Thursday, 4 November 2010

the emperor’s cavalry on parade

What value do you place on an object? Do you value it according to how much you paid for it? Or do you value it for the pleasure it gives you during your ownership of it? These twin questions are the reason I’ve chosen to discuss a narrow strip of batik that Paula bought for HK$1 in Stanley Market long before it became a ‘must visit’ tourist venue and no longer became worth visiting (and long before we were married). I discovered it neatly folded away in a cardboard box, took a look and said immediately that we should get it framed. It now hangs in the front room of our house in the UK, and over the years everyone who has sat in that room has commented on it, even the Jehovah’s Witnesses that I used to invite in when I felt like some cheap amusement. They don’t come any more. I wonder if the last time they turned up on my doorstep has anything to do with it:

“Do you read the Bible?” one asked.

A very poor opening gambit. You’d think they’d know better by now.

“Yes!” I replied, pausing just long enough before continuing. “But I think that the Revelation of St John the Divine is the ravings of a deranged lunatic.”

“Well, if that’s the way you feel….”

Anyone who is constantly pestered by these door-to-door salesmen is welcome to try this tactic. It worked for me.

But back to this flimsy strip of cloth. It depicts the emperor’s cavalry on parade, or so we think the inscription reads (this is an archaic script with which neither of us is familiar). Be sure to click the picture to enlarge it if you want to see the finer details.

There’s a lot to see in this picture. First, whoever produced this little gem has been able to capture movement with what are basically very crude shapes. The swooping lines of birds create the rhythm of movement, and the second pair of riders are clearly riding hell for leather. But what about the first pair? There is an unknown menace off-picture, and the leading riders are doing their best to stop. The horse pulling the first chariot is also trying to stop, although the charioteers don’t yet seem to have apprised the danger. Behind, the horses have got wind of something untoward ahead, but their riders/drivers are oblivious to it.

And then we come to the quixotic figure who brings up the rear. His horse is unsettled, but he trots serenely along, without a care and totally unaware of the hazards ahead. I wonder if this is a metaphor for the human condition. It is certainly more than a static representation of the parade. There is also a kind of luminosity created by the orange and white in contrast with the black of the figures and the background, which focuses the viewer’s attention on the action.

And the pleasure we've had from listening to people's comments: all for one measly dollar. Well, yes, the framing cost rather more, but who’s counting? This picture is priceless.


  1. Will use the tactic and that the picture is stunning.

  2. That's very observant. I just saw horses and carts.


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