Land of the Badasses


“I am Temujin. Barbarian. I fight! I love! I conquer… like a Barbarian” – John Wayne


Mongolia in autumn is witch’s tit cold. At 9am one October morn, our party of seven* piled into a Soviet era P.O.S. van and hit the badly paved road. Our tour guide was a female Mongolian hipster with a taste for beer and punk rock attire. We were also accompanied by a seemingly nameless (and seemingly clueless) driver dressed like Albert Steptoe.

UlaanBatar shrank into the distance as we began our drive to the east. Soon enough, badly paved became unpaved, and urban became a distant memory. I felt like Martin Sheen in the oft-referenced (by me) Apocalypse Now, travelling further and further back in time with each step of the journey. This was a landscape that bled history: home to an angry nomad so aggressive and rapey that he slaughtered about 22% of the world’s population and sired a bloodline that may well reach to about one in every 200 living men.

Knowing a photo opp when we saw one, we asked the driver to pull over at a Buddhist shrine near a gnarled, Tolkienesque tree between two peaks. Eventually our seven hour hemorrhoid-risking journey led us to Blue Lake. Conflicting legends have it either that the lake is where young Temujin was bestowed his fearsome new moniker of Genghis Khan, or that it is where he and thirty horsemen, smarting from defeat at the battle of Dalan Balzhut, settled for a decade or so and started making their plans for world domination.

We didn’t stay quite as long, just a single night in the ‘ger’ (aka yurt) of a nomadic family. By the look of it, our accommodation had been until very recently some bloke’s garage. Our host family kept themselves to themselves, mostly staying in their own yurt watching international TV shows dubbed into Mongolian.

We took a short hike into the hills to watch the sun go down. The mid-autumn moon was so bright that it cast our shadows on the frozen ground. The following morning some of us rose before the dawn to watch the sun rise once again over a dramatic landscape that brought back childhood memories of the Rockies and hallucinogenic daydreams of the ole rape and pillage.

Our wonderful guide (who had traded hipster hoodies and black leather for traditional pink pyjamas) cooked everyone a rice pudding-style dish for breakfast before we set out over more rough terrain. Our second night of yurt-ery was spent at a tourist camp in Terelj National Park. The family we stayed with seemed a little more open (one of them acquiesced to be interviewed for an article that a friend was writing for Leeds University), but the camp itself felt a little like Mongolian Butlins. We managed to keep our distance from other tourists, wandering through the woods amidst animal carcasses stripped bare by wolves, before retiring for the night.

No Mongolian trip would be complete without trotting about on a horse. We rode up to a monastery in the mountains surrounding the park. I hadn’t ridden since I was a kid, but these were well trained beasts who knew where they were going. Upon returning from the monastery we packed up the battered old van and drove to the Chinggis Khaan** statue, which presumably beat little competition from Guinness for the prize of World’s Largest Equestrian Statue. It is impressive, and almost impossibly huge. So huge that the World’s Largest Mongolian Boot (fashioned from 445 cow hides and four km of rope) occupies only a tiny fraction of its foyer. Beneath the statue’s hooves lies a wonderfully edifying museum on the history of the Mongol Empire.

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The contrast between the city and the countryside could not be stronger. Modern Mongolia is home to more than 3 million people, 1.3 million of whom live in UlaanBatar (and, bizarrely, all seem to drive a Toyota Prius). After dirt tracks on which we encountered not a soul, the city took a shocking hour-and-a-half to cross through gridlocked traffic. We had a short time in the centre before departing for Chinggis Khaan International, which may tie with Astana for World’s Least Overly Impressive International Airport (in fairness, they did have some nice hats and English language history books).

Our flight, lagging behind on its way from Seoul, left the airport late; and so by the time we began our two-hour flight to Beijing the sun had already set on another adventure.


*(we had lost the American chap. His flight home was the day before ours and he’d opted for a shorter, cheaper tour)

(**preferred Mongolian spelling of the founding father, complete with Shatner-esque pronunciation of “Khaan!”)

