The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

北京日记 Beijing Diary: 一 日 千 秋 One Day a Thousand Autumns

I've left Beijing and I'm already missing it. Like many, both Chinese and non-Chinese, I have a love/hate relationship with that big bad city - I am already breathing a little more easily after 24 hours, but the "Beijing cough" is still with me. Each time, I leave with a sense of regret for all the exhibitions that I didn't have time to see, the places I didn't have time to explore, and the fluency in speaking Chinese that I failed to achieve. The month-long immersion certainly helped, although my language skills are still woeful. I am in Hong Kong now, and still stopping myself in taxis, shops and restaurants from speaking Putonghua, which does not generally go down well here, where tensions between Hong Kong citizens and mainlanders are high. I feel as if my brain is divided in two - one section is thinking in Chinese (slow, clumsy, yet definitely improving) and the other half is English. And there are just so many words and phrases where the Chinese seems more on-the-money, so a creole mixture is often spoken by expats. To feel a bit unwell is to be "bu shufu" - much more descriptive! Something annoying or troublesome is "mafan", and to do anything immediately (unlikely in China) is "mashang", literally meaning, "on horseback". Something so-so is "ma ma hu hu" (horse, horse, tiger, tiger) although I suspect this is a phrase more said by foreigners than by Chinese. And then there are all the fabulous 4 character idioms, or Chengyu, that in translation can be poetic (三人成虎, Three Men Make A Tiger, or if something nonsensical is repeated enough it is accepted as truth) or rather earthy. Something completely pointless or a waste of time is "like taking your trousers off to fart." New slang, too, usually spread via the internet, is often very revealing: a desirable woman is a "bai fu mei" (white rich pretty.) The insistence on whiteness is evident in the number of skin whitening creams sold in pharmacies, the use of umbrellas to shade your face from the sun, and in the universal contempt shown to the "nongmin" or country-side people (the peasants in the old socialist etymology). At an artist's studio in the mountains outside Chengdu his female assistants from the local village crowded around me exclaiming over the whiteness of my skin (and no doubt my white hair too!) And riches - to reverse the famous Jane Austen line, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in search of a wife must be possessed of a good fortune. And all the better if her family is rich too.

Beijing Walls - a palimpsest of erased phone numbers, October 2015, Photo LG
Beijing Hutong Doorway, October 2015, Photo LG
On the plane from Beijing to Hong Kong, I began reading The Porcelain Thief, the tale of an American Chinese journalist's search for the treasure trove of porcelain buried by his great grandfather before the family fled the advancing Japanese army, eventually ending up in Taiwan, then the United States. A bemused first-time traveller to Shanghai, he encounters the anarchy of the roads with a description that made me laugh in recognition. Each time I come to China (and in the last 2 years I have spent 5 months in the neighbourhoods of Tuanjiehu and Dongzhimen) by the second week I have forgotten all about the existence of seatbelts and have stopped flinching when taxis change lanes suddenly, forcing their way into non-existent gaps in fast moving streams of traffic. When I return to Sydney I have to remind myself to wait for the lights to change, to indicate when I change lanes, and not to just walk out into the traffic and expect that it will flow around me if I hold up one hand.

Here is Huan Hsu's description, so accurate that it's worth quoting the full paragraph: "Though the taxi fleets boasted high-tech touch screens built into their headrests with a recorded message reminding passengers (in English) to wear their seat belts, none of the taxis had seat belts in their back seats...City buses swerved into oncoming traffic and cut across two lanes to make their stops. Drivers used their horns so liberally that expats joked about it being the Chinese brake pedal. Drivers could, and did, disobey every explicit and implicit traffic rule on the books. Police, fire and medical vehicles enjoyed no special dispensation on the roads; nor did police seem interested in pursuing reckless drivers. It was common to see cars stopped in the middle of a freeway, crossing elevated medians, or driving long distances in reverse after they'd missed an exit, and in each case the rest of the cars simply purled around the offender like a stream around a boulder. The streets follow a design that can only have been created by someone who didn't drive. (The use of headlights was actually prohibited in China until the mid 1980s, when officials began going overseas and realised it was the norm.)" And now in Beijing, where the Lamborghini showroom on Xindong Lu also has a private plane in the window, the "Fu Er Dai" (second generation rich) drive expensive cars with utterly reckless abandon, often whilst talking on their cell phones, with an attitude of contempt for every other vehicle and pedestrian on the road.
Near Gulou Daijie, Beijing, October 2015, Photo LG
Old Hong Kong is still there! Causeway Bay, October 2015, Photo LG
I already miss Beijing but love Hong Kong too. English writer Fuchsia Dunlop memorably described is as like a "decompression chamber" for those returning to the west from China. Despite the increasing glitziness of the island - how many Gucci and Prada shops can one city possibly accommodate, and does anyone actually buy all this expensive crap? - I am always charmed. I love the rattly trams and the Star Ferry, the chaotic tumbledown streets around Yau Ma Tei and Jordan, and the flocks of schoolgirls in white dresses with coloured belts who fill the streets and MTR stations in the late afternoons. I like the "sitting out places" - tiny oases of calm in a frenetic city - where men sleep on benches with their shoes neatly arranged on newspaper beside them. I like the unexpected Buddhist shrines next to shops, under stairways and under the overpass on Canal Road. Today in the Nam June Paik exhibition in the hushed and tony surrounds of Gagosian Galleries, a cleaning lady bowed with folded hands in front of one his TV Buddha installations.

