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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Romantic Revolutionary: Guo Jian


With a certain significant date earlier this week and a new exhibition just opened at Sydney's Art Atrium gallery, it seemed timely to re-post my profile and video interview with Chinese/Australian artist Guo Jian, published in The Art Life just before I went to China in April. He is brave, resolute, astonishingly outspoken, and continues to make interesting work and push the boundaries of practice:
In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong called upon artists to combine ‘revolutionary realism with revolutionary romanticism’ in order that art should serve the people. In a very different 21st century context, by recording the impacts of globalisation, industrialisation and urbanisation on Chinese society, the current work of Chinese/Australian artist Guo Jian comments fearlessly on the ills of his — and our —society. In several conversations over the last year, and an interview filmed for White Rabbit Collection, he has spoken to me about his life and work.
His dramatic life story would make a great movie script. In 1979, as a seventeen-year old small town boy in poverty-stricken Guizhou Province, keen for adventure and escape from what seemed a dreary future, Guo Jian enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army. His romantic illusions about becoming a revolutionary hero — and his hopes for a secure future as an army-trained artist — were very quickly shattered. Far from home in a grim military camp during the tense build-up of the Sino-Vietnamese war, the way that groups of lonely young men could be manipulated into a state of hysterical blood-lust struck him with horror.
His experiences of the tumultuous events of China’s recent history—his childhood during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, military service, and first-hand experience of the events of 1989—influenced his autobiographical approach to painting. He became known for savagely satirical Pop-inspired realist works: populated by ‘Entertainment Soldiers’, the seductive dancers and singers deployed to motivate and mollify the troops, his paintings examine the sexualisation of propaganda.
Guo Jian, The Day Before I Went Away, 2003, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist
Returning to his home town after his time in the army, Guo Jian worked as a propaganda officer: he was given a camera and charged with taking photographs of model workers in state-owned factories and workplaces. Bored and increasingly cynical, he seized the opportunity to apply for art school in Beijing; from thousands of ‘ethnic minority’ applicants — Guo is a member of the Boyi minority —only three from Guizhou were accepted. In 1985 Guo Jian arrived in the capital to take his place at the ‘Minzu’ National Minorities University. It was a time of great change and excitement: after the repression of the Cultural Revolution, artists were abandoning Soviet-style socialist realism and seeking new, experimental visual languages. They organised exhibitions and conferences, staged events and underground exhibitions, and wrote manifestos. The student movement for democracy appeared to herald the birth of a more open society, but this period of optimism ended abruptly in June 1989. Together with so many other artists, writers, teachers, students and ordinary citizens, Guo Jian watched as the tanks rolled into Beijing, manned by fearful young recruits from the far provinces, boys just like he had been ten years earlier.
Guo Jian is a compelling storyteller, and his tales of how events unfolded as those involved in the democracy movement fled Beijing by any means possible make a tragicomic narrative. He made his way to Australia in 1992, and for years he tried to put all those experiences behind him. But dark memories have a way of re-surfacing. Guo’s boyhood experiences — watching ‘struggle sessions’ and executions during the Cultural Revolution; the suffering of his family during that period of collective madness; his army years; and, most particularly, the events of June 1989 began to preoccupy him more and more. In 2014, these memories would culminate in a subversive installation and a newspaper interview that led to his arrest, imprisonment and deportation.
Guo Jian in Conversation with White Rabbit from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo

Guo Jian had returned to China in 2005 and he was profoundly shocked by what he found— the rush to modernisation left so much destruction in its wake as traditional architecture in Beijing was replaced by eight-lane roads and tower blocks, and whole neighbourhoods were demolished....
Read the rest of the article.HERE

Note that all photographs were provided by the artist and are reproduced with his permission.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

九牛一毛: The Nine and the One: Art in Shanghai

A group of young photographers shoot the work of Liang Shaoji at ShanghART, photo:LG
It's taken a while for the art I saw in Shanghai last month to percolate and for the sediment to settle: images and moments continue to drift in my mind. Meeting artists Lu Xinjian and Shi Yong, and talking with Monika Lin over coffee at the Old China Hand Reading Room about her new body of work, 'From the Bones of the Fish' (watch this space!) Walking to galleries through the tree-lined streets of the former French Concession. The shock of the new on the West Bund. A (somewhat) revitalized M50. Some spaces have closed, some were mysteriously dark, with rumours buzzing like flies, but Shanghai shows every sign of being at the centre of contemporary art in China - at least, at the centre of where the money is right now.
Lu Yang, Uterus Man installation, K11 Art Mall, Shanghai 2017

