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

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Days 24 and 25 – My final day in Shanghai, and one bizarre and surreal day in Guangzhou

 View of Duolun Street
Today I heard some very interesting perspectives on the Chinese and, specifically, Shanghai artworld from some gallerists, and also from 2 very different artists. It has taken longer for me to feel comfortable and confident in Shanghai, even though comparatively it has a more European and less Chinese feel, with the old European architectural heritage always evident. It has subtly insinuated itself now, though, and I feel sorry to leave when there still seems so much more to discover. This trip is just the tiniest exploration of the incredible richness of contemporary China, so I very much hope to be back again in the not too distant future – hopefully speaking more Chinese by then!
I met with George Michell, the Australian (who once upon a time in the distant past taught Chinese language and drama at Adelaide High School) who now runs Studio Rouge Gallery at its two locations in Shanghai. The gallery has been established for 8 years, and represents a range of very interesting artists including the abstract painter Qu Fengguo, whose work I much admire. George explains to me that the tradition of abstraction in Shanghai, in contrast to the figurative painting more dominant in Beijing, stems from the strong international influence in the 1920s and 1930s, thus an awareness and acceptance of modernist architecture and design, and so a sense of the modernist aesthetic, was already present in the city. In the 1980s during the ‘opening up’ period, young artists used abstraction as a means of seeking individual expression in defiant opposition to the proletarian realism in which they had been so rigorously trained. We also discussed the interesting manner in which foreign diplomats were the originators of the current Chinese art ‘boom’ – as virtually the only foreigners in China prior to the late 1990s they were the people interested in the work of Chinese artists, and were able to buy their works (at very low prices!) before any galleries, or an art market as such, came into existence.

According to George the huge and significant catalyst for the current art scene was China’s winning bid for the 2008 Olympics, as then the foreign media came to China and were amazed at what they found. "They expected people in Mao suits riding bicycles", he says, and instead found themselves in this ‘new China’ of booming industry, futurist architecture, boundless enthusiasm and determination to succeed in a global marketplace. 2004, he believes, was the start of the real art boom.

Now, however, the position is less certain, as with the sale of Baron Ullens’ collection, and also that of Charles Saatchi, buyers may be wary. Local Chinese art buyers prefer to buy in the secondary market of the auction houses, through Christies or Sotheby’s, essentially buying a ‘brand’, rather than take a risk on a new artist purchased through an independent gallery. However, George takes heart from the hordes of young people who flock to M50 galleries each weekend. The older generation are still dealing with a very complex set of circumstances stemming from the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, whereas the younger generation are design-savvy and interested in the possibilities of art, design, information technologies and their interconnectedness.
Shi Zhi Ying in her studio

Later in the day I met Shi Zhi Ying in her large studio near the ShanghART Warehouse at Taopu, on the city’s edges. A quiet and thoughtful painter in her early thirties, she tells me her work is akin to meditation, and embodies Buddhist principles of simplicity and the connectedness of all things. Her ‘ocean’ paintings (one of which is in the Sydney ‘White Rabbit’ Gallery collection) were inspired by her travels back and forth across the Pacific Ocean since 2006 while her husband, an architect, was studying in America. On one trip they visited a lighthouse, and looking down at the ocean she had the sensation that she herself vanished, and what remained from this strange but not unpleasant sensation was a sense of her connectedness with the world. After this experience she read Buddhist scriptures in order to try to understand what had happened to her. She talks about the ‘me and we’ relationship within Buddhism, and emphasises that her work relates to this notion of connectedness between people, objects and the natural world. Her interest in Buddhist principles is also evident in the removal of colour from her palette – all her works are painted in subtle gradations between black and white, and in this are reminiscent of the subtlety of traditional ink paintings.
Shi Zhi Ying with her painting of the cloth shoes 
 I ask her whether as a young woman artist she has found it difficult to be taken seriously as a painter, thinking about some of the stories I had heard from other artists such as Liang Yuanwei and Monika Lin, but she just smiles and says she has had no problems. I wonder if the fact that her galleries in both Shanghai and Beijing are run by women has been helpful, but I am aware that she does not think the fact of gender has much relevance. She tells me she has not felt much pressure; after all, unlike a male artist she is not expected to support a wife! Chinese views about gender roles, and about social expectations, are often surprising, and it is easy to make the mistake of assuming a shared understanding in a conversation, only to discover at some point that you have been speaking at cross purposes.
I admire many works in progress in her studio – she is obviously both dedicated and prolific in her practice. In particular, I am drawn to a painting of a bowl of rice on a patterned tablecloth, where she intends to paint every individual grain, just as she paints every detailed wavelet on the ocean, and every facet on her current series of diamonds, in slow, measured layers of thin paint built up to create works of great detail and visual complexity. This work was inspired when she was stuck for a subject and finding painting difficult, and went out to dinner with her husband. There she saw the bowl of rice on the restaurant table and realised that it contained all the elements she was seeking to explore in her work. I ask her to tell me about a small painting of a pair of Chinese cloth shoes, and she explains it is a wedding present for a close friend, a painting of her favourite pair of shoes. Her works are both small and large scale, and focus on the small details of everyday life - a bowl of rice, a bra, a window, a pair of shoes – as well as on the enormity and vastness of the ocean. In her view, these things are not different, they make up the pieces of a whole existence in the world.

