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, April 20, 2014

北京日记: Nothing and Everything - Three Days in Beijing

Here is a list of all the things that I could have bought from carts, trucks, three-wheeled bicycles or directly from the pavement as I walked home today:

  • underpants with slogans in gold lame embroidered on the bum
  • pineapples carved into beautiful sculptured shapes - in one instance by a very small boy wielding a very sharp knife
  • socks
  • balloons
  • strange white cakes from a woman who only seems to have a small boxful each day - is it her hobby? How on earth can she make a living?
  • American tights and "spanx" shapewear laid out straight onto the dust, spit (and worse) of the road
  • Sausages and pancakes cooked on a griddle on a three-wheeled cart
  • jewellery and textiles - supposedly Tibetan, but quite possibly from a factory in the Pearl River Delta
  • interesting notebooks from a man who sells them from the back of a cart
  • mysteriously, a small selection of frilly pink and white hats, again laid on the filthy ground

Needless to say, many of these people vanish quickly into the shadows when the police appear. You can walk down a road filled with these vendors, go and buy a coffee and when you emerge they are all gone. Later at night, you see carts with all their pineapples covered with a blanket, under the overpass of the Third Ring Road, just waiting.

And here are some of my questions about daily life in this city:
  • Why is it that everything sort of works but nothing quite works? Every tap in China is apparently not quite connected to its sink so they are always wobbly and appear about to break entirely. Beijing plumbing is not designed to take toilet paper so you cannot actually flush it down the toilet without risking something truly appalling in the way of a sewer catastrophe. Electric lights are flaky. The heating in Beijing goes on on a certain date each year and off on another, never mind the weather. I am walking around my apartment wearing multiple sweaters and several pairs of socks. 
  • The light in my pitch dark apartment block hallway goes on automatically only after I have finally - by a Braille method of feeling my way along the wall, then feeling all around the door, and eventually finding the lock - somehow blindly managed to insert the key. At that moment, hey presto, the light goes on. WHY?
Whether one is charmed or annoyed by these things depends on what kind of day you are having. And today I was noticing the beauty of the willow trees and the blossoms, and less aware of the dust, noise, polluted air, spitting and smoking that surrounds me every time I venture out.

Beijing continues to delight, intrigue, amuse and infuriate in equal measures. Today, in the end, delight won out as I came home from interviewing the absolutely extroardinary artist Bingyi, in her studio in a converted Yuan Dynasty temple, in the hutongs right near the Drum and Bell Towers. Two hours hearing about Bingyi's ambitious projects - for example the 160 metre long ink painting to be exhibited in Essen, Germany and then (maybe) buried in a mineshaft - quite restored my equilibrium after a few days of being a bit defeated by big bad Beijing. Bingyi's work is part 'shui mo' scholarly ink painting, part performance art, part land art and part installation. She has been described as a postmodern literati painter, a description she quite likes. She paints, writes calligraphy, writes poems and libretti for opera, composes music, designs and makes incredible costumes and plans ambitious projects and exhibitions which take place across the world. Do you ever sleep? I ask her. "Not much," she says, "I am always working!" An artist with a global practice, yet absolutely grounded in Chinese history and tradition - her Yale PhD thesis, after all, immersed her in a study of the Han Dynasty for seven years - she has reinvented ink painting for a new age.
Bingyi writes calligraphy in her studio, photograph Luise Guest

Bingyi, ink on Chinese paper, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
Bingyi, Cascade, installation and performance, image courtesy the artist
Yesterday I was thrilled to meet a true legend of the Beijing artworld, Meg Maggio of Pekin Fine Arts, who deftly skewered many of the preconceptions that I and other westerners may have about Chinese art, the artworld and the market. I enjoyed her direct and down-to-earth attitude and the opportunity to hear at first hand some of her stories - and I like to question my own assumptions, testing for traces of chinoiserie and romanticism that we are all a little prone to. The exhibition currently showing, of work by Xie Qi in her first solo show with the gallery, is wonderful, and I will be looking forward to meeting and interviewing this artist. From Pekin Fine Arts at Caochangdi, in its beautiful Ai Weiwei designed courtyard, I spent an hour travelling across the city in apocalyptic traffic jams to Redgate Gallery in the Ming Dynasty watchtower and an exhibition by painter Zhang Yajie. I particularly loved his tough, expressive paintings of electric sockets, sinks and taps, perhaps partly due to my own Beijing plumbing adventures.

Zhang Yajie at Redgate Gallery, images courtesy the artist and Redgate Gallery
The previous day I had been absolutely bowled over by two exhibitions in 798. The first, Xu Zhen (Madein Company) at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art - well, at the moment I have no words. I shall have to think of some, given that I plan to write about the show, but I am still absorbing it as spectacle. 
The Goddess of Mercy at the entry to Xu Zhen's Art Supermarket, filled with bags and packs of - nothing
The entrance to the Xu Zhen exhbition at Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art Beijing
Inside the "ShanghArt Art Supermarket at Ullens

The second, entirely different, Xiao Yu's "Earth" at Pace Beijing. Literally that. A vast space filled with earth, the smell of rich loam and the earthiness of the farmyard. During the installation it had been ploughed by farmers with cattle, but only the earth remains. Nothing and everything. And all I can think, at the end of three days such as these is, "How incredibly lucky am I, to be here, in this place, at this particular moment in history."

Xiao Yu, "Earth" at Pace Beijing