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

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Doing the Cha-Cha with Marx and Engels: an Ode to Shanghai

Fuxing Park, Shanghai, April 2019. Photo: Luise Guest
In a pre-pandemic world I would have been in Shanghai with my daughters right now, introducing them to the city I have grown to love over the last ten years. Such plans we had, for wandering the streets of the former French Concession, watching the dancers in the park, exploring the tiny shops and all the art galleries, and - of course - eating amazing food. In this grim and fractured time it may seem frivolous or self-indulgent to be remembering an era when travel to China was a (relatively) simple matter of getting a visa and booking a flight: in our new parallel universe that will likely be unthinkable for a long time to come. But in a period of growing xenophobia everywhere across the globe, it's more than ever necessary that we hold on to our dreams of trans-cultural encounters and our hopes that in the future our borders will open and our horizons will expand once more. And my nostalgia helps me with that, in a bittersweet way.
Shanghai laneway, April 2019. Photo: Luise Guest
Instead of being a Shanghai flâneur exploring ever-widening arcs around Maoming Nan Lu, I'm 'sheltering in place' like most people across the planet and wondering whether our world will ever be the same. One year ago I was in Shanghai after a week in Beijing, interviewing artists, visiting exhibitions, and enjoying the frenetic pace of this city with its complicated history. I've been thinking about what it is that I most enjoy about Shanghai, and how it is so different to Beijing. My affection was far from instant - it took quite a few years of learning the rhythms of this mega-city with its population of more than 24 million people before I suddenly realised one day that I had fallen in love with it.
Shanghai street scene, 2017. Photograph Luise Guest. 
On my first visit, arriving by high-speed train after a month spent in Beijing, I became instantly lost in the multiple exits from the station, and found it utterly alienating. I had unwittingly booked a hotel in exactly the wrong part of the city, all 8-lane highways and concrete and glass, impossible to walk around and in a construction zone difficult for taxis to navigate. It was the end of winter, and still bitterly cold and damp. On my second visit the following year, and just slightly more savvy, the taxi driver from the airport decided that a foreigner was just too much mafan and tried to make me get out on the side of the elevated expressway off ramp. Fortunately, by this time my Chinese was just barely good enough to argue, and by midnight I'd arrived at the right (very odd) hotel. Although only after he had tried to drop me at three others, apparently randomly selected.

I hired a young translator for my interviews with artists who introduced himself to me with his chosen English name as 'Troy Sailor'. He was certainly handsome and charming, but on our first trip to an artist's studio he unsmilingly told me that in China, old women like me stayed home to save their money to pass on to their children and didn't gallivant around the world on their own. A great start! But going back through my notebooks I am astonished to remember that on my very first trip, as the recipient of a travelling scholarship for art educators, in a single week I interviewed luminaries Hu Jieming, Yang Zhenzhong, Shi Qing and Pu Jie, as well as Shi Zhiying, Chen Hangfeng, performance artist Wu Meng and Monika Lin. And a very young Lu Yang, who had just recently graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. This is evidence of my own chutzpah, for sure, but also reveals the kindness and generosity of the artists and their galleries - I'm grateful to Shasha Liu and Martin Kemble from Art Labor, Lorenz Helbling from ShanghART, and to Art + Shanghai curator Diana Freundl, who had shown Shi Zhiying's beautiful paintings in a group show of women artists.
Lu Yang with 'Biological Strike Back', 2011. Photograph Luise Guest
Leaving the hotel to find somewhere to eat on my first night in Shanghai I remember being too terrified to cross the road, as hundreds of motor scooters revved their engines impatiently at every traffic light. Shanghai taxi drivers were not the chatty, chain smoking 'lao Beijingren'  with their leather jackets and buzzcuts listening to crosstalk on their radios that I had become used to, but surly characters who reversed terrifyingly, at speed, on the elevated freeway and zigzagged in and out of lanes, horns blaring and cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they swore at every other road user. Shanghai driving, it seemed, was a Darwinian exercise where only the most fearless survived. When I showed a Chinese address to one driver, he told me he didn't have his glasses so would have to borrow mine - then proceeded to hurtle down the highway, turned around to face me in the back of the cab, wearing my multifocals. At that point I truly thought I would never see my children again.

