Bill Viola afternoon tea

Over the May-day weekend, I finally had the chance to catch up with some of my Shanghai friends that I had not seen for a while. This city really does take over sometimes and before you know it, you haven’t sen one of your closest friends for nearly three whole months. My good friend Sun Li (Lisa), who I originally met in the UK back in 2009 during the first stages of my PhD studies (she originally started a PhD at the same time as me but sadly couldn’t continue), invited me for afternoon tea and to see the Bill Viola exhibition ‘Unspoken’ at the James Cohan Gallery which was about to close. I was a little emotional, grossly tired, partially hungover and a bit ill that day courtesy of a leaving party for a good friend the night before (we miss you Phillip!)…we’d toured the rooftop and terrace bars on The Bund as a farewell treat…but my body did not feel a treat the next day.

I went to meet Sun Li at 3pm at the James Cohan Gallery, where on the cycle there in the late twenty degree heat, the chain came off my bike as I was giving the pedals full power with my tired ballet legs. With no street mechanic in sight, I had to push the bike all the way to the gallery making me late. I’m surprised this has never happened before actually. Sun Li was accompanied by one of her artist friends Chen Xiao Chuan who was eager to speak to me about all things Chinese art and curating. My brain was perhaps not on top form for this type of conversation but we had some great conversations later on in the day. I love the James Cohan Gallery as the space is within an art deco building down a lane on Yueyang Lu in the Former French Concession in Shanghai…an architectural delight. Look at the detailing within the stone balcony edges and in the window ironwork…a rather nice garden escape here too.

I had seen the exhibition very briefly before at it’s opening, but not given it the attention it very much deserved. American video artist Bill Viola is one of those artists who does not fail to please…his works are always powerful, emotionally striking to the soul, silencing…to me like a mirror reflecting personal experience and current emotional (in)stability…creeping under my skin reflecting a certain kind of inner reality. The sound in some of his works can consume me like drug, making me consciously escape in my mind. In this show, were many of Viola’s video films, architectural video installations, flat screen pieces, sound environments, electronic music performances, as well as works for television broadcast, opera, and sacred spaces. His work focuses on universal human experiences such as birth, death, ‘the unfolding of consciousness’ based in Eastern and Western contexts as well as spiritual traditions. Whilst at the gallery, I managed to speak to Ivy Zhou, Associate Director of the gallery, who I will speak to about my research and plans in Shanghai once there next exhibition has opened and they have a little more free time.

After the exhibition, Sun Li and Chen Xiao Chuan kindly helped me to find somewhere to repair my bike, all for the grand sum of 2 kuai (I’ll never get my head around how cheap things are sometimes)…and then we went onto find somewhere for afternoon tea, in the end at ‘La San Marco’ cafe on Shaoxing Lu. I ordered a rose tea. I can’t get enough of the stuff at the moment. I used to drink it a lot during my New York days…specifically at a place called ‘Alice’s Tea Cup’ where it was, randomly, called ‘Mother to be’ tea…all I know is that it makes my system and body feel good.

Chen Xiao Chuan, a 27 year-old young Chinese artist had many questions and ideas to share with me. He comes from a background of stage design from the Shanghai Theatre Academy where he researched Eastern European theatre giving up work at a high-powered media company. His practice is a combination of 2-D art and installation dealing with contexts of fate, “Zhouyi” from Chinese literature, Chinese occult myth, looking at the different bases of Chinese culture and how it translates to the West. He is also inspired by “Yi Jing”, which explains how to produce the world and creations through very unique symbols where he picks and starts from these meaningful symbols as an origin of the space. He went on to ask me what do I look for in artists and what makes an artist good…questions which are always so hard to answer and very specific to each person as they have their own taste…like and dislikes. All subjective right?

He believed the artists need to develop in different directions to find other ways of working. He has recently researched Western versus Eastern religion, including Bible, Jin Gang Jing, Buddhism, thinking that artists need to learn knowledge, but not necessarily art history of the world…and that artists need a good heart. In China and Asia they need to develop own art history as there is none here. He thinks the younger generation of artist are going to be the ones to create Chinese art history…they are going to be responsible for it, as they aware it does not exist…established systems from this art history will come as it is their duty. He referenced the work of Matthew Barney, Superplan, Takashi Murakami, the culture of Japanese comic and architecture…and how these might be referenced within new installation works. He stated how the Japanese protect their culture very well, but does China? He saw Chinese artists as being too smart where they are more clear than Western artists as to what the West want in the way of art…where more Chinese collectors maybe know business not art, they collect but don’t know why.

He viewed education in art as important and a lost opportunity at school to learn this…people don’t know how to see, or look. They are too preoccupied with money and status. He told me about the Swiss art collector Grace Li who might be of interest to talk to…and also about concept art (guang nian yishu).

“There are too many artists but not many that influence art history…we need a revolution to change this.” – Chen Xiao Chuan

He referenced back to his theatre training seeing Eastern European theatre as more modern than contemporary art. There are lots of elements in contemporary art from Eastern European theatre…theatre is at the top of the arts. I asked why he does not use theatre as part of his practice where, at the moment, he saw it as just an interest. He has no definite idea of what art is at the moment. Who does? It seems to constantly be in flu right now, especially in East Asian Contexts.

“People of talent need people of talent to understand them…there isn’t this in China.” – Chen Xiao Chuan

We had some really great conversations that afternoon…unexpected insights into contemporary Chinese art practices and the emerging art scene here…I love it when this happens. Next time, talk needs to be more about life rather than art with Sun Li as I fear we didn’t get enough time to catch up properly. I’ll fill you in on the rest of my May-day adventures over the coming posts…from swim-time, brunch, art, park, hotel and spa action…it was eventful.

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