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The Country of Summer Insects

A nostalgic animated film by Chinese artist Tang Bohua, on the capital city of fireworks

by Alessandro De Toni in Culture on 18 April 2014

Animations, Animators, Artists, Beijing, China, Chinese Artists, Short Films

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Tang Bohua (TBH) was born in Liuyang, Hunan Province—the Chinese capital of fireworks—a city scattered with Buddhist temples where the locals would ask for protection from the hazards of their risky craft. During his childhood, temples were TBH's playground. He was immersed in a world filled with traditional imagery of ancient sutra, fascinating tales and colorful frescos—a world that has been fading away and leaving few traces behind.

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His beautiful memories and a wish to preserve a precious heritage have been the source of inspiration for his first movie, “The Country of Summer Insects,” a 17-minute long animation that is the outcome of almost three years of meticulous work. We met with TBH in the temporary studio of his company INKMAN in northeast Beijing to view his movie and learn more about its elaborate production process.

In a storage room filled with gypsum boards, TBH shares, “I've always had a passion for animation, but it was not my major. I like painting and I studied printmaking at Hangzhou University. 'The Country of Summer Insects' has been my first experience as an author and director and in fact my style is very different from what you see on TV or Hollywood movies. The aesthetic is closer to old paintings.” And indeed the production process has been different. The "The Country of Summer Insects" is entirely made of handmade drawings, done in the same technique as old fresco paintings, on gypsum boards that have been crafted in-house by TBH and his team. A total of 10,000 handcrafted boards were then scanned and edited to build this mesmerizing movie.

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"I started working on the script in 2009, when I first came to Beijing; back then I was trying to put together some insights I had since I was a kid," he says. "I worked on the script together with Xiong Lei and Wang Jian, and I’ve been working on the paintings with a very small group." He further notes that "the process was long and delicate, sometimes the boards cracked but we decided to keep them to enhance the feeling of old in the movie.”

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The intro is made with the ancient technique of tayin—a kind of stone-rubbing used to copy inscriptions. And it’s the prelude to one of the most fascinating stories by Zhuangzi, a taoist philosopher who lived in the fourth century BC. “Far, far away in the south, almost located in the end of sky, there was a country near the sea, named the 'Country of Summer Insects.' People who lived there only had three quarters of life, being born in spring and dead in autumn. A record in their historical books: 'Ice was the most precious thing in the world.' But after asking all people in the country, nobody knew what the ice was. A young, brave general decided to build a large ship to look for that ice.“

"Summer insects can't tell the feeling of ice," is a classical statement from Zhuangzi, and a paradox which often brought the philosopher to Western relativism; “Do not speak of the ocean to the frog that lives in the well. Do not speak of ice to summer insects that never lived in winter.”

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TBH uses the story to express his own experience, “Just like the characters in the animated film, they are brave and willing to explore the buzz of life, but their life lasts just one season, this is their ultimate limit. In front of the world, they are so small. And so we are as human beings; always confronting ourselves with a limited horizon.” This notion carries the animation and with it, great beauty permeates.

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"The Country of Summer Insects" will be be screened for the first time on 20 April in Guangzhou, along with an exhibition of the boards and items from the production process. The film will be presented in May at the International Short Film Oberhausen in Germany, and at Animafest in Zagreb in June.

Images courtesy of INKMAN

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The New York Pizza Project

Native New Yorkers pound the pavement in search of authentic slices, stories and characters

by Kat Herriman in Food + Drink on 18 April 2014

Books, New York, Photography, Pizza, Food+Drink, Small Business

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Once synonymous with New York, family-run pizza shops are an endangered species these days as more and more owners are force to shutter their stores to make room for the city’s ubiquitous (and stomach-turning) dollar-a-slice chains. In an effort to preserve and celebrate the culture of these establishments, five friends decided to take the situation into their own hands. The group, armed only with an insatiable appetite and Canon 5Ds outfitted with Zeiss lenses, set about on a three-year long journey that would encompass 100 of the city’s most authentic spots—and even more slices. Simply titled, The New York Pizza Project, the initiative took co-founder Ian Manheimer and his crew of Knicks-loving, natives all over the five boroughs, where they captured the charming quirks of each neighborhood spot along with the stories of the makers and customers that inhabit them.

