodham Ferrers, Maldon, Colchester, and Wrabness.

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We also see her sprawled out, dying on the street in Colchester not long after having a drink (of Chenin blanc), the motorcycle courier beside her, her council lanyard tumbling to the front of the frame.

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In the bedrooms two further murals dwarf the rooms; double portraits, first of Julie and Dave, probably on their wedding day.

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It’s pretty incredible to get up so close to the artwork, and to wake up with it too.

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I particularly enjoyed lingering my eye on the 2D representations of fabric. There’s some kind of weird duality when one textile depicts another.

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In the other bedroom Julie is with Rob.

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In a premonition of his sadness to come, Rob is crying. And you can study that tear for as long as you like.

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Walking through the bedroom closet takes you out through a mirrored door onto the balconies in the main space.

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There are several playful features: reveals, secrets, conundrums, that are never overly tricksy. One particularly enjoyable space is a mirrored corridor that is reminiscent of another home museum: Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln Inn’s Fields in London.

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What is important to convey is that you are living in this space for as long as you have rented it. You do domestic things: cook, chat, play games, cuddle up, do a poo, have a bath. And the domesticity of your actions mirrors those of Julie’s ordinary life. Yet it is all presented in such a way that you slip in and out of the fiction and the celebration of the quotidian in all of us. It’s difficult not to celebrate when you are having a bath in this:

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And stepping into the garden you are reminded of your own mortality. Somehow it manages not to be macabre.

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Outside is Julie’s tomb. A fictional character, in a fictional grave.

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And then you say goodbye to Julie and you say goodbye to ‘A House for Essex’. It is unlikely that I will ever stay there again. It is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of a thing. A magical journey into a building, inside a story, through the eyes of an artist, that puts the heart into the everyday.

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The Art in Coaching

Claire Antrobus interviews Joshua Sofaer about how his work as coach and his work as an artist interact.

What first attracted you to train as a coach?
A large component of what I do as an artist is speaking with people and I was looking for a way in which I could become more useful when listening to other voices and creating contexts for those voices to be heard. At the same time it would be true to say that I was initially skeptical about coaching. I think that was the result of preconceptions that I had about therapeutic language, which in fact coaching avoids.

After the RD1st course, what other coach training or research have you done?
In terms of formal training, I did the Clean Coaching with Emergent Knowledge distant learning course with The Clean Language Centre. Clean Coaching with Emergent Knowledge is a highly structured approach propounded by David Grove, and is a useful tool as part of a coaching skills kit. Apart from the methodological approach, it has made me very aware of how clean (or not!) my language is.

Regular co-supervision and The Coaching Lounge are important ongoing peer learning methods; places to share and gather ideas and to ask questions.

In terms of thinking about how a coaching approach might apply to larger groups, I found Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology extremely useful. (I had been to a number of sessions advertised as being ‘open space’ but it was not until I read the whole book that I understood and could implement the process effectively.)

At the moment I’m reading Let Me Tell You a Story by Jorge Bucay, which I have found helpful in thinking about what can be achieved by having a clear symbolic or metaphorical picture of a situation.

How do you use coaching now in your work?
There are three main ways in which I use coaching in my work.

The first is a conventional coaching relationship with a client: what could be called ‘clear coaching’.

The second is as part of my long-standing practice as a facilitator and mentor, where I have found coaching invaluable as a way of enriching creative processes for artists and makers: what could be called ‘peer-to-peer coaching’.

The third is as a way of engaging with participants in my art practice. I suppose there are two different strands to this. One is about giving participants a voice in the work, and the other is as a form of art practice itself. For example, to give you an idea of how I have used coaching as a way of giving participants a voice, I directed a staged version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion for Folkoperan in Stockholm in which I replaced the biblical narrative with filmed interviews with the singers and musicians about the core themes of the Passion: forgiveness, guilt, pain, loneliness, fear, love. Coaching became a vitally important way to ‘hold the space’ for the singers and musicians who chose to share their personal stories.

St Matthew Passion (as Matteuspassionen) for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2014. Directed by Joshua Sofaer. Photo by Markus Gårder.

St Matthew Passion (as Matteuspassionen) for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2014. Directed by Joshua Sofaer. Photo by Markus Gårder.

