A blog detailing my experiences during a 5 week research residency in Beijing based at artist-led space HomeShop.

I am hoping that the research residency will develop my knowledge of early print and publishing forms within the context of contemporary China.

The residency is supported by Arts Council England’s Artist international development fund.


Final week in Beijing

Artist talk at Institute for Provocation

Visit to the former artists village of Fuyuanmen

Research into pre-print history of ‘Bei Ta’

I was invited to give a talk at the Institute for Provocation, a Beijing-based organisation that hosts residencies, research projects and talks spanning art, architecture and design. The organisation has a focus on cross-disciplinary and public space work. I decided to talk about a number of my ‘Performance Publishing’ works and showed video documentation of work made in both Manchester and Beijing. As described in a previous post, a street performance in Beijing was stopped short by a worker from a restaurant, angered by the effect it might have on his business. This provoked an interesting discussion about the underlying dynamics of public space in both cities. A suggestion was made that I ask a Chinese person to re-make the same performance in order to observe potential differences in response. Having suggested this to Quge at HomeShop, he declined on the basis that it would be much more dangerous for a Chinese person as it may be perceived to be a form of protest, which could quickly involve the police. This provoked an interesting discussion around the special privileges that an outsider might have, their difference in appearance allowing them licence to behave differently.

Later in the week, Quge took myself and some Australian artists, currently in residence at Red Gate studios on a visit to the former artists village ‘Fuyuanmen’, where he and a large group of artists lived during the early 1990’s. Lasting for over 10 years, the village was shut down in 1995 by the Government, nervous of any sort of unsanctioned gathering. Today the area is home mainly to migrants from other provinces. While walking there, a number of unlicenced street traders were packing up rapidly as police approached (the new Chinese prime minister was due to visit the area the next day). Quge got chatting with one of the traders, a young man of around 25 and next thing we knew, we were visiting him in his home, a one-room residence that he shares with his wife. In the end we stayed for a while chatting with him, hearing about his job, family and his hopes for the future.

This week I also met Sun Cheng Sheng, an academic based at the Institute of Science and Technology in Beijing who kindly allowed me access to its library. Some research there into the ‘Bei ta’ (literal translation: stone hammering) pre-printing technique uncovered an interesting story from the annals of the Chinese Han dynasty in A.D. 175. Fearing that the Confucian ‘Six Classics’ were being distorted through errors arising in the hand copying process, the Emperor agreed to a suggestion that they should be cut in stone and erected outside the state Academy, thus creating an unambiguous standard for the future. The annals record that ‘as soon as the stones had been set up, the people who came to see them and to make exact copies were so many that there were thousands of carts every day and the streets and avenues of the city were blocked by them.’

If true, the story suggests that this point in history could well be considered as the birth of publishing, the first recorded incidence where copies are made and distributed and the moment that information becomes mobile. It’s an irony then that efforts to finally ‘fix’ knowledge for all time is precisely the thing that set it free.


This Week (Part Two)

Yesterday I made a trip to the China Print Museum, hoping to gather some information on ancient Chinese print techniques. However for me, the museum was somewhat of a let down, both in presentation and content. There were very few real objects or artefacts, most things on display were printed replicas mounted on foamboard and displayed in endless glass cases. The basement houses a huge room full of printing technology from the 19th and 20th centuries, rather than a museum, this particular room felt more akin to a storage space.

Over the past week, I’ve met a number of Beijng based artists. On Saturday I spent the day at the 798 art district and met artist Ma Yongfeng, and writer Edward Sanderson, who together with another artist are collaborating on a soundcloud audio interviews project, Uncut, which presents unedited interviews with artists/curators/writers based in the city. They told me that the audio format is less likely to be censored here and so people feel more able to speak freely (at least in the middle section of the interview, the beginning and end sections are more dangerous!) To me, this seemed like a brilliant and humorous way to subvert censorship, playing on the laziness of censors, not bothering to listen all the way through.

