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, January 9, 2015

Two Buddhas in Sydney and Some Thoughts About Writing

Tuanjiehu Window - looking at the Beijing Youth Daily
In the sweaty midst of a Sydney summer, to the shrill backdrop of children shrieking in neighbourhood swimming pools, droning cicadas, barking dogs and the inevitable inner-west renovation sound track of drills and hammers, I am writing the final chapters of my book. It is hard to believe that just three weeks ago I was in the bitter cold of Beijing, driving from artist studio to frigid artist studio, completing the last interviews for 'Half the Sky: Conversations with Contemporary Women Artists in China.' This quixotic - some might say utterly mad - project has occupied me since the middle of 2013. I have now interviewed 34 female artists, covering the alphabet from Bingyi to Zhou Hongbin. And it does seem a bit surreal, transcribing those final interviews and being transported back to those studios. Often the recorded conversation is punctuated by barking dogs (they roam the villages on Beijing's outskirts) and the sound of pouring tea. Never have I drunk so much tea as in my meetings with Chinese artists! And never have I been so cold as in unheated studios in Shanghai and Hangzhou.
With He Chengyao in her studio, a converted greenhouse
With Gao Ping in her new studio
For these few final weeks before the beginning of a new school term I have developed a routine that suits me perfectly: a walk around Blackwattle Bay or a swim in the morning, then writing for the rest of the day. A break for dinner is followed by more writing till as late as I can manage. OK, I confess, there is time for an episode or two of 'Southland', my current favourite gritty LA cop show. It's a weirdly solitary hiatus from the frenzy of real life. I go to sleep reading books that relate to my research - and have been known to almost knock myself unconscious by dropping my i-pad on my face - I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of better turns of phrase, I decide on opening paragraphs while I am walking in the park or floating in the harbour, and I find it hard to concentrate on conversations. I am a bad friend and an even worse mother right now. (Well, they are grown-up. So I think that's OK.)

I veer from despairing that I shall never finish the damn book to elation when I think that finally I have found the right way to express an idea about one of the artists. I have a gazillion windows open on the computer at any one time, with frequent shameful episodes of resorting to Google Translate when I need to send an artist yet another email because their works appear to have multiple titles. I have enormous tottering stacks of books and journals piled on and around my desk, and frequently realise I am muttering to myself: "I know it's in here, come on Wu Hung, where did you write that?!" Every day begins with essentially re-writing what I have written the day before. I really truly am trying to cut down my adjective habit. Truly. That moment of awful clarity when you open your computer and think, "My God that's terrible" happens every day at the same time. Writing is an excruciatingly slow shuffle forwards, like a very, very old person trying to cross a busy road clutching a walking frame. Continuing the forward movement must indicate either great optimism or blind obstinacy. I imagine my friends and family might think - both.

In the midst of all this OCD stuff, there has been room for some other things - although inevitably they are also connected with China and Chinese art. I have enrolled in yet another Chinese language course, with a New Year's Resolution that it's time to get serious or give up. My improvement in fluency is glacier-like, which is hard to accept when I want it so badly. I have read Sheng Keyi's new book 'Death Fugue', an allegory about an imaginary land - a thinly disguised China - and the struggle of her characters to deal with an incident 25 years ago in which an enormous pile of shit appeared in the centre of the city of "Beiping" - a veiled reference to Tiananmen. Sheng Keyi is trying to understand the dichotomy between China then, in the nascent struggle for democracy, and China now. I found the book awfully hard going. Her brand of magic realism is not for me, I have decided. However, stylistic reservations aside, her intentions are interesting and any attempt by Chinese writers to deal with that time is a fascinating development. Click HERE for a very intelligent and considered review by Nicholas Jose, who knows a thing or two about China.

 As proof that Chinese art really is everywhere, Zhang Huan is here in Sydney to install his monumental installation of two Buddhas at Carriageworks for the Sydney Festival. Next week the Yangjiang Group arrive for a major project at 4A Gallery for Contemporary Asian Art. Watch out for my piece in Daily Serving following what promises to be an interesting encounter with the artists!

My response to Zhang Huan and his installation was published in The Art Life today. Here is the start of my article:

Zhang Huan and 'Sydney Buddha'

Portrait of Zhang Huan with Sydney Buddha, 2015. Image: Zan Wimberley.
Two weeks ago, in Beijing, new media artist Zhang Xiaotao told me that he is hoping for a “Buddhist Renaissance” in China, as an antidote to the sickness of materialism and the headlong rush to acquire wealth that has overwhelmed traditional values. In the same week, in separate conversations, three other contemporary artists – a painter, a photographer, and a performance artist – spoke of their immersion in Buddhist practice and philosophy. It seems there is something in the zeitgeist (in Chinese “shidai jingshen” – the spirit of the times.) Today Zhang Huan’s installation for the Sydney Festival was unveiled. ‘Sydney Buddha’ looms out of the shadows of the vast industrial spaces of Carriageworks with an undeniable presence. Like its previous iterations in Taiwan and Florence, the work consists of two giant Buddha figures, each over 5 metres tall, facing each other. The first is constructed of aluminium, the second of ash. The ash Buddha will gradually disintegrate over the course of the exhibition, evoking permanence and transience, life and death, past and present. The work is still, solemn, and very beautiful.
sydney buddha 3
Zhang Huan, Sydney Buddha, 2015, ash and aluminium. Presented by Carriageworks in association with Sydney Festival, courtesy PACE Gallery, New York. Image: Zan Wimberley.
The hollow aluminium Buddha figure acts as a mould to form the second Buddha, created from 20 tonnes of ash collected from temples in Shanghai, Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province over three years. Two of Zhang Huan’s studio assistants supervised the construction and installation of the piece at Carriageworks. The ash, mixed only with water, was pushed into the mould, compressed as tightly as possible, a painstaking and physically challenging process which took days. At the opening of the exhibition the final supports and the mould covering Buddha’s face will be removed by the artist. He suspects that the face will immediately fall away, releasing all the prayers and wishes embodied in the ash into the air. Often connected with the veneration of ancestors and with funerary ritual, the incense and paper burned in the temples which creates the ash is sacred. Zhang Huan says it embodies “the collective memories and hopes of all Chinese people.”
Zhang Huan, Sydney Buddha, 2015, ash and aluminium. Presented by Carriageworks in association with Sydney Festival, courtesy PACE Gallery, New York. Image: Zan Wimberley.
In 1994, as a radical young performance artist in Beijing’s Bohemian East Village artists’ community, Zhang Huan covered himself in fish oil and honey to attract flies, and sat naked in the foul stench of the communal latrine in a feat of endurance called ‘Twelve Square Metres’. In the same year, Zhang suspended himself in metal chains from the ceiling of an East Village hut, while his blood from a cut on his body dripped into a heated metal bowl. These provocative works arose out of the experiences of his generation, who had emerged from the madness of the Cultural Revolution into a very different China. It seems hard to reconcile the author of those transgressive early works with the gentle and softly spoken artist who arrived from Shanghai this morning and went straight to Carriageworks to check on the installation of his monumental installation. I asked Zhang Huan to comment on the dramatic change in his practice. “This change is natural – and also destiny,” he replied through a translator. “Like the philosopher says, you cannot stand in the same river twice. When I was young I was afraid of many things. But now I fear [even] more – I can see my destiny. There is a Confucian doctrine which states that at the age of 50 you know your destiny. I am 50 now!” He is thinking about mortality, memory and the revival of important spiritual traditions in China.
Click HERE to read the rest.