THE CHINA DIARY PART I: An Artist in Residence
By Charles J. Hecht
I arrived at the Beijing airport, but there was no Li Gang. Fortunately, I had his cell phone number and asked the travelers aid to call him. He told me that his daughter was sick and that he would be at the airport in 20 minutes, and he wanted me to wait outside at the departure level. Thirty minutes later a large Chinese Van pulled up and we met. He was very cheerful and told me that I was expected the following day.
The Pickled Arts Center is approximately 20 minutes from the airport. On the way we stopped at the grocery store to pick up breakfast supplies. The arts center is located in what is essentially a suburb of Beijing with lots of small shops and other small buildings. The artist commune setup is behind locked wooden gates on a quiet road off the main street. There is a courtyard with individual artist live-in/work-in studio apartments on each side of the initial entrance. The first floor is approximately 25' x 40' with the back having a kitchen and bathroom. You then go up a flight of stairs to two bedrooms covering the back one-third of the space on a deck above a portion of the work area and the kitchen and bathroom. There are also small antique stores and other residences mixed in. You turn right and there is a series of sculptures introducing you to the main Art Gallery which is quite impressive. It consists of one very large high room painted white with a fireplace and two smaller rooms also painted white. Across from the Gallery within the Pickled Arts Center are living quarters for some of the workers under Li Gang and then Li Gang's apartment which he shares with his wife and 4 -1/2- year-old daughter.
After a welcoming tea, he directed me to my room which was up the stairs and then through a long hallway. The room had hot and cold water in a separate unit as well as a portable heater. One of Mr. Gang's workers carried up my heavy suitcase. The bathroom was down the hall and was shared with a number of workers. Realizing that this was not workable, Li showed me a staircase outside our entrance way which led through a large room with a number of mattresses on the floor and bathroom which was much cleaner at the far end. This bathroom had a shower of sorts and was much cleaner. Across the bathroom was another set of stairs leading to another big room, which had another bed, a desk and a gas-fired hot plate to make breakfast. There was also a sink with many dirty dishes and that condition did not change in the six days of my stay.
I then went back downstairs and Li introduced me to a group of people who were having beer as guests of Brian, the proprietor of the Red Gate Gallery, and the owner of the artist's studio rented out to Simon, a painter from New Zealand. Simon had been there for three months and was working on a series of painted wood beds slats he had purchased at the local market. They were basically dreamlike scenes. There were also three or four large woks which were filled with water to rust but he had not decided what to do with those rusted woks. Also present were three other brand new arrivals: Christian, a writer from Leipzig, Germany, who had come to Beijing to rewrite a novel concerning a small rural town in Germany; Zara, a former actress from Australia, who worked in a variety of artistic mediums, and Vegar, a photographer from Norway.
The five of us then walked to the Garden Restaurant, the local hangout. It is a converted large warehouse which is decorated with large trees and in-house plants so you feel like you are dining outside in a covered patio. You order food by choosing from a very large menu at the back of the restaurant which has pictures of each dish. Vegar stated that he was a vegetarian. Zara stated that she was essentially a vegetarian but would like one fish or pork dish. I stated that I was allergic to chicken but that whatever was ordered was fine with me, since there would be other dishes to choose from. Christian had no preferences one way or the other. Brian did the ordering and we then went back to our table and ordered beer/bottled water/tea. Since we were all new to Beijing, with the exception of Brian, it was a very nice getting to know you type of evening, with Brian insisting that he pay for the dinner. Brian then left us to go back into town and to drop-off Zara at another artists' studio that he rented out. We then walked back to the Pickled Arts Center compound.