In 2012 I was still describing Shanghai as a savage beast of a city - a jabberwock with 'jaws that bite and claws that catch'. When did this change? Perhaps it was in 2013 when I had enough Chinese to feel more confidently independent, or arriving in the Spring of 2014 and realising just how beautiful the old streets are.

Former French Concession street scene, April  2019. Photograph Luise Guest

So what do I love?
The parks with their dancers and singers - of course.  I love the impromptu concerts by students in the tiny park across the road from the Shanghai Conservatorium. On each visit I try to make a very early morning visit to Fuxing Park with its staggering array of activity including the very loud, and often completely tone-deaf, amplified singers belting out anything from Chinese opera, to cheesy karaoke ballads, to Puccini.  I love watching the ballroom dancers doing rather stiff, upright, Latin moves under the watchful gaze of Marx and Engels.
Doing the cha-cha with Marx and Engels. April 2019. Photo Luise Guest
I love the tree-lined streets with their tiny shop windows where gaudy qipao and satin stilettos jostle against windows displaying rows of lacquered roast ducks or dusty mops and buckets in hardware stores. I love the lines of people waiting to buy baozi, pancakes and cakes at the famous places on Huaihai Road. I love the strange fashions in the windows of the 'Shanghai Lady' department  store. I love peering into beautiful but run-down gardens behind walls and fences. I love the sheets, towels, quilts and undies hanging from lines strung from windows, between trees, and on power lines, and the padded jackets waving in the wind on coat-hangers hooked onto street lights.
'Shanghai flags' in the French Concession. April 2019. Photo Luise Guest
Cyclists on Changle Lu, Shanghai, 2017. Photograph Luise Guest
I used to love the uniquely Shanghainese habit of wearing pyjamas in the street - often paired with high heeled shoes, and a tiny dog on a leash, or sometimes worn with fluffy slippers. Younger people found this fashion choice excruciatingly unsophisticated and over the years these sightings have become very rare. I always found it eminently practical and comfortable, if not exactly elegant.  Now that we are all wearing old track pants all day, or switching from our night pyjamas to day pyjamas to start working on laptops in our locked-down interior worlds, it also seems rather foresighted.
Shanghai street scene, 2012. Photograph Luise Guest
I love Shanghai's architecture too, from the art deco around Maoming Nan Lu and Huaihai Lu and the colonial buildings (a reminder of a dark past, but very beautiful) on the Bund. The towers topped with neon-lit, Gotham City-like spires you glimpse as you speed along the elevated freeway coming into the city are visions of a modernity of the past. The stone doorways of shikumen houses and multi-dwelling longtang laneways, whether crumbling and chaotic or restored and gentrified are beautiful. They are endangered, of course, as Shanghai undergoes a constant process of being torn down and rebuilt, like every other Chinese city.
Shanghai Longtang, Neighbours chatting, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Shanghai rooftops, 2011. Photograph Luise Guest.
Most of all I love the palpable energy of my conversations with artists in their studios - oftentimes now far outside the city centre - and their sense that anything is possible. Last April I engaged in intense conversations, recording interviews with artists ranging from painter Zhao Xuebing to video artists Li Xiaofei and Qiu Anxiong, and global new media star Lu Yang, almost ten years after we first met.
Zhao Xuebing in his studio, 2019. Photograph Luise Guest
Qiu Anxiong in his studio, 2019. Photograph Luise Guest
With Lu Yang, Shanghai, 2019
Now, of course, galleries and museums are closed, exhibitions are virtual, and art fairs are cancelled or indefinitely postponed. The future of the artworld, and of artists as nomadic beings participating in a global ecology of fairs, biennales and curated museum shows is anyone's guess. We can probably assume that after this (if there is an after this) then nothing will ever again be quite as it was.
Chen Hangfeng in his Shanghai studio, 2011. Photograph Luise Guest
Last April I travelled to the outskirts of the city to meet once again with Chen Hangfeng in a suburban villa.  I had first interviewed Chen ten years earlier in his tiny, former French Concession studio: changes in the places where artists live and work echo the changes in Chinese society over the intervening time. Chen discussed his new work 'Excited with No Reason'. This video animation was inspired in part by his new life, shuttling back and forth between Shanghai and Amsterdam, and his interest in global trade and its effects - an interest that seems even more compelling in a world brought to its knees by a pandemic that has infected the globe, vectored on planes and cruise ships.

