My time in China by Emma Reid

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ArtHouse Jersey sent two local artists to take part in a prestigious residency project at the internationally renowned Red Gate Gallery in Beijing....

Growing up in Jersey, I always thought of London as a big city. But living in Beijing for a month made London seem small in comparison. Beijing is a vast city with an abundant heritage and a thriving art scene. For the month of November Karen Le Roy Harris and I were given the opportunity to immerse ourselves into the Beijing art scene with the Red Gate Gallery residency. 

Red Gate gallery is located in the 798 art district, which is a large cluster of galleries, art shops, bars and restaurants housed in old factory buildings. We were joined by a writer and a painter from America, a visual artist from Australia and a conceptual artist from Austria.

Old Red Gate Gallery in Beijing

Throughout the residency we were introduced to many artists and visited their studios. What instantly struck us was the amount of space available to those artists. Similarly to London, artists in Beijing base themselves in the outskirts of the city to benefit from the cheaper rents, but the size of these buildings was impressive. When we entered the first studio we asked the artist where the other artists were – she replied, “it’s just me”. You could fit five very grateful London artists in that space and they would still have a bigger than average working environment. Huge spaces combined with crazy cheap art materials and a very inclusive art community makes creating art very accessible, and enables artists to be hugely productive. The downside is that any studio or gallery can be taken away at any time. The Chinese government reclaim land and buildings with very little notice and without sympathy. One of the artists we met had to move three times in one month and another had to move because she was cut off from electricity and water. Even while we were in Beijing, a gallery which had been established for twenty years had to shut its doors despite its support and positive impact on the local community.

Redgate has had a similar struggle. It was previously located in an impressive gate tower; the building itself was a tourist destination but two years ago the government took it back and they were forced to seek a more modest space in the 798 district. They also lost their studio space for the residency. Previously they had multiple studios with mezzanines and living quarters in a vibrant part of town near the old gallery, but now the residency has relocated to a block of typical Beijing towers in a residential area, which were built to house a community of farmers who were displaced from their land as China sought to expand its cities. Karen and I shared a desk in the lounge of our flat – this lack of working space and access to facilities meant that I could not make make the kind of 3D work I usually make. The upside of this was that I could spend time coming up with ideas, doing research and developing an existing project. Working in the film industry means I have very little time to focus on my own work and in the time I do get off, as a freelancer, I feel the pressure of not earning money. So having this month to work on art projects guilt free was a luxury.

The working conditions may have not been ideal for either of us but we were given an insight into local life that we may have missed had we been in the studios. I came to China with the expectation that it would be hectic, polluted and that the people lived hard lives weighed down by an imposing government. I thought arriving as an outsider with our free way of living would be unwelcome, but that was far from the reality. China’s relationship to communism and capitalism is complicated but it seems the locals give it little thought – they just enjoy life. Everyone is very laid back and extremely friendly and locals were always willing to chat to us despite the language barriers. There is a huge sense of community and well being, especially amongst older generations.

One of our favourite pastimes was visiting one of the many parks in Beijing were people would settle in for the day. They played card games, mahjong, flew kites, played traditional instruments, danced and queued up for pop-up Karaoke, a popular leisure activity in China. We witnessed a lot of public singing, and the singers were not busking for money, but simply performing for sheer enjoyment. I was reluctant at first to take photos but as soon as I got my camera out I would get an extra special performance. People loved it when we showed an interest in them, which was unexpected.

We witnessed this community spirit throughout the city. Every morning and evening on our street corner the local women would come out and, as a form of group exercise, dance in routines to music played on a huge speaker which blasted out Chinese pop music – we joined them a couple of times on our way to get bao buns from the local shop. The food was also one of the highlights of the trip. It was absolutely nothing like the Chinese food you might expect to get at home. When you go out to eat you share many dishes and fortunately for us, the restaurants have pictures in the menus so you can easily point at what you want. The Peking duck is the main draw – I tried it once but struggled with the fat. The Chinese savour the fat and oils, but in the west we have trained ourselves to avoid it. Strangely all the cups, plates  and cutlery in the restaurants were handed to us wrapped in plastic – many items are unnecessarily wrapped in plastic in China. The issue with plastic waste seems to be not embedded in the public consciousness and the further I explored the country, the more uneasy I felt about the underlying environmental issues and the impact the vast volumes of consumption must have on the planet.

On a brief visit to Shanghai we met Song Chen, an artist who utilises mud to create artwork. She was in the process of making work from contaminated soil found around the country to raise environmental awareness. It was the first time we met an artist who wasn’t driven to make commercial work and who wanted to pursue important issues. With the way politics are in China artists need to be careful what messages they put out out in their art. All imported western art must be vetted before it is exhibited. The process is lengthy and decisions to grant a permit can happen quite far down the line. Just before we left we heard that an exhibition at the UCCA (one of the big galleries in 798) had its upcoming exhibition with US artist Hung Liu cancelled at the last minute. This is one of the many challenges facing art in China but these obstructions and frustrations also make for an intriguing and exciting place to explore when creating work.

Song Chen’s contaminated soil work

You can’t visit Beijing without seeing the Great Wall or Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The main highlight of the trip for me was visiting the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors – both  were high on my bucket list and they didn’t disappoint. The wall was incredible – we visited on a clear crisp day at the end of autumn when there were still orange leaves clinging to the trees. How lucky we were to see the wall like this and with fewer tourist than expected!

Great Wall of China

Towards the end of our stay, Karen and I made the overnight train pilgrimage to Xi an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors. I had seen the exhibition with my dad at the British Museum some years back but nothing prepares you for the scale and the detail. Seeing the warriors lined up in their pit in their thousands was demonstrative of the work ethic ingrained in Chinese culture. Like the people who built the army  all those years ago, the contemporary artists in China are deeply dedicated to their work and choose to persevere and perfect their craft, creating huge quantities until they have mastered it. It was the perfect way to end our time in China.

Xi’an Terracotta Army

Our month in China was a fantastic and unforgettable experience and has certainly broadened my horizons, and I have no doubt the experiences and memories will improve me as an artist. I’m immensely grateful to ArtHouse Jersey and to the Government of Jersey for supporting this residency, and I hope that it leads to a long and meaningful relationship with Beijing that many other Jersey artists can benefit from in the future.

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