Today was a wonderfully simple day. After fixing breakfast and straightening up the studio I began working on this piece. It was inspired by the previous evening's events. Since the evenings are very hot and sometimes even more humid than the days many of the men here opt to go shirtless. Even Ian has willingly adopted this tradition. The "portrait" below captures this but also examines how this featureless allows it to represent the hundreds of men throughout the city.
After finishing the painting Daisy and I headed off to CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Art) to pick up more art supplies as well as take a look at the campus. I couldn't help grinning like a child as we entered the three storey art supply store. Everything an artist could want was sold in this complex and the prices were 80- 90% less than that in London. Meaning, I bought about 20 new paint brushes, tons of paper and other supplies.
Afterwards we grabbed some street food and went to CAFA's courtyard. The campus was composed of massive, sleek, charcoal colored buildings. If passing by you'd assume it was a government building or possibly even a prison rather than an art academy. Though we didn't have a chance to go inside, Daisy described how incredibly talented the students and the faculty are. I really want to visit again soon.
Motivated by new art purchases I began working on another painting as soon as we returned to the studio.
Since I have been in Beijing I have noticed there is a sense of playfulness in the people. Irrespective of the "western" views we have of the East, the people I have spoken to appear to be content. Admittedly, I realize this may be my own projection or a result of my limited exposure to the culture and the country. However, the images of oppression, poverty and censorship what we are all too familiar with are not the topics broached in conversations with the local artists and people within the village (at least not discussed in front of foreigners). Instead we are told stories of the record number of beers consumed in one evening (150 bottles), or the times they attempted to ride a motorbike for the first time. This bit of comedy contrasts the underlying "state" of the country. It is this lightheartedness that I wanted to capture in Tong's portrait.
Today was probably one of the most productive days so far. To maximize my time here I've decided to continue with my strategy of splitting the day between art and site seeing. Today was no exception. It began early with a 7:30 wake up to leave the studio at 8 to head to the Great Wall of China. Daisy organized transportation with the one of the Red Gate Gallery's staff to drive us. The area of the wall we went to was apparently one of the quietest which excited all of us. As we drove through the countryside it surprised me how Mediterranean the landscape appeared and how clear the skies were. It reminded me of the Italian countryside with quaint houses tucked away from the road and beautiful trees everywhere. It's easy to see how this landscape has inspired Chinese artists for thousands of years. We arrived to the section of the wall we'd tour an hour and a half after departure. Mr. Zheng, our driver, told us to meet him after 2 hours. I naively thought that was too little time but he knew better. We skirted around a confused looking pair of other tourists and grabbed our admission and lift tickets. Apparently some brave souls opt out of the lift (looks like a ski lift) to the top of the mountain before walking/climbing on the wall. We knew our limits.
As the lift slowly climbed higher and higher the view became more and more impressive and you noticed the wall snaking toward the horizon along the peaks of the rolling hills. It was then that I realized how beautiful of a day it was. There wasn't a cloud (of precipitation or pollution) in sight and the sky was Carolina blue.
When we reached the top and walked up the stairs to the "starting point" the view was breathtaking. The lush mountains highlighted with the stone wall looked like something of fairytales. No matter how many times you see it in pictures, no picture can communicated the expansive nature of this structure and the vastness of the landscape. The mountains seemed to climb one another reaching upwards.
I think Megan and I were in a state of disbelief (Daisy has come a few times now).
We set off in the direction of the stairs to the highest point. Apparently it is the highest point along the entire wall. What I didn't ever think about before walking/climbing along the wall is that since if follows the contour of the mountain top it is quite a work out climbing and descending the stairs along the wall that compensates the peaks and troughs of the mountain range. Slowly we made our way to the base of the staircase that reaches the highest point. With approximately 500 stairs we started our mission, stopping along the way (only to admire the views of course).
By the time we began our way back towards the lift the sun was high and the temperature started to peak. It was perfectly timed as we met back up with Mr. Zheng and headed back to the galleries.