The outcome of that conversation with a wonderful artist who jokingly describes himself as a 'half-assed literati' was published last year as Invasive Species and Global Trade Routes: A Conversation with Chen Hangfeng. Click on the link to read the article in Sydney-based online journal, The Art Life.

Artists, in Shanghai and everywhere, are continuing to work in their studios. Perhaps artists and writers, often somewhat introverted and solitary by nature, are among those whose lives are least altered by our current circumstances. I hope I shall return to see their new work and to wander those streets and laneways once again.
Shanghai street in the rain, 2011. Photograph Luise Guest

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

一 日 千 秋: 'One Day, a Thousand Autumns'

Guozijian Street, Beijing. Photo: Luise Guest

In this time of isolation, anxiety, and various kinds of sorrow both deeply personal and globally shared, a time that Nick Cave described in his newsletter as 
making us 'become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out', writing is something that I and many others are turning to. For some that takes the form of a diary or frequent social media posts, for others it might be letters to friends and family. For me and other suddenly unemployed writers it's blog posts like this one. Whatever form they take, they are all  like letters in bottles cast into the ocean. The days seem very long, and somewhat shapeless, recalling the Chinese idiom: ‘One day, a thousand Autumns’.
Guozijian Street, Beijing. Photo: Luise Guest
Looking back over this blog since I began writing it at the end of 2010, I suddenly remembered the optimism and unfettered joy of my earliest trips to China. That astonished desire to exclaim, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, ‘Well Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!’ is something I’d love to recapture. I had been so looking forward to taking my two grown-up daughters to Shanghai for their first experience of China, before Covid-19 brought the world as we knew it to a screaming halt. I am still hoping to do that eventually, although the news of China closing its borders to foreigners this week sent a chill down many spines, virus or no virus.
Hutong view near Dashilan'r. Photo: LuiseGuest
I’ve been looking back at my travels, to a time before they mostly became work trips for the job I have now lost – a sudden and unexpected redundancy that has profoundly shaken me, even in the midst of global turmoil. I’m hoping to regain my old adventurous spirit in the future as an independent writer and researcher, untrammelled by external strictures and obligations.

So, aiming for optimism and planning a new future even while living day to day, as we all now must, here are some of the things I love about China – and about Beijing in particular:


Beijing Grey. Photo: Luise Guest

There is a particular Beijing grey (and those who know me know that I do love grey!) It’s the grey walls of the hutong alleys and courtyard houses and their grey tiled roofs, echoed very often by grey and polluted air that makes those rare blue-sky days all the more miraculous.  Grey walls are offset by red doors and brightly coloured washing drying on lines, fences, or draped over powerlines – less so than in Shanghai where it used to be called ‘Shanghai flags’, but it’s still a thing. 

Hutong Washing. Photograph Luise Guest


'Beware lest suddenness happens' is one of my favourite 'Chinglish' warning notices (in the Beijing Zoo). And suddenness does indeed happen. Constantly. To follow the sound of music at 9 o'clock at night, enter the park and find more than a hundred people ballroom dancing in the dark. To come upon the water calligraphers still absorbed in brushing their beautiful characters onto the pavement at dusk. To round a corner in the park and find a man taking his songbirds in their cages for a turn around the lake. One morning I came out of the gate of my lane onto the street and found all the young real estate agents lined up outside their office with their hands on their hearts while the national anthem was played. This was quite a sight – they were usually fully occupied with lying across their motor scooters playing games on their phones, playfully pushing and shoving each other or vainly combing their hair and gazing into their mirrors. 

Blossoms in Caochangdi Gallery courtyard. Photograph Luise Guest


And that brings me to the people. My first encounters were so open-hearted and generous, from the translator I hired who told me his English name was Stanley (‘Why Stanley?’ ‘Stanley Kubrick, of course, Miss Luise’) and constantly told me to wear warmer clothes, to the very young doorman at the hotel that I had booked in my complete ignorance of Beijing geography, on the wrong side of the city. Wearing a much too big PLA greatcoat and a battered fur hat he grinned each time I left and called out ‘Man zou ah!’ (Literally, ‘walk slowly’, but meaning ‘take care’.) Because Beijing was my first Chinese city, and because I made friends in that first six-week trip that I hope will be friends for life, it has seemed almost like home to me ever since. People are incredibly kind and open-hearted, and I hope that the recent, widely reported suspicion of foreign-ness will not change that. 
Beijing street scene, 2016. Photo: Luise Guest
I have always struck up conversations (in my sadly still non-fluent Chinese) with old men sitting out in the hutongs, with mothers watching their children in the park and – especially when my daughter was expecting her first baby and I was feeling very far away – with grandmothers wheeling prams or holding hands with red-cheeked toddlers bundled up in so many padded clothes that they look like miniature Michelin men. They were probably a bit bemused by the laowai’s unsolicited ‘I’m also going to be a grandmother!’ but they were always very kind. Dancing aunties ask me to dance with them in the park, singers explain the words of their revolutionary songs, and shopkeepers sometimes run after me with change I have forgotten or gloves I've left behind: all these encounters are woven into the threads of my memories.
A feast from the Caochangdi artist hangout 'Fodder Factory', now sadly closed. Photo: Luise Guest


