In a previous blog post, I spoke of a recent meeting with Michael Kurcfeld, an arts and culture editor and journalist who has worked for some of America’s key newspapers and magazines such as LA Weekly, New York Times and the Huffington Post. He invited me along to a series of studio visits in the Taopu district of Shanghai a week last Tuesday, starting at Xu Zhen’s MadeIn Company studios in ShanghART. I arrived on the subway just after 3pm with tired eyes yet again from a late night birthday party the night before on what was quite a humid afternoon ready for conversations and creative insights. Michael had, in the few days he had been in Shanghai, experienced a whirlwind tour of the contemporary art scene through and with various key creative players. On that day we were shown round by the female contemporary Chinese artist Yu Ji, also known as Jam, one of the curators of am art space, who I have met on many previous occasions. As super lovely emerging and promising young artist. Michael was surprised about how small the art scene is in Shanghai…yep, everyone knows each other here. It’s not as big as you think…and you find that out pretty quickly.
We began the Taopu studio tour at Yu Ji‘s studio in the Hero pen factory building on Qilianshan Lu just down the road from ShanghART Taopu. She had a huge studio that artists in the West would die for…two large warehouse space type rooms with vaulted ceilings…plenty of light beaming in through the Chinese format windows. With its white washed walls and stone floors it was full of beautiful pieces of loved furniture that I was very envious of…I missed my Grandfather’s roll-top desk that I have in my house in the UK. I could feel her studio would no doubt be unbearably cold in Winter, but perfect during the Shanghai Spring and Summer. She graduated from the Fine Art College of Shanghai University and was a student to Liu Jianhua, one of the most active and prolific sculptors in China today. Trained as a sculptor, she is fixated on the idea of sculpting something out of time and space, with the use of a minimal materials. The making of the work in integral in a literal sense. She makes works with her own hands, devoting her time and attention to the last detail. Being an artist is not just a profession for her, but a physical experience of actually bringing something to life. She examines the relationship between body, nature, meditation and public space.
“The making of works itself is for Yu Ji a process of understanding what art is and what it means to her. It’s not a conceptual strategy but a necessary process of practice and reflection. As anyone raising a small child would appreciate the regularity of everyday life, Yu Ji practices art as a basic and uneventful exercise, something repetitive, unglamorous but indispensable.” – Carol Yinghua Lu
Yu Ji then showed Michael and I to further studios of the artists Jin Shan and Wu Ding, where we were about have some very enlightening conceptual, spiritual and philosophical conversations. I had met these artists before when I arrived back in Shanghai last year…Jin Shan has become a good friend. When talking to Wu Ding, he immediately spoke of his doubt…that Chinese art is doubt, and casting doubt is Chinese art where this is allegorically not literally seen though contemporary Chinese art practice today. What the younger generations of Chinese artists are dealing with now in terms of subjects, the Europeans have done far earlier in art historical terms…an obvious statement. Wu went onto say the casting doubt comes from the government, because of the (lack of) infrastructures, and because of this he uses spiritual influences as part of his practice such as Buddhism. ‘In Buddha, everything is abstract so you should not believe what you see…Buddhists need to practice because reality is not from our eyes, you have to practice Buddhism to clear your heart so you can see clearly. It is not a fiction in that way and there is no right, best or worst way.’ When asked if he doubts what’s in front of him, Wu stated, ‘Yes you can say in that way, from a science perspective we get a view from upside down, creating it in our mind…you can always doubt our reality, so what you see in front of you is changed through a part then into your mind then you see it as reality…subjectivity. We don’t think highly of people as human beings, they are lower than nature…All the things you see are from your mind, from your heart, from your imagination so it cannot tell you the reality, a reality, so that’s why they practice…for their heart and mind. All Buddhism practice goes to the other side of the sea, from East to West to the “happiness” world, the western “happiness” world…but not the West as a country, the West as the western direction…West Buddha, the clean land in the West.’
A few interesting statements here that got me thinking such as that humans are second to nature, a belief I was not aware of in China so I want to investigate this further. Also the definition of “West” made me directly consider the how I define the West as part of my PhD…what does the West mean in Buddhism? What does the West mean in Asia? What does the West mean in the West? Wu continues talking about “Xiyouji” (monkey), and I Ching, which provides a definition of the West called the book of changes, Daoism and further discussions on Buddhism, to gain further perspectives. This conversation in conjunction with periodically reading ‘The Way of Zen’ by Alan Watts and having chats with my father (who is a Methodist Minister) about the influences and comparisons of Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity, has fed a particular line of inquiry in my mind right now…and also in relation to Chapter 7 of my PhD thesis that examines contemporary Chinese art practice. I’m thinking young Chinese artists are referencing the self…either through religion and spirituality in an individual sense, or through remaining Chinese socio-political systems and infrastructures in an individual sense…both on a local to global level, where the West is no longer a singular term. I think I need to discuss this further with artists, curators and creatives here to see if there is a growing sense of this, and discuss it with Michael, who after Shanghai headed to Beijing to jump straight into things there. He sent me an email last week that concluded with a sentence that sums this place up pretty well…a nice statement don’t you think?
“China is a 4-D puzzle, I decided, and the best clues can be found in the art world(s) here.” – Michael Kurcfeld
The description that Yu Ki is, ‘… sculpting something out of time and space, with the use of a minimal materials’ ties in for me this week with seeing the exhibition on in London at The Courtauld at the moment, focusing on the period of time in the 1930s when Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrain were both working in London, in the same studio even – Mondrian in London at Nicholson’s invitation. I saw the exhibition in a study trip where we had a talk from a Courthauld PhD student which focused on developments in science and scientific thought in the 20s and 30s and where each of these artists was at, and how what were then the new concepts of a 4th dimension and space-time continuum and how that could be developed and expressed in their work. As you say, different times, different places on the globe, different cultures, but artists with the same struggles as regards what they’re doing in their work.