AbstractAs a souvenir, the Notepaper Brick from The Palace Museum evokes cultural nostalgia as well as the aura of the pre-COVID time for me. Its cultural meaning is more important than its utility.
Nostalgia: Pre-COVID and Culture
The year 2020 was unforgettable, and it was tremendous suffering for me. On Chinese New year eve, my families and I were informed that the next day, which was the first day of the Chinese new year, the whole city would be in lockdowns. From then on, no cars allowed in the street, and no visiting friends allowed, and no stores were open at all. Everyone stayed home and waited for the future. During the lockdown in China, I heard stories about how others suffered from losing families and how some people were stuck on the way home. I sincerely missed the pre-COVID period. I tried to restore my memories of the past from the souvenirs.
The Notepaper brick was placed on the bookshelf where everything was untouched for a long time. I took it out and put it on my desk where I usually used my laptop every day, just to make it more obvious to me. So that I can recall the time when I had an unforgettable journey to the Palace Museum with my boyfriend. I visited a splendid artwork called A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains. And I bought the notepaper brick which depicted with this reproduction of this artwork.
At the end of August, when the pandemic was not a threat to people in China to a large extent. I took the Notepaper brick with me, and flew to the Netherlands, and found myself stuck in another lockdown and I started my Master’s program by mean of online courses. In the online master program, I felt comfortable hiding behind the digital screens when listening to others sharing their ideas and thoughts, without the feeling of being observed or watched. At the same time, I could take notes with the notepaper brick. However, within the online courses, I felt not much emotionally connected to the western world and culture as expected, and immersed myself in the nostalgia of Chinese culture. And the notepaper brick was the trigger.
The Notepaper Brick with Cultural Meaning
The notepaper brick is made of writing papers depicted with a traditional Chinese painting called A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains, primarily used in writing notes or personal correspondence. Each page is about 6.5 × 6.5 centimetres in size, but the whole notepaper brick is about 16 centimetres high, which makes the object looks like a standing tower. The body of the object is covered with a classic traditional Chinese landscape painting.
From a cultural perspective, landscape painting was highly regarded in Chinese painting. Landscape painting evolved under the influence of Taoist who fled from civil turbulence and prosecution of the government and went back to the wilderness. In the long history of Chinese society, the appreciation of natural beauty reflects the longing for being away from the crowd for many artists and poets. This kind of spirit within the Chinese traditional culture is what I have longed for since I was a little girl, and is also what makes me feel a sense of belonging in a foreign land.
In this painting, the mountains are in blue and green, representing the vitality of the forests. While the background is covered by dark yellow, which is a faded colour of the original artwork paper. This faded colour represents the original painting’s historical value, so this colour is prevalent in many replicated Chinese artworks. Moreover, This painting is a classical Chinese painting with a spectacular painting technique that portrays the living environment in southern China about 1,000 years ago.
As a notepaper brick, this object is mainly made of paper and odourless glue. I can smell the fragrance of the paper when being close to it. The edge of paper brick often deforms due to its height and weight, and each edge cannot be restrained and maintained in a stable square cube. So it’s usually tilted, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Apart from these material and sensorial properties, this notepaper brick can also be used as a paper building blocks due to its flexibility.
This object often reminded me of the previous days and Chinese culture when I am interacting with it. It reminded me of the time of visiting the Palace Museum, where I can appreciate the actual painting depicted on this object, and the time of pre-COVID when I was able to go everywhere without travel restrictions. In general, this object was associated with the travel experience, and also linked to a generalized image of a culture (Hitchcock, 2019).
Souvenirs: Memories and Authenticity
Historically, souvenirs have long played an important role in travel. Early records indicate that even thousands of years ago ancient Egyptians, Romans and other explorer-travellers brought mementos home from their journeys abroad (Swanson & Timothy, 2012, p.489). Souvenirs are long connected to the trading and selling actions of human being, along with the action of exploring the unknown. In modern society, souvenirs are tangible magical, sentimental, and cherished objects of a memorable experience, or an “intangible reminder or golden memory” (McKercher & du Cros, 2002, p. 230).
Additionally, souvenirs have a value of being collected, Peters (2011) thinks that souvenirs can trigger an imaginary return to memorable times and places, and are often strategically placed in the home where they can best be seen by family members and visitors.
There are many discussions related to the authenticity of souvenirs based on the argument of Benjamin (1936), who uses authenticity to describe the original work of art as opposed to a reproduction, saying that authenticity cannot be reproduced, and disappears when everything is reproduced. Furthermore, Benjamin uses aura to understand the authenticity of the artwork where he defines aura as what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art (p.104).
However, for tourism study, authenticity is described as an authentic experience within the travel (McMacCannell, 1973). Therefore, some argue that the importance of authenticity lies in the personal relationship the tourist expresses through the souvenir, not in the genuineness of the object (Torabian & Arai, 2016, p. 698). In a sense, souvenirs are granted another form of authenticity which is the valuable memories and relationship between the owners with the changing of space and time. By directly interacting with the local culture and environment, souvenirs can gain their own authenticity in a way that is irreplaceable in another environment and culture. There are findings suggest that authentic souvenirs need to integrate culture and history to represent the place identity of the destination, to be handmade and produced within the local area, to have a unique, attractive presentation, and to require local-specific skills of local artisans or recognisable person for craftsmanship (Soukhathammavong & Park, 2019, p.489).
For me, the changing of time and space grants this notepaper brick a different aura, which is a connection with Chinese culture and the memorable experience of visiting the Palace Museum that’s irreplaceable by other objects during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this sense, the object which carries a cultural and memorable value can obtain uses and meanings beyond those that were originally intended by their creators (Dannehl, 2018, p.174). Through engaging with these objects that carry extra authentic meanings, one should feel free to express their feelings of nostalgia and to seek mental peace by looking back to the past while identifying self, then move forward to a greater future.
In this blogpost, I introduce Notepaper Brick as the object selected for the COVID-19 3D collection project, explain the special meaning it carries for me during the pandemic. I also integrate the wider societal, cultural and historical value of this object from various perspectives such as Chinese painting as well as souvenirs based on the understanding of authenticity. The aim of this blogpost is to contextualise the reasons for choosing this object as part of the collection and to discuss how souvenirs carry new authenticity for me during the pandemic.
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