Chicago | Los Angeles | Miami | New York | San Francisco | Santa Fe
Amsterdam | Berlin | Brussels | London | Paris | São Paulo | Toronto | China | India | Worldwide
New York
here is always somewhere else
have you ever seen the far side of a mountain, swallow the sky

View from train from Jakarta to Jogja.

The last time I wrote while on a train, I was on a too familiar ride going a sliver of the way up the East coast of the US from Washington, DC to Philadelphia.  Today, I am on an unfamiliar train on the island of Java, going from Jakarta to Yogyakarta.  There is no justifiable way to compare that familiar American train with this Indonesian one.  All I can do is keep my eyes open, to observe and describe.  Today I am leaving behind the hectic buzz of the city of Jakarta.  It is a city that has to keep moving, it cannot look back.  Buses in varying sizes from large official ones to just a guy that drives an unmarked baby blue van crowd the streets while cars and taxies honk their way through.  All the motorbikes carrying everything from people to bundles of hay to a tall stack of boxed lunches, have to weave in and out between these buses and cars because that is the pace at which it all must operate.  Every man pushing along a street food cart must dodge these vehicles on the road and carry on, each with their own unique call, a stick hitting a metal pan or a happy little tune playing from a home-made music box.  Each pedestrian walking along the road that severely lacks a sidewalk must do so with the confidence that these vehicles will all steer clear.  They all must beat on together to formulate the rhythm of this city.  It is a rhythm that is at first shocking and frenetic, one that is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum compared to say, John Cage using no rhythm as rhythm.  But, it is in actuality, a rhythm that becomes comforting and normal, once one realizes that everyone in this part of the world is simply trying to get from here to there just like everyone else in the other parts of the world.  The manner and mode in which it all happens only appears to be different on the surface. 

On the surface, in just the past hour on this train, on this island, flanked by the Java Sea to the North and the Indian Ocean to the South, I have passed terse reminders that a reality outside of regulated cross-walks and culs-de-sac exists throughout most of the world.  As the train slows down, I can peak inside homes built out of found metal scraps, lines of laundry lining the open doorways.  There were heavy thunderstorms throughout the night, some closer to the water have been flooded.  I can see families sitting around a small stand selling food, children climbing trees and playing in the road, chickens pecking, everything carrying on, because it has to.  The cityscape is now changing to loosely organized rectangular blocks of rice paddies.  There are people working in the fields, barefoot and bent, shielded from the sun with wide brim straw hats.  The dirt roads are bright clay orange along the train tracks, as they stretch further out into the fields, they become muddy and brown, then disappear into gooey lime green marshland.  The pace out here has slowed, the sky is clearer with less hazy smog, the sun beating down brighter.

As I look out at these rice paddies, I think about my father working in similar fields in the countryside of China during the Cultural Revolution.  Planting, fertilizing, harvesting, knee deep in mud.  This is why I know this plant, its history, and its place in this part of the world.  Each green sprig sprouting out of the ground is one grain of rice.  The roots of each are small.  They do not extend far beneath the surface of the bed of water in which they are first planted in.  They are individual green pods, floating in soft mud and a shallow pond, easily plucked-up and moved into solid soil once they have sprouted.  As I go forward on this train, they represent a story that I have known my entire life and am now able to live out as I have chosen to pull up my own roots before they have firmly planted into the mud.

I am moving forward on this train, in the next 7 hours or so, about to traverse half of this North Carolina-sized, most densely populated island in the world.  Now begins new places that I have never seen before.  Even though the passing landscape appears to be just as flat as the passing landscape I had become familiar with in the Netherlands, as I look further, beyond these rice fields, I can see a faint row of mountains off in the distance.  Upon first look, it appears as if they might be a row of lower clouds, a prolonged blink and they might be gone.  But gradually they are becoming more pronounced.  It gives me comfort to know that these mountains are just off in the distance—tall and dominant, solid silhouettes, asserting themselves with a certain presence.  I plucked up my roots so I could find mountains like these and many more.

