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How is it that an annoying trailer for ‘The Gambler’ can run perfectly well to the right of my emails but I can’t listen to Jeanette Winterston’s programme about Manchester on Radio Four without it cutting out every 2 seconds? I was also recommended listening to Andrew Marr’s Start the Week about A Sense of Place, which was a very good listen, especially in the morning when the internet works better for some reason.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04vk6kr

It made me think a lot about home. I wonder what my Chinese friends who have not visited Europe would think if they were picked up and dropped in the middle of Britain. I’d probably put them in the wilds of Scotland or in a little chocolate box village in the Cotswolds. Talking of which, it is not easy to get good chocolate round here, I am not sure why. There is a lot of awful American Hersheys, which tastes so bad because it’s made with anything other than chocolate so it has a longer shelf life and they always put peanuts in it! But that’s probably to disguise the awful taste. China is pretty much the opposite of the UK in more ways than one. One of my ex offender clients at work (proper job) moved with her family to Australia for a bit when she was a child. She once told me a story about the time that ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ came on the Radio and her Mum started crying. She said she knew then that they would be going home soon. Maybe that’s why the radio won’t work properly, because China doesn’t want me to leave. Well I have too much work to do to be homesick and anyway it’s only really the chocolate that’s a problem.

Since my last post I have done the following (see photo annotations rather than long description as there’s too much to say and I have lots of Mandarin revision to do tonight):

Christmas Eve- saw Chinese rom-com with English subtitles. Never seen anything like it before and other things in shopping centre including cute children performing with sunflowers and woman with ball for skirt rocking on a stick.

Christmas Day – Walked up a mountain with CEAC people and dinner including tea Fujian style. It has been very cold and raining until it suddenly got hot again today and yesterday.

Ran a quilling workshop in Zhangzhou (across the sea via speedboat) for CEAC friends Tim and Lin who run a studio there and who I like a lot because they have liberal views and try to get the students to be expressive and individual, hence quilling projects ranging from a floral crown to a picture of Jesus.

Visited the Taiwan Folk Culture Village which was recommended to me by Anne and Arnie, not because it is particularly good but because it has decaying fairground rides and is all a bit strange. Still charge £2.50 to get in. The ticket office woman tried to explain something to me but with English not so good could only say ‘you’re just going to have a look?’ what other options there were I will never know, other than have your wedding photos taken as usual. The only butterfly in the Butterfly Park was plastic.

More painting. My exhibition is in a couple of weeks! Today I painted outside in the glorious sun.

And more Mandarin classes and homework. I am now doing a few characters. I can do numbers 1 – 10.


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I did know all along that three months was not long enough.  I’m actually only just over half way through my residency, but I have the remaining time all planned out pretty much, so it feels like it’s gone already.  I’ve been busy making work and I’ve now shown my work to a few other artists, which has helped me think sbout which pieces I would like to show in my exhibition.

The paintings I have made on traditional Chinese paper with ink, but not in the traditional way, seem to be most interesting to the people I have shown, so, although they were originally made more like experimental pieces, I am going to visit the framer with May from CEAC next week to look into having them framed in the traditional Chinese way.  Note to self for future – take care of every piece of work like it is going to be exhibited, just in case, as footprints on paintings do not look very professional.

It is also Christmas next week.  I currently have three Christmas presents to unwrap and 2 Christmas cards so of course the cards and presents are even more special this year.  On Christmas eve I am going to go out with my Chinese friend Frances and her son and husband to the cinema and shopping, as she says a lot of people do this in Xiamen.  On Christmas Day I have been told that CEAC is organising a trip so hopefully I will be doing that and then it will be back to work.  I have realised that if I continue only doing 2 mandarin lessons a week I will not have enough time to finish the ones I paid for, so I need to do more.  I’m quite excited about mandarin though as I am now starting to be able to converse with some people in Chinese.  Really basic stuff, but it’s nice when you are trying to communicate with a Chinese person who doesn’t speak any English and you can actually say more in Mandarin.  Much better than when you go to Europe and try to speak a little bit of another language and there’s just no point because the person you’re speaking to can always say more in English.