Each time I arrive from the mainland and see people actually waiting for traffic lights to turn green before they cross the road, I experience a slight shock. Entering a subway car is no longer a life-threatening push-and-shove survival of the fittest, people stand to one side on escalators and actually line up in shops and banks, and nobody is coughing up phlegm and spitting it onto the footpath directly beside you. It's a relief, and yet....

It's the sense of unpredictability in China, the sense that everyone is making it all up as they go along (and in the case of many drivers, that is exactly what they are doing) that is also the source of dynamic entrepreneurialism, creative energy and optimism. People reinvent themselves continually - from the rural teenagers travelling to the factory towns for work to the artists trained in one medium who decide to do something completely different and unexpected working in another. It's that sense that anything is possible, that anything can happen - and probably will - that makes me love China despite all the very real difficulties and the increasingly worrying crackdown on human rights lawyers, activists, journalists and NGOs. The artists' villages - Caochangdi, Heiqiao, Hege, Songzhuang, Feijiacun and Beigao, not to mention others so new that I haven't yet discovered them - are seething whirlpools of creation. Not everything is fabulous, of course, how could it be? But in a converted barn-like space in Songzhuang I found Li Hongbo working on his miraculous expanding paper sculptures for his New York show; in Heiqiao Liu Zhuoquan spoke of his plans to create an installation of more than 6,000 of his "inside bottle" paintings; and I met Wang Lei in a 798 cafe on my way to the airport for my flight to Chengdu. We spoke of his use of Chinese and English dictionaries sliced, shredded and spun to become a textile-like material that can be "knitted" into imperial robes. I told him he reminded me of the dark fairytale where a girl is kidnapped and forced to spin straw into gold - a metaphor for the alchemy performed by each of these artists.
Liu Zhuoquan in his studio, Beijing October 2015 Photo LG
In Hangzhou Jin Shi talked about his wonderfully witty yet poignant sculptures, creating the tiny spaces and makeshift worlds of the rural migrant workers who are building this "new China". In Shanghai Yang Yongliang explained his technique of working with thousands of photographs of the cityscapes of Chongqing and Shanghai in order to create his magically animated versions of  "shan shui" ink paintings. In Chengdu I spoke with Shi Jindian in his house up in the mountains about his intricate, painstaking reproductions in wire of mechanical and natural forms. In her converted Yuan Dynasty temple studio and living space in Beijing, Bingyi had just returned from an early morning photoshoot - she is working on a project that will combine film, drama, poetry, music, still photography and ink painting as a record of the lives and experiences of those living in the last, endangered traditional "hutongs" or courtyard houses of old Beijing. These are just 7 of the more than 20 artists I interviewed in the last month. Each represents an aspect of the vitality of contemporary Chinese art, and the ways in which many Chinese artists are adapting traditional forms to create a contemporary language. These are global artists - their work, and in many cases the artists themselves, regularly criss-cross the globe, participating in group and solo shows and Biennales in Venice, Paris, New York, London and Moscow. Yet their work remains distinctly Chinese.

The first time I went to China I realised I was witnessing something extraordinary and historically significant, and that feeling has only grown stronger in subsequent years. In the last five years I have seen dramatic change, and understood just a glimpse of the disorientation felt by Chinese people, especially those of an older generation. One artist, explaining his refusal to answer any questions about his youth, said, "I have experienced all of recent Chinese history, and it is all terrible." The pace of change is relentless, a source of both distress and excitement: the Chinese paradox. There is of course a chengyu for every occasion. "One Day A Thousand Autumns" (Yi Ri Qian Qiu) meaning that change comes so swiftly that it seems a thousand years passes in one day, fits the bill here: 
一   秋.

Bingyi with ink painting in her Beijing studio, a Yuan Dynasty temple near the Drum and Bell Towers,
October 2015 Photo LG

Thursday, October 15, 2015

北京日记: Air, Art and Artists

Beijing Door - Xingfu Cun Lu (Happiness Village Street)
The grey is back. After a few glorious blue sky Autumn days, by late this afternoon the sun was an ominous red disk in a murky sky and people were wearing masks once again. Some young women are sporting masks with lace trims and floaty chiffon wisps that trail over their faces like an orientalist fantasy yashmak from "I Dream of Jeannie". The general disquiet about air quality doesn't extend to cigarette smoke though - I talked with an artist yesterday afternoon while he chain smoked for two hours. We sat in front of his expensive air purifier.