A few hours outside of Jakarta on the train to Jogja.
Posted by Ding Ren on 5/6/13 | tags: landscape photography conceptual Indonesia jakarta yogyakarta jogja train nomadic cultural revolution

you can't hear it but you can tell

View of Sumatra in the distance on a one hour ferry ride from Singapore to Batam, Indonesia.
Today I am sitting on the 11th floor of the National Library of Singapore.  For the next few weeks, this perch of verticality will most likely become a welcome workspace.   On one side, there is a view towards tall buildings, hazy in the distance from the afternoon humidity.  On the other side, a wall of apartment buildings with balconies painted turquoise blue, laundry hanging out to dry, gently swaying in the breeze.  A week ago, I flew twelve hours across the world, traded in winter for endless summer, cheese sandwiches for endless options of rice/noodles/veggies, and morning runs through gray mist for morning swims in the blazing sun.  Instead of being the only Asian woman at the library’s communal working table, I am one of five.  Instead of being bundled in a sweater and corduroys, I am wearing a linen tee and cut-off shorts.  The view is different, the weather is different, and most of all, the cultural context is different.

This is the first time in my adult life that I am living in a setting where my skin color, my eyes, and my hair are similar to the people around me.  A sea of Asians, speaking Chinglish, eating food that is so familiar, chopsticks the only utensil option.  One would think that I’d find cultural collectivity here in Singapore, that I’d be able to finally relish in the Chinese-ness that I had been missing, blend in, and rejuvenate in the sun.  Although partially true, I still found myself, on one of my first days here, standing in the “western” grocery store’s cheese section lamenting the audacious prices.  Leave it to me to crave cheese when in Asia.  (I settled for some not as expensive, but still over-priced hummus from Australia.  All the “western” products here are from Australia, milk, yogurt, honey, cheese, etc.  To put things into perspective, a block of cheese can get you about 3 meals and a snack at a hawker center.)

Asia and Europe, and me, as the American, forever in-between.  The mindset, the values, what is in the news, how things are worded, how the people go about their everyday and carry themselves, the advertisements, the structure and order of it all.  Nothing is American, but intrinsically, and with dismay, I notice that there is a heightened look towards the West.  Materialism is abound and the propulsion towards an entirely capitalistic existence is not only welcomed, it is celebrated, as exemplified by countless newspaper articles profiling successes with no shame in publishing exact salaries and worth of condos.  Even a random conversation on the street, where a business man from Beijing began by asking me where I was from because he thought I looked “out of place” (not quite Chinese and not quite Singaporean), ended with him telling me exactly how much he makes per month and how it was not enough to be rich.  This openness about facts and figures, salaries, educational degrees, car costs and condo fees, it is different from the veiled, abstracted approach in the West.  I knew that it existed, especially in Asia, but I didn’t expect it to be so pervasive.  

The first feeling I get is that I have moved from one snow globe to another one.  I get a rather sterile feeling here.  It is clean, precise, and efficient.  Right down to the weather, which is the same every day of the year: humid, hovering somewhere around 30-35 degrees Celsius, prone to sporadic thunderstorms.  Specific signs are abound: Do not shake your hands after washing them, you might get water on the bathroom floor and someone might slip.  There are little patches of green throughout the city, the streets are wide and orderly but crowded, one set of high-rise apartment complexes probably can house all of de pijp.  Remnants of British colonialism equal driving on the left side, three-pronged electrical outlets, and trendy necklaces with union jack charms in the shape of mustaches.  Is there something below the surface?   Beyond the shopping ladies strolling along Orchard Road with their designer handbags, the groups of retired men sitting ‘round tables at hawker stands drinking Tiger beer all day, the futuristic architecture of high-rise office buildings?

I suppose the one reigning force is the food culture.  The formulaic complicity is countered by the variety and diversity of food available.  Where Amsterdam lacked in cultural variety and food culture, it made up for with historical clout and picturesque canals.  Comparatively, Singapore lacks the history, its rise to contemporary prominence in business being within the past 20 years, but it makes up for it all through its food.   Neighborhoods come together at food centers, usually found at the base of most apartment high-rise complexes.  These food centers are eclectic and every person that works behind one of these stalls make the food with passion, commitment and love.  After all, it takes a certain amount of endurance and pride to spend every day contained in a metal cubicle cooking in the sweltering heat.  One favorite type of hawker food stall is a make-your-own-soup station.  Lines and lines of fresh seafood, tofu, veggies, and herbs for you to choose from with a set of tongs.  Pick what you want, throw it all in a bowl and tell the cook how you want it prepared.  My favorite is rice noodles with laksa soup (a spicy, coconut broth).  I load it with greens, tofu, mushrooms, okra, seaweed, and bitter melon.  This is one of the most enjoyable meals, but other enjoyable meals have been abundant, such as make-your-own hot pot, a box of spicy and sour salads, kaya bread with peanut butter, fish congee, peanut pancake made out of sourdough glutinous rice flour, and on and on.