To give an example of how I have used coaching as a medium in arts practice itself, in a piece called Object of Love for the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum in Finland, I created a structure where I offered 25 minute coaching sessions to members of the public in the art museum. Sessions took place in a large soundproof glass box. I wanted to see how an explicit use of a coaching in an art context might function. These conversations could be witnessed but not heard. People on the outside of the box could see the coachee undergoing some kind of change. I was interested in how levels of seeing might affect the coaching session. I wear an elaborate costume that covers my face. I wanted to become a symbol or a figure, rather than someone to whom the coachee would look for reassurance. The aim was to be an object that precipitates or moves the coachee, rather than a figure of authority, or a reassuring, validating presence.

Object of Love by Joshua Sofaer. Wäinö Aaltonen Museum, Turku 2013. Photo by Hannu Seppälä.

Object of Love by Joshua Sofaer. Wäinö Aaltonen Museum, Turku 2013. Photo by Hannu Seppälä.

My experience was that this structure offered permission to audience members to become coachees and to feel free to share. Some of this seems paradoxical: the public setting somehow stimulated a feeling of security. The soundproof glass box encouraged focus.

How would you describe coaching in your own words?
Coaching is a process through which an individual or group is supported to achieve personal or professional goals. It is centred in the objectives that are brought by the coachee. It is future and action focussed.

What have you found most challenging about coaching?
Despite having become aware of how spoken and non-verbal language is so full of bias and has the capacity to lead others, I still find it challenging to keep my own communications as clean and bias-free as I would want.

What have you found most useful about coaching?
Coaching has made me much more mindful of how I listen and elicit responses from others. As a dialogic tool it has influenced my personal relationships as well as my professional relationships.

What has surprised you about coaching?
I think what surprised me at first was that to be a productive coach you do not need to have disciplinary expertise or subject specific knowledge in the coachee’s area. The process does the work.

Are there any new or more ways you want to use coaching in the future?
It is important for me to continue with all strands of my coaching practice: ‘clear coaching’, ‘peer-to-peer coaching’, and coaching in my art practice. Most immediately I am working on a UK tour of a piece called Opera Helps. Members of the public apply for a ticket with a problem. Opera singers then go to their house and listen to the problem. When the problem is in the air, the singer selects an aria from the classical 19th Century repertoire and sings it directly in the person’s house with a pre-recorded professional backing track. When you are in the audience of an opera you bring your own life. You are hoping that some magic will happen on the stage and that you will leave somehow better for the experience. By locating the interaction in people’s homes and making the problem the reason for meeting, paradoxically, people listen to the music more acutely.

Opera Helps (as Operahjälpen) by Joshua Sofaer for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2012. Photo by Markus Gårder.

Opera Helps (as Operahjälpen) by Joshua Sofaer for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2012. Photo by Markus Gårder.

It’s very interesting to work on active listening skills with opera singers, who have trained for so many years honing their singing voice; and extremely humbling to experience up close the power of their song.

Votive Ship

I am in Turku in the south west of Finland working with Mikko Sams, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Aalto University. In brief, we are exploring what happens in the brain when you accept alternative realities in fictional stories. This is what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, a phrase which has been both useful and critiqued, because you don’t really suspend your disbelief but rather hold together your belief (of the world of the fiction) and your knowledge that it is not reality, at the same time. This is the phenomenon that is at the heart of theatre, perhaps of all art. Discussing, reading, and writing with Mikko has already been a fascinating journey, attempting to chart unknown territory, and we both hope that it will continue after our first ideas sharing next week.

Mikko had talked to me about Turku Cathedral as a building he loved before we had even arrived in the city. Once we were here he reiterated his feeling for the place and encouraged me to go. Although I have worked in Turku several times before, I had never been inside. Encouraged by Mikko, I went in.

Turku Cathedral was consecrated close by the bank of the River Aura on 17th June 1300. Although it has seen its fair share of enemy attacks and fire damage, it has been rebuilt 6 times and carries its architectural layers in an honest and dignified way.

There are many things to like about this building. It is both grand and simple, epic and intimate. It is the religious centre of the country and plays an important part in its history. It is Finland’s main cathedral and its major national shrine.

On entering for the first time I looked up to the left and there, to my delighted surprise, I saw a ship sailing through the air.

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I later learnt that this is a votive ship; a tradition common across the Scandinavian countries. These models, sometimes called church ships, are generally created and given by seafarers and ship builders. Votives (from the Latin votivus, meaning ‘promised by a vow’) were given in return for safe passage through a perilous journey.

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This votive ship was made by Åke Sandvall and presented to the cathedral by the Turku Ship Master’s Association in 1968. It replaces an earlier model that was destroyed by fire. It depicts the barque, or sailing vessel, named Turku after this city, a whaling ship that sailed the Pacific.

