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, December 14, 2012

Shanghai to Xiang Gang

Ah Hong Kong! Toilets flush, traffic lights are obeyed, nobody is spitting in the street right next to me, and whilst it can seem chaotic and frenetic there is still a sense of order and stability. As Fuschsia Dunlop so memorably said, Hong Kong is like a decompression chamber after being in mainland China. It is strange to hear Cantonese, with its long "maaaaaa" and "laaaaa" sounds at the ends of sentences, after the more clipped  tones of Mandarin. And just when I was getting a little bit better at communicating!

When I arrived today I was struck anew by the contrasts. Glitzy storefronts with mildewed apartments stacked above. Beautiful mountains rising out of the sea like a literati painting juxtaposed with enormous slender tower blocks and  outlet malls. In Kowloon two men with a sign reading "Keep away from Falun Gong Evil Cult" lounged against the wall of the Gucci shop next to a poster advertising cosmetic surgery and a woman handing out foot massage leaflets. Mainland Chinese queued in long noisy lines to get into Prada, Chanel and Burberry on one side of Canton Road whilst on the other side Hong Kong citizens queued patiently at bus stops, waiting for buses to far suburbs.

Louise Hawson of '52 suburbs' fame has some great photographs of Hong Kong housing estates - check them out here:

On Sunday I will go out to Fo Tan to see the artist Lam Tung-pang in his studio in that previously industrial neighbourhood. Now all the industry is pretty much over the border. And so are many of the workers who can commute to Shenzhen or Donguan and be paid in RMB.

Reflecting on my past two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai - I have learned so much and been so privileged to be welcomed into studios and galleries with great warmth and kindness. Ordinary people from taxi drivers to hotel staff to shop assistants have generally been helpful and friendly - maybe it's my grey hair!

Three things I love about China:
  1. The sense that anything is possible, no matter how ambitious, and can be achieved very fast. Quite possibly by tomorrow if you like (although it may very well fall apart soon after that)
  2. The way that elderly people are treated with devotion, respect and care
  3. The openness and generosity of ordinary people. I cannot imagine that I would be welcomed into artists' homes and studios in the same way anywhere else - certainly not in Australia
Three things I don't love about China:
  1. Spitting loudly and revoltingly in the street 
  2. Food safety fears - every day the newspapers contain stories about adulterated milk, or prosecutions of farmers for adding chemicals to the feed of pigs or chickens
  3. Air quality - it is appalling
Three silly moments from a week in Shanghai:
  1. Channel flicking from one CCTV station to another, I came across 'China You've Got Talent', featuring a competitor who said he was a 28 year old worker from Shandong Province. He was dressed inexplicably as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and he performed by juggling eggs with his mouth, shooting them up to the ceiling and catching them again to the wild applause of the audience and the apparent approval of the judges. Chinese TV has a zillion variations on music and MTV style shows, mostly featuring very pretty boys with improbable hair-dos and girls whose role appears to be to giggle on cue. And incredibly soppy romantic love songs with videos starring girls who swoon and are rescued by young men who look extremely gay.
  2. Yesterday in M50 I walked into an upmarket art gallery and found three very glamorous young gallery assistants all dancing 'gangnam style' to THAT track. They collapsed into helpless and embarrassed giggles when they realised I was there.
  3. Walking in Fuxin Park I came across senior citizens playing a game that resembled bowls, or maybe bocce. It was all very serious - they had uniform team aprons in different colours and a referee with a microphone headset, but they seemed to be having great fun. Much confusion ensued when I asked them what the game was called and about 6 people all tried to explain the rules to me -all in Chinese and all talking at once. Little did they know that I don't understand the rules of ANY sport, much less something that is played only in China!
Three friends watching the ball game at Fuxin park
And three favourite artworks - although there are so many it is almost impossible to narrow it down

1. Cui Guotai, a painter I had not come across before - I loved his raw expressionist works of military hardware and industrial installations fallen into decay. Like a eulogy for the Socialist Utopia.

Cui Guotai
2. Liu Zhuoquan's new work is very exciting - a development from his 'neihua' inside painted bottles as seen in White Rabbit and the Biennale of Sydney, he is now working with lights and developing larger installations. These birds are painted on the inside of the lamps which are intended to evoke those on Chang'An Avenue in Beijing, leading to Tiananmen Square. The black birds are birds of ill omen, a dangerous portent. And a coded political meaning as in so much of this artist's work. The references are very subtle, but they are very deliberate and intentional.

Liu Zhuoquan with his new installation, bound for an exhibition in Australia.
Photograph Luise Guest, reproduced with permission of the artist and China Art Projects
3. The new works by Gao Ping - she continues her subtle and delicate ink on paper works of 'tiny things' - rows of tin mechanical toys, sad stuffed animals, tiny people or cars, miniature gardens or pot plants, floating on expanses of Chinese paper. However she has developed strong works in oil on paper and canvas, exploring a palette of subtle greys, fleshy pinks and celadon green, from which murky forms emerge from a misty wash of pigment. They are evocative and very beautiful works.
Gao Ping, untitled, oil on canvas, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects

Gao Ping is an artist who impressed me enormously with her quiet dedication to advancing her practice - unflashy, unpretentious, absolutely sincere and genuine in her determination to keep learning.

Gao Ping Studio View, Photograph Luise Guest
Gao Ping in her studio, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
Actually I lied - I can't leave it at three. I have to include Dong Yuan and her paintings of her grandmother's house - multiple small canvases making up the entire 4-roomed house as it was in Dalian in the artist's childhood, reconstructed from photographs, memories and interviews with her relatives:

Dong Yuan, Grandmother's House, oil on multiple canvases to make up installation,
 image reproduced courtesy of the artist
And. finally, the truly astonishing work by Huang Yong Ping in the Shanghai Biennale, 'Thousand Hands Kuanyin' - this artist continues to amaze, delight and impress.

Huang Yong Ping, Thousand Hands Kuanyin, Shanghai Biennale