Interview with Paul Read, the Gazpachomonk. #WABAS12

Paul Read - writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

Paul Read – writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

As a blogger and tweeter, I follow and read many other expats here in Spain. One who has intrigued me for some time is the Gazpachomonk. Apart from the obvious appeal of the name, I was delighted on meeting Paul at the recent WABAS weekend in Malaga recently to find that he is different from other expats – he has fresh and fascinating views on living here in Spain, coloured by his experience of Tai Chi, his love of history, and his wonderfully dry humour. I enjoyed Paul’s book, Inside the Tortilla: A Journey In Search of Authenticity, and am avidly watching his series of videos on Spain in the WABAS12 series (12 bloggers-on-Spain each posting a video every day for 12 consecutive days), so I decided to ask him some probing questions about authenticity, gastronomy, and eyewear.

Why are you called the Gazpachomonk?

In a parallel universe I am known as the “teapotmonk” (where I write about Eastern philosophy, teach Tai Chi and spout Taoist nonsense). When I moved to Spain, I wanted to keep something of this identity, but as I was now working in an Iberian context, I exchanged the tea for gazpacho. Critics argue that I still spout the same nonsense, it just has more of a garlic flavour these days.

How long have you lived here in Spain?

In 1994 I spent a year in Seville as part of a degree course I was taking. I returned to Spain in 1996 with my partner, Cherry, and we have been living here since then.

the town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

The town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

A previous chapter in Paul's life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

A previous chapter in Paul’s life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

Where have you lived, and which place(s) have you liked most, and why?

Ohhh, big question. The year in Seville was exciting and it still remains one of my favourite cities in the world. In 1996 we moved to Tarragona, but just for four months. Loved the place and the people, but couldn’t get work, so shifted to Madrid. However, found that too hectic, noisy, expensive and it reminded us too much of London. So we moved to Toledo – atmospheric and medieval and a really convenient place to buy a suit of armour and marzipan. However, it wasn’t too long before we realised it wasn’t so good for getting a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.

After two years without bread and many adventures later, we fled to Castille and Leon. But it was too quiet and too cold, so we headed south and in 1998 found ourselves in the coastal resort of Almuñecar in Granada. We stayed there working the markets for seven years until we couldn’t stand the ebb and flow of so many people – it was a bit like living in a big bus station, just more watery, and so we fled the coast and found ourselves here in Loja, where we’ve been since 2006.

What still frustrates you most about living in Spain?

When I hear people complain about either Spanish bureaucracy, corruption or oily tapas, I tend to want to poke them in the kidneys – not because of what they are saying, but because I find such posturing ultimately disempowering.

If frustrating things happen – and obviously they do to everyone – I’m convinced it’s as much to do with ourselves as our chosen country. Clashes of culture, language, social differences will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. How we respond is the only tool we have – and it comes down to this: how do we wish to play out our life here? Is it going to be an obstacle forever, or will it be a challenge?

What do you think of the expat scene?

Let’s be honest, we are all expats, and we all operate in some circle or another. Some do so on the coast, others in the campo or inland. Some are bound together by their inability to speak or contextualise the affairs of the country, others by their – often misguided – belief that they can actually do so.

Yet we all need to touch base now and then with our past, with people who share our history, our cultural or social reference points, wherever we find ourselves. In a way, I can understand the expat communities of the coastal strip who honestly make no claim about learning the language or integrating into another lifestyle. I may not be in agreement with their aims, but I respect their honesty. On the other hand, a lot of other expats – particularly those who boast of their ability to conjugate an irregular verb or publicly rejoice in shunning the rest of the foreigners in town – are simply hypocritical. It’s pure class politics raising its ugly head once more.

Paul's book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from flamenco to

Paul’s book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from siestas to Semana Santa.

Which Spanish dish do you make best? (apart from gazpacho!)

“Sopa de ajo” is my winter favourite right now. Whatever is in season is the base of all my favourite recipes – and of course that changes with the time of year – Ive a section on my website with all my best recipes – if you want to check that out.

Where did you get idea for your series of #WABAS12 videos?

