China – Biking Beijing

I think I already told you that we had arrived in Beijing…but I don’t think I told you a great deal, apart from there are no 4th floors. Well, we got here on Sunday afternoon and climbed aboard a very hot and crowded bus into the city from the airport. I was shattered and possibly stopped talking at one stage. I was too tired to communicate…I…just…wanted…sleep. When the bus arrived, the humidity hit you like a smack in the face. The smog and pollution were so prevalent…a constant haze in the sky. A taxi took us to our apartment block but no one could point us in the direction of specifically where it was. A lot hand movements and a phone call later we found it and met one of the apartment’s people Mai. At this stage, we had to go to the police station to get temporary residency certificates…this took forever and ever, as did flagging down a taxi afterwards…and all I could think at the back of my mind was how I was going to miss a possible interview that evening with Wu Hung, which never happened as it got so late but it should later in the month – fingers crossed. A Chinese Tesco trip then followed…it is weird having a Tesco out here. That was an experience…so many different ways…and this is when we discovered they sold bicycles very, very cheap, we’re talking 249RMB so £20 roughly…RJW and I made a decision to buy one each the next day. I missed riding my bike and its only been a week! That evening we ate on the street from a local eatery, and I even attempted to work out the menu. I had noodles, chicken, pork and vegetables down…so I ordered and what we got wasn’t bad…a mix of vegetables, some sort of pork with green beans in a gravy, and a tomato noodle soup with an egg on top (RJW had that obviously). It was good food…for only 35RMB with a beer!

The young boy in the background was making these meat skewers that everyone ate, RJW had some on Tuesday night, 10 to be exact and we didn’t know what meat it was and it was probably best not to know, they cost 1.5RMB each which is super cheap…I think you always have to go where the people go though as it’s an indicator of what’s good. This place really was.

Monday was a slow starter…still getting used to things I reckon. Mai from the apartment company appeared at 10am to collect payment for the accommodation, in cash. He also showed us how to use the top loader washing machine and air con as the instructions are, as they should be, in chinese. You could just about work it out but its better to get a heads up. RJW and I feel very domesticated and a lot more part of real China because of where and how we are living. Here’s the view from our apartment window…with some washing round the window…

So Tesco bikes, RJW was created a bike workshop by borrowing tools to get the bikes road-worthy and ready. The shop assisted enjoyed the process as we got her points on her Chinese Clubcard. They are called ‘Anchor’ made by Flying Pigeon, which made me smile even more as you can’t beat a bit of anchor-age! This is me looking biking serious outside the Today Art Museum, where we started as official exhibition installation interns yesterday for the show ‘Negotiations’ which opens on Saturday.

After a light lunch of watermelon, RJW and I jumped straight into another stage of our adventure. We met Jonathan Watkins, Director of the IKON gallery, Birmingham, and various members of the Today Art Museum staff, such as Xiaoqian Li, Deputy Director, and Tian Yao, Exhibitions Coordinator…many new names and faces. We’ll get there, it just helps if they write it down. What the staff are finding funny is that RJW’s name and my name are so similar they can barely differentiate…Rachel and Richard in Chinese sound the same. Funny and funnier that the artists have started hybrid-ing our names too, to Richel, or Rachard…um thanks I guess? It made us smile, at least they remember us! Though we are doing a great deal. The afternoon was a wander round the show, introductions and a who’s who and what’s going where…a light start to the process. We finished around 4pm and the air had finally cooled outside which meant bike ride time! Into Beijing…sublimely happy.

It took around 45 minutes or so to get into the city centre…we cycled amongst the end of day crazy five lane traffic past Tian’amen Square, the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park…and more….it was such a happy time, the fact we had so much freedom and time in a place that seemed quite unbelievable and incomprehensible. Some shots of our cycle time are shown below. I do have video but it’s a super huge file and I’d have to put it on youtube, but that’s restricted out here…surprise surprise.

We found a random eatery on the road to the left hand side of the Forbidden city and ate again a feast for about 6 GBP, seriously it doesn’t make sense sometimes. This was also the occasion when Rachel had to use a public toilet, a toilet with no toilet as such, and no cubicles…just holes in the floor…so I went as fast as I could without thinking about it and since this happening I have no fear. The bike ride home was as hectic as the ride out, still so much traffic at 9pm at night. We used landmarks as our map and made it back without getting lost. More of these times to come…we’re thinking to the Olympic Village next.

Installing on Tuesday consisted of being electricians, sorting out lights for Noguchi Rika’s photographic series. The space is upstairs in Building 2 of TAM, blindingly hot, no windows or ventilation and the air con is broken. It’s like an endurance test, adjusting and focussing over 25 lights, one at a time, trying not to burn yourself at the same time.

Tian has given us free lunch and dinner vouchers for every day we are “interning” for use at the TAM cafe called cafecopy. It’s a fixed menu and ok-ish food, more importantly its free. Greatly appreciated.

