China – Perfect Fit

A couple of things got me thinking…a few things from this week actually…all making me question, how do you ever know when something in life is the perfect fit?…from the clothes and shoes you wear, to the way you present yourself, the personality and characteristics you develop, the partner you choose and friends you make, to the culture you are part of, grew from or decide to settle in whether it be for a short period of time or a longer part of your life. As I sit in ‘The Bookworm’ now my favourite Beijing haunt, ignorantly trying to order a jug of tap water, I am listening to two American guys discuss why one of them broke up with his last girlfriend, and what was wrong about her and how they want to make a break-up handbook…on Monday evening I went to have some rather beautiful hand-tailored shirt dresses made for me…these two instances along with spending yesterday morning with the “godfather” of contemporary Chinese art Li Xianting, who has never settled to one role and as I see it “translating” from editor, to curator, to now a creative social worker (which I’ll explain later)…it all made me question, what in life is a perfect fit? Even though I’ve been measured for these dresses, they will never stay a perfect fit. My job and role will always change in life and sometimes this option will be taken out of my hands…so why do I search for that perfect position? And I will certainly never be perfect myself and I think it is safe to say that it is almost impossible to be a perfect person as everyone has their imperfections which is what makes us human in the first place, right? We are all unique and individual. Anyway, that’s what’s rushing round my head this afternoon…and as I recognise the imperfections and the beauty of and in everything around me, I’ll move on to telling you about this week, the first week of October…I think the last time I posted was just before I headed out on Monday night so here goes…

RJW and I headed to get clothes tailored as he wanted his very expensive Levi jeans copied in different materials as they were a different cut to average jeans. I wanted some shirt dresses made but originally wanted one of my dresses copied…that turned out to be too far to expensive. The tailor was in Sanlitun, at the top of a very busy, packed out with clothing stalls, shopping complex. People were shouting prices at you, trying to get you interested in their clothing when everyone was selling the same thing and probably fake too. RJW negotiated these sellers eventually making it to the top floor and to the tailors workshop…a huge room of textile materials, work benches and assistants ready to help. RJW collected two check shirts (one purple, one green) he had made with his friend Nick last week, whilst I worked out what I wanted…I decided on a thick white material with almost a white pinstripe raised detailing in it to add a bit of embellishment, the other is a red and navy blue wide check on a white background. I definitely wanted a check. I would have loved to have got a dress copied but surprise, surprise Rachel chose one of the most expensive charcoal cashmere materials in there, I think she quoted me 700RMB, when I could buy two more of the dresses for that. We have to go back on Thursday evening to get fitted finally and to check we are happy with them.

That place was busy and very popular with an international mix of clients. My dresses came to 350RMB total in the end which I was pleased with as they’ll be a good fit…not perfect (ha) but good enough. Straight after, we headed straight to ‘The Bookworm’ for their Monday night quiz and thought we’d be late only to realise the quiz wasn’t going to start for a lot, lot longer so we ate…I had a ham, carrot and eggplant rosti (mmmm), and RJW had a burger with cheese and bacon…just as we were finishing eating, a guy called Nate came and joined us as he thought we could use the extra quiz help…and he was right. He’d just finished a Masters in International Relations in Edinburgh and compared it to his hometown of Boston. He was here is Beijing, like most ex-pats, to teach English though wanted to return to the UK to do a PhD. Should I warn him now? The quiz was six rounds…a picture round of Oscar winners, science, general knowledge, films, music, I can’t remember the other one…the most random question was on average how many balls are used in Wimbledon each year…this was an extra prize option…I think he said it was near 48,000 and we put 52,000 and something. As ever we didn’t win that, or the overall quiz, but the most important thing was we didn’t come last. So a couple of quiz facts for you…the ‘scut’ is the tail part of an animal, and there are 2 letters in Scrabble worth 2 points…

Half way through the quiz I had to ring Liao Wen, the wife of curator Li Xianting, to arrange an appointment to meet him over the next week to discuss my research. I discovered that my phone was out of credit AGAIN, for some reason it does this when I’m trying to arrange important meetings…so I used Nate’s phone only to get no answer. I quickly contacted my supervisor Joshua who informed me that I would need a translator anyway…so he put me in contact with a final year photography student from CAFA, Yu Chen, who would end up being a saviour in this whole process. The speed at which things get sorted out here is phenomenal. She arranged the appointment the next day and we were to meet on Wednesday.

