Revealing Paradise

Artist Patty Chang sees Shangri-La — or a replica thereof

Envy the artist Patty Chang: She's spent some time in Shangri-La and written home to tell about it.

This heaven-on-earth isn't a destination on the Las Vegas Strip or an endless stretch of Bahamian beach. We're talking about the "official" Shangri-La, a rural county called Zhongdian in China's southwestern Yunnan Province near Tibet. In 1997, Zhongdian and a cluster of other small towns in the area slugged it out for the right to claim to be the inspiration for Shangri-La, the fictional utopia depicted in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon. With a windfall of potential tourism at stake, the conflict escalated into a full-on marketing smackdown that became known as the Shangri-La Wars — until the Chinese government stepped in and declared Zhongdian the winner.

Chang, a New York-based video and performance artist, relished the paradox of real towns fighting to be authenticated as a fictional paradise. Armed with a Rockefeller Foundation grant, she set off on an unscripted exploration of Shangri-La.

The 40-minute video Chang produced as a result is one of the most engaging pieces in Elsewhere, an exhibit now on view at USF's Contemporary Art Museum. Masterminded by David Norr, a curator at CAM and Graphicstudio, the exhibit showcases seven artists' quixotic explorations of the quest. (Other works in the all-around-stellar show transport visitors on a global trek through time and space, to Nepal, the Galapagos Islands and even a displaced tourism office that meets with vandals' flames.) Chang's seminal piece, which took her nearly two years to complete and includes a dramatic sculptural installation, comes close to stealing the show.

Her video takes the form of low-budget road movie with a severely fragmented storyline. The disparate sights and sounds of Shangri-La, from crimson-robed Buddhist monks hanging out in an oxygen chamber to an otherwise-empty landscape punctuated by oversized billboards and luxury hotels, are deliciously strange. (Chang appears in the video from time to time — most notably as a fictional tourist bride in a series of wedding photography set-ups — but eschews the role of knowing narrator or guide.) Adjacent to the video projection at CAM, a sculpture fills the gallery: a compact passenger truck topped with a glimmering, three-dimensional mini-mountain made of mirrors. It's one of several Shangri-La-inspired "replicas" the artist made with the help of local residents and included in the video — a mind-bending exercise of reproducing a real environment constructed to look like a fictional place.

I sat down with Chang in a hotel bar at the Embassy Suites on USF's campus, overlooking an atrium festooned with greenery and glittering in gold — a setting oddly evocative of Shangri-La's artificial environments. Chang had just returned from shooting a second video project in China. The following is excerpted from our interview.

CL: Why did you decide to work in China?

I was really interested in the idea of placing a fictional idea of a place in a real place. That was the first thing that drew me to it. ... My mother would always talk about China in a way when I was little; when I got older, I realized that she mythologized it because when she left she was 9. They always say when people leave a place it freezes in time at that moment. ... That relationship filtered through — about something to which I'm supposed to belong.

What happened when you got there? Did you look around and say, "Let's start here?"

A little bit. We got there; it took us a long time to get settled. ... Then we didn't know what to do because there's not much in this town. There's, like, three streets. So most of the stuff going on is in hotels. ... We saw quite a few hotels, and then we got to the Paradise Hotel ... They had the big replica of Snow Mountain in the atrium, and they had an oxygen chamber in their clinic in the back of the hotel, [which] looks kind of like a spaceship. You go in and they fill it with oxygen, and then you sit there for an hour. ... because people get altitude sickness there. We really wanted to shoot in this place, and they wouldn't let us shoot there. They were really, adamantly not interested. That's when we decided that we would just build a replica of that and shoot in it ourselves.

Where did you meet the monks?

The one thing in the town that's fairly authentic is that there's a lamasery [a monastery for Tibetan lamas] on the hill. ... So there's just monks all over town. You see them all over the place, walking down the street. ... In the karaoke bar where we built the mountains, all guys there were ex-monks or monks who live there now.

Why did you decide to build the mirrored Snow Mountain?

The Snow Mountain is sacred in Tibetan Buddhism. They have a Snow Mountain near there, and people make pilgrimages around it. It's also featured in the book, Lost Horizon. ... Also, you see it replicated all over town: in the hotel, in murals. ... We were interested in having that because it's this icon that's a large part of [the idea of Shangri-La].

You worked with a fabricator. Was he local?

Yeah ... The tour guide found him. A lot of tourists are coming there, so people are coming there to open up guesthouses or bars. It's kind of a hippie-ish thing to do. You can live in this beautiful little village and have a slow life. ... So he was reconstructing these ultimate homes for people. ... and she asked him if he would work with us. So he's the one who built the Snow Mountains and the oxygen chamber.

How did the mountain get on top of the car?

Well, they just lifted it onto the truck [laughs]. ... Because it's all made with mirrors, I wanted it to move through the landscape. So it was this sense of movement. When it moves through the landscape, it reflects everything around it, but in doing so, the mountain is nothing but reflections of what's surrounding it.

Sketchbook

Speaking of China's charms, Blackout Creations in St. Pete is featuring a show of Asian-inspired work by artists who bridge the divide between graphic arts, drawing, painting, graffiti and tattoo. Check it out, then head down Central Avenue to see A New Cornucopia (Una Nueva Cornucopia) at Florida Craftsmen gallery with crafts by 10 artists from Latin America or of Latin American descent. (Look for a longer feature in this space before Thanksgiving Con Sabor, a catered feast that accompanies the exhibit on Nov. 8.)

And in Ybor, Centro Espanol returns to the hands of artists once more. (One of the first Artists and Writers Balls in the late 1970s took place there, but after the floor shuddered with the weight of dancing revelers, organizers opted to hold the event at the Cuban Club in ensuing years.)

Centro Ybor's Chicago-based ownership contacted Tracy Midulla Reller, an artist and HCC-Ybor art professor, to see if the now-empty former retail space could be used as an art gallery for HCC until a new tenant is found. Opening this weekend, the first exhibit features the multi-artist Exquisite Corpse installation and artists' books from Deep Carnivale, a spoken-word festival that debuted earlier this month.

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