China – 16 taxi rides plus…

…two 2-hour flights, a high-speed train journey and one long bike ride. This is ultimately what it took to negotiate and travel to, from and around Beijing and Hangzhou, and back to Shanghai from the 17th to the 22nd of November…along with using our reliable feet. We arrived in Beijing on Wednesday 17th November just after lunch and needless to say I was tired after staying up until 1am to get the paper for the ‘Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA)’ conference finished. All I wanted to do was sleep, I never can though, even when I try. My brain seems to be in overdrive at the moment so my eyes stay open. I love these clocks below…I wish I could find one to have in my house back in the UK. They are everywhere in China…shops, apartment blocks, airports…I think I’ve posted an image of one before when RJW and I were shopping in Tianjin. It greeted us at the airport in Beijing. We were back…it was cold with a distinct winter chill…and it was STILL smoggy. No surprises there then.

On the taxi journey to the Holiday Inn Express where we were staying, we came across the Beijing version of the Bullring in Birmingham, UK…do you think it was really based on the Birmingham one? Or do you reckon they had no idea about their similarities? It was a crazy moment of distinct familiarity though, of almost being back in the West Midlands, instead of being back in Beijing. We got to the hotel late afternoon. RJW and I did think about venturing into the centre of Beijing but it is a huge effort, so decided to go and have a wander locally and find some food, which ended up being at a Vietnamese restaurant called ‘Mellow’ just round the corner.

The next day began with a Chinese hotel breakfast…on offer was noodles, dumplings, steamed bread, a whole variety of pickled meats and vegetables, salad, processed meats like fake chicken and sausages, tea eggs (as in eggs soaked in tea), Chinese red bean porridge, along with a few Western things like jam, toast, strange corn cereal, raisins, yoghurt and a fruit platter, which consisted just of melon…and the raisins aren’t real California ones here, they are dried green grapes and are still quite bitter. I just went for the cereal with raisins and milk and a couple of pieces of toast. This didn’t feel great though, and my stomach told me so. I haven’t eaten cereal for a long time and I think my body really appreciates it. Bye bye cereal addiction, I’ll make it a 2011 New Years resolution thing. During breakfast I had to ring the critic, curator and scholar Gao Minglu to arrange a time and place for our morning meeting that day. He said 10.30am at the ‘Gao Minglu Contemporary Art Center’, about 10 minutes from where we were staying.

So Thursday turned into another day of interviews, meetings and many taxi journeys across Beijing. It was particularly cold that day and the Art Center where I met Gao Minglu was freezing. The heaters hadn’t long been on and it was quite a vast space to fill, so I sat there with my coat and mittens on hugging a glass mug of jasmine tea.

During the interview, we spoke of the ’85 New Wave’ art movement, and the exhibitions ‘Inside Out: New Chinese Art’, and ‘The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art’…and then we were just getting into the swing of things when we were interrupted to say his next meeting had arrived…which I had no idea about. I was a little frustrated by this as I got told the words “we can continue this by email” but it is never the same as it person. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to meet him though, and to start and initiate dialogues and discussions. It was interesting to see which questions he didn’t really want to answer and those he pondered over. Like most of my interviewees, he wants to proof material before publishing. They all seem interested…which is a good thing right? I’ve lost a little confidence since I arrived in Hong Kong…probably as I know I’m returning to the UK soon where things will be very different research-wise.

After photocopying a book I can’t get in the UK at the ‘Gao Minglu Contemporary Art Center’, and buying a copy of the huge catalogue for ‘The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art’, it was now time to head to the Sanlitun area of Beijing to meet  writer and curator Philip Tinari. He is also founding editor of ‘artforum.com.cn’, and Editorial Director for ‘LEAP magazine’. RJW and I did a little DVD shopping first…I was on the hunt for art/creative DVDs for use in lecturing and only came across one new one that I didn’t already have. The photo of Sanlitun looks a bit bleak below…that’s because it actually was freezing that day and for some reason I thought it appropriate to wear city shorts and tights. Bad move Marsden. I was shivery all day. I like the word “shivery”. Probably very appropriate for the UK now from what I hear…when I’m in 26 degree heat in Hong Kong. I’ll be back in the cold soon enough though.

I met Phil at a cafe called ‘Refresh!’ in the bottom of the building where ‘LEAP magazine’ is based. He didn’t want photos to be used publicly, hence there are no images of our encounter posted on here. RJW headed to my favourite place ‘The Bookworm’ whilst I spoke to Phil. Our chatter consisted of talk of the case studies as part of my study, Gao Minglu, issues of translation, writing and art criticism, viewpoints on other people in the contemporary Chinese art scene and perhaps the possibility of me writing for ‘LEAP magazine’ in the future, but we will see what happens. Another positive meeting and Phil is a very knowledgeable  mind who has worked on so much in this scene. A good point of reference I think.

