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JOSS - an art intervention

The term joss was derived from the portuguese word for god. In the 17th century jesuit missionaries arrived in China, they called the gold and silver plated rise papers locals used 'joss papers', god papers.
The missionaries told the Chinese, that all non christian people would end up in hell after death. But the Chinese adapted it to their own culture, and understood the concept of hell merely as an afterlife hangout-place, not a place of eternal damnation or suffering. For this afterlife, they need to take everything necessary with them. This all happened before the annunciation of the world wide reign of christ. It is said: 'He became salvation and strength' The same words still proclaim the big promise and the power of global economy. Back than christians dreamed of a empire, where the sun never set, but the global economy succeeded in it first. Even the Joss paper tradition changed and adapted itself to modern times. It didn't suffice to have the most necessary things in afterlife, it was important what you had with you after death. A normal car wasn't enough, you needed the best, a Mercedes S class for example. Step by step the afterlife mutated, modeled after this world, into a second life of gorgeousness and swank.

By now you can get an iPhone app with which you can burn Joss bank notes digitally, which look a bit like 100 € notes. The burning is an act of transformation. In the moment of being burnt, the joss papers become something like the alias of things, send to the world of ghost and materializing there into the 'real things'. It is something like a voodoo cult, where you don't only give these things as gifts to dead family members, but also use them as some kind of bribery, so that the ghosts of ancestors and gods might help you with your own plans. The joss-paper tradition is not a form of religion. It is rather a superstition, that has spread through almost whole asia. In Taiwan for example companies burn joss paper every week for economic success and prosperity.

The Joss show in an ironic way the madness of global economy and consumption. Similar to Fellinis catholic fashion show in 'Roma', I present a consumption show of the global economy. The installation alludes the concept of an altar of consumption but at the same time it becomes a kind of generator, when the burning takes place. The material dreams float away as soap bubbles and hang above the peoples heads.
It would be also possible to see in it a dam, when considering the black wall which seems to be holding back the mass of paper consumption-goods and thereby creating a free space where interdisciplinary discussions can take place.
At the end the joss are burnt. The Joss consumption goods I in some ways re-imported from China, from a world of ghosts back in to our real world, the their origin, are thereby destroyed. A fun fact is that the things that don't go through customs, such forgeries, are being burnt, too. With my installation i create a awareness for that problem of a consumption doom-loop, that swallows nation after nation, and often robbing people their base of life.  

© JOSS - an art intervention by Karina Smigla-Bobinski

JOSS - an art intervention at the "Cultures of Economics"in Berlin
The dream of a better life by Hanne Weskott

There still are world religions in which western civilization is virtually unknown. But, due to global integration and electronic media, there are fewer and fewer of them. The industrial world’s attainments keep advancing and expanding with the help of global communication. Thus, especially in Asia, the dream of a better life often springs from a longing for an easier life, and is subject to the lure of western advertisements.
China is the country of the future, as far as the global market is concerned. It is from here. and from Asia in general, that we get not only the discounters’ cheap products, but also housewares, mobile phones, computers and much more, including luxury goods. The production lines are manned by workers who more often than not cannot afford the things they are producing. But the Chinese have found vents for their yearnings. First, there are the many fake brand products, which make it possible for the non-rich to wear Gucci, Armani or Ray-Ban, and second, there are the paper imitations of all kinds of goods called Joss papers.

Stately mansions, coming complete with servants, guards and deed of ownership; Mercedes cars, microwaves and motorbikes; purses, trolleys and umbrellas; baseball caps, Playstations and shoes; watches, school supply and camcorders; even dogs, guitars, pork shanks and laptops showing Alpine sceneries on their screens, all this can be bought in the form of three-dimensional paper models via an online catalogue. Browsing through its pages, one feels lost in a glorious world of toys. But Joss papers are not meant to be played with. They are meant to be incinerated. They are gifts for the deceased, burnt up at the end of a long funeral ceremony. In the fire, the objects take on a different state and thus become compatible for the afterlife. Only in this way they can be of use to the deceased in the hereafter. There are Joss Paper available in every size and expense, carefully prearranged in little boxes or listed up in internet catalogues for personal choice arrangements. We might regard this little dreamworld as some kind of compensation for what was not achieved in this life. But by ordering an joss paper Rolls Royce you have to pay much real money and that on top of the ceremonial expenses and the other joss paper. And you need much joss! After the ceremony the papers are pilled up into a tower that symbolizes the wealth this person had in life, as well as his afterlife property. So Children have to ensure their parents welfare in afterlife and make sure it reaches them, that is why the signing of deed ownerships for joss paper mansions have to be included in the ceremony before the burning. They believe, that the flames change the state of the joss papers and make it afterlife compatible. This is the only way it can reach the deceased in the next world.

