[p] A Personal Piece




Near my old home on the border of northern Taipei, at the intersection of the ocean-bound Danshui and Keelung rivers, is the Guandu Matsu temple. Any of the numerous levels of the complex provide a wide vantage of the city to the south, including the nearby neighborhood of Guandu. Directly in front of the temple is a wharf with thirty or so long fishing boats, and when the tide is high, they are jettied out to the sea. Guiding them are the fisherman, who point the blue and red boats northwest towards the peak of Guanyin Mountain, not far in the distance. As they reach the main channel, they take a hard right, and in just ten minutes they will reach the ocean with its ocean-sized fish.

It’s all beautiful theater, one that I was a party to long before I realized that the temple was the spiritual home of the young Goddess, Matsu. This Goddess, protector of the seafarers, had long since lived here, at least in the forms of porcelain and wood effigies. And as one walks through the temple’s many chambers, you feel Matsu as a spirit, immortalized and made real by the collective consciousness of her flock. Those wharfmen, the Guandu families, the visitors from out of town; they all give to her, and bow to her, and dream and wish to her. And if they are able to clearly see the effigy, it would be subtly smiling back at them, thanks to the anonymous artisans who gave this cultural spirit a form. Effigies and other art works of the temple all radiate with the directness of an art form that is both anonymous and created for a “higher meaning”; here were sculptors, painters, and architects who didn’t create to be God, but created for God.

Without a knowledge of Matsu, without a knowledge of the uncountable symbols in the complex, even the non-religious would be able to feel the devotional atmosphere. The vibrations caused by the living visitors, the enshrined dead, the natural surroundings, the built environment, and their relationships all resonated within me on each visit.

So I came back often, and did my own form of bowing and praying. Never did I not feel an enveloping appreciation and sense of what I was seeing. And so, it became a sort of haven for me. When I left my home, it was my most common destination, and eventually it became the place I was most comfortable beyond my bedroom walls.

On one of these visits, at the street level on the north side of the complex, I discovered a stone plaque. On the stone tablet was a hagiography of Matsu [please read here], the temple’s young resident Goddess. On the right side was Chinese, for the locals; on the left side was English, for everyone else.

Without considering the import of the words’ meaning, I was instantly drawn to the tablet: The golden recesses in the stone provided a stark contrast against the smooth blacks of the polished granite. The variability of each hand-carved letter or character subtly signalled what we in the computer age might call “imperfection.” And as I looked at the composition of the original on the right, and the translation on the left, I reflected on the tablet’s asymmetric symmetry; in English, the words are laid out laterally and left to right, and in Chinese, longitudinally and right to left. As this visual translation was imperfect, so, too is the practice of translation naturally fraught with an asymmetric symmetry.

I got closer and felt the words, and put my fingers in the depressions on the cool stone slab. I was feeling the movements of the craftsperson. I could touch the words. I stepped back and read.

The world of Matsu, as described by the anonymous author, had a disarming manichaeism and bare sweetness. What would normally sound marvelous and supernatural was presented with an economical and confident matter-of-factness: as sure as their world contained oceans, mountains, and men, it, too, was home to monsters, demons, and oracles. As sure as young girl would take lessons from a tutor on the Buddhist sutras, so, too, would she also subdue the evil monsters, sometimes with so little as a silk handkerchief.

We learn that Matsu is a visitor of dreams, a caring protector, a Holy Mother. Her eternal service and compassion for man was established in her 27 mortal years on earth. Officially, she is memorialized by verbose court titles which seem to confess humans’ vulnerability and insignificance just as much as they proclaim Matsu’s greatness: Heavenly Crown Princess of Protector of the Land, Assistant to the God, and Guardian of the People, all with Manifested Blessing, Extensive Kindness, Inspiration, Agreeableness, Blessed Benevolence, Subtle Fervor, and Outstanding Brilliance. Unofficially, though, she is not this thorough list of virtues; she is the more potent silent-and-formless prayers of the devoted. She is a shape shifting stream of smoke issuing from a joss stick. Her birth name? 林默 — Lin Mo. Family name (林/Lin): Forest. Given name (默/Mo): Silent.

Whatever her name, she is Matsu, the Mother Ancestor, and she is enshrined here at the Guandu Matsu Temple. Whatever her form — be it as a historical figure, a goddess, or a human-made archetype — she is a protector of those who face demons, those who are out to sea.

