China – At the last minute…

Things always happen at the last minute, just to shake things up…and sometimes, well most of the time, these things arise completely out of the blue to startle you and make you focus, focus on the now and the real. On Sunday afternoon, amidst nap-time as we were out late the night before, I looked at my iPhone, which was, as it usually is, on silent…only to see two missed calls and a text message from curator Huang Du’s translator Wang Yun seeing whether I could see them for an interview at 5pm…an hour and a half away…when I was still in my jama land. It’s Sunday, and we all do it, right? They are the days when you get the most done too. I quickly rang her and said I could meet them both by 5.30pm at the ‘Eudora Station’ opposite the ‘Lido Place’ in the Chaoyang district of Beijing. Courtesy of the rain it took just under an hour in a taxi to get there…the traffic was absolute gridlock at some stages, but thats just part of Beijing. It was odd doing a formal interview in a place where you could hear cheesy Western music. Anyway, it was a very interesting dialogue and Wang Yun was a very articulate translator. He ticked (like Simon Kirby) the ‘proof and edit before publishing’ box on the consent form, whilst his translator corrected my Chinese translation of the form, therefore again I can’t really say that much which is a real shame as there were some very key perspectives and constructs from this discussion.

After this chat, Huang Du then took RJW and I for dinner at a place across the road in the ‘Lido Place’ called ‘Yuxiang Kitchen (Yuxiangrenjia)’, traditional sichuan cookery, which apparently has a history of over 2,000 years. We had smoked duck and sauteed diced chicken in sichuan style sauce, which are both famous dishes, some sort of egg in tomato soup (which I didn’t eat obviously), a white fish in a sticky sweet and sour sauce. Huang Du asked if we wanted dessert and we replied saying we hadn’t really had a traditional Chinese sweet yet so he ordered a fruit platter, deep fried sesame seed rice balls, and ‘Tang Yuan’ a dish of rice balls served in a sweet broth – all very rich and glutinous.

It is said in Chinese culture, that the last dish is traditionally served on ‘Dong Zhi’, the winter solstice and by eating tang yuan, you welcome in the winter and become one year older…its only just turned Autumn though.

One of his artist friends Li Xinjian joined us and the funny thing was his work is part of the ‘Scorching Sun of Tibet – Contemporary Tibetan Art’ at the Songzhuang Art Center which I recently saw with curator Li Xianting. He had spent many years in Tibet and then Paris, France but has recently come back to Beijing to live and settle again. He was a gentle, softly spoken man…and very kindly gave me a copy of his new book. I have a new library forming in China, which isn’t good. Russell has very kindly offered to keep them at this place until we return at the end of November. I hope then to send them back with some of my colleagues from BIAD…but I’ve been told they will have enough of their own to take with them…hmmm…excess baggage charges ahoy!

In the middle of the night I woke up with the most chronic sore throat, the kind that stops you from swallowing and makes you feel instantly sick. It panicked me a little as I don’t like being ill as its means Rachel Marsden productivity is down, when I know I’m allowed to rest! So Monday I woke up ill, a head full of congestion and a throat that felt the size of house. RJW and I went to Tesco thinking they would have a pharmacy or sell medicines like in the UK but we were wrong. Here are some Tesco photos first…

We eventually found one in the shopping complex adjoining Tesco and luckily the pharmacist spoke a little English. As ever the obligatory hand actions came out…holding my throat, coughing and touching my forehead. I was handed three boxes of Chinese herbal medicine and sent on my way.

I have absolutely no idea what is in these but I was open to try them. If it made me feel better, and better quick I didn’t care. I was told to eat no hot food…so is that temperature hot or spices hot? Hmmm…I liked the Chinese packaging on the Halls menthol sweets. RJW and I spent the rest of the morning packing so we could leave for Tianjin first thing the next day. He also went off to Sanlitun to collect our tailored clothes. In the afternoon we went back to the Today Art Museum for the final time for the China-UK: Connections through Culture, British Council Design Curators Tour presentations and networking meeting. We arrived at what we thought was the beginning of the event only to be informed it started half an hour earlier than scheduled.