A classic China moment: I wanted to see a curated group show at a certain very high-profile commercial gallery. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it should have been open. Arriving at the address, I found the door mysteriously locked. A bored guard, dozing over his jar of tea, got up and opened the door, and realised I was in the middle of a fashion shoot, with the paintings as backdrops. The guard assumed that any strange foreigner arriving at the door (no matter my less than fashionista appearance) must somehow be connected. The models, photographers, lighting technicians, make-up artists, hairdressers and runners completely ignored me, so I stayed tolook at the paintings by the light from my mobile phone.
My inadvertent participation in a fashion shoot - as a witness
Now, though, to the sublime, the wonderful, the surprising -- and, frankly, the absolutely awful:

The sublime category absolutely belongs to Song Dong and his survey show, 'I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven', at Rockbund Museum. Five floors of work from the last four decades was quite stunning - and often very moving. Song's re-purposing of architectural fragments and obsolete objects was much in evidence - an insistence, as Rauschenberg said, on working in ''the gap between art and life.'' More about this important exhibition later.


Tiny wooden stools like those that Song Dong and his friends sat on as children to watch movies shown in the Beijing hutongs - but here they are arranged behind the screen not in front of it.
Another iteration of ''Eating the City" - I overheard a boy strongly (and wisely) advise his girlfriend not to eat the stale cake

The top floor of Rockbund is filled with an installation featuring these tiny mannequins, representing Song Dong's childhood self, engaged in every activity imaginable, including peeing, sleeping, and lying face down in a reference to his famous performance lying in a wintry Tiananmen Square and breathing on the frozen ground
While not quite at the Song Dong level of jaw-dropping wonderment, six other shows/artists/galleries provided intrigue, curiosity, astonishment, and moments of reflection.
He Xiangyu, 'Turtle, Lion and Bear' at Qiao Space was a disconcerting and very moving installation of 25 screens in a darkened space, featuring people in the act of yawning. It's infectious - you cannot not respond with your own yawns - the link between artist, artwork and viewer is complete. There was something quite magical about this sense of shared humanity.
Two exhibitions at ShanghART's new West Bund space fof work by Liang Shaoji and Hu Liu were filled with young student photographers on a Saturday afternoon. These two artists, on the surface so different, are linked by their focus on a very limited and highly specific choice of materials: Liang Shaoji works with silkworms and their silken cocoons, creating immersive sculptural installations,while Hu Liu works with pencil and graphite. Every work takes months, and she uses thousands of pencils on a single large drawing. When you look from different angles they catch the light and what at first appeared as entirely black and featureless reveals itself to be immensely detailed.
Student photographers engage with Liang Shaoji's work at ShanghART
At Bank/Mabsociety Chen Yujun's exhibition was intriguingly titled 'The River Never Remembers, the House Cannot Forget'. Working across multiple forms and navigating different conventions, Chen's work is focused on diasporic experience and personal memory. Like Song Dong, he is interested in the connections between people and the architecture they inhabit, often vernacular and makeshift, even chaotic, yet imbued with the experiences of generations.

Chen Yujun, installation view at Bank/Mabscociety
Chen Yujun, collage, detail, at Bank/Mabsociety

Lu Yang, breaker of taboos and too cool for school, is always fabulous, and 'Delusional Mandala' in an exhibition of young new media artists 'Three Rooms' at Chronus Art Centre did not disappoint. I am rarely willing to stand in uncomfortable, cold gallery spaces on hard floors and watch long artist videos, but I watched this one twice, all the way through. Here's a snippet to tantalise, with commentary, from M Woods Museum in Beijing:




Yin Xiuzhen, Xu Bing, Hong Hao, Chen Yujun and a group of interesting artists in 'Collage: The Cards Players' (sic) at the Shanghai Gallery of Art, provided some strange and unexpected juxtapositions. I was delighted to see another iteration of Xu Bing's 'Background Story' series, where apparent traditional Chinese landscapes are created,not with ink and brush, but from rubbish and debris attached to a backlit screen.


