THE CHINA DIARY PART II: An Artist in Residence
By Charles J. Hecht
The return trip to Beijing was a gift from Leslie since we had to cancel our dive vacation to the Solomon Islands and Australia. She made all the arrangements for me to use my air mileage to return to Beijing to finish the two sculptures that I had started on my last trip and to start some new projects.
I arrived at approximately 10:30 p.m. Again there was no Li Gang. Fortunately, he answered his cell phone and told me that his uncle was still asleep and I should make my own arrangements to get to the Pickled Arts Centre. Unfortunately, no taxi driver wants to take someone from the airport to Bei Gao because it is too short a ride and there is no assurance of a return fare late at night on a cold winter evening. Li Gang was eventually able to persuade someone from the Travelers Aid office to take me there for 100 RMB. I had to direct them to the Pickled Arts Centre. When we got to Bei Gao it was like a ghost town. Everything was shut down and the there were no people on the streets. The temperature was approximately zero degrees.
Li Gang was up and he greeted me with a couple of glasses of wine and we talked for awhile. Off I went to my old room, which had been rearranged. Li Gang asked me if I needed anything else, and because I was very tired, I said no and he would see me him at 9:00 oÕclock so we could coordinate with the metal fabricator. Unfortunately, there was no space heater in the room and apparently the heat generated for that building in the complex was approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit. No matter how many layers of clothes I put on, it was very difficult to sleep because it was so cold.
When I got up I realized that I forgot to ask for a towel so I washed up as best I could. Li Gang was out on errands but one of his helpers made some noodle soup with an egg that tasted delicious. Lao Xu and Xiao Chen from the metal fabricator were to meet me at the steel yard. I was to meet them there to locate and buy the steel for the two new projects. I took a bicycle to meet them there. The bicycle given to me by Li GangÕs staff had a handlebar that was off center by about 15 degrees. Although I used to bike race and still ride regularly in Central Park, this was a unique experience because the roads were covered with ice and it was difficult to steer with the off-center handlebars. We were able to locate two sheets of steel that measured 4 meters by 127 cm for the two new sculptures I had planned out. One of Li Gang's assistants, who accompanied me on the bike journey to the steelyard, offered me his bicycle and took back the original bicycle that I rode over on. Unfortunately, the new bicycle was too small, and no matter how much I bent my knees out I could not peddle it. So I walked the bicycle back to the Pickled Arts Centre. People kept looking at me in a puzzled way because they could not understand why someone was walking a bicycle. Using sign language I explained to them that the bike was too small and my knees kept hitting the handlebars. Everyone had a good laugh.
When I got back to the compound I started to measure out the details of the two new sculptures. I realized that I had miscalculated the height. Instead of 102 cm high, the proper measurement was 113.3 cm high. I got on my original bicycle and ÒspedÓ back to the steelyard, only to be told that I was too late as the steel had been taken away by the metal fabricator. They showed me some pieces of cut off steel which were approximately 4 meters long and approximately 25 cm high. I rode back to the compound swearing at myself and then reconfigured the computations and measurements for the planned sculptures.
I took a break to look for the general store on Fei Jia Cun, the side street on which the Pickled Arts Centre was located to buy a towel. This side street was approximately three miles long and it is on side streets like this that most of the local residents live. Because of the extreme cold, none of the storefronts on that street were open and there were no signs to indicate what was inside each of these little local stores. I could not locate the general store and peddled back to the compound.
I was able to get a space heater for my room. As I was working on the new computations, someone knocked on my door and offered to bring me lunch in my room. Lunch was chicken with vegetables with rice. The room was much warmer but by our standards still very cold. But I was able to work. During that time I sketched out the calligraphy inserts for the two new sculptures and roughed out a design framework for a new sculpture based on a Confucian proverb about yin, yang and harmony. The new sculpture would have a drawing of a gentle mountain at the top, along with a drawing of a gentle body of water at the bottom. In between would be my English/Chinese calligraphy of this proverb. The new space heater in room stopped and would not restart, so I explained this to Li Gang and he made arrangements to replace it with another heater that was much more powerful and worked throughout the remainder of my stay.