Whilst RJW listened to the speakers, I went off to find and retrieve from Zhang Shengbin the DVD of the film from the installation period of the ‘Negotiations’ exhibition. I felt rough at this stage but persevered through the afternoon. I went back to join RJW for the final speakers, all designers from Beijing then we were invited to attend the VIP reception at Copycat (the cafe which we have been frequenting for numerous free meals) where we started to introduce ourselves and chat to a few people from the British Council as well as the Design Tour. It was great to finally put faces to names after emailing them over the past few months. They are all a very social bunch and so open to help and advise.

We had to be back at the apartment for 7pm to meet Mai from the apartment company to check out. As we were leaving a few days early he gave me a little refund for the few nights we weren’t staying. I thought as we’d given him such short notice this wouldn’t happen, so I was definitely pleased. We then had to cycle to Russell’s to drop off the numerous books I have collated during my five weeks of Beijing and the two Anchor Tesco bikes…I wasn’t happy about this at all as I felt horrible, not just ill, horrible…and Russell’s wasn’t close. He lived in Eastern Beijing near the 5th Ring Road, which is the same distance as cycling from our apartment to Tianamen Square…about 40/50 minutes or so…though at the pace I cycled at, it probably took over an hour. Ill cycling legs never go fast and it no doubt did not help my recovery. Anyway, it had to be done and it got done. In haste, I forget to give Russell the remaining free lunch and dinner vouchers for Copycat so they are wasted in my wallet now soon to go in the bin.

The beginning of Tuesday was endurance as we were up very, very early…5.30am early…to this beautiful scene…

I wasn’t functioning very well. I had also been bitten beyond belief by some critter all over my back. They were swollen and huge and looked disgusting…about five bites evenly placed. Dressed, packed and as ready as I could be, we got a taxi to Beijing South Station and a train to Tianjin. I wasn’t in the best mood that day but understandably so. Apologies all round. So bye bye a very blue skied Beijing. It did feel a little odd somehow. You get to know a place, then you have to leave so suddenly. We arrived at Nick and Qian’s just before 9am…I think all I did was drink some wheat tea, eat a pear and then sleep…sleep and um sleep some more? I woke up around 3.15pm not feeling any better when RJW gave me  a mixed bowl of museli and cereal and more wheat tea…then came more sleeps, followed by even more sleeps, waking up in the early evening as Qian and RJW decided what to do for dinner. They went to the Korean restaurant we had been too last time we were here. I think RJW wanted to go just so he could bring me back the pumpkin porridge I love so much. Super kind and thoughtful of him. Whilst they were out, I had a bath. I forgot how much I miss them! It was the first one I had had since being in China and it felt so good. Something funny happened to my hair though. Not sure whats going on but its gone stiff on the top, like its got hairspray in it and it looks super greasy. I thought washing it again would help but it didn’t. Qian came back at about 8.30pm with vast amounts of pumpkin porridge and the tofu squares I liked with small pepper faces on them. RJW had stayed out to meet Nick after work and go to a bathhouse…meanwhile Qian made me this amazing honey and ginger tea which helped my throat so, so much. As I sat down to eat my mini feast in the lounge, followed by a very little cream bun, we watched a DVD before I headed straight back to bed for, you guessed it, more sleeps. I wanted to wake up on Wednesday feeling better…but did that happen. Errrr no…whatever this Chinese cold/flu thang was it wanted to stick around.

On Wednesday, I woke up super early to lace myself with herbal and non-herbal drugs, falling straight back to sleep again with a Halls lozenger in my mouth, which can’t be safe right? I woke up with it strongly adhered to the side of my gum and top lip, thankful I hadn’t choked. I thought I felt a bit better that morning, so I got up to have breakfast, a shower (which still resulted in weird hairspray greasy hair again, eugh) and to do a little typing only to go back to sleep again…sleeps…and more sleeps…eventually mustering up energy to go and see the exhibition ‘Transition: Over the Hedge’ which I’d seen a poster for in Tianjin station. I’d emailed the organiser the day before to get further information as I couldn’t find anything on the internet and he sent a huge press pack through. I had to go and see it as it is somewhat relevant to my PhD studies, and I thought it might make an interesting case study as part of the ‘Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA)’ conference I am presenting at in November in Hangzhou. The exhibition invites 12 Belgian and 12 Chinese artists, above 60, to create a work in which they confront their past and present expectations and ideas with the transience of life. The curators Raf De Smedt and Manyu Zhang visited artists in China and Belgium in 2009. The concept of “transition” led to interesting discussions about the artistic life and identity of the artist in the changing economic and philosophical realities in Western and Eastern societies.