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Python References on the Trans-Mongolian


“And now for something completely different.”


I’m beginning to think, not for the first time, that the greatest perk of my job is all the time off that I get. Mid-Autumn, or ‘Moon Cake’ Festival, is one of the two major breaks in China, a time for people to exchange sweet cakes and journey home to their families. I have yet to acquire the  taste for moon cake, and home to me (as Burroughs said) has never “meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room.”  So I took another trip, boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express with the gf and a handful of friends and colleagues.

The Beijing-UlaanBatar express is a 28 hour journey with a handful of stops. The train itself was bookended by dining cars: one Chinese, one Mongolian. After departing the big smoke and setting up camp in two adjacent sleeper rooms, our party of eight (a Brit, an American, a Filipino, four young Chinese women and myself) descended on the Chinese dining car for lunch, laughing and chatting over ribs, chicken wings and bottles of Yanjing.* Every time I tried to open the curtain to peek at the glorious Chinese countryside, the rail collapsed into my lap. This did not deter me from stubbornly trying several times.

Returning to our carriage (which we had virtually to ourselves), we played card games and chatted politics (a conversation we cut short when it became a little too heated) before going our separate but interconnected ways for the evening. Dinner was composed of pot noodles and snacks that we brought with us.

At approximately midnight, we reached the Chinese border at Er Lian (and were immediately told not to step off the carriage). As we all climbed into our beds, the train was undergoing a procedure to change the gauge of the rails. None of us could tell if this was a literal placing of new rails in front of the train, or an exchange of every single wheel on the train carriages, but whatever was happening was accompanied by regular banging, an oppressive industrial thumping, and a broken sleep filled with Lynchian nightmares. At 2am we were awoken and scared shitless by Chinese soldiers with flashlights who returned our passports to us. A few hours later we were woken by the slightly more attractive (and less heart attack-inducing) ladies at the Mongolian border.

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At 6am, the bedroom shutter rolled up with an enthusiastic “Dude, look at that sunrise!”, which I reluctantly complied with. We were chugging along the ridiculously flat steppes. I could not have been more elated (unless, of course, I’d have had 8 hours sleep). We went to the Chinese diner only to discover that it had remained in China: we were staring out the back of the train, watching the tracks recede into the impossibly distant horizon.

And so it was Mongolian food for breakfast. No curtain rails this time, just good food and Pythonesque banter: one of the delights of travelling with a fellow Brit is that we never ran out of things to talk about or of Monty Python references. We even improvised Palin-esque commentary on our adventure**. Tired of ‘lol’ing at our own wit, we spent the rest of our journey chatting and larking in the sleeper, trying to practice a handful of Mongolian phrases, and scraping the absolute barrel of Monty Python references (28 hours is a very long time!)

The foothills appeared. Then the mountains. By this time we were talking about Ben Wheatley movies as I dug wax from my ear. Eventually, the suburbs of UlaanBataar  crept into view. Yurt after yurt after shipping container. We all agreed that the UB boonies appeared quite the fuck hole to our travel-weary eyes.

We stepped onto the chilly platform and entered the city itself with no game plan. We exchanged RMB for MNT and then started walking. First port of call was a Mongolian greasy spoon for lunch. None of us could read Mongolian, but one of our party suggested ordering the first few dishes on the menu and splitting them between us. So lunch was made up of five different soups and a bowl of rice.

We then descended on the Main Street of Peace Avenue and found a cheap hotel (at our second attempt), before tracking down a tour company that could facilitate the rest of our trip. We all discussed what we would like to see during our Mongolian stay. A trip to the Gobi was not possible with our limited amount of days, so we settled on camping East of the city.

So for one night only, we bedded down in UlaanBatar. I slept for 10 hours.

Cue Palin voiceover, and bombastic BBC music.

FADE OUT.