So what was Tuesday? Ummmmm, my memory evades me sometimes. Its full of the outcomes of the middle of the week. I can probably explain this day quite quickly. It began with emails and phone calls, trying to arrange more meetings and interviews, but as it is still the National Holiday, which finishes on Thursday, it is very, VERY hard to get hold of people. I am still waiting to hear back from Xu Bing, who is my third supervisor, along with a handful of others. I’ll chase them all up nearer the end of the week. It was then time to knock a few things off our to-do list, which included going to the ‘Today Art Museum’ and take photos of the exhibition ‘Negotiations’, specifically Wit Pimkanchanapong from Soi Projects ‘Fruits’ installation, so we could email him with images of how it has developed (as well as taking some flatpack fruit to frame for ourselves) and also so we could inform Jonathan Watkins of anything that he needs to tell the museum – like 8 of the lights on Noguchi Rika’s photographs have slipped – I’ll email Jonathan today.

RJW and I actually had an email from Rika last week saying how pleased she was to have met us and how, if we are ever in Berlin, we must let her know. She was such a lovely person. After this quick visit to TAM, where we also indulged in another free lunch at Cafecopy shown above, we headed back to the apartment to drop things off and then started the epic bike ride to the Olympic Village. It took us about an hour and a half to get there, but RJW did stop for a IKEA hotdog on the way. He had to go in, in a ritualistic kinda way, but as I entered the exit of this Swedish global furniture chain, I realised I wouldn’t be in there for long…there were so, so many people, as this photo shows…

…and big groups of people never put me in the best mood. I thought there might be less at the Olympic Village but I was wrong, I had to remember it was the National holiday so everyone was out and about. The renowned bird’s nest and ‘Water Cube’ were quite impressive but at the same time it felt like wandering round Wembley Stadium when it wasn’t a match day.

There were too many people there to really appreciate it, however the odd and very interestingly translated sign made me smile. RJW and I burned it on the bikes on the journey home, taking us just over an hour to get back and we were, in a word, shattered. I headed to a local coffee-house to quickly do some research on Li Xianting for my interview the next day, which revealed a great deal. He has worn many hats and done some inspirational projects which Wednesday was to reveal even further. Also, RJW had this fruit…I had no clue what it was then discovered it was a dragonfruit…oh and that’s our huge meat cleaver knife that is very, very sharp. The only knife we have actually.

Yu Chen arrived at my apartment block at 8.20am on Wednesday as arranged…when I was still applying make-up. No matter how hard I try I am always late, it is one of my terrible imperfections…so I quickly rushed to get ready and in the process forgot the consent form, which in the end didn’t matter. RJW went to the ‘Military Museum of the People’s Republic of China’ with his friend Cory that day whilst I went on what I’ll call a journey. Chen and I jumped in a taxi where Liao Wen (Li Xianting’s wife) then spoke to the driver to give directions about where to go in SongZhuang, apparently the location is off the beaten track…it certainly was. About 45 minutes to an hour later, now outside of Beijing in the countryside there was a very different pace to the city, already calmer in nature and attitude. I could breathe. The taxi dropped us off at his address only for us to be told to go away as he was still sleeping, though we were about half an hour early. In this time we went for a wander, checked out a cafe which was being used as a film set (particularly random) and then went and sat on the curb. Liao Wen then came running up to us telling us to come in and said Li Xianting often gets people knocking at his door to speak to him when they haven’t made an appointment. I could see how frustrating that must be, and apparently it happens on a regular basis. As we entered his studio and home, which he designed, you were surrounded by everything that influences him…from the artworks on the wall, to the books and magazines, the tea he drinks and the view from his windows. This was his world and it was beautiful. Chen and I sat with his wife Liao Wen until he was ready for the day, for the interview, for discussion and dialogue…and when he was, he started by brewing some wheat tea for us to drink, which tasted amazing and felt very good for me. I got Chen to inform him that I had forgotten to bring the consent form to sign and he said that the laws were still being established, and there were no laws in his house so I was free to do what I wanted. This made me contently smile as I realised it is part of his whole ethos as a person.