I was supposed to meet with Li and the metal fabricators at 9:00 the next morning. After a good night's sleep, I then put on my robe and walked outside in the frigid cold air to get to the good bathroom. After going back to my room and getting dressed, I went back to the room with a two burner propane stove to cook my oatmeal, with flax, and have a cup of morning tea. I was greeted by a screaming young woman. Apparently Li Gang had not informed Gabriela, an Argentine painter, who now lives on New York's West Side, of my arrival and she had been out late the night before. She then excused herself so she could go back to sleep and I enjoyed a good breakfast in a very cold room. After that dismal start, things could only get better.
I met with Li Gang, Lao Xu and one of his assistants from the metal fabricator, Xiao Chen, and we discussed the proposed project and what each party to the project would contribute. Since neither Lao nor Xiao spoke English, Li translated. We then went off to a local steel yard where I selected a large piece [four meters by one meter and 26 cm - which was three millimeters thick] to use for two flag sculptures. The cost was 570 RMB payable in cash with no negotiations. Unfortunately, attempts to load the steel into Li Gang's van were unsuccessful. Li Gang then phoned a friend who had a truck who was willing to pick up and deliver the steel to the metal fabricator for 100 RMB. Thirty minutes later she arrived with a large enough flatbed truck to take the steel to the metal fabricator. However, she insisted that Lao Xu ride with her because she was unsure of how to get to his metal fabrication facility.
Lao Xu's metal fabrication facility is located on the other side of the Airport Freeway. It is a series of small buildings surrounding a large open area. In walking around the site I noticed a large aluminum sculpture with many curved surfaces that had a series of etchings embedded in the sculpture. Although the original plan was to paint on the scripted design portion of the planned sculptures, after ascertaining that this etching could be done for my planned sculptures, I decided to change the design and incorporate the use of etched letters, since we could use a computer cad scanning system to accurately reflect the hand drawn letters. Also, Lao had access to the equipment to etch the letters into the steel. I was also advised that the metal fabricator also had access to a special water jet saw to cut out the stars to be used for each of the flags.
I then negotiated directly with Li Gang on what was appropriate to pay the metal fabricator for the work they were going to do on the two flags, inclusive of the use of the water saw to cut out the stars and the computer cad scanning and equipment to etch the letters. The fabricator was to do everything but the drawing of the calligraphy letters and the computer scanning and layout of the sculptures. We agreed on a price. Lui Shuan then said it was appropriate to celebrate and invited Li Gang and me to join him for a delicious lunch at the Fantasy Restaurant, which is located about one-half mile from the metal fabrication facility in the middle of nowhere.
After lunch Li Gang and I drove back to the Pickled Arts Center and Li discussed his fantasy of utilizing this metal fabricator to make stainless steel hulls for racing sailboats. According to Li, this metal fabricator was one of the best in the Beijing area, but because a number of new companies had recently come into this area, there was too little work for too many metal fabrication facilities.
Two painter friends of Li Gang stopped in to visit, Lao Zhong, an artist specializing in ink drawn landscapes, who lived in an artist community an hour away, and one of his former students who preferred to use oil and acrylics for his landscapes. Li Gang was waiting for the professor at Beijing University to call him back or drop in as he left the message to be at his place to work on my project. While waiting for this professor, the three of us discussed the concept and Lao, using my sketches and the picture of Xu Bing's alphabet, attempted to write these as if it were Chinese calligraphy. His initial efforts were disappointing. I then realized that Xu Bing's alphabet was too precise and fussy. I attempted to draw out the words utilizing pen and ink on rice paper. Although my calligraphy was not very good, Lao understood that I wanted him to be much more natural and let the natural flow takeover for a much stronger and more vibrant old style calligraphy. Also, Li Gang got out a book about old calligraphy. Lao Zhong's subsequent efforts were a tremendous improvement and when the Beijing professor did not show up, we decided to go ahead and utilize Lao. For each word, he kept drawing until I was satisfied with that particular word. Approximately two hours later, we had satisfactory examples of all of the words for two sculptures. Li Gang gave each of the two artists a large ink brush and I paid Lao Zhong for his time.