Hailing from diverse backgrounds including graphic and UX design, the founders decided to compile their findings in glossy coffee table book, which they launched this week on Kickstarter. CH spoke with Manheimer to learn more about the pie-centric preservation project that serves as a true tribute to the city.

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What was the impetus for the project?

The project has been a journey. We grew up in these places. Our initial plan was to just go out to our favorite shops and pay tribute to them with beautiful photos. But then we started talking to the people, and things changed. We started to learn the city through the eyes of pizza-makers and pizza-eaters. We heard amazing stories about immigrants starting over, about running a traditional business in a rapidly changing city and about never selling out. We decided that the best way to honor these fading institutions was to make a beautiful coffee table book of our journey.

Pizza joints are an inescapable part of most blocks in New York. How did you narrow your focus?

We wanted to capture the essence of New York through its most iconic shops. For us, that meant shops that were vibrant, meaning lots of people coming and going. To that end, we only looked at shops that sell slices. We also wanted to capture the history, so we look for shops that have been around for a while and might be family-run.

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When you were shooting these images what was the reaction of the owners?

On the whole, pizza-makers are funny guys. At first blush, they come off as humble servants to a storied and simple craft. But once you get these guys talking, it's a whole other story. Pizza in New York is about pride, ultimately. So we might walk into a shop and an owner might react with something like, "Why would anyone want to see my picture?" And within five minutes they've become a fountain of braggadocio spouting the reasons why their pizza is better than the rest. This pride is what is so great about these places. They care so very much about the quality of the slices their customers eat. We're doing our job if we can help the customers gain a deeper appreciation for this.

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What were the biggest surprises on this project?

I have literally changed as a person throughout the process of making this project. We started doing this because we loved snapping photos and thought it could be a cool way to pay tribute to the shops we grew up in. But as we started to talk to the patrons and purveyors, and they started to open up, we earned an insight into the soul of this city. I learned about an amazing tension between the rising costs of doing business (rent and flour) and the pride pizza makers have in delivery quality product. Overall, these guys would rather go out of business than skimp on quality.

I learned that communities will fight for the shops they love. There's a shop we visited in Sunset Park called Johnny's that had a Papa John's move in directly next door. Seeing this as an affront to their values, the community and local politicians have shown up for rallies to support their favorite spot.

Also, I just find it incredibly noteworthy that in a city that changes so rapidly, there are small businesses that have been around 40-50 years by doing the same exact thing every day. Same ingredients, same vendors, same menu. It's quite remarkable.

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What do you hope the outcome of the project will be?

Our hope is that we inspire people take the time to honor and promote New York City's small businesses. We want to help foster more respect for quality and community. I don't know anyone who wants to live in a New York that is only chain stores, yet none of us act as if that's a possibility. I think it will help people remember that while New York is a modern city, it is also an old city. There is a lot of tradition around here, you just need to look for it.

Contribute to the New York Pizza Project at their Kickstarter, which has 27 days to go, despite already reaching their goal.

Images courtesy of The New York Pizza Project

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Darkness & Light: Contemporary Nordic Photography

An exhibition featuring the wide range of depth and style from artists across the northern European region

by CH Contributor in Culture on 18 April 2014

Photography, Scandinavia, Exhibitions, Interviews, Museums, Europe, Iceland, Norway, Sweden

by Laura Feinstein

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Nordic countries aren’t known for their mild climates. Whether it’s the near-mythic winter darkness of the Scandinavian “polar night," or the periods of 24-hour light that characterize the Midnight Sun, this is a region of stark contrasts. "Darkness & Light: Contemporary Nordic Photography," now in its final month at NYC’s Scandinavia House, attempts to celebrate the mysterious effect this bipolarity has had on the region’s art and artists. Curated by some of the region's most celebrated cultural institutions, this survey presents over 30 recent works by 10 emerging and established photographers from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

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With two artists chosen from each of the Nordic countries (the term Scandinavian only applies to Denmark, Norway and Sweden), the exhibit offers one of this year’s most striking exhibits of contemporary photography from the area. As co-curator, Anna Tellgren of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm recently told us, “The title 'Darkness & Light' is a reflection on what people often think they see or expect to see in the works of artists from Scandinavia. You can find the landscape, nature and the scarcity of light in many works, but you can also find a lot of other tendencies and approaches. This collaboration has for all of us been very inspiring and is one of many examples of creative encounters between artist, photographers, curators, critics and scholars in the Nordic countries.”

