|Solitary Tai Ji Quan under a rare blue sky in Tuanjiehu Park\|
Yesterday I spent almost two hours at Pekin Fine Arts talking with Zhang Xiaotao about his extraordinary, immersive and very beautiful video and 3-D animation works, which he showed at last year's Venice Biennale. A delightfully unpretentious interviewee, he spoke of his idealistic hopes that China could experience a Buddhist Renaissance, and return to its historical and spiritual roots, something he conveys to his students at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts where he is Director of the New Media Department. Unlike many other contemporary Chinese artists, who tend to dismiss out of hand the idea that they might be informed or influenced by the work of other artists, he spoke movingly of how much he admired his teacher and "master", Xu Bing, currently his PhD advisor. We talked about Xu Bing's work "Phoenix" (Huang Feng) which I recently saw in New York, and how the central element of Xu's work is the conceptual basis - in this case his admiration for the lowly, badly treated migrant workers on whose toil the modern cities and the wealth of China are built.
|Zhang Xiaotao, Sakya, (still image) courtesy the artist and Pekin Fine Arts|
|With Zhang Xiaotao|
|Tao Aimin, Photo Luise Guest|
|Tao Aimin, works from the Book of Women series, images courtesy the artist|
|Cui Xiuwen, Reincarnation, 2014, image courtesy the artist|
Now, on my way to Shanghai, here are some more of my random #onlyinChina observations:
- Best Chinglish shop name seen on this visit: A hairdresser in Tuanjiehu called "Moist Beauty" ("eeeew, gross!" as my students would say)
- Food mysteries: "Wang Pangzi Donkey Burger" chain restaurant - really? I have avoided the donkey pastrami sandwiches on past visits but there is something too sad about a donkey burger, illogical though that may be.
- I love watching the young girls riding their motorscooters in the Beijing winter - they often have hot pink furry ear-muffs, hot pink sheepskin or fur-lined gloves attached to their handlebars, and ingenious padded blankets that attach over the head and tie like an apron to cover the entire front of their bodies whilst riding. They look like pink armchairs with heads.
- Despite the fact that in my youth in Australia and England, everybody smoked everywhere, including on buses and in cinemas (and even as a young teacher I remember everyone having an ashtray on their desks) it is hard to get used to entering a cafe filled with cigarette, cigar and even (in the art district) pipe smoke. And I am always amused by the fact that ashtrays are conveniently positioned at squatting height in Chinese public toilets. But there is much to be said for a city where there IS a public toilet on practically every corner, a reminder of the recent past when people did not have their own bathrooms. Having navigated New York, where there are almost none, and developed the ability to walk confidently into restaurants and 5 star hotels purely in search of the conveniences, I think the Chinese pragmatism about all bodily functions is great. The spitting is still an issue, though!
- I am always mystified when expats talk about the "rudeness" of the Chinese. In contrast, I am always struck anew by the helpfulness, friendliness and general cheerfulness of most people I encounter. I am always dropping gloves, leaving books on bus seats, forgetting to take my change and invariably someone comes running after me.I must admit I have seen arguments which have turned into half-hearted punch-ups over car accidents, but even these often seem more for the sake of it than seriously aggressive. (except the collision between a new Porsche and a three-wheeled cycle laden with recycling, witnessed outside the Central Academy of Fine Arts yesterday - now that was nasty!) You almost never see a child being shouted at or smacked. Children are doted on, most especially by their grandparents. The ballroom dancers in the park pose good-naturedly for my photographs, and the dancing grannies invite me to join them.
- And it's a rare huge metropolis where women can safely walk around in any streets, day or night, without fear or harrassment. As I navigated the pitch dark corridors of my Beijing apartment building (lights never work - in fact I ran into my own front door with my head, the darkness is so complete) I thought that in Sydney, or New York, or London I would have been incredibly fearful. The stairwells of Beijing apartments are "gritty" to say the least, but I have never had a single qualm. The streets are busy till late into the night, and girls walk freely, arm-in-arm, laughing. That is not to be diminished.
In Shanghai this week I will meet the sculptor Yu Ji, go the the opening of Fang Lu's new work at OCAT, and the Shanghai Biennale, and travel to Hangzhou to meet the painter Wang Zhibo. Watch this space!