Here are more pictures of the work I’ve been making.  Professor Qin Jian has gone to Hangzhou to take part in an exhibition for a couple of weeks and he’s let me borrow his studio while he’s gone.  What a nice things to do.  It’s made a lot of difference to me.  I can see the big work a lot better in there.


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There is something I’ve not talked about much which is actually so very important in describing my experience here as a whole; The way I feel about Xiamen.  I absolutely love it here and although I am only half of the way through my residency I am already quite upset about the thought of leaving. The feelings I have are all a bit strange and muddled because at the same time as not wanting to go home I am also very emotional about home. I asked Andy to send me some pictures of Castleton in Derbysire, when he visited last weekend. There were beautiful Christmas lights in the town and snow on the hills in the distance. I was incredibly sad that I wasn’t there and I also found it hard to imagine being there because it felt so far away and removed from anything that is going on here.  I’ve stayed connected with my Liverpool friends, via email and sharing pictures on Whatsapp and I’ve been kept informed about everything that’s happening at Arena, my studios.  I’m really excited about coming back and being an artist in Liverpool, but at the same time, I keep trying to think of ways that I could stay in Xiamen. I think it would be pretty easy in fact. Ineke came to visit and she’s still here 17 years later. I love that story.

I can’t tell you if it is Xiamen that is so special, or just anywhere in China and I am sure that both are factors. I don’t really know how to begin to describe what it’s like to be here. The experience I am having is not of a Chinese person living in Xiamen, it is of course the experience of a western artist visiting for a residency. The artistic community here is small and everyone knows each other, it seems to be similar with the western community and the two are intertwined a bit and include people who come and go and people who ‘live’ here with one visa after another. Some of the Dutch people I know here have recently had problems getting visas for more than 2 weeks. Susanne the student is going to have to go home. We’re not sure what the problem is but everyone’s got theories about the Dutch government saying or doing something to upset China, or maybe a Dutch person has committed a major crime here.

Things seem to just happen without much planning in anyone’s schedule. Because the artist community is small and there is less going on than in somewhere like Liverpool, events and openings are well attended but pretty much always by the same people. All artists are important because there are not many of us and so it is usual to ask if you can visit another artist’s studio just to see what they are doing. I feel that I’ve had all sorts of multi cultural influences since being here as I’ve met artists from Holland, Germany, Iceland, America, Australia, the UK and of course China and I’ve also met people from other countries who are not artists, but living/staying here and who have interesting opinions about China and Xiamen.

May once referred to us as the CEAC family. It has felt a bit like that for me but maybe more because I have spent time with Arnie, Anne and Oskar (Ineke’s son and his family). They have been to Xiamen a few times and tell me interesting stories. Anne is a really inspirational person. In the past she was a circus performer and did trapeze, tight rope and then came to China to learn how to juggle umbrellas, lying on her back, spinning and throwing them, using her feet and hands. It is a traditional Chinese circus skill and there are only five non Chinese people who have learned to do it, including her. She trained 8 hrs a day for 8 months. Her residency here was in order to stock up on umbrellas and have an exhibition and performance at CEAC as an artistic performance, not a circus performance. She made an installation in the gallery and the performance itself used the shadows she made on the walls when performing. When Anne first told me what she did I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Umbrella jugging? Apart from anything else, Anne and Arnie are both very funny and entertaining. They went to a remote place in the north to get the umbrellas and had to take a guide with them. Anne was going to get their friend, the guide a T-shirt that says “The man is from Iceland, the woman is from America” because he was continually repeating the line to curious people.  You could only get T-shirts done in bulk though.  I suggested we could all have one and wear it whenever we’re with Anne and Arnie. They found a house in Xiamen made from shipping containers! It is abandoned as it didn’t have planning permission. They are going to build one themselves in America.  Arnie takes photos of anything he thinks is funny.  There are a lot of funny things in China.

