Always about the “now”…

So before I start a busy week of mostly work and a pinch of play, I’ll take a little time tonight to speak about the things that have caught my attention over the past few days. I’ve written so much today (a funding application with three appendices, an article for a-n Magazine and this rather over-sized blog post) I almost never want to use a keyboard again or stare at a computer screen…but we all know I’m secretly in love with words and text so that would never happen…maybe not with computers so much. In the last week, I’ve  become preoccupied with emotions, other people emotions too, wanting to bury my head in the sand at every opportunity hence I’ve been ill (yey, defunct renal system), worked day and evening including being interviewed on BBC WM…

…exhibition reviewed, dressed up in 60’s black and white styling for a private view, self-promo-ed a project that’s taking a while to get going, and escaping to spend some well needed time with my family all to keep myself busy, busy, busy.  I took my elder brother to Chester Zoo…

…followed by shopping and Chinese for dinner that simply tasted nothing like Chinese (note to self, save that for real China), and taking my parents to see the Bafta award-winning film ‘The King’s Speech‘ that is no doubt going to win many Oscars. As my Mom’s world is all things teaching, dyslexia et al, she loved it…and my Dad did too. It felt like a nice defining moment  in my life to go with them…not entirely sure why. I’ve always liked Helena Bonham Carter with her eccentricities and fearless attitude. In the film, the speech therapist uses a rather beautiful green Oliver typewriter…not sure which model, but I loved the way the keys almost looked freestanding as they weren’t encased. I think I actually have an inbuilt radar to seek them out. On that note, I can tell you that there are less than 24 hours left to apply for the ‘Words Are All We Have’ book arts and typewriter project that I have blogged about recently. Get involved if you want to, if you need to or if you are like me, slightly typewriter obsessed. I’ve already had some very special responses that I’ll speak of next time.

Onto things I’ve read and seen, though I’ve not had much time to be honest amongst work and PhD land…this brief and simple article ‘Chinese Contemporary Art’ gives a succinct overview of the development of contemporary Chinese art, and examines how a private organisation like AW Asia negotiates this global terrain. I like the concluding statement that…

“Today’s news can only guess tomorrow’s China, or report on the Beijing of 5 minutes ago”

In the last week, I have watched the new series of ‘The Chinese Are Coming’, aired on BBC 2 at 9pm on Tuesday nights for the last two weeks, presented by journalist Justin Rowlatt. I wasn’t sure of what to expect out of this show and whether it would be stereotypically grounded within the realms of international exoticism and “chineseness”…actually, I was surprised at how unbiased it tried to be. The first episode in the series focused on Rowlatt’s Chinese odyssey across the continent of Africa, where he was witnessing first hand the explosion in trade between Africa and China, which has grown 10 fold in the last decade. Examining the oil bonanza, construction trade, rail networks, food and chicken markets, entrepreneurial trading and finally mining, he presented some very interesting perspectives from both cultures. The Chinese are respected by the Africans for their dedication and commitment to what they do, their capacity for hard work and perseverance, and reputation for speed and efficiency…”when you rest you rest, when you are working you must work hard”. However, there is a real sense of isolation within the over 1 million Chinese who are working out there, due to the vast language and cultural differences. It is apparently the fastest growing tourist sector globally, which I actually find hard to believe. Angola is now China’s largest supplier of oil…another surprising fact I thought. The Chinese influx and influence is seen largely as a positive influence to the country although in turn it does bring with it concerns – politically and socially. Some resent the Chinese competition as they are seen to wipe out and destroy local business and economies, such as the chicken and food markets. There are also huge concerns regarding exploitation and abuse of human rights, as it was stated the Chinese “are hardly likely to fight for human rights in Africa”.

Chinese have a saying “to end poverty build a road”, or in this case a rail network, often in exchange for oil…China also provide loans and cheap finance to Angola, where some of that money is then spent on infrastructure projects like the renovation of the railways and positive use of the locals within the workforce. The rail network projects are run by the Chinese state who not surprisingly are sensitive about how their involvement with Africa is perceived hence they wouldn’t give the BBC an interview…somewhat ironic as they were shown here to do (largely) good work but they don’t want to talk about it. Some of these government deals are often seen as one-sided in favour of China, in exchange for oil and business contracts with a fear that the West risks being left behind in Africa as “Western companies to scared to do business there as they have to carry out risk assessments…not so complicated for the Chinese who are a lot more flexible…you have to wake up early in business to beat the Chinese”. This programme showed how political and trading ties run deep between China and Africa – they are distinct political allies. It also presented the developing power relations that are slowly building…building a different kind of infrastructure, referencing the (traditional) Chinese way. China is now the worlds 2nd largest economy (and art market as I have referenced before), still seen as supposed communist China, is bringing capitalism to Africa, to the free market…one small part of the Chinese governments strategy to go global.

The second episode focused on China’s relationship with America and Brazil and, in my view, quickly skimmed over issues and subjects which could have been spread out over another few episodes. This time it was all in terms of the oil, iron ore, and mineral resources trade, as well as the illegal charcoal trade and of all things bikinis. It looked into how cheap Chinese manufacturing has kept prices low in the global economy and how if China starts making all of those things, what will happen? We rely on cheap Chinese products to improve our standard of living yet it threatens our own countries, national, regional and local industries. “China has in abundance what Brazil needs…China doesn’t want to dominate or take resources away…it just wants to do business.” But is this really the case? They might not be trying to build a new empire, but they are becoming the next super power as it’s been said China will take over America’s economy within the next ten years.

