Thursday, April 23, 2009
This is my Godfather, Paul Chow. He's a super cool dude at 81, all spritely and youthful and quite the world traveler. He's been an edifying influence in the toughest moments of my life--like when I was a disaffected UCLA undergrad and he he sent me to Guangzhou to teach. Half-roots, half-peace corp., it opened my my suburban eyes to a bubbling world, and set me on a course of ESL, which was my performance training ground, that has since been my bread and butter when the playwriting was just getting started, or as now, it is reconnoitering. Paul Chow has the energy of herds, and is the type of person who would love to meet every person on the planet and learn their essance and help them in any way he can.Here's Paul Chow at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, when we met there in December. His grandson Ethan is there, and so he gets to China more often these days. He came to Shanghai, in February and was staying at the old Jing Jiang hotel, which was just up the street from the movie theater he first took his wife Vera on their first date 60 years ago...Farewell to Arms starring Ingrid Bergman was playing. He mentioned to me how Vera looked like Ingrid Bergman at that time, when they sat in the front row of a packed movie theater, so beautiful she was, so in awe he couldn't even reach for her hand. Did I mention that Paul Chow is a romantic?
He has also led me to Lucy Zhou Chuang Qing, who was the lovable and inspiring artista recyclista for SWAN Day Shanghai, and also the magical Dr. Ding, his brother-in-law (Lucy's old chap). They are the of the most soulful people I know and I can only hope to carry through wisdom, as they have, into their 9th decade.
So of course, when the Godfather was in Shanghai, he meets an artist named Kevin Berlin who was getting a jacket tailored and didn't have enough Chinese words to enact an exact discount. Enter Paul Chow, who not only got him the discount, but also got a better quality alteration. Godfather e-mails me immediately, saying he met a New York artist from Italy who invited him to his gallery showing, and that he couldn't make it but he would send his goddaughter instead.
So I get a hold of Kevin Berlin and make an appointment to go to the Moganshan art district where his exhibition called Double Happiness is showing. I call to get subway directions and the owner of the gallery, seems not want to give me the directions but would rather fabulously give me a ride, meet her in front of the Portman Ritz-Carlton at Jin'an Temple and she can drive me. It is very strange, I guess because she thinks I am a buyer, and also because I am to meet Kevin Berlin on this day in a coupla hours and the chanel-voiced gallery owner claims that she is closed today, she's at the bank, she'll be flying off to Florence in a couple of days.
I call Kevin Berlin and he didn't realize that the gallery was closed on Mondays, and we reschedule for Tuesday, same time. On Tuesday I get a text message from Kevin Berlin that there is a problem. I soon call and it turns out that a whole drama is being played out, where Berlin wanted to get his paintings a day before the show closed (he could because it said so in the 'contract') but owner had not shown up to unlock the doors, so technically was holding the paintings hostage. The owner wishes to hold on to them to make sales, which have not happened in the 3 weeks it has been showing.
Berlin, although American, has lived and painted in Florence Italy for the past 7 years and showed his Italian colors by operatically involving the American Consulate, having them declare the paintings stolen if the doors were not opened by so and so time, but also, in the course of waiting for 6 hours for the release of his paintings, having glasses of red wine with his friends and enjoying the day nevertheless.
No wonder his spirit had attracted Paul Chow and vice versa. The moxy to fight lives harmoniously with the enjoyment of life.
It takes me 2 hours to get to Moganshan from my school, and the artist is happy to be reunited with his paintings, as he takes them off the walls and while a pretty young Polish girl is pulling the canvas from the frames. '20 million unemployed Chinese people and I can't find anyone to help take down the show.' He is calling and calling everyone he knows in Shanghai, trying not to defame the gallery owner's name, but well, having to explain the situation, each time with the gusto and outrage of an artist who has been shown all over the world and has work in the collections of Jimmy Carter, the Clintons, Pavoratti, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and David Letterman, having to, like every other foreigner in China, understand that words on paper do not have any more weight than its ink on a scale.
In the spirit of Paul Chow, I help move huge canvases of photorealistic cigarette boxes and fake designer bags, downstairs to where the Polish gal is deframing the canvas. I ask Kevin Berlin what the cigarette boxes and the bags and the money and the dumplings all symbolize. He answers that they are all things that are ferociously wanted in Shanghai, that would cause the Double Happiness, which was inspired by 1920's advertisements of this particular brand of cigarette.
The artist must take down his own show, though he is in a hurry to roll them up and get on a plane back to Florence. There's a trick to pulling staples and pulling. I start to get the knack, but handle mostly the small paintings of mao-money yuan.
After the phone rings and rings with condolences and regrets of not being able to come out to Moganshan to help take down the show, Kevin Berlin's friend Nico comes through. It turns out that Nico is the manager for the Martini Bar on the Bund, a bar that was every inch designed and decided upon by Dolce & Gabbana. Nico can send helpers much to Kevin Berlin's relief.
So as I am on my knees pulling, the helpers arrive. At my eye level are a pair of camel-colored half-boots with a zipper in the front that is chicly opens like cleavage. I look up and a super-elegant shiny-haired blond kisses me on both cheeks and says 'Ciao, I am Carol.' Her friend, a shiny-haired brunette says 'hi'--it doesn't seem that she speaks a lot of English. What is apparent is that she is 120% Italian, as when she is talking to Nico on Carol's mobile phone, she becomes highly gestured and ecstatic, as she later tells us that Nico has access to some of the Dolce & Gabbana accessories that have 'the small defects,' the 'imperfections,' bags and belts and shoes and boots, and they have the pick of the booty gratis. She is thrilled and flushed as she continues to pull staples out of the wood frames.Kevin berlin now explains the whole fiasco in Italian, as spirited as all of the other versions. A third super chic gal comes in, and immediately gets to work. She is Shanghainese but speaks great Italian. Kevin Berlin is making espressos and cappuccinos for all. I had to pass cuz I had to get my bumpkin ass back to the ruburbs and I couldn't afford to be awake all night. I just love how artists can mobilize a party under any circumstance. My godfather has led me once again to a lively unexpected place. I hope I can drink up the world like he can when I'm 81. And to meet Kevin Berlin and sees how he coolly endures such a Chinese-type suckery, one that bullies its Chinese artists and, in Shanghai at least, has more interest in product sale. I had been thinking that my artist friend Rafael might do well in China because of the baby-fever that is showing up in a lot of the art. But then I would not want to subject him to these strange business practices of slippery trust, hifaluting promise and angsty art-hostaging. I know Kevin Berlin was a special case, but knowing now what I know of China, it is not surprising. Many of Kevin Berlin's friends that he called were not surprised either. This is Rafael's 'Pool Party,' of which I was lucky enough to bring 5 pieces to Shanghai with me. There are usually like 300 of these sapphiresque 'cells' displayed on an illuminated table. Each infant is in its own private pool party but seen together it becomes one big splash of joyous and luminescent color. It is private and public at the same time.