Later I met artist Chen Zhou who told me about his video works which are based on conversations with friends and strangers concerning various everyday things that appear as absurd or nonsensical when considered closely. He took me to the gallery, Magician Space in the 798 district where he will have a solo show in a few weeks. There I met Billy Tang, recently arrived from London to work for the gallery. It turned out that we know some people in common so I shared a glass of whiskey (before 6pm!) with them both before heading on to meet artist Shao Kun at her studio near Caochangdi and writer and artists assistant/producer Jessie Wu Cheng. They told me there is a real focus at the moment on considering what a uniquely Chinese contemporary art might be or look like. German art historian Hans Belting had been in the city for a conference last week positing the same question.

Jessie is of the opinion that Shao Kun represents a new generation of Chinese artists who are as comfortable drawing references from ancient Chinese art to engaging with western postmodern practices. When discussing how artists respond to the political and social context in China, they were both of the opinion that artists from outside China, even having lived here for years tend to not get past the notion that things are ‘interesting’. However they feel that the political system has a direct bearing on their lives and this resonates in their work. Strong sentiments and I look forward to discussing this with some of the ex-pats I’ve met here at HomeShop.


This Week (Part One)

– Performance publishing’ interventions

– Meetings with Beijing based artists

– Visit to the China Printing Museum

One of the aims of my residency is to explore the nature of public space in Beijing through re-enacting some of my performance works. Last year I produced ‘Performance Publishing, Market St. Manchester; which was as an exchange of the private experience of studio work for the somewhat chaotic and unpredictable nature of a busy pedestrianised high street. Whilst in Beijing, I wanted to do something similar to observe how different the actual experience or potential response could be.

Quge from HomeShop filmed the proceedings while I set up on a wide pavement just outside a busy market place. Most passers-by slowed out of curiosity, many stopped to watch. However before 10 mins had passed, a young man from a restaurant on the street came out and started gesticulating at me to move off. Soon after, more people from the restaurant emerged and what may have been the owner pulled up in a car, also asking me to leave. Later on, I discovered that they thought my presence on the street would be bad for their business. When I asked Quge about ownership of public space, he seemed to think that their request was reasonable. He also thought the combination of the black ink I used – black is an unlucky colour here – and a lack of understanding around my actions, resulted in them responding negatively.

From my observations so far, ‘open’ public space seems to be in short supply here. Street sides are often full with parked cars or temporary storage, meaning that pedestrians walk on the street. There are very few open public spaces, leaving very few opportunities to simply pause and look around.

A few days after this, I decided to re-enact another public space work, ‘Camera Performance’, which I made previously with ‘Out in the City’ an LGBT group for older people in Manchester. Using a video camera with several long lengths of elastic string attached, participants assemble into a ring, passing the strings between them, slowly rotating the centrally suspended camera while focusing on maintaining it in an upright recording position. I re-enacted this performance, again with the help of Quge in a public park on a Sunday. Whilst there is an entry fee (equivalent to 20 pence), Beijing’s parks are busy and famous for dancing, tai chi and choral singing amongst other activities. Quge and I started passing the strings between us and before long, a number of groups of parents and children joined us. After a short time, we left them to it and stepped out of the ring. The more positive response in this instance may have been due to Quge informing the parents when they enquired that the purpose of the activity was an exercise in co-operation, no single person having control of the camera and all having to work together to maintain its stability. It occurred to me that if this were in the UK, parents might be more concerned about their children being filmed but not here, the activity was embraced by both parents and children and went on for over an hour.

I will be posting the second part of this week’s blog post on Friday.


Link to documentation of live publishing performance by artist Maurice Carlin, Market St. Manchester July 1st 2012. Filming by Rosanne Robertson.


