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

Friday, March 25, 2011

Days 11 and 12 – Spring arrives in Beijing

Outside my open window tonight there is a constant blaring of horns and ringing of bicycle bells, but the air actually smells like spring instead of like choking dust. Just today I have seen more magnolia trees in flower, weeping willows with green buds everywhere and workers in orange uniforms watering the dusty patches that may soon, perhaps, turn into grass. This feels like a different city than the one I arrived in exactly a week ago. Partly perhaps because I have overcome my shock at its immensity, and sometimes when I am in a taxi, or walking, I even know (sort of) where I am, and partly because the arrival of spring has changed the atmosphere in the streets.

I have had an amazing two days, which have been so full that it is hard to know where to begin to describe them. Today, thanks to an introduction from Professor Ian Howard, Dean of UNSW College of Fine Arts, I spent most of the day at the Central Academy for Fine Arts. This was quite extraordinary – an enormous institution which is legendarily difficult for students to get into. They accept only the most gifted of applicants, and in a tour which encompassed the Printmaking, Painting and Sculpture studios, as well as an exhibition of work by First Year Design students, I was utterly astonished at the standard of their work. Chinese art students are taught with an academic rigour that is long vanished in the west. There are many viewpoints about this, yet the artists that emerge from this system, including many of those on the faculty, are at the cutting edge of the avant-garde.

It was exciting to be there, breathing in the (no doubt toxic) fumes in the etching, lithography, woodblock printing and screen printing studios, which reminded me of my own student days, long before OHS and Chemical Safety ruled our lives! I was in a state of extreme envy at the size of the etching presses and the setup of these studios, where students were intently going about their work in a serious and dedicated way. Then to the First Year Painting classes, where students were painting at their easels from 2 models, set up at either end of the room. Studio after studio, down a long corridor, was set up in this way. Their paintings were very, very good. I loved being there – going into painting studios is something I immediately understand and where I feel at home, breathing in the smell of oil paint and solvent fumes – the smell of art! I was invited to join a delegation of faculty and students from the Norwegian Academy of Fine Arts, and we had some interesting discussions over lunch about the relative merits of a ‘free’ and ‘conceptually based’ western system of art education versus the rigorous and academically challenging system which operates in China.
Later, in the fabulous CAFA Museum (which was also showing a large touring exhibition of works from the Uffizi Museum in Florence) I looked closely at an exhibition of work by first year students in the Design Faculty. This was also pretty astonishing in its technical excellence, but also for the way in which the students are encouraged to think creatively in response to the demands of specific design limitations. The curriculum owes much to Walter Gropius and the German Bauhaus, acknowledged explicitly by the Director of the Faculty.

It is probably not surprising that CAFA is a powerhouse of art education – Beijing, after all, is a city in which a reputed 10,000 artists live and work. This is an amazing statistic!

I met two of those artists yesterday.

The first part of Thursday involved another long and hair-raising drive down dusty rutted laneways where dogs (many, many scruffy dogs of every possible shape, size and breed) wander at will, nosing through the rubbish, and cyclists are on what appears to be a suicide mission. Women push their prams straight in front of speeding trucks and buses. Very small children sit unsteadily on the back of bicycles, or sometimes on the handle bars, and teenagers give each other a ride – sometimes 3 kids to one bicycle. I am not sure how we arrive safely at the studio of Liang Yuanwei, in a district called the Black Bridge Artists’ Village, in Caochangdi, but somehow we arrive unscathed. The driver is not happy about his car, however, and is polishing the exhaust pipe with his handkerchief and muttering darkly as Stanley and I enter her studio.
Photographed by Luise Guest and used with permission of the
I first encountered Liang Yuanwei’s work in the collection of the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney, and was immediately drawn to it. Richly painted impasto canvases simulate pieces of cloth, some patterned with flowers, some with checks or dots. The cloth was collected from friends and relatives, some has a personal significance or a memory attached, but mostly I think it is intended to be quite banal, creating a surface on which the artist can layer rich painterly surfaces. A recent exhibition, the Golden Notes, was said by art critics to resemble Song Dynasty ‘bird and flower’ patterns, referencing Chinese history.

