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 9, 2013

北京日记:ruminations inspired by Yiyun Li, daily life in Tuanjiehu, and some artists in their studios

A view from the studio of Bing Yi Huang, reproduced with permission of the artist

I sat this morning at my tiny table at the window, with the noise from the street and the market floating up to me, immersed in a book of short stories by Yiyun Li. Her first collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” was the first contemporary Chinese fiction that I read before my very first trip to China, and it has haunted me ever since. Her stories are achingly sad but filled with the ordinary details of daily life so they never seem forced or artificially constructed. The first story in “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” is simply told in the voice of a woman who has never married, works as an English teacher, and lives alone following the death of her parents. Her army service in a far province was the only time she has left Beijing. A meditation on kindness and cruelty, it has made me look at the middle-aged women walking down Tuanjiehu Zhong Lu with their bags of shopping and speculate about their past lives.

The second, told in the voice of Teacher Fei, is so sad that I had to put the book down and leave the house. “At eighteen he had been an ambitious art student about to enter the nation’s top art institute, but within a year, his father, an exemplary member of the reactionary intellectuals, was demoted from professor to toilet cleaner, and Teacher Fei’s education was terminated. For the next twenty years, Teacher Fei’s mother accompanied his father from building to building, one hand carrying a bucket of cleaning tools and the other holding her husband’s arm, as if they were on their way to a banquet. Yet, in the end, even she could not save her husband from despair. Teacher Fei’s father had killed himself two years after he was restored to his position at the university.”

Artist Jin Fei has described China’s history as “brutal and tragic” and I have been watching some of the very old men I see in the local park, with their walking sticks, Mao jackets and cloth shoes, and wondering about all they have seen and experienced. The past and present often seem to merge in China; or rather it sometimes appears as if the present is a very thin veneer laid upon the past, which can bubble up through it unexpectedly.

Listening to the group singing in Tuanjiehu Park, Sunday morning

Tuanjiehu Street Market

I have settled into something of a routine after my first week in Beijing: a morning walk around the neighbourhood which always ends with a circumnavigation of the lake in Tuanjiehu Park, somewhat voyeuristically observing the extraordinarily rich and diverse activities taking place from early morning till nightfall. Today I entered the gates to discover perhaps 100 people energetically exercising in unison, very seriously (although with a smile for me and my camera.)  As usual there are groups engaged in beautifully fluid qi gong, and elderly people everywhere exercising vigorously. Men and women who are clearly well into their seventies use the park benches and railings to stretch their legs, revealing a flexibility and suppleness that I can only envy. One area of the park has open air fitness equipment and there they all are, pedalling furiously, doing push-ups and handstands and even more frenetic stretches. Hundreds of people walk and jog around the lake, many of them vigorously slapping themselves as they go, which I have realised is something to do with stimulating the circulation rather than a form of self-flagellation. And, magically, strolling home after dinner with some other Redgate residents, we followed the music coming from the park and discovered a large group of people dancing in the dark. Quite extraordinary and enchanting.

Qi Gong, Tuanjiehu Park
The thing which forcibly struck me this morning, though, is the visible presence of old people. Apart from the exercisers, elderly couples are sitting on benches watching the lake, old ladies walk in pairs carrying their vegetables from the market, and the really old and frail are being pushed in wheelchairs by sons or daughters. Their presence made me realise how much more hidden away from view old people are in the west. As I left the park at 9.00am today the exercisers had been replaced by the water calligraphers and old ladies lined up in their wheelchairs; and three old men were arguing about how to place a very rickety ladder to remove the red lanterns from the trees, marking the end of the Golden Week national holiday.
Removing the red lanterns from Tuanjiehu Park after Golden Week
Water Calligraphy in Tuanjiehu Park
I spend a little time each day studying one of my various maps of Beijing – all inexplicably different, and most appearing to bear little resemblance to the actual physical streets – to plot a route for grocery shopping, to the English language bookshop, or to a gallery or artist’s studio. The maps bear inscribed upon them the extraordinary changes this city has undergone in the last century. “Five Dragon Pavilion” and “Former Residence of Princess Hejing” are juxtaposed with the Beijing Workers’ Stadium, the Working People’s Cultural Palace, and the Monument to the People’s Heroes. And then the map shows the location of every McDonalds and Pizza Hut in Beijing – and for good measure, Hooters. Cognitive dissonance!

It seems that everything is tumbled one upon the other – the imperial past, the revolutionary years and the capitalism ( or rather the “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”) of the present . Late this afternoon as I walked towards Ritan Park I passed a long queue of people waiting outside a dental clinic, and more waited  outside the attractively named ‘Beijing Hospital for Proctological and Intestinal Disease’. Old men cycled past with huge loads of recycling piled up on the trays of their tricycles. Suddenly an enormous shopping mall appeared in view – glitzy in the extreme, and filled with fashionable sculpture and high-end shops. The mall could be anywhere – Singapore, LA, London. The same shops too – GAP, American Apparel, Kate Spade. Although clearly so new that it was not quite finished, in typical fashion when I visited the toilets of this establishment the taps had come loose from the wall and none of the doors closed properly – near enough is usually good enough in new buildings here. But one block further down the street and I was back in China – little carts whizzing by selling snacks, and groups lounging on street corners playing cards.

This layering of past and present has been a feature of my conversations with the artists I have met this last week. By pure chance in my first week in Beijing I interviewed an artist in her twenties, one in her thirties and one in her late forties. Each woman has experienced a different China. Of course to some extent this is true everywhere – the world my daughters inhabit is not the one in which I grew up. But in China those differences are far more marked, and the artists themselves are very aware of it.

With Ma Yanling in her Songzhuang studio Saturday October 5
Ma Yanling believes that the young artists today cannot understand the experiences of her generation, who saw the brief flowering of the avant-garde in the late 1980s, only to have their ideals crushed after 1989. The young Liu Shiyuan spoke of her generation, children of the 1990s who came too late for the art boom, and must find their place in an incredibly competitive art world. There are just so many artists in China, all struggling to make work, to be seen and heard, to find ways to keep going. I have been in beautiful studios in Songzhuang, with courtyards and goldfish ponds, a high-rise apartment studio on the 21st floor looking down at Beijing spread out below, and spacious studios in Caochangdi. Today I spent some hours with the extraordinary Bing Yi in her studio on the central axis of Beijing – a Yuan Dynasty temple near the Drum and Bell Tower. 
Bingyi Huang in her studio, explaining her series of ink on paper works
I am hearing stories of struggle and survival and steely determination. I am talking to artists who regularly cross the globe, to New York and Helsinki and Moscow and Montreal and back to Beijing, which pulls them back again for so many reasons. I am discovering that in some ways the differences between each of these artists is more dramatic than the things that unite them.
Han Yajuan explaining her work in her Wangjing studio Thursday October 3 

In my next post I will start to pull some threads together from the interviews I have conducted so far - with Han Yajuan, Liu Shiyuan, Ma Yanling, Huang Jing Yuan and Bing Yi - and start to think about the connections as well as the discontinuities between the work and experiences of these very different women.
Bing Yi, ink on Chinese Paper, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist