During a summer almost ten years ago, I became
periodically obsessed with a set of public benches.
These benches have sat outside Shanghai
Center and the Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel on West Nanjing Road since the early
2000s. Two, three, or four in a group, they hug the trees by the pedestrian.
They are hard not to notice. Their curved shape was probably intended to
maximize utility at their time of making, but for the passers-by who feel tired
and seduced to take a seat they also offer a promise of choice. You can either
sit on the side facing the Shanghai Exhibition Center, or take the other side
towards the hotel, which allows you to observe the tourists walking in and out
of the luxury stores changing hosts at a speed parallel to seasons in fashion; it’s
either neoclassicism or neo-futurism.
Throughout that summer, I meticulously
calculated my daily calorie intake, took long walks around the French Concession
every morning and afternoon, and piously returned to the City Shop located on
the B1 Floor of Shanghai Center for lunch salads, which I always consumed while
sitting on one of those benches. With every bite of arugula and celery, my
brain translated the crunch of those fibers and the smell of their juices into
a euphoric signal of well-being, which was then digested, blended, and confused
with the physical sensation of the back of my thighs against the bench, the
color of its pale white surface, and the feeling of sweat oozing from every
pore of my skin in the hot air.
After the summer, I moved to the States for
school, and the benches stayed there.
Of course, the physical and psychological
experience I am recounting here had, to some extent, to do with what was
essentially an episode of self-imposed diet. But that does not make the
experience less valid—not in the least. It belongs to a
spectrum of diets and disordered eating that perhaps no one living in today’s
world is confident to say they are—and always
will be—entirely immune to; health and
well-being as a popular desire always gets exploited by the capitalist system
before re-entering the market as seductive products and lifestyles. While that
is all true, what really struck me in retrospect is how, in that summer marked
by my feverish desire for physical transformation, the bench became something
like an attachment. Facilitated by the smell, taste, and other sensations in
those moments of intimacy, I came to embrace the bench as an object of desire
which, through my return and attachment to it, offered me a sense of optimism
in becoming what it promised.
As I returned to those benches for a visit the
night I finished these lines, they had turned all rusty and were no longer in
those groups as I remembered. I guess they too move in their own worlds, and at
certain moments of chance, our worlds converge.
– Alvin Li
Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
(A poem pick by the artist)