My initial impression is that this is what they want you to do while in Singapore.  To get lost in the food culture, succumb to happy food comas and forget about the rest.  Forget that there is a distinct separation in class when you actually look closer.  Forget that the old ladies on the street selling packets of tissues, the old men and women cleaning up dishes at hawker stands and in malls, that these people are becoming increasingly marginalized, pushed out further into the outskirts of the island to live in lesser conditions, while luxury condos loom everywhere else.  These men and women are practically invisible, hunched-over, shrunken with age.  But they are the backbone to this little island-city-country.
There are counterparts to these men and women everywhere in the world, and as I travel more, especially through SouthEast Asia, I become reminded of what is happening behind-the-scenes in these rapidly developing parts.  I become reminded of my place, my privileges, and my priorities.  I am reminded that there is a reality outside of snowglobes and that this reality is messy and feverish, unable to be contained within the cool façade of a fake winter-scaped utopia.    

When taking the ferry from Singapore to Batam, one leaves from one mall and arrives by going through another mall.  These malls have KFCs, Pizza Huts, and Starbucks, etc. in them.  This is directly next to the mall in Batam, empty, undeveloped land with a shanty town in the distance.  A stark contrast between the "mall culture" and this reality.

Posted by Ding Ren on 4/1/13 | tags: Batam singapore landscape photography conceptual cultural identity Snow Globes ferry Indonesia

when a line becomes a mountain

I used to draw straight lines.  I searched for them in green fields and followed their traces.  I projected them onto walls and looked for them in library book titles.  Living in the Netherlands, I no longer draw straight lines.  The topography is flat.  The search is unnecessary because the line is already there.  It is in the horizon that is visible all around.  It extends beyond the green farmland and into the sea.  It keeps going.  I was born in China but moved to the United States at a young age.  These two lands, rooted in varied topography and vast wilderness have influenced my mindset and identity.  I grew up on the hyphen, in-between Chinese-American.  Here, in the Netherlands, I am either Chinese or American.  The line connecting the two is no longer relevant.  Instead, it has become a curved topographic line—an absent mountain that I now yearn for.

text for upcoming solo exhibition at Upominki (Rotterdam, NL)
October,  2012

Posted by Ding Ren on 3/8/13

and all my dreams lost at sea

So we beat on, boats against the current.
Borne back, ceaselessly into the past.*


so we beat on

On a train from here to there, on a plane from there to here, on a ferry in the Ij, in between here and there.  Going somewhere, but also nowhere fast.  2 Fridays ago, I packed up 4 suitcases all weighing give-or-take 23kg, got on a plane, and left Amsterdam.  Possibly for good.  Actually, more than possibly for good.  It was a tumultuous 2 years in Amsterdam, cumulated into a lovely makeshift going away celebration that resulted in lighting the log that I used to be the Twin Peaks log lady for Halloween, midnight pancakes, and Roopram Roti.  The final morning in Amsterdam resulted in a bike ride across the city to retrieve the 4 suitcases, in storage at the sublet I was cat-sitting at for the past 7 weeks.  The sun was rising, peachy salmon, just below the horizon.  The city was recovering from the previous night’s snow and sleet.  It was warming up, wet pavement, glossy cobblestones.  For as much as this city has put me through, I cannot trade or ignore moments like these.  Breathing in the crisp misty air, picturesque canals and row houses all around, reflections in the water.  It was as if I had left already.  On this final early morning, I was being seduced once again by the very superficial beatific wonderland that had seduced me in the beginning.  This time I knew that the seduction was going to be so fleetingly quick, that it was ok to let it all sink in.  To succumb to it with no hope for the future.  To realize that the past 2 years have been magical, suspended in reality, and worth every second.  Even the torrential downpours were thrilling in their own right.  Everything had its place alongside the erratically beating heart that was Amsterdam.