Xu Bing, Background Story, the front and the back

Yin Xiuzhen's rockets - or missiles - parodying the kitsch Pearl Orient TV Tower, all made of old clothing and textiles
All the above artists are represented in the White Rabbit Collection of Contemporary Chinese art in Sydney - so here's a disclaimer: This blog is unconnected, it's a collection of my entirely personal views and general ramblings and ravings: my discovery of exhibitions featuring these artists was purely serendipitous. And how wonderful that Sydney audiences have the opportunity to see their work in the curated shows at White Rabbit Gallery.
Song Dong, "I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven"
Another discovery provided much needed balm for a great disappointment. On a previous visit the Yuz Museum had been closed, so I was hoping this time to see some of Budi Tek's reputedly very interesting collection. Instead, as perhaps I should have been able to guess from the surprising lines of teenagers and 20-somethings snaking around the block to buy tickets ("How wonderful that they love contemporary art!" I foolishly thought), I was confronted with a museum filled with the vapid 'sculptures' of American graffiti artist, product designer, graphic designer, sculptor and toymaker, KAWS described thus: "His art stands somewhere between fine art and global commerce. KAWS moved beyond the sphere of the exclusive art market to occupy a more complex global market." Really, enough said. This guy makes Damien Hirst look very, very deep. 


After this disappointment, I entered a dimly lit upstairs space to be immersed in the meditative abstract paintings of Zhao Li, in her first solo exhibition for many years. Floating shapes hover on soft grounds of grey, or vivid red and pink. Linear forms overlapping and coalescing suggesting the constant rhythms of the universe and the human body. Zhao is interested in Daoist thought, and the push and pull of yin/yang binaries are evident in the juxtaposition of line and form in these compelling paintings. I was seduced - and calmed - post KAWS. 

The exhibition text is, not unusually in China, full of emotive phrases like this: ''Reasonable romance and bold elegance can both be seen in her works.'' I may be obtuse, but I have no idea what reasonable romance is. But these paintings are absolutely, stunningly, beautiful. Painting in China is alive and well, and if April's crop of exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai are any indication, it is holding its own amongst the new media, photography, augmented/virtual reality, sculpture and installation.
A ratio of nine strong exhibitions to one that was just silly and shallow  - actually, that's not bad. And there's even a Chengyu, a four character idiom, that fits the situation: ''nine cows, one strand of hair'' 
(九牛一毛 - jiu niu yi mao) refers to something so small and insignificant that it's like one strand of hair in amongst nine cows. Or something. 


Monday, May 22, 2017

上海日记 Shanghai Diary: A Revisionist History and the Mandate of Heaven

Chinese flag billows at the stern of our boat, heading towards Yangshuo, Photo:LG
After Beijing, and a somewhat ill-fated trip to Guilin that featured a hideous hotel; food poisoning; a gazillion pushing, shoving, spitting, shouting tour groups following young women with flags and megaphones; and a trip along the admittedly beautiful Li River being lectured by the very dutiful guide I had hired to organise the details of boats and cars ("The government has completely solved the problem of pollution, the water is completely safe for swimming!"- yeah, sure), it was so good to return to Shanghai. Toilets that flush! Fabulous food! A seamless transition from Hongqiao Station into a taxi! Even the notorious Shanghai traffic was better than usual, and after 45 minutes zipping along those Jetsons-style futuristic elevated freeways I breathed a sigh of relief to see familiar Deco Gothic spires and emerge onto Huaihai Lu and then a tangle of smaller streets.


The Guilin adventure had its moments, for sure. The landscape is extraordinarily beautiful, and the trip down river was relaxing in a soporific way, despite the convoy of crowded boats. The old towns around Yangshuo - although most are not so much old as 'old', with reconstructed stone and timber houses and alleyways filled with red lanterns - were quite lovely, whether real or fake. I was the focus of much good-humoured curiosity from locals in a few villages, especially from old ladies chatting as they squatted in old-style rural Chinese toilets (i.e. no doors and long communal troughs.) To see how the laowai would pee was obviously a matter of great curiosity. All I can say is, you can get used to anything. Guilin itself - or what I managed to see of it before I was confined to the hotel room for two days after an unwise restaurant choice - is ridiculously pretty.
Old? Or maybe ''old" architecture. But beautiful nonetheless
But, oh Shanghai, how I love you! I love your plane trees, your Art Deco, your ridiculously tiny shops selling preposterous shoes and glittery clothing, your good coffee, your cool boys nonchalantly smoking while steering their motor scooters, your young girls singing to themselves while they ride along on their bicycles, your glamorous women striding in their stilettos, your old men playing cards in Fuxing Park, your gatherings of ballroom dancers at night in the small park on Huaihai Zhong Lu. I love the Huangpu river seen from high above the Bund, and even the ridiculous Oriental Pearl Tower.
Conversation, April afternoon, Shanghai. Photo:LG
I love your quilts and underwear hanging out to dry on every post and powerline, your grumpy old ladies, the uniquely Shanghainese habit of wearing flanellette pyjamas as streetwear, your dumplings and xiao long bao. The remaining shikumen stone gate houses are lovely, and it's taken me a long time to figure out how to find addresses in the longtang laneways, but now I know how to do it I love that too.
Shanghai juxtapositions, Photo:LG
On my last day, exiting Fuxing Park, a young Chinese man asked me if I knew where a particular small hotel was. And I did! And I managed to direct him in Chinese (only having to run after him once to say that I meant turn right, not left.) I knew because I had stayed there two years earlier (very weird) and probably he asked because he thought the only foreigner in sight may well be staying nearby, but I was ridiculously pleased with myself nonetheless.
Changle Lu, April. Photo:LG
I was last in Shanghai for a few days in mid-December, and before that at least once every year since 2011. I remember writing that it was a tough, tough city; in fact, with shamefully purple prose I described it as a 'snarling beast, a jabberwock'. What was wrong with me? Why has it taken me years to learn to love Shanghai as much as I love Beijing? I take it all back. Certainly, every city appears different in Spring than in mid-Winter. And Shanghai in Spring is gorgeous. So this time, I wandered, I found new corners, streets and alleys of the former French Concession, I made my way to every possible gallery, and I saw Song Dong's exhibition at Rockbund Museum,I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven'. I ate noodles and dumplings. I was in heaven myself, a little delirious after being ill and miserable in Guilin.
Song Dong exhibition 'I Don't Know the Mandate of Heaven', installation view, Rockbund Museum
I started this post intending to write a serious analysis of the art I saw in Shanghai, but it seems I've got a little sidetracked. Soon I will write about the artists I encountered in galleries large and small: Song Dong, Xu Bing, Lu Yang, Liang Shaoji, Hu Liu, Chen Yujun, Yin Xiuzhen, Hong Hao and many more. I discovered a new and wonderful painter at the Yuz museum, and unsurprisingly I detested the extremely popular 'Kaws' exhibition. But you will have to wait till next time to find out why

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Lu Xinjian: Looking for Harmony in the City


Shanghai-based painter Lu Xinjian has invented his own visual language with which he represents his experiences of urban life. In several interviews for the White Rabbit Collection since 2015 in Shanghai and in Sydney (Judith Neilson was one of the first collectors to see his early 'City DNA' paintings in Beijing, in 2011), he talked with me about his early life as a boy in rural China, and his surprising metamorphosis into a highly successful contemporary artist on the global stage.
Lu Xinjian and a painting in his 'City Stream' series, image courtesy the artist
These interviews were compiled as a profile of the artist published this week in 'The Art Life', together with a video interview conducted at White Rabbit Collection late last year. It goes like this:

