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

Monday, March 28, 2011

Day 14 - Sunday

A beautiful sunny spring day in Dazhalan and Liulichang, then to the studio of Liu Zhuoquan.

Near Dazhalan

I feel so pleased that I was able to visit the hutongs described so beautifully in Michael Meyers' book, 'The Last Days of Old Beijing'. I loved the book, and felt through reading it that I came to know the narrow alleys, and the slightly wider shopping streets lined with 'scholar trees', of Dazhalan and Liulichang where he lived and worked as a teacher (known to his students as 'Teacher Plumblosson') before the Olympics in 2008. I explored the area this morning with a gentle but very knowledgeable guide and translator, Mona, who told me which sections were original and which had been pulled down and then rebuilt (some might say 'faked'!). She told me that the government decided it would be far cheaper to pull down many of the old areas and then rebuild with new bricks and paint the fronts to look like the old shopfronts, than to restore these ancient crumbling courtyards.
Hutong doorway
Hutong rooftiles
However, enough still remains in an unreconstructed and quite chaotic state to give a very good idea of the traditional hutong life, in narrow criss-crossing alleyways just wide enough to be traversed by a small person on a bicycle, or once upon a time, a sedan chair. I went from here to the Capital Museum, in a wonderful new building - all timber, steel and glass, very beautiful - with excellent displays of historical artefacts relating specifically to the history of Beijing, and the 5th floor given over to displays relating to cultural and folk traditions. Being with a Chinese person to explain the complexities of rituals, customs and beliefs makes everything more accessible, and I feel I come away with a much better understanding of the layers of past and present that make up this city and its art. There are many school aged kids in the museum writing notes and I ask Mona whether Chinese school students also study European or American history and she says, 'Yes, a little, but don't forget we have 5000 years of our own history to learn.' This kind of puts it into perspective for an Australian!

Later in the day, when I am talking with some other Australians at 798 about coming back to Beijing in the future, Tony Scott says to me "Aha! You're hooked! I knew that would happen." And, yes, I think it's true. I want to speak better Chinese, and I cannot imagine not coming back to see the change and evolution of this extraordinary place.

In the afternoon I went with Tony Scott and his assistant and capable young translator,  Rachel, to interview artist Liu Zhuoquan, who works with traditional craftsmen who have mastered the ancient art of 'inside painting', once used on the beautiful snuff bottles dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties. In Liu Zhuoquan's practice, however, they become ways of making a comment on many aspects of life in China today. He sees the work as suggesting a scientific laboratory, as the bottles (discarded and 'found' objects referencing the everyday) contain beautifully painted, miniaturised 'experimental material' relating to nature, biology, human society and also to politics. Liu Zhoquan, although born in Wuhan, spent many years in Tibet, and the beliefs and practices of Tibetan Buddhism have profoundly affected his world view and his own art practice.
With Tony Scott and Liu Zhuoquan
Some of the bottles reference the present, and the dramatic changes people must accommodate in their daily lives as China embraces (dominates?) the global economy, for example some have expensive branded sneakers painted in them, whilst others reference much more controversial subject matter. I know that art students will be fascinated by this artist's practice, and apart from the Hong Kong Art Fair next month he will be seen in Sydney in a group show of Chinese artists at the Stella Downer Gallery in Danks Street later this year and at the next Sydney Biennale. There are also plans afoot that may result in his inclusion in the next Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane. He tells me that he is bringing 10,000 bottles to the Sydney Biennale!
Liu Zhuoquan with his bottles
Photographed by Luise Guest and used with permission of the artist
Work by Liu Zhuoquan
Photographed by Luise Guest and used with permission of the artist

Today's South China Morning Post has a story of many child labourers, some as young as 9, found working in factories in ShenZhen making Bluetooth adaptors.