“I am...the one you can really depend on when your raft boats have trouble floating.”

The Mother Ancestor has existed in many forms before her birth, and will be reborn for countless cultures, yet this image of the eastern reincarnation of Matsu, 林默, was born to me that day.

On one of my walks to the temple, I revisited the Matsu tablets and had an idea: use them as a printing press. Yet, instead of shifting the letters in a block I would shift a piece of paper on the letters, rubbing a piece of charcoal on them to capture the words. The rubbing would neither be an illustration or the thing itself, but, arrestingly, something in between. I could then rearrange these words and use them to create a composition: a poem.

I had also long been interested in collections and vocabularies, and here, on the tablet, was a prime collection, full of devotional, supernatural, and wonder-filled words and phrases: charmed calamus, celestial, Mediumistic, Subtle Fervor, profound truths and secrets. While the poem could only use the available numbers, punctuation, and 774 English words of the tablet, this restriction would inspire instead of limit. Initially, I had intended to write the poem, but I became more intrigued with a collaboration; I would control the appearance while the collaborator would control the meaning. By letting go of my personal connections to the text’s meaning and giving the text to a far-off collaborator, the resulting poem would be divorced from the environment but hypersensitized to the words. I immediately knew who I would ask: my friend, the talented poet Luke Brekke.

So I wrote and he enthusiastically agreed. We had shared much of our work with each other, but this collaboration was a new and welcome challenge. With little time to spare, he delivered the poem; we had just three days to print the work before my partner Ruei Ji and I would move back to the USA.

At 8PM, worn down from packing and stress, Ruei and I walked to the temple with a few sheets of large rice paper, tape, charcoal, and a printout of Luke’s poem Matsu. With a slight breeze and a weight in the atmosphere that suggested approaching rain, we rushed to the tablet and immediately set to work. We both viewed Luke’s poem and then started to locate the words carved into the stone. Ruei held the rice paper and I rubbed the words into two-dimensional life with charcoal. “You,” “did,” and now “not,” and now “cry.” The process and results were enlightening — I felt a communication with the anonymous stone carver as I retraced and transposed his hands’ work to paper. Yet, the work soon became difficult; after an hour, we were both exhausted, and not close to done. “...the meanings tutor away in the straw…” A few onlookers on foot and on bike passed by and gave a queer glance our way, yet their curiosity wasn’t enough to look for long.

An hour, then two, then three passed; above us, birds flew home to their roosts across the river. The sun had long since fallen and the tide had risen. Ruei and my patience with each other and with the project grew thin. The disorderly crookedness of the work’s last words evidenced our exhaustion: “Ferry me across.” As we took down the paper and started to roll it up, the rain started. We raced home through the now empty streets, our backs hunched over to protect the long roll of fragile paper. Upset, tired, invigorated, and thrilled, we arrived home and quickly fell asleep.

The result is what you see below. I could tell you that, in person, it casts a large presence; that it’s beautiful to me; that its poetry is meaningful; I could tell you that it’s all of these things, but that’s not the whole point. This work is not just the product; it is also the fruit born from my personal connections with the place, the fruit born from Luke’s creativity and mind, and the fruit of Ruei’s endurance and drive. This work is just one of many fruits borne from the mostly invisible elements of its environment.

And then, I think of the smiling effigy of Matsu, the protector of those lost at sea. She, too, is but the fruit of her environment.



You did not cry when you possessed the toy-like, slightly
slack morning. When the calendar was a preteen
called September, you subdued
you, then gathered the floods in a silk handkerchief.

Who is numerous.
Who is bully to the frequently floating trouble.
When you peep at the divine oracle,
the meanings tutor away in the straw.

The story is retold, spread right on
the old tablet, a relief
of Luminous Effect, tool
of sharp ears and quietness.

Copper amulets of evening.
Incense of charmed calamus.
You local surface and raft, you table
for the damaged sail of the sutras,

Bring your blessings. You,
Guardian of the People with Manifested Blessing,
Extensive Kindness, Inspiration, Agreeableness,
Blessed Benevolence, Subtle Fervor--
name me a gifted child,
ward me—native as a vegetable—stone me
on a mound in the floods.
Ferry me across.