boats against the current

I have been back in the States for a couple weeks now.   Long enough for the initial buzz of comfort to fade into a strikingly abrupt reality.  Fade into a slowly formulating reverse culture shock.  My parents picked me up from the airport, it was a long, congested drive back to their house in Columbia (about 20 minutes south of Baltimore).  Between the hazes of grogginess, I spied massive hills in the distance, great stretches of empty land, a few houses here and there.  I was confronted with so much space, but I couldn’t get to it, being in a shell of metal, the only way to get around in the States anywhere outside the city.  It was an immediate push and pull, of feeling comfort at seeing all this space and barren land but also feeling complete anxiety at being in a moving vehicle again.  Throughout the week, the imbalances of culture started to slowly creep in.  First it was the vanity license plates, DRLVE, BLAZE, and so forth.  Oh yeah, rearranging 5-7 letters into a clever phrase is a form of self expression.  Next it was the gallon jug of pickles at the grocery store for 5 bucks.  Oh yeah, everything in the States is so BIG.  Finally, it was the quiet isolation of the suburbs.  The immediate comfort of it all, to go back to my old room, see my CD collection, clothes and books I have not seen in 2 years, all my things.  This is what has gotten to me the most, sank into my bones and prompted me to realize that I have become on the fringes of the fringe.  This past week, I am the lone wolf taking my old 1970s Sears-made Free Spirit bike for a ride to the organic market (at least there is one just 2 miles from my parents house).  I go for runs circulating culs de sac and dead-end driveways.  I read nutrition labels and ingredients lists and cringe.  High Fructose Corn Syrup, I have not missed you.  I can’t be bothered to respond when someone speaks to me, because it is still strange to me to understand and process the language.   I have gotten so used to zoning out, being in my own world as Dutch is spoken all around.  What?  I have returned to my culture?  This is my American culture that I have missed the collectivity of while I was away?  Who was I kidding, there is no collectivity in sight.  I am a boat trying to return to its homeland, trying to find a place to dock, being splashed around by the current.  Sometimes I come close to the shore, but am pulled out by the tide again.    

ceaselessly into the past

Will I forever be yearning for the past and the future that has yet to come but not able to settle with the present?  Presently, I am on a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia, where I will spend the weekend with Mike’s family.  I am going through the motions, I have seen these sights before, the ING tower at the Wilmington, Delaware station, the colorful painted bridge near MICA on the way to Baltimore Penn Station.  Steel supplies warehouses, workers in cherry pickers fixing power lines, the vats of steam trickling into the gray sky from each passing factory.  Abandoned buildings, boarded up and covered with graffiti, expanses of parking lots, gravel yards, tractors pushing it all around.  Power lines suspended between wooden poles, water towers, endless stretches of highway, dried cat-tails lining the train tracks.  Bodies of water in the distance.  This is the train ride up the east coast, this is something so familiar that it has become alarmingly foreign in how familiar and comfortable it all just becomes once again.  I am physically moving forward, but my mind has been borne back by this train.  As I stare out at the slowly rising steam from the power plant in the distance, I feel a certain yearning for the past, but also a yearning for the uncertain, nomadic future.  It is overcoming the present.  The present is a familiar train ride, taking me from one familiar place in the suburbs to the next familiar place in the suburbs.  The past was filled with spontaneous bouts of happiness and self doubt, emotional turmoil, and mind fucks.  The future is nomadic and abstract.  I will be in Singapore in 2 weeks.  After Singapore I will be in China, visiting my real homeland of Wuhan.  Then I’ll be in Indonesia, then who knows.  It is a ceaselessly nostalgic move forward and back, but never standing still long enough to take in the present.  The present is too comfortable, too predictably plain, that the push to go forward, even if it might be against the strongest current, is worth it.  Even if I get pushed back, I know that the current will then push me out again, further, beyond the present.