Lu Xinjian’s early life seemed an unlikely background from which a successful artist might emerge. Born in 1977 into a poor farming family in a rural village in Jiangsu Province, by his own account his childhood was spent running wild, looking after ducks and chickens. After school he studied computer graphics and graphic design, despite his love of painting, knowing that a poor boy making his way in the world needed a more secure income than that of an emerging artist. 
Lu Xinjian with his mother, image courtesy the artist
But a chance encounter changed everything: in 1998 the influential Dutch design company Studio Dumbar had an exhibition at the art museum in Nanjing, where Lu Xinjian was studying. He didn’t have the money to buy a ticket to enter the gallery, but stood entranced in front of the posters, absorbing their structures, colour, line and form, their use of the Modernist grid. Returning to the college library, he began to read everything he could find about European design, determined that one day he would go to study in the Netherlands. It took four years after graduation to save the money, but in 2005 he graduated from the Design Academy in Eindhoven, and in 2006 from the Interactive Media and Environments Department at the Frank Mohr Institute of Hanze University of Applied Studies.
Lu Xinjian in the studio, image courtesy the artist
In Eindhoven and Groningen Lu Xinjian found himself at the centre of a particular Modernist tradition. To that point he had loved the work of Keith Haring and other contemporary American painters, but now the work of artists of the European ‘Zero’ movement of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Heinz Mack, Gunther Uecker and Otto Piene inspired him. They believed that art should be a ‘zone of silence’ devoid of personal expression. Lu Xinjian saw in this philosophy a link to Buddhist traditions of restraint and simplicity, harmony and quietude. After early experiments with figurative expressionist painting, an influential teacher, Petri Leijdekkers, introduced him to de Stijl and the work of Mondrian. He had been at an impasse, lonely and depressed during a residency in Korea, when he began to draw views of the night sky, the edges of buildings as lines and the stars as dots. The dots and dashes found in the ink drawings of Van Gogh, the grid structures of Dutch and German early twentieth century design, and the cool abstraction of Mondrian coalesced to form a new way of thinking. This epiphany was the start of his important City DNA series.
Lu Xinjian, City DNA – Beijing, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 400 cm, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection
From this point Lu Xinjian began to paint in more abstract ways, using aerial perspectives of iconic metropolises: New York (irresistibly recalling Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie) Beijing, Shanghai, Rome, Paris, London, Los Angeles, and Venice. The first in the series, however, was the Dutch university town of Groningen, where he had taken photographs from the top of the tower in the centre of the town before returning to China. Sources for his imagery included maps and satellite views of each location, as well as photographs, but the artist sees his work as philosophically complex and multi-layered. He believes cities are built and defined by history, culture and language as much as by geography; each is distinct and unique, despite the homogenising impact of globalisation. Lu Xinjian tells the story of each city in a visual language of his own invention that merges western abstraction with simplified forms that recall the Bauhaus and Dutch graphic design, in combination with computer coding. The picture planes appear to pulsate with energy, despite their flat, brightly coloured grounds. Struggling to find a name for this body of work, Lu Xinjian suddenly saw the lines and dashes as akin to a diagram of a human genetic code. Cities, too, have a kind of DNA structure, a term borrowed from architectural practice, conveying something of the unique and complex social and architectural systems of the modern metropolis.

TO read more in 'The Art Life' , click HERE

And here is the video interview with Lu Xinjian 


Lu Xinjian in Conversation with White Rabbit from White Rabbit Collection on Vimeo.
Shanghai-based painter Lu Xinjian discusses his 'City DNA' series, his interest in Mondrian and Dutch design, and how a boy from a poor rural farming family became a successful contemporary artist