And finally, of course, the food. It must be said that  food has figured largely in the fascination of my time in China. The visual richness of street vendors of all kinds was a feature of any walk in Beijing – sadly many have now been moved on or returned to far provinces – and the foods on offer changed as the weather changed. Tiny sweet clementines that I have never found anywhere else in the world, whole pineapples on sticks, pomegranate juice, grilled corn, chestnuts and walnuts, congee and pancakes and baozi, sweet potato sold from braziers, and cakes: Beijingers love their 'xiao chi' (literally, ‘little eats’, i.e snacks).

Girl selling pomegranates, Beijing 2015. Photo: Luise Guest

And I remember the beautifully coloured dumplings on my very first lunch with friends in Beijing, at a tiny restaurant that I could never find again, the duck at different ‘Lao Beijing’ famous restaurants, and the fabulous hand-pulled noodles. And the cakes (some delicious, some ... odd) from Daoxiangcun, an old ‘Beijing brand’ cakeshop established in 1895 -- or 1773 depending on who you believe.

Beijing is changing – it is already a different city from the one I fell in love with ten years ago. The gentrification, the ‘Great Bricking’ that made the old hutongs that had teemed with life more blandly homogeneous, the closure of street markets, the removal of migrants who had flocked to the city from all over China and the loss of their tiny, flourishing businesses – hole in the wall noodle joints, flower shops, bicycle repair stalls, tailors and convenience stores – all this has made Beijing cleaner, certainly, but perhaps less interesting. But constant change is a given in China, and its people are nothing if not resilient and adaptable. I just hope I will see it again, and spend much more time there than I have been able to in the last five years of brief work visits.
Hutong shopping. Photo: Luise Guest
I hope the terrifying children's rides are still there, too, but I fear all these little shops selling an extraordinary mixture of dongxi will be gone with the gentrifying winds of change.

Just for the record, I’m pleased that my second-favourite Chinglish sign was still to be found in public toilets on my last visit. It says: "This is what I have been wanting to talk to you about. Please flush the toilet. You are the best."

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Liu Zhuoquan's Wronged Ghosts