I met RJW after the interview for a late lunch of a hot spinach, goats cheese and pine nut salad before heading back to the hotel to drop things off and heading straight back out again to ‘Platform China’ to collect the beloved projector we were about to cart across the world for them…for its delivery to London, UK. RJW and I were to get the projector back to Shanghai, then Lorna Hards, a fellow PhD candidate from my institution who was coming over to China to present at the ‘Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA)’ conference too, was to take it on the final leg of the journey from Shanghai to Birmingham, UK. Then I believe the artist was to collect it and take it back to London. It was really good to see Claudia Albertini and Sun Ning again and have a quick catch up. Completely genuine souls with fantastic creative minds. I think Claudia is coming to the UK  in 2011 so RJW and I get to see her in our part of the world. It had got incredibly cold by this time to the stage where you could see your breath inside buildings, inside the gallery.

‘Platform China’ had two exhibitions currently on show. The first was in the downstairs space called ‘THE THIRD PARTY – An Exhibition in Three Acts’ curated by Beatrice Leanza, who I was actually supposed to interview and meet at ‘798 art district’ during my time in Beijing but she became unwell and I somehow got to busy…a real shame, but I will email her and hopefully catch her in Shanghai next year. I liked the premise of this exhibition…

“…conceived to unfold in three consecutive sessions in Platform China project space. Each approximately lasting twenty days, the three moments of this show are devised to disclose their conceptual and thematic associations as in a chain-reaction, where the individual frameworks are determined by the critical inputs presented within a preceding one.

The Third Party explores the shaping relationships between narrative and aesthetic objects to foreground an inquiry in the realm of the ‘ordinary’ specific to the Chinese context. It does so by mobilizing overarching frames of reference and critique currently at play, be those aesthetic or historical, through three analytical environments tackling respectively issues of self-historicization, witnessing/archiving and collaboration.”

It presented interesting new works in a raw capacity with attention to detail such as the labelling considered as part of the concept. It’s just a shame I only had a camera phone with me at the time.

A few nice book sculptures here too. The second exhibition upstairs in the gallery was ‘One Man’s Island – Jin Shan’s Solo Show‘ and was a completely immersive video environment where the synchronicity and interaction between the videos and images created fluid dialogue and response to a year and half long archival process as regards a response to life and art.

I particularly liked this last video still as it is dated and presents bilingual text. All part of my obsession with all things language and archiving. After ‘Platform China’ it was time to go to the ‘798 art district’, specifically to see Russell at ‘Yuanfen Flow’ so I could collect all the books I had left with him last time we were in Beijing. Claudia from the gallery very kindly got us a lift to the main road with the projector et al. and then jumped in a taxi with us on the way to swimming so we could get to ‘798 art district’ safely. It was good to see Russell again, who had grown a huge beard since we had last seen him and looked a bit sailor/nautical due to a turquoise woolen hat and an orange tight-knit sweater. Russell and RJW had a bit of boy banter before RJW got invited to stay for an evening design meeting, another great opportunity to see the inner workings of ‘Yuanfen Flow’. I decided to head back to the hotel asap at this point to finish the Powerpoint for the ‘Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA)’ conference I was presenting at  that weekend in Hangzhou, and also to meet Lorna the fellow PhD candidate, who had finally arrived in Beijing, and to the same hotel. I think she had been sight-seeing all afternoon in a jet-lagged state.

The journey back to the hotel was particularly interesting as I had to cart the projector et al. and two huge bags of books back in a taxi on my own…and I could barely lift the wooden boxed-up projector, let alone the bags of books. I had to have faith in mankind that night…the taxi couldn’t make it to the entrance of the hotel so I had to leave some of it halfway down the street, running to and from the hotel to move it all piece by piece. Luckily, nobody ran off with any of it, though to be honest it wouldn’t have been a quick getaway if they did. By this time Lorna had arrived and we were hungry so I took her for a real Chinese experience of huo guo (hot pot), across the street from the hotel. As she is vegetarian I knew there would be things here she could have and enjoy. We spent a few hours there chatting and talking, a little about our research (hers is about public art strategies in Birmingham, UK), whilst RJW was out in Sanlitun catching up with his friend Cory, and I think Russell too. He returned pretty late in the morning after some DJ thing I think, though I could have got that completely wrong.