Li Gang then gave me the two brushes that we utilized for the calligraphy portion of this project, an ink bottle and some paper, because I wanted to practice more calligraphy and to arrange the calligraphy for a potential third sculpture, as well as rethink some of the words drawn out by Lao Zhong; e.g., "field," "ideas," etc. After doing this for about an hour I took a much-needed nap before walking to the Main Street to meet Ivy and Cassie for a bite of dinner at the Garden Restaurant. Ivy could not find Li Gang's or was afraid to drive down the street where Li Gang's art complex was located. It was good to see old friends again and we attempted to catch up with what happened to everyone since we last met in October of 2001. Everyone was tired so it was a quick meal and I went back to Li Gang's and Ivy and Cassie went back to the central area of Beijing. Ivy said she would tell me everything about how she met her new husband and married life when we had dinner the next night at her place. She warned me that their part-time cook could only make one thing... dumplings.
I got up at 7:30 and walked outside in almost freezing temperature to get to the clean bathroom for my morning shower. Although the shower was primitive, it was better than nothing and it had hot water. After getting dressed I went into the kitchen area to make my breakfast, when this strange French guy got out of the bed and started yelling and screaming at me and told me to go way. I ignored him except to say that Li Gang told me that this was the kitchen that I was supposed to use. Apparently, he had been living in another artist community but was displaced because he was leaving the next day to return to Paris. His friend, Sophel, a French photographer who was in the bed next to the bathroom (accompanied by Lutitia) apologized for his friend's rudeness and said that John Paul was really a good guy who had been out drinking all night, as they were leaving in a few days. He tried to make coffee to keep me company, but broke the Melita coffee pot, so I gave him some of my tea. At breakfast I was now two for two in bad experiences. The day could only get better. I went back to my room to read. All of the lights then went off. There was a power failure in the entire area, which Li Gang advised me was not uncommon.
Lee wanted to walk to the computer store. On the way we stopped at numerous hardware stores and at almost every one Li purchased something. I explained to him that while I was in high school I worked in a hardware store that had a very large but disorganized inventory and that I had a fondness for walking through hardware stores and would inevitably buy something which I anticipated I would need in the future. Li responded that he thought he was the only person who did that. The smog was unbelievable and the sanitation department apparently ignored this part of Beijing, since the public outhouse and drainage ditches were disgusting.
The computer store was a tiny hole in the wall [approximately 12' x 18'], but Xian, the 14 or 15 year old girl, who was the Adobe Acrobat expert, worked with me to clean up the scanned images and then compose the layout for the two sculptures. I then realized that one of the words," ideas" needed to be redone. Twenty minutes later Li Gang and I had a passable substitute. The scanning and composing process took approximately four hours. For lunch Li and I decided to try a local hot pot restaurant. The two owners of the shop along with their wives and one child were already eating lunch and asked us to join them as their guests. At the beginning of the meal we were given a bowl of sesame paste in some oil with a little vinegar. After the food was cooked in the hot pot, you then dip the food into the sesame paste sauce. It was delicious. The cooks kept peering out to look it me. I was probably one of the first Caucasian persons to eat at that local restaurant, which was on a side street and from the outside looked like a hutong. No one except Li spoke English - so I could really concentrate on the taste of the food.
We went back to the computer store. Xian was terrific and I was satisfied with the final versions of the calligraphy images and layout for both of the sculptures, although we could not figure out how to scan in and compose the stars portion of the sculpture. Three disks and two printouts were made. Lao Xu then met us back at Pickled Arts Center and took the disks and two of the printouts. We had more discussions on the layout of the two sculptures.
I was too tired to go out to dinner. I went back to the room, I read a little and did some drawings of my new alphabet. Because I had left the heater on when the electricity went off, my room was like an oven. I was asleep by 8:30 p.m.