*  I read The Great Gatsby during the week I was installing at the Künstlerhaus Dortmund.  I wanted something light, beautiful, and nostalgic, but was also at the mercy of the book collection already at the apartment I was subletting back in Amsterdam.  My books having already been shipped back to the States.  This is the last line of the book.  It is quite fitting, as I read it the night before the opening of the group show I was installing for, entitled, Voyage: sea journeys, island-hoping, and trans-oceanic concepts.  A show addressing the romanticism of being lost at sea, searching for something unknown, out in the open expanses of water, darkness all around.


Posted by Ding Ren on 3/7/13

i waited for you on a hill

Cops in riot gear in the back courtyard.  Getting ready to evict the squatters next door.

i waited for you on a hill, on a saturday.

(The feeling of having a hill to stand on.  The feeling of having someone standing on a hill waiting for you.  Singing these words.  Just dreaming.  But not here, it doesn’t exist here.)


I am half asleep, dozing in and out of dreaming.  I hear a fuzzy loud speaker coming from outside and a lot of movement from vehicles.  The squatters next door are being evicted this morning at 7am.  It is dark with only the barest minimal hints of daylight creeping in.  Flashlights are flickering on and off and there are crowds of people in the back courtyard and out front.  We are in the attic so I climb on top of a shelf, open the tiny attic window, and lean out so that I can see the street below.  There are 4 armored police trucks, a large truck with what appears to be a heavy machine-gun mounted on top.  (Later confirmed that it sprays water, not bullets.)  Police are in riot gear, shields, clubs, helmets, reflective jumpsuits.  There are police officers across the street in the attic apartment, one shines their flashlight in my direction as I lean out the window.  The large tank truck with the hunk-o-metal atop shines its light in my direction.  It is dark still, I am only half awake, in a daze, confused and caught between reality and fiction, literal and abstract.

First, my mind flashes towards the past.  To historical words and images.  To Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago.  To photos of the Provo in the 70s.  Even to Anne Frank, hidden away in her attic apartment.  Then I flash to the present, to life.  I think of our first winter here in Amsterdam, in this attic apartment, with so much uncertainty ahead but so much hope.  Mike playing Neutral Milk Hotel songs and me singing along.  Holland 1945:  now we must pack up every piece of the life we used to love…now here is where your mother sleeps…and here’s the room where your brothers were born… There I am, sitting on the shelf, looking out our tiny attic window, snow is falling, cold and gray.  Our first winter in Amsterdam.  Stark, bleak, lonely, but also full of love, hope, and aspirations for finding our way again, building a new life here.  I’m pretty sure that was the last time I sat on the shelf and looked out the window in such a way.  This morning at 7am, I did the same, but saw crowds of police ready to take action.  I was safe, in the attic next door, no “keep your police officers close but your squatters closer” banners hanging from my window. 

It is my instinct to record reality, take it in as literal as possible, then spin it around, analyzing, theorizing, and questioning.  It is my instinct to do this with sensations, experiences, and déjà vu-inducing nostalgic emotions.  Something real is then abstracted because it is attached to a gesture from before, but then is repeated in a different context.  I’m sitting on the shelf, looking out the attic window.  I have been here for over 2 years, I have seen what the future is, it is now and we are in extreme cruise control mode, coasting along, gas-light blinking.  Amsterdam has made us tired, exhausted, and emotionally drained.  We have given so much to this city and fought to live here, an emotional and psychological battle in contrast to the physical battle the squatters are fighting next door.  As I was looking down at all the flashing lights, listening to the buzzing motors of the armored vehicles below, and breathing in the wet air at the break of dawn, I felt as if I was in this liminal space, in the tension between nostalgically induced reality and abstracted fiction, made up only in my own head.  Only because the visions painted by the likes of Mailer make it sound so romantic, so twinkly-eyed and heroic.  The blinking flashlights from the cops across the street were nothing but that.  Caught in the trap spun by a gifted writer of fictive reality. 

What does this all mean?  I’m awoken at 7am.  In my PJs, leaning out the tiny attic window, seeing the armored vehicles, the cops with flashlights and guns, shining at the row house next door, then shining at me.  This is the reality.  I actually feel kind of afraid, there was a massive hunk of metal just pointed at me from the street below.  When has that ever happened?

