China – Legs are power

Morning to evening, sunrise to sunset, these days are flying by and it scares me. Every single day cycling into another adventure, my legs are power and my mind is toast. So much to squeeze in, experience, see, do and people to meet. Tuesday morning was a morning of conference paper title mind-mapping and PhD interview phone calls (curator and academic Gao Minglu, artist Qiu Zhijie, Huang Li (artist and academic Xu Bing), Li Xianting) where my phone, of course at the worst time, ran out of credit – thanks China Mobile! RJW and I then had to go on the hunt for a prepayment card which we found opposite Tesco in one of those market-esqe sellers and work out how this deal works. Thankfully they have the english option on the automated phone assistance. Another thing I now know how to do in China, which is a good thing. Francesca Dal Lago had also replied to my email saying she can hopefully see me in Hangzhou when we will be both be there at the end of November. She also recommended I speak to a previous student of hers who is in Beijing called Fiona He, who does or used to work at the Asia Art Archive, so I’ll contact her at some stage…and I think I already said that I am interviewing curator Karen Smith on Saturday at 10.30 am at her studio in Beijing. This I am extremely excited about, I just need to do some prep before then.

On came a day of cycling…full on cross-city cycling. We decided to go the ‘Temple of Heaven’ not too far from our apartment and south of the city. It was where the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties visited for annual ceremonies of prayer for good harvest. When we entered the park this was happening…

This Chinese hacky sack game is called “Jianzi” in China, and after googling it, I found it is actually called a “shuttlecock sport”, and well-respected. Groups of Chinese people were playing it in the park and tried to get people involved. RJW was a natural at it and ended up playing with a couple of other Europeans. I think they were Italian though I couldn’t be sure. I was terrible so opted out to be the official sports photographer. The actual shuttlecock is made from four strong feather and a weight in the middle. It makes a great noise when it hits you like a sock full of grain or beads.

The ‘Temple of Heaven’ was an impressive sight, which you can see below. I won’t say much as its more of a visual thing.

As we were leaving, RJW engaged with a street seller who was trying to get him to buy a balsa wood build it yourself model of the ‘Temple of Heaven’…I never have time for these people. RJ managed to negotiate him down from 100RMB to 10RMB as a joke only for the guy to say that his money was fake and walk off. It was a funny situation which makes RJW laugh to himself. It was hysterical that he managed to get him down to that price…but funnier that when RJ put the 10RMB in his top pockets, he didn’t believe him. Apparently, the seller made a noise when RJ agreed to ten, like a ‘oh no what have I done’ sort of sigh. He’d lost. Street sellers are everywhere though. I don’t think we ever have a day where we don’t get offered a bit of tourist tat or knock off watches. We have even got offered a watch where Chairman Mao is waving, as his arm in the second-hand. I should have got it just for how kitsch it was! I managed to find a picture on google of it here.

And so the cycle continued up to Sanlitun Lu as we wanted to check out a place called ‘The Bookworm’…and I’m SO glad we did. This could possibly be my favourite hang out in the whole of Beijing…look at it!!! It is errrrrr, very me right? It is a largely Western lending library, bookshop, cafe and restaurant (with a roof terrace with views of Beijing)… with events, music and quiz nights…and free wi-fi. I could live here you know?

I was shattered after our epic bike ride so had two very sugary mugs of hot milk which they pretty much ripped me off for, I didn’t think they would be that expensive. Note to self. However, everything else was great. Good reggae music on in the background, interesting chats and conversation with (I think) the guy who oversees the food and drink, a little light reading and discussion with RJW and mom Skype chats. RJW sneakily bought me a book I’ve wanted for a while but haven’t invested in as its too pricey and another book to bring back to the UK. It is called ‘Dragon and Rose Garden: Art and Power in China’ by Sus Van Elsen…he hid it under The Bookworm’s event programming sheet and surprised me. It was so sweet of him to do that and he even inscribed it for me. I’ve not been the best company lately so I was extremely touched. RJW then wanted fish and chippies so we headed over to what’s becoming a favourite haunt….‘Fish Nation’. Cycle time, home time, quick phone call time and talking to Joshua on MSN time…all about interviewees and the up-coming CCVA conference in Hangzhou in November. He informed me that Jonathan Watkins had told John Butler, Head of Fine Art at BIAD, that RJW and I had done a great job in Beijing. That really meant a lot to us not just know that we’d done well, but to know Jonathan was talking about us back in Birmingham.