*(lunchtime drinking is discouraged in Chinese companies. We were truly in holiday mode)

**“The tea in the dining car is a little too hot, but the desert outside is only ten degrees centigrade.”

The Power of Derp

 


“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” – Buffalo Springfield


In 1979, Hal Ashby* directed Peter Sellers in a film called Being There. Sellers plays a low IQ gardener called Chance, who has never left the stately home in which he lives and works. All he knows of the outside world is what he’s seen on television while obsessively switching between channels: snippets of Sesame Street and Johnny Carson and Mr. Rogers. When his employer dies, Chance the gardener is forced to confront the real America for the first time. For various reasons, he ends up living with a socialite who takes every one of his dumbass monosyllabic (and televisual inspired) utterances as profound, metaphorical wisdom. Chance’s new friend introduces him to the president of the United States, and the theme becomes ‘just how far can a white retarded person actually get in American politics?’ Bear in mind that this was a far-fetched comedy film at the time, but you only have to look at what’s happened recently in the real world to guess the answer.

There are some people who object to my use, either in conversation or in written form, of the word ‘retarded’. There are other people (slightly less retarded ones) who completely ‘get’ that I use this incendiary word not to mock those with a genuine, medically diagnosed Forest Gump/Rain Man/Malkovich-in-that-Gary-Sinise-movie form of mental handicap. Mental or physical disability is of course nothing to be made fun of.

No. The sort of tards I wish to poke with a stick are the 20-watt energy-savers who voted for Brexit without knowing what an EU was; the half-sharp foreskins who are more concerned about a female Doctor Who than a female prime minister that no one initially voted for; the dull-witted gammon flaps who use tiki torches not for some friendly neighbourhood gathering, but for attending racist protests swaddled in Nazi iconography and then for drying their uncontrollable tears when someone on YouTube points out that they’re a bit of a racist.

I completely understand if the word ‘retard’ upsets you. There are words that upset me, but that’s not your problem is it? I hope that my outright abhorrence at some mayonnaise hued twat waving a swastika and doing the Roman salute here in the troubled 21st century is your problem, and I hope that you’re as angry about it as I am.


“I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but believe that I might understand.” – Anselm of Canterbury


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Freedom of speech means that people have the right to say something that you disagree with. It does not mean you have to accept what they say without comment. It does not mean that they should be surprised or upset if someone challenges them verbally, physically or (at the very least) on the internet.

Papering over or ignoring the differences between cultures is pointless. I’ve spent enough time in China to know, for example, that Chinese people often think differently from me. I’m not always comfortable with that, but I can accept it. Accepting and celebrating those differences instead of getting angry about them or pretending they don’t exist is surely a sign of sanity, maybe even maturity? But accepting a bug-eyed, gap-toothed Nazi salute on American soil? Are you even remotely serious?

People have the right to be heard. Perhaps they even have the right to be understood. But to be accepted? Fuck no. The idea that we need to accept everyone, whatever their beliefs, is nonsense. Toxic, dangerous nonsense. We should not be accepting or ignoring the current level of open, unabashed pants-shitting ignorance and tongue-lolling intolerance, we should be stamping it out like the rubbish bin fire it is before it’s allowed to become a flat out blazing landfill inferno. These arseholes should be scurrying back into the woodwork, cowering and crying and waiting to be arrested. As philosopher Karl Popper says, a healthy society must (paradoxically) become intolerant of intolerance.

I’m not solipsistic. I’m not a nihilist. I do care about you and yor’n, but if y’all got your fat rube head wedged in the glass jar of stoopid, all I can humbly offer is a ball-peen hammer and the hope that you get the sort of education or medication that will finally help you outwit that turnip.


“To me, it seems to be negligence if, after confirmation in the faith, we do not study to understand that which we believe.” – Anselm of Canterbury


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Words** have exactly as much power and emotion as people ascribe to them. Some atheists get annoyed when people use the word ‘God’ (especially with a capital ‘g’). Certain names for ‘god’ will even get you on the sort of list that it’s pretty hard to extricate yourself from. Equally, some religious people get annoyed when atheists use words like “grow” and “up”. But the theologian Anselm of Canterbury once described his philosophy as “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God”. If you replace the word ‘god’ with ‘the universe’, then isn’t that pretty much what Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the rest of the guys who bat for the other team are still doing?

If your reaction to a complicated universe is to try to make it as simple as possible by following an ideology that chimes with your limited beliefs, more power to you. If you want to put that ideology on a flag, you go right ahead my thick son. But if you’re gonna try to force those beliefs on others and disagree violently with their own beliefs while spastically waving that flag in everyone’s face, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself wearing yer flag rectally (and yes, by ‘rectally’ I mean a literal placing of flagpole betwixt the cheeks of your dumb cracker arse)

A couple of years ago, I blogged on the virtues of anger as an energy to motivate.*** But I wasn’t talking about thick, impotent rage: standing about with your milky white arm extended and your crimson neck knotted, hurling things and shouting ‘sner’ at people who already have reason to believe that you ain’t the sharpest fork at the dinner. I was talking about what the Christians might call ‘righteous’ anger. Channeled, distilled, targeted anger that is borne out of dissatisfaction with the world as it is; burned off in the alchemical and probably blasphemous crucible like lead into gold; forged and alloyed into a sword of awesome. I was talking about what the buddhists might call participating fully in the joyful sorrows and sorrowful joys of the world; understanding that existence is pain; that life is not supposed to be easy and that you, sir, as Mohandas K. Gandhi told us, gotta be the change y’all wanna see! Admittedly, if the change you want to see involves being surrounded by the corpses of your imagined enemies, or only white people emigrating, maybe rethink that shit a little, yeah?

I am someone who loves words and tries to appreciate their power. I try always to choose my words carefully. But they are ‘just’ words. They can put us to sleep or wake us up, like inputting the right code into the software; and if you’re not running a powerful enough computer, then the code becomes meaningless. But I believe there’s a process here: thought/word/deed. Get your thinking clear, and you will almost certainly find the right words. If you’re really lucky (and sufficiently motivated) then hopefully the right actions will follow.


*(possibly the most underrated of film directors in Hollywood’s long and checkered history)

**(including the word ‘retard’)

*** see: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/homesick-or-sick-of-home/

Long Live the King


“This is very impressive, I think it’s actually the best temple we’ve seen so far.”
“Yes. Shall we take a selfie?”


I spent the summer of 2015 in Southeast Nowhere, Beijing, scratching my balls and watching Michael Bay movies. The following summer was spent sweating through housekeeping duties in a hostel in downtown Vancouver. This year, I figured it wouldn’t break the bank to have an actual fucking holiday.

I considered disappearing, Sean Flynn style, into deepest Cambodia. I considered going to a hotel in Saigon, putting The Doors on full blast and staring at the ceiling fan. Eventually I settled on swapping TsingTaos for Singhas on a five day urban break in Bangkok. The gf was keen to come with me, her first time away from mainland China.

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My knowledge of Thailand is limited. Like, ignorant limited. In fact pretty much my only experience of the country was Thai boxing and Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. I’m not saying I was expecting tuk tuk chases that ended with someone jumping through an exploding ring of barbed wire, or someone lying under an idyllic waterfall making love to a fish, I’m just saying that I really know bugger all about Thailand.

 
First thing to do was make sure we had enough money for our stay. Make seriously sure. The Thai government has started doing random checks at airports to ensure that people can actually afford their stay, as a way of cracking down on broke-arse hipster twats coming over and begging in the streets for enough cash to continue their travels.

 
We flew from Bejing in the early afternoon. Customs and baggage claim took a little longer than I’d have liked, so it was about 9pm local time when we finally got to the hotel. We had an exquisite dinner at the restaurant next door, stocked up on supplies from one of Bangkok’s 3,648 7-Eleven stores, and then I raided the mini-bar for Singha number 1 before falling asleep.

