City, I’m With You

Bai Mengfan: Almost a Love Story

Space 776

Above: To be with you, 2020, Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.

Bai Mengfan: Almost a Love Story is on view at Space 776 through September 9, 2020. Images courtesy of Space 776 and Bai Mengfan.

 

Bai Mengfan painted most of the works for her current show at Space 776 in a small room in Long Island City during the spring and early summer of 2020. She did not leave that room, in which she ate, slept, and painted, for several months. She did not see any people in real life; no sun ray touched her skin. In order to organize who could use the shared kitchen, Mengfan communicated with her roommate via text messaging. All her food was delivered to her doorstep from the virus-stricken outside world, and upon arrival she thoroughly sanitized each item. Instead of checking the weather, she used a phone app that used red dots to show how closely infections crowded her zip code. New Yorkers all around her were dying. Mengfan’s wake and sleep patterns synchronized with the time zone of her hometown in China’s Shaanxi Province.  She watched the sunrise and the sunset over Mt. Everest on a video live feed on the Internet.

“We are in an epoch of simultaneity, we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of near and far, of the side by side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein,” wrote Michel Foucault in “Of other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” a text Mengfan told me has influenced her work.

Installation view, Bai Mengfan: Almost a Love Story at Space 776.

Bai Mengfan’s paintings are based on photographs she took in Beijing, Hong Kong, New York City, and Xi’an. Devoid of humans or animals, most of the paintings zoom closely in on depersonalized city surfaces, markings on the sandy texture of non-descript walls, crudely painted-over graffiti marks, shadows of lamp posts or electricity poles, yellow traffic-guiding lines stenciled with machines on pavements, or Chinese characters drawn with fingers on dirty windows in Xi’an. Two of the characters read, “freedom.” Then there are scenes of urban cityscapes and semi-public interiors: two stone lions in front of a big old willow tree, a little Pikachu figurine on the dashboard of a Hong Kong taxi cab, globe-like ceiling lamps in an indoor playground that look like moons or satellites in Long Island City, pale mist over the Chinese Sea and a distant bridge. Disembodied details of manmade structures. Snapshots. Coincidences. Fleeting fragments. Traces of time. What holds them all together is “Almost a love story.”

The title of the show comes from “Comrades, Almost a Love Story,” a 1996 film by Peter Chan. Banned in China for nineteen years, the film tells the tale of two migrant workers from the mainland who find and lose one another, who befriend and eventually love each other, first in Hong Kong and later in NYC.

The movie is very sweet, and I do not say this because the film’s feature song and its Chinese title is “Tian Mi Mi” (Sweet Like Honey), but because there is a certain toughness in the story’s tenderness, that goes hand in hand with the movie’s soundtrack and the signature sweetness of Teresa Teng songs. This sweetness is hard to explain. It’s neither bitter-sweet nor sour-sweet. It’s something of an almost otherworldly sensation that makes any uplift felt in spite, or because of everything else that keeps dragging us down.

Where have I seen you, 2020, Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in.

During the eighties, Teresa Teng was the most famous Chinese singer in the world. Released in 1979, “Tian Mi Mi” was one of Teng’s greatest hits. She grew up in Taiwan and her music was occasionally banned in China for being decadent or pornographic. When the ban was released, she refused to perform in the mainland, yet her influence was greatest there. In his 2015 article “The Melancholy Pop Idol Who Haunts China” in The New Yorker, Hua Hsu writes that there was a popular saying in China during the 1980s while Deng Xiaoping was in power: “During the day, everyone listened to ‘old Deng’ because they had to. At night, everyone listened to ‘little Teng’ because they wanted to.” 

One of those who admired the star and blasted her music over the loudspeakers in Xi’an was Bai Mengfan’s father. Naturally, such a heartfelt display of grown-up fandom and paternal longings for romance made the children cringe. Mengfan did not like Teresa Teng, until she read a biography of the singer and learned that the pop star had died of an asthma attack in a hotel room in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at the age of 42. The celebrity’s lonely death turned her into a relatable human.

Unshakable destiny, 2020, Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.

How do we make the unattainable relatable? Can the act of falling in love with a celebrity be compared with falling in love with a new city? Why do pop stars, like cities, have this distant capacity to carry our most intimate longings and projections? Do we find ourselves attached to songs, like we find ourselves carried through the streets of cities we have fallen in love with? We could be impacted by our city love affairs most easily when we sit alone in the back of a taxi that drives from Mong Kok through Yau Ma Tei, to Tsim Sha Tsui, at night while the local radio station plays:

Hong Kong, Hong Kong
I’m with you
Hong Kong, Hong Kong
I love the beautiful night
With you by my side*

For me, the strongest painting in Bai Mengfen’s show is called “Where is it?” The title, like all titles for this series of paintings, is part of a Teresa Teng song lyric. The answer to the question “Where?” in the song is, “In my dreams.” The location where Mengfan took the photo is, “Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island, near Central.” The painting is a square. The viewpoint is from higher up, looking down onto the top of dark, dense canopy of tropical trees. In the center is a small opening that enables us to see the part of a road that has a yellow crosswalk zebra pattern. The yellow criss-crossing lines are bright and glowing, yet they are almost concealed by the leaves. 

What the painting makes me realize is that the existence of these yellow lines follows a very different logic than the existence of the foliage of those surrounding trees, which will keep growing rapidly, until this small opening will all be covered up.

Where was it, 2020, Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in.

*Teresa Teng, 香港之夜 (“The Night in Hong Kong”) Teresa Teng – 香港之夜(Xiāng gǎng zhī yè) lyrics + English translation 

 

Franziska Lamprecht is an artist who started writing as an extension of the long-term process based works, she produces together with her husband Hajoe Moderegger under the name eteam. For their work they have received support from Creative Capital and The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Art in General, NYSCA, NYFA, Rhizome, CLUI, Taipei Artist Village, Eyebeam, Smack Mellon, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, the City College of New York and the Hong Kong Baptist University, among many others. Their first novel “Grabeland” was published with Nightboat Books in February 2020.

Bai Mengfan (b.1994, China) received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and her BFA in Oil Painting from Sichuan Conservatory of Music, Chengdu, China. Her works have been shown widely in the U.S. and China, including PULSE Art Fair Miami, Boers-Li Gallery, Java Project, Booth Gallery, Plus81 Gallery, Carriage Trade Gallery, and School of the Visual Arts.

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