On the first occasion I entered the cathedral and gazed up at her prow it was dusk. The light was behind her and there was a kind of haze in the air. At first I failed to see the iron hooked batons from which the model hangs and it seemed to be floating there in the half-light. It was a fantastical moment of make-believe.

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Depending on where you are standing in the nave, this little Turku peeks around pillars, sails off in the distance, or over your head.

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What I found is that I could ‘will’ myself into erasing the iron hooked batons, even after I knew they were there. Perhaps it was because I now knew, and no longer needed to ‘fact check’ how the thing was defying gravity, that I could decide to ignore them, to the point of their disappearance. This is the willing suspension of disbelief, the poetic faith, that Coleridge was writing about. And it is this very phenomenon of slipping in and out of it, by chance and by will, that Mikko and I are investigating.

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If you have the opportunity to visit Turku Cathedral, perhaps you would like to test it out yourself.

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Gum Wall: Beauty and Revulsion

I am visting Seattle to talk at Seattle Art Museum about The Rubbish Collection, a public participatory project which confronted waste, and to my simultaneous delight and disgust, I have happened across a public participatory project which does a similar thing: The Market Theater Gum Wall in Post Alley underneath the famous Pike Place Market.

Around 50 feet of wall up to 15 feet high and in parts several inches thick, is covered with chewing gum and bubble gum that the public have stuck up there. The collective DNA on this wall is overwhelming. It really is an event of both beauty and revulsion to see (and smell) this amount of chewed gum in one alleyway.

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People have been sticking their gum to these walls for more than 20 years. It’s not entirely clear to me how it all started but apparently after a couple of attempts to clear it all away, the building occupants have given up and embraced their mint, fruit, and cola flavoured exterior.

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As the person responsible for putting Una White’s Name in Lights, I was pleased to spot this rather more ad hoc version: your name in gum.

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Some parts of the wall don’t look so fresh. They are beginning to form new micro-ecosystems.

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It is easy to see why it has been designated a tourist attraction. People coo and yelp in equal measure. I don’t remember the last time I encountered something that managed to be so wonderfully charming and repulsive at the same time.

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Taiwan in London

I miss Taiwanese food. Working on Night Market Theatre last autumn and being surrounded by beef noodles, fried squid, barbeque corn on the cob, rice buns, slow cooked pork (to name only a few) treated my palette to an abundance of tastes for which I am now yearning.

You can imagine my excitement when I saw a new Taiwanese eatery opening around the corner from me in Lexington Street. Bao, which is Chinese for ‘bun’ is the latest in London’s craze for international street food. Initially a stall at Netil Market in Hackney, Bao opened its first restaurant in Soho earlier this month.

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The queues have been forming everyday. With the takeaway service not yet up and running, there was no alternative but to stand in line.

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Bao is small and beautifully designed with wood lined walls and cute little cubbyholes. You sit at a table, around a counter, or at the window. As in many Taiwanese restaurants, you are given a slip of paper menu, on which you write the number of dishes that you want to order. We ordered: scallop with yellow bean garlic; beef soup with braised daikon radish; eryngli mushrooms with fermented century egg; Taiwanese fried chicken with hot sauce; classic pork bao with peanut powder; fried chicken bao; and 2 Taiwanese ‘Gold Medal’ beers. The dishes were small. The scallop was one single scallop. The soup a small bowl. The tastes were very good.

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By far the most delicious to me was the ‘classic bao’. Meltingly soft shredded pork in perfectly soft bun, with sweet peanut powder and a soy based sauce. My ‘expert’ dinner companion agreed that it was great but felt the addition of cinnamon was not authentic.

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These small plates did not come cheap. At £43.88 (that’s 2,045 New Taiwan Dollars) and not quite replete, this is not the street food of Hualien, where you would pay a quarter of the price. It is, of course, cheaper than return flight to Taipei and they do have an incredibly cute logo.

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In the same week as trying Bao, I had the opportunity to go to lunch at Ho-ja in Goldhawk Road. Ho-ja is an informal Taiwanese owned and operated restaurant in the heart of West London’s fabric-selling district. No queue here. They also have disposable placemats with illustrations of Taipei streets and Taiwnese ‘things’.

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We ordered a fried chicken burger, a beef burger, beef noodle, and chicken with glass noodles. Although the burgers are not really traditionally Taiwanese, it would not be unexpected to find an enterprising stallholder in a night market making and selling them.