 
Coincidentally, our first full day in the kingdom of elephants turned out to be the king of Thailand’s birthday: the perfect day to visit Wat Pho temple and The Grand Palace, along with absolutely every other fucker in the entire country. We had chicken noodle soup by the river, watching the festivities from a fairly peaceful distance before heading to Chinatown for a coffee and getting hit by a hella downpour.

 
We spent the next couple of days getting used to the Metro and the taxis and trying to learn the Thai for “are you fucking joking, mate? That’s too expensive.” (turns out that the syllables are unpronounceable and that most people speak English anyway).

 
The gf is open to the idea of urban drifting* so we did a fair amount of walking during our stay. We’ve seen a lot of temples. It’s been humbling to sit on the floor (soles pointed away from the Buddha, of course) and contemplate one’s place in the great web.

 
We went to check out of the hotel this morning only to find that July has 31 days (who knew) and that we’ve actually got one more night here in glorious Krung Thep.

 

Meanwhile, a friend in the U.K. has started shooting that short horror film that we wrote together. The cinematographer is my arty mate from the Kazakhstan trip, who’s soon trading Astana for Cairo**. In a way, I kind of wish I was shooting it with them. In another way, though, I wish them well and I’m in Thailand.

 
When I made my first stab at becoming a screenwriter a main inspiration was John Milius, writer of Apocalypse Now. While director Francis Ford Coppola was going insane in the jungle, dealing with typhoons and infidelity and heart attacks as well as Brando and Hopper sized egos, Milius was lazily writing the surfing epic Big Wednesday, spending his days sipping whisky on a Californian beach and his nights riding a dune buggy with a bare-breasted Margot Kidder, shooting the bulbs out of street lamps with an antique shotgun.

 
I always felt that the writer won.

 

 

I still do.


*at least with the safety net of Google Maps (a novelty for her)

**he’s shown me the rough cut of the Kazakh video we worked on, which is quite the mini-epic.

 

Pure Imagination


“There’s always gratification in self expression.” – John Horatio Malkovich


I recently watched a video of the brilliant writer Alan Moore being interviewed at the Odditorium. I’ve no idea what or where an ‘Odditorium’ is, but I do know that Alan Moore certainly belongs there.

I like Moore’s work very much. I like his ridiculously obsessive level of ‘quality control’ or ‘attention to detail’ or whatever it is that makes the great artists such control freaks. He once joked that if he was describing a glass of water in one of his scripts he would go so far as describing the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in it. For Show Pieces, the Lynchian film series that mixes the seemingly unrelated elements of sociopathic clowns, Northampton working men’s clubs, and Egyptian funerary practices, he wrote everything from dialogue and stage directions to songs, stand-up routines, and labels for imaginary products*. That level of control over a fictional universe is enviable (and almost certainly shows why he has disowned every film project adapted from any of his comic book work).

Speaking of which, I’m actually a lot more interested in Show Pieces and the other work that he is doing these days than I ever have been in most of his comic book writing. He may indeed be considered the best graphic novelist in the world (although that’s unfair to Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman at the very least), but I find Moore’s current prose,  film and spoken word work far more engaging than his ‘heyday’ superhero stuff.

In the interview, he moaned about young people not knowing who Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary are. With all due respect to Northampton’s bearded prophet-magus, this probably just shows that he hasn’t met the right young people. I refuse to believe, despite some decidedly compelling evidence, that every young millennial is a half-sharp twat. I’d still like to think that most millennials are waking up in a way that young people haven’t been awake for a long time, and that some of them are even beginning the long search for a fire exit to the 3D movie theatre. Whether or not they will find it in time is another adventure…

As well as watching interviews with Northampton-based worldbuilders, I’ve been reading a bunch of screenplays that I found online. Most recently I read The Men Who Stare at Goats, the script behind the knockabout war comedy based on a slightly darker book and a much darker true story about the American military flirting with hippie culture as a way of appealing to young men of the post-Vietnam era.