Despite the clammy metallic air, this evening on my way back to my hotel I saw that people were still eating stacks of dumplings and chuan'r (skewered lamb - maybe!) at roadside tables outside Mr Shi's Dumplings and children played around all the apartment compounds. Two pigtailed girls on the backs of their mothers' bicycles sang at the tops of their voices. Elementary school kids in red Young Pioneer scarves rode home on the backs of motorscooters, or in some cases up front while a baby was carried on the back. No child is strapped in anywhere, I note, and most babies are carried in arms - it seems that prams and strollers are accessories of the very upwardly mobile. Babies seem generally contented and are rarely fretful, I would think as a result of the constant cuddling and contact. But I won't romanticise; twice in one week I have seen parents chasing wailing small children down the hutong, threatening them with a broom. Babies are everywhere I look, although statistically few city people have taken advantage of the relaxation of the One Child Policy - raising a child in Beijing or Shanghai is expensive.

High schoolers in their shapeless brightly coloured track suits loitered - loudly - at the snack cart on the corner, in the time-honoured tribal ritual behaviour of teenagers everywhere. The bicycle repair lady was having a shouted altercation with a customer, and motor scooters and tiny tin can "beng beng" taxis wove their way in and out of the traffic, often driving on the footpath. Bicycles are often left unlocked, casually leaning on their stand or lying on the ground, although everyone has stories to tell of stolen bikes. People ride whilst smoking, and making calls on their mobile phones. One night I crossed the road at around ten thirty and saw a most beautiful young woman, like a young Gong Li, black plait flying in the wind, riding high above the traffic seated on a giant stack of recycled cardboard, while her husband pedalled the three wheeled vehicle carrying it all. She looked like a goddess, surrounded by every imaginable kind of wheeled vehicle.
Cell phone addiction on Gongti Bei Lu - on the footpath
In addition to my continuing attempts to learn the language (tilting at windmills, that!) and interviewing artists for a new book project, I am also trying to see as many exhibitions as possible. Here in Beijing I enjoyed the show of young emerging artists at Red Gate Gallery, 'Surge',  (more about that in a later post.) I found very slim pickings in the once-exciting 798 Art District, but was interested to see Liu Xiaodong's paintings from his time in Mongolia, recording the encroachment of urbanisation. I loved the David Diao exhibition at Ullens - he is an artist I now want to know much more about. An emigre to Hong Kong as a child, and then a participant in the New York artworld in the 1970s and 1980s, his works are visually and conceptually exciting. Sardonic links with the way Abstract Expressionists appropriated Chinese calligraphy as pure mark-making, in particular, interested me,as did his constant referencing of Malevich.

David Diao, "Let a 100 Flowers Bloom"
David Diao, "Pardon Me Your Chinoiserie is Showing"

David Diao - Kline and Malevich
I reviewed the show at Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art by emerging video artist Tao Hui, who has just won a major prize at Video Brasil, for Daily Serving. You can find the link to that article HERE. At the Arte Nova Art Fair (held in the spartan Soviet style surrounds of the Agricultural Exhibition Centre) where ten galleries had each been asked to select ten artists, I enjoyed the woven ribbon works of Dai Dandan, and an installation by Li Lin of tiny, old school desks, with an imaginary landscape like a tiny diorama contained within the space under the lid of each one. Completely charming and surreal, they reminded me a little of the exquisite miniature worlds inside shopping bags created by Yuken Teruya.
Li Lin, Decameron

A child enjoys Dai Dandan's installation at the Arte Nova Art Fair
Also highly memorable was an installation of classical black marble busts whose heads had been replaced by twirling, moving gilt mechanical toys. Nightmarish and intriguing.