Liu Zhuoquan, Object Series, 2007, glass bottles, mineral paint, dimensions variable, White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.
Liu Zhuoquan in his studio, Beijing, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Beijing-based artist Liu Zhuoquan is best known for beautiful installations of glass vessels in which delicately painted objects, animals and people are captured, suspended like specimens floating in formaldehyde. Many contemporary Chinese artists reinvent traditional art and craft forms, from ink painting to papercutting; from paper lanterns to embroidery, and from bookbinding to kite-making, mixing them up in a glorious postmodern mash-up to create ambitious large-scale installations, performance art or new media works. But Liu Zhuoquan’s practice is something entirely unique. He knew about the ancient art of nei hua, the supremely difficult process of painting the inside of tiny snuff bottles, using curved brushes and working in reverse, from the front to the back of the image. The walls of his Beijing studio are lined with shelves; on every shelf is an array of glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. Inside their curved surfaces the artist has depicted every conceivable aspect of his world. It’s like a cabinet of curiosities or a museum of specimens: as you turn your head your vision fills with crawling insects, leaping fish, fluttering birds and a vast panoply of flora and fauna. Some contain human body parts, foetuses or images of police and prisoners. By populating discarded glass vessels with miniature figures and objects, Liu is as much magician as scientist.
A wall in Liu Zhuoquan's Studio, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Liu Zhuoquan adapted the nei hua (inside painting) technique, to reflect on his own contemporary life as an artist in Beijing. Qing snuff bottles were painted with tiny landscapes, immortals, animals, flowers and birds. Traditionally, the artist uses a bent, hooked brush made with a few strands of yak hair to apply mineral colours with incredible skill and precise detailing.  In 1696, during the reign of Emperor Kangxi, the first state glass factory was set up to produce the bottles, which were presented to the royal members, senior officials, and foreign ambassadors. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, in addition to glass and porcelain, other materials such as ivory, amber, coral, agate, crystal and bamboo roots were also used for making snuff bottles.  Like many other art and craft practices seen as relics of the feudal past, this craft was largely forbidden during the Cultural Revolution.
Rows and shelves filled with painted bottles and the artist in his studio, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Liu Zhuoquan, 24 bottles, 2010, mineral pigment and binder on glass.
Photographed in artist's studio in 2011 by Luise Guest
In the 1970s a Beijing-trained painter returned to his hometown of Hengshui in Hebei Province. He was shocked at the poverty and poor living conditions of the locals and began to train some in this ancient art. Now it’s a centre of production of traditional inside-painted snuff bottles, mostly for the souvenir trade, and 20,000 people are employed painting the bottles – in China, nothing happens on a small scale! It is here that Liu Zhuoquan found his expert artisans. Working with a small team of these craftsmen as his assistants, Liu combines his contemporary sense of irony with acute observation of people, and of the fragile beauty of nature. He once described his studio as a scientific laboratory where he is recording the ‘ten thousand things’ of Daoist philosophy. In ancient China this phrase meant ‘everything that exists in the world’, the simultaneous sameness and difference of every element of the universe, the beautiful and the terrible alike.
Chang’an avenue, 2013
cast iron lamp stand, explosion-proof light globes, wire, mineral colour
dimensions variable. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries
In Seven Sparrows (2011), and Chang'An Avenue (2013) beautifully painted birds appear to flutter helplessly in their death throes inside glass light fittings. Sparrows have a very particular, personal meaning for Liu Zhuoquan – like so many others, his family was exiled, sent to the countryside in 1970, accused of being insufficiently revolutionary. As in many such cases, the farmers were understandably hostile to what they perceived as useless city people being foisted on them, more mouths to feed in a collapsing system of collectivised farms.  Liu’s father, a city tailor, was ill suited to farm labour and was given the task of chasing birds from the crops, chasing them around the fields with a stick until he dropped from exhaustion. The dying sparrows that appear in many of Liu’s paintings thus become a tragic metaphor for the artist’s father.
But as so often in Chinese contemporary art they also symbolise a larger field of Chinese history. The Four Pests campaign of Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ started in 1958. The four pests were rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows – the last included because they ate the grain seeds. The masses were mobilised to eradicate the birds, and citizens took to banging pots and pans or beating drums to scare the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. Nests were torn down, eggs were broken, and nestlings were killed, resulting in the near-extinction of the birds in China. By April 1960, Chinese leaders belatedly realised that the birds ate insects, as well as grains. Rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased. Mao ordered the end of the campaign against sparrows, but it was too late. With no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. This ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Famine, in which it is now believed that more than 40 million people died of starvation.
Liu Zhuoquan, Seven Sparrows, 2011 (detail). White Rabbit Collection Sydney
In ‘Seven Sparrows’ the seventh sparrow is the figure of a hanging man, bound at the wrists. It has two meanings here, the first being a direct reference to the media reporting of condemned criminals, and the harsh punishments meted out to them. The ‘sparrow’ is a slang term for a method of interrogation. The second, coded reference relates to the artist’s father. When he died, after a lifetime of trials and tribulations, Liu Zhuoquan thought his frail body seemed as fragile and insubstantial as a dead bird.
In the artist’s own words, each glass vessel imprisons ‘a wronged ghost being cursed, a memory or an unsettling dream’.

