798, Qiaozi and Caochangdi…

I’m catching up…slowly but surely…one step at a time right? I say that a lot in life, but it is a good phrase to live by. This post is about my final day in Beijing last Saturday. It was a day of appointments with my PhD supervisor Joshua at various art districts in Beijing. Inspirational and chaotic, the only two words needed. Professor Darren Newbury (my second PhD supervisor) joined me for the morning before I met Joshua. We walked from the hotel to the 798 art district on a very sunny Beijing morning and went to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) to see what was on show. There were offerings from Liu Jianhua with his ‘Screaming Walls’ where the 200-plus pieces of Jingdezhen kiln-fired black porcelain dripping down the walls are ‘like ink as eye-catching as exclamation marks, as elegant as cursive calligraphy. They seem so inviting, beckoning us to read them, but is this a language we can understand?’; Walead Beshty’s solo exhibition ‘Securities and Exchanges’ where the concept of “material transformation” is explored through the creation of artworks designed to interact with as many people as possible on its journey from studio to gallery, and to accumulate evidence of these interactions every step of the way. ‘All of the objects you see in the room have undergone, or are currently undergoing, a process of transformation.’ It is not often you see the floor of a gallery space altered…this can be overlooked in the artistic and curatorial process so it was interesting to see how it can alter you interactions with art through the mirrors presence; and Tatsuo Miyajima’s exhibition ‘Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust’ which ’employs different sets of visual tools to express the visceral nature of time and draw the viewer into the experience. ‘HOTO’ winks back at us with our own reflections, ‘Floating Time’ immerses us in a sea of dancing numbers and ‘MEGA DEATH’ forces us to confront a truly terrifying number: 167,000,000, the estimated number of lives lost to war, revolution, violent conflict and genocide in the 20th century. When those 2,400 blue LED counters go dark en masse, signaling the ultimate annihilation, we are placed in a state of suspended animation, anticipating the ultimate rebirth.’ This one of my brother’s favourite artists so when viewing I felt very content. A few shots of the exhibitions are shown below mostly documenting Miyajima’s colourful, light-filled numeric wonderland…

After the UCCA, we met Joshua and went straight to the Beyond Art Space to meet with Jean Li, the Director of the space. She was incredibly welcoming and her English was good, which was a huge relief. Professional situations like this make me feel ignorant…I wish I knew Mandarin. We spent most of the time speaking about the current exhibition, a solo exhibition of the work of renowned landscape painter Xu Longsen, and the ideas I had as regards my exhibition I am to curate in relation to my current PhD studies. I won’t talk much about the possible exhibition here…all I’ll say is that it is on the theme of ‘The Temporary – 临时 lín shí’ and I have spoken about it previously but today I feel that it is important to wait until information, concept and artists are finalised before I put it into the public realm. It is all incredibly exciting news though. I documented the space quite thoroughly so I can continue to visualise its potential when not in Beijing…I thought I’d share it with you all.

During lunch, Joshua had received a call about the opening of an art festival just outside of Beijing. At this stage Darren left us to go on his adventures and Joshua and I jumped into a taxi to see what this “new” art festival was all about. Joshua had no idea where it was or who was there apart from his contact, the artist who had invited him, Shen Shaomin. It took about an hour to get there as the taxi driver got lost…the more the journey went on, the more it felt like we were heading for Tianjin, well that’s what Joshua said. We arrived at the Qiaozi Art Commune to find there was a real sense of energy amongst the creatives and visitors there…a launch event was definitely happening, specifically for the festival ‘Mustard Seed Garden’. The majority of this art commune newly built, profoundly impressive from a Western perspective, yet somewhat standard from a Chinese one. Artists here are used to the development of these kind of spaces and I’m not entirely sure if they realise how lucky they are. This would cost a phenomenal price in the UK and Europe…but perhaps that’s why they stay in China.

