During the spring of 2020, my thoughts are lingering with Le Ming village in China. The Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts offered the chance to participate in a two-day fieldtrip to this meagre provincial town where a museum project is trying to generate new values and opportunities for the inhabitants. The visit, which took place on December 28 and 29, has become increasingly prominent in my mind. Ideas about prospects for young girls in remote areas and about the value of art, are shooting back and forth. I used to think that small initiatives were like a drop in the ocean. Artists arriving, without warning, to do their thing in other people’s lives. I’m never quite sure what to make of it, a form of presumption. In the visibly poor Le Ming, I’m struck by the well-meant goals of this long-term art initiative to offer other people opportunities for the benefit of a better living environment and a better future. The ‘Corner Cabinet Plan’ is one of the projects. A discarded antique cabinet found in the village will be reproduced using local materials, while artists give it a thematic and visual make-over. This will bring work, money and self-esteem to the village. Two young girls make me more acutely aware that chances in life are far from self-evident. So many things are lurking to cut off development. Poverty is an unfavourable omen when it comes to prosperity.
They are cheerful, with the contagious pleasure that belongs to young children. I can imagine their thoughts because dreams and feelings are universal and an unexpected and funny incident in my hotel room made me realise that the art initiative has planted ‘the colour white’ in the village:
Le Ming, 29 december 2019
Somewhere on Earth, and people living everywhere, no idea where we drove off to, maps are hard to find in China. The place may be traced digitally but that doesn’t show the larger picture. I need to draw lines, make connections by zooming in from far to near, to understand where I am. As soon as I’m home, I look for Le Ming on satellite images. I must see it from up above or it will roam in me forever. After guessing and straining my eyes, I recognise part of a name, a bend, half the street map of the village but definitely the contours of a building I have seen. From the ground it has a corner, from above it has a hook. It fits. This is the place. The girls with their cute faces look at me from the white bath tub on silver lion-paw feet. They are eight or nine years old I suppose. For two days, we have seen each other every now and then, communicating with eye contact and body language in non-verbal interactions. They know their way around the educational hotel for artists and visitors and followed me to the room, they enter hesitantly. They know the bath is there, I can sense it. After testing the chances of maybe entering it by gently stroking the enamel, the girls are chattering cheerfully sitting opposite each other in the baroque object. What meaning would this white bath have to them, I wonder. It is a rare object of luxury in the meagre town. Chickens, ducks, dogs and humans mingle freely. There is bird poo everywhere.
Earlier that day, the butcher came to town in his little open truck. Some pieces of fresh meat are drifting in the trunk unrefrigerated on sheets of brown-stained styrofoam that once must have been white. I recognise half a pig’s head. No display, no choice, no hygiene, the battered chopping block full of blood and gashes has a life of its own. Dressed in black, a cigarette dangling from his lips, the apronless butcher cuts off the pieces of meat pointed out to him. He ties the plastic bags and is done. Ten minutes later, he is gone again.
The grimy styrofoam stimulates my thoughts. White doesn’t exist here. White is not a colour in the gamut of abrasion and has even abandoned the butcher. White is the starship among shades in Le Ming. The snow-white tub must be incredibly impressive, might even be a space shuttle to the girls. They play in this short moment full of energy and fancy. To me it visualises that the beauty of the white tub with its silver feet in the hotel also offers a way to encounter a wider world, activating the imagination and its power. It tells the conscious mind that there is more than mud and shades of brown. The bath has arrived from another part of the world and it brings strange people with it. Le Ming is home to the new Yuan Art Museum, built by the organisation, that shows the art projects’ outcome. The museum is white too, diamond in a rice field.
The museum and the bath have reached the town simultaneously, are somehow interconnected. Just sitting in the polished bathtub momentarily lifts the girls up. In a growth spurt of reason the world has widened itself, the horizon has been extended, the door is ajar for the future. Without form it is a feeling. The white museum and the white bath act as vehicles for the mind. In 2012, I concluded that the colour white takes a step forward. You need to relate to white, fill it, as the bath moment unexpectedly illustrated. After we have left the hotel room, and following some messing about in the yard, the girls give me hand-drawn notes. The reference to ‘you and I’ is obvious, which to me is a powerful illustration of the will to communicate.
The white from my youth was a Peugeot 305 with blue electric windows. Over-the-top, but I loved it. Being driven around on the back seat was a sense of zooming along the road, while everything outside was blue. Pressing a button rolled down the window and revealed the colours outside. Pressing it once more returned me to the blue world. It was my white dream vehicle. The car was soon gone, but it left an incredible impression. That car filled the entire space. White can take on anything.
In art, literature and research it always is the starting point for a new vision. First and foremost a colour of equality, attainable for all. In dirt-stricken poverty, white is extremely rare, ergo white is expensive. There goes my notion of white representing the equality-principle, turned into a far-away colour to muse upon. Imagination on lion paws. In Le Ming a new white has arrived, that in itself is an exciting fact.
© Karin van Pinxteren, May 20, 2020, published in the box ‘Voorjaar 2020’ De Ketelfactory | translation: Nanne op ‘t Ende