Onto Friday and this is the smog we woke up to from our hotel, our final day in Beijing…seriously, it still shocks you when you see it.

RJW and I met Lorna in the lobby after a quick Chinese breakfast. We got a taxi and headed to my PhD supervisor, Jiang Jiehong’s (Joshua Jiang) exhibition ‘A Decade Long Exposure’ at the CAFA Art Museum where the press and media were in a frenzy. What I found interesting was they were using their huge microphones to record what I thought would be personal discussions between people in the crowds. Lorna, RJW and I met Joshua who looked positively exhausted, though you would be from frantically installing an exhibition in four days. You can see him below saying a few words during the opening speeches.

At the opening, I managed to speak to the contemporary Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie, who said he was coming to Hangzhou and would listen to my conference paper (no pressure there then), and I also managed to meet my third supervisor who has been a little difficult to pin down just because he is a very high-profile and busy man, Xu Bing. He said we could meet at 3pm that day and I was excited…our meeting was more of an introductory session to each other, my research and my future aims and aspirations. He wanted to know what I wanted to do after my PhD  (curator? writer? lecturer? etc) and where I wanted to be located…a lot of people have asked me this question…and they are both undefinable in my world. Can I cross boundaries please and be interdisciplinary in a “transcultural” way? I was very pleased to have touched base with Xu, and hoped that further dialogues could now happen more quickly.

That evening, RJW went out with his friend Cory again, this time to a launch party for the clothing company Diesel. I stayed in to finish the Powerpoint presentation (which did get done and quickly too), and to have early sleeps as we needed to get up at 5am for the airport. Lorna also gave me with treats from the UK, some which I had requested like Christmas surprises for RJW, deodorant and fennel tea (I can’t live without it), and some which we hadn’t in the way of two advent calendars! So thoughtful of Lorna. She thought it would be a way to say thank you and one of the things we definitely would miss whilst we are away from the UK over Christmas. She was right. I think they are quite a European thing…or are they Western? RJW got in at just after 3am…getting to sleep around 3.30am…getting one and a half hours sleep before we woke up to leave the hotel for the aiport…Hangzhou bound. He felt a little rough that morning to say the least. I think the day that followed was an endurance test for all of us, especially Lorna as she was still jet lagged.

My PhD supervisor, Jiang Jiehong (Joshua Jiang) also got the same flight as us at 8am. I think we got to Hangzhou just after 10am where we were greeted by people from the China Academy of Art (CAA). We were put in a people carrier, taken to the  university campus and hotel, fed and watered at the art cafe, and then taken for a very brief tour of the ‘West Lake’ by two of the CAA‘s students.

A beautifully peaceful and serene place, very different to other places we had been to in China. The ‘Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA)’ conference on the theme of ‘Art in the Public Realm: Mass Culture and Identity’, started at 1pm that afternoon where Lorna and I had to attend. RJW got to check into the hotel and sleep, which we were both extremely jealous of. We didn’t really have a translator for that afternoon, and when I say that, I mean we had someone with a good knowledge of English who had lived in Birmingham for a while, but she only gave us an overview of what the presenter was saying, hence it meant we only got segments of information. I’m not sure if it was worthwhile or not, but it was an experience. Joshua tried to buy us all a little napping time after day one of the conference had finished as he was still feeling unwell, but literally as I had just shut my eyes to sleep he rang to say we had 15 minutes until we were going out for dinner, keep…on…going. It was a Chinese feast where you were so full afterwards you didn’t want to move, so Lorna, RJW and I went for an evening wander around the ‘West Lake’ and for a late night drink before well-needed super sleeps.

The second day of the ‘Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA)’ conference started at 9am, where Lorna was presenting at 9.45am…she did extremely well as it is quite hard to work with a translator. It slows down the whole pace of the paper which you just cannot prevent. Free lunch came round again when I was informed my paper would have to be put back so that they could ensure artist Qiu Zhijie would be there to see it. Initially it went from 1pm to 3pm, then to 3.45pm…the last paper of the day. I have this theory as to when is best to present a paper, thinking mid morning as people are fully awake by then, not hungry or full from food, or too tired as it isn’t at the end of the day…also it means nerves can’t go crazy and build up over time…but I was last at 3.45pm. So after lunch Lorna, RJW and I went for a wander in Hangzhou…seeing a shoe-makers studio, buying things from an art supplies shop, and another quick jaunt round the ‘West Lake’. It definitely kept nerves at bay.

