Category Archives: Personal

CBC Videos on Chinese Shadow Puppetry

This blog covers many of the endeavors I pursue in order to get closer to Chinese shadow puppetry, while also serving one of my main missions: to disseminate information about this incredible art form to the general public. Every once in a while I get lucky and someone else helps me do the work of spreading the word. This time, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Arts produced a short segment on both my work in Chinese shadow puppetry and a mini how-to video on the craft. Both videos were directed by Ashely Duong and were a pleasure to work on. Hoping that these clips and articles help spread the word much further than this little blog or a PhD thesis could.

Thanks, CBC!

 

Original Article Links:

Meet the artist who’s trying to save a disappearing art with her bare hands: http://www.cbc.ca/beta/arts/exhibitionists/meet-the-artist-who-s-trying-to-save-a-disappearing-art-with-her-bare-hands-1.3835240

How to become a Chinese shadow puppet master: http://www.cbc.ca/beta/arts/exhibitionists/how-to-become-a-chinese-shadow-puppet-master-1.3852193

 

Direct Vimeo Video Links:

Meet the artist who’s trying to save a disappearing art with her bare hands:

How to become a Chinese shadow puppet master: 

 

~Thanks for reading & watching!

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Shadows and Haze: returning for fieldwork

I’m back. Back in China after over a year away. I was reticent to leave, wondering again how it would be possible to pause life in North America, missing wasteful hot showers and clean air already. But, just a few minutes after hailing a cab from Beijing’s International Airport to my new lodgings, my taxi driver took a toothpick out of his pocket, tipped his head and did a thorough ear cleaning with it. My first thought was, this can’t be safe – especially at 45 miles per hour. My second thought was, I’m home.

Ever since I first visited China in 1996, the place has resonated with me on the deepest levels. No other place on earth has vibrated for me in this way, not even in nature. When I was 16, I assumed this was a latent genetic familiarity from my ¼ Cantonese heritage, ringing with pleasure at a return ‘home’. I still feel this is part of the puzzle. Over time, I have also come to believe that this tacit communion is also a simple luck of innate tendencies: to favor mealtime over all other times, to emphasize ritual whenever possible, to tirelessly strengthen family and friendships, to unlock a pictographic language embedded with symbolism, to eat very very very spicy things, etc. The distant, sometimes so-polite-it-can-feel-cold Midwestern culture is also in my bones, but it doesn’t ring the inner bell quite like the absolute din of sitting around a banquet table in China.

Of course, these differences in culture and society bring with it another set of pressures and issues, pressures that I am fortunate enough to only dip into for months at a time before I go home to North America. So, who can truly say? Maybe, the toe that I dip in is enough and too much would prove the ‘greener on other side’ theorem true. For now, all I know is that when I am here, I am resonating in a way I don’t anywhere else.

And, if China resonates with me on this level, shadow puppetry just tips the scale. There is, still, nothing else that enraptures me like this form and all the practitioners, families, enthusiasts and scholars who are apart of it.

This chunk of fieldwork is being graciously funded by a Hanban/Confucius Institute Joint PhD Research Fellowship (孔子新汉学计划) and an additional Concordia MEESR Travel Grant. My research is supported by Beijing Normal University and the Folk Culture and Literature department, in particular, Professor Yang Lihui who is a Chinese folk culture specialist.

As I’ve just entered the ABD (all-but-dissertation) portion of my PhD work, I’m going to be focusing my fieldwork a bit differently than before. Instead of serving as an apprentice with my co-participants, I’m shifting gears to include more formal interviews and inquiries into Chinese shadow puppetry’s current situation and possible future outcomes. This work will be co-theorized with the participants and be included with the knowledge from my previous fieldwork in the thesis. Which I will, of course, be writing furiously as I travel around China…we hope.

Either way, I am so happy to be back and resonating in hazy Beijing, ready to begin the shadow puppet hunt again.

Thanks for reading~

Ancient Old Things

I just wrote a small essay on my attraction to Ancient Old Things at No More Potlucks.com and wanted to share it here as well. (Originally published at http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/ancient-old-things-annie-katsura-rollins/)

I work with old things, really old things: Chinese shadow puppets. The intricately carved leather figures are old and have an even older history. And, every time I hold one, I feel their accumulated past, heavy in my hands: their age is on them and in them.

