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drawingbeijing

In the middle of an eastern whirlwind

Tag Archives: Beijing

The main reason staying for a long time in Beijing is hard, is the pollution. For everything else, there is some sort of a solution, a strategy to devise, a plan to undertake. The pollution however, is unavoidable and can be so unrelenting, it takes the edge off of you.

Now, I have heard that the french news went into conniptions recently because the capital had the unbelievable PM10 count of 180 during one single day which caused various newsmedia to liken the conditions in Paris to those in Beijing. That made me laugh. That was kinda cute.
It also made me grit my teeth. This tells you what the airquality in western Europe normally is like, and moreover, what europeans expect it to be, if one day of 180 PM10 is meted out in world news!

The truth is, I cannot explain what the kind of airpollution one experiences here, in the northeast of China (I am not even mentioning the water, the land and thereby in extenso the food) feels like, what it does to you, how it permeates everything in your life. People who have not lived in these circumstances simply do not know. No one in the west has lived through this kind of airpollution, has never experienced anything like the scale or composition that this modern chinese phenomenon has reached.

Beijing based businesses and organisations are sometimes having a hard time getting through to their bosses abroad that yes, they need extra funds for airfilters, extra holidays, that this is no place to be for families, especially those with young children, and, yes, occasionally, it is better to have their office crews work from home rather then brave the streets. Far too often, such complaints and requests are waved off as ‘whining’ because they cannot imagine what this is like.

Only people who have never breathed any kind of pollution can wave it off as whining. If the Beijing expats are whiners, then what are Parisians?

This is not to say that days like the one Paris recently experienced are okay and people should just accept that kind of pollution as a given, certainly not. Nor is this to say that those fighting for better air in Europe aren’t fighting for a just cause or that they are overreacting. Pollution is a slow poison that is too often overlooked and underestimated, far too often waved away as ‘whining’

Let me try to make a bit clearer to you what the pollution here is like, what it does, to me personally, and suspectedly, to other people.
Let’s start with the facts and the numbers.

So what am I talking about when I mention ‘PM2,5’ or ‘PM10’ or, as those who follow me on FB have seen me do often; ‘AQI’?

Technically, airpollution is a relatively young phenomenon. Nature also produces airpollution, mainly through duststorms, woodfires or volcanic eruptions, but the near everpresent blanket of haziness that makes breathing in developing cities sometimes literally a pain has only been around since 1860 or so, since industrialisation.
Science has therefore not really a full overview of what pollutants are nowadays being produced and which are more and which are less harmful to us.

For instance, lead was once a big problem, produced by vehicles, but the refining of fuel has since then developed such, that lead is, even in China, no longer a concern. Cars still emanate plenty of pollution of course, but lead pollution is no longer one of them. Likewise, there are new chemical components in modern pollution science has yet to do sufficient research on, as well as the suspicion that ‘ultrafine particles’ those even tinier then pm2,5, are more dangerous then the pm2,5 were recently discovered to be.
And those ultrafine particles aren’t even measured yet.

The pollutants science so far has the most extensive picture of, are also the particles that are measured by the two most common measure systems currently used in Asia. These pollutants are:
Ozone, which is an unstable form of oxygen. This ozone is not the same as the ozone layer that surrounds the earth at stratopheric levels that protects us from the radiations of the sun and the universe.
Carbon Monoxide, which is estimated to be emitted for 75 to 95% by combustion engine driven vehicles.
Sulphur Dioxide, that is produced by burning coal or oil, and can be found near power plants and refineries. It causes what we call ‘acid rain’
(Acid rain was a big thing halfway the eighties in Europe. Nowadays, I hardly ever hear nor read about it. Does this mean it is no longer a problem, or maybe no longer deemed a problem or that it is no longer in the collective consciousness?)
Nitron Dioxide, a byproduct of both vehicles and power plants (burning oil or coal) which, apart from it’s own toxic characteristics for human and animal life, will produce the bad ozone I spoke of above when hit by direct sunlight. (So clear days are not necessairily healthy days, alas)

And then of coure the particulate matter. Dust. Which we all are made of and will return to, but some dusts are better than others. Our bodies are able to filter dust out of our breathing systems, it is the reason why we snot, but this system was designed for particles the size of fine sand and the like, not for the very fine particles that combustion produces.

(Kitchens are for that reason not the healthiest spaces in the house, since cooking, too, produces fine particles, but the amounts of these being produced by normal day to day cooking are not large enough to cause real longterm problems like airpollution can. Though I know from experience that frying some dried chillipeppers can nearly choke you!!)

Fine particles are categorized according to their size; PM10 is dust equal or smaller then 10 microns, but bigger then 2,5 microns. PM2,5 is any particles as small as or smaller then 2,5 microns in diameter.
Ultrafine particles are those that are smaller then 0,1 micron. Viruses fall within this range.
PM 10, when inhaled, typically reaches till the upper parts of our lungs, to the level of the bronchii. PM2,5 reach all the way down to the deepest levels, where the alveoli are, and can pass through the membranes there that the oxygen also passes to reach our bloodstream.
PM2,5 is classified as a cancer risk by the WHO. The more you breathe it, the longer you are exposed to it, the higher the risk you run to develop cancer later in life.

pm-deposition

To put the size of these harmful particles in perspective: a human hair is usually around 100 micron in diameter. A cell measures between 6 and 10 micron, a bacteria measures around 1 micron (and therefore falls in the PM2,5 micron range) Molecules are no bigger then 0,03 micron.
pm2_5_graphic

There are two accepted ways to translate the measurements of the above mentioned pollutants into a general pollution number: the Air Quality Index (AQI) as used by the United States’ environmental protection agency, and the Air Pollution Index (API) used by the Malaysian authorities. Both systems measure the pollutants I mentioned so far, and their respective readings differ only a bit from each other. But the conclusions and classifications they turn out are wholly different.

In China, the local governments of most cities use the API system and have the results available to the public on various websites. The Chinese state television, aptly named CCTV, displays the numbers.

This is actually a huge thing. I mention it casually, as I am already used to having an app on my smartphone that tells me hourly what the pollution reading for Beiijing is according to the Beijing government, and setting off the US embassy data against it, but the fact that these data are available is a huge difference to the situation when we arrived here, a mere two and a half years ago. Back then, there was no data available.

Well, no, that is not entirely true. The Beijing government did give out a pollution number. Just the number though. No measurement data whatsover, except the PM10 measurement. Just that. The numbers were generally about a third of what the US embassy posted on their website. The US embassy published, as they still do, the PM2,5 measurement and the overal AQI number along with the categorization that this AQI corresponds to. So if the US put up ‘170’ which is considered ‘unhealthy’ according to the AQI system (General AQI advisory at ‘unhealthy’: “Avoid all outdoor activities, particularely for infants”) the chinese website put up a number near the 50’s, calling the air ‘good’

We were in our second week, when the haze was so thick, it even made the tower of the prestigious merchant’s bank just opposite the street of our building hazy. We visited some friends in town, and when we came back, we both had to lie down because we didnt feel well. A feeling that is very similar to car sickness: nauseous, headache, and so, so tired.

