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, December 2, 2012

Jiving at the Temple of Heaven

Snack vendor selling doufu
Water Calligrapher at the Temple of Heaven
When I walked out onto the street this morning into a temperature of minus 5 degrees, a white sky and a drifting fog, all my memories of Beijing came flooding back with the first three wheeled bicycle that sailed past, its tray loaded up with firewood, ridden by an ancient man wearing an old army greatcoat and a hat with fur earflaps. Then I smelt the mixture of coal burning stoves and roast chestnuts from the street snack vendor and it all seemed new and strange - last time I was here it was spring, and now it's well and truly winter. Tomorrow it may snow. 

Sunday morning Jive Session near the Temple of Heaven

Apart from eating sea cucumber for the first (and very likely the last) time in my life, today has been filled with a mixture of the strange, the wondrous and the amusing. I walked through the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven, shamelessly and voyeuristically watching the ballroom dancers twirling and circling to recordings of weirdly Chinese versions of the Cha Cha Cha and the Foxtrot.  I found a group doing a somewhat slow and stately jive next to the Eastern Gate. I was persuaded to have a go at Tai Chi with bats and a ball with long streamers attached, and then avoided the vendors trying to sell me the bats and balls. I found old men playing dominoes and old ladies playing cards, and a very large group of senior citizens singing vigorously, accompanied by a brass band of both western and chinese instruments. When I asked what they were singing, my companion said, "Oh they're old people, they're singing about Chairman Mao", in a rather derisive tone. I think they were about my age, so that was a bit mortifying.

I felt a little voyeuristic, too, walking through one of the remaining hutong neighbourhoods and peering into doorways and down tiny narrow alleys, but the people are so friendly, responding with good-natured amusement to my fractured Chinese - and it is a truth universally acknowledged that if you make friends with people's dogs, they warm to you quickly, even if you are a large and curious westerner in a horrible red hat!
Old men playing dominoes at the Temple of Heaven

Later in the afternoon I met with young artist Li Tingting, whose ink on paper works are in the White Rabbit collection in Sydney. In 2004, having made a serious study of the traditions of ink painting and calligraphy since her teens, she realised that she could apply these ancient cultural practices to making art that reflected contemporary life: in particular, her own life as a young woman. Her work at that time was in traditional scroll form, using delicate shades of pink, and she selected subject matter that related to her own immediate world - hundreds of disposable plastic water bottles in one work, or beautiful stiletto shoes in another. She told me with some amusement that people asked her if she was an environmentalist, or a feminist, so I was a bit hesitant to then ask the same obvious question. I said, 'But surely in choosing to paint delicate high-heeled shoes you were on some level making a comment about the expectations for women to look a certain way, dress a certain way?' Tingting denies that interpretation of her work, however, telling me that she wanted to celebrate aspects of her own life, not make a cultural critique. 

Since that time, her new work has developed in an interesting and unexpected way since she encountered the work of Cy Twombly in a German art museum. Large ink paintings of pieces of solid furniture, or ornate and opulent chandeliers, feature drips and stains of pigment in a manner that links literati paintings of mountainous misty landscapes with American expressionism. I am intrigued by her work, especially as I see a connection with Gao Ping, an artist of the same generation of young Chinese women carving a path for themselves in the testosterone-fuelled Chinese artworld. Gao Ping is also an ink painter reinventing Chinese traditions to reveal her own inner and outer worlds. And, incidentally, she too paints furniture. Interesting....

As I found every day last time I was in China, tradition underpins modern life in so many ways, both obvious and subtle. And the two constantly collide, like the dancers jiving and waltzing in the place where the Emperor once performed  sacrificial rites. 

In this street, for example, men were at work this afternoon laying down cable for better internet services..... 

And here the song birds in their tiny cages hang from the power lines.....