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

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Four Women Went to China

‘Such a journey will lead you to yourself...'
Beihai, Beijing, October 2015, photo Luise Guest
When I was asked to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition of works by three Australian artists, Suzanne Archer, Hanna Kay and Sarah Tomasetti, it was their exhibition title that first grabbed me. 'Three Women Went to China': those five words possess a magical, mytho-poetic resonance. I couldn't stop thinking about them. And as I began to ask each artist how her experiences of China had changed her, and influenced her practice, I began to think about how China has changed me, too. The fourth woman in the title of this post is me.
Near Gulou Daijie, Beijing, October 2015, Photo Luise Guest
I first travelled to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong at the start of 2011, the recipient of a scholarship through the New South Wales Premier's Office, sponsored by a Chinese company. I thank my lucky stars every day for that opportunity, which literally changed my life. I had been teaching students about contemporary Chinese art for some years, but it had never really crossed my mind that I could actually go there. My plan was to visit artists' studios, galleries, university Fine Arts Departments and schools, and to interview 20 Chinese artists in order to develop teaching and learning materials for senior Visual Arts students. Just before I left Australia, the enormity of my chutzpah hit me and I suddenly felt terrified. But having accepted a largeish sum of the government's money I had to pretend a confidence I did not feel.

I began to study Chinese, and by the time I left Sydney in March I could stumble through a few phrases of limited usefulness. 'I am an Australian.' 'I am a teacher.' 'I would like to buy this.' 'How much is this?' 'I don't want this.' 'Please give me a receipt.' 'Give me a cup of coffee.' I began to have an inkling that these phrases, plus my wobbly ability to count up to ten, would only get me so far. I hired translators for my interviews, and arranged an itinerary of meetings with artists in each city, visits to international schools, galleries and museums, to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and (the most difficult to organise of all) a visit to a local high school in Shanghai.

Two more phrases from my textbook struck fear into my heart. 'What is this that I am eating?' seemed to me the kind of question to which I may not wish to know the answer. And, 'Please take me to the American hospital!' appeared, just possibly, causally related to the first one. I expected China to be challenging, but in reality I had no idea what I would find. In retrospect, my ill-preparedness and sheer naivety is both hilarious and horrifying.

The thing that most struck me on that first visit, amidst the apocalyptic pollution,the terrifying traffic, the fact that I was constantly lost amidst the grey sameness of Beijing streets and incomprehensible signage, and the chaotic tangle of tumbledown artists' villages on the city outskirts, was the generosity and warmth of the artists, who welcomed me into their studios, took my project seriously, evinced great respect for teachers, and spoke honestly, at length (sometimes, it must be said, at almost unstoppable length), and with surprising frankness, about their lives and work.

I was constantly surprised by their accessibility and openness, and the way that in China one meeting automatically leads to more contacts. Each studio visit resulted in further serendipitous encounters, and through these chance contacts I met artists of a stature that I would not have dreamed of approaching. I had never interviewed anyone before, and with hindsight my earliest encounters make me cringe - poor Hanison Hok-shing Lau in Hong Kong, and Wu Junyong in Beijing were among the first of these L-plated interviews. But I think they could see my genuine interest and enthusiasm, and I find that people generally respond in kind. To date I have visited and interviewed more than 60 artists - adding Xi'an, Chengdu, and Hangzhou to the other cities. I continue to be humbled by these encounters, from Shi Jindian in Chengdu, Bai Ye in Xi'an, Wang Zhibo and Jin Shi in Hangzhou, to all the artists who agreed to feature in my book "Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China" and the recent exhibition curated for Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, featuring 16 of them. Most recently I have been meeting artists whose work is in the White Rabbit collection, including Zhang Dali, Xu Zhen and Wang Qingsong.

But it was not just the artists whose warmth has struck me and made me grateful - over the years following that first trip I have had so many encounters with Chinese people, in parks, in taxis, on buses and trains, in restaurants, shops and markets, that are genuinely kind and helpful. Sure, as a "laowai" you get scammed every now and then. But now my Chinese is sufficient to argue with pedicab drivers, and to bargain a bit harder in the market. I can even swear, and once shocked a taxi driver so much that he swerved right into oncoming traffic. I have danced with the 'aunties' in Tuanjiehu Park; eaten stinky tofu in Shanghai, donkey pastrami in Beijing, and ducks' tongues in a Chengdu hotpot restaurant whilst watching fire-eating opera performers; travelled across China alone by train; and negotiated my way around far-flung suburbs in black cabs to find obscure artist studios. Did I ever have cause to say "Please take me to the American hospital?" Yes, in fact, but not for myself - and my hair-raising experience of a Beijing ambulance ride in the middle of the night was not for the faint-hearted.
Kite flying at the city wall, Beijing, October 2015, photo Luise Guest
Now, after seven trips to China, both short and long, including a three month stay in 2013 that included a two month Red Gate Gallery residency, living in the local neighbourhood of Tuanjiehu, I can say without any hesitation that China has changed me. I can talk to anybody, anywhere, and I don't care in the least if my mangled Chinese syntax is causing them great amusement. I have become surprisingly adventurous, and would have to agree with Gloria Steinem that when a woman turns 50 she comes into her own, and becomes truly herself. China has given me a job that I love, research that fascinates and challenges me, and a passionate interest that extends beyond art to history, politics and language. China made me a writer.

I understand how the three artists in the exhibition (opening next week) feel they too have been 'imprinted' and changed irrevocably by their experience of China. I started the catalogue essay this way:

‘Such a journey will lead you to yourself,

It leads to transformation of dust into pure gold!’ (Rumi)

Suzanne Archer, Banquet, 2015, oil on canvas, image courtesy the artist 

Three Women Went to China. These five words suggest a mythical journey: a crossing of mountains and oceans; the possibility of danger; adversity overcome and the getting of wisdom. It evokes legendary heroines. Pilgrimage. A fable, perhaps, or a metaphor. Alternatively, it’s a bald factual statement. Three women did go to China, together and separately, more than once. And returned, but not unchanged. 

You can read more, and see more of their work, HERE.