The US embassy reading was 500AQI that day, maximum reading, the number above which, at the time, machines could not accurately measure the concentration of pollution in the air.
The american embassy put out a statement in which they said the Beijing airpollution was ‘just terribly bad’
Irritatedly, the Beijing government, that had put up a 200 something number calling the circumstances ‘mildly polluted’, blocked the US embassy website and demanded apologies from the Americans for ‘blackening the image of China to the world’
Those westerners, all they want is speak badly about China, they are just jealous, they are just always whining!

The US ambassador did not apologize, as far as I know. The site was unblocked however, but now displayed “when exposed for 24 hours at these levels” under every AQI number and interpretation. The Beijing official numbers meanwhile, stayed at roughly a third of what the embassy was reporting.

When we asked our driver or our ayi about the pollution and the haze, they smiled nervously and said that ‘the weather today is not so good” Or “yes, there is often mist here, in Beijing” The word pollution they simply pretended not to hear nor did they never use that word themselves, not in english nor in chinese.

But for mist, one needs humidity. And humidity, Beijing sorely lacks 9 months out of the year. Only in may, june and july, when the big rains come, can one experience actual, real mist in Beijing.

Then, one day, I do not remember exactly when anymore, about one and a half year ago, the Beijing government started publishing the official API numbers. With all the separate measurements listed under it.
In my pollution app, there appeared a map with all the API numbers on it of all the individual measure stations China possessed, showing an interesting array of multicoloured numbers all over the country, from which one could easily deduce where the heavy industry was located and what the wind was doing. The numbers published for Beijing were still laughably low.
As time progressed, measurement stations were added all over the country and all over Beijing. And as time progressed, I also saw the chinese numbers slowly creep closer and closer to the US ones.

They still differ, but do so now in such a way, that I suspect this has more to do with differences in interpretation, as well as the Chinese API number for Beijing being a general number composed of many measurements taken all over the city, from the far east to the far west. In less than two years, not only have the Chinese installed an impressive network of measure stations, pollution has been lifted out of the taboo sphere, and placed itself on top of the political agenda. More and more Chinese are wearing masks on bad air days. The US embassy is no longer chastized for publishing air pollution data, on the grounds of ‘mingling with the business of another sovereign state’ The driver and the ayi no longer smile nervously, but frown, when they say ‘the pollution today is very bad’ And note that they now use that very word: pollution. Both in english and in chinese.

This change I think we owe to the airpocalypse of last year, january 2013. The month where pollution reached truly unthinkable levels. The US embassy measurements, now able to detect concentrations higher then 500, (another indication of how fast development is going) reported numbers above this maximum, the so called ‘beyond index’ for a whopping four days in a row, days that fell within ten continuous days that were classified as either very unhealthy (AQI of 201-300) or hazardous (AQI 301-500) Do realize, that from 400 AQI onwards, the PM2,5 reading and AQI reading are the same.
One of these beyond index days broke the 800 AQI. The next day saw the 1000 AQI breached.

Not even the Chinese government could pretend any longer that pollution was a minor issue taken out of proportion by the whining west.

I wasn’t in Beijing during that time, but my girl was, and she told me her eyes hurt when she went outside, and she could physically not breathe properly on those two horrendous days.

In Japan, where I was having a snowboard holiday, the layer of snow deposited in the week after the airpocalipse was brownish, and clearly visible in the snowpack.

So now you have read plenty of numbers, but what do these numbers actually mean? Without perspective, how are you going to know what it means, when I say the AQI is 170 today? (which is a fairly normal day in Beijing I’d say) What do you balance this information with? What kind of AQI or PM readings do European cities have, generally? What exactly is the WHO limit for airpollution? What does a number like that feel like, breathe like, look like?

There are actually two different limits set in (and by) the west.
The EU has set the limit for PM2,5 on a maximum of 25.

Per year.

Together with a limit of no more then 40 PM2,5 per day.

The WHO goes further, setting the maximum for one year at a count of only 10 PM2,5. A count that, I am sure, many European cities also cannot avoid exceeding.

Let’s assume the WHO is whining. Let’s assume the EU is also whining. Let’s say that actually double the numbers the EU advises, are just fine for human life. That would mean that a general measurement for a full year should not be higher than 50, and no more than 80 on any single day.
Let’s not be whiners and take double the EU limits as standard. Where does that leave us in Beijing?

Still shitf*d, that’s where.

According to official reports, the amount of days that the airquality can be considered either unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous (with an AQI of 160 or over, double the ‘non whining’ standard I just set above) is 220 days per year in Beijing.
22 days out of the year (as measured over the past few years) the measurements exceed the WHO limit a whopping 50 times or more.
The amount of days per year in Beijing that fall within the official WHO limits are 20 days. Just under three weeks. Even if we count according to the ‘non-whining’ option as mentioned above, the amount of days in Beijing that would be considered ‘okay’ according to daily measurements would be a mere 100 days. The yearly totals are bad no matter which limits you choose to measure them against: average daily pm2,5 level in Beijing is 90.

So now we’ve had a load of numbers which paint a very dark picture. In comparison, in the Netherlands, parliament asks the qovernment questions about what measures to take when the airpollution due to rare weather conditions, reaches over 60 AQI in the south of the land for one single day. In London, brits go berserk because they witness a few days of 160 or above (which, by the way, is indeed pretty bad!) Compare that to the Beijing numbers and you might come to understand the enormous differences. But that doesnt mean you actually know what the difference is like, what it feels like.

Many tourists do not notice much of it. The effects airpollution has on a single individual differs enormously. There are people who are sick when the AQI hits 300, there are those that bike to their work whistling all the way. -with a mask on, I should hope- I am someone whom it effects a lot. My girl however, hasn’t had much of a problem these past three years. I suspect that smokers have less problems with it in general. Their bodies are used to a daily dose of airborne poison. And, as one smoker smilingly said; I am breathing the same kind of shitty air. But I at least have a filter with it!

Tourists generally aren’t here for long enough to ‘appreciate’ what the northeastern chinese pollution is like. One can, after all, get lucky, in Beijing. There are good weeks. Or weeks that have many days hovering around the 150 level. Not good, but also not so hazy or choking that it would impact your holiday. For those busy wandering through the hutongs, the temples, the forbidden city, they might not even notice it was a 180 AQI haze above them that made the light so distorted and contrastless. Being in that air for two or three weeks will most likely give no problems beyond a mild rash and a cough, both of which will dissapear as soon as you are back in a healthy(er) environment.

This is the only comparatively ‘good’ news the researchers can give us about air pollution: the negative health effects of airpollution will, provided you go (back) to a healthy environment, diminish over time. Given time, your body recuperates from air pollution. Slowly, but surely, your chances of getting cancer diminish.

Therefore, the best you can do, so urge the Beijing based US doctors of the SOS clinics, is to limit your exposure to airpollution. Wear well fitting masks (and the “well-fitting” is imperative here: badly fitted masks are no use at all) Do not do outdoor sports on days with an aircount over fifty (So say goodbye to biking, hiking or anything else on all but three weeks of the year) Do not even go outside on very bad days (In unfiltered houses, the air can reach up to two thirds of the count outside, depending on how often doors and windows are opened..) Take as many holidays in healthy environments as possible, to give your body the time to recover.