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For this exhibit, pieces that made the final cut include Tonje Bøe Birkeland’s fictional portrait of photographer Luelle Madgalon Lumiére, an adventurous woman out of step with modern life whose solo journey to the remote Orkney Islands feels both timeless and heartbreakingly contemporary. For some of that distinctly dark Scandinavian humor, Tova Mozard creates a cheeky series of tableaus, including two literary-inclined lovers slouching mournfully over the graves of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as a melancholy psychological drama starring her mother, grandmother and a therapist. Some of the most dramatic images in the show, however, belong to Joakim Eskildsen, whose exploration of poverty in America—shot in New York, California, Louisiana, South Dakota and Georgia—comes from a distinctly Scandinavian perspective.

We met with María Karen Sigurðardóttir, Museum Director of the Reykjavik Museum of Photography to discuss how such an ambitious project was put together.

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How do you think the availability of light in the Nordic countries—or the scarcity of it—has shaped modern photography in the region?

Well, there is no scarcity of light here in Iceland from March to October, and in the summer we have almost no 
darkness; just endless light. But your surroundings shape you of course, and the darkness of the winter must influence people of the north—perhaps in a good way; it helps stimulate the imagination.

How did you decide which artists to include in the show? What set their work apart from their contemporaries?

For my part, it was not an easy task, there are so many good artists here in Iceland. But I tried to find pieces that were, in a way, distinctly Icelandic and had an Icelandic atmosphere, but at the same time addressed the rest of the world; something that was both Icelandic and universal.

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To generalize nations and art we simplify both the life and the arts.
What do you think is currently the most misunderstood aspect of Nordic art? What would you like visitors to learn from experiencing the show?

We all tend to put art into boxes, and the same goes for nations. We generalize the character of
 countries and their artists. Art that comes from Iceland "must," for example, be full of nature, darkness and
 wild characters. To generalize nations and art we simplify both the life and the arts. You can of course 
say—and in a way rightly so—that nature and melancholy characterizes Scandinavian art. But the Scandinavian artist is much more than that. The works of Pétur Thomsen have, for example, great power and a strange mixture of 
realism and beauty. The works of Bára have certainly an aura of sadness, but also haunting beauty and poetic dreams. 
What to learn from the show? That Scandinavian art certainly has something very special in its character, but it’s also
 very universal and human.

There was also a recent symposium held surrounding the show. What was discussed?

There was a talk about nature, both inner and outer landscapes, as well as urban-landscapes. 
There was a lot of talk about family history, the search for your self; and if the melancholy is, as in
 Nordic literature, a common theme in Nordic photography. There was some variance in 
the answers. The younger artists seemed to look at themselves as a more universal individual than older Scandinavians, 
more focused of their own story than that of the society.

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The Nordic countries are known for both their enduring legacy of traditional folklore and modern design. Are there any ways in which the two have come to intersect here, the fantastical and the practical?

Yes, I think so, mainly because there are almost no borders in art any more. Artists are not afraid to 
mix disparate things together. Pétur Thomsen used both traditional colors and very bright ones; Bára uses the ideas behind iconic still life Dutch paintings in her modern works. It’s a good thing; it´s always possible to gain new ground in art if you are not afraid to play with the opposites, the contradictions.

The market can be conservative and impatient with little tolerance toward seeking art, especially art without mass-culture appeal.
In Nordic countries the government and cultural institutions take a much stronger and supportive role in the arts than in the US. How do you think this has shaped modern art?

It has definitely shaped modern art, and in a very good and stimulating way. 
There are not many artists who can live only by their work, and that goes for all over the world, but especially in not-so-crowded countries in the Nordic sphere. Some acknowledged artists have good incomes and can therefore 
focus on their works without big financial worries, but if you want to have a fruitful art scene you have to support it. If artists don't have to worry too in-depth about their finances, they are more likely to take chances in their creation. 
The market can be conservative and impatient with little tolerance toward seeking art, especially art without mass-culture appeal. Support guarantees us diversity, better arts and therefore a better society.

"Darkness & Light: Contemporary Nordic Photography
" is on show at NYC's Scandinavia House now through 26 April.

Images courtesy of the respective artist

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