Saturday, May 6, 2017

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Art and Life in a Grey City


Guozijian Street Beijing, photo LG
My three April weeks in China were lucky ones - even despite the food poisoning (thanks, Guilin) and the viral pneumonia (thanks, Hangzhou). Why lucky? Because you can go to China expecting to see extraordinary contemporary art and find little that excites you, or you can go another time and be blown away by the quality of work shown in galleries and artists' studios, by the sheer energy, vitality and innovation of what Chinese artists are doing. This was one of those fortunate times. And to be back in Beijing in Spring after a twelve month absence was a delight: the sky was (mostly) blue, the parks full of blossoms and ballroom dancers; and the galleries (mostly) open and showing interesting work.
Reflected blossoms, near Nanluoguxiang, Beijing, photo: LG
China's dizzying pace of change continues: on every visit, even if only a few months apart, I see new developments. This time what I noticed most was the explosion of the bicycle-sharing app; the streets are filled with colourful bikes rented easily, anywhere, by scanning a QR-code with your smartphone, and then left wherever you finish up. Every ride costs about 20 cents and they are HUGELY popular. Beijing has once again become a city of bicycles. And tiny new electric cars as well. The old tin can 'beng beng' taxis are still there, and the traditional pedi-cabs (not used only by tourists, by the way) but my usual Dongzhimen neighbourhood is filled with little vans silently scooting along delivering water, take-out meals, dry-cleaning, and anything else you can imagine could be delivered in a city of entrepreneurs.
Motor-cycle taxi, Dashilar, Photo: LG
Old shool beng beng taxi, Photo L
Combined with the three-wheeled carts collecting recycling, generally presaged by a ringing bell and a harsh cry,  it is a collision of old and new. The scourge of the silent scooter on the sidewalk is still there, though, particularly unnerving at dusk, or when the rider suddenly shouts at you to get out of the way. And there's still plenty of sidewalk spitting, which is perhaps a comforting sign that some things don't change. Old bars and expat hangouts have closed (sorry, not sorry) and the gentrification of the hutongs proceeds apace, but the essential character of the city remains, much like its inhabitants - tough, gritty, no bullshit, and a sardonic sense of humour. I was glad to see the battered velour armchairs still on the street in Chunxiu Lu, and the outdoor hairdressers at work in the hutong nearby. And the unique and unmistakeable smell of the Beijing drains is always present.
Hutong, Dashilar, photo: LG
Washing drying in the lanes, Beijing, April 2017, Photo: LG
Beijing rooftops through a hutong window, Photo: LG
I was in Beijing for my own research project, meeting with artists who are subverting ink traditions in very particular ways, and most of my time was taken up with long drives to and from studios in Songzhuang, Caochangdi and Shunyi. But in intervening windows of time I visited galleries in 798 and Caochangdi and saw wonderful things.
My top  5 Beijing highlights:
1. Qiu Anxiong, 'New Book of Mountains and Seas Part III' at Boers-Li Gallery - immersive, completely extraordinary. Qiu has created a dystopic universe with just enough connections to the present-day to make it thoroughly terrifying. So immersive that I sat through the entire video twice. Part II was a central element of White Rabbit's 2016 exhibition, 'Vile Bodies'. Here Qiu talks about his work for the exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum in 2013: http://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/collections/asian/qiu-anxiong-ink-art


2. Wang Yuping at Tang Contemporary - a remarkable painter whose work I had not seen before. His series of paintings of the intersection near Jingshan Park is so characteristically Beijing that it would make you weep with nostalgia. And how lovely to discover that he taught my good friend Gao Ping at CAFA, and is a beloved professor. The exhibition 'Jingshan Hill' is divorced from current fashion and theoretical discourse and is all the better for it.
https://www.tangcontemporary.com/wangyupingen


3. Tai Xiangzhou at Ink Studio -  a stunning exhibition called 'Speculative Cosmologies' - the curator says: Working in the literati mode, Tai spent years copying and mastering classical compositions and brushwork. He focuses on the landscapes of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), considered a Chinese golden age for both pictorial and astral arts. Speculative Cosmologies features select examples of Tai’s classicizing style, including Mountain of Heaven, a virtuosic rendition of a Song monumental landscape as a screen—a format charged with cosmological significance; Cosmic Symphonies, an elaboration of a celebrated 13th-century album depicting different aspects of water; and Microcosm-Macrocosm, a primordial landscape without organic life generated from a miniature scholar’s rock. Lovingly and intimately antiquarian, these paintings also ask, speculatively and counterfactually, what a Song landscape would be if it encompassed the vastly expanded scope of contemporary knowledge and experience. http://www.inkstudio.com.cn/exhibitions/24/overview/



4. Liu Di at Pekin Fine Arts - new directions in the work of this interesting artist, whose digital works of large-bottomed animals plonked in the courtyards of Beijing apartments have been shown at White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. http://pekinfinearts.com/en/exhibition/liu-di-break-with-convention/


5. An exhibition of new directions in the work of young artists, both Chinese and international, at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) - still with a cloud hanging over its future and no buyer in sight - presented tiny enclosed spaces with lots of video.Highlights here were the futuristic imaginings of Cui Jie - and in China they're not much of a stretch - and a stunning, ambiguous installation by Ma Jianfeng. Here's an interesting article featuring Cui Jie - and Lu Yang who I will write about in a later post: Where Next? Imagining the Dawn of the Chinese Century