It is a slow poison. During daily Beijing life I do not notice the effects that much, mainly because the effects are there every day. One forgets. Only when I return to Europe, or go to Japan, and stay there for two weeks or longer, do I feel the difference. It startles me. The difference in stamina, which is huge, even when untrained. How much more deeply I sleep, how well rested I am in the morning. The difference to my skin, that is without rashes when in healthy environments. I cannot wear jewelry when I am in Beijing, for instance. My skin grows red and itchy almost immediately. After two weeks back home, I can wear jewelry without problems. (The dryness in Beijing surely doesn’t help, either) After two weeks in a healthy environment, I look ten years younger then I do while in Beijing. My cough disappears. After a week, I realise I have no headaches anymore. And my mood is so much more uplifted. These effects of a healthy environment last on a little while after I’ve returned to Beijing: the first two, three weeks after a getaway to Europe I feel good still, strong, unfettered. This slowly gets eroded away. Beijing pollution doesnt kill anyone fast. But it is unrelenting. As the Beijing years draw on, and the amount of pollution heaps up in my lungs and my blood, I notice these effects more and more.

Everyone who lives in a place where the light diminishes in winter, knows the depressive feelings that the dark months of january and february can bring. Here in Beijing, one can experience something much alike, as in wintere there are days and days on end that the haze envelopes the city, allowing the sun to be only a pale white disk in the sky, the light low and dispersed, the sunset already glowing red at half past three, the sun already dissapearing at four. Not because the sun has sunk below the horizon, but because the sun has sunk below the pollutioncloud that hovers over Beijing.

china-pollution-space
The pollution as seen from space. Image taken by the international space station. The dark grey is smog, the white is clouds. Also clear is the edge of the mountians, that keep the smog locked in over the plains of northeastern China. To escape the smog, one has to drive at least four hours north or northwest from Beijing.

Sometimes, when flying to Beijing, you can see it: as the plane descends , the clouds shift from white to brown, the border marked by a darker layer of soot.

Had the pollution not been here, or not been this severe, living in Beijing would have been a great adventure. Now, it still is an adventure, a wonder on many days, an exciting time of learning, but it is a much darker, unhealthier one, one that tires you out, one that every so often, I just need to hide from in airfiltered rooms. One that I need to leave behind to go breathe fresh air, to recover from in a healthy place, much like tuberculosis patients were once sent to the mountains to recover. An adventure that requires you to grit your teeth and hold your breath and count the days till the wind turns towards the north and brings fresh breathable oxygen. Beijing can be great, ugly and gritty and sandy, overwhelming in it’s size and scope, the sheer magnitude of what is happening here and at what speed, exciting and contagious and just great, if only, if only, if only the pollution would not be there.

pollutionblog01

The view from our balcony to the east, on one of the few good days. (for the careful observer: mind the brown-yellowish haze close to the horizon on the left. If the day falls within WHO limits, the mountains at the horizon can be seen. This particular day does not fall within WHO limits, it is AQI 60 or so. In Beijing, that is a great day)

pollutionblog02

The same view at 5 am on a july morning. This is what an ordinary Beijing sunrise looks like. Count is around 180 AQI here. A fairly “normal” day, that one gets about 160 days per year of. Already 50 times beyond the WHO limit for daily dosage of pm2,5 and pm10..

pollutionblog02A

The same view on a mid march morning, around 10 am, AQI at 300 or thereabouts. This is what the sun will look like the rest of the day, till it dissapears at 4 pm. Whole weeks can pass by like this in winter, and it is a drag on the mind.

pollutionblog04

Looking up around noon on a 300 AQI day in winter. Yes, it is sunny out there, somewhere.

pollutionblog05

When the count hits 300 or more, I trade my flimsy plastic totobobo mask for this heavy, absolutely airtight one. Just to make a statement. Luke…. I am your father!

pollutionblog06A

A screenshot from the airquality app. Note the pm2,5 count. Note, also, the difference in interpretation. On the map, one can clearly see where the industry is. And the wind is southerly, pushing it all up against the mountains north of Beijing…

pollutionblog07

The view from our apartment to the south, february 28th, 2013, at 7 am. AQI 500, beyond index. Note that the sun is already above the horizon, it has just come up, but it cannot pierce the thick smog..

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Same view, the next day, after half a day of a northerly near storm. Northen wind is the thing to pray for here. It will blow all that sh*t over Korea to Japan and the pacific.

pollutionblog08

..For this is what the northernwind can do: note the graph. The wind turned to northerly around 3 or 4 am. at 6 am, the count has fallen down from a near 300 (which it had been for three full days prior) to a pristine 13. A sigh of relief indeed! (Well, actually I hollered instead of sighed…)

One of the IQ air filters, after a little under a year of use. This is the first filter, the one that filters out coarse particles

One of the IQ air filters, the new one still pristine white, the old one black, after a little under a year of use. This is the first filter, the one that filters out coarse particles.

IMG_0289

IQ air came to the Beijing offices to inform everyone about pollution and the blessings of their product. They gracefully lent us their particle meter, with which one can measure the amount of fine particles down to the size of 3pm. So we checked our house. This is in the (big) living room, where there is just one machine, and the door to the balcony has been opened multiple times.

IMG_0294

This is the reading done on the balcony. That is a nice amount of fine particles per cubic meter indeed! (AQI count close to 300 at that time, but I do not remember the precise number)

IMG_0295

.. and the reading in the bedroom, which had it’s door closed and the airfilter in it on 5 (second fastest setting) for about three hours prior. Now that looks better!

 

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Images from the capital of the middle kingdom, snapped throughout the past year. No point, no grand story, no artistic intentions, just images of moments lived here.

Transformers are popular in China.

And one wouldnt believe sometimes..

..the loads one sees on anything that has (a) wheel(s)

Sometimes, roads get blocked for no reason but every single driver being an %ss…

mostentimes roads get blocked because there is simply too much traffic. This is what the third ringroad looks like every day from 4 pm till 6:30 pm.

Weather forecast: after the rainstorm, blue skies and sunny. A rainstorm can clean up the air quite thoroughly. This is a particular good day and rare view from our window..

..more often, the same view looks like this. The weatherforecast for this day: blue skies and sunny. pollution count: 420. 2.5 pm particle count: 250 (!!! instant cancer, all for the better gdp!)

In black and white: Beijing in 1956. (Though if you had told me it was 1930, I’d have believed you) The little colour insert is a picture from the same spot, last year.

in one of the many temples where old times linger

New fish, old fish. Fayuan temple.

What a rich home’s door looked like a few centuries ago (now a poor home)

What the door to a fancy disco/club/restaurant looks like nowadays

If you want to be classy, you can buy yourself some copies of western classics here

What does it take, to make a brand new China?

What does it take, to make a brand new China?

Nice piece!

Nice piece!

