From the moment I landed in Beijing on April 7th it has been non-stop gallery and museum openings, traveling, lunches and dinners with artists, gallerists, curators, and collectors. I have made many studio visits, attended a panel discussion and performance at Beijing University on the issues of art and censorship led by the students of the law department and the heads of art departments from the top art institutes of China. It was all in Chinese, of course, and I was the only “wai guo ren” (foreigner) there. Those in attendance were impressed that a foreigner showed up and made it to the end. Panel discussions in China are not like those in the US. This is one area where the west exerts more control than our Chinese counterparts. Perhaps we have shorter lectures because we have shorter attention spans, or have more ‘important’ things to do than to sit in an auditorium for hours on end listening to discussions, and questions and answers? If you attend a lecture in China do not make dinner reservations afterwards too early in the evening or your food will definitely be cold by the time you arrive. I am the only foreigner most places I go. But I have noticed, even since I arrived in Beijing just a few short months ago, that many more tourists including loaded down tour busses are now showing up in the 798 art district to wander the streets and visit the galleries and shops. 798 has been designated a tourist destination by the government and is even now found on city maps. This is quite a difference from just a few years ago when artists and galleries first started showing up in this old factory district. At that time, I believe, 798 was just an underground experiment and no one knew how long it would last until it was shut down by the authorities. But now, the government has seen what art can do for the economy and urban regeneration and is investing heavily in the face and infrastructure of this old factory district turned art Mecca. There are petunias everywhere now replacing leaking steamy pipes and rubble. This is the typical story we know so well in the west; first comes the artists into forgotten and blighted areas, next come the galleries, then follows the boutiques and cafes, and finally soaring rents and the exodus of the original tenants. China is no different. I have heard of several galleries having to move out because they cannot afford the rents anymore. Now 798 even sports a Nike museum and swanky NY styled cafés with NY styled prices. Pace Gallery just opened a grand new imposing space with more high-end galleries to come I am sure. It is a bit dizzying and exciting at times, but at others downright depressing. Many older and funkier mom and pop shops with strange and illogical items for sale have vanished as have many of the artists studios. In their place is the high gloss of commerce. The air is really thick in Beijing but when the pollution allows I can watch it all happening below from my 24th floor apartment windows overlooking 798.
Archive for the ‘James Elaine in China’ Category
On May 7 I boarded a Sichuan Airlines flight headed for Chengdu and Chongqing. The trip was my second outside of Beijing to visit artists, art schools, museums and galleries in regions not usually visited by westerners or, for that matter, the Chinese art world. I landed in Chengdu and was met by Xiao Hu, my guide and translator. I had studied Chinese for several years before coming to China and can somewhat make my way alone, but it really helps to have a guide. Life is so much more enjoyable and productive and you can avoid ordering ‘dog’ on the menu when you have a native speaking guide traveling with you. After a day in Chengdu Xiao Hu and I boarded a bus and took a five hour ride through green hills and rice paddies to Chongqing where I was to meet the artists of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Chongqing is in a beautiful mountainous region and is more lush and tropical than Beijing. I felt that I was in another world there, one with a closer connection to an ancient eastern culture. The Sichuan Fine Arts Institute is one of the five most prominent art academies in China and the only one in southwest China. Over its 65 year history it has produced a number of now internationally acclaimed artists such as Zhang Xioagang, Feng Zhengjie, Luo Zhongli, Zhou Chunya, Ye Yongqing, and He Duoling. I spent the first two days meeting the art faculty and art students, and visiting artist’s studios. Generally the studios in Chongqing are huge, beautiful, and really cheap to rent. These spaces would be impossible to find or afford in NY or even in LA. One of the most interesting studio visits I made was with Feng Bin, artist, professor, and the director of the Chongqing Art Museum, which is located on the campus of the Fine Arts Institute. He told me an incredible story about Armand Hammer and the influence Hammer had on young Chinese artists in the 1980’s . . .
