There is nothing in this world like a full night's rest. Last night was my best slumber in the recent past. In the morning I woke up with a start at the familiar screeching of my alarm. Once silenced, the alarm was immediately replaced with the singsong of the birds who I'm convinced have formed a small zoo outside the corner of my room. I welcomed their melody (and sometimes dissonance) over the early morning sirens and horns of London.
After tearing myself away from bed I was instantly excited by the thought of today's adventures: Painting, 798 Art District and a trip to the Silk Market for "research." I quickly dressed, made a bowl of porridge (some things never change) and studied the map to find my destinations. Laetitia came into my studio to ask how I got on the night before and if I'd slept well. I briefly recapped the previous evenings events which impressed her that I didn't go to sleep as soon as possible. I then told her about the day's agenda, which she smiled at knowing I was being a bit ambitious (again things never change) and suggested that I do one or the other. I chose the "research" that happens to take place at one of the world's largest markets :)
She grabbed a few reference books to show me which trains to catch. Truthfully, after taking the trains last night with Ian and travelling on the tube daily in London, I figured Beijing's subway couldn't be that difficult to navigate. Especially since all of the signs are written in both Mandarin and Pinying (the phonetical spelling of Mandarin words using the Latin alphabet).
After a bit I was out the door and immediately stopped by the heat. It felt a bit difficult to breathe. Once a few minutes passed my Alabama heritage kicked in and my lungs adjusted. In an attempt to adapt to my surroundings as quickly as possible I pulled out my umbrella (like the locals) as I walked down the street to fend off the abusive sun. I probably just looked ridiculous.
The gallery is only 10 minutes away from the subway which passed quickly. After the 30 minute commute on the train to Yong' anli subway stop I entered into the Silk Market. What a market.
I love markets, I love everything about them. The items, the people watching, the bartering the smells of food, dust and something questionable. I thrive in the hustle and bustle and the more claustrophobic the better. Three weeks ago I returned to Istanbul with three close friends. Their requests: Cultural tours, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque. My request, the Grand Bazaar- I could be lost in the maze of markets for hours and be perfectly content.
But this market, the Silk Market, was one of the 21st century: six stories of air conditioned, fluorescent lit stores rather than stalls- stores without listed prices. I let myself get lost for a few hours until I ran out of RMB (gifts for other people of course).
On the way back to the gallery I watched this boy who was maybe in his late-teens, sitting on the train. There was nothing particularly striking about him other than his easy demeanor. I wondered about his story, his family, where he was going/ where is he returning from. Though I knew none of these facts or pieces of his life for some reason I was desperate to study him. I was desperate to memorize the subtleties of his features to capture that ease of his eyes and to recreate them on canvas. As soon as I returned to my studio I began working on the piece below.
I feel like I am living in a dream. Maybe it is the fact that before last night I had not properly slept since Wednesday night. Or it is becaue I hadn't seen sunshine in what felt like weeks in London. Whatever the cause, I feel like I am in a dream. This place is incredible!
After traveling for half an eternity from London to Beijing, via Rome, I landed in Beijing's international airport at 9:00 in the morning. My initial panic of about not being able to find my way around the airport quickly subsided as I realized all of the signs were in both Mandarin and English. I quickly made my way to customs, trying to appear more confident than I felt and finally out to collect my bags. It was only at this point did I realized, "Ambrice, you're in China!" All at once the noises and chatter that had been only white noise before exploded around me- snapping me from my jet lag. As I made my way to the taxi stand I took in the people, the Mandarin characters, the "shininess" of everything. After hopping into a taxi, who I would later discover charged me double, we made our way to Imagine Gallery in the Dongcheng District.
Two weeks ago I was in Basel, Switzerland for Art Basel I met someone who told me "New York City is a village compared to Beijing." As we drove from the airport to the gallery I soon realized the truth in what he'd said. There are apparently six rings (or zones) of Beijing similar to London. However, four zones in London is comparable to one ring or zone in Beijing.