I’d been doing podcasts for the last couple of years and had based them on the concept of trying to understand the foolishness of our present lifestyle choices by looking for explanations in the past. History is not about answering the questions of when or where, but rather why and how? These questions bring history alive, particularly when you can relate universal themes to somewhere as specific as the town you live in. So when the WABAS12 project was born, I decided to try and apply these ideas to the medium of video, and try my best to portray one small town in the most universal of ways. I wanted to show that you don’t need to be living in a major city to see the history of the world in front of your eyes.

Why do you always wear shades in your videos?

There are two possible answers:

1) Robin, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man – they all hide behind something when publicly fighting injustice, right? Well the Gazpachomonk wears shades.

2) “Uveitis Anterior” is an eye condition that dilates the pupils of the sufferer and makes sunlight almost unbearable.

Why don’t you mention your partner in your book, Inside the Tortilla?

It’s true that my partner, Cherry, was by my side during many of the episodes in the book, and her presence is there if you look for it. But I chose not to include her directly because the emphasis of the book is themes and not characters – hence we never get to know a lot about the narrator, and the Hound has no name. Even the identity of the town is never mentioned, other than by its fictional name of “La Llave.” In this way I hoped the book would not fall into the pit of two bumbling expats “Year in Andalusia, Driving over Figs” home-improvement yarn so prevalent since the last wave of North European immigrants discovered blogging.

Do you have any future book or video ideas/plans? You mention a sequel at the end of Inside the Tortilla: The Labyrinth Years.

The Labyrinth book was co-written by Cherry and I during our Toledo years and sits as an unfinished manuscript at home. Whilst we ponder over its future I’m working on a new book for 2014 called Voices, in which a series of historical characters describe what keeps them sane in an insane world: themes of love, passion, migration, gazpacho, corruption, churros. Meanwhile, I’m still working on my Tai Chi series of books with the teapotmonk – and a selection of videos and podcasts that accompany them (http://teapotmonk.com/).

How and where do you find authenticity?

Authenticity is an endangered species these days. Like people, towns have their authentic voices – at times loud and clear, other times silenced in the rush to embrace the latest expression of modernity ( eco-tourism and Facebook pages come to mind). My search for authenticity arose because I felt myself drowning in this sea of nonsense.

When any place or person engages in the exploitation of people or the land, and tags it as something new and trendy, they suppress its unique voice, its character, and we all lose out. I hope the greed we have seen exposed politically these last few years encourages us to look once more at the uniqueness of where we live and who we are, and not to fall back on the old cycle of unfettered growth in a world with finite means. Have I personally found it? Let’s just say it’s an ongoing project.

What advice would you offer for those thinking of moving to Spain?

If I had to give two piece of advice I’d say…

1. I know this is difficult, but try not to move to Spain without renting for a full year first. Yes, it means paying out cash, but it will give you so many advantages over buying. You can move around and check out the area, the town, the people, the dialect, the weather, the noise, the heat, the health services, the working possibilities etc without committing yourself to a huge investment that would be difficult to change later on.

2. Language – forget the imperfect subjunctive, just get familiar with the basics and let your new world teach you the rest. This of course means that if your new world is composed of satellite TV, internet news and watching rugby in the local Sports Bar, then you may have to make a bit more effort. Think of language as a useful app on your smart phone. It’s a tool that’ll help to contextualise this strange new world, explain it to you and help you explain yourself to others. Moving to Spain without the language is, as I’m often prone to say, akin to taking up golf and then pulling your arms of their sockets just before your first round.

You can find out more about Paul’s Spain-related books, ebooks, podcasts and videos at his website, Speaking of Spain: Resources on Living, Working and Sweating in Spain. (Paul has a great line in subtitles, as you can see.)
Watch his WABAS12 videos on his YouTube channel.
Other links: Paul’s books and his blog about Tai Chi.

Ai WeiWei in Seville: Resistance and Tradition in a 14th-century monastery

Ai Weiwei, CAAC, Sevilla, China, Chinese

The Chinese artist-activist has a strong Social Media presence, despite his government’s attempts to silence him. WeiWei won’t be at his exhibition; he’s not allowed to travel outside China.