Apart from that, the skies were blue and clear, my wanderings in the remaining hutongs were a delight (even though I still cannot persuade my husband to love Beijing), you can now get excellent coffee all over the city, and it was great to be back in a place that I have come to love like a second home. I visited the studios of Xiao Lu, Ma Yanling, Yu Hong and Bingyi, and spoke with Tao Aimin at Egg Gallery and Ink Studio in Caochangdi.
With Xiao Lu and her exciting recent ink works in her studio, Beijing, April 2017
The following week, in Shanghai, a city I have grown to love over the years, the exhibitions on offer were just as compelling. Next week: Shanghai Diary Revisited.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Light and Dark: Chinese Chiaroscuro

West Lake, Hangzhou, Photograph LG
I'm writing this propped up on pillows underneath an eiderdown at home in Sydney, having returned from China with some unwelcome additional baggage: a case of viral pneumonia has rendered the last week a feverish blur. It's a little ironic -- our departing flight from Shanghai was delayed for hours due to a sick passenger on the plane when it arrived, infected with something alarmingly unspecified that required the plane to be decontaminated, disinfected and inspected by quarantine officers before it could be re-boarded. Stuck indefinitely, possibly overnight, in the appalling Pudong Terminal 1, knots of people muttered in several languages, perhaps with dramatic scenes from the movie 'Contagion' playing in their heads, while being blandly assured by the crew that everything was under control. And all along I was the person unknowingly harbouring evil microbes, and the plane, once boarded many hours later, was perhaps the cleanest I have ever encountered.

In my restless attempts at sleep this week, half awake and half dreaming, scenes and encounters from my last three weeks in China have been re-enacted like snippets of film. Powerful images and compelling experiences, but I've been finding it hard to render them in words for some reason. I'm going to write a separate post about the art I've seen - and it was wonderful - and the artists I've met. This first piece post-China is an attempt to reconcile my conflicted feelings about this most recent trip. There are two things that I keep coming back to, that represent for me the complexity and contradictions of contemporary China, with all its excitement and adrenaline, beauty and astonishing inventiveness, resilience and pragmatism, and also its very deep unhealed scars.

