I’m not really a gearhead. I like technology; I like the things it allows me to do, but I’m not one of those people who can recite a litany of brand names and model numbers. I don’t name my gear after women or think of it as my baby.
I used to be fastidious about my camera care. I’d clean it before every shoot with lens paper and fluid and a lens-pen and blower. And then I really started to travel and that’s a lot of stuff to carry around and it was always awkward to break out a cleaning routine in the middle of a temple somewhere just because I wanted to change lenses. So I stopped being so fastidious and as you might expect, my images got dirty.
But what I didn’t expect was that the mistakes I’d tried so hard to avoid for so many years–—things being out of focus, things being blurred by shaky hands, lens flares from pointing into the sun, having dust and dirt on the lens–—that these things would become what I find the most interesting in my photography.
I took these shots in the old town in Shanghai, near the old tea houses and the Yuyuan Gardens. It was a gorgeous day with gorgeous light, but mostly what I like about these shots is the overexposure, the lens flares and the light artifacts cast by the spots of dust on the lens. I like the texture, like confetti and fairydust. I like the feeling of squinting into the sun, the idea of something too brilliant to look at directly.
Of the Ying and the Yang, the Yang is held to be the positive. It is also the hard, the active, the logical and the male. And the odd. Numbers, that is. Our docent tells us that because they are Yang, the Chinese value the odd numbers from one to nine highly, the numbers greater than nine being some combination of the numbers less than ten. In particular, they value the number five because it is in the middle of the odd numbers from one to nine, and the middle is the most stable, most true position. So the gates to the Forbidden City all have five openings, even if you can only see three of them from a distance. There are five sets of stairs and five bridges over the rivers, but no one walks on the middle path. The middle path is the path of the star, the path of the emperor.
The Chinese also have a special reverence for the number nine, because, well, because it is the biggest of the odd numbers and everyone loves a superlative. Each of the five sets of doors in any gate in the Forbidden City is studded with nine rows of nine gold studs.
We worked our way through the fives and nines, among the thousands of visitors, until our docent pointed up and showed us the only occurrence of a ten. The corners of the roofs are adorned with little animal figures, more like action figures than gargoyles, little bipedal animals that face out in neat lines. The more animals, the more important the building, the more important the people in the building. At most, there can be nine animal figures. Except on the roof of the throne room. The throne room is the highest building in the Forbidden City, raised on a dias, its nine doors closed. At each corner of the roof, ten animals look out over the crowd. It’s hard to see from the ground, but I think the tenth might be seated in a chair.
The Forbidden City is the Forbidden Palace and it’s massive and sprawling and made of hard things, durable things. Wood and stone. It feels like it will stand forever, like it has always been there. It feels aside from time, permanent. But then there is the warmth that these firey walls seem to long for. The emperors and servants and concubines and generals and soldiers and annoying cousins. And teachers. Inhabitants, whose once throbbing veins have spilled or dried up, who became first memories and then stories and then whispers on the tongues of tour guides and foreigners. And those tourists now, who spend a few hours but pass everywhere in moments with a giggle or a sneeze or the fractional snap of a shutter. Such passings. The palace is hollowed stone, a vessel for the ephemeral fluid of human lives.
The students at the school where I work are amazing artists and amazing musicians and filmmakers. My favorite events of the year are the senior art exhibition and a concert they call Studentainment. But there’s a challenge in teaching, where your work is to nurture the creative fires of your students, that sometimes you neglect your own. We can forget that we too are artists, forget to be artists. So this last weekend, a new event was held at our school. An art exhibition of work done by the adults in our community, the teachers and administrators and parents. We are potters and painters and ceramists and quilters. And photographers. That’s me. I showed the these two photographs from Beijing along with a third, a Part II of the Whispers in the Forbidden City series I posted a couple of weeks ago.
The artists in our show were offered the opportunity to sell their work and donate the proceeds to Charity Water, the organization our student council has been raising money to support all year long. These Ephemeral Palace photographs have raised a few thousand yen for clean water. And even if this is a moment that will slip away, today that makes me a happy teaching artist.
The thing is, sometimes I need to pay better attention. Or else make notes. We took a walking seminar through the Forbidden City and our docent taught us many things; she painted such a big, rich picture of imperial China that I can hardly hold on to all of it. The details slip away. I remember that she talked about the Chinese valuing the constant stars more than the variable sun and moon. And so the north star is China’s star, and because the star is purple, purple is the royal colour and the word for purple is also the word for star, and consequently, it is also the word for forbidden, which doesn’t so much mean forbidden as it means so exalted as to be untouchable by ordinary people. So the Forbidden City is also the Forbidden Palace, which is also the Star Palace and the Purple Palace, even though it is mostly red. But the red has to do with fire because fire gives birth to earth, which gives birth wood which gives birth to water which gives birth to metal. Which somehow explains why the roofs are gold. And there were stories of emperors and concubines and concubines who ruled from the shadows behind their sons who were heirs to the throne. And the story of the last emperor, the one that lived through the cultural revolution, and about the isolation of his childhood and I got thinking about the ghosts of this place, the whispers of the past. And despite the thousands of people wandering the grounds, the Forbidden City felt to me like a lonely place. A place of history, a place of memory. A place of echoes and whispers.