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The buns were not as soft as at Bao but the portions were much more generous. The beef noodles were the highlight for me. Perhaps most of all I have been missing Mr Gu’s Beef Noodle Stall at Zhiqiang Night Market and although I would take his over these everyday, the taste was enough to remind me, in a good way, what I was missing.

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Ho-ja is considerably cheaper than Bao, with more calories at half the price. I will happily visit both again for a taste of Taiwan in London.

Manipulated from the inside

On the return to the UK from Taiwan I decided to take advantage of the fact that I needed to transfer in Bangkok and to explore Thailand for a couple of weeks. Thailand is everything you hear about it only more so.

Back in London looking at the photographs that I took of temples, palaces, urban sprawl, and mountain retreats, I realise that I have created an album of mediocre tourist images of the great sites of Bangkok and Chiang Mai that could form part of a travel guide: nothing to write home about.

There is however, one set of photographs that I want to share, taken of a pair of glass vitrines in The National Museum Bangkok. Situated in the former Palace of the Front or ‘Wang Na’, constructed in 1782, the museum is sited in a series of different buildings around the palace compound. It is a municipal organisation lacking money and although there are incredible objects around almost every corner, the displays are often dated and dusty.

In these two vitrines however, the cramped conditions and neglect add to their charm.

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Despite being the nation’s repository for Thai culture, these two cases in fact house objects of a different origin; they present a collection Chinese puppets. The label reads as follows: ‘These small puppets wearing Chinese Opera costumes were used in the performances of Chinese music dramas. The puppets were manipulated from the inside. They were created by Krom Phraratchawang Baworn Wichaichan (the third reign) for the performances of Chinese stories in the middle of the 19th Century.’ At first I presumed that this wording identified the craft person as Krom Phraratchawang Baworn Wichaichan but on further investigation and going back to the Thai language, I can see that กรมพระราชวังบวรวิไชยชาญ (more commonly translated into English as Krom Phra Ratchawang Bowon Wichaichan) was a Siamese Prince and the last Viceroy (or Deputy King) of the Palace of the Front. So I presume that these puppets were imported for his entertainment rather than made by his hand.

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Whatever their birthplace, I found the characters in these cases captivating.  So many faces staring out from the crowd, curiously peering back at you as you stooped to look.

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I had a strong sense that these effigies had souls. It wasn’t so much the ‘Toy Story’ scenario that they have lives only when our backs are turned, but rather that they are animated even in their stillness.

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Even without knowing any of the Chinese dramas for which they were created, there was an immediate sense of the narrative encounters between different individuals.

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I spent a long time with these guys and was sorry to have to say goodbye.

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Tea, Water, Coffee

In a day off from rehearsals for Night Market Theatre I went with the Prototype Paradise team on a day trip to Ruisui Township, the southern central East Coast National Scenic Area of Hualien County. One of the highlights for me was visiting Ji Lin Tea Plantation to taste different teas and learn something of the cultivation and production process.

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Taiwan is one of the foremost producers of fine tea in the world. As friends and colleagues who have visited me in my London flat will know, I have a tea ‘thing’. Although I am very much a beginner, I enjoy learning more about this amazing drink and its many different incarnations and I have read, studied and slurped my way to a developing palette and a wider knowledge. I have just enough knowledge now to make plenty of mistakes about tea origin, variety and ceremony.

Ji Lin Tea Plantation was established in the 1940s and is now in its fourth generation. Our host was the son of the family Ah-Hsiang. They have won many gold medals for their tea and there are placards around the tea tasting room to let you know.

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We tasted 5 teas: a green tea, an oolong tea, a honey fragrance black tea, a bronze medal winning honey fragrance black tea (!), and a pomelo flavoured tea.

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In Taiwan it is traditional to smell the tea before you drink it. The tea is poured first into a tall narrow smelling cup and left there for a moment. Then it is poured into the tea cup. You smell the fragrance of the tea in the empty  cup first. Then you drink from the tea cup.

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Of particular interest was the Pomelo Tea. This is the first time that Ji Lin Tea Plantation have experimented with this kind of flavouring of tea. It is based on a Hakka tradition of stuffing a type of orange with tea but this is Ji Lin’s own idea to use a pomelo. (Hakka are a Han Chinese people with links to Guangdong and the surrounding areas. They have their own language, culture and traditions. A pomelo is a crisp citrus fruit a little similar to a grapefruit.)

Pomelos survive off the tree for a long time. Jin Li use organic pomelos so they can sometimes look a bit ‘imperfect’. Here are a box of them waiting to be stuffed.