[p] New Publication: Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Mastaba


Christo, Taschen, and the Serpentine Galleries recently published Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba, 1958-2018. I had the pleasure of working on The London Mastaba and co-authoring this book, which also includes essays by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Paul Goldberger and features the photographs of Wolfgang Volz. Barrels and The Mastaba follows the use of barrels in Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works of art beginning with Christo's earliest sculptures in 1958 and ending with 2018's The London Mastaba. The variety and profusion of the artists' oeuvre continues to amaze me, even though I have been familiar with their archives for 13 years; here's a book that deals with just one strain of their work and the book's 208 pages barely touch the surface.

The book was a product of many talents, including my colleagues Vladimir Yavachev, Lorenza Giovanelli, Erin Bazos, Jonathan Henery, Wolfgang Volz and the team at Taschen, including Simone Philippi.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's artwork has always been funded by the artists themselves. Christo also earns no proceeds from the sales of this book; the book exists for the sole purpose to provide an accurate record of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works of art.


[w] Updates

Taken 2017/2018 in the U.S., Germany, Denmark, and Taiwan.





[p] Feng Zikai's Avoiding Rain in the Mountains

     In a Chinese course, some years ago, I wrote an essay about the minutiae of a long walk I took in Taipei. After reading my error-riddled but honest essay, my close friend and "Taiwanese brother," the artist Luo Jr-Shin, thoughtfully sent me a Chinese essay by Feng Zikai. It took me a long time to read the essay, but very little time to understand once I finally reached the end. The gentle but significant thud of recognition I had with the author felt akin to those extra-ordinary moments when you unexpectedly run into a friend at a train station, thousands of miles from home. I dreamt of translating the work and anticipated a day when my Chinese would be learned enough to make the attempt.

      A number of years passed--and much Chinese study--when I decided I would take on the translation of this humble essay. Translations come in all different forms and qualities, but they do share one thing in common: they are only representations of the original.  Since I read the work, I have had the strong urge to share the story, but more than that, to share Zikai's honest and bare tenderness. An honest and tender heart is one of the most unifying and normal features of the human, yet I find these features to be mostly absent in literature and letters (not to mention in public life, in general).  While the tone may be lost in translation, I hope I maintained the significance of the work. 

     I do feel the need to share more about Feng Zikai, but I will save that for another day. For now I will just humbly present to you, after many years of Chinese study, my first personal translation. A big thank you to my editor for this work, Jacqueline Ruei Ji.


*please find the original Chinese version below the translation


Avoiding Rain in the Mountains

豐子愷 (Feng ZiKai)    1935


     The other day I went sightseeing with two young ladies to the mountains of the Western Lake when, all of a sudden, it started to rain. As we rushed to find shelter, we saw a small temple and, next to its gate, three houses forming a small village. One of these houses had a small tea shop that also sold joss sticks. We quickly ran inside the tea house, and, although it was small, they still asked one dime for a pot of tea. At a time like this, even if they asked for two dimes for a single pot, we would not have bemoaned the price.

     Steeping more, the tea grew lighter; the rain grew harder the longer it fell. While I initially felt a sense of disappointment upon encountering rain on our mountain walk, there was something in the emptiness and depth of the rain’s patter in the mountains; this hindering rain’s atmosphere was more intriguing than a sunny mountain scene. “The power of the mountain’s hazy mist*”; I now knew the meaning of these words. The girls did not feel the same way—there they sat inside the little tea hut, looking dejected and busy blaming the heavens. I had no way to communicate and share my experiences to lift their mood—besides, I was unwilling to be the kind of adult who attempts to make the young see through a grown-up’s eyes.

     The tea master was sitting at the door, drawing his bow on a huqin. Besides the sound of the rain outside, his playing was all we could hear. The song he was playing was “Three Variations on Plum Blossoms” and although he wasn’t wholly in tune, there was a fluency to his rhythm. As he sat there near the tea house’s entry, it seemed he played in place of the radio to attract customers. It was a pity he only played for a short time before stopping. With the absence of the music, we only heard the clamoring of the unending rain. In an effort to console the two girls, I got up and approached the tea master with the intention of borrowing his huqin. “Excuse me, would you mind if I fiddle around with your huqin?” He graciously handed his instrument over to me.

     The two girls were delighted when I returned to the house with huqin in hand. “You can play . . . you can play!?” I sat down and I played for them. While my technique was unpracticed, I did play the right notes.