Then it was paper time…’“Translating” Contemporary Chinese Art – Curating for the Public Audience’…and it went ok actually. It took a little time to get into the rhythm of saying one sentence then stopping for the translator, going back and forth, for nearly 45 minutes, but it happened and I got some incredibly good feedback during the panel session afterwards, and all mainly from Qiu Zhijie who had just flown in from Beijing, which was even better…he wanted to discuss:

  • the phrasing ‘contemporary Chinese art’ versus ‘Chinese contemporary art’;
  • the idea of ‘exchange’ not being a dialogue, dialogue is one approach to exchange, best means is to be together, more appropriate words he said would be ‘tong xing’ (go together) or ‘gong shi’ (working together);
  • why not look at the idea of ‘local to international’? As China-India is ‘local to local’ whereas isn’t China-UK ‘local to international’?…This is where I see it as being ‘local to local’ in a “transcultural” world;
  • Also referenced the 8th Shanghai Biennale as a whole piece of public art, he asked if all exhibitions could be public art?

There were some interesting points raised but none focussed on the idea of mistranslation or misunderstanding directly which was a bit of a shame. I completely forgot to say that I forwarded the paper onto Chang Tsong-zung so he could proof it, as he had requested so on the PhD consent form, and he got back to me in Beijing saying he wanted to publish it on the ‘West Heavens’ website in the ‘Ongoing Thinkings’ section as well as trying to get it in a few Chinese art magazines. I didn’t know what to say, and felt incredibly overwhelmed by his positive feedback as his opinion means a great deal. Smiles happened that day.

Another Chinese dinner followed with a strange sense of relief. One big chunk of worry and work was out the way and I could slowly start to calm down and see the holiday light at the end of the China PhD fieldtrip tunnel.

We noticed every dish was presented in a different way, on a different bowl or plate, and the meal seemed to be themed in parts. The cocktail umbrella made us smile though. I was hoping to get to speak to Qiu Zhijie further about the points he had raised regarding my conference paper, however we never really got the chance or opportunity over dinner as most of the conversation was led in Chinese, even though most of the people there could speak English. We were all very tired though, and Joshua still wasn’t himself. You can see Joshua and Qiu Zhijie below, I had no idea he was looking straight into the camera. Awkward.

After a feast of food (again!) Joshua rang a chap called Michael Sullivan who was in Hangzhou to make a presentation. Joshua said I should be familiar with this guy, I was racking my brain as to who he was then it only dawned on me when I met him in person…he is a 94-year-old wonder, a British art historian and one of the major Western pioneers in the field of modern Chinese art history and criticism, now a Fellow at the University of Oxford and has written a key book integral to my research ‘The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art’. A complete honour to meet this man shown on the far left below. He said I can go have dinner with him when I am back in the UK. He sat with us for about half an hour in a hotel bar sipping a can of beer before he left us to sleep. His assistant was funnily enough Wang Ruobing, who I have met on many occasions. She has just completed her PhD on ‘Contemporary Chinese Environmental Art’ at the Ruskin School at the University of Oxford and we said we could chat further back in the UK.

Lorna also bumped into a chap called John Onians, who is Professor of World Arts at the University of East Anglia in the UK. She knew him from her time in Norwich, I think from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Completely random, but we love it when these international paths cross. I spoke to him too and he mentioned that my research would be very applicable for their new peer-reviewed journal called the ‘World Art Journal’…so I’m definitely going to submit something in the new year. A really fantastic evening of chance encounters and great company.

The last day in Hangzhou started with a quick walk round the CAA campus before Lorna, RJW and I went on a hunt to find and hire bicycles for the morning escapades.

We eventually found the booth to pay our deposits (it only cost 2RMB per hour, thats 20p! and a 300RMB deposit but you got that back…crazy), so the journey round Hangzhou and the ‘West Lake’ began. And this is what we saw on our travels.

We made a stop on the way round to hike up to the ‘Leifeng Pagoda’, that actually had an escalator, so it didn’t turn into that much of a trek…very odd…anyway the views were phenomenal from the top, where it was a little bit chilly.

We also dropped off our bikes at one of the designated spots and walked down one section that is like a slim walkway which crosses the lake, picking up bikes again on the other side. We came across this fantastic old chap flying kites and stopped and watched him for a while.

I think we cycled and walked for about five hours in the end, on a beautiful clear blue skied day. We were lucky as it had rained the day before. After having a quick-lunch, we headed back to collect our luggage as it was time to return to Shanghai on the high-speed train which took just under an hour…ummm I think I fell asleep with my mouth open.

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