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, September 2, 2015

Hour of the Rat and Year of the Fire Monkey

Bu Hua, World 6, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 360cm x 120cm, image courtesy the artist
I am preparing to return to China in two weeks for more artist studio visits and interviews, researching artists who are represented in the significant private collection of Judith Neilson and her White Rabbit Gallery, and another quixotic attempt at intensive language acquisition - dear Heavens, will I never learn?! I always hope that by some as yet undiscovered miracle I might suddenly become fluent. "Yi kou liuli de Hanyu" ( a mouth full of fluent Chinese) is what I really long for. In my dreams I am confident - even loquacious - in colloquial fast Chinese. With a suitably piratical rolled-"r" Beijing accent, of course. Waking, I realise sadly that my speaking ability is as stumbling and inadequate as ever. And as for reading...
Bu Hua, Microcosmos, Acrylic on Canvas, 2014, 100cm diameter, image courtesy the artist
I am planning to meet with artists ranging from Yang Yongliang and Xu Zhen in Shanghai to Jin Shi in Hangzhou, Shi Jindian in Chengdu and Li Hongbo, Wang Qingsong, Bu Hua and Bingyi in Beijing. And so many more - watch this space! Some are almost old friends by this stage - I will look forward to catching up with Gao Ping, Liu Zhuoquan, Lin Jingjing and Huang Jingyuan in Beijing. A number of the artists who feature in my book 'Half the Sky: Conversations with Contemporary Women Artists in China' are also represented in the White Rabbit collection and their work will form part of my research for the gallery. About to launch into an exciting but somewhat terrifying new venture, my discovery that I am born in the Year of the Fire Monkey seems appropriate: apparently I have rash tendencies, am passionate but ambitious, competitive and reckless. Oh dear! Perhaps all this excess of energy and optimism is also why I love China and feel at home in Beijing, despite all its chaos and craziness.
Bu Hua, Beijing Babe Loves Freedom, Giclee Print, Image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
Serendipitously, browsing online books and looking for "serious" material on Chinese history, economics and art, I found a series of crime novels set in Beijing (and Yunnan and Guilin) featuring an embittered, battle weary, PTSD suffering American expat, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. So far so conventional: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean," yada yada yada. (Although I am absolutely a sucker for a taciturn Raymond Chandleresque hero - ridiculous, as in real life silent men are incredibly annoying.) But in this case, our damaged American war veteran is a woman, Ellie McEnroe. She's got a limp, and an endearingly foul mouth in both English and Chinese; she likes a beer or several, and she represents dissident contemporary artists in Beijing.

I have dived into the latest in the series, 'Hour of the Rat', which amongst the fast paced chase, a few shootouts, and the tasering of the heroine, features the solving of a puzzle involving a missing American environmental activist wanted by both the FBI and the Chinese secret police, and a missing artist. Writer Lisa Brackmann manages to paint a truly alarming and fairly accurate picture of the environmental apocalypse that many Chinese fear is coming. From the beauties of Yangshuo and Guilin Ellie finds answers to her mystery in towns where children are poisoned by the toxins leaching from electronic waste, where the farmers can no longer trust the food they grow in poisonous soil, with GM seeds purchased from multinational companies. Artist Bu Hua would agree with the sentiments - she lives in a new apartment building where the air is centrally filtered and the living room when I visited was filled with play equipment so that her small son could always play inside, protected from the Beijing 'airpocalypse'.
Bu Hua, Beijing Babe Loves Freedom, Giclee Print, Image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
For me this is pretty much the perfect book: crime, China, Chinese slang, Chinese art, Chinese politics - and dumplings. Lisa Brackmann, you made my day - and thank God you've written a few. Please don't stop! A Californian by birth, Brackmann says she went to China by accident in 1979, and never quite left. I totally understand her connection to a place, a culture and a language that grabs you, rattles your foundations, and then never quite lets you go.

Lisa Brackmann's website: