Ian Boyden > Essays > Donkey Transformation

Donkey Transformation: A Record of an Impromptu Performance

Suzhou, China, March 8, 2012

It has been raining here, a lot, day after day. And so I have been walking around holding an umbrella (over my head). It is not my style, but works to shield me from the rain, and even more to protect my eyes from all the other umbrellas. My umbrella has a little tie on it that holds the umbrella together when it is folded up. When the umbrella is unfolded this little tie dangles down off the outside edge of the canopy. This is where things get strange: as I walk, my umbrella mysteriously manages to rotate around until the tie is swinging right in front of my face and then stays there. This is really annoying. And so I turn my umbrella very deliberately so that the tie is dangling behind me and keep walking. And I tell myself to hold the handle tightly to keep the umbrella from turning. But then after a few minutes there it is again dangling in front of me, insidiously.


Here's the dangling tie. If you look closely, you will see that it reads “PARADISE.” Kind of a friendly reminder of where I am.

So this morning as I was walking along and pondering this mischievous umbrella of mine (a rumination reminiscent of Beckett's Molloy) and wondering what it might mean to be plagued by this tie reading “paradise,” and the periodicity of its rotation, it occurred to me that I could use it to great effect. I happened to be passing by a market and I stopped in and found a carrot,

which I then purchased. And because I was unable to hide my excitement about the carrot, the shopkeeper charged about ten times the normal price. But no matter, I'm used to such offenses, and, as you can see, it was a really excellent specimen. I then used the Strap of Paradise to attach the carrot to my umbrella.

The results were spectacular. First, I was surprised to find that the umbrella tie was the perfect size for holding the carrot, as if it had actually been made specifically to hold a root vegetable. Second, it transformed my walking experience. I have never before felt my walk filled with such a sense of yearning for the proximate coupled with exhilaration, purpose, and drive. Third, my umbrella stopped rotating, remaining in a fixed position with the carrot hanging in front of me, sometimes swinging to the left or right when I turned corners. And Fourth, I entered into a timeless state.


It occurred to me then that a large percentage of Chinese landscape paintings feature donkeys—donkeys hoofing through magnificent landscapes. To such an extent, in fact, that I think it could be argued that the totem animal of the traditional Chinese landscape painter is none other than the donkey. These donkeys are the embodiment of the painter's imagination. These donkeys are actually self-portraits, they are the painters wandering through their own creations. Think about it, if the painters were to paint themselves in human form then they would be roundly criticized and mocked for placing themselves in their own paintings. Truly unacceptable hubris. However, disguised as a donkey they are free to roam as they please. Here's an example by the Song dynasty painter Fan Kuan. Donkeys are in the lower right.


Look, here's a detail:



One of my close friends has pointed out that these donkeys always appear to be “well-beaten pack animals, not free spirits wandering happily through the natural world.” And he has used this logic to dismiss my argument. But I actually think his logic only bolsters my own position. I mean, if the donkey were freely cavorting about, it would call undue attention to itself. It would be vulgar, perhaps enough so to anger the Emperor, which would surely curtail (perhaps permanently vitiate) one's enjoyment of one's own landscape. Surely the great painters of old were not so naïve!

I myself have dreamed of owning a donkey and wandering through the hills around my home. Alas, I do not have a donkey, and therefore I have no choice but to follow the example of all these ancient painters and become the donkey myself. However, I have no need for ink and paper. To make such a transformation, all I need to do is attach a carrot to my umbrella. Further, it allows me to coax my own self through my own landscape. If I may be so bold, this seems like a fairly significant contribution to the tradition of Chinese landscape painting. Put that on auction.

Here is a photograph of me (as a donkey) walking over a small bridge by my studio, and beyond the bridge you can see one of the famous Suzhou canals. The redolence of carrot and canal intermingling for a moment, one of the more subtle pleasures experienced as a donkey.


And here is another photograph (I am still a donkey) with the North Temple Pagoda in the background.


It seems people on the street love my transformation (so nice not to be seen as a foreigner anymore). So, I “bray” you all to strap carrots to your umbrellas and experience this most asinine liberation.

Propelled forever forward,

Ian Boyden
Jia Yuan Studio