Joshua and I met up with Shen Shaomin who took us round his studio and the Qiaozi Art Commune, also showing us the current exhibition on display of young contemporary Chinese artists curated by Jessie who I met and had dinner with later on that day. It seems the commune is just full of random (perhaps) stray cats…they were literally everywhere. Anyway, Shen gave us an insight into his new concepts and works, which due to my ethical standpoint I can’t speak about here as I have to protect his concepts. I may well include one of these new pieces as part of ‘The Temporary – 临时 lín shí’ but I’m not sure yet. His studio, as shown above, was phenomenal, fully functioning with a kitchen and dining area, a lounge and office, full bathroom, library, workshops and gallery spaces and a rather substantial garden out the back as you can see below…not forgetting the full gallery, Chinese garden with a man-made lake and an open air theatre/concert space. What more could you need? We spent about an hour or so with Shen discussing his new works before looking round the rest of the commune then Joshua had to leave to continue the promotion of his exhibition he has curated at the Today Art Museum entitled ‘Guanxi: Contemporary Chinese Art’, on display until the 23rd October 2011. So there I was, left a long way from Beijing where no taxi’s pass by the end of the street. All I could think about was how I was going to get back. Shen told me in broken English that he would look after me, and got his sister “Diana” (this was her English name) to keep me company. We eventually managed to arrange to meet later on in the day so I could go round on my own and look at the exhibition and commune…and listen to some rather interesting Chinese music…a clip of it I have included below. I have no idea what the band were called. This Flip video camera is a real delight to have…I hope it makes your experience of my China better too. Let me know!

After being, no doubt, incredibly nosy, going into spaces and studios that perhaps I shouldn’t of…eating a few of the complimentary launch event snacks and listening to some local music, I thought it was about time I headed back into the city as I intended to meet Darren and Tianran for dinner at around 7pm that evening. I should have realised that it was never going to happen though. In China, you have to remember that plans change at the drop of a hat and things never quite turn out the way you thought they would…so I found Diana, Shen Shaomin‘s sister, and asked if someone could get me a taxi. He wondered why I didn’t want to stay for the artists dinner at the commune but I was really not sure about how to get back, and my Mandarin isn’t that great the moment, which adds an extra layer of worry. After a few phone calls and conversations, Shen said that one of the artists, Liu Wei, would drive me back in his car with other people involved in the exhibition…a female contemporary Chinese artist called Sun Shaokun and the Qiaozi Art Commune curator Jessie Wu Cheng who is also assistant to the artist Liu Jin. Most of them could speak English, so I was very pleased I could actually have a conversation that evening! They invited me to dinner (I told you plans never work out), so we went to a local fish huo guo (hot pot) restaurant once we had got into Beijing after a very traffic ridden drive back. The food was great…they ordered all fish, apart from the duck’s blood (eugh). The spring onion pancake was good too…I think you can see it on the pictures below. I still find the notion of choosing the fish you are going to eat live before you eat it very, very odd…seeing it flap around in a bucket before it gets cooked…hmmmm. I got over it quick enough though, and it tasted amazing. Liu Wei called me “elegant” over dinner…I didn’t know quite how to take that comment…

The artist Liu Jin joined us about halfway through dinner and asked me what I was doing afterwards. I said “going back to the hotel and packing”…he wondered if I wanted to see his and Liu Wei’s studios in Caochangdi…”of course” I replied. I never turn down an opportunity like this, so after probably far too much food (you never can tell how much you eat at these kind of dinners), we got back into Liu Wei’s Jeep and drove over to their studio spaces. I was again impressed by their size and facilities on-site. Liu Wei told me his costs about 10,000 RMB a month, so around £1000…which I thought was quite reasonable considering the space he had. We were talking with the help of Jessie and Sun and I gained a real insight into his artistic practice. He is quite a young artist whereas I think Liu Jin is a little more established. At Liu Jin’s studio, Jessie showed me some videos of his performances, and I also got to see his new work where he had taken photographs of people from all over the globe with and without their glasses. The series investigate how we view the world and different cultures through this almost filtration process…what can we see? What do we block out and pretend not to see? How do we view other cultures? These works really touched a nerve with me…their simplicity contained such complexity. Just as we were leaving, Liu even suggested that when I come back to Beijing, he would like to photograph me. This could be random. They all very kindly gave me a lift back to my hotel as it had got rather late in the day. Needless to say, Rachel was tired when she got in and suddenly realised that she had to pack as she was leaving for Shanghai the following morning…and I still wasn’t sleeping great. 2am or even earlier in the morning was my friend…well more of an enemy! Days like this make me quietly content about the power and potential of what I could make happen out here…everything and anything is possible. Let’s see what happens over the next few months…

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