HAMMER IN BEIJING 1982
In the spring of 1982 a groundbreaking exhibition opened in Beijing at the National Art Museum: the Armand Hammer collection of paintings. This was the first time that western art was exhibited in China. Before this exhibition artists and students were only able to see reproductions of western work in magazines and catalogues. Feng Bin, who was at that time a student at the Sichuan Fine Art Institute in Chongqing, was dying to see the paintings. At that time the Institute did not allow students to travel to Beijing to see the show. The Institute deemed the exhibition irrelevant to their studies unless the students were enrolled in the Oil Painting department. Feng Bin was a student in the traditional Chinese Painting department and was forbidden to attend. He was, however, determined to see the paintings he had heard about all his life but had only seen in poor reproductions. He and another art student friend decided to go anyway. They had very little money to get there and couldn’t even afford train tickets. But by altering their identity cards to read that they were from Beijing they were entitled by the government to buy half price train tickets to travel ‘back home.’ They told no one and left at night to begin their journey across China to see Hammer’s paintings.. It was a long trip from Chongqing to Bejing. They spent three days and two nights sitting on a hard train seat before arriving, for the first time, in Beijing. They found an underground hotel for 5 yuan a night. Today that would be about 75 cents. The room had 6 to 8 beds in it, but no bath, no sink, no toilet-nothing but the beds. This was their home for the next 5 days, but it didn’t matter to them. No hardship mattered to these artists, they were in the capital city and were going to see the Hammer collection of 19th c. western paintings. It was a dream come true. Feng Bin and his friend wanted to buy the exhibition catalogue but could not afford the high price. They spent the next few days repeatedly going to the Hammer exhibition as well as touring the city and going to the other museums of Beijing before they had to make the long and arduous journey back to their home in Chongqing.
Their escapade might have gone unnoticed, but when they returned to the school there happened to be a group from Chongqing’s only TV station filming a news article on the Institute. Feng Bin was so elated and excited by his adventure and the paintings he’d just seen that he could not stop himself from telling the TV crew everything they did. The show was broadcast with his full story and, of course, was viewed by the head of his department at school. The next day he and his friend were called into the director’s office, were given a bad report on their school records and told that they would be expelled if anything like that ever happened again.
A young Chinese student I met in Chengdu during this trip told me that he could not believe that I was able to see a Van Gogh painting everyday at work at the Hammer Museum. He told me that we did not know how fortunate we were to be able to see paintings like Van Gogh’s anytime we wanted. It is his dream to someday see a Van Gogh or one of the many great masterpieces of art in western museums. I think that we have had so much for so long that we have lost our ability to appreciate the privileges we have been so blessed with, such as having “Hospital at Saint-Remy” in our own backyard and not being ‘expelled’ for viewing it.
James Elaine was in Chengdu, China, during the May 12th earthquake. He recounts the events of that day below. Also posted below is an excerpt of the Beijinger Podcast’s recent interview with Jamie about his earthquake experience.
I came to Chengdu to meet with the artist Chen Qiulin and to be introduced to many of the artists there. Chengdu and Chongqing are both home to many important and well known contemporary Chinese artists, but they are a long way from the art capitols of Beijing and Shanghai. After a day of sightseeing with my friend and translator Deng Tai (“Tai Tai”) we met with Liu Jie, director of the 1000 Plateaus gallery and Yu Ji, performance artist, for dinner on Sunday night. They took us to the most wonderful and beautiful Sichuan Hot Pot restaurant I have ever experienced. It turned out to be a very important meal. While ordering ten dishes, Qiulin asked me if I liked duck tongues. I stopped, thought for a second, and then elatedly turned to Tai Tai to tell him about my new Hammer blog and to translate to them my utter excitement about eating duck tongues for the first time. Although I’d eaten duck and a duck’s head, I had never eaten duck tongue. I told them how important it was for me to eat duck tongue since I’d named my blog after it. After dinner we retired to a beautiful tea garden where we met a few other artists and drank tea and beer late into the night.
