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, December 13, 2012

Just what is it that makes Shanghai so different, so appealing?

My sentiments exactly, after a day experiencing all the contradictions of modern China. This is a work seen at Vanguard Gallery in M50

I go to sleep at night with all the Chinese phrases and sentences floating around in my head that I somehow haven't been able to remember during the day when I need them. In my dreams I am wonderfully fluent, but during my waking moments it is as if I have been rendered mute. I stumble through basic requests, usually forgetting the interrogative 'ma?' in my questions, so I must sound weirdly declarative. Sometimes I obviously sound better than I am, so am met with a flood, a torrent, an avalanche of Chinese and have to shamefully declare 'Wo bu mingbai' - I don't understand. I am absurdly pleased with myself when very simple conversations are conducted successfully in Chinese - albeit with a fair bit of mime and gesturing. People are wonderfully good-humoured and like to practice their English, so we get by with good grace on both sides - although I find they are generally very amused by the notion of any foreigner attempting to speak Chinese. Secretly I suspect they think we are absolute barbarians.

Sometimes this seems to be in fact the case. Last night as I was desperately flinging myself into the path of the terrifying Shanghai traffic, attempting to hail a cab, a middle aged Australian couple got out of a taxi next to me and the man said, "You might as well take this one, he can't seem to understand my instructions". Why on earth would you expect him to? is what I wanted to ask, but instead gratefully jumped in. Later I felt guilty, thinking I should have tried to help them communicate, but I must have been infected by some of the Chinese 'every woman for herself' attitude in public spaces. And I didn't like my compatriots appearing both ignorant AND arrogant. Also they had just come out of a very swanky hotel, so too bad!

Embarrassing Chinese moments: "Tai Chi Le!"
  1. Almost falling headfirst out of a Chinese toilet at the feet of an artist in his gallery. I had temporarily forgotten that Chinese-style toilets have a steep step at the door. A quick recovery and a (probably unconvincing) attempt to suggest that I had always intended to exit the 'ce suo' with astonishing speed was my strategy to save face here
  2. Involuntarily screaming loudly in the back of a Shanghai taxi as we swerved violently through an intersection, scattering riders of bicycles, pedi-cabs and pedestrians, almost colliding with a bus. I have become very used to the no-seatbelts, drive across multiple lanes and on the wrong side of the road and through red lights whenever you feel like it modus operandi, but this journey was horrific even by Shanghai standards. I sat gripping the door handle, thinking I may never see my children again. and  uttering moans and gasps, with the driver looking at me sideways in contempt
Three more things not to select from a Chinese menu:
  1. Bullfrog in sauce
  2. ' New York' pizza - I have tried this and it is neither New York style nor pizza
  3. 'Yuanyang' or Cantonese coffee/tea drink, a mixture of a small amount of instant coffee and Hong Kong style milk tea. My very sophisticated university lecturer Chinese friend drank this to accompany stir fried seafood and a Malaysian curry, much to my disbelief
Shi Qing, Shanghai Electricity Shopping Mall, Shanghai Biennale
Installation, Shanghai Biennale
Installation detail, Shanghai Biennale
Installation, Shanghai Biennale
The last few days have exposed once again the extraordinary contradictions of China, as seen through the  the microcosm lens of the artworld. From the quiet, contemplative and thoughtful practice of Shi Zhiying, steeped in Buddhism and the traditions of ink painting; to the internationalism of the Shanghai Biennale and some apocalyptic exhibitions at M50; to the Shanghai Museum's blockbuster show of Chinese ink painting and calligraphy from American museums; to sentimental socialist realism at the Shanghai Art Museum; to social activism through art in the work of a number of painters and the performance artist Wu Meng: everything goes into the stir fry that is China today.

