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

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Light and Dark: Chinese Chiaroscuro

West Lake, Hangzhou, Photograph LG
I'm writing this propped up on pillows underneath an eiderdown at home in Sydney, having returned from China with some unwelcome additional baggage: a case of viral pneumonia has rendered the last week a feverish blur. It's a little ironic -- our departing flight from Shanghai was delayed for hours due to a sick passenger on the plane when it arrived, infected with something alarmingly unspecified that required the plane to be decontaminated, disinfected and inspected by quarantine officers before it could be re-boarded. Stuck indefinitely, possibly overnight, in the appalling Pudong Terminal 1, knots of people muttered in several languages, perhaps with dramatic scenes from the movie 'Contagion' playing in their heads, while being blandly assured by the crew that everything was under control. And all along I was the person unknowingly harbouring evil microbes, and the plane, once boarded many hours later, was perhaps the cleanest I have ever encountered.

In my restless attempts at sleep this week, half awake and half dreaming, scenes and encounters from my last three weeks in China have been re-enacted like snippets of film. Powerful images and compelling experiences, but I've been finding it hard to render them in words for some reason. I'm going to write a separate post about the art I've seen - and it was wonderful - and the artists I've met. This first piece post-China is an attempt to reconcile my conflicted feelings about this most recent trip. There are two things that I keep coming back to, that represent for me the complexity and contradictions of contemporary China, with all its excitement and adrenaline, beauty and astonishing inventiveness, resilience and pragmatism, and also its very deep unhealed scars.

The first thing is purely joyful: it's the delight I always experience in Chinese public parks and gardens, in every city I've been to. All of life takes place there, and every age group and almost every demographic is present. From the ubiquitous - and often much-maligned - dancing 'aunties' (and, really, how snobbish, sexist and ageist is much of the media attention focused on them!) to the ballroom dancers, kite-flyers, water calligraphers, card players, opera singers, tai ji quan practitioners, old men with caged birds, old ladies in wheel chairs, massed choirs, fan dancers, and doting grandparents with little children. There are pleasure boats on the lakes and the weirdly grotesque ride-on toys that are uniquely Chinese.
Water calligrapher, West Lake, Hangzhou, photo LG
Middle aged men jog (sort of) wearing dress shoes, and sometimes suit jackets, carrying large radios blaring Chinese opera or comedy cross-talk on straps over their arms like a handbag. Women and men walk the paths slapping at themselves vigorously to stimulate the circulation. Very elderly people demonstrate enviable flexibility and determination using exercise equipment. So much determined 'duanlian shenti' (physical exercise) and energy from a generation who may well have experienced considerable suffering and hunger in their youth is entirely admirable. I am aware of the sub-texts (often those choirs of middle-aged and elderly people are singing the revolutionary songs of their youth with great gusto, for example, which younger people find a little bizarre and embarrassing; and many of the dutiful sons and daughters - and daughters-in-law - pushing those wheel chairs may prefer to be doing something else.) I know, too, that as a western observer my fascination may seem a kind of Orientalism. I think that characterisation would be wrong. I feel energised and uplifted in Tuanjiehu Park or Ditan Park in Beijing, or Fuxing Park in Shanghai by the enormous, unquenchable, good-natured vitality of masses of people engaged in so much pleasurable activity. Jingshan Park, the day before I left Beijing, was filled with locals as well as Chinese tourists, bringing their children to see the spring blossoms. The choir I found, following the sound across the park, was singing an old song commemorating the sacrifices of workers who built the railway line across the Qinghai grasslands to Tibet.
Singers in Jingshan Park, Beijing, photo LG
The sense of community is palpable. I love that women my own age invariably ask me to join the dancing (and, shhh! don't tell my children, but sometimes I do.)  I use my bad Chinese to chat with grandmothers and old ladies, and I ask people to tell me about the songs being sung. I feel remembered joy just writing this paragraph. In Hangzhou last week, visiting outside of mid-winter for the first time, I strolled along the lake and encountered, in one afternoon, five different groups performing Chinese opera, with small orchestras, just for each other; solo musicians playing and singing; and three different places where ballroom dancers of varying levels of skill were waltzing, so fast that it was completely, hypnotically, wonderful. In the morning I had watched a group of  graceful women, with middle aged faces but the supple bodies of young girls, practising a traditional dance, surrounded by other groups working with swords and fans, and retired people just out chatting with friends, flasks of tea and snacks on the benches beside them. None of this was happening for the benefit of the hordes of (Chinese) tourists visiting West Lake, these were locals just out doing what they do, from early in the morning till late at night. All this public dancing and singing reminded me of an Impressionist painting: Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette depicts working class Parisians publicly enjoying their leisure in a similar way, and perhaps under similar circumstances of dramatic social change, fluidity, uncertainty and urbanisation.
Hangzhou waltzing, Photo: LG
If all of this sounds uncomplicated and idyllic, then that would be to deny that people's lives are difficult in Chinese cities as they are everywhere else. The social tensions arising from generational differences bordering on incomprehension, the impacts of globalisation, the dramatic changes of urbanisation, the increasing divide between social classes: all these factors are by now so well known that there is little point in repeating them. And yet, as people - young and old - cycle past me in the street singing loudly and unselfconsciously, and I watch the aunties and uncles chatting on their doorsteps in hutongs and alleyways and on park benches, I hope that this manner of living connectedly, publicly, out in the open, won't be lost to a future of gated condominiums and a retreat into a world of private screens.
Hangzhou Waltzing, Photo: LG
The second unforgettable image is much darker, something I witnessed at Guilin Airport, something that once seen cannot be unseen. It's the antithesis to the public high spirited pleasures I've written about above. Trying to make some sense of  what I witnessed I thought about the multiple layers in contemporary Chinese art, the bitterness that often underlies seemingly more innocuous imagery. I thought about works by Guo Jian, focused on militarisation and propaganda; about Liu Zhuoquan's recent series focused on crime and punishment; about Yu Hong's paintings of the early 2000s that explored the melancholia she believed to be omnipresent in post-Mao Chinese society; about the focus on bodily suffering of so much performance art by artists such as Ma Liuming, Zhang Huan, He Chengyao, Xiao Lu and Ma Qiusha. I thought about the Chinese sense of humour, very funny and very dark.

