Today I discovered what was truly the most extraordinary landscape on the outskirts of Beijing, with a journey to Songzhuang Artists’ Village. This area is about 2 hour’s drive from central Beijing, and it is where many artists have relocated now that 798 and Caochangdi have become too expensive. Unbelievably, there are about 2,000 artists living and working in this area, in what was once a poor rural district but now looks like a post-apocalyptic, barren, dusty landscape of broken down abandoned houses and shops, loops and swirls of electric wires on poles leaning drunkenly into the roadways, broken pavements and roads, rubbish swirling in the wind, and old men riding bicycles with trailers piled high with building rubble or corrugated iron fencing. School children in bright red tracksuits cycled in and out of the crazy traffic – there is no inhibition whatsoever about driving on the wrong side of the road, leaning on the horn, playing ‘dare’ with the oncoming traffic. Several times I was covering my eyes and praying that this was not my final moment, but I am learning that despite the chaos it all seems to work without total carnage resulting. It is the dodgem car school of driving.
Improbably, in this wasteland that to me is reminiscent of the opening scenes of Peter Brooks’ bleak black and white film of King Lear, appear big signs for art galleries, shops and exhibition spaces. We look at a map at the ‘welcome centre’ – this is VAST, it would take weeks to see much at all. Many buildings are unfinished – a huge, flash new museum is rising amidst the dust – obviously the plan is for this to become a tourist drawcard and the new 798, but … there is a way to go. Some museums and expo spaces look quite modern and smart until you get up close or go inside, and then you can see there has been little or no maintenance. Things happen on a shoe string budget it would appear, and that sometimes doesn’t include much lighting.
We visit the studio of Hua Juming. In fact, I literally and most embarrassingly fall at his feet, tripping over a large rock on the pavement. Later, after we see the documentation of his performance piece, ‘Crawling the Great Wall of China” where he and his wife and son crawled along a section of the Great Wall on their bellies, my translator wryly suggested that I was engaged in some performance art too – this is my first indication that this serious young man has a sense of humour.
Hua Juming is a pixie-like character who lives here with his wife, also an artist, now that his son is grown and at university. As soon as he hears I am from ‘Audaliya’ he says “Ah, White Rabbit!” Obviously Judith Nielson’s important collection and her buying trips to China are legendary among the artists. He tells me that he enjoys the camaraderie of working in such close proximity to so many other artists. My suspicion would be that there is much ‘gan bei’ involved in these collegial get-togethers. The work in the studio, most of which he proudly tells me is already sold ‘to America’, is in some ways a pastiche of other famous Chinese artists, with recognisable images. Thoughtful and strategic appropriation? Or a way to make a quick buck from buyers who expect from Chinese art a recognisable ‘brand’? I am initially doubtful but finally persuaded that his intentions are serious and that this work has developed from a series about Western art history, with collage-like montages of iconic works by Jasper Johns, Warhol and Duchamp. These Chinese artists really do love their Pop Art – or is that what many buyers want and expect?
His performance art is in some ways more interesting. Here is his description in a self-published book, of a work from 1994 entitled ‘One Thread Penetrates One Ton of Books’, which I have to say I found utterly charming, so I reproduce it here in full:
‘One day at noon I was having a sun tan at home balcony. Suddenly I had a strong impulse to do something. So I found a pile of books and a thread. Within half an hour, I used a huge nail to drill a big hole on every book and linked with that thread. Afterwards I got a lot of sweat all over my head. Then I hung that thread together with those books up in the balcony, left them to be blown away by the wind. The wind took them away page after page. This experiment of penetrating books, directed me to an idea that I wanted to use a thread to penetrate all the collection books from the Argentina national Library in the capital. Of course the National Library’s collection were not penetrated by my thread. However in 1994 I and SHS members together did penetrate all the books in Huangshi Xinzhi Bookstore…tens of thousands of books seemed to be a mountain, it metaphoric the complicity of contemporary society and culture.”
Once Chinese artists discovered modern Western art, in the late 1980s, the lure of Dada was particularly influential, as you can see from the account of this performance art – on artists such as this as well as the more famous figures such as Ai Weiwei. I hypothesise, bumping back over the lunar landscape of Songzhuang, that there is an element of bleak absurdity in writers such as Samuel Beckett, and in Dadaist poets and artists, that the Chinese felt particularly drawn to in a post Cultural Revolution time. In fact, as I look out the window at some peasants trudging along with their faces averted from the bitter wind, I think they could indeed be Vladimir and Estragon, waiting still for Godot
I will write tomorrow about the extraordinary experience of spending an hour and a half with Wang Jianwei in his courtyard studio on the other side of Beijing, and his explanation of his new work, ‘Yellow Signal’, which opens at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art on April 1, by which time I shall be in Shanghai.