Music by an american to honour the revolution. Seen at the exhibit in Soong Ling Ling's house (former wife of Sun Yat Sen)

Music by an american to honour the revolution. Seen at the exhibit in Soong Ling Ling’s house (former wife of Sun Yat Sen)

What is strange about this poster?(Hint: two kids..)

What is strange about this poster?
(Hint: two kids..)

Someone once said: 'In China, one doenst need to make art, it's just there, on the street' And he was right. This is in Song Zhuang, an unintentional installation. Brilliant. The white plastic bag is the last detail that was really needed to make it perfect.

Someone once said: ‘In China, one doenst need to make art, it’s just there, on the street’ And he was right. This is in Song Zhuang, an unintentional installation. Brilliant. The white plastic bag is the last detail that was really needed to make it perfect.

Bread and play, is that liberation?

Bread and play, is that liberation?

In Song Zhuang, there is some serious cooking, as this kitchen exhaust shows..

In Song Zhuang, there is some serious cooking, as this kitchen exhaust shows..

A small town just west of Beijing

A small town just west of Beijing

Train  viaduct soewhere in the mountains west of Beijing

Train viaduct soewhere in the mountains west of Beijing

A cute bubble bike.

A cute bubble bike.

Snow in Beijing.

Snow in Beijing.

Snow in Beijing.

Snow in Beijing.

Zhong Guo.

Zhong Guo.

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Well, I suck at blogging.

And no, I did not make a new year’s resolution about it. I will continue to suck at blogging in 2013, soon to be year of the snake. I apologize, but I am afraid that is the way it is. I suck at blogging. That said, happy new year to everybody.
I am back from a quick christmas holiday in my homecountry, and now back in wintery Beijing, whose morning greet us at a nippy -16 on the balcony, and whose drought and airpollution cracks my skin.

I have a studio now, in Song Zhuang, the art village just outside of the sixt ringroad to the east. It is unmercifully cold in there since about halfway november. The building has general heating, meaning there are heating pipes running through the floor, which indeed prevent the place from actually freezing. It is about 6 degrees celcius there now. Which, I must admit, helps with keeping my paint fluid for a long time. It also helps a lot with procastrinating. It is only so much fun to hold a brush while shivering, and after a few hours, the skiing underwear and triple sweater combo I am wearing does no longer suffice.

But when I go, I go there in the morning, after the driver brought my girl to her work, he brings me to my studio, making me undoubtedly one of the few, if not the only, artist who is driven to her studio by a chauffeur in a fancy car. To balance it out, I go back to Beijing by bus. I stand waiting at the dust ridden, windswept busstand with the rest of Song Zhunag people on their way to anywhere in Tongzhou and Beijing. I walk over the dirt strewn sandroads and wobbly sidewalk towards that busstop, hopping over a part of the sidewalk that has fallen in, probably a sweage pipe that collapsed -as happens frequently throughout China, one can’t be sure here wether the ground uner one’s feet will or will not suddenly give way- shielding my eyes for the dust that the trucks passing by leave in their wake, and ducking for the stray strand of steel wire that still floats halfway over the new road. You see, the crossroads that the busstand is on, was recently renewed. Song Zhuang has been named the new hotspot in town, and the village is in a building spree. Naturally, the roads need to be renewed to mirror the grand imaginings of their political caretakers too, so they get widened, to make for even more dust and wind.

These crossroads were widened too, but somehow, no one bothered about the electricity wiring nor the poles the wiring is on, so there still is a pole with a bundle of wires that stretches till roughly halfway the crossing, some broken and dangling down -hence the strand I duck for- with one electricity wire plunging into the asphalt right there, in the second lane for the traffic that travels north. Of course, one day, someone is going to see that too late and will not be able to swivel around it in time. But so far, since the traffic going north is not that dense, it has been going well and the wires remain there.
Welcome to the China outside of it’s shiny modern city interiors, so eagerly displayed in the business and travel folders…

I did not jest when I remarked that the ground in China might just give way under your feet. Sinkholes are, by now, an almost normal occurence in China. Here is a collection of pictures from sinkholes that got in the news from all over China: 7 are from last year alone, 2 are from 2011, one unknown. And there are more out there, even.. shoddy construction is rife, a direct result of the corruption that cripples this country.

Changchun, may 2011

Changchun, may 2011

Guilin, june 2012

Guilin, june 2012

Harbin, august 2012. The bridge had just been opened, but already, the local government could no longer 'find' the construction business that had built the bridge. Corruption, anyone?

Harbin, august 2012. The bridge had just been opened, but already, the local government could no longer ‘find’ the construction business that had built the bridge. Corruption, anyone?

A bridge collapse in Beijing province, juli 2011. The truck trying to cross it weighed 160 tonnes, the bridge was once built to withstand 55 tonnes maximum.

A bridge collapse in Beijing province, juli 2011. This one, I cannot chalk up to corruption. The truck trying to cross it weighed 160 tonnes, the bridge was once built to withstand 55 tonnes maximum. This one, I chalk up to the general unwillingness to heed and control the rules. Though that phenomenon in turn has something to do with corruption, yes.

Found on a chinese site, place and time unknown.

Found on a chinese site, place and time unknown.

Taiyuan, december2012

Taiyuan, december 2012

Nanjing, november 2012

Nanjing, november 2012

Xi'an, may 2012

Xi’an, may 2012

Shijiazhuang, september 2012. A gas pipe in the hole exploded, to add to the suspense..

Shijiazhuang, september 2012. A gas pipe in the sinkhole exploded, to add to the suspense..

Beijing, april 2012. The woman was just walking over the sidewalk back to work from her lunchbreak. The sinkhole was caused by a leaking hot water pipe. She was boiled to death. Literally.

Beijing, april 2012. The woman was just walking over the sidewalk back to work from her lunchbreak. The sinkhole was caused by a leaking hot water pipe. She was boiled to death. Literally. The company responsible has vowed to mend its ways: they now put up danger signs at suspected spots. So at least they cant be sued anymore.

I get onto the bus, I swipe my public transport card past the machine that the busconductress is leaning over, and walk as far back as I can go into the bus. Sometimes there are still seats to be found, old indented seats with ripped blue fabric over older yellow fabric next to windows that sit loose in their frame rebates, resulting in deafening rattling with the bus is navigating the roads still under construction in Song Zhuang. Sometimes there is no seat anymore, so I squeeze into any quarter square metre still free and hang on to the seatposts. The conductress chases lingering passengers further back, making sure that the bus is filled up to the very brink. Yes, 120 people really do fit on a 60 persons coach. Leave that to the busconductresses, thats their job and they have years of experience. They also sell single tickets, chat up the old folks, and stick a little red flag out of the right window when the bus wants to veer right to get to the busstop.
The trip leads past the poorer parts of Song Zhuang, hutong like streets lined with single storey houses painted gray, with every now and then the black coal smoke rising from the general heating building. Rubbish lies everywhere. Bikes, car parts, old furniture, toys, everything just lies in a jumble outside, in an intriguing showcase of desorganisation and carelessness. Every street facing house has a big sign with blaring characters, the wares stacked up behind the greasy windows. Then we pass a bridge, over the grand canal -yes, THAT grand canal- and there is a compound for the very rich. American style portico houses bare;y visible behind carefully groomed grassy slopes, an unexpected green sight amidst the dusty grey, and then the entrance lined with a waterfall tumbling over a terraced wall, a display of extravagance in this drought riddn part of China. There are guards in long black jackets with white gloves standing next to the entrance, and I wonder which wealthy chinese have made their homes here. That it is established through corruption is as obvious as the sky is blue. No officialdom in China does anything without corruption and it is China’s top problem, though the lack of (clean) water is a close second.