You can find another article about Liu Zhuoquan HERE on COBO SOCIAL, based on the catalogue essay I wrote for his Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, solo show in 2017

Monday, December 30, 2019

10,000 Things: Reflecting on a Year almost Gone

Cai Guo-Qiang's 10,000 suspended porcelain birds at the NGV. Photograph Luise Guest
On this final day of 2019, sitting at my desk with windows closed against bush fire smoke and horrifyingly hot winds, a fan blowing noisily at my feet, it seems this is the time to reflect on  a year of highs and lows. Lows there have certainly been; it has been a turbulent year of struggle and difficulty, of loss and grief, and of rising anxiety and even fear about the future that I know I share with so many. This is especially true now, when the orange disc in the sky seems almost apocalyptic and we are assailed by warnings about the air we breathe, which is equal in its polluted nastiness to any I have ever breathed in Beijing. But enough of that! One of my new year’s resolutions is to avoid the constant unsettling churn of media stories about Trump, Boris Johnson, Brexit, and our own deeply inadequate national leader: the unending reiteration of ‘news’ adds nothing to the quality of my life. Less social media too in 2020 – well, that’s the plan. But highs there have also been, not least the unconditional love of family and the absolute joy of being a grandparent. So, in this post there will be no wallowing. Instead, I’m going to celebrate some of 2019’s milestones, achievements, wonders and delights.
Poster design for the talk at Women's University, Beijing, in April 2019, featuring a work by Hong Kong artist Firenze Lai
Milestones -- there were a few big ones. They included the completion of a significant book project I’d been working on since 2015 (you can find details HERE); the publication of an article in the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art (HERE); an article in Art Monthly Australasia and a Quarterly Essay about Jingdezhen and porcelain for Garland (HERE); an essay for an NGV publication, The Centre – On Art and Urbanism in China’; the presentation of a research paper at the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Annual Conference in Auckland; a lecture to students at China Women's University, Beijing, a talk delivered via a Wechat video link to students at Peking University’s global Yenching Academy, and two talks at the NGV about the exhibition 'A Fairy Tale in Red Times' – and I’m another year closer to completing my PhD. I’ve continued my now ten-year-long study of Chinese (but, oh God, will it EVER get any easier?) Probably it's not surprising that I'm just a bit tired.
Yan Ping, Still Life, 2011, image courtesy the artist
A work from 2001 reveals Yan Ping's recurring theme of mother and child, and her influences from European modernism. Image courtesy the artist.
In late October I interviewed Beijing-based figurative painter Yan Ping, preparing to write an essay for a forthcoming book about this artist, who is not known as well outside China as her work deserves. Conducting a conversation via a WeChat video link-up late into the evening, with the artist, her assistant and my translator passing around their mobile phones in her Beijing studio was not without its challenges, and I spent a good part of the more than two-hour conversation seeing tantalisingly fleeting glimpses of the artist while the camera focused on pot plants in the background. But the talk was fascinating and revealed the life and work of an artist who was a new discovery for me.
Yan Ping loves to paint theatre and opera troupes, acrobats and musician, often in behind-the-scenes moments.
Image courtesy the artist
Wonders and delights this year included interviews with extraordinary artists visiting Sydney, including Cheng Ran, Wang Guofeng, Cao Hui and Gao Xiawu (you can find those videos HERE) and in China. A meeting with Zhu Jinshi in Beijing in April was an absolute joy, as he spoke about his participation in the ‘Stars’ exhibition in 1979, his time living and working in Germany, and the thinking behind his extraordinary sculptural installation ‘The Ship of Time’. 
Zhu Jinshi 'The Ship of Time', installation view at Tang Contemporary, Beijing, 2018. Photograph Luise Guest
I relished the opportunity to record long, in-depth conversations with 17 artists in their studios in Beijing and Shanghai, from significant established figures such as Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen to rising stars Ma Qiusha and Lu Yang, and to talk with video pioneer Zhang Peili over delicate Longjing Tea and snacks in a teahouse on the shore of Hangzhou’s idyllically beautiful West Lake. An interview with Chen Hangfeng, who now lives and works between Shanghai and Amsterdam, was fascinating, and I wrote about his new work 'Excited with No Reason' in an article called 'Invasive Species and Global Trade Routes: A Conversation with Chen Hangfengfor The Art Life HERE

