Monday, 9 December 2013

The Library's Chinese Dragon & Kraków Szopki


I grew up in a Christian family and to this day I'm very thankful that my parents were not EXTREMELY PARANOID about it. A group of our Christian family friends were, though, and I remember that they would throw a fit whenever they see an image of a dragon anywhere. They believed it was the power-insignia of Satan and advised everyone to avoid the sight of these things. Consider that we were living in a Chinese cultural environment, this extreme sensitivity to the iconography of the Beast was inconvenient to say the least. The ethnic Chinese sometimes like to identify themselves as, if translated into biblical terminology, Descendents of the Serpent. We love dragons and we have them as decorations everywhere, especially in traditional settings. When these radical Christians go out on the streets during Chinese New Year they grow very distressed. 

A woman from the church had a fight with my grandmother on a visit once, when she insisted that my gran should get rid of these double-blue-dragon porcelain vases in the living room, preferably have them shattered, so that the Beast will not have power over her house. Gran, also a Christian, thought this woman was ridiculous. She never smashed the vases and they haven't spoke much ever since.

Funnily enough, I have come to realize that the woman's line of thoughts wasn't COMPLETELY unreasonable. In the words of Alan Moore, "The one place God inarguably exists is in the human mind.*" For a people whose culture and daily symbols are saturated with Dragons, the Christian God needs to aggressively invade ("evangelize") their mental realities in order to occupy a relevant mindshare. And what's more aggressive and invasive than physically smashing your competitions? If there comes a day when Apple can convince their fans to physically smash up PCs and android phones whenever they see one, commercial brands will have truly become our new gods. I'm sure brands have had their eyes on those thrones for a while.

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Inside the Rotterdam Central Library, on the 3rd floor, there is a great Chinese Dragon hanging overhead. It was first installed in the tourist information centre (VVV) in late 2012 as a part of the promotional campaign for this China Light Festival in Rotterdam, but they have moved it here after the festival was over.



Its bones are made of metal wires and its flesh a composition of coloured fabric shreds. The Dragon's real construction material, however, is wishes. The sorcerer, or in this case probably a promotional campaign designer, had came up with a ritualistic practice where everyone who visited the VVV could write a new year's wish on a piece of fabric and tie it onto the Dragon's bones. Started as an empty, hollow and colourless skeleton, the Dragon had been given colour and form through the transforming acts of wishing. This is a straight-forward symbolic process. The Dragon had been given life.

In many magical traditions across cultures, people gather the bones of dead animals and/or persons and perform certain rituals on them, which enables the people to interact, on some level, to the dead bodies' original masters. If the communication is conducted correctly, the spirits of the passed can allegedly come back to aid us to divination, protection and various other ends. In the Dragon's case, no real dead body parts were used, but instead an entire artificial body is created in a symbolic procedure. As the Israelites had forged the Golden Calf**, Rotterdamers had patched together a Dragon that according to some has the very shape of Satan himself. Although it was not worshipped per se, it WAS entrusted with people's wishes. Surely most people were not seriously expecting their wishes to be fulfilled by the actual ritual, but on the other hand Abraham's God takes these little things very seriously.

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I only had the idea to write in this terrible conflict frame because, as a part of the Polish-month activities, there's also an Kraków Szopki exhibition going on in the Llibrary. As per my understanding, Szopki are traditionally hand-crafted miniature models depicting the Nativity in the setting of Kraków-styled historical architecture. It's very Christian and very Polish at the same time. Elements of folklore and biblical stories are combined into the craft and designs, and within these Szopki cultural interaction and tension both contribute to the aesthetics of one narrative . These models are going back to Poland after the exhibition (Jan 6th) and I encourage everyone to go take a look while you can.

As Szopki are tiny buildings, the public library is just a bigger building. I think it is exciting that in these shared cultural sites, symbols from different backgrounds and religions old and new all stand their grounds and vie for our attention. In a multi-cultural society that is also an information society, every public space is an arena for ideas, and as ideas do battle, symbols are some of their most powerful weapons****. And then, if we take advantage of an Asiatic martial-arts metaphor here, every battle is also a conversation.

Also I don't know where else to fit this into the post but in one of the Szopki, Death and the Devil BOTH came for King Herod's soul because he fucked up big time. This has gotta be the worst-ever double-trouble scenario and I thought it's absolutely hilarious.



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*    Alan Moore, "From Hell" (1999)
**   Exodus 32
***  Google automatically generated this gif for me what the hell
**** Kieron Gillen, "Dark Avengers: Ares" (2010)

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