The first thing is purely joyful: it's the delight I always experience in Chinese public parks and gardens, in every city I've been to. All of life takes place there, and every age group and almost every demographic is present. From the ubiquitous - and often much-maligned - dancing 'aunties' (and, really, how snobbish, sexist and ageist is much of the media attention focused on them!) to the ballroom dancers, kite-flyers, water calligraphers, card players, opera singers, tai ji quan practitioners, old men with caged birds, old ladies in wheel chairs, massed choirs, fan dancers, and doting grandparents with little children. There are pleasure boats on the lakes and the weirdly grotesque ride-on toys that are uniquely Chinese.
Water calligrapher, West Lake, Hangzhou, photo LG
Middle aged men jog (sort of) wearing dress shoes, and sometimes suit jackets, carrying large radios blaring Chinese opera or comedy cross-talk on straps over their arms like a handbag. Women and men walk the paths slapping at themselves vigorously to stimulate the circulation. Very elderly people demonstrate enviable flexibility and determination using exercise equipment. So much determined 'duanlian shenti' (physical exercise) and energy from a generation who may well have experienced considerable suffering and hunger in their youth is entirely admirable. I am aware of the sub-texts (often those choirs of middle-aged and elderly people are singing the revolutionary songs of their youth with great gusto, for example, which younger people find a little bizarre and embarrassing; and many of the dutiful sons and daughters - and daughters-in-law - pushing those wheel chairs may prefer to be doing something else.) I know, too, that as a western observer my fascination may seem a kind of Orientalism. I think that characterisation would be wrong. I feel energised and uplifted in Tuanjiehu Park or Ditan Park in Beijing, or Fuxing Park in Shanghai by the enormous, unquenchable, good-natured vitality of masses of people engaged in so much pleasurable activity. Jingshan Park, the day before I left Beijing, was filled with locals as well as Chinese tourists, bringing their children to see the spring blossoms. The choir I found, following the sound across the park, was singing an old song commemorating the sacrifices of workers who built the railway line across the Qinghai grasslands to Tibet.
Singers in Jingshan Park, Beijing, photo LG
The sense of community is palpable. I love that women my own age invariably ask me to join the dancing (and, shhh! don't tell my children, but sometimes I do.)  I use my bad Chinese to chat with grandmothers and old ladies, and I ask people to tell me about the songs being sung. I feel remembered joy just writing this paragraph. In Hangzhou last week, visiting outside of mid-winter for the first time, I strolled along the lake and encountered, in one afternoon, five different groups performing Chinese opera, with small orchestras, just for each other; solo musicians playing and singing; and three different places where ballroom dancers of varying levels of skill were waltzing, so fast that it was completely, hypnotically, wonderful. In the morning I had watched a group of  graceful women, with middle aged faces but the supple bodies of young girls, practising a traditional dance, surrounded by other groups working with swords and fans, and retired people just out chatting with friends, flasks of tea and snacks on the benches beside them. None of this was happening for the benefit of the hordes of (Chinese) tourists visiting West Lake, these were locals just out doing what they do, from early in the morning till late at night. All this public dancing and singing reminded me of an Impressionist painting: Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette depicts working class Parisians publicly enjoying their leisure in a similar way, and perhaps under similar circumstances of dramatic social change, fluidity, uncertainty and urbanisation.
Hangzhou waltzing, Photo: LG
If all of this sounds uncomplicated and idyllic, then that would be to deny that people's lives are difficult in Chinese cities as they are everywhere else. The social tensions arising from generational differences bordering on incomprehension, the impacts of globalisation, the dramatic changes of urbanisation, the increasing divide between social classes: all these factors are by now so well known that there is little point in repeating them. And yet, as people - young and old - cycle past me in the street singing loudly and unselfconsciously, and I watch the aunties and uncles chatting on their doorsteps in hutongs and alleyways and on park benches, I hope that this manner of living connectedly, publicly, out in the open, won't be lost to a future of gated condominiums and a retreat into a world of private screens.
Hangzhou Waltzing, Photo: LG
The second unforgettable image is much darker, something I witnessed at Guilin Airport, something that once seen cannot be unseen. It's the antithesis to the public high spirited pleasures I've written about above. Trying to make some sense of  what I witnessed I thought about the multiple layers in contemporary Chinese art, the bitterness that often underlies seemingly more innocuous imagery. I thought about works by Guo Jian, focused on militarisation and propaganda; about Liu Zhuoquan's recent series focused on crime and punishment; about Yu Hong's paintings of the early 2000s that explored the melancholia she believed to be omnipresent in post-Mao Chinese society; about the focus on bodily suffering of so much performance art by artists such as Ma Liuming, Zhang Huan, He Chengyao, Xiao Lu and Ma Qiusha. I thought about the Chinese sense of humour, very funny and very dark.

I'd gone to Guilin for a weekend, having always wanted to see the dramatic karst landscape that featured in so much Chinese painting, and to travel along the Li River. The landscape is certainly beautiful, but it would have been better to go twenty years ago, before mass tourism descended. I was prepared for this to some extent, but the reality was a bit of a shock; the hotel was a hideous processing factory for tour groups from far provinces, and I got food poisoning - for the first time ever in China. By the time I was sitting queasily at the airport I was quite keen to leave Guilin behind. Suddenly there was a commotion, and an uneasy stirring of the people all around me; I looked up to see three figures stumble past, surrounded by men in dark glasses and leather jackets. They were bent forward, shuffling, and it took me a moment to realise that they were blindfolded, their hands cuffed behind them. I was profoundly shocked, a feeling compounded by the realisation that their blindfolds were white surgical masks intended to be worn over nose and mouth, and by the casual brutality of the police who shoved them roughly through the airport. They were bent at the waist in attitudes of supplication reminiscent of Cultural Revolution photographs. I cannot get this image out of my mind.

I have almost deleted my description of the Guilin Airport incident several times now. It is obviously so out of keeping with the tone of this blog, which for years has recounted my experiences in China - the joyful, the amusing, the bewildering and the confusing nature of the encounters of just another laowai. One of my aims has always been to counter the schematically over-simplified view of China held by people who have never been there - and some who have - focused on the reporting of corruption and human rights abuses in the western press. I wanted to show that the reality of a vast country of 1.4 billion is far more complex than what we see in the media, and give a sense of the ordinariness of daily life. But what I saw that day was far from ordinary, and this brings me back once again to art. It is artists who draw our attention, in ways both subtle and profound, to dangerous truths, to the beauty, terror and absurdity of life. It is up to us to pay attention.
From Guilin to Yangshuo on the Li Rover, Photo LG