With my exhibition, workshop and lecture complete, I’m just back from a much needed few days break lazing by the beach in Hainan off the south coast of China. I fly out of Chongqing tomorrow evening arriving in Gatwick at some ridiculously early hour the following morning.
The exhibition went well, although I’m not sure I can say the same about the babbling impromptu interview I gave to a media crew that turned up towards the end of it. I have no idea where it will be broadcast and given my performance am not inclined to seek it out. I’m still trying to edit down the hundreds of photos of the works. I think I have at least a few that edited together give a sense of both the students’ and my own performances. I’m also trying to workout which of my pieces I can manage to take back and how best to fit them into my luggage – I’m very reluctant to part with my Lazlo Biro stool, even if it means leaving a few clothes behind.
Overall the residency has been a brilliant and fascinating experience. It’s really helped to develop areas of my practice and move on my exploration of gestures in writing and drawing, in both intended and unexpected ways. The workshop at the university didn’t quite go as planned, but I learnt a lot from it and know that it will feed into my research in some way. At the moment though I think it’s all too close to properly reflect on. Maybe when I get back to London I will make more sense of it all.
There’s just time for one last dinner of spicy barbecue skewers and a breakfast of dumplings then it’s goodbye Chongqing. Given the phenomenal speed of construction here, I imagine that even if I do visit again this will not be the same city I am in today.
It’s the day before my exhibition opens. My work is installed, except one piece that I need to finish in the morning, but the poster has only just arrived and the students who are participating will need to set up tomorrow. I hope it all comes together. I’m feeling a bit exhausted and frustrated by the last minute approach.
The delay with the poster was, in part at least, because Yan Yan, the residency director, was unhappy with how the title translated into Chinese and wanted to alter the Chinese title before it went to print. I find it amusing that the title Lost in Translation was quite literally lost in translation, but am less amused by the delay that it caused.
Most of the performance artists in Huang Jue Ping Arts District, the area I am staying in, have gone to a live art festival in Xian so Yan Yan asked four students to participate in my exhibition. They all work in performance, but other than that I knew nothing about their work until they presented the performances they have developed for the exhibition to me yesterday. They had been asked to make new work in response to the exhibition title and the information I gave them earlier in the week about the concepts that inform my project. With less than a week to come up with something it did worry me that the quality of the work wouldn’t be very good. Also I had been given the job of pulling all the works together into a coherent exhibition, another last minute appointment.
I was quite impressed, not to mention relieved, that a group of BA students with such a limited timeframe had developed work that I felt happy to exhibit. One student in particular had come up with an interesting way of navigating the space with a mirror. The same student showed me a piece of work that she had performed at a recent live art event that involved spending a whole day drawing the shadow of a tree every time the sun came out. I really liked her idea and the photos of its realisation were quite beautiful. I just hope they’re as pleased with my curation – I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.
I’m just past the halfway point of my residency and can’t believe how quickly it’s going, although in other ways I feel like I’ve been here for ages. My end of residency exhibition Lost in Translation, Navigating A World Without Language, at the 501 Arts Space will take place a week on Sunday. This has crept up on me a bit. I seem to have gone from just settling into the residency to nearing the end without much in between. I do at least have three pieces of work that are complete or near completion that I feel happy to show. The exhibition will also include work by some young Chinese artists, graduates of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.
The works I am planning to exhibit are all made in response to my experience of living in Chongqing as a place where I am essentially illiterate and unable to converse with the majority of the people I meet. I have connected language to aspects of my daily life by combining everyday objects with writing implements or text and incorporating gestures and movements that, whilst purposeful, are awkward, repetitive or difficult to decipher.
I’m planning to show three works. Fast Thing, a literal translation of the Chinese word for chopsticks, is a performance piece using makeshift oversized chopsticks that I attempt to write in water with whilst walking around the space. This piece was inspired by Chinese water calligraphy, a pastime of older Chinese people that involves practicing Chinese calligraphy on concrete or paving stones in parks or public squares, and by the effect my lack of language skills has had on my ability to order food. Production Line is a split screen film of me miming the act of writing and the act of stamping words (see image). For Lazlo Biro is, as the title suggests, an ode to Lazlo Biro, inventor of the ball-point pen, a scarce if not non-existent product in the numerous well-stocked stationery shops of Chongqing. For this work I plan to carve the seat of a tiny stool, like the ones that are in my studio, into a name stamp for Mr Biro and use it to print his name several times on the wall. I read in a museum I visited here last week that the more name stamps a piece of art has the higher esteem it is held in – I’m going to make sure he has lots of them.