The other part is this part where I feel like spinning reality into an abstracted, romanticized state, where I recount this happening and it becomes an anecdote that makes my time spent in Amsterdam sound like a revolutionary masterpiece.  Complicity, what complicity?  In the end, this whole experience has been caught in this tension, between reality and fiction, between something literal and abstract.  In the end, it has been about this search for the perfect revolutionary masterpiece.  I set aside comfort, stability, and cultural sameness for a dizzying array of uncertainty.  So with this uncertainty it would only make sense to want to retain the anarchistic gesture that I was doing something revolutionary, bulking tradition, chasing the dream.  In spirit I am with the squatters down there.  They are maintaining the dream, maintaining the image of the dangerous, yet romantically uncertain revolutionary spirit.  They broke in, resisted legal pressures, politicized the greedy capitalism surrounding the perceived Amsterdam housing shortage and now are being pushed out by cops in riot gear.  It is Ginsberg in the park in Chicago in 1968, unable to speak from all the tear gas he had breathed in.  It is the cover of a Žižek text, a kid throwing a stone.  Are these revolutionary spirits real or constructed?  The squatters certainly know how to play off of this.  I know how I want to play off of this, I know how I envision an artist making an art project about playing off of this.  Somehow that makes it less real but then more real at the same time.  Realness is the actual seeing of the literal happening.  The cops below, the lights, the armored vehicles.  But realness is also suspended in time by romanticized images of kids throwing stones as seen on the covers of texts by the so-called armchair activists who are not anything like the squatters next door.    

I’m in my non-squatted attic apartment next door that I still had to fight for to pay fair rent.  We both went against the man, they just did it in a louder way.  Fuck Nationalism.  Dutch.  Shut Up.  Scrawled on the door of the now empty squat next door. 

Posted by Ding Ren on 3/7/13

you come down from the mountain, they lose your scent in the fountain

Flying back to the Netherlands.

May 2011

“This city is so flat it makes me want to puke.” - François
“This city is like a giant beige pillow.” - Fraser

In 1971, Bas Jan Ader climbed a tree in the Amsterdam Bos.  He hung from a branch.  He let go.  He fell into the canal below.  He repeated the fall.  Sitting in a rocking chair on the roof of his house, flinging himself off the side.  He repeated the fall again, biking into the canal at the corner of Kerkstraat and Reguliersgracht.  Ader created these fall pieces after his visit to the United States, L.A. to be exact.  He must have seen the Santa Monica Mountains beyond the city and gotten inspired.  After living in Amsterdam for 7 months, I understand why Ader was obsessed with the act of falling.  He was after the rushing feeling that gets your heart pumping.  The brief moment of release where you no longer have control.  The thrill of succumbing to gravity.  I believe that the quest for the “fall” feeling, the feeling that Ader was after, has everything to do with the flatness of this city, this entire country.  It traps you in, grounds you.  There is no up or down, high or low, just a continuous straight horizon line and infinite sky.  Perhaps if someone grows up in the Netherlands, they never think twice about the flatness because there is nothing to compare it to.  The flatness is normal, in all its monotonous and monochrome glory.

For me, the flatness is not normal.  It is getting to me.  It is giving me an urge to escape.  I want to feel the triumph of biking up hills and cruising down the other side for longer than the few feet it takes to cruise down the other side of a canal bridge.  Who would have thought that moving to Europe would have a reverse topographic effect.  Instead of feeling more European, I feel more American with each passing day.  I miss the “rustic wilderness,” the great outdoors, the un-manicured trees, the large rocks, and especially the mountains.  I miss the idea that you can keep going west from the east coast for seemingly forever and ever until you hit national parks.  Parks with geological treasure troves, layers of history embedded in solid rock.  Even though I never did it, the very idea that there is a great expanse of land out there, full of varied and unkempt terrain is comfort enough.  To go west of Amsterdam means going a mere 30km.  Any further and you’d be in the North Sea.  At the very least you’d be sinking in the sand.  No solid rock in sight.