This week (Part two)

Soon after the meeting with Karen, I went to the ‘ON | OFF Chinas Young Artists’ group show at the UCCA, one of the only non-commercial galleries in the 798 art ‘village’. The show featured the work of 50 artists and in its curatorial statement wishes not to present generational trends but instead to simply showcase “the shared subjectivitiy of young artists while still accounting for their vastly different individual positions”. Nevertheless, a group show themed around a generation naturally puts the viewer in the position of searching for themes or commonalities between the work. I don’t think I found a collective voice across the show but there were some definite themes emerging in the exhibition. Much of it was ‘narrative’ based to some extent, with many works seemingly focusing on labour and the creation of value. The works I found most compelling were the ones that didn’t seem to be obviously about something and required more attention. A large architectural work from brothers Chen Yufan and Yujun inspired by Chinese returning to their hometowns from abroad was a standout in the show.

Something which I’ve found interesting is the attitude from Chinese artists towards their own art history. One of my research interests I am exploring while in Beijing is the ancient Chinese practice of ‘Bei’, rubbings of inscriptions and images on stone monuments which gave rise to printing. I am interested in this as the birth of publishing: the first instance where information becomes mobile. I use an ‘echo’ of this practice in my current work. I haven’t gotten very far with my research at the moment as despite having spoke to a number of people, most seem to have a very hazy knowledge of anything beyond the past 30 years. In general there seems to be a real ‘future focus’. This is hardly surprising given the wider context of China’s transformation but somehow perhaps I was expecting more resistance to this from Chinese artists. In any case, I have a lot of people yet to meet and some specialist print museums to visit so perhaps I will be surprised by what I find!


This week (Part one)

Meetings with Wang Chunchen, curator of the Chinese pavilion at this years Venice Biennale and Karen Smith, British curator based in China since 1992.

Visit to ‘ON | OFF Young Chinese Artists’ show at 798 art district

Many friends and colleagues from the UK have kindly pointed me in the direction of people and places I should meet or visit while here in Beijing. Rachel Marsden at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester directed me towards Wang Chunchen and Karen Smith.

Chunchen is a curator and art critic based at the CAFA Art Museum at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts Beijing. He is also an Adjunct Curator of The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum of Michigan State University. Chuchen is known for his contributions to the arts via his own body of works, publications and curatorial experiences.

I met him at CAFA, the very huge and impressive museum on the art school campus. CAFA, the only art academy of higher learning directly under the Chinese Ministry of Education, was founded in April 1950 by merging the National Beijing Art College and the Fine Arts Department of Huabei University. Chunchen has been selected this year to curate the Chinese pavilion at Venice. He told me that this means that he is suddenly in demand from the wider Chinese press (this was evidenced by his phone ringing off the hook during our meeting!) I asked him about any potential outside political influence in the show he intends curate. He told me that there are certain obvious politically contentious issues that if he put in a proposal, then he would almost certainly not be selected.

After our meeting, I had a look at the CAFA collection. The collection contains a wide variety of over 13,000 works from representative artworks by ancient and modern Chinese masters to student works. It struck me as one of those incredibly impressive buildings that are not particularly fit for purpose. The entrance foyer is enormous and bigger that most of the gallery spaces. Additionally the exterior walls of the building are slanted at an upward angle meaning that freestanding walls have to be built within the space to mount any 2-dimensional work.

My next meeting was with Karen Smith, the longest standing British freelance curator working in China. I met her at her office and home near the Forbidden City. We had a long and interesting conversation about how Chinese art is perceived both by artists making work here in China and in the UK and the west generally. It seems like there are no easy conclusions to this question. At the moment Karen is working on an annual publication, which is a summary of the best work she has seen in shows around the country by Chinese artists. She has produced a number of these publications now and hopes that they will become a valuable document in time.

We had another interesting conversation about abstraction in Chinese art (I noticed that she had a number of large abstract paintings in her office) where she pinpointed a period of time in the early 80’s, not long after the end of the cultural revolution, where to make works that did not expressly represent anything was a politically daring move. This period didn’t last for long as the Chinese art market boom came along soon after, driven by an appetite from western collectors to acquire ‘Chinese-ness’ works. Karen believes that many Chinese artists don’t have a context with which to approach abstract art. We talked about the abstraction present in ancient expressive calligraphic ink paintings and how the Chinese don’t view these as being abstract in any way.