I had supper with Li Gang and his family, after helping them move back furniture to accommodate the new fireplace that Li Gang had built in his living room. The new fireplace was completed in two days so that it could be ready for Christmas as Li Gang's parents enjoyed the extra heat. Also, Li Gang wanted to make his own pizza oven and he thought he had designed the fireplace in such a way that he could cook pizza. After dinner, we decided to paint the flue so it would look like a red tree. It also was the warmest place in room. Li Gang tried to contact Lao Zhong, the artist I had worked with in the past. There was no answer. Anticipating that this may be a problem, I went back to the room and painted the letters myself as insurance. I quit at approximately 12:45 a.m. and got up at 5:00 AM to finish the first draft of this project.
After a good nightÕs sleep and a nice hot shower I felt great. However, the walk/run from the shower back to my room in zero degree temperature was very bracing. Because Jenny Lees was closed when I arrived, I was unable to buy food for breakfast. Li's wife invited me join the family for breakfast. I told Li Gang what happened about my miscalculations and he said not to worry as the metal fabricator had not yet cut the steel so I should re-measure again for my original calculations. Li Gang wanted to buy a new ax to cut up firewood to use in his new fireplace. His carpenter had forbid him to use his ax. It was very dark and gray as we went off on this venture. Because the traffic was so heavy on the way to the British hardware store where he wanted to buy the ax, he turned back and we went to the local flower market. I purchased a poinsettia for Li's Christmas party and Li Gang was able to find an ax and hatchet.
After lunch I then went with one of Li's assistants to another of his studios where my original sculptures were stored so I could finish them with some special polyurethane I had brought over with me. The temperature in this studio was quite low, but since it was approximately 50 degrees I felt it was warm enough to try the polyurethane. It went on smoothly so I continued to put on a first coat on the front and back of both sculptures. The metal fabricator had painted the back of each sculpture with gray rust resistant paint but I decided to put on one coat of polyurethane as additional protection against rust, especially since the winters in Beijing are extremely severe.
Between coats I went across the alleyway to visit the Imagine Gallery, which had a photography exhibit which was not to my taste and was very uninteresting. I then went for a brisk walk to allow the first coat to dry out. We put on a second coat and walked back to the Pickled Arts Centre. Li Gang advised me that he still could not contact Lao Zhong and invited me to join his family and friends at a ÒChristmasÓ dinner. As a surprise, Li's parents were able to join everyone for the dinner. Li's friends were all about the same age and each couple had only one child. The children ranged in ages from 4-1/2 to 6. As the parents ate dumplings and meat and mushrooms cooked in a hot pot, the children played upstairs. So long as no one was crying, the children were left on their own and were essentially ignored. After dinner, the children came down to join their parents. Spontaneously, Li's daughter, Wendy, decided to give a one-person concert of the song she was singing for the New YearÕs play at her nursery school. The other children followed with their own one-person shows, with everyone applauding each performance. The party broke up at approximately 8:30 in evening and I went back to the room and worked on the calligraphy since we had not heard back from Lao Zhong, who apparently did not have an answering machine. I worked until about one o'clock in the morning.