Seville is a city which basks in its past glories. Mudejar architectural gems, endless churches built with the riches from the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries, religious paintings and portraits by the likes of Murillo, Zurbaran, Valdes Leal…  classical art from yesteryear is far more highly prized than today’s – in my opinion.

After living for ten years before I came here in London, home to some of the world’s greatest museums and galleries (I’m not being biased, it’s true), I’ve missed the opportunity to see world-class contemporary art here in Seville. Not that I was at Tate Modern every weekend while I lived in the city; you never appreciate what’s on your doorstep. (Excuses, excuses – too tired, the schlep, the tube, the cost, the weather…)

La Cartuija, CAAC, Ai Weiwei, monastery, Seville, Sevilla, Carthusian, Columbus

The Cartuja monastery in Seville, where the Ai WeiWei exhibition is being held. It used to be a ceramic factory, which segues perfectly with WeiWei’s passion for porcelain.

So it was with considerable excitement that I read about Ai WeiWei’s exhibition at the CAAC, the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, which happens to be 10 minutes from my house. This is WeiWei’s first ever museum exhibition in Spain, so it’s quite a coup for provincial Seville, winning out over cosmopolitan Madrid.

The CAAC is housed in a 14th-century Carthusian monastery, restored as headquarters for the 92 Expo. Its changing fortunes have seen the complex of buildings play host to Christopher Columbus as he planned his voyages; later, to the explorer’s remains; to Napoleon’s troops; and then to a ceramic factory founded by an Englishman called Charles Pickman.

Although the CAAC holds several exhibitions every year (the site is large enough to fit in three or four at once), I have to confess to acute laziness about visiting art shows unless I’ve already heard of the artist (I like to think my knowledge is about the same as any 40-something ex-Londoner media bod’s – reasonable).

Ai WeiWei, however, is in another league from the names normally appearing at this Andalucian contemporary art centre. He is hugely famous throughout the world, thanks to his insistence on standing up to the repressive Chinese government. A physically imposing man, broad and bearded, WeiWei has been imprisoned, placed under house arrest, beaten by police, accused of tax evasion, banned from the internet, and his studio has been demolished. His means of protest are digital, as well as tangible – he used to be a prolific blogger, and still uses Twitter (85,000+ tweets, in Chinese, nearly 200,000 followers).

After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which saw thousands of children die in collapsed school buildings constructed from sub-standard materials, WeiWei compiled a list of the dead students, with their names and ages – the government had refused to put a number on the total killed in the disaster – and was photographed standing in front of it. The artist brandishes the hidden, shameful truth in their face, taunting them. Another of his works is a video featuring people saying in various languages, “Fuck the Motherland”. Weiwei is a sharp and insistent thorn in the authorities’ side – more a ceremonial dagger, in fact. He loves to poke his captors (he’s not allowed out of China), tormenting them, jabbing them. Supremely provocative.

WeiWei’s defiance and stubbornness come across in much of his work, as does his respect for Chinese artisan techniques, and his ardent desire that they should not be lost. He wants to emphasise their social importance and aesthetic beauty compared to the mass-production of cheap plastic goods which flood out of China. The artist has his own kiln for creating ceramic pieces. But he’s also intrigued by the relationship between real and fake – how do we know which is which? Does it matter? Should art be about commercial value?

All these strands come together in this exhibition, from his love of porcelain, to his refusal to be gagged by the Chinese authorities.

sunflower seeds, Ai WeiWei, Chinese, China, porcelain, Tate Modern

The famous Sunflower Seeds – each one of the 3,300,000-odd is handpainted.

Most famous are the Sunflower Seeds, housed in the chapel just inside the church. These are raked into a perfect rectangle, protected behind a glass screen, with a line on the ground which you can’t cross to get a closer look. Result? You can’t see them – as each seed is hand-painted (saying each Chinese person is an individual, not part of a vast collective), all three million-odd of them, this is a shame. There’s a video made by Tate Modern – where they were first installed in the Turbine Hall (100 million) and could be walked, sat and lain on – showing how they’re made by thousands of people in a town in eastern China, each striped painted by hand. But not being able to look at them close-up, even a small sample in a glass box on the wall, is a shame. So here’s a sneak peek.