Then the bus wobbles through Tongzhou, once a town outside of Beijing where the grand canal ended. Now it is part of Beijing, but it has grand plans for itself, as proclaimed on the billboards a the decidedly fancier busstands here: a modern cityscape is shown, with glistening glass and roaring high concrete, against a backdrop of lakes (water? here? which water?) and snow covered mountains that rise higher then the treeline.

Tongzhou's grand dreams: A quick snapshot from the bus, unfocused and dark, but note the white toppped peak there, which doesnt exist, the canal filled to the brink, the lake to the northwest of it that either has yet to be constructed or is also just an embellishment.

Tongzhou’s grand dreams: A quick snapshot from the bus, unfocused and dark, but note the white toppped peak there, which doesnt exist, the canal filled to the brink, the lake to the northwest of it that either has yet to be constructed or is also just an embellishment.

This is what Tongzhou's grand dreams look like. Is this the chinese dream?

This is what Tongzhou’s grand dreams look like. Is this the chinese dream?

Someone ordered a fancy building with western fronts and columns. He should have advised them to use a ruler when carving the roman lettering though... (the colums are now all painted gold btw)

Someone ordered a fancy building with western fronts and columns. He should have advised them to use a ruler when carving the roman lettering though… (the colums are now all painted gold btw)

That always makes me roll my eyes in China. The billboards. The display of a total disregard, a deliberate ignoring of what the reality looks like. There is no water in Beijing. There are no lakes except the reservoirs behind the dams in the mountainous area that surrounds Beijing, of which none rises above the treeline. Even in summer, when the rains fall heavily, the riverbeds do not fully fill up. Yes, during the rainfall itself they do, and the streets flood, because the whole province that is Beijing is by now covered in asphalt and there aren’t any decently working sewages anywhere, but after the rain, the water seeps away as swiftly as it came.

The resort of Wanlong, where we went to february last year, has started a PR offensive to lure the rich chinese and the western expats. They made a promotional video, in which they blithely show knee deep powder, pictures from alpine resorts and even a picture of what looks like a british villgae in cornwall somewhere, proclaiming that this is what Wanlong either already looks like, or will look like in the future. A thing which is nary impossible. But that doesnt matter, it seems. It is about the beauty of the image displayed, not about showing things for what they are. After all, when one does the latter, one will not sell much.

Then the bus takes the highway into Beijing, past the fifth ringroad, past rows upon rows of towerblocks, many of them still being built, cranes rising everywhere. I get out at the subwaystop of Guo Mao, in the middle of the CBD, the financial district that Beijing flaunts to prove that yes, China now belongs to the modern world, while rows and rows of people wait to board the buses that will take them out of fancy Beijing back to the suburbs from which I just came, where rents are still within reach, and the towerblocks not all glistening.

China is building like there is no tomorrow. Back in summer, just after the heavy rains, we went to Wulingshan, a mountain just over the northeastern border of Beijing province in Hebei. It is a beautiful mountain that supports it’s own special ecosystem that is wetter, and therefore lusher then the lands that surround it, so local government was quick in declaring it a ‘place of scenic beauty’ which means that there is a fence around it, a gate that extorts a hefty fee, even to the european mind (46 euro’s for one car with two people) a road leading through the park so you can stay comfortably in your car while gaping at the ‘scenic beauty’ stopping only at the foodstalls or the concrete path that will lead you to the top of the mountain. All paths there were, alas, concrete paths, completed with stairs and railings over the steeper sections. Even though outdoor sports have just begun to boom in china, the concept of going out into nature in order to find area’s as untouched by humans as possible is still very alien to the chinese mind. Our driver, when he once drove us, on our directions, to the beginning of a footpath into the hills, could not understand why we wanted him to do that. The village where the path starts off from, has a famous restaurant, so he naturally assumed that we wanted to go there to eat, and lounge in the shade, after which we would return Beijingward with a well filled belly, as any other normal Beijinger would do. The fact that we didnt want to eat, but walk (on a diet of just -gasp!- a mueslibar or two) over the mountain, thereby exerting ourselves, was incomprihensible to him. Crazy folk, them foreigners. Exerting yourself when you don’t have to! And not eating? Inconcievable.

Though the visit to the Wulingshan scenic park was interesting, and beautiful, even with concrete paths and hefty fee, the ride home where we got lost, was far more interesting.
It is easy to get lost in China. There are no good maps.

There are maps available, but rarely are they more detailed then 1;100000 (excepting the city maps) and the details, like the billboards, are not like reality. They are close to reality, but not reality. For instance, we have two maps that cover the whole of Beijing province: the city itself, and the mountains around it. One is a chinese map, with only chinese characters on it, bought in the bookstore on Wangfujing street. The other is a western map, with only english or pin yin (the chinese written more or less phonetically in roman letters) bought in a the hague map shop. The western map is far clearer, far better drawn, but the chinese map, cluttered with characters and lines as it is is somehwat closer to reality. So we end up using both at the same time, checking the western names with the characters on the roadsigns and the chinese maps, and finding that, as often, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The new highway that we took to get to Wulingshan is at the right of a river in the western map. It is to the left of a river on the chinese map, which is right, but it isnt nearly as close to the river as the map states.
We also have a navigation system in that fancy car, of course, but that one came with the car, and is last updated four years ago. Which renders it useless in China. They might have moved whole cities in four years’ time!

Unfortunately, it is impossible to get a real good map of any chinese territory. There are no climbing maps available. If you go about with a GPS mapping the terrain for yourself, as one unfortunate westerner tried to do last year, one runs the risk of getting detained by the army on the suspicion of spying.

So one gets lost from time to time. And so it was we drove through lush valleys -one expat stated that the summer of 2012 was the wettest he’d seen in all his 9 years in Beijing- where fancy lakeside houses were being built for the wealthy looking for their western village dream, and past the city of Xing Long, where whole neighbourhoods were flattened all at once to make way for yet more concrete and glass.

The ravages in Xing Long.

The ravages in Xing Long.

Xinglong02

The modernity approaching.

Xinglong03

Rubbish one just drops where one stands, in China.

Xinglong06

Cranes to the horizon..

Xinglong07

..and more cranes after rounding every bend..

Xinglong09

What modernity looks like for the VIPs of chinese society.

So this, then, is the chinese dream?

So this, then, is the chinese dream?

