Tuesday, January 19, 2010

3 years.

January 14, 2007 @ 9:05 am — — / home / writing
Originally published in Art AsiaPacific 52, 2007, with Hou Hanru.

Jonathan Napack titled the essay that began his involvement with the contemporary art scene in Asia, written for the catalogue of the traveling exhibition Cities on the Move just around the time of his move to Hong Kong in 1997, “Death and Destruction in Bangkok.” In it he wrote of how “Bangkok stretches the line between life and death thinner than any modern city,” and how “this openness to death, its all-pervasiveness, marks Bangkok apart and makes it a kind of theater for the tensions of the day.”

These words have been on our minds in recent weeks, since the sudden and tragic news of Jonathan’s death in Hong Kong from a severe lung infection on January 20 curtailed the travel plans some of us were making to attend his 40th birthday party on February 13. The bash, ironically, was to be held in Bangkok, where Jonathan also made his final trip in the days surrounding New Year’s 2007.

Cities on the Move, more than any of the sweeping China surveys in Euro-American capitals or the Venice Biennales of the 1990s, brought artists from the Asian fringes into the mainstream, with full rights and privileges. In the art world, it marked the end of one modality of relating to the East as foreign and peripheral, and the onset of another, post-Orientalist moment. Jonathan, first as a pedigreed writer and critic who quite consciously left a successful Manhattan career with publications like Spy and the New York Observer to become a freelancer in Hong Kong, and later as “Advisor Asia” to Art Basel, was both a product and an agent of this same historical process. It is a process that would have happened, and will continue to happen, in his absence. And yet his interest, his contribution, his passion will stand as visionary rather than derivative, phenomenal rather than epiphenomenal. Jonathan’s work was about the making of these waves, not the riding of them.

One of Jonathan’s most beloved lines was not his, but Woody Allen’s. He believed ardently that “ninety-five percent of life is showing up,” and spent countless hours on Cathay Pacific jetliners to prove it. He reveled in calculations like how many hours one would need for a proper overnight at the best Ryokan in Niigata prefecture, or at what time one might clear customs and emerge onto the streets of Taipei if one caught the 5:00 flight from Chep Lap Kok. His conversational repertoire jumped flawlessly from Korean party politics to Viennese Modernism, from state formation on the Arabian Peninsula to the intricacies of Malaysian ethnic groups. He was a connoisseur of prosecco and huangjiu, schnitzel and sushi. He could converse with cab drivers in at least ten languages. Jonathan’s cosmopolitanism was effortless, his bright blue Samsonite carry-on always elegantly rolling a step behind him. His Chinese name, Jiangluosan, was a gloss on an entire life that he created for himself: It translates literally as “parachute.”

Jonathan’s wry spirit gelled perfectly with the exigencies of the cities and the region he came to call home. Anyone who saw him last summer surely heard his impression of the infamous Hong Kong “bus uncle,” a harried commuter whose tirade toward a fellow passenger was captured on a cell phone and circulated online. Among the last e-mails we would receive from him was a forwarded article from a Hong Kong newspaper detailing the prosecution of a scam whereby a local insurance agent enlisted three mainland Chinese nationals to voluntarily undergo surgical blinding in order to defraud an insurance company, stealing money by sacrificing their eyes. Jonathan’s subject line read simply, “saddest are the 2 losers who didn’t even get the payout.”

And yet Jonathan was more bon vivant than cynic, more expert than pundit, more internationalist than expatriate. He was a strategist and a conversationalist, a humorist and an information-monger. He was a brilliant writer whose biggest problem was that he was often too ensconced in the intrigues and pleasures and confusions of modern, globalized, urban life to sit down at the computer.

He has parachuted out of our lives at the same speed with which he would habitually leave his apartment in Central, hop on the Airport Express, and fly off to Bangkok or wherever else. But this time, he is not coming back.

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