The first thing you notice about the city is the gray haze everywhere. The haze mixed with the humidity makes the air almost seem tangible. The second thing you realize (or remember) is this is a developing country. It is easy to forget when the Western world is constantly given images of skyscapers, fed reports of China's booming economy, technological developments and consumer driven mentality that the majority of China's population lives in poverty.
We finally arrived to the "artist compound" where Imagine is located. The taxi dropped me off in front of a tall metal gate. Entering the gate I made my way down the paved road flanked by artists studios. I was met outside of the gallery by Laetitia, the gallery founder and owner. Laetitia is French and moved to China about 10-15 years ago. She is petite with a shocking blonde hair that is cropped closely and is simply dressed in a sleek black ensemble. She welcomed me with a bright smile and politely asked me about my travel. She quickly grabbed the keys and walked me (10 feet) to my studio which is adjacent to the gallery. The studio space is one do artists' dreams. It has tall lofted ceilings with skylights that flood the space with natural light. Off of the main work area is a small sitting area, a fitted kitchen and bathroom. Upstairs on the mezzanine level is a study/library space before leading into the bedroom.
After dropping off my bags and skyping my family, who thought I'd die during the transit, I quickly changed and was ready to go. It is always the best idea to keep going after long flights. On cue Grace, the gallery assistant, came into my studio. She again is petite with a friendly manner and is from a small town outside of Beijing. She explained that she would be my tour guide for the day to the area. After grabbing a few hundred yaun for the day we were off.
Grace showed me everything around the area including grocery stores, where the train station and bus stations are and the surrounding amenities. We also stopped by the police station since all foreigners must register their stay here in the first 24 hrs.
After all of the essentials she took me to the different art areas (Art Base and 318). At Art Base there was an amazing sculpture garden with tons of large scale figurative works. In one of the museums in the compound, The Found Museum, had a beautiful exhibition of industrial size paintings by Taiwanese artist Leigh Wen. It's strange that there are these compounds or communities of artists. In one way it's nice to be surrounded by these different types of art and artists. But on the other hand you can't help but think that it seems like the art is being contained and only able to function within the walls of these compounds.
Later we met up with one of Grace's friends, Sheng, who is also an artist. He took us to his studio/apartment to look at some of his work (http://blog.artintern.ne/shengxiang). He treated us to black tea and sweets (made of peanut pastry) that are from his hometown.
We finally made our way back to Imagine after hours of exploring the area. I told Grace that I'd probably rest a bit before starting on some work. However, as soon as I returned I couldn't help but immediately begin painting. There are so many things and people that inspire you. After a bit of painting Laetitia came into my studio wanting to introduce me to the other artists at The Red Gate gallery right across the way. I obligingly followed and she knocked on one of the studio doors and waited for a response. A young guy answered the door recognizing Laetitia. He introduced himself as Ian, an American artist from Boston. After quick pleasantries I returned to my painting.
A bit later Ian came by my studio and invited me to meet up with other artists in residence in the city. After heading to the city we met up with three other artists, Daizy, Megan and Mike. It was incredible to see all of the people, all of the lights and music everywhere. It reminded me of going to SXSW with bar after bar offering every variety of live music. Three of us called it a night after a few hours as I could barely keep my eyes opened. The drive back to the gallery was relaxing and I passed out as soon as I laid down. It was an amazing beginning to what I am sure will be an amazing stay in Beijing!
I am finally packed and ready to go. It's hard to believe that this trip has been in the making for over a year. It's even harder to believe that it is finally here. I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't a bit nervous. No matter how many flights I take, countries I've visit and cultures explored I still get a bit jittery the night before. It's both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. Inevitably, I leave something that I was desperate not to forget. Oh well. As long as I have my paints, passport, camera and laptop I'm ready to go.
As a part of my preparation I studied Mandarin, which will no doubt fail me and watched Karate Kid (with Jaden Smith). Well, China. 在這裡，我來了 !
(Here I come)!