Dear Navigator

by Hu Fang, Sternberg Press, £12 (softcover)

By Mark Rappolt

When you are, as I am, someone who spends the majority of their time writing or talking about art, you are often nagged by the fear that how you think and talk within the context of art and the introspective circle that attends to it, is in no way related to how you think and talk in the world at large. Granted, for many ‘professionals’ this would not be a problem, merely the distinction between what the design critic Reyner Banham once termed ‘learned’ and ‘common’ sense, but if you want to believe, as I do, that art has some sort of role to play in society and the world at large, and therefore must speak to that world at large, it is. And so when a book that explodes those divisions arrives on your desk, it’s something to celebrate.

Indeed, it’s exactly this theme that’s picked up in the title story of Dear Navigator, which comprises a series of letters by Vladimir Xie, written while on a simulated voyage to Mars: ‘I’m entirely unsure whether my perseverance here is for the sake of finding my inner voice,’ the character writes, ‘or for the sake of my performance before the instruments.’ On the one hand, it’s an observation that gets to the heart of current concerns about the performance of art and artists before the art market, but on the other hand it speaks of a more general concern related to how each of us lives our lives.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First the facts. Hu Fang is a writer, curator and co-founder of Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou, China. Dear Navigator is a collection of ten short stories, the majority of which explore the intersection between culture and ‘real life’, and return on several occasions to the problem of what in the West, would be termed Cartesian mind–body dualism, or, in art, the concept–object conundrum. Along the way, the author touches on the exploration of other worlds, contemporary urbanism, the effects of market forces on art, the male escort industry, the relationship between the observed and the unobserved, the 24 points of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, the responsibilities of art to society, the molecular structure of glass, the problem of free will, Zen Buddhism and the Chinese microblogging site Weibo.

Second, a register of interest. One of the stories, ‘The Shame of Participation’, about two artists who rip off the citizens of a city by asking them to donate objects to be included in a public artwork and then sell the objects to a collector, first appeared in a special edition of ArtReview Asia published earlier this year.

You’re not going to find a more beautiful, more generous, or better-written book in the art section of your local bookstore for some time to come

Although some of the stories respond to artworks (the first, ‘A Letter from Tropical Metropolis’ is a response to an artwork by Danh Vō), or have been included in artist’s monographs (‘Notes From The Glass House’ was published in a catalogue for Ming Wong), or relate to Hu’s own art projects (‘This Is The Last Film’) or, on a number of occasions, spring from an instance of performance art, they are never restrained by the context of art. Instead, Hu’s stories push forward a vision in which the entire world is alive – aeroplanes have consciousness, glass is moving – and able to offer a dizzying series of potential realities (perhaps more precisely other points of view) waiting to be explored. And all of it connected through the very human filter of desire – the desire for sex, for furniture and other commodities – but ultimately the desire for knowledge and, perhaps more urgently still, for self-knowledge. You’re not going to find a more beautiful, more generous, or better-written book in the art section of your local bookstore for some time to come. 

This article was first published in the Autumn & Winter 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia.