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, May 2, 2014

北京日记 Beijing Thoughts from Home

I have been home from China for only 2 days, and while it is very good to be home with friends and family in a place where you can drink the water and breathe the air, I am already missing the palpable excitement - and strange unexpected beauty - of Beijing. Grey and red are the memorable colours. Grey streets, grey courtyard walls and grey skies, punctuated by flashes of red everywhere - lanterns, signs, clothing, courtyard doors....I asked for a red bag and the shop assistant said, "You are like us - we Chinese love red." It is of course the colour word that I most remember. "Hongsi de" falls easily out of my mouth when I am trying and failing to remember the words for other colours. This is why I have ended up with red socks, tights, hats, gloves and notebooks when really I may have preferred black, grey or purple.

Here are more of my unanswered questions about Beijing life, eternal mysteries:
  • How can Beijing men ride their bicycles and motor scooters with a cigarette permanently attached at a rakish angle to their lips? I never see them remove it - it's like an appendage. In fact I saw one guy riding through the insanity of the Third Ring Road, on a motor scooter that was literally (and I do mean literally) held together with gaffer tape, smoking a cigarette whilst talking loudly on his cell phone and steering with one elbow
  • Why on earth do people ride their motor bikes without lights? And sometimes also drive their cars without lights? This has scared the hell out of me on many occasions. Do they believe it saves on fuel?
  • How  are people not regularly electrocuted by the idiosyncratic nature of Beijing electricity cabling? This is a truly astonishing feature of the city!

  • Why do elderly ladies wait until they have exited the cubicle of a public toilet before pulling up their pants? This is always tremendously disconcerting to the newly arrived westerner.
  • Why, in a city full of workers cleaning, sweeping dusty roads with straw brooms and removing litter from public spaces, is Beijing one of the most garbage-strewn cities I have ever encountered? Plastic bags fly through the air and litter the ground everywhere. No wonder the artist Huang Xu has turned plastic bags into objects of beauty in his lush seductive photographs!
Huang Xu, Plastic Bag 20, image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects
But on the upside - and what an upside - where else can you walk in 2 minutes from restraint and serenity to cheerful chaos and life lived amongst rubble and disintegration? And yet there is always beauty - whether the bamboo bird cage or the texture of a wall scrawled with hasty characters, the unexpected willow tree, the weathered red door of a courtyard, or a small child playing happily in the dust.

Where else can you see quite such a collision between two worlds? The beautiful studios and galleries designed by Ai Weiwei (including his own) in Caochangdi are set amidst village streets teeming with life, where migrant workers and taxi drivers live in tiny houses and apartments above a jumble of shops and stalls, and vibrant street markets sell everything from electrical goods to vegetables, from car parts to underpants.

Where else can you see so many people dancing and singing in public? The life and leisure lived publicly in the parks is my favourite feature of Beijing - and Chinese cities generally. Every walk brings with it some new event to wonder at - from beautifully fluid Tai Qi to fan and sword dancing; from rollerskaters to mahjong and card players; from men with their beloved birds to vigorously exercising octogenarians. Endlessly fascinating.

Where else can you eat a huge bowl of hand-shaved noodles - with a bottle of Yanjing beer - for less than $2? You must of course be willing to not look too closely at the surroundings or the crockery. Delicious!

Where else can you find, within a single city block, swanky hotels and international shops (Nike, Apple, American Apparel, Prada, Miu Miu) jostled against cheap bars, local markets, sellers of street snacks of all descriptions, and old apartment blocks? Very expensive new cars push their way through intersections but are often cut off by pedicabs and tiny steel "beng beng" taxis - essentially a three-wheeled motor scooter with a cabin.

Blind beggars on Gongti Bei Lu play the erhu as the newly wealthy climb out of their BMWs and chat loudly on their phones. In one block there is both a Daimler showroom and - yes, really - a showroom selling private planes. The juxtapositions may be uncomfortable but they are certainly interesting - and so revealing of a society in flux and transition. The young real estate agents line up outside the Homelink Office and sing the Homelink song each morning with their heads thrown back like footballers singing the national anthem."I promise I will strive for excellence and have no fear of difficulty," they solemnly chant, "We need to cooperate with each other and work together to make a brighter future." Outside shops and restaurants workers stand to attention and are harangued by managers. Every morning. And I thought meetings in my workplace were boring!

Restaurant workers in Sanlitun having a pep talk before they start work
And, above all else, for me the fascination is always the art. Where else can you be invited into the enormous studio of an extremely well-known artist and have him cook noodles for your lunch? In 13 days I met and interviewed 15 fascinating and very different artists, and once the richness of the experience has had a chance to "percolate" for a little while I will write an account of some of these meetings in a future post.

Highlights so far are too numerous to mention, but they include:
  • Finally, after years of negotiations, getting an interview with Xiao Lu - the iconic figure who became notorious when she took a gun and shot her own sculpture at the seminal 1989 China Avant-Garde exhibition. This was a little nerve-racking but was one of my most interesting conversations. As women of "a certain age" we made a connection that allowed her to speak freely and with a surprising degree of frankness.
Xiao Lu, photograph Luise Guest
  • Meeting the extraordinary and delightful Qing Qing and being shown so many so far unexhibited Joseph Cornell-style boxes, dioramas and shrines in every room and every corner of her beautiful Songzhuang house and studio. Surreal and very wonderful. One includes a pigtailed photograph of the artist as a schoolgirl and then one of her driving a tractor when she was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. She insisted on giving me some particular flower tea to cure my cough - so kind!
  • Interviewing Shen Shaomin - and rather unnervingly being filmed whilst doing so by an Australian documentary maker - and finding out about his plans to donate his own skeleton to a younger artist to transform it into an artwork in the manner of his own bone and bonemeal installations. He is also currently planning to have his teeth engraved with sentences in Chinese and English for a performance piece later in the year at 798.
With Shen Shaomin at Qiaozi Town Beijing
  • In fact, every meeting with every artist was fascinating, from the youngest (Liu Shiyuan, who divides her time between Beijing and Denmark) to highly respected painters such as Yu Hong, who entered CAFA when it first re-opened after the Cultural Revolution and now teaches there. I feel so privileged to have been invited into their studios and to have listened to them speak about their lives and their artistic practice. Watch this space for more details
  • And, of course, every walk in Tuanjiehu Park just made me feel that it was good to be alive. 

Beijing, wo hui lai! 北京我会回来 I will return!