‘Such a journey will lead you to yourself...'
|Beihai, Beijing, October 2015, photo Luise Guest|
|Near Gulou Daijie, Beijing, October 2015, Photo Luise Guest|
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|
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.