I got up at 6:30 a.m. to work on completing the final drawings for the two new sculptures. I decided it was too cold to shower. I met Li Gang at 9:30 and he told me that he had other appointments. He gave me the keys to his other studio so I could put on another coat of polyurethane on the back and a third coat on the front. Since these coats were still tacky at 12:20, I decided to walk back to the Pickled Arts Centre to work on the new measurements for the larger version that I had originally contemplated for two new sculptures. While I was working on the new measurements, Li Gang was painting and his wife brought each of us lunch. She admonished both of us to eat before the food got cold. Li Gang said that he needed a 40 minute nap. So did I . And I drifted off into a very deep sleep. I was awakened to go off to the computer shop, but I realized that I was in such a fog that I forgot my glasses. Since this work involves careful review of the scanned images, I went back to the compound to get my glasses. Unlike the first time when we did the drawings on four inch squares, I did the drawings this time on 8 in. squares so there would be less work in cleanup. Unfortunately the downside is that you do not get the same thickness to the lettering that I or Lao Zhong originally was able to obtain utilizing the four inch squares. The computer looks at these drawings impersonally and, in effect, doubles the size of everything when you use a smaller initial drawing. We finished the scanning and cleanup at approximately 5: p.m., when I was advised that there was a problem with the equipment so they could not furnish me a disk. We said we would come back the following morning with the appropriate tool so that the information could be transferred to Li Gang's computer and then we would create a disk from that data.
Li Gang came to pick me up at the computer shop and his wife, Heying, and his daughter, Wendy, were waiting in the car. I suggested that I take them to dinner at the Argentinian Barbecue Pavilion , which was fairly near where they lived. They said it was too expensive, so we compromised by agreeing to go to a Peking Duck house for dinner. On the way we stopped at a nonofficial money exchanger so I could have sufficient Chinese money, since I had used most of my Chinese money to purchase the steel. At this market Li Gang bought some gifts for his daughter and I was able to find some nice dress gloves. After an excellent dinner, which, including tip, was approximately $15 for four, we drove back to the compound. During dinner the temperature dropped to well below zero and there was a strong wind from the north which made it feel much colder. After updating the diary I was sound asleep by 8:30 p.m.
I was up at 8 a.m. and took a nice hot shower. I felt that I was getting more used to the cold. After breakfast I designed the stars for the American flag and made cutouts so that I could double-check the measurements for the stars. I then went off to the computer place with the equipment to download the data so that we could burn disks on Li's computer. Overnight the computer place fixed the problem and had two data discs ready for me. I asked for and they gave me some printouts of both new sculptures so that we could communicate better with the metal fabricators. We then went off to the metal fabricators to work out the details for both of these two large sculptures.
Both sculptures would have the American flag on the left and the Chinese flag on the right. In between one of the sculptures, ÒThe JourneyÓ would be my English /Chinese calligraphy of the Tao proverb ÒA journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.Ó This sculpture was to have a slight curvature and is being designed to either hang on a wall or be freestanding on the floor. The second large sculpture would have the same flag setup, but there would be a 60 cm cleaned area between the two flags. And then attached to and in front of that cleaned area, and at approximately 25 cm in front of the large piece, would be a 60 cm by 113.3 cm piece of polished steel with the English/Chinese calligraphy of the Rumi poem ÒOut beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I'll meet you there.Ó Because of structural complications, we decided not to cut up the large piece into two separate pieces for each flag and utilize connecting rods for the calligraphy portion of the sculpture. This piece was not to be bent because the proposed frontal offset to the overall structure would give it the necessary depth. We then went again to the Fantasy Restaurant to celebrate the new venture.
Li Gang loves to shop. On the way back he stopped at a furniture showroom so he could look at some new furniture for their new home. The showroom was unheated. We then went back to his studio where my sculptures were located so I could put on a final and fourth coat of dura tuff to the two sculptures that were started back in November. We also discussed refinishing one of the sculptures since the initial paint job had some problems. Also, we decided to repaint the yellow flags on both sculptures because when the polyurethane was applied, the paint turned black in certain areas. Since everything else in the sculpture was Òvery clean,Ó I could not rationalize this as a normal weathering. While I was working, a Chinese man, who turned out to be an IT professional, and his stunningly beautiful fiance, wandered into the studio. He spoke English and liked both of the flags. If he owned a business that dealt with the U.S.A. he would buy one. He explained to me that he wanted to buy art and that they had set aside that day to visit various galleries and studios in the Bei Gao section. Apparently, it was very normal for people to wander into studios where the artists were working. Li Gang then dropped in and I introduced him as a famous Chinese artist who had his own studio and gallery. By then I had finished with the fourth coat and we all went back to Li Gang's studio. I excused myself so Li Gang could show them his gallery and work.
