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Neapolitan Flounder

It is my birthday this week and, to celebrate, I wanted to share some special posts with you.  Unfortunately my schedule is not obliging to help me finish the larger philosophical piece I have been writing, so instead I am going to share a sculpture which I just finished (I was going to save it for later, but, sigh, life is short so let’s look at it now) .  This is “Neapolitan Flounder” a sculpture made of wood, bone, and plastic toys.  It is one of the extensive flatfish series of artworks which I have been working on, however, unlike the drawings which take a more expansive view of ecology and human history, “Neapolitan Flatfish” examines the prevailing ethos of the time which is to capture people’s money by providing them with exactly what they want (in this case the empty calories of airy frozen confections).  Of course these aren’t actually delicious soft serve ice cream cones, they are really plastic junk from the dollar store.  Yet given my unhappy history with making plastic toys, and given the ever growing burden of plastic detritus building up in the wild places of Planet Earth, perhaps the message becomes even more germane.  The flounder is a predator and a prey animal–the “middle class of the ocean” although serious overfishing is leading to a precipitous decline of populations around the world (which matters little to Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, who would not be unhappy if everything and everyone died five minutes after he concludes his own earthly existence as a master of crooked insider deals).  Ahem…anyway, sometimes it is a bit unclear who is fishing and who is being fished, but what could be more delightful than the unexpected charm of three different flavors (and different colors) which compliment each other perfectly being placed next to each other in one simple Rothko-like package?  Please ignore the bone hook and the glittering blue predatory eyes and get ready for some birthday fun here at Ferrebeekeeper.

Also, don’t forget to ask the Great Flounder some of your own questions.

yongle

Zhu Di (1360 – 1424) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor (who, coincidentally, had a great many offspring).  When Zhu Di ascended to the throne he styled his reign as the “Yongle” reign (which means “perpetual happiness”).  The Yongle Emperor was everything an absolutist Chinese emperor was supposed to be.  His armies smote the enemies of China.  He moved the capital city to Beijing (where it remains to this day) and built the Forbidden City.  He instituted the rigorous examination system which came to dominate Chinese civil service.  Under his rule, infrastructure leaped forward to a level previously unknown in China (or anywhere else, for that matter).  The peasantry was happy and successful.  Culture, arts, industry, trade and knowledge flourished.  It was a glorious golden age for China.

Verbotene-Stadt1500

The Forbidden City as Depicted in a Ming Dynasty Painting

The Yongle Emperor was one of China’s greatest emperors—he is on a short list with Tang Taizong, Wu of Han, and Song Taizu.  During his time, China was the richest, most prosperous, and most advanced society on earth. He will be recalled forever as one of history’s truly greatest leaders…but…

Whenever the Yongle Emperor is mentioned, so too, his problematic accession must be mentioned. For Zhu Di was not the Hongwu Emperor’s first choice of heir…or even the second for that matter.  Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as the Jianwen Emperor in 1398 (in accordance with ancient rules of strict primogeniture).  The Jianwen Emperor feared that all of his many uncles would prove troublesome to his reign, so he began a campaign of demoting and executing them (Jianwen means “profoundly martial”).  In accordance with the universal rules of irony, this pogrom caused Zhu Di, then the Prince of Yan, to rise against his nephew.  In the civil war between the Prince of Yan and the “Profoundly Martial” emperor, the former thoroughly thrashed the latter.  In 1402, Zhu Di presented the world with the unrecognizably charred bodies of the Jianwen emperor, the emperor’s consort, and their son.  In that same year he proclaimed himself the Yongle Emperor (and launched his own far more ruthless pogrom against extended family and against orthodox Confucians who had stood against him).

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Detail of the hilt of a Yongle era Chinese sword

So the reign of the Yongle Emperor began against an uninspiring backdrop of civil war, charred relatives, and general devastation.  Worst of all, (from Yongle’s perspective), those charred bodies were suspiciously unrecognizable. Rumors spread that the Jianwen Emperor had taken a page from his grandfather’s playbook and escaped the palace dressed as a begging monk.  Maybe he is still out there somewhere living anonymously like Elvis and Hitler.

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This story of palace intrigue and feudal strife, lead to a bizarre postscript which is also one of the grace notes of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese society has traditionally looked inward, but the Yongle Emperor was convinced (so it was whispered) that the Jianwen Emperor was still running around somewhere.  To distract the nation from this possibility (and perhaps to find the usurped emperor living abroad and rub him out), the Yongle Emperor commissioned a fleet like no other—a vast treasure fleet to explore the known world.  The largest vessels of this fleet were said to be immense ocean-going junks 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide).  They were crewed by thousands of people and outfitted with fabulous canons. With hundreds of supporting vessels, these treasure ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa (under the command of the fabulous eunuch admiral Zheng He).  The treasure fleets left behind the traditional medieval maritime sphere of local commerce, small scale warfare, neighborhood tribute. They were on course for the true globalism which marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but alas, Yongle died as he personally led an expedition against the Mongols.  China’s eyes again turned towards its own vast internal universe. Maritime voyages and global exploration quickly became a thing of the past.

ShenDuGiraffePainting.jpg

Singles-Day-590x835

Here in America, November 11th is Veteran’s Day, but elsewhere 11/11 is a very different holiday indeed.  China celebrates November 11th as Singles’ Day AKA 光棍节 or “bare sticks holiday” (a sad metaphor for flowerless & fruitless family tree branches).  The day is an opportunity for Chinese singles to party and hang out together…and buy crap online (more about that in a moment).

Single-Day-Dia-Soltero-China-2014

China has ancient romantic holidays with roots stretching back thousands of years into the mythic past.  Singles Day is not like that at all—it was invented in 1993 as “Bachelors’ Day” at Nanjing University when some guys without girlfriends realized the calendar date consisted of four ones.  They decided to go out and try to meet women, or, if that failed, to at least treat themselves to fancy dinners and little luxuries. The holiday gradually spread to the sprawling cities of the Chinese coast and then was popularized by Alibaba, an online merchant.  The hallmark of the holiday is a giant orgy…of consumption (sigh).  People spend a ton of money on online deals and at karaoke clubs, bars, and restaurants

1Singles-Day-400x266.

Perspicacious readers may be starting to note that this seems a lot like other lame contemporary holidays such as “Cyber Monday” &“Black Friday”(which it to say not really a holiday, but an excuse for selling stuff that nobody needs).  That seems about right: the main holiday tradition of Single’s Day (other than bemoaning one’s singleness or buying discount goods online) is eating fried dough sticks in the shape of the number 1.

Worker piles up manufactured goods at a plastics factory in China

Worker piles up manufactured goods at a plastics factory in China

This is disappointing. The Chinese are not prudes—they have no trouble with freaky sex stuff, and I was hoping to highlight some of that in this entry, but alas, everything I have found out about Singles’ Day emphasizes online sales numbers and the potential buying power of China’s vast middle class.  It’s too bad, I have “The Carnal Prayer Mat” right here on my shelf (a hilarious and horrifying bawdy Chinese novel from the 17th century), but I guess I need to write about online shopping at Alibaba instead.

Speaking of which, I have found things I like online on Alibaba, but I have never been able to figure it out—it seems like a wholesale site where one could buy multiple 2 ton stone garden fountains or a shipping container of paper lanterns (?).  But it must be a lot different in Chinese, since Alibaba sold 4 billion dollars worth of goods in the first hour of 11/11/15 alone. However, I am not a toymaker anymore…I have no skin in marketing and sales.  I don’t really care about how much junk sells online…not here and certainly not in China.

Oh, well that explains it then...

Oh, well that explains it then…

If you Chinese ladies get sick of buying discount hotpots and eating sticks of dough, give me a call.  I’ll be right here in my luxurious pajamas reading “the Carnal Prayer Mat” [opens book, reads sentence, and blushes]. *Cough* Splutter* Oh my goodness! Then and again, I guess I could use a shipping container of paper lanterns….or maybe I’ll just give up on Singles’ Day and reminisce about the heroic sacrifices of America’s proud military veterans or about the end of World War I.  This is a strange day worldwide.

Get your act together, humankind

Get your act together, humankind

A crane-type construction vehicle

A crane-type construction vehicle

In addition to writing your favorite blog (:)) I am also a toymaker with a leather apron, a droopy mustache, and the desire to build impossible wonders to delight and amaze the world. Way back in 2011, I put up pictures from my upcoming book “Things that Go: Green & Groovy” which was a guide for building amazing toy vehicles out of common household rubbish, wooden wheels, and craft paint.  Some of the vehicles were really cool!  I turned common garbage into nifty-looking vehicles…albeit ones which did not run on their own (I was sort of like Fiat or Kia).

A missile cruiser!

A missile cruiser!

Alas! As usual, my creativity was no match for the sinister vagaries of the world economy.  There were sourcing/pricing problems in China, regulatory fights, and goodness only knows what other sorts of business headaches for my poor publisher.  The publisher had hoped to alloy the positive aspects of the toy business together with the uplifting aspects of book publishing (toys are sold directly to retailers, whereas books, nightmarishly, are sold by consignment).  Her good intentions were thwarted at every turn and she learned directly about the anti-competitive forces the large toy companies utilize to prevent products from small companies from ever reaching market (something I learned about when I made “Zoomorphs”).  All of this happened during the great crisis in the world of publishing. Gosh!

A planetary space base!

A planetary space base!

Anyway, what this means is my cool book has still not made it to the shelves.  This strikes me as particularly ironic, since I was continually goaded to build faster—and I turned out all of the many, many toy vehicles at a staggering pace.  I thought I would share a few more of these vehicles with you here on my blog so that at least somebody gets to enjoy them!  Also to build buzz I guess?

forklift

forklift

Maybe the vehicle book will happen someday, but in the mean time I have other toy projects…and other writing projects…and other art projects.  Keep watching this space to see those projects–they are going to be amazing!  Also let me know if you need any directions on how to build a miniature cardboard wheelbarrow before the book launches in sometime in the unknowable world of the far future.

wheelbarrow

wheelbarrow

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