I started the day at the very wonderful Shanghai Museum, which is housed in a rather ugly building designed to resemble an ancient bronze 'ding' vessel and containing a fabulous collection. The exhibition of paintings and calligraphy from museums such as the Metropolitan in New York, the Cleveland Art Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was packed with Chinese visitors of all ages, intently reading the calligraphy and peering at the scrolls and paintings in silence. I felt like such a frivolous dilettante flitting from one to the next and trying to remember the historical sequence of the different dynasties. It is very possible to see the strong influence that these traditions continue to have on contemporary artists - especially literati painting and Song Dynasty Bird and Flower painting. And humbling to see what the Chinese were doing during Europe's  Dark Ages.

I visited my favourite Tang Dynasty 'equestrienne' sculptures - love those feisty girls riding bareback - and also the court ladies looking terribly smug with their moon-like faces and fat rosy cheeks.

With a brief detour past the men playing cards and mahjong in People's Square, under the eyes of a statue of a revolutionary hero, I entered the Shanghai Art Museum, previously the European-only club of the Shanghai Racecourse, to discover myself deep in the sentimental land of socialist realism - the motherland in fact, as the exhibitions title declared. I have seen a number of these exhibitions in China, where artists employ their exemplary skills to depict scenes like those in a Victorian narrative painting with a moral - they always remind me of the Holman Hunt  work 'The Awakening Conscience' except that they depict beautiful idealised peasant girls and happy ethnic minority peoples herding their sheep. In fact, they are not unlike the photographs sold to tourists in Xintiandi and Tianzifang, which so often use dirty-faced ethnic minority children as their subjects. In these there is an unpleasant kind of Orientalism and 'exotification', as well as a romanticisation of a reality that is more often difficult, unpleasant and politically fraught. Ironically, the artist is based in LA and paints for an international market of nostalgic Chinese. The Shanghai Art Museum was, however, once again, full of Chinese visitors taking photos of the works on their mobile phones and buying postcards to take home.
Li Zijian poster at the Shanghai Art Museum - teeth clenching sentimentalism
Li Zijan, part of a series of paintings of young idealised rural women clutching letters
Artists have responded to the dramatic and growing wealth disparity in China in a number of ways. Suzhou Gallery in M50 showed paintings by a  group of artists participating in a project travelling to Hunan and Jiangsu Province and painting old people, young migrant workers, and children in the village school. Unfortunately there was no information available in English about the artists or the project. The paintings were good - strong, expressive and allowing the subjects full dignity, without romanticising their hardship. These young migrant workers lead hard lives with an optimistic determination to reinvent themselves, far from rural poverty, in the factories of the Pearl River Delta. 
Artist Unknown, Young Migrant Workers, Suzhou Gallery, M50
Artist Unknown, Village School, Suzhou Gallery, M50
At the Biennale a project of video interviews of old people from the villages of remote provinces and from older areas of the big cities is an attempt to record their stories and memories. Walking through the hanging installation of the still images of their faces is quite a haunting experience.

The painter Yi Wei is showing large and fabulously painterly canvases recording the impoverished living conditions of migrant workers and the urban poor. Reminiscent of the virtuousity of Liu Xioadong, I found these paintings gripping, absolutely unsentimental yet filled with humanity and compassion. There is a growing awareness and unease here about the social implications of the changes that have taken place in the last ten years, and a growing bitterness about the 'mega-rich' and their conspicuous consumption of all the status symbols of western fashion, from Philippe Patek watches to Louis Vuitton handbags and Porsches. In fact there is a web site that tracks the watches worn by members of the People's Congress and publicises them online. The other day, performance artist and activist Wu Meng told me about the film project she is working on, recording interviews with the 'educated youth' who were exiled from Shanghai to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Now elderly, and in many cases returned to the city of their birth, they feel angry and  unfairly treated. There are many such projects, some more politically sensitive and potentially dangerous to the artists than others, reflecting a growing interest in justice and a growing compassion for the 'underdog'.
Wu Meng in her Shanghai studio
Wu Meng's performance 'Security, Sad Clown' at Shanghai Expo, 2010
Another artist, Li Xiaofei, has presented a video work called 'Assembly Line' in which he interviewed factory workers, managers and owners about their lives, examining the relationships between man and machine, management and labour, and the individual and society. One of the women interviewed spoke about her work in the past enforcing family planning regulations and the one child policy, another issue currently being re-examined here.