From here, they focused on the “confucius classrooms” in America, which are teaching children about  the Mandarin language and Chinese culture. “It is the most widely spoken first language in the world and if we want the next generation to be able to compete then we have to give them the skills.” It was interesting to note that the funding and text books were provided by the Chinese communist government, and in this respect Beijing is seen as pushing pro-China propaganda into these American classrooms, pushing the rules of the one party state. When Rowlatt was talking to a Chinese immigrant he said, “it’s not what you teach it’s what you don’t teach that matters”. Very, very true. So why use the word confucius as the prefix to the school? As that in itself presents a whole world of traditional connotations from a system of philosophy.

Talk then moved onto possibilities of a trade war between America and China. Could things get even more out of hand? In recent years, China has been seen to buy weapons which don’t protect and defend their country for traditional territorial self-defense but can cause greater worldly harm. “How much is the rise of China unsettling the world order?…It is coming at a time when America is more paralysed and stagnant, at war with itself…where we see China bolting ahead on”. What is most unsettling to America is not the communism but the capitalism…as now we see us in them, where someone else will be setting and dictating the rules and changing the balance of world power. I really would watch it if you have time, and before it leaves iPlayer for good.

I don’t know when I went to this, but I went to a lecture as part of the CADRE series at the University of Wolverhampton to see Andy Horn, Exhibitions Manager at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) speak about ‘Can exhibition making be considered as practice?’.

A funny thing actually happened when I was there…I sat in front of a guy who I thought had got the Research Assistant post I had been interviewed for a week or so before…so as the lecture went on I was thinking of what to say, what do I say? At the end I turned round and said “congratulations on getting the job”…he said “excuse me??” a little puzzled…I said “on the Research Assistant job?”…he replied “I’ve sat here for the whole time thinking you got the job!”…I reply “errr no I didn’t”…who on earth did then? We laughed anyway at this random moment in life. So Andy Horn basically spent an hour and a half examining the social and cultural construct of a more traditional view of curating, looking into the roles of different types of exhibitions…why place is so significant in the process of curating, holistic curating so there is no clear hierarchy of objects, strategies of procreation of the everyday, value systems and meaning making, meaning modified by context (cultural systems, typologies and institutions), how writing (reviews, criticism and debate) hold the purpose as to what exhibitions are but how to we really know?…”cultural landscape” of exhibition making, signposting visitors through the use of interpretation, the universal value of art, commercial versus critical value, do curators inherit a system of value?…subjective versus objective ways to curate, art in dialogue with itself rather than the audience at large?…how can you truely enter that world if the context within which it was made is now lost? (VERY PhD)…exhibitions are not neutral things, it is fundamentally impossible to curate as it is an impossibility to understand anything, always configuring the exhibition and artwork to your own time, to produce meaning or to discover meaning?…any additional attempt to critique the critique is reconfiguring systems of meaning, you must acknowledge the self-realisation of why you do things. Some very poignant statements extremely relevant to my research even though they came from a rather traditional standpoint.

A week last Friday, I met Paul Gladston, Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Visual Culture in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham. He came to meet my Director of Studies, Jiehong Jiang (Joshua Jiang), to discuss future collaborations and writings, hence I had the perfect opportunity to introduce my research to him. Gladston has written many articles on the more critical examination of contemporary Chinese Art for Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, a list of which can be seen here. Yishu also have a great searchable online facility now, which really does help with research. Whilst I’m mentioning online presence, LEAP magazine has finally launched the English facet to its website. Anyway, the Gladston meeting…we spoke about the issues of translation, the role of the critic, deconstructivism, the audience and public response to contemporary Chinese art in China (which has never really been examined), “curatorial DNA”, problematics of the liminalities of museum and gallery spaces referencing the White Cube, interstitial cultural identity, platforms as political statements…we finished on a rather poignant remark…

“Sadness is a kind of guanxi between the life and the death.”

(I’ve illustrated this quote with an image of a derelict building in my town.) Gladston recently put a call out for essays and reviews regarding ‘Contemporary Chinese Art and Criticality‘ for the guest edited edition of the Journal of Visual Art Practice, which I am submitting an abstract to later in March, and a call out for the conference ‘Cultural Translation: Society-Politics-Globalisation’ taking place at the University of Nottingham in July. We already know its going to be a busy year…moreso as I just got a paper accepted for the University of Bristol one-day conference ‘Boundaries? New Histories of Art, Architecture and Design’. So much writing ahead of me…it puts the fear inside me some days, and other days I’m excited and proud. As I said on Twitter today…

“Oh words when you will stop coming out from under my fingers onto the keys, standing on the crisp white page like oil on vinegar.”

I finally received the China parcel from Hong Kong, which was full of treats for people, and re-wrote my to do list, which came to four A4 pages. Only one thing to do and that’s to get on with it. I’ve got a horrible feeling tonight, nervous energy mixed with frantic uncertainty. Let’s see what the next week holds. A lot of people are in my thoughts tonight too as it seems February is not the best month for most. Hmmm…

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