The next morning I was picked up by Liu Jie. We went to 1000 Plateaus, a beautiful space and, in my mind, the only gallery in Chengdu with an important international contemporary exhibition program. Tai Tai joined us to translate and we began looking at Liu Jie’s inaugural exhibition catalogue. After about half an hour or more of drinking coffee and discussing what I was doing in China and Liu Jie’s vision for the gallery I felt a bit of rumbling on the floor. I thought at first someone was stomping up the stairs and shaking the floors. But the shaking persisted. I looked around to see if they felt any alarm. If we had been in NY it could have been the subway. But we were in Chengdu and the subway was not yet finished being built. All of a sudden the shaking became violent, the walls and floors were swaying and jumping, the gallery staff raced into our office screaming at us to get up and run. We grabbed whatever was next to us and ran to the stairs. The shaking got worse as we stumbled, almost falling, down the stairs and headed to the front door. Outside was total chaos, people were running, screaming, yelling. The quaking continued. The 1000 Plateaus building (maybe 10 stories high?) separated slightly from the building next to it, chunks of granite surfacing split and fell to the ground shattering as it hit near us. After a few minutes the rumblings subsided, people were frozen in fear, and then aftershocks followed, sending the masses into more panic. We began running for the middle of the nearest intersection, power lines swaying above our heads as we ran. People were ashen faced and in shock as they stared up at their buildings and searched for their families and friends. The buildings are quite old here and not earthquake proof. As far as I know there has never been an earthquake in Chengdu. And this one was centered just 60 km from the city, registering at 8.0 on the Richter scale, and was felt clear across China. As of my writing over 70 to 80,000 people have died and countless injured, the numbers increasing daily.
After a few hours of just waiting in the streets and feeling the tremors we all decided to try to make our way to our respective homes. A gallery employee drove me to my hotel. I should have walked as it took an hour or so to go a just few long blocks. When we arrived the hotel had closed and evacuated all of the guests who now were all sitting outside in front on the grass. This was not an isolated case: all hotels, businesses, shops, apartment buildings were emptied and tenants not allowed back in. Of course no one knew what was going on or what would follow or how long this would all last. There were people everywhere, on the sidewalks, in the streets, in parks and parking lots.the hospitals even had to move all the patients outside. Tai Tai did not abandon me, but stayed by my side the entire time to help me figure out what we could do next. The next day was like a strange dream. The weather was much cooler and it began to rain. Aftershocks sporadically continued. I was supposed to have traveled to Xi’An for meetings at Ma Qingyun’s new artist city XCOMA, but the airport was closed, everything was in limbo, breathless even, no one knew what was going on, only the horror on TV of 1000’s of people killed and hurt in the Wenchuan earthquake. We were so fortunate to be alive and well, so many people lost their homes, livelihood, family members, lives, everything. But in the heart of a disaster you can always find a love story. Everywhere I looked I saw people — complete strangers — helping each other, caring for the lost, living and sleeping together in makeshift tents all over the city. I can’t tell you how much I love this city now and this country. I feel that I have become one of them. I did not want to leave Chengdu for the relative safety of Xi’an, although Xi’an also suffered from the quake, I wanted to stay with my friends to support them in this time of uncertainty.
Jamie and Liu Jie outside of 1000 Plateaus just before the earthquake.
With a prestigious grant from the Asian Cultural Council, Hammer adjunct curator James Elaine moved to China in April 2008 to seek out emerging artists within China and throughout Asia. This blog provides a fascinating insight into Jamie’s travels and the art world in China. Check back often for additional stories and photos.
China has many sayings comparing the world above to the one below, such as: “above you have heaven, below you have Suzhou and Hangzhou; two magnificently beautiful areas not too far from Shanghai.” Another saying goes like this: “the best meat above is dragon meat, the best below is donkey.” Although I came to China to research the art scene I cannot separate anything here from the social importance of eating and drinking together. Many galleries have their own cooks who prepare lunchtime meals for the staff and guests. I’ve seen many stores with a wok — either inside by the front door or outside on the sidewalk — stir-frying vegetables and meats and all sorts of other things. In less than two weeks time since I first arrived I have probably consumed a month’s worth of the best and (sometimes) the strangest food I have ever tasted. I am not going to read you off a list of the different types of foods or different parts of animals I have eaten, but I find myself eating everything offered to me and eating it with relish. And, yes, I have eaten donkey…more than once! It is delicious and must be as good as or better than dragon. And yesterday I ate a duck’s head. It was so good that I want to return to the same restaurant soon to eat another one. Maybe I should call this introductory blog “Duck Tongues” from China? (Thanks to Gary G. for the original idea).
I am not sure if there is a saying about art from above and art from below but I have started looking around for one. In the west we get a standardized version of the Chinese art world. The Chinese art world, though, is changing fast and new generations of artists are coming of age in China with new visions and new ambitions. When Annie and I moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1999 we felt we were moving to the Wild West where things impossible in NY to achieve were still possible on west coast. It was really an exciting time in Los Angeles. Now almost 10 years later I find myself in yet another exciting world and I think it is safe to say that China is truly the new Wild West where anything is possible and can happen over night.