Yi Wei, 'Slumdog'
Yi Wei, 'Slumdog'
Yi Wei, Old House
Yi Wei, Factory
At M50, the enclave of artist studios and galleries (the good, the bad and the ugly) next to Suzhou Creek I wandered the galleries for most of the afternoon. At Vanguard, a bizarre and interesting curated show 'Just What is it that Makes the End of the World so Appealing?' included works by the Made-In collective - a tent surely intended to reference Tracy Emin's notorious 'Everyone I Have Ever Slept With since 1963' and Yang Zhenzhong's video in which a series of people spit what appears to be blood over the camera in a repetitive sequence, recalling his famous 'I Know I Will Die' video from some years ago.
Hu Xiangcheng, ' Just What is it that Makes the End of the World so Different, So Appealing?', installation at Vanguard Gallery, M50, Shanghai
Hu Xiangcheng, ' Just What is it that Makes the End of the World so Different, So Appealing?', installation at Vanguard Gallery, M50, Shanghai
Made-In, Tent for Safety D
Yang Zhenzhong
Yang Zhenzhong
Yang Zhenzhong
At Island 6 (Liu Dao) 'The Cat That Eats Diodes' revealed their characteristic crossover hybrid works that blend painting, sculpture, light and sound, and computer generated animation. Sometimes too commercial for my taste (and, sometimes, quite frankly, sexist in their approach to the representation of women) nevertheless a really interesting collective art practice that integrates new technologies with artmaking. And a real indication of the interest in Shanghai of the way that boundaries between art, design, architecture, fashion and even events can be blurred.
Liu Dao (Island 6) Interactive Work - when you call the number, something will happen!
And you will get a text message from the character in the artwork. Witty, engaging and surprising. 
Art? I am still unsure.
At Studio Rouge, a number of different works including some of Huang Xu's beautiful plastic bags photographed to transmogrify them into 'scholar rocks', thus making a comment on the influence of the literati in Chinese tradition and the significant issues of environmental degradation and pollution. With his wife, Dai Dandan, he developed the recent installation show at Studio Rouge in Shanghai and later in Hong Kong. 'Mr and Mrs Huang in the Humble Administrator's Garden' combined his photographs and other sculptural works in which he uses buttons to create temples and pagodas, with Dai Dandan's 'luxe' scholar rocks encrusted with rhinestones.  A witty and beautiful play on the Chinese obsession with gardens as miniature perfected landscapes.
Huang Xu and Dai Dandan in their studio, Beijing, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artists

Having spent a morning this week wandering the Yu Gardens here and having all the various levels of symbolism explained to me by my young and very serious translator I feel I have just a glimmering of understanding.
Yu Gardens Shanghai, a rare non-touristed moment of tranquillity

At OV Gallery, an exhibition by painter Shi Jing, 'The Remains of the Day', also seems a little apocalyptic. Curator Rebecca Catching, whom I met today, says that his "asteroid series takes this concept of elapsing time to a new and cosmological level. Images of asteroids, which were taken from an Internet fan-site, are applied to the canvas using a combination of brushstrokes moving in different directions to depict the bulbous, pockmarked forms. What fascinates Shi Jing is the idea that for an asteroid, travelling an average of 90,000 km an hour, these photos are outdated even by the time they are taken. What we perceive is merely an image of an asteroid which is now light-years away from where it once was." The paintings become an installation with frames constructed with protruding LED lights which cast eerie shades of green, blue and magenta onto the dark surfaces. This continues the artist's interest in the vastness of the cosmos.

Shi Jing, Seen in Passing, courtesy of Chambers Fine Art Beijing
There seems to be a somewhat apocalyptic theme here, and in a week in which North Korea fired a long range missile and many memorial ceremonies of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre took place across China,  that may be most appropriate. Meanwhile, however, the men in People's Square play mahjong and in Fuxin Park they fly kites and play cards. Life continues in all its banality and its beauty.

Playing cards under the watchful eye of Marx and Engels
Gathering in People's Square

Kite Flyer at Fuxin Park