I was initially pulled to them because of this oldness, this weight. Living in the modern Western world, I feel increasingly distressed by our growing preoccupation with newness and planned obsolescence. I still hate to throw things in the garbage or buy something I can’t pass onto the next generation – but there are only so many times you can darn a sock or glue your pleather wallet back together. The stuff of our world is meant for now and only now.

Certainly, my attraction to the shadow puppets was motivated by a fetishization and nostalgia around ancientness: a hope that by sheer proximity, the shadow puppets would teach me something better, smarter, wiser. And they did. Mostly, that nothing is forever and old is just a word to express the impermanence of everything.

In the fictional world of absolute permanence, the words old, age, and ancient have less meaning. Without a beginning or end point, what can age communicate? Not much, with all things existing equally alongside each other. But in this real world of absolute impermanence, old or aged importantly delineates our current place on an individual timeline in relation to someone/something else’s – because no age is absolute. I mean, how old is old? And how old is ancient? My old is not your old. North America’s old is not China’s old. Humans’ ancient is not the earth’s ancient. Even objects that seem permanent in their relation to a human lifespan are not immune. Stonehenge will eventually disintegrate, as will the pyramids, the palaces, and the pineapples. “A thing is just a slow event” (Stanley Eveling, quoted in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 59).

Read the rest at the link below, with accompanying paintings:

Full article at http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/ancient-old-things-annie-katsura-rollins/

~Thanks for reading!

Look Again: shadows as metonym for a new way of seeing

In the midst of a hearty work session the other day, an email came in from across the world, letting me know that some of my blog links weren’t working. I promptly went to check on them, opened up the home page and was reminded of my blogging silence as of late. No posts in three months! Because this blog has acted as the main mode of communicating my research throughout the last four years, I had somehow subconsciously assumed it would remain as busy as I was – regardless of my efforts towards it. I have often been accused of hopeless optimism.

But the inactivity on the blog is by no means a direct correlation with my thinking and doing as of late. Perhaps the opposite. I have been occupied with finishing my last semester of PhD coursework and have just entered into the comprehensive testing period of my degree. By day, you can find me tucked deep into books on speculative realism, dark objects, performing object theory and object-oriented ontology; by night, you can find me staring blankly at a wall, desperately trying to process what I’ve read and tie that in with my embodied experience in the field. It’s not easy, but it’s also surprisingly fulfilling. Thinking and stewing and marinating so often goes unnoticed as invisible labor, but the work is as real as lifting bricks. Even without putting words on paper, the work is happening – my brain is sweating.

Much has come out of this invisible labor of reading and thinking. Most of it is still undigested and too nascent to publish here, but for me, the thinking on shadows has become clearer. Or, more specifically, my ability to articulate my belief in what shadows are and what they do is becoming clearer.

***

In a child’s life, there is a crucial stage of development around the age of three or four. Before this age, a child interprets that dark thing that follows them on a sunny day as a material object. Games are often created to ‘step on’ or ‘bury’ the dark thing until it relinquishes its game of follow, but never to any avail. Pile on the stones and the dark thing appears again; run as fast as you can, but you will never outrun your dark thing; the dark thing ever-faithful to its subject.

After a while, a child begins to comprehend the physical immateriality of this dark thing: non-dimensional, lacking substance and therefore nothing. It is simply the absence of light. And is that not what a shadow is? Nothingness? The actual representation of the absence of something: light? Is there anything else in our known world that so tirelessly carries this task of representing absence? By their unfailing duty to show us distorted absences of the very things we humans know to be truths (trees, humans, structures, clouds, nighttime), is the shadow there to confirm or subvert?

At some point in a human’s development, the shadows recede into their own darkness. When we ‘know’ what they are, they begin to mesh into the rest of the busy world around us, just part of the milieu. The knowledge that shadows are the necessary complement to envisioning the three-dimensional world is lost on us. The knowledge that nighttime is the world-in-shadow is even further from consciousness. There is seeing and there is night, but there are fewer shadows.