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First you have to remove the flesh while keeping the skin intact. Here Ah-Hsiang demonstrates the technique.

Then you stuff them with tea and a bit of the flesh of the fruit and tie them with strings. You then very slowly bake them over two months in these bamboo ovens. The strings need to be retied every day as the moisture disappears and the fruit shrinks. It is very labour intensive. The ones on the top of the ovens here are pretty much ready.

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You then take a hammer to crack open the hard fruit and scoop out a bit of tea. The taste is a sweet black tea with the a citrus twang. Lovely. After seeing all the detailed preparations I had to buy one. Ah-Hsiang was both happy and sad. We were his first ever customers for this tea. He had lovingly retied those strings every night for the last two months. It was a tough goodbye!

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We then walked into the plantation itself to see how the tea is grown.

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Here are some tea bushes that are used for oolong tea.

 

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And here is the flower of the tea plant Camellia Sinensis.

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Of particular interest to me was to see a leafhopper. These are the tiny little insects that eat the leaves of the tea bush. In certain teas, such as the famous Taiwanese oolong Dongfang Meiren (Oriental Beauty) and the Honey Black Tea that we tasted at Ji Lin Tea Plantation, the buds are picked after the leafhoppers have had their meal. As a kind of defence mechanism the plant produces monoterpene diol and hotrienol which gives the tea its particular flavour.

The leafhoppers are actually tiny; just a few millimetres long. (I’d love to tell you that I shot this photograph but actually I just photographed the print on the wall of the tea tasting room. My zoom is not powerful enough!)

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I very much like the taste of teas where the leafhopper has had his fill and was very pleased to discover Ji Lin’s Honey Black Tea. So yes, I bought a packet of that too. Here you can see the tea being packaged.

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And finally vacuum packed ready for shipping.

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After a our tea tasting afternoon we went to the nearby Hong Ye Hot Spring. It certainly wasn’t the most beautiful or comfortable hot spring I have been to but it was, nevertheless very relaxing. (It is also the first time I have worn a s swim suit in a hot spring as it was mixed bathing. We had the entire place to ourselves. That’s Professor Chin in her spontaneously purchased 1920s style bathing costume in the background.)

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The Pacific Ocean is actually only just down the road from where I am staying. There are plenty of houses in Hualien whose windows gaze on the sea all day long. Traveling a bit further south, you get to Jici beach. Here are 56 seconds of surf. The sand is black. Apparently this is a seasonal thing. In the winter the sand is churned up from the bottom of the ocean, colouring the beach black, but in summer the lower tide makes it gold. I like this idea of the sand changing colour like the leaves of trees.

There has been a surprising amount of press for Night Market Theatre which opened on 11th November. (Today marks the halfway point of our 5 day run.) So far there have been 4 television news features and 6 newspaper articles, many of substantial size. I think we are all a bit nonplussed by the level of interest in our modest little show. One journalist who is going above and beyond for his story is Kai-Ping Fang. Actually Kai describes himself first and foremost as a translator (his English is perfect, though he denies it), then a photographer, and then a writer. Having spent some considerable time with him (we’ve had maybe 6 separate meetings) I would say he was an artist. Kai has been commissioned by Performing Arts Review, the glossy magazine for Taiwanese performance, to write an article with accompanying pictures about my daily life in Taiwan. Actually, I think Kai is developing something more interesting than that, although he has photographed me having breakfast and going to the gym. I am looking forward to his photographs because I like his work very much. He shoots exclusively on film (he used 35mm movie film during our meetings because it has a better light contrast tolerance) and takes just 4 or 5 shots each time.

For 2 of our meetings, Kai took me to Le Flaneur, the cafe-come-photography-studio-come-leather-workshop of his friend Bin-Guo (known to his friend as Bingo). Kai had asked me if I liked coffee. I replied that I love the taste and the smell but that it upset my stomach. (Actually the second coffee travels down my alimentary canal my bowel is on red alert.) Kai argued that I wasn’t having proper coffee if it upset my stomach. After his explanation of bean selection and roasting methods I remained unconvinced. We placed a bet. If my bowel survived his friend’s coffee I would cook him dinner when he next comes to London. If it did not, then he would take me to dinner before I left Hualien.

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Here is Bingo preparing a cup of single estate Kenyan coffee for me.

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It took a surprisingly long time. He is dripping that water for more than 7 minutes. That’s for just 1 cup.