Today’s lack of counterculture was another thing Alan Moore complained about, but do we really have much of a culture to counter these days?!? Anger will always achieve more than apathy, but does unbridled rage make any more strategic sense than going misty eyed or carrying lambs and flowers into battle like the goat staring men?

Historically, screenplays are grouped with cereal packets, technical instruction manuals and 17th century medical textbooks at the bottom of the list of things that people read for pleasure. I won’t go into the old ‘are screenplays art?’ debate but I do think that, if written well (perhaps obsessively), they are at least an often under-appreciated form of writing.

It can be edifying to compare early drafts to the finished version of some favourite films.** There are also the great unmade scripts: The Island of Doctor Moreau (adapted by the writers of The Wild Bunch and Full Metal Jacket); Sandman (adapted by the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek); Neuromancer (adapted, for once, by the writer of Neuromancer). Films that you will never see anywhere but in your mind’s eye.

Screenwriting was always my own medium of choice. Despite the frustrations that come with it: Despite not feeling like a ‘real artist’. Despite directors/producers/other writers ‘reworking the material’, usually into turgid crap. Despite endless Skype calls answering questions like “but why does he stumble back, in awe? Wouldn’t it be a case of him jumping back, in shock?”**. Despite managing to upset aspiring producers by saying it’s perfectly alright for them not to ‘get’ the ending, but you’d rather find a producer who does than change it. Despite the drawers and drawers full of un-filmed work that people will tease you mercifully for: “was this written by a twelve year old?” (as if, at 23 and with your first attempt, you’re supposed to be the new frickin’ Shakespeare).

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A friend from England recently dug out an old horror script that we’d written together and has decided to film it (after rewriting it of course). It will be nice to see some ‘new’ work come to life, as always (even if the writing is only half mine, and even that half is not my best work). But I have yet to master the God-like level of control over my sporadic screenwriting that an artist has.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is not a great screenplay. It deals with a lot of the stuff I like: shamanism, counterculture elements, redemption stories. But it’s also a little preoccupied with Joseph Campbell and Star Wars references. I like my shamanism bubbling under the surface like an Alan Moore story, not smacking me in the forehead like a Dim Mak.

In a world that has lost its way, we need more people like Alan Moore (not people who copy his writing style or fashion sense, but people who do good, creative, uncompromising work). We need more artists, writers, journalists, performers. People who can see or do what others can’t and then try to explain some of those wyrd things to us.

When a world is undeniably fraying around the edges, the best coping mechanism is devoting time to something you love. Some people have the good fortune of being great at what they love, others just have to keep working at it and hope for the best. Ken Robinson, the educator and writer, calls this sweet spot ‘the element’; Joseph Campbell calls it ‘bliss’ (after a rough translation of ananda, one of the gateways to enlightenment in the Hindu Upanishads); I call it ‘the stuff you do when others have given you the courtesy of getting the fuck out of your face’.

FADE TO BLACK.


CODA:

But isn’t it frustrating?

Yes. It is. It’s frustrating to write short or long form scripts that you know are unlikely ever to see the light of day (for film, TV, web, or any other scripted media).

Yes. A script that isn’t filmed may as well not exist. Unlike an unpublished novel, one that can always be rediscovered and published years later, an unmade screenplay is just a map or a blueprint to a place that doesn’t exist or a building that was never constructed.

But as Vonnegut said in an earlier entry, “you will have created something”.


*One of which, Tunguska Vodka: This One Will Flatten You, could only be dreamt up by a demented alchemist like Mr. Moore.

**An epic puppet battle between John Malkovich and the devil may indeed have made great cinema, but it’s easy to see why it didn’t make it into the final draft.