After doing some calligraphy back in my room, I then met Ivy Zhou and her husband, along with an executive of Tengtu and his wife who wanted to talk to me about a legal problem they had. After too much food at the Garden Restaurant, we then went to Li Gang's other studio to look at the completed sculptures. We then took pictures of everyone with the sculptures to commemorate the evening. I then went back to the compound and read some more of Confucius' Analectics before going off to sleep .
This was going to be a Ògo with the flowÓ day. First, we went off to the computer store to get some more disks and some printouts of my new sculpture series, ÒHarmony", and copies of some Tang calligraphy that Li Gang wanted to make into a scroll. Li Gang also worked on new business cards. We then went off to the new artists compound where Li Gang intended to move his family in April or May. After seeing Simon KaanÕs unit, we then dropped in to visit Letitia, her husband, who is the most famous rock star of China, and their baby son, all of whom I had previously met during my first visit, but they were not home. Li Gang had a long talk with their housekeeper who complained that she was being underpaid because the artists in the compound were asking her cook for them and do their laundry and she was not being paid enough to do this.
We then went to speak to the manager. When we got there, Li Gang was greeted by an old friend, Jae Ar Louo, the owner of one of the most expensive restaurants in Beijing , the Green Tea Room, and she had worked with Li Gang to show art in her restaurant. She was in the process of renting one or more units in this complex based on Li Gang's referral. Accompanying her was an entourage, her lawyer, the lawyerÕs male acquaintance, Jae Ar's boyfriend, Robbie, an Australian who ran an ad agency and sailboat renting company in Thailand, and his six-year-old son. After the deal for the rental of three adjoining units to Jae Ar was completed and approved by her lawyer, the entourage, three people from the management of the complex, Li Gang and I went off to lunch at a new restaurant 5 miles to the north, but near Li Gang's new project. Then everyone went back to Li Gang's place so that Jae Ar could show her entourage his gallery.
The entourage left and Li Gang stated that he needed a nap and would get me at 3:00. When he did not come I decided to do some more calligraphy for the new Harmony series. Finally at 3:45 p.m. I went down to get Li Gang. However, Li Gang had left his car at the new complex so we had to get a taxi to take us there. We then dropped off his wife at the bank and went to buy art supplies. There is a concentration of art supplies stores on the second floor above a restaurant. I was able to purchase my own fleece backing and to return the fleece backing that Li Gang had given me. That fleece backing had been chewed up by the large dog I had seen on my first visit. In the name of love the dog had disappeared and they were afraid that the dog had been killed for food. Li Gang explained to me that dog is considered a warm meat, and, thus, was a common dinner in the winter. Metal swivel hangers cost $.75 each at Gracious Home. At the art supply store I was able to buy a package of approximately 150 identical hangers for $5. I also purchased two new calligraphy brushes as well as a metric ruler. In contrast, Li Gang purchased a multitude of paints, stretched canvases, brushes and other supplies so he could be well stocked for the winter. We then went to look at new water heaters because the water heater in Li Gang's bathroom was broken. Li Gang changed his mind when he realized that he could fix it with a replacement of one small part. We then to a seafood restaurant for dinner. All of the diners were wearing their outer jackets as it was very cold in the restaurant. There was a waiting line to get in. This restaurant is in a completely new satellite city, which was only one or two miles from Bei Gao. After the drive home I spent another two hours doing calligraphy and planning out the details for the Harmony series. I was in bed by 10 and asleep within ten minutes.