In my visits to studios, in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chengdu as well as Beijing - 18 so far with more to come - I have had fascinating encounters with many artists, including Wang Guofeng and Wang Qingsong on the eve of the opening of the Beijing Photo Biennale at the CAFA Art Museum, Qiu Xiaofei preparing his show for Pace New York next year and reflecting on his childhood in far north, frozen Harbin, Bingyi and Bu Hua (both of whom feature in my book about women artists in China) and Liu Zhuoquan who is thinking about his exhibition in Melbourne next year and planning a new installation project of more than 6000 of his painted bottles. Liu says he thinks of his bottles as a library containing everything in the world.
Liu Zhuoquan in his Beijing studio, photo LG, reproduced with permission of the artist
The writer with Bu Hua in her studio filled with her collection of antique dolls and tin toys, image reproduced with permission of the artist
In Shanghai I was interested to see the exhibition of women artists at Pearl Lam - and delighted to see that it included Zhou Hongbin, who is included in my book 'Half the Sky', and some beautiful and lyrically evocative video works by Yang Fudong at the Yuz Museum, but the highlight was at Rockbund. I was moved and overwhelmed by the Chen Zhen exhibition, "Without Going to New York and Paris, Life could be Internationalized". Paris-based, in the last ten years of his life Chen returned to his native Shanghai over and over again, recording and representing the extraordinary and tumultuous changes his city was undergoing. The resulting installations are dramatic, theatrical and poetic. I wrote about the show for Daily Serving:
Chen Zhen, who died (much too young) in Paris in 2000, was a significant artist with a hybrid Chinese and European identity. Although after 1986 he essentially lived and worked in Paris, his personal history and deep cultural roots lay in China, and specifically in Shanghai. From the mid-1990s he returned over and over to a city on fast-forward. Shanghai was undergoing a massive, controversial transformation, in the process of becoming the global megalopolis it is today. The current exhibition at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum presents works from this period, which curator Hou Hanru explains reveal a balance between Chen’s examination of a dramatic external reality and a conceptual criticality. Sometimes witty, sometimes profoundly beautiful and melancholy, Chen Zhen’s works are steeped in his identity as a Chinese artist at a historical “tipping point.” As the artist said in his online project Shanghai Investigations, “without going to New York and Paris, life could be internationalized.”
Chen Zhen, Purification Room, 2000 - 2015. found objects, clay, approx 850 x 1100 x 450cm, image courtesy Rockbund Museum and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins
Chen Zhen. Purification Room, 2000-2015; found objects, clay; approx. 850 x 1100 x 450 cm. Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins.
Entering the Art Deco spaces of the Rockbund Museum, visitors encounter the rather spectacular Purification Room (2000–2015), a large space filled with everyday objects—sofas, TVs, chairs and tables, bicycles and shopping trolleys—all entirely coated with mud, as are the walls and floor. Traditionally, Chinese medicine used mud to cleanse and detoxify, and Chen Zhen thought of it as representing purity, simplicity, the natural world, and the peace of being laid to rest. The experience is one of stillness and silence, as if we have entered a mysterious unknown civilization revealed by an archaeological excavation. The quotidian artifacts of our modern daily lives seem to have a greater significance, becoming unfamiliar and strange.
Chen Zhen, Crystal Landscape of Inner Body, 2000, crystal, iron, glass, 95 x 70 x 190cm, image courtesy Rockbund Museum and Galleria Continua San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins
Chen Zhen. Crystal Landscape of Inner Body, 2000; crystal, iron, glass; 95 x 70 x 190 cm. Courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum and Galleria Continua San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins.

Click HERE to read the rest of that review.

And read my next post to find out about Huang Yong Ping at the Red Brick Art Museum, Ai Weiwei at Galleria Continua, and more!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Reasons to be Cheerful

Bu Hua , new oil on canvas work (detail) image courtesy the artist Photo LG
I write this not from Beijing but from Chengdu, in a hotel high above the Second Ring Road. It's warm and a little humid, and music has been floating through the window all evening since I returned from dinner - first it was Chinese opera; now it's violins and enthusiastic singing. Where it's coming from I have no idea - surely not the Happy Star Karaoke Bar next door, where no doubt the local fatcats are singing and drinking Baijiu with their young "xiaojie"? The music is layered with the continual honking of car horns and speeding traffic - a Chinese city symphony. Earlier it was a true cacophany, with long beeps alternating with short "parp parp" horns and the thrum of thousands of motor scooters. I am here to visit with sculptor Shi Jindian, who makes intricate and delicate wire representations of objects such as army motorcycles and jeeps, remembering a time when these were the only vehicles on Chinese roads other than bicycles. Perhaps ironically, as we drove two hours out of Chengdu to his house in the mountains today, we passed a long military convoy of camouflaged PLA trucks carrying soldiers. This is the road to Tibet.

I am reflecting on a hectic two weeks in Beijing since arriving from Shanghai. So far I have visited the studios of 15 artists, with 8 more interviews in the week ahead. Not to mention demoralising Chinese classes every morning - no wonder I am tired! I think of Gramsci's famous quote: "Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will," in relation to learning Chinese. But optimism, in China, is sometimes hard to come by, even for an "outside country person" such as myself, and being here for any length of time can be emotionally draining. The Chinese sense of humour is dark, like its history, and while I always find great kindness and friendliness here, people are tough - they have always had to be.