Originally, it was Chinese tradition to burn gold or silver paper at funerals, in order to appease the spirits; and this is still done in temples, before an important event or on New Year’s day. But when Christian missionaries came to the country and told the Chinese about Heaven and Hell – notions, that had not before had any place in their thought – the pieces of gold and silver paper became actual bank notes, called “Hell or Heaven Bank Notes”. The word “Joss paper” itself stems from the Chineses’ encounter with Christianity. According to Webster’s, it is a pidgin word, based on the Latin and Portuguese „deus“, a malapropism that has been further grinded down and changed through bad pronounciation. Thus, the fact that the Joss papers almost exclusively represent western goods actually befits the word’s European heritage. Buddhist monks, by the way, dismiss them as mere superstition.

Karina Smigla-Bobinski sees in this world of paper a strong metaphor for the western-oriented consume-wish in China. The dream of western standards might sound like a promise for a better life, but this is not always true. The EXPO in Shanghai this year opened according to the motto: "Better City, Better life". Everybody might agree with it more or less, but there are some dark sides: For this City-projects many Chinese had to leave their houses and homes and had to move to apartmentmaschines inspired by western standards. They might have running water now, but it is doubtful that their lives are going to be better. Improvement in China means becoming western. And this is being fulfilled despite of great sacrifices.
For Smigla-Bobinski, her staging of the Joss Papers is a means to express the cycle of cultural exchange. For ‘Joss’, she reimported the paper models of western products from China in order to burn them in a pagan and symbolic ritual, in parallel to Chinese tradition.

In the first act of her staging (on May 7), she will present the world of Joss papers behind a black screen on the stage, in front of which the discussion’s participants will sit. Through a slit in the screen, the Joss papers’ glittering world will be visible. Whoever wants to have a closer look at it will have to go behind the screen, which will be both possible and desired. At the same time, in the lounge where snacks and drinks will be offered during the breaks, three differently sized, transparent balloons will be installed. These enormous balloons will contain individual Joss papers. They are toys, but also an allusion to the great vulnerability of global economy; or, to put it more drastically, they symbolize the soap bubble character of global finance, which became very evident in 2009. In the course of the second act (on June 4) the Joss papers will be commited to the flames outside the building. No gold or silver paper will be burned, however, as those traditional Chinese means of conjuration are off-limits for Smigla-Bobinski. The reimport of western consumer goods is all that this is going to be about. The fire is meant to effect a sort of catharsis, of cleansing. In a third act (on June 25), the balloons containing the other Joss papers will be put in the Spree river. They will float towards an uncertain future, but they will go out into the world like the utopias, which will hopefully have been devised in the course of the events.

Joss production by Cheung Kei Worship Supplies

Forty-four-year-old Fan Chun Sing of Cheung Kei Worship Supplies has been making paper-models for the last 18 years. Originally working in transportation, Fan lost his job at 26 and was introduced to the business by a monk friend. He has been in it ever since, and is honest enough to say – repeatedly – that he is bored. “Every day I come back and face these things,” he sniffs and points at paper-models of swans, wheelchairs and rocking chairs hanging in the crammed and stuffy shop on Winslow Street, Hung Hom. “But I am 44 already. If you are a boss, would you employ a 40-something or a 20-something?”

The veteran says model making doesn’t require a lot of artistic skill, though he admits sometimes a client’s request “is a test to see if you have the qualifications to compete the task. If a client gives me the picture of a Harley [Davidson] motorcycle, I will have to figure it out.” A special request will usually take four days to realise, Fan says, and it will look about 80% like the real thing, whereas the standard two-storey house with backyard would only take 40 minutes when he was young and fit. Fan says he had to learn four things when he first started: gluing paste, cutting paper, remembering the size and cutting the rattan into equal lengths. “It is easy because a lot of things are standardized, especially when the lines are straight,” he explains, pointing at the base and beams of the paper house. Then he indicates the wheel of a paper car. “But when there is a curve, it is much more difficult and you have to put in more effort to learn it.” He also has to keep up to date with the many new products (i-Pods, LV bags and various models of cell phone) that have come on the market, often bought from China and Thailand. A paper house may cost a walk-in customer $1000-$2000, though the price can be reduced by half for a funeral home that is a regular customer.
Isn’t paper-model making one of the cruelest jobs imaginable? After all, all your hard work ends up burnt – isn’t that a bit frustrating? “Nah, I got used to it already. In the past I used to look at my fingers all covered by plaster in winter, but now I don’t care anymore,” Fan says. His proudest moment came in 2002, when his company made the ‘HK1’ Rolls Royce for Cantopop legend Roman Tam’s funeral. “I did the delivery and was stopped so pictures could be taken for the newspaper.” Asked if he thinks working in the funeral business could bring him bad luck, he is quick to respond. “I am only afraid if there is no money in my wallet,” he says.

Technical Specifications

description > art intervention
components > Joss papers, wood construction
dimensions > variable, most: 10 m long x 1,5 m wide x 2,5 m high
premiere > 2010

a production of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and Kulturstiftung des Bundes

. . . .

supported by CS Wing Fook in Hong Kong


> "Cultures of Economics" - LMU München
> "Cultures of Economics" - German Federal Cultural Foundation
> Video about iPhon Joss App