Wednesday was interview mode day…time to get into that academic zone but my head was so tired I did wonder how I was going to say anything coherent. I had a meeting with Claudia Albertini (International Relationships Manager) and Sun Ning (Director) from ‘Platform China’. RJW and I accidentally headed to their old space in ‘798 Art District’ rather than their main space in the Caochangdi Art District, just north of ‘798 Art District’…a quick taxi ride later and a very random walk through some suburban Chinese streets we found it. Claudia and Sun were so welcoming, open and happy to discuss my research, but I also think that comes from the fact that the basis of their space, looks or attempts to examine similar concepts as outlined in my research. I spoke of this in the last blog post…their interest in the process of international exchange.

I spoke to Claudia first, who introduced the background to ‘Platform China’ and their partnerships with people such as the Red Mansion Foundation and Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA). She said she was interested in the same artistic questions that I was asking, saying that as a curator you are translating something you see through them, the artist. Without good translation (literal and textual), you rely on the visual language presented in an artwork to speak for itself. As curators, we need to reinforce the curatorial discourse through the use of events and programming, which adds to the overall curatorial statement. It is a mutual commitment to translation. She recommended I speak to the independent curator and art critic Carol Lu, and the collaborators at the ‘Arrow Factory’, an alternative space for site-specific installations set within a store/shop space in northern Beijing. She said the Chinese are open to evaluate art as a globalised situation…but it made me question whether the West are able to do this too? Without placing it in an insular title of “international exoticism” or “chineseness”?

Sun Ning went on to explain the concept and title of their recent Spring 2010 exhibition ‘Jungle – A close up focus on Chinese Contemporary Art Trends’ which they thought might be of relevance to me.

It presented the new generation of young Chinese artists as part of a metaphorical “jungle” and how the development of contemporary Chinese art trends is still in process. By examining the jungle, Platform China hoped to illustrate the trends arising from this ecosystem. As I interpreted it, it is a jungle where you aren’t sure which seed would grow into what plant…some seeds might never grow into seedlings, plants, shrubs or trees, whereas others might quickly blossom, breaking through the trees. Art is about cultivation and support of the artists, where ‘Platform China’ is the air and atmosphere feeding the jungle, and the canopy is the established artists, already rooted deep in the earth, providing additional guidance and knowledge but also here are the small trees fighting to get through, some of which never make it. An ecosystem is a battle of survival, much like being an artist. As ‘Platform China’ stated,

“The process for the creation of  Jungle comes from the artists themselves, from their self-identification with it to their acceptance and participation.”

It’s a very interesting analogy which I think could be extrapolated further, and from this a model or curatorial structure could be drafted…the latter is actually in planning. RJW has provided some good insights and perspectives as he can take an objective view of my research. Sometimes I can get a little to close to the information before needing a step back. We went and saw the current exhibition on show at ‘Platform China’, ‘Attitude’ by Jiang Zhi. Here the word “attitude”,

“…doesn’t stand for the verb meaning “declaring one’s position”, nor it refers to the fact that Jiang Zhi or his show aims at expressing an “attitude”; in fact by positioning “attitude” in a social text it actually invites to speculate, it invites to transfer the understanding of all events and phenomena into discursive practices within the text. Only in this way we are able to re-read and re-write this social text. “Re-“, “again”, “once more” are ways to define what art is and where it belongs.”

There were some very interesting, personal and intimate pieces as part of this show, shots are shown below (these two images are © Platform China). His observations on society, words, objects and emotional interactions of changing identities, turns his videos into events, happenings which you feel gracious for experiencing.

After this very productive time with ‘Platform China’, we went for a wander around the Caochangdi Art District and came across a varied mix of exhibitions all held with in profoundly harsh edged architectural cubed buildings made out of either red or grey brick, some of which were still being built. The first gallery we came across was the ‘China Art Archives and Warehouse (CAAW)’ who were exhibiting the artists Shi Jing (images of her work shown below) and Zhang Rui, curated by the infamous Chinese creative Ai Weiwei. The show was called ‘MUN’ and very intimately and discretely examines drawing as a an independent action and acts as a language of personality. RJW and I liked some of these small watercolours, some had quite a humorous undertone displayed next to harsh violent realism. Simplistic beauty.

RJW also appreciated the untouched concrete in this gallery. The stark quality of the space always adds impact to the work. From here, we moved onto the ‘Three Shadows Photography Art Centre’ where I fell in love with the works of Rong Rong and Inri, the founders of the space. Below is one of their spectacular photographs…I wish I could own this.