As well as getting ready for the exhibition, I have a workshop booked in for next Wednesday at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. I plan to use this as an opportunity to explore gestures in Chinese writing with the students. Due to the limited time I have left here, this research is likely to be something that will support me to develop the project back in the UK rather than feeding into my exhibition here.
I’ve been experimenting with some of the marks I’ve developed in previous work where I mime the act of handwriting – working from left to right across the page in a motion a bit like a child pretending to write. Incidentally, through AN I came across Catherine Wynne-Patonhttp://www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/projects/previewPost/2666882 who does something similar in her work.
I’ve been trying different motions based on writing; a mime of writing in ball-point pen similar to previous work; a mime of writing done in the same way but with a paint brush; an attempt to do something similar but whilst holding two paint brushes the way you might hold a pair of chopsticks and a page filled with a stamp, apparently my name in Chinese, that I had made to sign official documents when I worked in Taiwan in 2004/5.
There are small art shops all over the art district of Chongqing. They have a huge selection of products all of which are incredibly cheap, but seem reasonably good quality. I’m not always sure exactly what I’m buying but have been pleasantly surprised by my purchases so far, except for the lack of Bic Biros. The shopkeeper, where I bought the paper for my writing experiments, decided this was the paper I needed because I bought Chinese paintbrushes at the same time. I’m guessing it’s paper for calligraphy. It’s a really nice texture and the dimensions are more like a scroll than the usual western paper sizes, which I like.
I’m not getting through my reading list as quickly as I’d expected – too distracted by my surroundings, the amazing amount of snack foods available and making my own work – but I am two thirds of the way through Philip Hensher’s Missing Ink. One of the main things it has made me think about is the dialogue between how we are taught to write and how much of ourselves or our ‘own hand’ we bring to our writing.
I’ve now been in Chongqing for just over a week. Much of this time has been spent settling in, sampling as much of the local food as I can manage to order (or point at) and wandering around the local area. I’ve also spent a couple of days at the new campus of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, which is about an hour’s drive from my apartment.
Today I went to a life drawing class with some second year students at the university. When I asked how long the model held each position for I was expecting there to be a few short poses with maybe one longer one lasting a maximum of an hour. When I was told that the pose lasted 16 hours I thought I had miss heard. I learnt that the students had spent three days on their drawing and that the model had stood, with breaks every hour, in the same position for the duration. There seems to be a strong focus on accuracy, projecting an image of what is before you onto the paper, and making small precise marks. This is very different to the much freer gestures that I was encouraged to develop as an undergraduate.
My project still feels like it is in the very early stages but I was given a studio to work in a couple of days ago, which is helping me to focus. I have begun work on a short film that I’m making by editing together footage that I’ve taken whilst attempting to walk in the shape of the letter ‘a’ in my apartment and in the local area. This follows on from the letter ‘a’ film I made earlier in the year http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FVcLf_Oju4 and my interest in how we enact written forms on varying scales.
In the local area I kept hitting dead ends that made it incredibly difficult to follow the outline of the letter ‘a’ I had drawn on the map. The sense of movement is captured in the film and it reminds me a bit of Google Street View, which is censored in China. I am still trying to workout though how or if people will make the connection between the footage and the shape of the letter and how it will sit with other work more visibly linked to movement and gesture in writing.
In the inflight magazine on the way over I found a picture of some large Chinese paintbrushes hung up outside a Chinese painting/calligraphy shop. Walking around Chongqing I have been struck by the number of mops and brooms hanging up outside shops and on more or less every available wall. The similarities in their size, form, display and, in some ways, function to the Chinese brushes I saw in the image really interests me. I’m not sure where exactly this will lead, but I have begun photographing and sketching them.
Hopefully soon I will be able to organise the workshops I have begun planning to exchange ideas with Chinese artists or students about gestures in writing and drawing. I think this will really help me to move the work on and introduce new marks and gestures into my practice.