Still, shadows play on the subconscious at some level. For such an occularcentric species, visual darkness and ambiguity seem to play upon our deepest insecurities.

The developmental trajectory of the human and the shadow that I have briefly sketched here traces a parallel with a Platonic understanding of enlightenment and its corollary with knowledge: we seek to know and to do so, we must walk away from the darkness and toward the light.

This does not sit well with me.

I have never equated light with knowledge and truth as absolute. Darkness, for me, is a truer truth: the truth that knowing-all is a seduction and a farce. And through their immaterial but significant presence, shadows expose that fragility and hubris. Shadows, for me, are just as true and real and thing-like as the thing that enjoys three-dimensionality. Maybe even more so because of its inherent elusive essence. I believe shadow puppetry, or the human manipulation of shadows for storytelling, is the many millennia-old practice of dwelling in the unknowable: an important and humble place for humans to return to time and time again.

***

There are many more thoughts that dig into immaterial things and objecthood, shadows as signifiers and ambassadors, the healthy place that is unknowing, etc. But, I’ll leave this here for now and end my unintended silence.

Thanks for reading~

 

Small is Beautiful

The unimaginable has happened.

In the past few weeks, a strange and lucky set of events have led me to the smallest accomplishment of my life. I have just cut a set of 1”-scale traditional leather Chinese shadow puppets for display in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms.

I first saw the Thorne Miniature Rooms when I was a young teen. I’m not sure how or why I was in Chicago, or even how we made our way to the legendary Institute, but the one thing I have never forgotten about were the miniature rooms: glowing boxes of exquisite smallness along mazes of darkened hallways. Once captured in their impossibility, I didn’t want to be let go.

Georgian Dining RoomThe Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms: English Dining Room of the Georgian Period, 1770-90, c. 1937

Part of the spell is their natural beauty, but much of it stems from the perfect comprehensibility of, say, a 1700 Georgian Dining room the size of a shoebox. The observer feels both godlike and humbled by the sheer reducibility of that which seems irreducible. And they are beautiful. All of these rooms are handmade by master craftsman according to the particular specifications of Mrs. James Ward Thorne. All 68 of them. Certainly, seeing these rooms so early on was instrumental in my developing fascination with all things handmade, representative and miniature.

Fast-forward some 20-odd years later and on an unsuspecting morning in October, I received an email from the keeper of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. She was looking for information about Chinese shadow puppetry! With plans to highlight their miniature Chinese room this year, they had hoped to place some traditional shadow puppets within.

My mind reeled. My eyes were wide. I might have been drooling.

What a convergence of wonderful, impossible things.

Instantly, we were in a flurry of exchanges: discussing performances, regional styles and cutting techniques. I offered to give the miniatures a try; wisely giving myself an out if the 1” scale bested me. But of course, I had to try.

{Now, in case you’re not sure, 1” scale means every foot is reduced to 1”. Or 1’=1”. For reference, this means that your laptop computer would be reduced to about 1” or 1.5” wide.}

My first attempt was, well, awful. It seemed as though my monstrously large blade miss-cut the paper-thin leather on nearly every single pass – but I couldn’t even see well enough to tell. My neck ached from crouching eye-level to the table and I was barely holding onto the cut piece with a needle tool. Impossible. Even my first attempt at painting the mangled piece of leather was hideous.

My obsession with the miniature rooms and the knowledge that someone could make those meant I had to be able to make these – this is what pushed me forward. I tried and tried again: smaller, closer, better. Or, more accurately: achier, blinder, worse. In case you’re wondering, there is no god-complex inherent in making minis. More so, the opposite is true: you simply feel like a bumbling, mitten-handed oaf, swearing to yourself the entire time.

At some point, the zen set in. The beauty of working on something so small is that time stands still. In order to work at that scale, everything else must recede. You must forget about your own size, your own weight and volume and become a smaller, quieter, more immaterial conduit for miniature to pass through you. And, somehow it did.

IMG_8548Lady White Snake, 1 1/2″ tall: cowhide, string, paint

IMG_8637Lady White Snake in Shadow

IMG_8643Lady White Snake in scale with the gigantic shadow-hand!