A small, quiet and intense young woman, now heralded by the press as ‘one of the best Chinese painters under thirty five’, which she finds quite amusing, Liang Yuanwei pours green tea and talks about the enormous shift in her life. From unwillingly graduating from the Design department at CAFA because her father would not permit her to study Fine Arts, and having to ‘lose face’ by asking undergraduate students to show her how to stretch a canvas; she is now to show her work at the next Venice Biennale, in the Chinese Pavilion with renowned artist Song Dong. She will then show at the London Art Fair, followed by her 2nd show at Pace Galleries Beijing with iconic artists Sol Lewitt and Agnes Martin. Not someone to blow her own trumpet, she quietly says she hopes not to embarrass herself in the company of such great artists.

The past decade has been lonely. As a self-taught painter, not a graduate from the CAFA Painting Department, she was not accepted in the Beijing art scene, and had to fight for herself and to “act tough”, dealing with gallery directors who ignored her, and one who famously told her “There are already too many female painters”. Liang says she has always been something of a rebel, living ‘in the margins’ in a rock and roll culture. It is ironic perhaps, that as we discuss the current Chinese art world she agrees that in China today many young people aspire to be artists – artists now occupy the space once reserved for rock and roll stars.
Photographed by Luise Guest and used with permission of the
During our conversation Liang refers to artists who have been of great significance to her, such as the pioneering sculptor Eva Hesse, Mark Rothko, and also Wolfgang Tillmans, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. The most profound influence, however, which I immediately identify and understand when I see her recent minimalist and beautiful installation pieces, was the German artist Joseph Beuys. As a young girl, she always knew she wanted to be an artist, but at that time she knew only of Van Gogh and one or two famous local Chinese realist artists. Only much later did she find out that there was another way to make art. While she was studying Design at CAFA in 1995, some of her tutors returned to China from Berlin, bringing back with them contemporary art, in particular, the conceptual ‘Fluxus’ work of Joseph Beuys.

Liang is a determined and courageous woman, and she is now embarked on a path which she says is a balance of possibilities, between fear and trust – an artistic trajectory in which she is also caught up in China’s transformation and the dramatic changes in its economy, culture and politics. She says the change is so fast that she has had to turn inward, to find a quiet and calm place, and true values.
Photographed by Luise Guest and used with permission of the
This idea is one I hear over and over again from Chinese artists, and from other people that I talk to. My translator, Stanley, I discover today, has quit his well-paid job in a pharmaceutical company because he is unhappy about corporate ethics, and wants to be a writer. He talks knowledgeably about books, poetry, Chinese history and spirituality. He is writing a novel about three generations of a Beijing family, and we talk about his desire to write and to teach. He is unsure what the future may hold for him, but he does not want to go into his family’s pickled meat business, and for the moment prefers to work as a tour guide and translator.

One thing that fascinates me here is that educated people are completely at ease with an identity as an intellectual. The artists I have met are articulate, deeply thoughtful, well-read and conversant with both Chinese and Western history and philosophy. It is most unlike our Australian suspicion and quick labelling of people as having ‘tickets on themselves’ or showing off. From the distinguished 53 year old Wang Jianwei, a former young soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, who as a young man in Sichuan spent a year being ‘re-educated’ in the country; to younger artists such as Liang Yuanwei, artists talk books, writers, history, philosophers and theory with a passionate intensity which is lacking in Australia. Perhaps it is only people who have known what happens when education is removed, as it was for so many during the Cultural Revolution, who can really value it. Liang talks about an important book by the American James Cahill, a reinterpretation of classical Chinese art. Stanley says to me later, “Yes, I have read that book and I agree with Miss Liang Yuanwei that it is very important”.

I am embarrassed to be so ignorant.

Meeting with Liang was just the start of an extraordinary day in which I also met the artist Hu Qinwu, whose work is permeated by Buddhist spirituality and whose gentle demeanour and profoundly beautiful paintings captivate me; visited the studio of Tony Scott, who runs China Art Projects in Beijing; and ended with a dinner in a beautiful restaurant designed to resemble a Qing Dynasty courtyard house.