 High Seas (Series: Sea Sutra, 2009) Shi Zhi Ying
Shi Zhi Ying - Sea Painting - photographed by Luise Guest and used with the permission of the artist

Yang Zhenzhong in his studio 
Later, I meet another of the pioneers of new media and video in China, Yang Zhenzhong, who is re-editing his earlier work ‘I Will Die’, in which he asked random people found on the street and in shops and workplaces in 4 different countries to speak those words to the camera. The result is startling – both funny and disturbing. He wanted to explore the taboo subject of mortality and force people to confront it, but also to see how people altered their behaviour and ‘acted’ when faced with a camera. Like his peers Hu Jieming and Pu Jie he talks freely about the days of the student  movement of the 1980s, and also the way in which the ‘opening up’ of China introduced him to the work of artists such as Bill Viola. He will show ‘I Will Die’ in its new version (on a single screen rather than the original 10) in Beijing, together with the project completed with support of the giant Siemens Factory, ‘Spring Story’ in which 1500 workers at the factory were asked to recite a few words each from Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Southern Campaign Speech’. This was the famous speech which foreshadowed the complete transformation of China through the introduction of foreign capital and the creation of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province as the world’s factory. As workers on the assembly line know only their single task and not the whole, so the people in the video knew only the words they were allocated to speak and not where they came from or their meaning. Thus the process of creating the work aligned itself to the nature of work in a factory – a metaphor for modern China.
I have been reading an interesting book, ‘Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China’ by Leslie T. Chang, which connects directly to this theme. She puts a human face to the economic phenomenon of modern China, interviewing many young migrant workers in Guangdong Province in pieces originally written for the Wall Street Journal. “Today China has 130 million migrant workers. In factories, restaurants, construction sites, elevators, delivery services, house cleaning, child raising, garbage collecting, barber shops and brothels, almost every worker is a rural migrant. In large cities like Beijing and Shanghai, migrants account for a quarter of the population; in the factory towns of south China, they power the assembly lines of the nation’s export economy. Together they represent the largest migration in human history, three times the number of people who emigrated to America from Europe for over a century.” Her book explains how the history of modern China actually begins with the Taiping Handbag Factory in Dongguan, near Shenzhen.
On gallery rooftop in Weihai Lu 
On Thursday I left Shanghai on an obscenely early flight to Guangzhou, where I visited a teacher at the Guangzhou Nanhu International School, and also interviewed Professor Li Gongming at the Guangzhou Fine Arts Academy (more on those experiences later). Guangzhou didn’t feel like China to me – the difference between the north and south is so stark. It is subtropical, lush and humid, with gardens and parks filled with bougainvillea, palm trees and the beautiful bauhinia trees also seen in Hong Kong. The streets are lined with stalls selling snacks and tropical fruits. It is also extraordinarily multicultural, which I noticed on my visit to the school, and also at the airport later that night. This is really unusual in China – Shanghai has many westerners and expats but in Beijing, for example, I was often the only western person on the streets or in the markets in the area where I was staying. Even in tourist destinations such as the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace, most of the tourists are Chinese, not westerners.
At Guangzhou airport last night about half the travelling passengers were African, with many departing flights to Ethiopia and other African destinations listed on the electronic screens. My hired translator for the day, whose command of English was not entirely convincing, actually learned both French and English whilst working in Senegal. He spoke English with an African/French/Chinese accent, which is quite something, but makes for difficult communication in an interview with a third person!
Now back in Hong Kong, with the news about the detention of Ai Weiwei in the Hong Kong press, I will have some time to process some of the experiences and encounters of the last month. I want to think especially about the different schools and arts academies I have visited, and how those experiences may connect with what I have discovered in my meetings with the artists. I will be visiting the Hong Kong International School and the Canadian International School next week, and interviewing some more young Hong Kong artists here.
Shikumen(Stone House) doorway in Shanghai