It was the first coffee I had tasted for maybe more than 3 years. It was delicious. I was however nervously awaiting an explosive outcome. That didn’t come. The following day I could gleefully report to Kai the perfectly solid, and actually improved, state of my stool! So now I owe Kai 1 home cooked meal. Although now I’m in a bit of a dilemma about the challenge of finding a non-combustible cup of coffee in London.

Le Flaneur is a bit like being in a cross between someone’s kitchen, a gallery, a craft centre and a library.

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I particularly liked the range of different stools, all carefully chosen. This one was particularly comfortable.

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There are also some lovely lamps.

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This shade is made very simply from extremely thin slices of wood.

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Before opening Le Flaneur, Bingo trained as an architect. These tables and benches are his own design.

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And here is our little Night Market Theatre. Tiny as you can see. What was once selling bubble tea has been made over to sell one-to-one performance.

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Once it’s all over and I have some proper time I will gather together some proper documentation. For the moment, here is a picture of the kinds of crowds that are cramming into the small alley in front of our curtain.

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Back to the Heart of Asia

As the cold wind blows across Europe and the unusually long summer finally fades away, I head south-east for Taiwan, the island that promotes itself as the ‘Heart of Asia’. Arguably it is more on the edge of the continent than at its core but it does kind of look like a heart shape (more organ than Valentine) and the people are lovely.

It’s almost exactly 2 years since my first visit and now I am back to make ‘Night Market Theatre’ with the company Prototype Paradise and 8 diversely talented Taiwanese performers. The idea germinated on the last night my previous trip, in a Taipei restaurant after a few drinks with the curatorial team.

‘Night Market Theatre’ is being made in the city of Hualien on the beautiful east coast of Taiwan but a mini lecture tour has meant I have also spent a few days in the capital Taipei as well. My work schedule is pretty intensive but I have had a few days where I have managed some sightseeing, often due to the generous hospitality of the Prototype Paradise team.

Wulai is a small resort town in the mountains, 27 km to the east of Taipei city. It is very popular with urbanites looking for a quick injection of country air. There are many hot springs that you can visit (and I visited one lovely one) and be back in the city for dinner.

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Making your way through the narrow streets, along pathways, and up steps, you get to the bottom of a cable car that takes you to the Yun Hsien mountain top resort.

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The 2 minute ride takes you over the Wulai waterfall.

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The resort at the top is pretty commercialised and not really so interesting as the mountain that it nestles in but there is a very cute coin operated machine. People take it seriously.

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In the little temple stands a priestess.

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You put in your coin…

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…and ask a question to the Gods…

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…while the priestess walks from the garden to the alter. The doors open to let her in and shut once she is inside.

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Moments later the doors open again and out comes the priestess, holding a miniature yellow scroll on her tray…

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…which she deposits into the well at the bottom of the garden. (Look! Some have missed the well. That must have been very frustrating for the supplicants concerned!)

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Out pops the divine proclamation below.

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Here is River Lin (artist and part of the Prototype Paradise team) looking a bit confused as he tries to understand the answer to his question. Yes, of course I did it too. The response seemed to be OK but it was all a bit inconclusive.

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When I arrived in Hualien with my colleagues, the first thing that we did was to visit a grown-up temple. At 福安廟 Fu An Miao (Fu An Temple) we prayed to the God of the Earth to watch over our endeavours for ‘Night Market Theatre’ and to ask for his blessing.

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We also burnt a bunch of paper money (large ones first and each sheet must have a fold in it) in order to get his attention and win him over.

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And then we started rehearsals. The premise of ‘Night Market Theatre’ is that we set up stall alongside the food vendors in the largest night market in Hualien and that we offer bite-sized performances for the soul, next to those offering sustenance for the body. The ‘holding form’ for the concept is the traditional mobile booth used in night markets across Taiwan. Here is our (as yet to be refurbished) booth that formerly sold bubble tea. In it Moses (Yuan-Shang Chiang) is experimenting with a concept where he will try to persuade night market visitors to take out advertising space on his body. The paper sheet he is wearing indicates the price of each of his limbs.

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Here Jimmy Chang is listening to An-Yuan’s (Yuan-Liang An) heartbeat, a playful interpretation of the Chinese word ‘heartfelt’ which literally translates as ‘heart voice’. Performances can be a maximum of 5 minutes long with most intended to be much shorter.

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

One stop of my mini lecture tour took me National Dong Hua University, about 20 minutes drive from the centre of Hualien and already right in the countryside. It is surrounded by the most beautiful landscape.