As we started talking, it suddenly became apparent that this situation could be a little life changing. I already knew how privileged I was to have the opportunity to speak to him, as he has closed himself off to the (art) world for the last 10 years, now focussing over the past six years on two very specific projects including the ‘SongZhuang Artist Village’ and the ‘Li Xianting’s Film Fund’. He was now, as he called himself, a “social worker” to the arts…building bridges between the local farmers and local artists, trying to enable them to be able sell their work as reasonable, accessible prices (a market for ordinary people), supporting and trying to build a local arts scene in SongZhuang, working towards and attempting to gain governmental support by using his knowledge, experience and networks. This was an inspiration. He has always done this though in some capacity…supporting and promoting artists through professional and positive creative practice. He started as a founder, editor and writer for numerous Chinese art magazines and newspapers, where he was writing explicitly to give artists a voice and a platform. He saw the role of an editor as a “stationmaster” (交通站长), which was defined as during war-time, the man who in charge of arranging the revolutionists who came from different places, organising them to work and helping them to hide against the enemy, so basically, it’s a word created by the Communist Party. From there, he saw curating as building on his writing, as a further opportunity in a more visual format to let these artists speak, where he could assist and speak for them on a new and different platform, supporting and promoting them at every stage, both in the Chinese and International sphere. He was part of supporting the renowned Stars Group and has written many texts on this area of contemporary Chinese art history. When we were discussing this, he went and found a copy of the new book ‘ 30 Years of Contemporary Chinese Art’ from the Minsheng Art Museum to show me his opening essay. He went on to give me this book, which is massive (it weighs about 4 bricks) but is a huge gift from him as I cannot get it in the UK. It’s special. He also gave Chen and I a signed copy of the catalogue to the latest exhibition ‘Scorching Sun of Tibet – Contemporary Tibetan Art Show’ he has curated at the ‘SongZhuang Art Center’…which we actually managed to go and see with him after the interview. I’ll talk about that in a little bit. The interview progressed to speaking of his own method of artist selection, to the notion of translation and the literal translation of certain Chinese terminology versus certain Western words such as “artist”. I said it is often the case an artist describes themselves by media, or as China does, by a prefix to the word artist still based on Western ideals…for example “yishu jia” – professional artist. He specifically referenced the words “mei xue” which has many definitions including ‘the science of sleep’ and ‘what is beauty?’…it just made me think how many words have multiple meanings. Li Xianting said he is so interested in these ideas, he is going to write an article on terminology translation and I’m sure it is a discussion which I and he will no doubt continue. He also viewed “deconstruction” (解构 ) as the process of misunderstanding, specifically due to a word like “aesthetics” (美学) which has been imported for use from the West. He spoke more like an artist, but at the same time I wondered whether this came from being a writer – he had the ability to articulate himself in a certain way. What is becoming apparent from these interviews is how the individuals background and personal history really does affect the outcome of what they curate. That morning, I was so pleased Chen had the opportunity to show Li Xianting her film (which will actually be showed at CAFA as part of Joshua’s exhibition ‘Beyond the Memory’), and he now wants a copy. Very exciting for her.

Li Xianting then took us both out to see his recently curated exhibition ‘Scorching Sun of Tibet – Contemporary Tibetan Art Show’. He took us on a brief tour but was constantly interrupted by people as he is a bit of a celebrity superstar around there. At one stage he was suddenly surrounded by people and cameras…it was almost like he was being snapped by the paparazzi.

He very kindly took Chen and I for lunch and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Chen said to him we didn’t want to stop him from getting on with his day but he said that he needed to eat, so we all could together. His wife and assistant joined us at his favourite Muslim huo guo (hot-pot) restaurant where had lamb, beef, spinach and other herby vegetables, mushrooms, cows stomach, rice noodles, tofu, tofu strips…all is that peanut satay homemade sauce you can make. We also had these really tasty pieces of sesame seeded bread, it was super stodgy and filling, quite salty, made of a dark flour.

I enjoyed it up until the point it got so hot in there I couldn’t stop sweating, but we were all leaving at that point anyway, and I also saw a cockroach scuttle across the floor. The food tasted good though, so that’s all that mattered. We have the odd cockroach in our apartment and they cause no harm. I think I had them in my apartment in New York too though I’d have to ask Mimi about that – she rented one of her rooms out to me.

Li Xianting’s assistance helped us get a taxi back to the city only for most of the on street cabs to rip us off so he called his private driver who took us back for 120RMB, which wasn’t a bad price. I’d have paid anything as that morning interview, lunch and overall experience was something else. So in the private taxi journey back to the city, Yu Chen spoke of her father who is also a photographer, and how he knows Li Xianting well because when Chen’s father arrived in Beijing, he first met Li who handed him the keys to his place and said he could stay, he might not be there to spend time with him, but he could stay. That, along with all the other things spoken, makes him, as regularly quoted, the “godfather” of contemporary Chinese art. That man has an amazing soul.

I spent the afternoon writing in ‘The Bookworm’, having Mom Skype chats and quick words via MSN with my supervisor Joshua who immediately wound me up and got me worried, making me feel guilty for not getting any books for him. I felt terrible for a minute until he said he was only joking. Smiles all round. After bookworm bonanza time, RJW met me with Cory and we headed out to Sanlitun to meet two of Rich’s friends Laura and Jim who were from the UK, travelling round the world. China was country number two for them. Cory also showed me a copy of the magazine below with his girlfriend on the front cover (on the left). It was amazing! She was also on four of the inside pages.

One last thing, I got an email through today from the ‘Asia Europe Foundation’, who have embarked on a major transnational research project to examine the public, media and opinion leader perceptions of Asia amongst Europeans – ‘How does Europe perceive Asia?’ According to the preliminary findings of this Public Opinion Survey, the majority of respondents cited “Trade” as the number one issue for their country’s co-operation with Asia, the second most popular response was “Human Rights and Democracy”, with “Environmental Protection” the third most popular response…so where does culture and the arts appear? Considering how big the Chinese art market is now, you’d have thought it would be on that list somewhere…

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