Here, in China

Here, in China

Dutch artist Roma Pas stayed six months at the Ceac in Xiamen. The work she made in China, she exhibited at Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam.

"What I enjoy most about China is the dominating sense of malleability, that the country is held together by expediencies. Not just in everyday life and how people solve problems but in the nation's endeavours to create an image of itself. A taxi driver can suddenly pull up at the side of the road, open the bonnet to repair something with sticky tape, and an old domestic telephone can be set out on the street with a sign saying 'public telephone'.

Right now, China is one huge construction site and it is odd that apparently just hanging around and thrusting a bamboo cane into the earth can ultimately lead to a brand-new, imposing building. It's not unlike the feeling you have when you're landing, when you can see what's happening from start to finish yet are unable to connect the bigger picture (the divine perspective) with life as we know it on the ground - there's no point of changeover.

There are a number of levels of reality I have difficulty connecting. The excessive hello kitty palette often took me back to another dimension of the hand-made; a cartoon-like, animated reality. Like, for instance, that of the local people watching TV in their garage-style shops surrounded by a glut of products in bubblegum hues - they look like living rooms on display. The shops only have three walls - one is left open to allow for viewers and cameras.

In my own flat I was closed in on all sides but couldn't help feeling the place was bristling with spyware. There was always something that convinced me the fourth wall was imaginary. I don't know if that was because of the way people looked at me when I walked down the stairs in my seven-floor building - following me with their eyes without moving either their head or body - or the unwavering hum of the ventilator - a diffuse, thumping sound that muffled every other sound and that constantly made me think I was missing something.

I imagined a team of secret agents or nouveaux riches observing me while I moved around my flat eating seaweed crackers or internetting in my underwear. Echoes of conspiracy theories prompted me to repeatedly scrutinize everything in my flat while at the same time realizing the complete madness of peering at the screws in the plafonniere in the bedroom.The weirdness gradually overtook me. The bathroom mirror was too low, so that the frame cut off my head. I could see right over it to a tinted, semi-transparent cupboard with a sliding door and at one point, while brushing my teeth, noticed that my head was blue. Apart from a certain degree of bizarreness the cartoonishness also conjures up the idea of the world as malleable, that you can change things and shape them however you like.

But the two-dimensionality and unreality weren?t only evoked by colour sensations. Everything is filtered by a veneer of oppression. Social interaction is regulated by formal behaviour and choreography - linked to specific occasions - making unclear its meaning, and whether the person who makes use of these coded rituals influences the extant forms.Personality seems to evaporate, becoming a sort of ?context-dependent identity? composed of different layers of formality without any actual core. You can make it to the next level (like a computer game) but never reach the centre. Indirect exchange is also found in the use of metaphors. A menu is more a medley of moods than a selection of ingredients, and even the Chinese have no idea what's going to be served. Anticipations are apparently based on the level of lyricism. The more refined the language, the more flavoursome the fare. But even metaphors are frequently used symbolically (fixed, with no intention of generating new connections or comparisons) given that interpretation isn't something that flows in abundance. You can visit a highly specialized tea house and order a cup of tea, but if your tone is just slightly wrong, the waitresses are still clueless about what you're ordering. (The Chinese language follows a tonal system that resembles the Stoical reeling off of telephone numbers by a computerized voice; regardless of their place within the whole, separate numbers are pronounced in exactly the same way). The entire concept of logic is a western invention. Of course, dissolving identity and logic are not just 'made in China'.

As an outsider, my relationship with my environment was quite primitive by construing it - out of sheer necessity - primarily as an image, a picture. Consequently, my findings are heavily tinged with my own inability to get involved and really interact. This was (again) brought home to me when I took a taxi, and saw the world through the windscreen. The minute I got out, my glasses misted over. The difference in temperature between the air-conditioned interior and overwhelming heat outside was simply too much.

Living on the surface is a pretty universal phenomenon but I don?t believe the 'media monster' can be blamed for everything. Seeing that I couldn't hold conversations, read or even gesture (the gesture for opening a door is different in China), I used my digital snapshot camera to go from A to B. The photos helped me to communicate and navigate (Bank of China, Peace Hotel, street signs, and so on). A photo can be a buffer or a wall separating us, but it can also make things visible and tangible, and help us work out our coordinates. 'Here, in China' (here, far away) may seem to be a reportage about the state of China, but it's really about determining locus. Does the excess of visual material make it harder to define where you are - or has it simply made this phenomenon easier to envision?"

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