"Three Variations on Plum Blossoms." The recordings of Chinese guqin master Wu Jinglüe (1907-1987)

     When I was a child, there lived a certain firewood vendor by the name of Zhai in a house near ours. I asked him to teach me the song “Three Variations on Plum Blossoms.” Besides this neighbor, whom we knew as Ah Qing, I asked the big burly tailor Da Han, another neighbor across the alley, to teach me the Chinese scales on the huqin. Ah Qing’s teaching style was quite special—he’d only play “Three Variations on Plum Blossoms” for you to hear; there would be no lessons on the song’s score. While he didn’t know the scales, he truly knew the instrument. When he played, it was if I could only “gaze to the sea and sigh”; I was never able to play as he did.

     When I later learned that Da Han could read music, I asked him to teach me. He wrote down the major and minor scales on a sheet of paper, and with him and with those scales, I would learn the rudiments of the huqin. Half of my ability to play comes from my brief experiences with learning the violin. Yet, the other half is based off of those lessons with the burly Da Han.

     In the mountain tea house, near the window, I calmly played the huqin because, “haste brings mistakes.” Drawing the bow, I played all types of western pop songs as the two girls sang along. How similar we were to the street musicians of West Lake! Our performance attracted the attention of the villagers, who came to watch us play.

The title track to the 1934 Chinese film, "Song of the Fisherman."

     One of the girls sang “Song of the Fisherman” and demanded I accompany her. And so I played along. As I played, the village youngsters who had joined us started to sing in unison. For a brief moment in time, this barren hill, enveloped in a never-ending and noisy rain, became extremely warm. I was once a music teacher for seven to eight years, I’ve accompanied a four-part choral group on piano, I’ve played Beethoven’s Sonatas. Yet, in my whole life, I have never experienced the joy that I felt in music on this day.

     Two empty rickshaws pulled by and I signaled them for me and my guests. I paid for the tea, returned the huqin, bid my farewells to the village youngsters, and stepped into the car. In front of me, the cart’s oil-cloth cover blocked my view of the rain-possessed mountain. With the taste of those fleeting moments still lingering in my mind, I thought of the significance of this compelling instrument.

     The heaviness of the piano is like a coffin. The cost of the violin can be thousands of dollars. As refined as the violin is, how many people in the world are able to enjoy it? With the huqin, one needs just two or three dimes for an instrument. While it is true that the huqin’s range is not as wide as the violin’s, nor might its sound be as graceful, as long as it’s well built, it’s plenty to play folk songs. This instrument is extremely popular among the people: the barber shops have one, the tailors have one, the boats on the river even have one . . . one is here, too, at the three-house village. If we were able to create enough meaningful and simple music such as the “Song of the Fisherman,” then I dare say its influence in artistic education would be greater than the music classes in school.

     When I left the three-house village, the youngsters, reluctant to see me go, came to send me off. This reluctance I too felt. Trying to soften my leaving, I told them, “See you again next week!” even though in reality I was already afraid I’d never again in this life visit this three-house village, never sit at that tea house, never again draw my bow on that huqin. If there wasn’t that opportunity with the huqin, then how would the youngsters of the village look at this passing stranger? Would they have been reluctant to let me go? Would I feel this bittersweet sadness on leaving these people I met by chance?

     There’s an old saying, “music teaches harmony.” In my seven or eight years of teaching music, I had no substantial proof for this saying. Yet, unexpectedly, on this day, in a nearly empty little hamlet, I found my proof.


*A line from the poetry of Su Dong Po











                                                                                             豐子愷, 1935


[p] New Publication: Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Floating Piers

One of the limited special editions: Wrapped Book.

One of the limited special editions: Wrapped Book.

Taschen has just published the special edition of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Floating Piers. I was overjoyed to be a part of the work of art, and now, to be a part of this beautiful publication as author. The book, like the work of art, is the product of Christo's physical work; he layed out all 846 pages. Also, like the work of art, the book incorporated a large team of talented professionals including Wolfgang Volz (the photographer), Germano Celant (author of the introductory essay), Vladimir Yavachev, Jonathan Henery, Marcella Ferrari, Patrick South, and the great team at Taschen. 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's artwork has always been funded by the artists themselves; there are no grants and no outside "sponsorship." They did this–and Christo continues to do this–to maintain their freedom of artistic expression. The book is released in much the same spirit: Christo will earn no proceeds from the sales of this book. It is simply a document meant to record for future generations the incredible dimensions of this sublime work of art.