I was up at 8 o' clock. After doing some exercises, I had a hot shower in a very cold bathroom. By then I had developed a technique to minimize the pain. I went down to meet Li Gang as planned, but he was not there. After waiting 20 minutes I decided to walk to the computer store to begin working on the scanning and editing the Harmony calligraphy. As I was leaving the compound, Li Gang arrived and his uncle drove us to the computer store. After working with the scanned image I decided to make the sculpture 80 cm by 32 cm. I also worked with the computer people to utilize the calligraphy inserts as separate small sculptures to compliment the two large sculptures incorporating that calligraphy. I also promised one of the Harmony sculptures to Li Gang as a thank you for everything he had done for me, as well as the hospitality extended by his family, on this and my prior visit. We then decided to make copies of the Harmony series printouts on special cloth paper to be set up as traditional Chinese scrolls. Li Gang said he liked the new Harmony series and I thought that it had potential. Li Gang was going to take the cloth printouts to his friend, who specialized in making Chinese scrolls. I had briefly met this friend who had dropped in to visit Li Gang before. Li Gang also had the computer shop scan some of his favorite Tang calligraphy that he intended to make into scrolls.
Two friends of Li Gang came to visit us at the computer shop, so we could all go off to have lunch together. Li Gang wanted to go back to the same restaurant that we went to yesterday. Since one of the artists did not speak any English, all of the conversation was in Chinese. I was content to listen and daydream. Everyone was celebrating the Òcoming of SpringÓ because the temperature at lunchtime had risen to -7 degrees Centigrade.
After lunch, we went to inspect the land for the new artist compound envisioned by Li Gang. Apparently, he had persuaded a developer friend to purchaser the parcel. In addition, Jae Ar Louo had purchased a small parcel within the larger parcel of about 4 acres. Li Gang felt that this purchase by Jae Ar would help guarantee the success of the project. Unlike the existing artist compound that he was moving into, this one would have space for three or four galleries and would be in a location that was easily accessible to the wealthy persons who are purchasing large new homes in that general area. It was also adjacent to an abandoned factory that was being converted into an exclusive private school for wealthy European and American children. There was a factory located across the street from his property, but its lease was up in approximately one year and he was confident that the developer of this project could make a deal with the owner of that property to ensure that the factory would relocate.
After returning to the computer store to pick up the printouts, we noticed a number of errors. Li Gang said not to worry; they would be able to correct those errors. We then went off to the metal fabricators to inspect the two large sculptures in vitro. Because the steel was so large, the computer facility that was to do the etching could not handle it. The computer facility was able to do the plastic cutouts. The fabricator then took the plastic cut out and, utilizing tape and glue, placed the plastic cutout on the metal and then they did the etching manually. Basically, the cutout portion of the plastic is what gets etched. Because this type of etching uses a mild acid, the acid has to be applied continuously. This process would take about three or four hours per sculpture and I felt sorry for the workman who had to stand outside and continuously pour the acid on the non flag portion of the sculpture. We then met to discuss fabrication of the first of the new Harmony series, as well as the companion sculptures to the two large pieces.
On the way back to the compound, Li Gang dropped me off at the Garden Restaurant so I could meet Xia, his wife, and an interpreter. After meeting for an hour, I went back to the Pickled Arts Centre, so Li Gang and I could go downtown to meet Brian Wallace, the owner of the Red Gate Gallery, and an Australian artist who was leaving the next day for a farewell dinner at the Beijing Duck House. At the dinner was the Australian artist, Brian's intern, Gabby, and later on a visiting comparative law professor from Australia. Initially, the Australian artist spoke of her unusual and extensive travels throughout the world. Apparently she loved travel by motorcycle and drinks lots of beer. Gabby then lamented on her living situation. Apparently, her landlord had given her five daysÕ notice and no one wants to rent to someone with very little money for only a month or two. But she was confident that she could find a new place.
Brian Wallace and Li Gang discussed how Bei Gao had come into existence over the last five years. Essentially, artists need a place to live and work cheaply and there were building speculators, who are now the landlords, who are willing to take the chance of building structures without the proper licensing and permits. Apparently, if the structure has been built and occupied for five years it takes on a semi- legitimate status. Hopefully, from the landlord's point of view, with the expansion of Beijing to the north, major real estate operators would buy the land to create another satellite city within Beijing. Both Li Gang and Brian believed that Bei Gao as we know it today will not be in existence within the next three to five years. They are already building luxury housing in the area and fancy expensive new restaurants are replacing some of the traditional old businesses.