IMG_8560A bridge, 1″ tall: leather, paint

IMG_8610The bridge in shadow

IMG_8612In perspective…such a little bridge!

XuxianLady White Snake’s lover, Xuxian, 1  1/2″ scale: leather, string, paint.

Xuxian ShadowXuxian in Shadow

Now, as I return to the real world back from the small, everything seems large, inexact and – well – lacking exquisiteness. It’s true what they say: small is beautiful.

Thanks for reading~

(PS: The shadow puppets should be up sometime this winter)

North by Northwest – Part 2

Continued from North by Northwest – Part 1

My classes were to start the next morning at nine am. In classic Annie-fashion, I was ready around 8:45 and had to pace around the back parking lot in order to avoid being early. I walked in slow motion from my sixth floor hotel room to the workshops just out back. I took the steps to the second floor with patience. In a glance, I saw Master Gao’s door was open and as I peaked through the cloth flap, I saw him studiously working at his desk. He had already prepared the side desk for me, with a cutting mat, one blade and a comfortable chair.

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We exchanged quick pleasantries and got to work. After a quick discussion of my previous work in the Shaanxi and Tangshan style of cutting leather, a small scrap of hide was placed in front of me and along with a selection of head patterns. I chose a simple woman’s head to start my practice.

In a moment, the setting felt so familiar that my body unconsciously fell into work mode. I checked the hide for moisture, picked up my needle tool, aligned my hide over the pattern and began to trace with concerted concentration. They say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. And even though the Gansu cutting method is wholly different from the others, my understanding of the way in which I was going to learn this was the same. I went slow, I was patient and I was persistent.

Master Gao’s skills are humbly presented, even though he’s registered as a national level cultural artist. His pieces have an effortless, yet unforgiving look to them: unapologetically beautiful.

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legs

And, he’s a natural teacher. He offers up appropriate suggestions with a soft voice and presents useful comparisons to other cutting methods. He continues to cut as I study, checking in on me every 20 minutes or pausing for a direct question.

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This set up may seem normal to the uninitiated, but it is actually unusual in the best sense. The traditional Chinese shadow puppetry apprentice system has changed greatly over the last century. In the early part of the 1900s, as Chinese shadow puppetry was just beginning its end, the apprentice system was still a one-on-one relationship. The emphasis on proximity and prolonged study was central to the transmission. Nowadays, ever since Chinese shadow puppetry picked back up in the late 1970s after decades of repression, the apprentice system looks more like a technical school than anything else. There is often a division of labor (i.e. cutters, painters, designers) and there is an understanding that the goal is commercial, not artistic. The teaching style is more dogmatic in its approach, rather than a cyclical feedback cycle between Master and Apprentice.

In the course of my study in Gansu, I took advantage of my Master’s constant practice and my proximity and tried hard not to take it all for granted. I quickly developed a happy discourse between my own work and observed the master when I had nagging questions. So much can be understood if you know how to look. And though I’m nowhere near mastering this method of puppet making, I feel confident I’ve embodied the basic enough to continue studying on my own.

IMG_7646My progress with the simple woman’s head design; versions 1 through 5.

We ended the week with increased conversations about Master Gao’s biography, his family and the future of traditional shadow puppetry. All of Master Gao’s children have gone onto college, which is a great accomplishment, and all three of them are pursuing artistic fields. He beams with pride as he shows me his daughter’s Chinese style paintings. And although they all live or attend school in different provinces, you get a sense that they’re close. He knows there’s no work for them in Huanxian.

In regards to the future of Chinese shadow puppetry, he has no more confidence than I do. And yet, he also doesn’t seem to have the worry or regret that one might expect. There is a steadiness about him that assuages my worries for a time. Perhaps this perspective is developed from the honest and tangible work of a craftsman, the practicality of a crafter. I feel it too: the solidity of the tools and the ability to manipulate the leather in my hands gives me a growing sense of confidence in all things.

The day before my study is over, I can feel the goodbye already begin to weigh heavily on me. These chances to study grow more and more exceptional. These chances to study with a gifted cutter and teacher? You get the idea.