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Here it was that I fulfilled a long standing ambition: I learnt to drive a scooter. Well, in truth the lesson was about 3 minutes long. Here Professor Chin instructs me how to, erm, get the motor running. 

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

I know it is pretty childish to post pictures of yourself at 42 learning to do what every Taiwanese has done since they were teething but it was something I have not had the opportunity to try before. It would have been pretty difficult for me to get around without a scooter and even if it were easier, I really wanted to get one.

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

And at the risk of over embellishment, here is video evidence of my maiden voyage.

Riding around the city on my (borrowed) scooter, I get to see all kinds of interesting things.  The man standing outside Starbucks is Mr Tzi-Hai Ko. He is famous in Taiwan. An electoral candidate for the third time this year (though yet to be elected) he is running for the city council as an Independent. His strategy is simple. Stand at a busy intersection where lots of people can see you and hold up signs that say you want Hualien to be a better place. The thing is he stands there everyday for hours at a time. He must have very very strong arms. He has become something of a media celebrity and people think that this year, he really might make it into government. He is resolute and dedicated, you have to give him that at the very least.

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A different strategy is that of Mr Chi-Ta Tsai. He has had a four-storey painting (yes, yes, I really mean painting) of his hand-clasping-self mounted on the facade of his campaign headquarters. He is running for Mayor. It’s difficult to get a sense of scale from this photograph but just look at the tiny table and chairs underneath his left foot. His head is larger than the set of double doors.

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His image is everywhere in the city. Chi-Ta Tsai is a survivor of mouth cancer. A section of his jaw has clearly had to be removed. The words on this poster read: See the courage / Learn the courage. (And on the other side: Be brave together with us.) I can’t help wondering if a survivor from mouth cancer would see their image writ so large on hoardings across towns in England.

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I do not know anything of the detail of his medical treatment but I presume that Chi-Ta Tsai opted not to have reconstructive surgery, or at least to allow the history of this trauma to remain visible on his face. Whether a forthright champion for difference or a cynical ploy to garner popular sympathy, I salute the decision.

If ever evidence were needed for the beauty a scar can leave, then look no further than Treasure Hill Artist Village in Taipei. Formerly a small gathering of residential properties that became largely uninhabited, the city gave it over to artists and artisans for studios, exhibition spaces and some temporary accommodation.

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Remnants of kitchens and bathrooms ghost floors that have now become pathways. You can see where a toilet once stood on honeycomb tiles.

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Here are some giant fortune cookies sitting in the remains of a small house.

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It is very self-consciously beautiful in the way that the ‘natural’ decay has been allowed to co-exist with the practical requirements of a public space. At times it does become a bit cloying but generally speaking the spaces are lovely.

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There is an interesting outdoor theatre space as well.

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One nice touch is that it has its own Post Office. Here artists have worked alongside the national postal service to create their own commemorative editions. I like this idea very much.

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On my first trip to Taiwan in 2012 I took a day bus trip into the famous Toroko Gorge. Now was my opportunity to do it at my own pace on scooter and without the pressure to return to the bus after 15 minutes at each stop. The Eternal Spring Shrine was built to commemorate the 212 who died building the Central Cross-Island Highway, the road that navigates the gorge. The road was built in the late 1950s predominantly for military purposes. It is an engineering feat. The shrine itself has been rebuilt twice due to its previous incarnations having been destroyed by landslides.

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As on my first visit, I walked up to the shrine complex and crossed the bridge which spans the water flowing from deep inside the mountain.

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Easy to miss, a little further on is a staircase built into the rock. You climb…

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…and climb…

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…and climb…

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…and climb up a series of very steep steps…

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…until you meet a little temple room carved into the rock.

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Inside a mountain goddess awaits you.

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As does some safety apparatus and cleaning equipment.

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And there on this high path up the mountain is a bloke sweeping.

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At key points you see notices like this. You have to get used to these signs and not dawdle. The irony is that you have to stop to read the sign!

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Eventually you come to the bell tower.

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There are amazing views from the veranda across the mountains.

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You also get an intriguing aerial view of the river bed below.

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The Eternal Spring Shrine commemorates the workers who died building the road that you have to take in order to get to the shrine. The shrine itself has been destroyed by the moving landscape. Indeed Taroko is always changing shape due to natural and manmade phenomena. Works on the road are still very necessary. Both on the way into the gorge and back towards the town, there were huge tailbacks of traffic, as we waited for the painstaking process of moving the mountain from one side of the road to the other. Frequently subject to landslides, engineers try to secure the route by taking loose or dangerous rocks to where the effect of gravity will not risk the lives of travellers.