Brian also felt that the arts community was undergoing significant changes. Major new international galleries were now coming into Beijing and Shanghai. On one hand, this was a good sign for the artistic community because it means that they will be receiving higher prices. On the other hand, the cooperative and club-like atmosphere that now exists between dealers and artists is going to disappear as things are going to become much more cutthroat. Right now everyone is a friend, and his fear is that this will change. Brian and Li Gang then discussed the difference between the academic arts community and the real art community. The Australian artist opined that the current show at the National Gallery and the award winner basically represented LCD, the lowest common denominator. From what I could gather, the two communities operate totally apart from each other, although some of the members of each community are still friendly with each other. They are just going in different directions, with all of the new exciting work being done by the non academic faction.
Li Gang then discussed his proposed new community. He realized, that if you want to keep alive the energy and spirit of Bei Gao, he would have to build a new community that would operate as its center. In this way, they would not have to keep moving from area to area and could be near enough to each other to work and help each other. From the brief time that I have known Li Gang, I am very confident that he will be able to pull this off. Li Gang feels that Bei Gao is a doomed community and it is only a matter of two to three years before it must give way to the expansion of Beijing. The 2008 Olympics will only accelerate the expansion of Beijing, which includes the development of new satellite cities consisting of high density high-rise buildings. From the roof of the Pickled Arts Centre you can view all of the roofs of all of the buildings in the surrounding area. The highest building now is the Argentinian Barbecue and a fancy coffee shop located in that complex which are approximately three stories high and are approximately two miles away. Bei Gao is also located next to the Airport Expressway, which is considered a very desirable area of suburban Beijing. That is why there are a number of Western-style developments of luxury homes, with approximately 3,000 square feet, which are currently selling for approximately 3,000,000 RMB [$375,000].
The Australian law professor then described the deplorable state of legal aid in China. Apparently, lawyers must devote a certain percentage of the time to providing free services to the poor. He attended a criminal trial that morning. It lasted approximately 45 minutes. The assigned defense lawyer did not make an opening statement, did not cross-examine any witnesses and did not make a closing statement. When the judge asked the defense lawyer if he wanted to say anything, the defense lawyer just shook his head no. He believes that China must come up with a better system. He was fully familiar with what was going on with the New York State Legal Aid Society and felt that Greenberg's vision was appropriate, but had to be properly funded by the government and not private industry in order to be successful. By then everyone was tired .
I got up at 5 a.m. so that Li Gang could drive me to the airport for my early morning flight to Tokyo. It was another bitterly cold morning. Li Gang asked me to take a portfolio of his watercolors back to New York to give to Abe Lubelski. The watercolors arrived safely and intact at JFK.
The artistic community in and around Bei Gao is extremely exciting and vibrant, but well aware that life in Bei Gao is going to change dramatically as Beijing expands to the north. They realize that their interests are subordinate to the interests of large real estate developers and the government and that Bei Gao is located on prime real estate, which is currently occupied by illegal housing and small stores and repair shops that will be demolished. An artistÕs life, especially in Beijing, is quite different from the life of a professional or a businessman in New York City. Things get done, but not according to any pre-planned schedule. If friends drop in and want to go out and have a good lunch or dinner, work stops and you enjoy the friendship and camaraderie. If something does not work, then you figure out a way to make it work.
Again, this trip would not have been possible without Leslie making the arrangements and telling me to go do it. The two sculptures that I started in November are completed, with some minor touchup work still to be done. The two new and much larger sculptures are underway and hopefully they can start work on the Harmony sculpture, as well as the complimentary sculptures shortly. Li Gang estimates that everything should be done by the middle of January. In the interim, he is going to send me the scrolls of the first of the Harmony series and a scroll of the Tang calligraphy and shots of the sculptures as the work progresses.
Upcoming Article in NY Arts Magazine
, March/April 2005