This was another cold day. I went through my normal morning ritual, except there was no breakfast incident. We had planned to go to the foundry, which was an hour north of the airport. Jean Paul and Sophel were going to take a taxi to the airport, but Li Gang suggested that since we were going near the airport we would be willing to drop them off. As we turned on to the main road, the accelerator of his van got stuck. We would not fix it immediately, so the two French artists and Lutitia then got into a taxi to go to the airport.
Li was able to get the van to a special automobile repair complex. He had had this problem twice before and, apparently, the local garages were unable to fix it on a permanent basis. We went into a special office where everyone was dressed in suits. When it was your turn, you then sat down at a desk to make an appointment to have your car repaired. Once you got an appointment, you were directed to go to a specific building in the complex which was devoted to your type of car. The complex must have covered at least ten acres, and the repair bins for each of the sections were immaculate. The mechanics were dressed in light blue uniforms and the uniforms had no dirt on them. After each car was repaired, the mechanic would then sweep and wash down his area. He would also put away all of the equipment, so that when the next car came to his particular area it was like starting afresh. About an hour later a friend of Li Gang came by and drove us to the foundry. It was a long drive, but I got a good view of the countryside. Apparently, approximately five miles past the airport there are a number of lush farms which supply fresh vegetables to Beijing. Before going to the foundry, Li, his friend and I ate lunch at a Manchurian restaurant. We had cold radishes, which had been preserved in vinegar, tofu with scallions, lamb with cabbage and a type of broccoli rabe which was grown in the backyard of the restaurant, and the meal was finished with dumplings. This restaurant also served hot ginger coke, since Li Gang was trying to cure his bad cold. The foundry was in the middle of nowhere, but he had the capability of doing up to two ton bronze sculptures. For larger sculptures you need to do sand casting, but since he had so many things to do, and he was not doing very large castings, he had sold the sand mixing equipment to one of his former helpers who had set up his own sand casting facility. Li Gang did not look at this as competition, but as helping a friend.
We drove back to Beijing and then visited a new artists commune being constructed. There would be 88 artists living in that area. They were to pay nominal rents and would be able to live and work in this area. Basically, you agreed to rent the unit for a fairly long term, and then at your expense you would build out the shell to your specifications. The rents for the facility, which were designed similar to the artists live/work studios at the Pickled Art Center range from $40 a week to $70 a week. Since Li Gang had helped organize the project and had obtained a number of tenants, he was getting a large unit rent free. He was going to move into it this coming Spring and his wife was looking forward to moving the family from the Pickled Art Center to this new area because the artists gave them little privacy. Li Gang would then use his former living quarters as an additional studio. On the way back we bumped into Brian outside his area and talked for a while. I heard Brian's life story and Brian then met with Li's friend who drove us out to the foundry, because the friend was the general contractor for Simon's renovation to his new artists studio in the place we had just visited. I made a note to get Simon's address because if I wanted to go back to Beijing and work on other projects, the new artists community was fairly close to the Pickled Art Center and the accommodations were a lot better. Simon estimated that he would charge approximately $125 a week for people to stay in his place while he was in Australia. It is obviously much nicer than where I stayed at Li Gang's. Ivy called Li Gang and wanted me to leave the compound at 6 o'clock so that we could have dinner at her place at 6:30.
I caught a cab to go to Ivy's house for dinner with her new husband and friend Cassie. Not only was the traffic unbearable but the cab driver got lost and tried to get me to get out of the taxi in front of a partially completed empty building telling me that this was the address I gave him. I refused to get out and made him use his cell phone to call Ivy who then directed him to the Phoenix House, which happens to be a very well-known new high-rise apartment. It only took me an hour and a half to get there. Ivy's new husband is with the government and spoke no English. They had no idea of why I was staying out in the middle of nowhere when I normally stay at very fine hotels. I tried to explain to them that I was there to create sculptures and to be in the center of town would require three or four hours a day in taxis, where the cab drivers probably couldn't find the Pickled Art Gallery or our community. They had no ideas on how to contact the type of persons I felt would be potential purchasers for the sculptures. I invited them to the art opening on the following day at the Pickled Art Gallery. They were nice enough to drive me back to Li Gang's.