**Yes, this was a real conversation.

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Three): “The Joker’s Warpaint”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” – Robert Burton


This is the third and final part of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries.

For part one click here: 

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-one-the-bittersweet-notebooks/

For part two click here: 

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-two-three-hundred-and-sixty/

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“Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut


In the first of Tim Burton’s now-dated versions of the caped crusader myth, which I recently re-watched for the first time since childhood, the psychotic Joker is portrayed as an ambitious but petty thug with an aptitude for chemistry and art. After falling into a vat of chemicals and emerging looking like Sylvester Stallone’s mum, Joker terrorizes the people of Gotham with some poorly-lit MTV infomercials for tainted fashion products that turn people into ‘works of art’.

Like most people, I much prefer Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning ‘agent of chaos’ version of Joker, the mad dog chasing cars who “doesn’t even know what he’d do if he caught one”, an anarchist torturer with unevenly applied greasepaint slapped on his unwashed, pallid, mentally-ill face.

Some Marxist writers and thinkers (Zizek springs instantly to mind) have stated that they actually identify more with villains like the Joker and Bane than with the Dark Knight himself, feeling that where Batman represents the capitalist status quo the villains usually offer a socialist or anarchist worldview, albeit one brought about by the ‘regime change’ of terrorist action.

However, what the sort of IRL, mentally divergent cunts who put on fright wigs and shoot people because they’re ‘inspired’ by movies like Batman or Old Boy or Taxi Driver, seem to forget is that these characters are fictional. They only exist to drive a narrative forward and to butt heads with other characters.*

They are also bell ends.

Even so, a terrorist villain as frustrated artist was an interesting angle for Tim Burton and his screenwriting team to choose. It wouldn’t be the first time some absolute helmet took their artistic ambitions and pissed them away into more Machiavellian pursuits: In the mid-20th century there was an Austrian fella who, after being absolutely ridiculed in the art world, turned to politics. He finally took Europe by storm in 1939 with a little piece of his called World War Two. Here in the 2010s, even Dubya turned out to be a frustrated painter all along.

What is an artist anyway? It’s just someone who can see something that others can’t, and then articulates that vision through a chosen medium in a way that is, hopefully, understandable to at least a handful of people.

My day spent searching for multimedia gems in China’s capital led me from the virtual reality floor of the 798 Art Factory to the very real third floor of a building in Blue Harbour shopping precinct.

The Yang Art Museum is known locally by the slightly odd but decidedly delicious acronym YAM.** I knew, when I found a xeroxed copy of Guy Debord’s La Société du Spectacle (in French, alas), that I had come to the right place.

I was here to see the exhibition ‘Rebel Cities’, an effort by multiple artists, many of whom were engaging in “research and activism at specific – often socially and geographically marginalized – places in Beijing.”

No photography was allowed in the gallery, and I don’t really like photographing art that much anyway. The map is, of course, not the territory: Seeing a photo of the Sistine Chapel is not the same as standing under its ceiling, any more than watching a virtual herd of elephants is the same as shitting your pants in a Jumanji-level stampede. I did scribble some notes (most likely indecipherable to anyone else) a habit that I actually picked up from the coffee shop companion and gallery-owner-to-be mentioned in the previous entry: “Your writing about it can be the photograph.”

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Mostly I just wandered around looking. After a morning of interactive virtual reality it was nice to passively watch the work of painters, filmmakers and typographers from the city; to soak up some of the hard work of creative Beijingers who are as inspired by their own urban space as I am.

A crumbling semi-shithole of a space it may be. A space that I spent my morning escaping from as tenaciously as the beaten down protagonist from Brazil. A space that the clown prince of crime would have no hesitation in razing to the ground while laughing hysterically. but a space that, for now at least, I call home.


*Conflict, as anyone with even a cursory interest in film or literature knows, is drama.