Shanghai's former French Concession in Spring - bicycles, washing lines, and  neighbours chatting in leafy streets. Photographs Luise Guest
Just being in China is always a joy, and Beijing and Shanghai in April, with blossoming trees and gorgeous gardens, are especially beautiful. Not to mention the dancing aunties, Peking Opera performers and mahjong players in the parks. And the food! 
My translator, Jane, and kind-hearted driver Mr Zhang, at dinner at Shengyongxing in Beijing
In the ‘wonders and delights’ category - and as lists appear to be essential at this time of year - I add my favourite exhibitions of 2019. (Apart from the wonderful 'Hot Blood' and 'Then' at White Rabbit Gallery of course):
Qiu Zhijie, 'Mappa Mundi' (detail), UCCA April 2019
1. In Beijing, at UCCA, 'Mappa Mundi', the significant exhibition of Qiu Zhijie’s satirical socio-historical cartography of the strange world we now inhabit.
A detail of Qiu Zhijie's obsessively detailed map of China's modern and contemporary art history
2. In Shanghai, at ShanghART Westbund, the installation work of Ouyang Chun in which every piece was constructed with objects retrieved from junk salvaged from the staff living quarters of Xi’an University of Technology, where the artist had once lived with his parents. The compound was about to be demolished, so Ouyang made three trips from Beijing to Xi’an and collected almost 12 tons of rubbish and household goods. From toilet seats to timber doors and windows, from thermos flasks and crockery to rusty bedsteads, battered suitcases and broken furniture, for Ouyang every object was imbued with traces of time and untold histories. I wrote a review of this exhibition, and an account of his work, in 'Reconstructing Memory: Ouyang Chun’s ‘The Mortals’ at ShanghART Gallery' for The Art Life. Find the article HERE
Ouyang Chun, 'King and Queen Number 2', 2018, assemblage of found objects - wooden cabinet, plastic bed pans, wood, concrete, White Rabbit Collection Sydney. Photograph Luise Guest
3. At Shanghai’s Long Museum,  I loved the major retrospective of the work of  extraordinary painter Yu Hong, 'The World of Saha', which she conceived as a 'visual opera' dividing her life into four acts. The exhibition included her 'Witness to Growth' series of self-portraits and her reflections on her life at the age of 50, 'Half Hundred Mirrors'. 

4. 'Remapping Reality' at OCAT Project Space Shanghai - the first comprehensive presentation of Wang Bing’s collection of Chinese video art from the post-Olympic era. OCAT said 'In this moment of historical rupture, the exhibition attempts to take the collection as a point of departure to develop a new narrative framework that, on the one hand, is able to account for the ironies and complexities of China in the age of globalization, while on the other hand addresses the possibilities of “continuity” that is emphasized in China’s public discourse as an integral part of the Chinese experience.' 
Pang Tao (detail), installation view at Pearl Lam, Shanghai
Portrait of a teenage Lin Yan preparing to enter CAFA when it re-opened after the Cultural Revolution, by Pang Tao
5. At Pearl Lam in Shanghai, 'Material Lineage', an exhibition of work by Lin Yan and her mother Pang Tao, who is now in her 90s and recently had a solo show devoted to her work at Beijing's Inside Out Art Museum. This was especially interesting, as on the way to the airport in Beijing I'd seen the exhibition of works by Lin Yan's father, Lin Gang, at the CAFA Art Museum. Her grandfather, Pang Xinqun, was one of the founders of the modernist 'Storm Society' in Shanghai when he returned from Paris in 1930. You can find my story about Lin Yan and her extraordinary artistic lineage, 'Lin Yan: A Tale of Three Cities' in The Art Life HERE.
Lin Yan, paper installation in 'Material Lineage' at Pearl Lam Shanghai.
6. Cai Guo-Qiang's 10,000 porcelain birds at the NGV, in an inspired juxtaposition with the Terracotta Warriors. (And, of course, 'A Fairy Tale in Red Times' curated by David Williams from Judith Neilson's White Rabbit Collection).
Cai Guo-Qiang's porcelain birds at the NGV.
And finally, in non-China related experiences – yes, I do occasionally have some of those! – I loved the Cindy Sherman show at London’s National Portrait Gallery in September, the William Blake show at Tate, a tour of the newly re-opened China rooms of the British Museum before the museum opened for the day (what a luxury to be in an empty museum!) and Berthe Morisot at Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I discovered the collection of treasures from across Asia in the Musée  Guimet, and must return there one day.

So, what will 2020 have in store? Perhaps ignorance is bliss. But hopefully, for Australia, RAIN and lots of it! For me, it's writing the PhD thesis, studying Chinese with more discipline and perseverance than before, continuing my research work and - how exciting - taking my daughters to Shanghai in April for their first trip to China. Signing out for now - 新年快乐! Xinnian Kuai Le! and a Happy New Year to all.
Tang Dynasty polo-playing lady from the collection of the Musée Guimet, Paris