And so it was we ended up on the third airport highway, one we didnt even know existed, that took us in between terminals one and two, and over a laughably ill concieved conjunction between that highway and the main road to the famed ‘airport highway’ (of which we erronously assumed there was only one) that has one driving past and around roadblocks made by haphazardly placed stones in the middle of the road, only to come eye to eye with a driver that navigated the block of stone from the other side, searching his way to the other highway, the one we’d just excited.
And mind you, this was not a temporary solution because they were still building. This was just the way the conjunction of these two roads was organised. In that typical chinese way of ‘ooh, it’ll work like that too, whatever’ way. Resulting in a traffic bungle that one can only encounter in China. An intriguing display of both unorganisation and carelessness.

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Now that I have been at most well known tourist attractions in Beijing, I try out the somewhat lesser known spots. This last weekend, I went to the Taoist Dongyue temple, not too far from our home. This temple was once built outside of Beijing and is now surrounded by Chaoyang. Business driven, concrete and glass covered, expat filled Chaoyang. This is a spot of old China right in the middle of booming new China. I have seen plenty of Buddhist temples by now, of which the Yonghegong, or otherwise known as lamatemple, is the biggest and most reknowned, but not actually the most charming one (that prize goes, in my book, to the Guanghua temple, with the Fayuan temple on a very close second place, both several centuries older then the Yonghegong) My first encounter with a Taoist temple was in Hong Kong, an open space at the seashore with a pagoda, amidst several abundantly coloured, almost plastic looking fantastic creatures, depicting various Gods, Godesses, spirits and demons that rule over the sea, the streams, earth, wind, mountains, fortune, sexuality, commerce, health, houses and whathaveyou. This Hong Kongese temple was built and dedicated as late as 1972. The Dongyue temple dates back to 1319, and its colours are far more muted, its creatures displayed more austere. But this temple it is a haven of tranquility and wonder, and so very different of the several buddhist temples I have seen.

One of the generals guarding the entrance to the temple.

A poster for a festival displayed in the courtyard.

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One of the cleaners taking a quick rest..

when the cleaning and the fire department come together, the result is a calm instalation.

I find it only logical, that Taoism departmentalized the supernatural world, mirroring the bureaucracy of their worldly affairs onto the heavens, or is it maybe the other way around? What was first, the chinese idea of a bureaucratic heaven which they fashioned themselves after, or the chinese tending to bureaucracy and fashioning their idea of heaven after themselves?

I know virtually nothing about Taoism (Or Daoism, as the chinese word it originates from is Dao, way or road or lane (of the road)) There are 76 departments through which the world is ruled, each featuring their officer and guardians and several ghosts, human or otherwise, pleading at the office. All of these are featured at the Dongyue temple, in little booths displaying plaster statues of the creatures mentioned, and walking past them is like wandering an eerie, chinese netherworld display booth. Four halls are bigger, better maintained then the dark, dusty sidebooths with peeling wallpaper on the old wooden ceilings, with cracking walls and flaking paint. These four halls are dedicated to the main deities: the Gods of China (in a scene much remniscent of important generals having an audience with two emperors) the God of Mount Tai (which the temple is dedicated to) the God of Fortune and profit of fair commerce, (whose offerings box was filled highest) and the Gods of fertility and abundant kids. (which, I guess, the chinese cannot really pray to?) Unfortunately, it is forbidden to take pictures within these bigger halls, so the rows and rows and rows of golden statuettes in the hall of fortune and the warrior clad burly chinese men with beards that have numerous of those typical chinese kids with just one lock of hair on their laughing bald heads crawling all over them I cannot show you. For that, you will have to go yourself should you ever find yourself in Beijing and I highly recommend you do.

(Then you might also spot a few of those kids in the hutongs. Its not as prevalent anymore, but still one can see some very young chinese kids with just this single tuft of hair on their foreheads..)

One of the 76 departments

The department for raingods..

Brawling mongolians in the ranks..

In the Urging department. The what? The department for urging. ‘Tis what you need in a bureaucratic world. You need the talent to stylishly, relentlessly, ever so subtly urge whomever needs urging. This blue guy will help you.

The department for wandering ghosts, with its extra tough official..

When you’ve wandered along the 76 departments, do wander on into the courtyard behind this main space, to find an even older hall, in which you’ll find even older, and dustier, wooden statues, from the looks of it they date from before the Ming era and are surrounded by even older, thicker wooden beams and patterned windows filtering what little light there is. Here, too, taking photographs is prohibited, alas, and the rule enforced by a sleepy Taoist monk behind a little table. Which is a shame, as here truly, you get transported to old China as you would have imagined it to be many centuries ago.

Typical guards..

..and shy demons..

and everything else that lives under your bed..

So, what are these departments called? What kind of departments are there, in the Daoist otherworld? How is the world, and the heavens, organized anyway? And does that tell us something about the world the chinese live(d) in?
I jotted their names down in the order I walked past them, from the big main hall in the back to the left and around. I have no idea if that was the right way to walk (there is, after all, one right way..) but it gives a good glimpse of the bureaucracy that permeates the chinese worlds, existing and non existing:

Department of signatures.
Department of signing documents
Department of recording merits
Department of determining individual destiny
Department for three month long meditation
Department of confiscating unwarranted property
Department of official morality
Department for examining false accusations
Plague performing department
Department of forest ghosts and spirits
Animal department
Department of the hell
Department for implementing 15 kinds of violent death
Department of rain Gods
Measurement Department
Abortion department
Monk and taoist priest department
Department of controlling theft and robbery
Department of earth Gods
Department for demons and monsters
Unjust death department
Interrogation and examination department
Department for preservation of of wilderness
Department for distribution of medication
Punishment department
Department of betrayal
Department for bestowing hapiness
Egg birth department
Insect birth department
Longevity department
Urging department
Toxicant department
Department for resurrection
Department for raising descendants
Department for upholding integrity
Supervision and examination department
Department in charge of suffering and distress
Department of instant rewards and retribution
Department of Zhenguan earth Gods
Department of pity and sympathy
Department of judging intention
Inspection department
Escorting department
Timely retribution department
Department of accumulating justifiable wealth
Jaundice department
Department of reducing longevity
Aquatic animal department
Water birth department
Mammal birth department
Department for indiidual destiny
Department for upholding loyalty and filial piety
Department for rewarding good conduct
Department of halting destruction of living beings
Department of opposing obscene acts
Department of reclaiming life
Door God department
Department for controlling evil spirits
Department of mountain Gods
Department of city and township Gods
Department of controlling bullying and cheating
Department of suppressing schemes
Department of wind Gods
Department for wandering ghosts
Department for promotion of 15 kinds of decent life style
Department of river Gods
Deep rooted disease department
Flying birds department
Department of petty officials
Evidence department for issuing a warrant
Department for increasing good fortune and longevity
Execution department
Final indictment department
Scripture reading department
Department for giving alms to taoist priests
Death and life department

Ming official, very han chinese guard.

Mr Piggy in the animal department.

Guess which department this was…

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There were still pictures floating around on my computers’ harddrive from exhibits I saw before I went on holiday, and it’s about time I showed them, as a brief introduction to what one can encounter when roaming through Caochangdi and 798 ‘art villages’ in Beijing. These are chinese artists, exhibited in chinese galleries, aiming at a chinese audience that is still feeling its way around modern contemporary art, an art form whose very concept is western.