**They even have an enticing loyalty card called the Super Yam.

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Two): “Three Hundred and Sixty”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

– Robert Burton


This is part two of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries. For the previous post, click here:

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-one-the-bittersweet-notebooks

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The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow” – Kurt Vonnegut


The Raindance Film Festival is, like basketball and Doctor Who, one of many cool things to have been created by a Canadian. Raindance (something you can now be arrested for in Ireland, probably) was the brainchild of Elliot Grove, Ontario’s most remarkably tech savvy Anabaptist.

During my first trip to the Jing, one of my colleagues had studied Fine Arts in the U.K. Just like every millennial who chose this course of action, she was unemployable in her home country and was traveling on a shoestring, slowly stoking her dream of becoming a gallery curator.

This young lady was interested in my coffee shop meditations, and she suggested documenting each coffee I drank with a photograph or a notebook entry, describing the coffee and the universe that I saw inside of it. While this is not necessarily a bad idea for an art project, the fact is I couldn’t be bothered. I’m almost always drinking coffee because I’m knackered and lazy, and rarely if ever because I want to create art-wank.

I was thinking about none of these things when I walked into a shabby old factory in 798 Art Zone for the Raindance China VR Film Festival.

I grew up in the nineties, the cyberpunk age of The Lawnmower Man, The Thirteenth Floor, ExistenZ* and of course The Matrix. Virtual Reality is, for me at least, a childhood dream come true.

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Living in China is like living in Futurama: Just as you’re marveling at the Star Trek-level technology, the futuristic door malfunctions and smacks you in the back of the head. It was no surprise, therefore, that the first opening credit to the Introduction to Virtual Reality film was ‘No Internet Connection’.

But then it began, I was sucked into a 360 degree world of awesome, albeit one where I did not speak the language and was therefore unable to translate the phrase “It’s a little fuzzy, mate!” Even this was soon forgotten when I was floating in a junk boat, sitting in a Mongolian yurt and doing other seemingly exotic things that, ironically, I could have been doing in real life if I’d left the factory and gone to the fucking train station instead.

But then: Bam! A herd of elephants. A spinning planet whooshing overhead. A freaking dinosaur sniffing at my crotch. I was genuinely thrilled. This is, as I suspected, much of what I love about films, games, art, storytelling and real life rolled into one slightly odd-looking thing that fits on your face. This was a cavernous universe that filled a couple of square meters. I was only slightly disturbed by the threat of conjunctivitis and the thought that “if my brain thinks I’ve seen elephants in the wild, will that make seeing real elephants in the wild less impressive?”

To say that I watched five short films for ¥80 (roughly a tenner in old money) is not entirely accurate. Suffice it to say that I experienced five pieces of interactive art, using sound cues to look in vaguely the right direction, standing in just the right place to avoid the blue bars that indicated the end of my new little world. Halfway through one story, narrated by nineties somebody Ethan Hawke, I glanced at my feet and realized I’d been a bunny rabbit the whole time. This is weird, wonderful, Alice in Wonderland stuff. The most unbelievable thing about it was that I couldn’t convince the gf, someone who keeps the cellular data people in business 22 hours a day, to come along with me.

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I used to laugh at the slogan of a coffee shop around the corner of the very gallery I was standing in: a slogan that stated “the future is NOW!”** But, on behalf of my nerdy ten-year-old self, who wondered how far-fetched the ‘holodeck’ actually was, I think that those Latte-making bastards might be onto something.

I have to admit, I’m slightly unsettled by the idea of some creature in the post-human future strapping on their equivalent of a headset and saying “Ah, so that’s what an elephant was” or “Ah, so that’s what the 1930s was like” or “Ah, so that’s what Post-Trump Nuclear Neo-Primitivism is!”

But, speaking as someone who spent his morning gleefully prancing around The Art Warehouse chasing creatures from Persian mythology, “the future is now”…


*Made at a time when video games as art and game designers as celebrities were still the stuff of science fiction!

**(and not, slightly more accurately, “really, really soon”)