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You’ll find me back in Northwest as soon as I can find my way back to China.

Thanks for reading~

North by Northwest – Part 1

After a short breather in Xi’an, I braved the bus towards the northwestern corner of China’s mainland to the small city of Huanxian in Gansu province. I have been to Huanxian once before, for just a few days in 2011, to attend the National Shadow Puppet Conference held every four years. My memory of the conference is fuzzy as we were shuffled here and there to watch this and that for a full three days. Indelibly, however, the Huanxian performers and cutters are still clear in my mind. They seemed out of place at the conference, even though it was their home turf: while the other troupes handled press with ease and utilized the proscenium stage, the Huanxian artists were awkward in the outsider gaze and unaccustomed to performing indoors. I fell in love with them instantly and knew I had to visit them again, in the sobriety of the off-season.

The bus dropped me off with little aplomb. With one mainstreet, Huanxian is just over one mile long. Its side streets stretch another mile or so wide, but beyond that, the mountains cut off expansion on either side.

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They tower over the valley and shelter it from the rest of the world. The wind had swirled the dry, loose soil into a layer of hazy fog that I would have assumed was pollution had I not known Huanxian didn’t have any industry to speak of.

The Shadow Puppet themed hotel was just a three-block walk from the town’s central square and 2 blocks from the bus terminal. I checked in at the front desk, overseen by a few shadow puppet warriors hung ominously high on the walls. Once settled in the tacky, but decent room on the sixth floor, I checked in with my contacts to announce my arrival. Huanxian’s main puppet making company is located on the second floor of the hotel and the cutting workshop just out back. I guess in a town this small, convenience of this sort shouldn’t be a surprise.

Li Yaping, a former provincial level puppet maker, met me in the Longying Shadow Puppet company’s offices. Long years of leaning over a cutting table have relegated her to a manager’s position. She gave us a tour of the offices, empty like a ghost town, and the exhibition room, which boasts a host of lovely pieces and innovative designs. When I asked how busy the company was these days, she replied simply, “not busy.” After discussing the particulars, we agreed that tomorrow I could head out back and look for my cutting teacher myself.

The next morning at nine sharp, I headed out back with my serious researcher pants on, my backpack full of notebooks, freshly charged batteries and my mind set on my goal. Mornings like these have begun to feel familiar. My lack of appetite betrays my outwardly cool composure: I care. I care deeply how the next hour will transpire. A mixture of dread and excitement lays thick in my belly because I never know what I’m going to find. The perfect situation could present itself; an amiable master, a nice workshop, a great study routine and a reasonable price. Or, I could find disgruntled employees, a depressing workshop and an unaffordable situation.

After a thorough tour of the workshop building, I find no one is there. My heart and stomach flutter for a second, but I quickly decide to take the hunt back to the main office. I find the second floor peopled with just one young woman who eagerly agrees to help in my hunt. We head behind the workshop building to the squat brick buildings that serve as residents for some of the employees. We ask a few questions, stand around awkwardly and then, Gao Qingwang rounded the corner. From a distance you could see the deep smile lines creased in his weathered face. He walked with a relaxed gait: open and curious. My young guide jumped when she saw him and explained who I was. In moments, we had agreed to head back to his workshop and talk a bit.

Ten minutes later, the three of us are sitting comfortably in Gao Qingwang’s beautiful studio: a small 10×15 ft room with a window towards the mountains. A bed is in one corner for midday rests and he has shadow puppet trunks stacked against the other wall. Knick knacks and souvenirs are everywhere.

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Without ceremony, Master Gao retrieved a piece of leather he was working on, his tools and sat down to work. Relative to other masters, Gao is talkative and can explain his work in motion. He is open to questions, listens thoughtfully and works steadily.

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After a buoyant half hour of observation and conversation, we agreed to study every morning for my remaining time in Huanxian.

These are the mornings I dream of. The relief the encounter brought summoned my suppressed hunger and I headed off to an early lunch of hand-pulled noodles and pickled vegetables.

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Part Two of my work in Gansu to follow…

Thanks for reading~