This series of photographs never really showed you the full identity of the subject, no facial features or profiles were ever in view. Something particularly dream-like going on. The Caochangdi Art District is strangely placed within Chinese suburbia which I mentioned before, and actually has a demolition order against it at the moment so they are trying to get creative voters behind them to save it. I think it is a fantastic collection of very different spaces, although housed within very hostile, stark architecture, but it works. We also went and saw ‘Chambers Fine Art’, ‘C-Space’, ‘Taikang Space’ where I particularly liked the work of Han Lei and other spaces…it ended up feeling again like an intensive Saturday wander round the Chelsea galleries in New York where its less about the art and more about the people…it is about the art though, ultimately.

We thought it wasn’t that far from here to walk back to the ‘798 Art District’, however we were mistaken. It took about 40 minutes or so which didn’t really matter, it’s just on top of the cycling its super exercise. When we arrived I went and collected the dress I’d got the other day, and RJW went to catch up with his friend Cory who is Director of ‘Yuanfen Flow’ which I have spoken about previously. He spoke about the film he has been editing and his work for his other job at Lenovo. This man is driven and incredibly focussed, level-headed and good to talk to. Inspirational for RJW too, to see what these guys do. It was definitely time for dinner, so we headed back to our apartment area to ‘Cafecopy’ at the Today Art Museum. Time to use a free “Time for Dinner” card…6 dinners and 4 lunches left.

Thursday…morning…emotional chatter, discussion and honesty (high seas are calming), followed by a brief bit of PhD admin. I have had emails from Evonne and Lynn at the British Council about events as part of the ‘China-UK: Connections Through Culture Design Curators Study Tour’ that RJW and were unsuccessful in getting earlier this year. The funny thing is they have invited us to an event at the Today Art Museum and I have a distinct feeling it will be about ‘Negotiations’…perhaps RJW and I can give an added insight into the show. It made us smile. The other event they’ve invited us along to is at ‘Banmoo’ in Shanghai in mid October, a contemporary furniture designer, super minimalist with eastern influences. It will be good to go along to these to see who we can meet and build bridges with for the future. There have been and will be so many opportunities during this China experience it’s overwhelming as to the possibilities.

In the afternoon we cycled over to ‘The Forbidden City’ and ‘The Palace Museum’, having Baskin Robbins ice cream on the way as it was quite a muggy atmosphere. I shouldn’t have had it though, I keep on eating things I want to then my tummy and renal system backlash. Great. The smog was back that day. Heavy air. We cycled around the moat around ‘The Forbidden City’ until we came across the entrance and paid the 60RMB to enter what ended up being a very busy, packed out tourist venue. There were so many people in there it tired you out. Here are a few shots from our tourist trap time…I particularly liked the translation of one of the signs.


Afterwards RJW and I followed the Beijing Lonely Planet guide cycling tour, which took us north of ‘The Forbidden City’ to the ‘Jade Islet’, then following the waterside of the Quanhai and Houhai lakes up to the drum and bell towers.

We were now in familiar territory and cycled back down Nanluogu Xiang to the main road onto Sanlitun. RJW stopped for a couple of beers just before we got to our evening committment, a very interesting one too, but first it was Western Bar happy hour time at ‘The Den’, water was over priced but the snacks were free.

So our evening…it was a ‘Pecha Kucha’ event in the new SOHO, Beijing, where apparently it has the most expensive real estate out of any city at 49000RMB per sq ft. Thats a lot right? And more than New York…crazy money. Some people have heard of these nights, others haven’t and if it’s the latter, I’d really take a look at this international creative night. We arrived early with Cory, grabbed seats, snacks (White chocolate woop!) and beers and settled in ready for the 20×20, 20 slides, 20 seconds for each slide, 6 minutes 40 seconds total. It started about 5 years ago in Tokyo by two British architects and is now a global phenomenon. In Beijing they have been running for over 4 years with over 50 events. Fast-paced intense creative presentations and this time on photography, contemporary Chinese photography. It’s funny because I attended the first ‘Pecha Kucha’ event in Stoke-on-Trent, near where I live at home. I think those nights are up and running regularly there now. They had a super high attendance to the one in Beijing. People were standing, crowding round and sitting on the floor like round a camp fire.