So, channeling Ian Dury and the Blockheads (yes, I am old!) here are my "Beijing Reasons to Be Cheerful":  
  1. The classic Beijing “Big Wind” sprang up during the night on Wednesday and chased away the worst of the pollution that had blanketed the city for days. I woke to miraculously blue skies and a markedly more cheerful populace. Walking to my class under the trees and past the little shops was a positive joy, rather than a possibly life-shortening and grimly depressing race from door to door. Wearing a mask to filter the muck entering my lungs also fogs up my glasses and makes me even more than usually likely to bump into and trip over things. 
  2.  People sing unselfconsciously in the street, whilst walking, riding bicycles or motorscooters. 
  3. In conversation with artist Bu Hua this week, she revealed that she wants her work to emphasise the beauty of her city, as well as its many social and environmental problems. She spoke of the willows, the red gates and the white bridges, abiding memories of her childhood, and ever since our conversation I have seen them everywhere. Even in the busiest heart of the city, a new park beside the water at the Andingmen bridge is filled with beautifully designed benches, all occupied by elderly ladies or tired looking workers. Flowers are everywhere, but there is a sense of the changing of the seasons – winter will soon be here.
  4. Men take their songbirds to the park and hang their cages from the trees
  5. The remaining hutongs - tiny narrow lanes with grey walls punctuated by red doors leading into courtyard dwellings hidden behind more walls - are real and vital living places, the last reminders of how the city once was. I visited an artist residency in a tiny hutong just off the bustling pedestrian street of Nanluoguxiang, filled with crowds of Chinese holiday-makers eating snacks. The street is filled with vendors of “xiao chi” (literally, little eats), mostly of the sweet and sticky kind. I know you are not supposed to like this street – so touristy, near the Drum and Bell Towers, so corny, so very uncool, so Disneyfied! And yet I DO like it, I like the happiness of the crowds moving through it, laughing and taking selfies, and the fact that two doors back from the thoroughfare you enter another space where life is lived in the traditional Beijing way. Men pick up their children from the elementary school gates on their bicycles or motor scooters, old people shuffle by carrying their shopping, and women chat at the doorways of their courtyards. And the grey walls themselves, cracked, crumbling, covered with painted over phone numbers, are beautiful palimpsests.
  6.  People fly kites at the city walls each day
  7. I visited contemporary ink artist Bingyi in her Yuan Dynasty Temple in another tangled hutong. I walked from the subway across the Andingmen Bridge, exploring local streets where you rarely see a western face. In the middle of the road – 8 lanes of fast and unpredictable traffic – a man was selling live crabs from a plastic bucket, then another truck pulled up at the intersection selling cauliflowers and lettuce and was immediately surrounded by hard-bargaining Beijingers. Once inside the narrow grey lanes of Bingyi's hutong, and through the big doors, we spoke of her ambitious plan to “map” them– every courtyard and every house in old Beijing – through a process of artworks, video, photographs and published letters containing the memories of every inhabitant. This intriguing project will take years, but she is optimistic that it’s an example of art that can generate change.
  8. Many people take their musical instruments to the parks - which are also filled with dancers, exercisers, mahjong players, and every activity imaginable. It's a constant source of fascination for me.
  9. My slow, slow (oh so painfully slow) acquisition of language brings me joy as well as immense frusration. It is glacial, but there is a little progress. And it makes for funny encounters – I know what I want to say but often fail to understand what people are asking me, or their replies. Conversations are like absurd Dada performance art, as I mishear and misconstrue – generally realising much too late what they were actually saying to me. Whoever said Chinese grammar was easy can think again! I invariably get the order of words wrong, so most of my lessons consist of me saying obvious and trite things and being corrected, over and over again. Half understanding my teacher’s fast speech, I concentrate so hard that sometimes I feel I might spontaneously combust.
  10. And finally, I can't help delighting in the use of English, from the gruesomely named "Beijing Stomatological Hospital" to the "Envyou" Cosmetic Surgery Clinic that I walk past on my way to the subway. I feel it's OK to be amused, as my terrible Chinese causes so much amusement to others, a truly humbling experience. New housing developments have names that developers and real estate agents imagine are sophisticated and aspirational: "Florida Shores" or "Italy Mews". I drove past one turreted and crenellated compound of new apartments called, simply, "Golf". There was no golf course in sight anywhere. This naming process is the ultimate in semiotics. There is the abandoned Polo Club on Beijing's apocalyptic outskirts where no polo has ever, or ever will be, played. Restaurant menus are a particular favourite, filled with mangled English describing God only knows what. Sometimes you just have to take a stab in the dark. "What meat is this?" I asked the waitress in a very local restaurant last year. "Maybe pork?" she replied.


Friday, October 2, 2015

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Happiness Street, Pleasure Boats and Chinese Jokes

I began writing this post sitting on a bench beside the lake in Tuanjiehu Park. A young woman on the next seat was playing a recorder, rather sweetly, and her grandmother was singing, competing with all the erhu players (like strangling a cat), Chinese opera singers (amplified, likewise), and men listening to very loud radios. Pleasure boats puttered serenely past on the green water, occasionally colliding with each other (Beijing driving being as bad on water as on the roads) and families strolled in the sun with children eating fairy floss and carrying balloons. Mothers strolled arm-in-arm with adult daughters, older dutiful daughters pushed their mothers in wheel chairs around the park, and grandmothers doted on ridiculously cute babies. The old men played cards in the pavilions under the willow trees, slapping them down violently with cackles of hoarse laughter and shouts of triumph or anguish. Red lanterns hang from the trees. All of life is here.

On this extended holiday weekend the tree-lined streets of my old stamping ground of Tuanjiehu are especially lovely. The apartment buildings have been spruced up with fresh paint and new windows, and all the small food shops are doing a roaring trade. Today, it's easy to forget what an unforgiving brute of a city Beijing can be, particularly in the viciously cold Northern winter. Then it is grey and bleak, the traffic is beyond appalling, and if you stay here long enough the air will kill you. Quite possibly literally. Even in the Autumn there are definitely some unloveable aspects. The day I arrived, in drizzling rain, I went for a walk in the local streets. The sound of people hawking and spitting is a Beijing feature, as is the unmistakeable miasma arising from the drains - Beijing after all is a city where you cannot flush used toilet paper (except perhaps in brand new 5 star hotels) lest some unspeakable and truly disgusting plumbing catastrophe occurs. Since my last visit 8 months ago there are non-smoking signs everywhere - a new government policy, initially with popular support and now generally hated. Naturally enough these rules are essentially ignored, and you still find people smoking in cafes and bars, and in the streets everywhere. I spent two hours talking with an artist who smoked cigars throughout our conversation.And yet.... something makes me feel almost completely at home here.