I have the feeling that the cream of the crop is very swiftly snatched away by the western collectors, and that, on the whole, the chinese contemporary art scene is still very much learning, groping, searching for their place in the world, in China, and in their own heads. More often then not, shiny surfaces or tried and proven artforms are simply replicated, and replicated, and replicated, and…But i’ll let you do the judging yourself:

An exhibit of the art cooperative ‘Guest’ in UCCA, in 798

Overview

there were no nametags throughout the exhibit, so one has to decide for themselves what a possible title could be, if one needs one, that is.

Overview from the other side

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One sees, in the rich parts of Beijing only, or at roundabouts or next to the second and sometimes third ringroad, public art. And this is what the public art in Beijing looks like:

In the strip of grass in front of a bank..

A bit further, in that same strip.

And still in that same strip of grassland that is the boundary between street and parking lot for oversized cars.

In the prestigious and shiny Sanlitun village shopping area (Chanel, Gucci, Apple, Guess, Adidas, Nike, Dolce & Gabanna, oh, and a starbucks of course)

..and Miu Miu and many others

The information about the maker of the above shown brown men with guns and the mission the mall has with placing this art here…. ’nuff said.

Because art is, indeed, a service.

A very simple service

(The big white characters by the way read either: “Fashion goes to the top” or “The top of fashion” My chinese is not sufficient to tell, but you get the gist)

A service to be enlightened as a human being, no less. (In the street where Ai Wei Wei lives, in Caochang di)

Where, in that same Caochang di, art has an accusatory flavour, but the censors let it be. Not rousing enough, I guess, it mainly states what everybody knows.
(Artist: Wang Sugang)

Yes, that is indeed a grass mud horse in the background. The sign on the dog says either Don’t bite people or it doesnt bite people. In Chinese, that is the same. Which one it is? that is your call.

The explanation to the explanation.

But then, also in Caochang di, at Platform China; Ma Ke. ‘Under the light’ 2008. Painting with a fresher style, that I had not yet seen here in Beijing.

Ma Ke ‘Who will gain supremacy’ 2011

Detail

Ma Ke ‘Night’ 2011

Ma Ke ‘Sandstorm 3’ 2010

Back in the UCCA in 798 a few weeks later I stumbled upon this exhibit

Overview of one part of the Jun-Fei Ji exhibit.

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(My apologies for Iphone quality picture with tl light falling upon glass. This is the best I could make of it)

Monsters out of chinese tales

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That is all for today, folks.

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In Beijing, there are quite some pigeon breeders. Especially in the old hutongs, one can see haphazard cages built on roofs, with pigeons fluttering in and out.
Often, these pigeons get a wooden whistle bound to their backs, that makes an eerie, eerie sound when air flows through it at speed. The first time I heard it, I needed a few minutes before I understood what it was that I was hearing. The wildest thoughts entered my mind, from UFO’s to radio devices, from the secret chinese pigeon squad to electricity wires going crazy in the cold, until I realized it must be the pigeons and it musty be that bulb on their backs…..

Listen for yourself: Beijing pigeons flying overhead.

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I am an artist. I have no idea what that means.

Every so often, that question comes up, posed by a friend, a gallerist, an art lover, a curious acquaintance, a critic in a column somewhere, or a politician in the newspaper: why make art? What is art? The question sets my teeth on edge. Mainly because I read a lot of garble that pretends to explain what art in general, or any specific artwork is about, and I am afraid that whatever answer I could come up with is just as ridiculous garble as the words that are out there in the ether on that subject. Also because I am sure I will be derided because I ‘do not really get it’ a fact which is true, that I am sure of. I am an artist, but I do not really get what that is nor what I should make in order to actually be considered one. I do not get what art is.

Some years ago I wandered into an art fair in London, a not so very well known ‘affordable fine art’ fair where there were not many (if any at all) as such accredited Art critics around. It was a huge hall somewhere in Belgravia, a lush, rich, marbled area of London. The art on display was toe curling. I suddenly understood where most hotels must get the paintings they use to adorn the many bleak hotelrooms with. That day I saw more hideously kitch gold inlaid roccoco frames then I have seen in the total of 38 years of life before that. Up to and including a frame that resembled the Parthenon in gold, the pillars making up the sides of the frame more then 20 cms thick. All this around an image depicting romanticised life in ancient Greece in the style of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It was art though. It was on an art market being sold. Not good art to my tastes, but art nonetheless. The whole outing taught me that anything handled as art, is art, in asmuch that it fulfills one of the roles that we attribute to art. The roles that art fullfills in our world are either the adorning, storytelling, disrupting, gloryfying, alienating or rendering sacred of a space or a moment, ritualizing an object or a space or a moment (preferably all three at once) and nothing else, as the objects themselves are all, by default, essentially useless.

But it also showed me clearly that good art has magic, a magic that no words can touch, no matter how much you try. A magic that goes beyond the beauty of a scenery, beyond the balance (or illl-balance) of a composition, the ingenuitiy (or unsettliness) of the concept, or the craft of the brushstroke. And it taught me that fairs like this, too, are part of the art world. No matter how disdainful I or any other member of whichever realm of the art world can regard this, it was art, and this was an art fair, and thus it is part of the art world.

A lot of art is solely made great by the words that are said about it. It is made greater even by the context in which it is placed, where and how it is shown, by whom it is endorsed and when. This context defines what part of the art world the work is deemed to belong in and how reverently it will be treated by its contemporary handlers and consumers, and therefore, how much value it will amass. If the story sticks through time, the value of the artwork -and in relation to that, the fame of it’s maker – will go up. The artwork needs to have that magic though, for the story to be able to continue for any longer period of time.

I saw art there in Belgravia that I thought would be doing okay as a pastiche on the emptiness and decadence of the modern era (actually, of any era) if it had been shown at the Frieze art fair with a slightly different text pasted next to it, while here in these surroundings, it was just laughable kitch.
Two years later, much to my amusement, if not to say sheer glee, I indeed did see this artist, and these exact same works, displayed at the Frieze art fair. With a slightly different text next to it. This artist’s story had just been promoted from fine affordable art to contemporary expensive art. People watched those same artworks with a different demeanor then they had at the Belgrave art fair. The context had changed. It had moved to another part of the art world, and therefore its appreciation, and its value, changed with it. I doubt his works have enough magic to stand the test of time, but for now, there is business, and therefore interest, in his story.

There are many different levels of magic. Some art has it more then others. No matter how feverishly a young artists’ work is taken into the upper echelons of the particular art world it is featured in, if it doesnt have this magic in satisfying quantities, his work will not survive the times beyond the first bubble craze the gallerists, the critics and the art mags will whip up around his works. It is time, and time only, that will decide wether some art was really good art.
More then 80% of all art works made in this world ends up in the dustbin, or the sewage, the container, the fire. I think of this often when I sit in my studio and splash paint around searching for that magic: most of this will be on a garbage heap somewhere soon.

So why make art?