I like everyone I’ve met here and I feel very supported. By British standards it is so cheap to live here. The Chinese social culture is excellent and often centred around food. At home, going out for a meal is a special event as it is expensive. Here it can be just as cheap as eating at home and you don’t need to worry about asking your friend out for a meal in case she can’t really afford it. Here you do something together, then you eat out. The dumplings are my current favourite.

I love my Mandarin lessons. I’ve only just finished learning the Pingyin sounds and tones so it’s sort of been like having singing lessons so far. The tones are the most important thing to master. I love my teacher Emma, she’s fabulous and I like the idea that I am studying again. Each lesson I get tested on what I learned in the last lesson. I am a good student, so far I have practised every time.

 

 


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I have been spending most days painting recently.  There are still always loads of interesting things that happen every day but I feel a bit like I’ve lost track of where I was up to.

I went on a Xiamen scrap tour with May from CEAC.  We visited recycling collection and sorting points for plastic, metal, glass bottles, cans and cardboard.  It was really good.  Waste recycling is part of daily life in China.  I took some photos but I don’t know if I will use any of the imagery for paintings while in China.  Maybe when I get back.  I kept asking May what she was telling the owners about why I was taking photographs.  She said she told them that I am just interested and they seemed satisfied with that.

May did some research about Guiyu, the electronic waste recycling area I wanted to visit.  She found out that recently the business owners there have become very cautious about any interest at all and the government are also concerned about wider knowledge of the work that is carried out there, because it is so damaging to people and the environment.  Because of this and maybe also the employment of illegal immigrants or doing illegal work in general, some of the businesses are now operating at night time and in any case will not entertain any strangers visiting, especially not with the intension of taking photographs.  The only option for me to be able to go was if I pretended to be a volunteer working for an environment agency and not take any photographs.  I decided not to go.  I am not very good at lying and don’t think I could manage the cover story very well.

I wasn’t actually so sad that I couldn’t visit Guiyu.  Since I’ve been here my interests have been not so much focussed on scrap and recycling but more generally how industry effects the landscape here.  About the structures and the colours and the incredible buildings that are made and things that are done to the land.  When I tell people here about the things I am interested in, there is always a real concern that everyone shares about the disruption that these industries have to local communities and the natural landscape but also amazement at the rate that the development of China is happening.  I was talking to a Chinese photographer about it the other day and she told me a story about how in her hometown one of the nearby mountains was exploded.  At first I thought I’d got it wrong, with the language difficulties and my disbelief that anything like that could be possible, but I hadn’t got it wrong, China has actually moved mountains.  I should have not been so surprised, it’s not so different from building the Yangshan Island.  If you need space and could do with having the land somewhere else then moving a mountain is a good option.  But when I first found this out I was absulotly amazed and I just couldn’t get my head around it.  I think maybe the amusing description of the mountain being ‘exploded’ added to the drama.  I felt a bit naive to have not known that this has been done.

I often ask people for their opinion on subjects like this and the Three Gorges Dam and I generally get the same response, that it is sad, concerning but probably necessary for the economic benefits.  It feels hard for me to judge as a British person.  I am trying to imagine the news report “Snowdon, next in line for explosion!”

I have been painting every day.  It wasn’t going so well, but now things have improved thankfully.  I was a bit depressed that the painting I was working on wasn’t working, but then I had my new stretchers delivered, including two massive ones that we couldn’t get up the stairs so they had to be passed up via the balcony.  There are pretty much two ways I make paintings. The first is that I under-paint bright colour or a pattern with acrylic, put on layers of oil paint, then take it off with a cloth and turps, and continue to follow this process as a sort of battle with the painting.  The problem is that sometimes it is a real struggle and can result in the painting becoming dead in colour because of the use of turps and the colours becoming muddy.  Often if I keep working and working on it, it can come back in the end but it’s been quite stressful using this process here, because I usually work in this way on board and I’ve been using canvas for convenience and also because I don’t really have time for struggling.