On Wednesday we jumped straight in to installing again, this time helping Monica from the artist group Raqs Media Collective, who I was very familiar with since working at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2008. It was a silicone filled morning of fixing, re-fixing, moving and placing objects in the space. It’s a re-installation of ‘When the Scales Fall From Your Eyes’ shown at the IKON Gallery in 2009 and is incredibly clean-cut laced with symbolism. Another of the exhibiting artists is Richard Deacon, and as RJW says, “he makes the impossible possible” by creating these large-scale illusionary sculptures in twisted wood…how are they made and constructed? We know as we’ve watched him over the past two days construct these amazing sculptures…but on first glance its hard to know. Very impressive. That afternoon, after a lovely lunch getting to know Monica and Diana Stevenson (Jonathan’s right-hand lady from the IKON Gallery), we were sent on a mission, a chair mission, to find a strong feeling, solid armed, wing-backed chair from use in the Raqs Media Collective installation. We had 1000RMB and we needed it that day. Armed with an address in Chinese, a cab and money RJW and I left to arrive at a very random all things household retail park. In building 5 of Easy Home…in the last shop we looked in, we found it, well not quite exactly it, but it was good enough. For 960RMB it was a traditional chinese dining table chair. We tried to call Monica and Diana and emailed photos from an audio shop assistant’s phone to show them what we had found…and then waited for a response, waited and waited, then this happened…the two men in the audio shop saw us on the bench outside the shop, sitting there, a little tired from the hunt, so they invited us in, let us choose a DVD (RJW chose ‘Clash of the Titans’) and played it on a big screen with surround sound, which they were very proud to show off.

And then I got the call to buy it if I think its right…ok, on my head be it. We bought it, forced it in a taxi and got back to the museum. Diana thought it was fine. Woop woop! So that was the chair adventure.

After this exhausting, whirlwind journey we then attended (after a five-minute sit down in the cafe) Jonathan Watkins’ talk at China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) called ‘From East to West: Asian Art in the UK’.

Here, Jonathan largely spoke of contemporary Asian artists he had exhibited in the past at IKON Gallery. He saw group exhibitions of Asian art as very often a cliché and too simplistic which is why he is more satisfied working with individual artists, apply no theory of asian-ness or chinese-ness. He sees art as no different to anything else in the world and he cannot believe there is any distinction between art and any other human activity. Through “not believing in art”, Jonathan is interested in the institution and the problems of art – what is the need for art? as some kind of religious impulse? He is drawn to artists who are not too self-conscious, who are freer with the definition of art, and those that do not assert their identities as artists. The ideas he shows and brings to any works filter through no differently to any other artist or curator whether Western or Asian. Some very interesting points were raised, as well as an underlying tone of humour and wit throughout all the artists and works examined.

Post 2-hour talk in a very dusty packed lecture theatre led us onto dinner with a handful of the artists including Monica, Andres Lutz and Anders Guggisberg. We ended up at a restaurant a few minutes away from their hotel, and each ordered one dish, although I think I ordered three – peanuts, tofu skins and kale…we got so much food, I’d say about 12 dishes for 7 of us, it was greedy, including a huge fish or white fishes in chilli oil, the bowl was so large it made you feel like a child, but we ate it. Shattered by this time, we headed home knowing full well tomorrow would bring more hard work. Here are a couple of RJW photographic treats…we love “lost in translation” signage…and quirky chinese things…complete style in Tesco…

I’ll keep Thursday’s happenings brief as it is very late in the evening. RJW and I are currently watching ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ getting a little upset by it. I don’t think this film is going to end well. So today, we said goodbye to Diana as she was returning to the UK as they are in prep for an opening at the IKON Gallery. She very kindly gave us some Hong Kong dollars which have been in her wallet for a while. She had been waiting to give them to someone who was heading there, thank you Diana! We’ll let you know what we get and we appreciate them so much. The notes are super colourful, almost toy money. During the day I largely helped Monica from Raqs Media Collective and RJW assisted Lutz and Guggisberg with wiring and installation of their projector for the piece ‘Man in the Snow’ (2005). They have been so fantastic to work with, very honest characters with a great sense of humour. We both then moved on to help Noguchi Rika place and install her 25 photographic prints, again in the confined heat of the exhibition space. Her partner, who is also an exhibiting artist within the show, Shimabuku, appeared with peppered vanilla ice cream at one stage. It relates to his installation ice cream with salt – ice cream with pepper…his timing was perfect as we were literally melting…and fast. He came again a few hours later with a second hit just as the last few prints were going up. Rika is a perfectionist, and I believe this is perhaps a Japanese trait along with the context and nature of her creative practice. It’s all about lighting tomorrow. The ice cream seemed to symbolise something though…that it only took something as simple as ground black pepper to change it into something completely different, flavourful and tasty…that’s part of life right? Like one comment or person can do the same…

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