Back in my hotel now, outside my window late afternoon shadows are falling across pink apartment blocks, the sky still blue. Despite the public holiday, traffic noise is constant - Beijing drivers honk their horns continually as a preemptive strike, often to indicate they have no intention of obeying traffic lights. It's a warning to pedestrians - get out of the way or prepare to die. I hear the squeaking sounds that indicate a "san lun che", a three-wheeled vehicle used to transport everything around the city, from loads of recycled paper to pizza deliveries, and the noise of the straw broom that someone is using to sweep fallen leaves into the gutter. Around the corner from this hotel, behind the glittering shopping malls that are metastasizing all over the city, in a traditional hutong of tiny shabby grey dwellings, the busy lives of Beijingers continues as it has since before the establishment of modern China. As I wandered through its narrow lanes to the main road women stopped and smiled at me, and some glanced up from their games of cards to say hello.

Each morning I walk to my language school. I am slowly, slowly, imperceptibly improving; now at the point of walking into things in the street as I am always trying to decipher Chinese characters, sometimes talking to myself like a madwoman. "Ah, Beijing Roast Duck!" I say. "Hospital!" "Park"! "Taxi Rank!" I have two teachers - one talks in a fast flood of Chinese which I listen to with desperate concentration and muster up stumbling replies to her questions. Her conversation is really interesting, and I love her stories of growing up in the '80s, at the start of Reform and Opening, when Beijing was all bicycles and all clothing was blue or grey. I listen so hard that my brain literally hurts. However, she finds it hard to disguise her incredulity at my inability to remember new characters from one day to the next, try as I might. The other teacher likes to show me pictures from her favourite1990s TV series about the Tang Dynasty, tell me which actresses "do not have a good reputation", and I wince every time she says, "We have a Chinese joke about this...." - humour being one of those culturally determined things that, generally speaking, does not translate well. I laugh insincerely and say, "Ah yes how funny, let's return to the textbook."

 In order to get to these somewhat demoralising classes I meander through the eclectic mix that is central Beijing. My journey goes something like this:

I cross the road, ignoring the Beijing taxis touting for business (motor-scooters with a tin can box-like cabin on the back, cheaper than an actual taxi but necessitating haggling, never my strong point) past the Sichuan hotpot restaurant and numerous massage and tattoo establishments, a sex shop ("Since 1995!") and tiny hole-in-the-wall noodle and baozi restaurants towards a series of glitzy malls (some almost empty). Down one street the crazy tangle of electric wiring so typical of Beijing has come adrift and wires hang onto the footpath next to an Elementary School, presumably not live since I caught my foot in one, tripped over and am still here to tell the tale. But anything is possible - on the corner, near children playing, a worker was using a blowtorch without any protective gear at all. Occupational health and safety no big thing here!

Along Gongti Bei Lu and past the Soviet statues outside Workers Stadium I see women practising Qi Gong and boys on skateboards. Young men in suits lounge with cigarettes and smartphones, and a few old men in Mao suits and cloth shoes shuffle past. Flower beds are planted with red and yellow flowers, red lanterns hang everywhere, and the Chinese flag is hanging from most shops and apartment buildings in honour of the national day, commemorating the establishment of the Peoples Republic in 1949. An old lady sits on a folding chair, her red armband proclaiming her a volunteer to keep public order, outside the Vape Shop ("Enjoy Vaping Life!") Two young girls walk towards me, one wearing a lace mini-dress covered with crystals more suited to a cocktail party than a walk at 8.30 in the morning, and the other wears a T-shirt that says "Stay Yourself, Be A Witch, Fuck Off" (um, what?) And then I saw this:

It could be a wedding in Qing Dynasty costume, but is far more likely to be a promotion - perhaps even for the nearby Gong Ti Themed Hotel (I have always thought it best not to know what this establishment involves!)

Walking home, by a different route, I pass construction sites where the walls are covered with the ubiquitous government posters featuring a cute cartoon girl reminding us of "the core socialist values." Apparently these are:

  • Only endeavour will have a breakthrough
  • Pursuit yearning for the survival of the state
  • The country strong justice have a letter (I have no idea!)
  • Citizens should love their Motherland
Past many tiny tailors' shops with dusty qipaos displayed on ancient mannequins, past numerous restaurants with strange western names ("Blissful Nom Noms", "Two Men and a Pie") the last part of my walk takes me down Happiness Village Street (Xingfu Cun Lu) which I decided was most aptly named once I discovered a branch of Comptoirs de France - coffee! Pastries! Bread!