The other way I make paintings is to paint each layer in the picture carefully, the layers that are furthest away first, then I add the darkest areas and then finally and often working on top of dry paint, I add the closest layers.  I have to be more careful about the marks I make because there is no taking the paint off and putting it back on again, but the process is a bit more trustworthy.  I have realised that on this residency, this is the approach I need to take.  Another artist, an Australian called Astra has arrived.  We had a conversation and she called the exhibition a ‘residency exhibition’ referring to the fact that you make work under different circumstances to any other exhibition.  It sort of clicked when she said it.  I have to think about my exhibition in this way and expect my audience to see it in this way also.  So I’ve thought more about exhibiting the work I have done on paper.  But I am not sure how I would present it yet.

Here are some things I have been working on.  Some more finished than others


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So today I visited the Art college at Xiamen University.  The instructions for how to get there were (in usual China style) “You see that big white building over there,” pointing from the street at the university campus, to one of many white buildings in the distance.  Every time I think, well they make it sound really simple, it’ll be easy to find, I never learn.  Actually half of the time the instructions have come from a Dutch person.  It’s easy to get into the Chinese ways.  I have to say I’ve started to get little bit more assertive with getting on the bus (there is no queuing or recognition of who was there first) but I can’t yet bring myself to shamelessly jump in before anyone else when a seat becomes available.

I’ve had the art college pointed out to me a few times and know what it looks like from afar but that doesn’t mean I know how to get there through the campus, or how to get in when I do get there.  Anyway I am actually a bit wise to it now so I left 30 mins to get there even though it is 5 mins from my apartment.  After visiting the law faculty and asking 2 people for directions, I saw the old CEAC sign on one of the buildings.  CEAC used to be based in the university campus before they were asked to leave, but even in those circumstances things that are no longer in use or are broken are not removed.  I phoned Professor Qin Jian when I couldn’t find the main entrance (actually there wasn’t really one) and he said they were upstairs, so I just went in the first door I could find and then wondered which floor upstairs meant as there were 5.  Anyway it was fine of course.  If you leave 30 minutes to do a 5 minute journey it is always fine… usually.

Professor Qin Jian teaches multi-media but actually his course allows the students to be more open and free thinking than the fine art courses.  I was told this by Tina, one of the professor’s students who showed me round the art college.  We visited all the different classrooms, each one either empty with work left out or occupied by students working quietly under instruction from a teacher.  When it comes to the teaching, it was pretty much as I expected.  The subjects you can study are, Chinese lacquer work, traditional Chinese painting with ink, fine art painting (they were doing life painting and still life, each time under supervision from a tutor) and sculpture (I didn’t see any students but they had all been making a large scale figure from clay.  In the photos you can see them all wrapped up in red plastic.

It still felt like people were expressing themselves, just in more of a prescribed way.  The fine art painting department reminded me of when I wrote my thesis for my degree, about the demise of the life room in Norwich School of Art in the 1980s.  I was told that when the students at Norwich school of Art decided they didn’t want to be ‘taught’ how to paint anymore, they threw all the plaster casts that were used for observational drawing into the river.  Xiamen University has a beautiful view of the sea, but a little far away for throwing art equipment and I’m not sure the revolution will come for some time.

It was exciting for me anyway, to see students being taught skills and focussing on observation rather than theory.  This is not what I want for our art schools in the UK, but to have the choice, to also experience more skills based teaching after your foundation year would be nice.  When I came back from my tour I told the students in Professor Qin Jian’s class that I would love to spend the day painting the still life.  They seemed to think that the students in that class would like it if I joined in and it was agreed in principal that I could do that.  I told them that the students in the class would probably make better paintings than me though.

Here’s some photos from my tour, including the fabulous view from the art school.

And some paintings I’ve been working on in my studio.  I think it’s best that I just keep posting pictures of them in their unfinished state, as they progress whether I think they are any good or not.  I am attempting to let go a bit after my realisation that I don’t have time to make really detailed work and maybe that what’s good about a residency like this, you are forced to work in a way that you don’t usually, with different materials from those that you’re used to.  Talking of which, the turpentine here is a bit different from at home.  My studio smells like a chemical experiment!


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