I have been putting off doing another post, partly because after we left the Cameron Highlands we went to Penang and I didn’t have that much to say about it. I didnt do any drawing either. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading, maybe you would call it researching, but it’s a funny old thing this artist’s research business, because, as with other areas of art, it has blurred boundaries. I am never really sure if I am researching or just doing normal stuff that people do. If you are an artist and you are interested in something and you read about it, then you are doing artist’s research. If you are a normal type and you read about something you are interested in then you are just doing a general life activity. If, as an artist, I read about something that I find very interesting but it is not related to my practice, is this research or is it general life activity? What if every time I read anything there is the prospect of me finding something out that might inform my practice, then maybe everything I do is artistic research? And we have not even begun to talk about other activities that don’t involve reading.
The answer is probably that artists are in a constant state of arting about. The problem is that this is why we get on the nerves of the non artist types a bit, because we do anything we like and call it artistic research. But my thinking is that everyone should be an artist and then everyone would just be doing artistic research all the time. I would like to think that we’re not arting around saying we are different and special, we’re saying, come join us, it’s different on this side, it’s better. I’m not suggesting you don’t need bank managers and bin men. I am a support worker, but I am also an artist. It’s not one or the other.
I find it much easier to read when I am away from home because I often find it hard to concentrate when I am at home, in the pattern of normal life. This has a lot to do with my busy workaholic problem. I associate being at home with needing to be productive. I have found it much easier to read here. I have finished a book called ‘The Opium Wars: Drugs Dreams and the making of China’ by Julia Lovell which is firstly an account of what happened in the Opium Wars between Britain and China and secondly, how this made an impact on China since. The British Empire behaved appallingly when they forced the trade of Opium on China and since then, the wars and events that surrounded it have been used by the Nationalist and Communist Parties to encourage the Chinese people to follow and support the parties’ political agendas. I wonder if anyone even contemplated, when we were blasting our way into Canton, that one day the worm would turn.
It is not mentioned in the book, but it also got me thinking about how we learn very little about the terrible behaviour of the British Empire in school. When I was little, my general impression of the British Empire was that we went galavanting around conquering and the like and it was very naughty of us but we don’t do that kind of stuff anymore, as we now know it is wrong and we gave all the foreign territories back because the British are all very decent and all that. I don’t remember hearing much about the legacy of the actions of the British Empire, the wealth that still remains, built on the exploitation of other people and the damage that still remains in its countless forms.
I am now reading a book called ‘Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong’ by Ben Chu. It’s a good read so far. The main misconceptions always seem to stem back to the Chinese Communist Party wanting the rest of the world to see China in a certain way, or wanting the Chinese people to maintain certain beliefs about China to ensure the Party stays in power. I do a lot of reading on this subject but I have so far been careful about what I say online, because I would like to be let back into the country. I am probably over cautious but I am still unclear as to how far you can go in openly criticising the CCP. As an artist I want to be free to tackle any subject In any way I like, but if the consequences are that I can’t actually go to the place that I want to make work about, then there has to be some compromise.
I have this idea that I would like to do a sort of book, or pamphlet, a publication anyway, with short interviews about the idea of collectivism as opposed to individualism, which I would illustrate. I find this subject intriguing and it was a big revelation to me when I went to China. I remember going for a meal with my friend Tim, who is Chinese but studied in Holland, his wife Ling and two of their friends who didn’t speak any English. They asked me what I drink in the UK and Tim translated the question. I said I like a glass of wine or a gin and tonic. Tim carefully explained that the question in their minds was about what drink I would order for the table, not what I would personally be drinking at a meal out, because that is what happens in China, the host chooses food and drink and everyone shares everything, the waiter doesn’t go round asking individuals what they would like to drink.
It was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. I was quite surprised that no one had mentioned it before, but I am not sure how much it is considered in Chinese society. Do they talk much about their collective way of life? I can’t say that in the West we talk about our individualist way of life, we probably don’t even realise there is another possibility out there. That’s one of the reasons I want to make the publication, because I want people to think about alternatives. Is it ok to go to China and produce a book that questions the behaviours that come from collective thinking, when it is something that is pretty vital to the success and power of the Communist Party? I read this article today that helps explain what I mean about the two ways of thinking. Interestingly, it is co-authored by a professor from Xiamen University. I wonder if he would speak to me.
There are officially around 5000 Chinese people living in Liverpool and unofficially up to 35,000. Liverpool’s Chinatown is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe. Yet I don’t personally know any Chinese people in Liverpool, other than my friend Eric and other students I have met, I don’t think my friends know many, if any Chinese people and I certainly don’t know any Chinese artists based in Liverpool. The problem with any Chinese related art that goes on in Liverpool is that it often has something to do with the Confucius Institute or an other organisation that has ties to the Chinese government and it will always be influenced by that to some extent. I would like people in the Western world to have an insight into the real China, without overwhelming them with too much information, so starting with this important difference in social outlook.
The idea of a publication begins to answer my dissatisfaction with the way the art world operates. I mentioned in a previous post that I have been feeling dissatisfied. I am sad that non art types, as a general rule don’t go and see much contemporary art and I believe that the art world as a whole, starting with the artists and arts organisations who want to benefit from public funding, needs to take responsibility in recognising and trying to solve that problem. If I put on an art exhibition, generally the people who come are already part of the artistic community. There are plenty of cases where that is perfectly reasonable; not all art is appropriate for the masses, as with any other subject, if you want to really refine what you are doing or trying to say, it is not logical to expect people who have no training in that subject to fully understand it. But generally speaking, I would like to see a world where the public can feel confident going to an exhibition of contemporary art because they know what to expect from that particular exhibition, because they have had good experiences of seeing contemporary art before and because they feel comfortable and welcomed; even if the artist does not want to provide contextual information about their work, the audience should at least feel welcomed.
This is not something that will happen overnight and until it happens, my theory is that, if you can’t get the people into the galleries, then you need to get the art out to the people. This is more or less easy depending on the discipline that you work in. For artists like me who generally work in two dimensions and make things that don’t withstand the weather, it can be a problem. A publication is one way of responding. It also helps to answer the problem with buying art. Many people are not willing or able to by my artwork. Most people who buy a painting do it so they can put it on the wall. What if an artist makes paintings that don’t suite the living room situation? And people only have so much wall space anyway. There are lots of people who say they are interested in my work, but who have and never will buy a piece of work, but they love it when I give them a postcard and many ask if I do prints (which I don’t very often) and when I do, people do buy them. So maybe they would buy a publication that contains my artwork.
A publication also offers a platform for art to be presented alongside contextual information and can question the boundaries between illustration and fine art; a subject which I love and brings us all the way back round to my dissatisfaction with the art world and its elitist idea that fine art is at the top of the artistic hierarchy. I don’t mind defining something as, illustration, or applied art or fine art or whatever, but It’s a shame that the current situation pushes artists to define their work as fine art to gain the respect of the art world. So maybe the work that I put in my publication will be illustrations and if serious artists don’t do illustration then maybe I’m not very serious. But I think that’s something you know about me already.