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, December 17, 2014

北京日记 Beijing Diary: Blue Skies and Buddhism in Beijing

Solitary Tai Ji Quan under a rare blue sky in Tuanjiehu Park\
I write this preparing to leave Beijing today, after a week so filled with studio visits, galleries, and interesting conversations with artists that it seems much longer. The skies have been miraculously blue every single day this week, which hardly seems possible in this city of "airpocalypse" - and without even an APEC conference of world leaders to explain it. The term "APEC Blue" entered the language last month, with phrases such as "He's not that into you, it's just an APEC blue" flying around the internet. In a city where the posh international schools have all erected air-filtered domes over their sports fields and playgrounds, I have loved walking around the city streets this week without a mask. For people like me who wear glasses, the addition of a mask often results in walking blindly into lamp posts with fogged up lenses obscuring the little vision that remains through the grey enshrouding fog.

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
Zhang told me that despite the massive technology and big teams of assistants working on his projects, it is the ideas behind the work that really matter. Joseph Beuys' notion of "social sculpture" lies somewhere behind his practice in new media and his earlier (and continuing) practice as a painter. He is something of a visionary, and a futurist. His work Sakya, (2010-2011) depicts most directly the struggle to retain spirituality and religious devotion within the context of China’s urbanised and consumerist present day. Based on an important Tibetan temple partially destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Sakya combines the imagery of video games, science and science fiction, Buddhist mandalas and thangka paintings and sutras. It is meditative and very beautiful.

With Zhang Xiaotao
 In China, despite all the hoopla of the art market, there is still a strong belief that art actually matters. In a world in which, increasingly, art is simply another branded luxury commodity, I so much enjoy the earnest sincerity with which Chinese artists speak about their practice. I also appreciate the sheer technical virtuosity of their work, whether it takes the form of painting, video, or sculpture. Look out for my full interview with Zhang in The Art Life in January. Liang Liang,in which he animated his little son's whimsical drawings to create a fabulous allegorical narrative in which China's past and present are interwoven, together with elements from video games, "Journey to the West" and cartoon monsters, is a wonderful thing. And the airport as a metaphor for hell - that I can relate to!
Tao Aimin, Photo Luise Guest
Another highlight of this visit was finally meeting an artist I have admired for a long time, Tao Aimin. Tao's "Book of Women" series uses the washboards traditional in rural China as sculptural found objects and also as "collagraph plates" to create prints and paintings, combined with characters from the ancient secret women's script 'Nushu'. This was one of the works that originally intrigued me and prompted me to begin this extended research project investigating the work of Chinese women artists. Originally from a farming family in rural Hunan Province, she spoke of living with her grandparents on their orchard, collecting eggs and feeding chickens. As was traditional, her grandparents made their own coffins, which stood in the house and became like big black pieces of furniture. Now, she says, they haunt her dreams. The first washboard was given to her by a 93-year-old woman with bound feet who became her landlady, and her friend. Now, she has more than one thousand, and has collected the stories, recorded on video, of the women to whom they belonged. Like many other Chinese women I speak to, she denies that she is a feminist, identifying feminism as a western thing of no relevance to Chinese culture. As for me, I think that if artists like Tao Aimin, Lin Tianmiao, Gao Rong and Yin Xiuzhen, to name a few, are not feminists then nobody is!

Tao Aimin, works from the Book of Women series, images courtesy the artist
Almost without exception, each artist I have spoken to this year has wanted to talk about Buddhism. From the painter Hu Qinwu whose abstract paintings are like Buddhist sutras,to Liu Zhuoquan and his worlds painted inside bottles and containers,  to Gao Ping who wanted to ask me what I thought about the comparison between Buddhism and Christianity, to Cui Xiuwen who has returned to a study of Buddhist belief to inform her new abstract video and digital works, to He Chengyao who came back to Beijing completely changed after a year in Tibet, each is preoccupied with seeking the spiritual dimension in their life and work.  It seems that like so many people in China today these artists (and so many others) are sensing a hollowness at the heart of the new Chinese society wrought by Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms after the death of Mao, and the embrace of a market economy. Whether there will be a "Buddhist renaissance" as Zhang Xiaotao wishes is another matter - the genie is perhaps too far out of the bottle.
Cui Xiuwen, Reincarnation, 2014, image courtesy the artist
An unexpected delight was the opportunity to see Huang Yong Ping's extraordinary "Thousand Armed Guanyin" at the Red Brick Art Museum. I had seen it before at the last Shanghai Biennale, but it was somehow more impressive in three sections in the almost deserted new museum on Beijing's outskirts, rather than the Shanghai Powerhouse of Art.

Now, on my way to Shanghai, here are some more of my random #onlyinChina observations:
  1. Best Chinglish shop name seen on this visit: A hairdresser in Tuanjiehu called "Moist Beauty" ("eeeew, gross!" as my students would say)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5.  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.

  6. 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!