I was at the exhibition of Gu Dexin just the other day, here in the UCCA centre in Beijing’s hip 798 district. According to this self made artist, who never attended an art school, an artist is ‘someone who likes to play’ One wonders if that position is still of influence and worth in the modern managed world that is increasingly being molded to the numbers of the economist’s models. One could argue that exactly because of that, playing is very important, lest this world forgets the importance of thought that is unuseful for economists’ models. Whichever the truth, Gu Dexin played a lot. With paint, with clay, with pencil, with drooling plastic. First he painted, trying out different western styles, searching and searching, jumping from one style to the next. He made hideous but intriguing puppets, screaming creatures out of clay and plastic. Then he started arranging things, making installations in which he used drooling plastics, tar, dolls, and eventually fruit and meat, to allow decay into his works. That which is always already present within any living thing in this world; its decay and petrification. And somewhere while doing that, he became one of China’s celebrated modern artists, the story was spun around him, and he was said to be an artist in a league all of his own both in the east as well as in the west.

Which puts him in a different part of the everyday exppanding art world here in China then the chinese artists that are heralded by only the chinese. Or those chinese aritsts that are heralded by only the westerners.

And then, when he was famous and asked for by the renowned institutions of contemporary western art, he stopped. Just like that. He quit.

He still lives in the house he was born in, in Beijing, the apartment where he made all these searching paintings and deformed puppets and whacky flash animations, where he played sim city endlessly and kneeded old decaying meat to take pictures of as it decayed, and where he conjured his installations. He just is no longer an artist, as he himself proclaims. He no longer makes art. He no longer needs to. He no longer speaks in public about art, doesnt answer questions about it and doesnt go visit the art world. It has been good, and it has been enough.

But when one once was an artist, and moreover, widely acknowledged as such, can one ever be percieved as no longer an artist? Can one stop being an artist?  Somehow, I dont believe that. The idea of an artist is much too strong, and too revered, justly or not, to shake once it has been attached to you. Which is the main point of this whole idea of an artist: it is ultimately, the outside world, that will validate your being ‘an artist’ You can quit making art like Gu Dexin did, but the world will still view you as an artist, and therefore, you still are one.
And the more people in the world have acknowledged you as such, the harder it is to shed that reverence, that myth.

The downside of this is, you can make art all your life, immerse in it as deeply as you can, but if your work is not taken out there and handled as art, you will not be an artist.

So is that why we make art? Or why I do it? To try to squeeze into a story? Into a ritual?

I was also at the opening of the exhibition of He Sen’s works in the fancy ‘Today Art Museum’ that is located south of the financial district, where they are trying to build (yet)another hip area along with expensive apartment blocks. Here, the magic of art is needed to make the apartment blocks expensive. Art as generator of the cool.
The famous grinning chinese are cast, life size, in aluminium grouped outside of the modern building, blinking at the passers by. A row of shining statues sit on the roof. The entrance is western, industrial, grungy, artsy and impressive.
As I wander around the opening I am amazed at the people. The art world is the strongest example of the unification of globalisation. The modern artsy type is the same everywhere. They are each their own perfect copy. The only thing that will discern a chinese gallery owner from an african or a western one, is the color of his or her skin, the features of his or her face. The homogenity of the art world is staggering. Down to the shawls, the make up and their very movements, contemporary art lovers world wide look the same. Everybody there was gathering in the same story, stretching from New York to Dubai, from Dubai to Beijing, from Beijing to Miami and all over the world. In Beijing’s Today Art center the people were part of that story too, eying each other for recognition, looking for the collectors, exchanging business cards and crowding the winetable.
Two floors were dedicated to He Sen’s paintings. It is an overview of his whole career so far. He is a dazzling crafty painter. He has learned paint in all ways possible and I imagine there is no brushstroke he does not master. It seems as if paint does what he wants it to do. He started his career making heavy pasted painting, using a painters’ knife more often as the brush, producing comic like images of people estranged by the world they find themselves in, wether they’d be a couple at a communist rally or a portrait of the artist and his colleagues. Then, he moved on to hyperrealism, cold and distant till that bored him. He switched radically, trying to find a way to bring the traditional chinese art into the modern world, to connect that traditional chinese story to the modern western contemporary one.

From the clean forms of girls smoking with a bored look on their faces under TL light, the exhibit continues in a high dark room where several paintings are mounted both high and low on the walls, crowding each other, almost glowing in the dark, displaying famous scenes from traditional stories. The images are broken up in three equal parts, each one painted in a different style. One part light, evenly applied oilpaint, one part washed ink and watercolour, one part thickly pasted oilpaint.
Apart from it being an exercise in versatility I do not comprehend what is supposed to be alluring about these paintings. They are pictures from a comic book enlarged. I believe I even had a comic book depicting the story of the monkey king once. I know the story of the monkey king is an important, well known story that every chinese kid gets to hear, that connects with tradition and a sense of ‘chineseness’ if you will, but why repaint it this way? What does the enlargement of a traditional picture tell us, if nothing else then the fact that paint can be thick or thin? Or that three times copied is still just that: copied?
Where is the magic?

Then he switches to reproducing famous chinese ink paintings. Parts of paintings. Details of ‘Wu Zheng’s ink bamboo’, of ‘Zu Shang’s Orchid bamboo’ in smooth, thick oilpaint that is treated with a apparent simplicity and a restraint that seems to me, westerner with no knowledge of chinese art history, very chinese.
Her he gets to something. One can see how he is a master of paint here. How he can reproduce an image that is related to the style of inkpating that is essentially eastern in a material that is so essentially western. I cannot but bow to that mastery.
But at the same time I am wondering why he deemed these works to be finished, to be showable. The works awake in me an urge to say; ‘Yes, and NOW it starts, now you do something else with it to make it yours, make it of this age, make it a new way of chineseness if you will. Make it modern chinese, modern eastern. Now you bring it beyond the copying of old ways of art into the modern media, bring it beyond being chinese-ness in a western framework.

It is art. It is part of the art world. He Sen is an artist. He is cooed, admired, paid for, his works go over the globe. Art it is.

Magic? I am not so sure. I personally doubt the works other then the ink bamboos will stand the test of time. This work is more relevant as a sign of how chinese artists are struggling with the transition from the old to the new. Struggling with integrating that which has been taught to them as their identity and their soul with the world they have around them. Struggling with that question present everywhere in fast developing China: what will modern chinese be like? He Sen’s most recent work is a point in the chinese art history, a history that is being made right now, as we speak. An art history that was asleep, endlessly repeating itself for two thousand years and only now was jarred from that slumber. An art world that is still finding it’s bearings waking from the myth of old China and the nightmare of the cultural revolution, trying to find its way.
Not yet able to put their own art and the dominant westerness of contemporary modern art into something, an art, a story, a magic, that stands of itself.

I have never been as recognisant of ‘westerness’ as I am since I came here. And that is not only in me, in the obvious fact that I am a westerner in an eastern world, it is also in the world around me, this world trying to be something in between western and chinese, this world looking at the west with wariness as well as envy and admiration, copying westerness the way they have copied old paintings.

I have no clue yet how being here will affect my work, my dabblings at being an artist, nor even if it will. But it definately is and adventure, and it definately has my mind sparking.
So why make art? For the market? For the reverence? For the myth? For the uselessness?

 

For the magic.

 

 

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