The first speaker Ben McMillan (British) spoke of the development of his journalistic to documentary fine art photography. He presented the scale and drama of the unsung heroes of construction in China as well as Beijing’s society. There was a subtle melancholy to his works, all trying to show past vs. the new modernity of China by capturing buildings and put them in the context of the cityscape. They act like a statement of intent to the world. The second speaker was Bridget Noetzel from the ‘Three Shadows Photography Art Centre’ which we actually went to on Wednesday. I discovered the building was designed by Ai Weiwei. That man really does a great deal on impacting the contemporary Chinese art world. Speaker three was photographer and founder of “O’zine”, Chi Lei, who spoke of his theatrical planned and digitally manipulated photographs looking at common, everyday life situations and historical events re-interpreted in a new vision. Extremely colourful and powerful visual scenes. Eric Gregory Powell was speaker four and another photographer who takes pictures and sees what happens with a witty, humorous undertone. Large format images. He photographs things he doesn’t understand, that are absurd and almost ridiculous. He also focusses on architectural space and voids, the lack of use of new buildings. He tries to find a new place to take new photos with a perspective looking outward, rationalising, looking for symmetry and composition. This guy was a complete one-man comedy show with such a dry sense of humour. Next and number five was ‘Katsey’ who came with subtitles in Chinese and English, no spoken word, just heavy bass sound and imagery. As the paper sheets got peeled away to reveal a written dialogue, the images and music became more and more intense. It ended with a clear snap and break in sound. A conceptual feast. Speaker six was a young photographer called Liu Gang who shot selected magazine and newspaper images, reappropriating and reinterpreting them with the aid of digital manipulation software.

Can’t you tell by the short bursts of text and sentences I was blogging whilst at this event?! There was a short interlude for refreshments, photos and to enter a raffle by giving in your name card…did I win, ummm nope! I really wanted a Lomo fish eye camera too…not bothered about a week of yoga lessons! I don’t think ice ever one a competition. Hmmmm, my memory evades me sometimes. Two of the winners were contributors to the event…totally fixed! I’m just a little jealous, ha! Here was the view of the crowds from outside…

The second session, speaker seven, started with American photographer Robin Fall. He spoke of a documentary project in Hong Kong focussing on individuals at the Chungking Mansions. He looks at “globalisation in action” through engaging with his subjects on a personal level showing two sides to every story. Images were taken with a Holga camera and some were explicit but completely human and real in content. Images are to supplement sound and film taken during the trip. Ruben Lundgren was speaker eight, another photographer and 2m in height…seriously. His series of works were a personal take and collaboration with the public about his distinct and above normal height. Often comical. They were around the questions ‘Can I please make a picture with you?, ‘Looking at me?’ (a series showing the expressions of passers-by), ‘Living Ruler’ at Beijing Market (where he wore an outfit of a ruler to measure the height of the public), ‘So tall!’ (a set of three characters) and ‘How tall are you?’…this month he published the ‘Lu Xiaoben’ book which I got a copy of. I’m considering exhibiting this guy. I gave him my card and hope to catch him at the end of November. He is so honest and “real” if that makes sense.

Speaker nine, Taylor He, used ‘Lomography’ to document the world around her. It’s something that I think we have already experimented with in the West but perhaps it’s quite a new experience, “media” and process to work with in China? Or perhaps she was a Lomo rep? Who knows. Onto the penultimate speaker, Xiao Tianxing who presented series titled ‘Everywhere has a Tianamen Square’…’Chinese Landscape’…’Beautiful Fairytale’. All used paper-cut photomontage methods to create and build theatres which he re-photographed, as well as utilising digital manipulation software. Final words were from Wang Chuan, Vice Chairman of Photography from CAFA, whose work looked at the basic digital image principal, the pixel. Using “rational software calculation” he presented highly framed and select close up images taken from larger landscapes and panoramas. He said “the responsibility of an artist is to give thoughts and respond to time personally”…true in some respects, but I think it’s about responding to people too, they are the audience, they are your reader, they can make your art into something else, something new and think about it so differently than you could ever have thought…right?

After ‘Pecha Kucha’ ramblings, Cory, RJW and I went for mexican food at a place called ‘Luga’s Villa’ in Sanlitun, then onto ‘d-lounge’ for a late night drink. The streets around there were packed full of Westerners, and it felt more like a European beach destination than Beijing at that time.

3 responses to “China – Legs are power

  1. I’m about to head there now for a full day of writing! : ) can’t wait! I think there might even be a quiz later on…if only they were open 24 hours, I could probably stay there.

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