So - this is Beijing. Love it or loathe it, it's never boring. And all of that is aside from the art, which is of course the purpose of my presence here. And the contemporary art scene here is so overwhelming, so monumental, so gargantuan, that it is truly breathtaking. If the artists are to be believed (an entirely dubious proposition, some will say) at any one time there are more than 20,000 artists working in just one of the many artist "villages" that surround Beijing's far outskirts. Not all the art is good, of course, but the sheer number of practising artists, and the rigour of their training at the most prestigious of the art academies such as CAFA in Beijing, ensures that there are extraordinary things to be seen wherever you look. 

You will have to read my next post to find out about my meetings with Li Hongbo, Zhu Jia and Wang Guofeng, and my thoughts about Beijing Galleries and exhibitions.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

上海日记: Shanghai Diary Revisited

French Concession Shanghai, photo LG
After 7 action-packed days in Shanghai I have arrived in Beijing - as always struck anew by the stark differences between these southern and northern cities. Reflecting on my week interviewing artists in Shanghai, my impression that the Shanghai artworld is growing ever stronger, and more interesting, is reinforced. The influence of the new private museums, the Yuz and Long Museums, now a major force to be reckoned with, is a significant factor.

Bicycle Repairs, Shanghai, Photo LG
My hotel in Shanghai's former French Concession was in a fabulous location for exploring the city on foot, and for navigating the Metro - wonderfully efficient, although not for the faint of heart during the rush hour. It was, however, of a uniquely Chinese type - on the surface very luxe, with glittery lamps, lots of fairly appalling art (for sale), enormous marble bathroom and pseudo-antique Chinoiserie. The room, however, was pitch dark even with all the lights on and the curtains open, the carpets in the corridors were badly stained and often covered with drop-sheets (Why? Who knows!) and the breakfast was beyond appalling - once tried never repeated, which perhaps is their intention. However, as Chinese hotels go, it all ran pretty smoothly.

My most memorable Chinese hotel experience was in Beijing, in the winter of 2012, at a supposedly swanky "art hotel" (now closed, and no wonder!) I had begun to think I was the only guest, when on my second night at about 11.00pm there was an almighty noise of thundering feet and shouting in the corridor, and then a loud banging on my door. Imagine my astonishment when I looked through the peephole to find a young Chinese man, stark naked, beating the door with both fists. Later, safely home again, I told a gay friend this story and he said, "Give me the name of this hotel immediately!" I, however, was a little alarmed. I called the reception fuwuyuan, who said with apparent resignation, "Oh Miss, what we can do? He drink too much!" I suggested that perhaps in fact they they did need to do something, anything, anything at all! whereupon the manager rang back and told me they would move me to another floor. There was nothing to be done about Mr Naked Guy. Reluctantly I agreed, and waited for the manager to accompany me. He knocked on the door, I opened it, and together we stepped over the naked body of the man who was now completely comatose, lying stretched out across my doorway. The incident was never mentioned again for the rest of my stay. (Except when I told my translator, who refused point blank to believe that it could possibly have been a Chinese man - he told me I must be mistaken, as only a "waiguoren", a foreigner, would behave so badly.)

A more ludicrous (and less amusing) Chinese hotel experience happened in Xi'an, where I sent some clothes to the laundry and then waited for their return. And waited. When I rang reception they were most apologetic and concerned. A farce ensued, where I received knock after knock on my door, with staff from the laundry bearing ever more preposterous items of clothing and attempting to persuade me they were mine: mens' leather jackets, assorted tiny dresses for tiny Chinese ladies, and enormous jeans for enormous men. It culminated around midnight, with a staff member who simply could not accept that a sequin-covered blue suit (think Xi Jinping's wife on a state occasion) was not in fact mine. He became argumentative and kept trying to shove it at me through the door, which I eventually closed in his face. I never did get my best David Jones blue sweater back.

And of course, there are the two most bizarre experiences of all: the "Art Hotel'' in Chengdu where I discovered to my surprise - and horror - that I was expected to make a speech at the opening of an exhibition of an Australian and Sichuan artist. With about two hours to write it and have it translated, and with no fancy clothes in my overnight bag (perhaps I should have taken that sparkly suit after all!) I fronted up and discovered that my speech was to follow the local Party chiefs, the Chengdu Art Academy bigwigs, and the Australian Ambassador. I was introduced as a "famous Australian art critic" (ha!) and began in Chinese with an apology for my poor language skills. The artist's son then translated my speech line by line. I began to see my entire life flashing before my eyes as time seemed to stop and then go backwards. Dripping with sweat, I ploughed gamely on, filmed by three local television stations - thank God nobody is ever likely to see that footage.