Ivy liked being a "wife," although she was obviously the major bread winner in the family. They explained to me that because of his government position they were able to get certain "good deals." I did not delve into the details. I also realized that they would not be a good source for attempting to find potential buyers for my sculptures, but I do not underestimate Ivy, and once she sees the final two sculptures, she may change her mind.
There are no zoning laws for the Beijing suburb where Li Gang now lives. Basically, he has a crew of five or six guys who work seven days a week adding rooms to the complex. It is a good deal for him, because it permits him to house more artists. It is a good deal for the landlord, because he now has a much bigger building. However, it is an absolute maze and there are hidden store rooms and special corridors all over the place. The plumbing is primitive, but effective, the only drawback being that the toilet cannot tolerate toilet paper, so you must put your toilet paper into a special receptacle, which is then cleaned every day. I was used to this, because that it the type of facility that was at the "hotel" I stayed at in Rowatan when I visited Eric. You get used to it after a while.
Ivy met Tong Chen at a Buddhist temple by a famous mountain in Western China. She went to pray to be accepted into a doctorate program. Not only were her educational prayers answered, but she met Tong. They got married ten months later. She now works primarily out of her house getting business and arranging for the work to be done. She also is learning to grow orchids on her porch. It is a brand new apartment and it is a duplex with a living room, dining area, kitchen and bathroom on the first level, and three bedrooms and two bathrooms on the second level. By Beijing standards, this is an enormous apartment. It was not especially well decorated and there was not one picture on the walls. Art is not an element of their life.
What an amazing day. What manpower and ingenuity can accomplish. Li Gang and I went off to the metal fabrication facility at approximately 10 o'clock. We took a taxi, since it would be another week until his van could be repaired. It needed extensive work, but Li decided to do it since it had been such a dependable car and he had already gotten over 100,000 miles on it without making any major repairs. Simon saw us walking out to the main road to get a taxi and said that he was going stir crazy, as he had been working very hard for two weeks on some of his new paintings. He asked what we were doing. He wanted to join us because he thought it would be a good break to see what other people are doing. The first thing we did at the metal fabrication facility was to inspect the etched calligraphy words. The steel was still flat and was being cleaned up and the scaling was being ground off. However, the etched letters looked fantastic. I realized that this was a major change for the good.
We then discussed how we wanted the flag shaped. I found a piece of copper and showed them the shape I was looking for and my concept. They then rigged up a type of jig. It consisted of two pipes with a slightly different diameter mounted on what looked like a saw horse. The pipes had an opening between them which was the width of the steel that I had purchased. Using up to 15 people, they were able to cold bend the flag to the shape I wanted. We then adjusted the shape by hand. This would have taken many months back in the United States, but with the use of the jig and up to fourteen people, the fabricator did this in less than an hour. These persons did the second flag bending in less than 20 minutes. It was remarkable. I took a number of pictures and Simon was very excited because he now knew what he would do with the woks which were rusting back at his studio. Li was excited because he could see the potential of using these types of etchings for some of his future projects. Everyone was excited.
Again, we were invited to lunch with Lao Xu and one of his foremen at the Fantasy Restaurant. From there, we took a taxi back to the Pickled Art Center; however, I got off at one of the main streets to get a cab to go into the women's market to buy Hannah her birthday present. Getting there was no problem. My mission was accomplished. However, the taxi on the way back again got lost. The taxi driver had no idea where he was going. He didn't speak any English. Somehow I was able to get him back to the general area, and then I recognized certain key landmarks and was able to get him back to the compound. He was as relieved as I when we arrived at the Pickled Art Center.
