In May 2011, I participated in BASEbeijing, a program es tablished by L.A.-based architects Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray, to document the changing face of rural China, and provide alternatives and possibilities for new and sustainable environments. The association with BASE provided an opportunity to become part of an authentic, little-seen part of China for eight weeks, where we could build on already-established foundations. A tourist who happened on these rural villages two hours north of the city would likely be met with an air of hostility and intrigue.
With two students from Tulane University, I examined the public spaces in the village in terms of their social routines and interactions. The village resembled a ghost town for much of the day, as it consisted of elderly residents whose children live and work in the city, and grandchildren who board at school during the week. Although this lack of energy added to the tranquil setting, it also reflected its social environment. Residents worked in the fields from dawn until dusk and, with no commu nal spaces in which to mingle after dark, returned to their respective homes. The prospect of entertaining friends and neighbors did not seem to be culturally significant. The idea of isolation was prominent, both in geographical location and social interaction.
During our visits, we observed a solitary pillow that followed the shade, traversing the alleyways and streets to accommodate the seldom-seen residents during intervals of relaxation. Public space grew out of simple necessity and comfort. This pillow, made out of a recycled pair of pants, became an icon and generator of place. Building on their traditions, we imagined that introducing more pillows could help to create a gathering and communal space. We produced 40 pillows from images we had taken, printed them on canvas, and stuffed them with peppercorn seeds and recycled plastic bags. We presented the pillows to the residents on our last trip, along with a slideshow of images and videos of the village, for them to gain insight of their home through our alien eyes. The pillows represented our collaborative time spent in the village as a souvenir, but not in the form of an intrusive construct that would ultimately become unwanted and unused. Some images were specific to particular locations, others were portraits of individuals or transcripts of a conversation. Ultimately, they were offerings of thanks for allowing us to share their village life.
The BASE experience also offered an insight into rapid urban development and an opportunity to be part of the Beijing art scene, through meetings with such well-known artists as Ai Weiwei, Wang Quingsong, and He Yungchang. Our studio was based in Caochangdi, a prominent arts district, and despite the demanding schedule there was time to explore Forbidden Cities and climb Great Walls. My favorite souvenir is my Chinese name that translates, depending on whom you ask, as ‘Space cowboy, riding on the open plain howling at moon.'