Different Skies
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Apparatchik Angst and MaladyBilly Tang

One day, villagers in Fumin Country, South West of Yunnan Province, scratch their heads as they wake to find the nearby Laoshan Mountain painted an odious green. The workers spraying the mountain tell nearby residents they are working for local authorities but no reason is given why. Some speculate it is to do with the area’s Feng Shui - a belief that harmonising the area could bring health and financial benefits. Another report describes it as an unusual attempt by local authorities to ‘go green’ in line with a recent government call for more environmental awareness. Lastly, a rumour circulating the Internet implicates the director of an emulsion company who reportedly went missing shortly after the scandal. These three diverging stories permeate the town like a dark cloud of ominous thoughts. At night, the silhouette of the mountain stretches from one end of the town to the other side. Just a few more trees and this could be the kind of view you find on a tourist postcard. The blackness of the sky merges with the translucent air and the lights of nearby houses. Suddenly another glow emanates from the mountainside. Growing more intense, a luminous colour resembling astro-turf becomes visible in the landscape. It covers the whole of the mountain’s exposed rock and begins to radiate over the dusty houses below.

A middle-aged man is working steadily away in his office. A small, compact man with streaks of grey in his short hair, he is dressed in a simple dark charcoal suit. A lighting fixture covers the entirety of the room like a surveillance system and a stream of music drifts in from a radio speaker. Looking around, few features catch the eye, but you might have noted the unusual number of ashtrays lying on tabletops and office shelves. The absence of an archive leads to a continuous accumulation of badly bundled paper stacks – they remain as a fire-hazard, but importantly within hands reach for immediate incineration. Next to the man are a desk, two hard chairs, a desktop computer, and a tape player. With eyes firmly on the computer, the Apparatchik is in the midst of writing a report. The radio channel suddenly changes to a news announcement summarising public events of the day: a toddler is found dangling precariously off a high-rise balcony; health inspectors find traces of a mysterious chemical in yoghurt; and lastly Fumin County officials announce plans for a new tree-planting initiative. Following the announcement of the last item, a slight wrinkle appears on the man’s eyebrows and the methodical bursts from his keyboard come to a brief pause.

The Apparatchik is drunk on baijiu1 and lies sprawled over the front seat of a black sedan. The car door is ajar because his left foot is dangling outside. His attempts to fall completely unconscious are interrupted by the strange sensation of lying between cold tarmac and soft leather. Instead, his inebriated thoughts drift to a small village in the west. It is the height of Spring and you can see grass all the way to the foot of the mountain. The heavy concentration of urban sprawl has not reached the area and the quarrying is yet to begin. The Apparatchik has drunken far too much so his vision lacks depth and certain details are omitted entirely. Instead his disjointed mind can only focus on small fragments – a blade of grass, a bird, a tree, one brick or a tile, and a river that converges into another one. As he studies the brush of grass ahead, he notices a clearing slight enough for one person to walk through. The grass reaches the shoulders of the Apparatchik as he wades into the hollow. The light blue-sky looms above and the grass begins to grow closer to his head. As he trudges further, the acrid smell of dry grass reminds the Apparatchik it’s time to drink more. His mind abruptly tapers away like the end of a film reel, the objects disappear one by one, and now everything fades into black.

A woman is now sitting beside him in the driving seat of the car. Her hair is a lovely shade of red, she wears a a pleasant smile and over her shoulders blue mink. “Look here mister” she giggles, and in a playful manner asks, “would you mind tucking your leg into the car? Or would you prefer me to open the door so you can fall out?” He tumbles onto the floor and just before he can materialise another thought, his head hits the ground. He eventually awakens, but the woman wearing the blue mink is nowhere to be seen. The Apparatchik sits up to light a new cigarette and he notices the changes around him. The floor is now marble and the simple furnishings outline the contours of a museum. Outside the window there is a sunless sky and inside the air is cool and scentless from the air-conditioning. A child emerges from a side door carrying a white cup of steamed milk. The child walks briskly across the foyer and into the room opposite. Without a word, perplexed, but filled with curiosity the Apparatchik silently follows the child into the room. As he moves closer he sees a radiant white light glowing from inside. He passes the door and looks in to see the child as it pours steamed milk into a now luke-warm French press coffee. The child has a pleasant face – a round forehead, button nose, pointy ears, and wears a scruffy crewneck shirt with a small leather brown backpack hanging from the shoulders.

The child hands the Apparatchik a cup of coffee and directs his attention towards the collection of paintings hanging in the room. The child’s voice is strangely augmented as it recites from memory the events surrounding each painting, the year they were produced, and the materials used. Holding the child’s delicate hand, the Apparatchik is guided until they finally arrive at the source of the light. “This is a painting by Cezanne”, the child chimes, “He is said to be one the seminal figures operating in the transition between 19th century artistic ideals and a radically different 20th century”. The child pauses in a rehearsed manner, takes a deep inhale of breath, points to the angular mass of colors and continues:

“This what the French call Montagne Sainte-Victoire! Montagne Sainte-Victoire! The mountain was an   old limestone ridge, but here the view becomes a question of lived perspective: the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, the style!"

After the tour, the child takes the Apparatchik outside into a spacious courtyard. The Apparatchik doesn’t seem too well and he goes to a nearby bench to take a short rest. Like many well-designed spaces, a sense of timelessness envelops this new setting: small Zelkova trees align the adjacent walls; the floor and walls are covered with a lattice of grey bricks; and mercury-vapour lamps light the dark space with a strange glow. The Apparatchik looks up as a flurry of white moths fly in and around the silver light of the lamps. “I hear you are working on a project in the Laoshan Mountains”, the child says, sitting down beside him. The Apparatchik sighs with a reluctant nod of the head, scuffs the ground with his feet, and stares intently once again at the moths flying near the light. The child offers the Apparatchik a glass of water, which he accepts in one gulp. “You seem to be in a vulnerable business and in an awful hurry.” The Apparatchik raises his hands in an exaggerated gesture of mock hopelessness. Leaning forward, his mouth curves into a wide grin, replacing a glassy expression with bitterness. The child seems sympathetic to the Apparatchik’s growing discomfort and he gently pats him on the hand. As if suddenly being reminded of something, the child opens his backpack, pulls out a small bucket of shiny green paint, and hands it to the bewildered Apparatchik. With a grin on his face the child adds, “This is an order from above, so you better not ask me any questions.”

1. Baijiu (Chinese: 白酒; pinyin: báijiǔ) is a Chinese distilled alcoholic beverage. The name baijiu literally means ‘white liqueur,’ ‘white alcohol’ or ‘white spirits’. Baijiu is a clear drink usually distilled from sorghum, although sometimes other grains may be used; baijiu varieties produced in southern China are typically made from glutinous rice, while those from northern China are generally made of sorghum, wheat, barley, millet, or occasionally Job's tears.