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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

北京日记:秋风 Beijing Diary: Autumn Winds

Artist Gao Rong in Beijing, photo Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
View of the lake, Tuanjiehu Park

I went to Hong Kong for the weekend and returned from that steamy city to find unexpected blue skies and a definite chill in the air here in Beijing. The women in my neighbourhood with their baskets of shopping and tiny grandchildren are rugged up in warm coats, and even the small skinny dogs loved by Beijingers are wearing bizarre fluffy coats. Some of them appear to be wearing velour tracksuits of the type once favoured by Hollywood starlets, which is most disconcerting. The vendors of grilled corn and sweet potatoes are out each morning as I walk to Chinese class, and there are chestnuts in the market. The clear(ish) blue skies won't last, but it is very cheering. Beijing can be a grey city under grey sky filled with dust, smog and soot. This time around I am noticing that fewer people are smoking in the streets and restaurants.But compared to most cities Beijing is still a smoker's paradise and I've had a few trips in taxis where the driver smoked continuously. The air outside is worse, so no point in opening the windows! Unfortunately the spitting in the street habit is still very much in evidence. I am startled every time I see a chic young girl, dressed to the nines, suddenly clear her throat loudly and spit right onto the footpath beside me. 

As I sit here with a cup of green tea and a packet of cashews ("Taste of fashion, experience of the most valuable") I can't help feeling a little pleased with myself for negotiating this vast city and all its complexities without too many major mishaps of communication. I am quite possibly putting my big Australian foot in it all over the place unknowingly, but I find people so helpful and friendly in a way that is utterly disarming. They are willing to decipher my attempts to communicate which include mime and semi-theatrical performances of acts like sending letters, or buying band-aids, or asking for a shopping bag in the supermarket - words so often fail me. They are happy to try to teach me how to say things in Chinese. A young barista in Starbucks (Xing Ba Ke!) patiently taught me how to ask for an extra shot of espresso. Beijing taxi drivers in particular seem to be self-appointed language teachers, but their accents are usually so full of extraordinary rolled 'r' sounds that I can never understand what they are trying to tell me. But we all keep our good humour and I often end up taking the "phone a friend" option when all else fails. In fact taxi drivers frequently beg foreigners to phone a friend and get someone on the phone who speaks Chinese. Amazingly, despite the hair-raising traffic, the propensity for people to drive on the wrong side of the road, and the legendary traffic jams, I end up more or less where I intended to go. And I really do love that Beijing rolled 'r' - every day here is "Talk like a Pirate Day"!

Gao Rong, Mailbox, Embroidery, cloth, and foam, 26 3/4 x 27 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches (68 x 70 x 21 cm)
image courtesy the artist

Today I went to Songzhuang Artist Village to meet once again with the extraordinary artist Gao Rong, who so impressed Sydney with her embroidered fabric replica of her grandparents' house in Inner Mongolia shown at the Biennale. She has just returned from her first New York solo show, at Eli Klein Fine Art (who also show another artist I have interviewed, Han Yajuan). Gao's work is still currently showing in the Moscow Biennale. Quietly spoken and gentle, she told me that she took her mother with her to New York - she relies on her mother's assistance to embroider the largest and most ambitious of her works, such as the full size 'Beng Beng' motor tricycle so characteristic of Beijing streets. She joked that she thought if she managed to sell that work she could swap the Beng Beng for a car. 

The exhibition, called "I Live in Beijing" is a celebration of the daily life of the artist, especially a record of her impoverished student years. She created water-stained furniture, a rust-stained shower stall, and assorted mailing boxes and packing crates, all carefully and lovingly embroidered with tiny detailed stitches. She creates a simulacrum of the humdrum that is more real than reality itself - a kind of hyper-reality. Today she told me that her traditionally rigorous and academic training in sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts taught her how to represent reality, but what she is really interested in creating is a deeper reality. She is happy when people initially mistake her works for the real thing, doing a double take and coming back for a second look, as this forces them to look more carefully and to think about what they are seeing and the nature of 'reality'. Here is a link to an article I wrote about Gao Rong after our previous interview in December 2012: Randian Online: In Grandmother's House

Gao Rong, 'Station', 2011, fabric wire and thread, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery

Her work is about memory, and also about the way in which the tangible objects of our daily lives are embedded with meanings not always obvious to the casual observer. Even the most banal object tells a story to those willing to take a moment and hear it.

This seems especially true in Beijing, this vast city in which many older people continue to re-use cardboard, plastic bags, and containers, and where tricycles carrying enormous loads of recycled paper frequently veer round street corners at an alarming speed. I think of artist Song Dong's mother saving bars of soap after the Cultural Revolution, just in case there came a time of hardship and her children needed it. All those bars of soap and toothpaste tubes laid out on the floor in his touching and evocative installation 'Waste Not' evoked a palpable sense of the careful thriftiness of a generation that is passing.

Tonight on my way home at dusk, I went into the park and found the old water calligraphers still quietly practising their art in almost complete darkness. Beijing - where the ordinary is so often extraordinary.