That night there was a gallery opening for three artists, all with the last name of Li. It was very cold, so people tended to huddle around the fire in the main room of the gallery. Outside, there was a cook making barbeque. The barbeque was very good. I thought that would be my dinner; however, at about 8 o'clock, a whole bunch of us decided to walk to the Garden Restaurant for dinner. Almost everyone there was an artist, except Lutitia, who, it turns out was French. She has been in Beijing for six years and owns a gallery. Her former lover, who was a very well known Chinese pop singer, was also there with his two-year-old son which he had fathered with Lutitia. However, neither the singer nor Lutitia spoke to each other at all during the meal. We drank a lot of rice wine and a good time was had by all, although most of the taking was in Chinese.
I went through the same morning ritual again. Li Gang overslept, so I wrote my diary entries while he had breakfast. We again went off to the metal shop. The stars had been bent and attached to the flags. We then designed the hanging supports for the sculpture, went over what type of finishes, and they decided to use the black paint that I had brought over for the letters. However, they would buy yellow oil-based paint for the flags, and it was decided to spray paint the flag red, rather than use stain. I noted that they forgot to put the strip on the left hand side of the flag, and we then designed that and found some steel that they could use. The sculpture was now in their hands, and they estimated that the sculpture would be finished not later than November 21. Both should be terrific.
Li and I then took a taxi to the open air antique market. I bought three small jade pieces, one of which was a beautiful carving of a shrimp for Leslie and the other two for Stacey and Hannah. Unfortunately, I got separated from Li Gang and I really felt panic. I was leaving later that day, and I did not have his business card with me. There were thousands of people at this open air antiques market, and I could not find Li. It was a very uncomfortable feeling. Finally, he showed up, but I was shook.
We were supposed to have lunch with Olaf, a Swedish ex-pat living in Thailand who owned a sand foundry, and had previously worked with Li and Olaf's wife, who was from Thailand, at a Peking duck restaurant. At the restaurant I got up to get more comfortable, and was so upset that one of the jade sculptures fell out of my pocket. It was broken beyond repair, but I decided that I would not let this ruin what was a fantastic trip. Also joining us for lunch was Shen, a recent art student graduate who ran a gallery for low priced peoples art. Accompanying her was a guy named Avry, who I sensed was her boyfriend. She explained to me the difference between "peoples art" and art done by true artists. She said that she understood that her market for this venture was "people's art," and that it paid her bills. Although we ordered Peking duck, it never came because the waitress forgot to take it down, and we had to rush off to go back to Li Gang's place to pick up my suitcase and then go to the airport. Ironically Olaf and his wife were flying back to Thailand at the same time. Olaf and I met at the airport after we had checked through all of the security checks and customs, and we had a nice light lunch together. He explained the differences between sand and investment casting, and why he preferred to do sand casting and Li Gang preferred to do investment casting. I learned quite a lot about what sand casting consists of, and what makes a good sand cast.
It was then time to catch the plane back to Vancouver. I had a couple of concluding thoughts on the plane ride back. It appears that our government and the Chinese government are at odds, but, between the artists at the community, there was no such friction and everyone was "doing their thing" and encouraging all the other persons. It is two totally different worlds. In fact, these art communities which are springing up in this part of Beijing have nothing to do with the government, and although the Chinese government was not extensively discussed, I got the distinct feeling that the artist community ignores the communist party, governmental organizations, especially if the government leaves them alone. These types of exchange programs really foster people getting to know each other and good relations among the people of different countries, as distinguished from the governments. The second main thought I had was that I was really looking forward to seeing Leslie. Basically, we were incommunicado for a week.
It was back to the office, and that is the way that I now earn my living. However, this was an absolutely incredible experience in both assembling and executing a complex art project, using a number of other persons with different skills, or skills that I did not have, and lastly, working with Chinese artists as well as Chinese technicians to accomplish this project. I envisioned this project as a joint American/Chinese project. The result of my visit will be that the vision will become actuality.
NY Arts Magazine
, January/February 2005