This is a much more traditionally minded exhibition, placed more within modernist and avant-garde contexts rather then contemporary or conceptual art. The exhibition was housed within the former residence of Duan Qirui, No. 38 Anshan Avenue in the Heping District of Tianjin. It was a beautiful building…full of very historical detailing.

Artworks were clustered or grouped in rooms…one of which was locked I assume due to the visual content of the work, that of the naked Chinese female form by Chinese artist.These paintings were realist representations with gestured symbolism and iconography in the periphery. It is interesting to note that there was only one female artist in the whole exhibition too…I think that really came through if you looks at all the works together. I managed to eventually get my hands on a catalogue for further reference and to read the more academicised essays. When we got back to Nick and Qian’s and after a more pumpkin porridge, I helped RJW with his CV or “one person menu” and made a decision not to go to Qian’s parents for dinner. I was sad about this as I always seem to miss out on special occasions because I’m ill. RJW left with Qian quite early that evening so alone again in the apartment, I sent a few emails and headed for early sleeps. RJW woke me when he returned to see whether I wanted leftovers. I got up, put some RJW man clothes on, and had a lounge picnic again, before returning straight back to bed.

We were up early again yesterday to get a lift from Qian’s dad to the bus station in Tianjin to Beijing Capital Airport. Time to move onto Shanghai. These few days have gone so quickly, I’m not sure where they’ve gone. Still feeling Chinese ill, we managed to just get the 7am bus and sat on the back row, the only free seats on this ride. I already missed our bikes for some reason. The bumpy journey took about three hours and dropped us off right at Terminal 2. We checked in where I expected huge excess baggage charges but the woman didn’t even check! That was a super good start. It was time to hunt for breakfast…which ended up being some sort of egg and sausage fried rice dish, accompanied by a celery bean salad, and two soya fruit bars.

Time for sleep yet? Time to fly AND sleep, and type a few conference notes that appeared in my head…look who we found in the free inflight magazine…Cory’s girlfriend Marta! It made us smile…and realise that we were leaving Beijing behind.

So RJW and I are back in Shanghai and are rather happy to be back here. We had a bit of a miscommunication faff with the apartment people which eventually got sorted out and I still have terrible hairspray greasy locks for some reason which is making me unhappy, but we are in a different city, safe and sound, ready to settle into the next few weeks, nearly two months, before moving on again. Last night, we attended another China-UK: Connections through Culture, British Council Design Curators Tour event this time at a design house called ‘Banmoo’. When the taxi dropped us off, we looked around the very local Shanghai streets and thought this isn’t right, then I saw an immaculate huge disco ball in a window display which led us to the design studio. The tour had been there since about 4pm and we arrived just after 6.30pm, in time for the Shanghai designers presentations and well needed refreshments.

At the networking session afterwards, RJW and I managed to speak to many people. I spoke to a freelance curator and maker called Katy West, as well as a Shanghai based young artist/designer called Lu Pingyuan. His creative portfolio captured me as he had such freedom, daring and front to the “live” installations and time-based works he installed in galleries. I’m thinking about exhibiting his work in the UK as I really felt something from it all. What I couldn’t get over was the fact he knew Joshua (Jiang Jiehong), my PhD supervisor! The chances…and then he went onto say he had helped install the show ‘Seeing One’s Own Eyes’ by ‘MadeIn’ at the IKON Gallery, Birmingham, UK. Two very familiar things! Sometimes I can’t get over how much of a small world it is. Lu currently works for artist Xu Zhen and ‘MadeIn’ in Shanghai, so I hope to catch up with them during my 7 weeks in Shanghai.

After all this chatter, RJW and I went to the supermarket down the road just before it closed to get essential supplies before heading home to unpack fully and get some more sleep. Let’s hope all these z’s have helped. Time for another stage of this adventure…in Shanghai. Now what will it bring?

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