Ai WeiWei, sunflower seeds, contemporary art, CAAC, La Cartuja, Sevilla

A close-up of those tiny works of art – it took 1,600 people two and half years to paint them.

Descending Light, Ai WeiWei, China, Chinese, CAAC, La Cartuja, Sevilla

Descending Light looks like a Chinese dragon; its distorted shape reflects the grotesqueness of the Communist regime.

Although these “seeds” are the most famous part of the show, the most captivating, for me, was Descending Light. This is huge coiled lamp, like a collapsed snail, made from red glass beads strung onto a metal frame, with light bulbs inside. It took 12 people two weeks to assemble it, and how grateful we should be, as it is a stunning piece, perfectly positioned in the high-walled chapel with its soaring ceiling, and a shiny marble floor to reflect the lines of red light.

Ai WeiWei

Photos from the artist’s blog, before it was shut down by the Chinese government in 2009.

Continuing past this, on the left in the Sacristy, is a room with 12 screens, showing over 7,000 photos from WeiWei’s blog posts. These may seem random, but they give a good overview of WeiWei’s day-to-day life and interests – food, architecture, design, his own body (belly shots), his art, and his friends, fans and family. My favourite was a group of naked men, including the artist, jumping in the air, grinning like idiots, each with a Chinese zodiac animal’s head on the floor in front of him. The collection of animals, Zodiac Heads, is currently on a world tour.

Ai WeiWei, La Cartuja, CAAC, Sevilla

These vases (pre-paint) may or may not be 7,000 years old – you decide.

Two other works really stood out, for me. The first is the Colored Vases, which may or may not be neolithic, as they’re described – appropriately, they are displayed in the oldest part of the monastery, the Capilla de Magdalena. The old/new jars are dipped in industrial paint, each in different colours. Has he taken priceless antiquities and desecrated them? Or has he put his own mark on a piece of pottery, whatever its age, thereby creating another type of value? It’s an interesting conundrum, and makes the viewer think.

Ai Weiwei, Ghost Gu Coming Down the Mountain

The porcelain jars are painted so that they look different from every angle. Now you see Ghost Gu Coming Down The Mountain…

The last piece I’ll mention (there are further, less striking ceramic works, and videos – plenty more to enjoy than I can fit in here) is the room of painted jars, laid out nearly in rows; a collaboration with Romanian artist Serge Spitzer. The design is based on the popular story of a legendary warrior, Gu, who was sent on a mission to rescue another fighter.

It’s not until you walk all the way around them (“I tell people to read the panel, otherwise they just look and then walk out again,” said the lady guard, frustrated, although even the text doesn’t explain the trick clearly) that you see the artists’ ruse. The jars are painted with a progressively wider vertical band of design as you walk along the rows, so that from one corner they seem entirely painted, while from another they are perfectly, plainly white, and between there are degrees.

Ai WeiWei, Ghost Gu Coming Down the Mountain

…now you don’t.

Chinese artesan production is also disappearing, little by little, he seems to be telling us, bringing the impending loss of centuries of tradition to our attention. It’s very clever, and I’d love to take my kids to see these jars, although I’d be terrified they’d break one. We can’t look at the seeds close-up, but we can risk kicking a china vase. Hmm.

WeiWei is a dissident for the digital age, who hasn’t lost sight of his country’s history – he’s looking back as well as forwards. If you’re as intrigued as I was by this extraordinarily brave, headstrong man, then don’t miss the award-winning 2012 documentary about him, Never Sorry, now showing at Seville’s only VO cinema, but also available on DVD. His personal life is unconventional, and the footage (only audio, but still shocking) of him being attacked in his hotel room in the middle of the night by police, is undeniably powerful. Go see.

Ai WeiWei: Resistance and Tradition is at the CAAC, La Cartuja, Sevilla, until 23 June. It is open Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 9pm, Sunday 11am-3pm (closed Monday), and costs 1.80 euro. Entry is free Tuesday to Friday 7pm-9pm, and all day Saturday.