Feeling energized by our trip I began to work on the portrait of Zhanglin below. I met her the night before during our Mexican themed dinner. She is an artist who lives and works in the compound. She gave us a tour of her studio and explained how wonderful it is to devote yourself fully to your artwork. It is a bit strange to see such large paintings created by someone of her tiny stature. She creates these caricature oil painting portraits of herself as a child. They look more like paintings of dolls than portraits. There is something about her that is a bit childlike. In many ways she reminded me of Siiri who I met in Estonia. I asked if it were ok for me to do her portrait. A bit taken by my question she giggled covering her mouth with her tiny hand before nodding in agreement.
After working on the portrait into the evening Laetitia came into my studio to ask if I wanted to attend an artist performance by Matthieu Ha at Jiali Gallery. I immediately accepted, excited to see a local performance exhibition. The performance started at 7:30pm in central Beijing so Mike and I headed off with enough time to figure out exactly how to get there. We arrived to the quaint gallery a bit after the performance began . There were a good number of people as we manoeuvred our way into the space to find a seat. The performance was quirky and fun as Ha played the accordion and he obviously enjoyed performing for the live audience. After playing a series of songs he ended and the room filled with applause and cheers- the atmosphere was lighthearted and fun reflecting Ha's performance.
Today was the most incredible day! It started early since I wanted to go to the Panjiayuan Flea Market with Daisy and Megan in the afternoon but also wanted to finish the painting I started yesterday evening (below). It is also nice to work in the morning since my studio is flooded with natural light I wanted to take full advantage of it.
Last night I began working on the portrait of the man who takes care of gardens within the compound as well as guards the front gate. Given that he's probably well into his late 70's I doubt he takes note of the comings and goings of the compound. Every times I see him he states a polite "Nin Hao" and carries on with whatever he has at hand. Since arriving I've spotted him playing a solitary game of what appears to be a variation of dominos. Choosing to depict him in profile with an easy and apathetic expression I hoped to capture his polite disregard for the viewer.
After finishing the painting I began getting ready for the day and made a quick lunch. Daisy and Megan came into my studio promptly at 12:00pm and we headed out a few minutes later. Earlier Grace had popped in to check to see if everything was okay. When I explained that we'd be heading to the market later on that afternoon she suggested we take the bus (#988) there rather than try to take the subway. I agreed and she wrote down instructions in both English and Mandarin (in case we later opted for a taxi). I shared the instructions with Daisy and Megan and we all agreed taking the bus would be far less complicated. 45 minutes later we arrived at the outdoor market and I was extremely excited for the people we'd encounter. During my research I discovered this market drew in the most diverse sellers with vendors from all around China who travel to set up their merchandise.
We wandered around the market stalls for hours admiring the artists selling their works from painting, sculptures to hand beaded jewelry. I bought a porcelain Mao sculpture and two paintings inspired by
After exhaustion from heat and shopping we decided to return to the studios since Daisy and Ian were hosting an artist "Mexican BBQ" with the other residents and artists within our compound. When we returned to the studios we went directly to an artist's studio that is located next door to Imagine gallery. It turns out the studio belongs to Tong Zhengang! I was immediately dumbfounded as Zhengang is one of the most established Chinese Contemporary artists. He graciously welcomed us into his studio which was 10x the size of ours and into the kitchen/dining area. He was accompanied by several other Beijing based artists who live in the compound and all were very excited for our Mexican themed dinner. It was a wonderful evening filled with laughs, talks on art and much toasting as they assumed it was a custom we did during any lull in the conversation. I think we counted 17 toasts/cheers throughout dinner!
Once we finished we took a tour of the artists' respective studio, but not before Tong gave me, Daisy, Megan, Ian and Mike signed copies of catalogues of his works! We eventually called it quits after the third tour of studios. We have a long day ahead of us. Agenda: Great Wall of China
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)!