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Gustav Flaubert once wrote, ‘In order for a thing to be interesting you only need look at it for a long time.’ Stuck on the road waiting for the mountain to be moved I had this sensation. The interruption was irritating, boring and then suddenly compelling.

The real star of Toroko however, remains the steep rocky walls of the narrow valley and the shallow river which coils and zigzags down to the sea.

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When I came to Taiwan in 2012 is was with surprise that I discovered a culture more obsessed with food than even Japan. The culture in Taiwan is food culture to a large degree. It is that desire to discover and taste food that has in many ways been a driving force for ‘Night Market Theatre’. We are borrowing the holding form (and stealing the audience) from the parades of food that are the night markets here.

The night markets themselves are full of art and theatre. Here the food stall looks like a packed museum display case.

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One new discovery for me: water chestnuts. Also known as water caltrop, buffalo nut, bat nut, devil pod, ling nut amongst other names. They have a fascinating cultivation history stretching back at least 3,000 years.

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Delicious, the ornately shaped fruit also make a very good fake moustache.

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I was really interested to note the drama unfolding at the back of this couple’s stall.

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During the planning and rehearsals in ‘our’ Zhiqiang Night Market in Hualien, I have also discovered some new foods. Here rice is steamed in the stalk of the bamboo. It develops a sweet nutty taste as a result. You have to crack open to the bamboo to get at the rice.

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One of my favourite foods at Zhiqiang Night Market is Mr Gu’s Beef Noodles. You can have them dry…

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…or in soup. A delicious paradox: the noodles are chewy and the beef melts in your mouth. Either bowl, above or below costs NT$100, which is about UK£2.

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Of course most food in Taiwan is not consumed in night markets. For breakfast I often visit the very popular 山東豆漿大王 Shan Dong Soybean Milk King. Always busy, this bun factory produces tray upon tray of different breakfast treats.

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Although I am getting a bit better at ordering, generally I just point and pray because there is absolutely no English in most places. Here I got a kind of brown sugar filled hot baked pastry (think Danish Pastry Taiwanese style).

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These soft buns are filled with vegetables. I think mostly a kind of Chinese leek. They are salty and delicious.

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For a more formal setting I have been 3 times already to 阿之寶 A Zhi Bao a very cute shop and cafe. The sets are pretty similar with the exception of the main dish. Here it was steamed fish.

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Here it was Magaw Salted Pork, an aboriginal Taiwanese recipe.

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Here it was Chicken Thigh with Monascus purpureus sauce.  I was surprised to find out that Monascus purpureus is a kind of mould. It is delicious. It has the taste and texture of a piquant bean.

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Other food highlights include these very fat noodles.

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This fish ball and clam soup.

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The very Taiwanese oyster omelette.

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Nobody could tell me for sure if this was goat or mutton. The picture outside the restaurant was of a goat. The restaurant name says mutton. 下港吔羊肉專賣店 Xia Kang Eh Mutton. In Chinese they share the same character. Goat/mutton hotpot:

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Barbecued goat/mutton with ginger:

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Cold goat/mutton salad served Thai style:

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This is a tasty thing; bitter melon with tiny little fish. The melon is bitter (as the name would, erm, suggest) and the fish are salty, so there is a real disco on the tongue.

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This is a Taiwanese hamburger: 掛包 Gua Bao or 割包 Ge Bao. Soft white roll with sliced pork herbs and ground peanuts. Really very delicious.

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Now for one I didn’t try. Pork intestine soup. I just can’t get over the fact that the poo has traveled down this tube. “But it’s delicious,” Yoyo Kung, Prototype Paradise co-curator tells me. “They clean it really, really well.” Hmmm.

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And finally, on the subject of poo, I thought I would leave you with a ‘themed’ restaurant that I haven’t eaten in but am nevertheless fascinated by. At Modern Toilet the menu is À la crap. It’s what exits your body rather than what enters it that is the substance here. In case you are in any doubt: Modern Toilet do not serve shit, even if their menu is a bit crappy. Poo, according to Modern Toilet, is cute.

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Waiving the flag for the type of sitting down you would normally do a few hours after your lunch or dinner, Modern Toilet is capitalising on the trend across Asia for all things dinky. I need to pay a visit before I leave.

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Crap decorations adorn the walls. Poo Superman. The perfect combination. May I offer, Pooperman?

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