I am not just simply missing varied topography because I am no longer around it.  It goes deeper than that.  It is more than just missing.  It is being psychologically affected by the very idea of topography itself.  The idea that the topography of an environment defines a place, that it defines and controls a mindset—a sentiment of existence.  This “topographic mindset” is like a blank slate that mirrors the flatness.  Every time I try to build, scribble, scratch, gnaw, stomp, or write on it, the slate cleans itself.  It rejects the unpredictable imperfections of chalk dust, just like it rejects unkempt trees and mounds of dirt and rock.  This clean slate has made me increasingly nostalgic.  To the point where I feel as if I am 16 again sitting in my room in the suburbs of Maryland (MoCo-Montgomery County to be exact) listening to the Smashing Pumpkins.  I am at odds with the culture, the topography, and the way of life.  “I just want to beeeeee meeeeee” like the lyric in Mayonaise off of Siamese Dream.  But I can’t, not here.  Not where there are no hills, not where there are no rocks with layer after layer of strata, not where the geology of the earth has no history.  There is sand and then water underneath the pavement.  It is sinking, slowly sinking.

The peak district in Edale, just outside of Manchester, UK.  September 2011.
May 2012

The above was written a year ago, when I was experiencing my first spring in Amsterdam and having an extreme case of the wanderlust-escapism blues.  Last spring I climbed onto as many rooftops as possible, trying to overlook something.  All I got was a peripheral view of the city and a constant reminder that there was nothing to overlook but flatness.  Spring no. 2 in Amsterdam and my urges to climb up, cruise down, sit on a large rock and overlook something have resurfaced, but I am beginning to come to terms with it.  The last thing I want is for round two of spring in Amsterdam to knock me out as much as round one did.
This spring, my topographic mindset is a shifted one.  It is a take a step back and look at if from a nostalgically other-ized perspective.  This perspective has to do with the clean slate metaphor.  It is as if the flatness represents a clean slate or a blank canvas.  Everything is familiar but still new.  There is potential for something but it never manifests.  I feel nostalgic for the past but also for the future.  It is an anticipation of nostalgia, because I know that it will strike here and now but also later.
How are topography and nostalgia linked?  My search for hills, mountains, large rocks and un-manicured wilderness, could this just be nostalgia and nothing more?  Nostalgia for summers in Maine, hiking around Acadia National Park, staring up at the sea of stars, picking fresh kale and sungolds for salads.  Nostalgia for summers in DC, waking up at 6am to cycle over the Connecticut Avenue bridge on my way to work the farmers market.  The cool morning air that anticipates extreme humidity.  The emptiness of the city.  The valley of Rock Creek Park below.   The knowledge that I’d be working outdoors for the next 8 hours, only concerned with making the zucchini look pretty.  This longing for a non-flat topography triggers this nostalgia, much like a smell or sound.  It triggers a yearning for certainty that this feeling can be found again.

I’ve left Amsterdam many times this past year.  Spent August in Valencia and Lisbon, swimming in the Mediterranean, meandering through the cobblestoned streets, mesmerized by the orange terra cotta roofs contrasting with the perfect pitch blue sky.  Took a weekend road trip to Paris, drank Sangria, ate late-night crepes, sat along the Seine.  Spent December in Southeast Asia.  Stayed up 33 hours straight in Singapore eating all the Chinese foods I had been missing.   Celebrated the holidays in Jakarta eating a banquet of Pandang food and braving the anarchic bus system.   Spent half of April traveling through the UK—wandered the Welsh countryside, danced to Prince at a house party in Glasgow, swam at the Manchester Aquatic Center (my second favorite pool next to Wilson Aquatic Center), ate Indian food every night.  Spent 10 days in Cork, Ireland searching for hills, mountains, and rocks.  Went for daily runs up steep steps, sat in lush green fields, hiked through Killarney National Park to a soundtrack of Destroyer.  All this has added up.  I’ve been away for longer than I have been in Amsterdam, so it seems.

Even if this is so, every time I return to Amsterdam, the topographic mindset seeps back immediately.  How and why it does, I would like to know.  The existence of a definitive answer may not be necessary, but the act of searching has become increasingly important.  I can’t quell the extreme urge to go.  Go somewhere.  Overlook something.  Make a run for the hills.  In search of the miraculous.

Biking to Monnickendam, 15km north of Amsterdam, to go to the beach.  May 2011. 

Posted by Ding Ren on 3/7/13

Copyright © 2006-2013 by ArtSlant, Inc. All images and content remain the © of their rightful owners.