I'd gone to Guilin for a weekend, having always wanted to see the dramatic karst landscape that featured in so much Chinese painting, and to travel along the Li River. The landscape is certainly beautiful, but it would have been better to go twenty years ago, before mass tourism descended. I was prepared for this to some extent, but the reality was a bit of a shock; the hotel was a hideous processing factory for tour groups from far provinces, and I got food poisoning - for the first time ever in China. By the time I was sitting queasily at the airport I was quite keen to leave Guilin behind. Suddenly there was a commotion, and an uneasy stirring of the people all around me; I looked up to see three figures stumble past, surrounded by men in dark glasses and leather jackets. They were bent forward, shuffling, and it took me a moment to realise that they were blindfolded, their hands cuffed behind them. I was profoundly shocked, a feeling compounded by the realisation that their blindfolds were white surgical masks intended to be worn over nose and mouth, and by the casual brutality of the police who shoved them roughly through the airport. They were bent at the waist in attitudes of supplication reminiscent of Cultural Revolution photographs. I cannot get this image out of my mind.

I have almost deleted my description of the Guilin Airport incident several times now. It is obviously so out of keeping with the tone of this blog, which for years has recounted my experiences in China - the joyful, the amusing, the bewildering and the confusing nature of the encounters of just another laowai. One of my aims has always been to counter the schematically over-simplified view of China held by people who have never been there - and some who have - focused on the reporting of corruption and human rights abuses in the western press. I wanted to show that the reality of a vast country of 1.4 billion is far more complex than what we see in the media, and give a sense of the ordinariness of daily life. But what I saw that day was far from ordinary, and this brings me back once again to art. It is artists who draw our attention, in ways both subtle and profound, to dangerous truths, to the beauty, terror and absurdity of life. It is up to us to pay attention.
From Guilin to Yangshuo on the Li Rover, Photo LG