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The politics of sand 1


Installation, performance, sound


I placed a carpet in a courtyard where I lived at the foot of the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang ("Sand City" in China), creating an outdoor indoor space with a pillow filled with sand from the dunes and a fan driven by a chip, programmed to make the fan spin at a speed based on the real-time wind speed in Damascus. Sometimes the sand spilled out with it. I used a Chinese bed brush to clean the area every day. I felt like I was removing the sand from the Dunes and the sand from Damascus at the same time.

Dunhuang has been known before as “Sand City ", and I want to discuss sand in the abstract here. "Sand City" is one of the driest places in China, and has always been at the border between Eastern and Western China, a critical point where people have entered the "dry world" while Han culture is still dominant. The "dry world" mentioned here is in the sense of Masaaki Sugiyama. In Eurasia or "Eurasia-Africa", which includes North Africa, there is a vast desert (沙/漠/“bi-a-ba-n” in Farsi). Droughts were frequent here, resulting in migrations that could easily cause unrest and regime changes. In the age of maritime power, the "dry world" meant backwardness. The Arab Spring was subtly linked to a drought. Damascus is the Chinese imagination of a distant war, a mirage in Chinese cyber polemics. It is both a base for constructing “the Chinese dream” and a disturbance of it. Syria, once an Arab country with a relatively well-developed industrial system, is now fractured like sand.

Living in this courtyard at the foot of the dunes, I felt as if everything was difficult to escape the pervasive penetration and coverage of sand. The carpeted “bedroom” is a space that needs to be kept clean and safe, and the sand is a threat. But just as sandstorms are a force that crosses nation-state borders (the sand of Africa  invaded the United States, but of course the real political and economic relationship is the opposite), the flow and spread of sand is always uncontrollable. The sand continued making this space “dirty”, where the effects of the Damascus wind and the local wind were intertwined and no longer distinguishable.

Perhaps this is also a dream world of my own. I had a glimpse of Syrian war in the low-end globalization of Yiwu (a commodities centre in China which witnessed a significant increase in Arab traders since the September 11 attacks). I always felt Damascus calling and hiding, shifting the image of itself in the mediocre life represented by the cheap and brightly colored Yiwu-style carpets.

The sands of Dunhuang's Singing Sand Dunes used to make the sound of aircraft roaring, thunder or bells, and by the late 1980s these sounds had gradually disappeared, in some strange synchronization with the course of history. The reasons for this are environmental pollution and human activity. Yet there is another kind of thunder/bell sound when I was living there, and that is the evening bell of Leiyin (Thunder sound) Temple. The expression “thunder sound” comes from  Buddha speaks like thunder”.

“Making the mute Singing Sand Dunes sing again” was a live sound performance. I sampled, amplified and processed the sound of the fan spinning in the sand pillow in real time, and chose the exact time when the “thunder” sound started.

If sand is geographic noise, what is the sound it makes directly? Ironically, when human activity mutes the sand, the sound performed live here contains both the sound of sand and the sound of human activity (which makes the fan spin). It is also difficult to distinguish between the two.

The audience in this performance was mainly local people, who shared their memories of the sound of the singing sands together after the performance that day. An elderly gentleman who had spent his life copying murals in the Mogao Caves told of an experience from his youth, when one day in the 1980s, on his way to the Mogao Caves, he climbed to the top of the nine-story high hill. That day the sand was slabbing together from the rain and moving down as a whole, and very rarely, a deep rumbling sound was heard from all sides. “Just like what I heard today”, he said to me.

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