But the honours for first place must go to the "Vineyard"- and I use those inverted commas advisedly -  about two hours out of Xi'an, where I was taken to see an artist's work. My lunch with the artist, a property developer, and a returned Chinese movie producer from Hollywood is a story for another time. I will just say that the wine, the wisteria and even the fields of grapes stretching into the distance are all fake. The local farmers have been persuaded to stop growing corn and vegetables and instead grow table grapes so that wealthy city people can come on weekends and go grape picking and stay in the "chateaux". Truly a Marie-Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon experience.
Yang Fudong, still from video at Yuz Museum
But back to Shanghai, and to art! On my first visit to Shanghai, back at the start of 2011, a number of artists told me they felt almost like the poor relatives of their peers in the art centres of Beijing. Now, they talk about their independence from Beijing, their capacity to innovate and the ways that each individual artist can pursue a unique vision. One said that in his opinion Beijing artists indulge in way too much "liao tianr" - too much chat and communal thinking. I am quite sure, of course, that artists in Beijing will tell me an entirely different story! However, the fact remains that with a unique history of European Modernist influence, and a sense that Shanghai is a truly global city, artists here work in distinct ways. I was fascinated to be shown the extraordinary studio of Xu Zhen - the 'MadeIn Corporation' - where with the assistance of 40 artists/collaborators/assistants some incredibly ambitious and monumental projects take shape. Some say, with a bit of a sneer, it's merely "art as spectacle". I say, "Bring it on!"

Xu Zhen, Guanyin and 'Shanghart Art Supermarket' at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2014, Photo LG
The massive Xu Zhen retrospective at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing last year was one of the most exciting exhibitions I had seen in years, from his enormous fluoro-coloured Guanyin to the Shanghart Art "Supermarket" where all the packaging is empty, and "grannies" shuffled around in slippers, following you through the aisles. "Eternity",  a sculpture for which 3D printing technology created absolutely accurate moulds for casting the replicas of figures from Greek classical sculpture and ancient Chinese Buddha figures, is currently showing at White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. The artist agrees, without apparent irony, that he is the successor to Andy Warhol and his "factory". He says, "Andy Warhol made a connection between art and commerce, but we recognise that art IS commerce and we aim to make the commercial, artistic." There is a similarly cool Warholian demeanour evident in conversation with this artist, who turned himself, literally, into a brand, recognising the global reach of the art market. At the same time, Xu Zhen supports young emerging artists with the MadeIn Gallery in Shanghai's M50 art district.

Xu Zhen Éternity' at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art Beijing 2014
Artists such as Yang Yongliang, Chen Hangfeng, Lu Xinjian and Hu Jieming reinvent and recontextualise  Chinese tradition and history in different ways, both subtle and overt. From papercutting to "Shui Mo" ink painting, from Gongbi realism to the revolutionary photography of the 20th century, each is taking elements of the past and making work that is absolutely contemporary and reflecting the realities of our world today. Chen Hangfeng is working on a significant project about the notorious village in southern China where most of the world's Christmas ornaments are made, an industry which has filled its waterways with glitter, tinsel and assorted festive crap. It's a village of great historical importance in China, in a most beautiful landscape where significant poems were written. Chen Hangfeng's work is a metaphor for globalisation, a theme which concerns many of these artists. Yang Yongliang continues to make beautiful digital works, and now also narrative films, relating to the destruction of the environment as Chinese megacities eat the countryside, devouring tradition in their wake. He takes thousands of photographs for each digital animation, often choosing to shoot in Chongqing. And no wonder - the greater municipality of Chongqing is now, by all accounts, the largest city in the world. Lu Xinjian continues his ''City DNA" and "City Streaming" series of paintings, inspired by aerial views, Google Maps and Mondrian. And Hu Jieming has begun several new projects, including one for which he has written computer coding that can take a photograph and reproduce it, making subtle and not-so-subtle alterations. From this he makes a painting, then scans it and repeats the process, over and over again. Each painting is further from the original image, more abstract. He is asking questions about the relationship between human observation and artificial intelligence.

With Lu XInjian in front of one of his "City DNA" series
After seven intense conversations with seven artists, a Saturday morning walk around the former French Concession provided breathing space, and time to re-acquaint myself with the idiosyncracies of Shanghai life, from the wearing of pyjamas as streetwear to the washing hanging on every street corner, and from powerlines and railings: "Shanghai flags." The sun shone, the oppressive humidity vanished, good coffee was readily available, the trees were green and beautiful, and life seemed very good. Visits to exhibitions at as many galleries as I could cram into one day, including Chen Zhen at Rockbund Museum, Yang Fudong at Yuz Museum, and an exhibition of work by women artists at Pearl Lam, provided a visual feast.

Chen Zhen Purification Room, 2000 - 2015, found objects, clay, photo LG
Chen Zhen, Crystal Landscape of Inner Body, 2000, crystal, iron, glass, photo LG
Yang Fudong, still from video work, Yuz Museum
Lin Ran "Lesbos Island" - traditional Chinese medicine cabinet with drawers "filled with gifts and mementoes given to the artist by lesbians" at Pearl Lam Gallery Shanghai photo LG
My Shanghai experience concluded with the Zhou Fan exhibition at Art Labor Gallery - beautiful works that appear marbled, or as if pigment has been gently dripped onto the surface with an eye dropper. The artist told me that every nuanced gradation of colour and finest line has been carefully applied with tiny brushes. Zhou Fan's practice exemplifies the subtlety and thoughtful refinement that co-exists with the chaotic frenzy of life in modern China.

Zhou Fan, Mountain #0003, 2014, Acrylic ink and mineral color on paper, 38.3 x 56.7 cm image courtesy the artist and Art Labor Gallery