After a first year of studying at Ecole du Louvre and living in Paris, I decided to take a journey upon me that would bring me far from the European continent. Inspired by East Asian culture, especially China and Japan, I decided to visit my beloved friend Vanessa Zheng, artist, curator and photographer currently living in Shanghai. Vanessa and me share a deep interest in understanding human existence through arts, philosophy and science. Nobody feels my need to move from one country to another more than her. Vanessa’s intense and impulsive way of living, jumping from one adventure to the next one – may it be hitchhiking from Italy to Russia or spiritual trips to Nepal – is always inspiring to me.
Apart from some touristic sightseeing (Forbidden City in Beijing, the Chinese Wall, Skyline of Shanghai, Westlake in Hangzhou and some temples), I focused on meeting Chinese local people – mostly artists, poets, designers – but not exclusively, and learn as much as possible about the Chinese culture. I was especially amazed by the Chinese hospitality, the magnitude of things, the gap between rich and poor, their driving style as well as their delicious and varied food.
My first destination was Shanghai. Temperatures were above 45 degrees and we barely moved out of the apartment. We then travelled to Vanessa’s hometown Hangzhou for couple of days, where I was able to meet her so called “Hippie Gang”, a group of mostly young people, mainly artists, poets, designers, travellers or professors (“Babi”, the oldest and I believe wisest in the group, is a university professor in quantum physics). We spent three intense days together, mostly in the air-conditioned hotel room in Hangzhou, as the high temperatures were beyond all bearing. The size of the group would eventually change during the evening. Although I wasn’t quite sure what was going on and unfortunately couldn’t understand a word they were talking about, as I was the only foreigner in the room, I tried to carefully pay attention and interact if possible. The Gang appreciated my sense of humour and ability to speak in different languages and accents; a good laugh surely always brings people together.
I wasn’t that lost after all, Vanessa was taking great care of me and translating most relevant conversations. She explained to me how she carefully put the Gang members together; people had met in real life before or on the internet – it wasn’t important. They all shared something different, which I couldn’t quite detect at first glance. Every gang member has a certain role in the group; one might be a spiritual leader, who recognizes the potential and threats in the artist’s personality; the other one a hippie in soul, who takes care of travellers, artists and vagabonds in Russian communes; another one might be an engineer in charge of some more rational thinking… It felt like being in a huge family with each member carefully chosen. They didn’t care much about comfort either, we often just slept on the floor. After couple of days, I recognized they all shared something that went beyond simple common interests, profession or even age. It was an openness to understand and discuss things beyond rational explanation, overcoming morality and judgement.
I met the first gang members, including Dingding and Amu (their self-given “western” names), in a basement somewhere in Hangzhou. We went to their village to enjoy the nearby river water in the middle of the night and take a swim. From all the Gang members I spent most of my time with Vanessa, Dingding and Amu. Dingding is a very funny, creative and giving person, a so called hippie in soul (she spend a couple of time in St. Petersburg living in a community of artists and musicians). She offered me one of her artworks as a present: as assemblage of trash objets trouvés from the village stuck together with glue. I enjoyed her sense of dark humour and adorable fuck-you attitude. Amu is living with Dingding in the village near Hangzhou and producing beautifully hand crafted leather products on his own. I believe he can create basically everything out of leather. He is also a poet and photographer talented in capturing sensuous moments in the tristesse of everyday life. He told me he once tried to sell his photographs on the street, but nobody exactly understood them, so he never tried to make a living out of it. I do feel he has great potential though.
During my whole journey the lack of knowledge in Chinese language was a huge deal. However, I started to develop a deep interest in understanding the Chinese language. My first sign I learned, after the word 人 (“human”), was 巫 (“witch”). This word reminded me of Gombrich talking about ideograms in “Kunst und Illusion” and the meaning of pictures as signs. A witch communicates between the earth and the sky, through a sort of “canal” (the line in the middle) to the people, the signs next to the canal. I very much liked this idea.
Vanessa and I spent many days together mainly losing ourselves in deep discussions. She is a tough partner to discuss with as she has very clear visions of things and certainly has seen a lot – the age gape plays a role too I guess. I understood that her perspective was deeply influenced by a spiritual way of seeing and understanding certain things, mixing philosophical statements with scientific explanations. Anyway, her point of view was new to me and very nurturing for my thoughts. After an excursion to a Daoist temple in Hangzhou she showed me a Buddhist writing in Chinese and read it out loud to me (again I didn’t understand a word, but it didn’t matter). Back home she explained how this writing intersects with certain scientific notions from quantum physics, to which she as an artist, was intensely devoting herself for almost a year. We agreed on our belief that science and art share a need for the search after the same thing, trying to find explanations through rationality/irrationality by defining this “thing”. I very much enjoyed her thinking.
After Shanghai, and Hangzhou I decided to travel to Beijing on my own for a couple of days and meet some of Vanessa’s friends. I felt amazingly grateful for their hospitality and was more than impressed by the city itself. I even had thoughts about moving to Beijing, or at least spending couple of months there in the near future. I met Momo and Qing, who live in Beijing and made sure I had the most pleasant and memorable stay there.
The architecture in Beijing is very different from Shanghai. I especially enjoyed the Hutongs, a type of narrow streets typical for Beijing. My hostel Leo Courtyard was situated in such a Hutong; the nearby café was a brothel back in the days. The people I met, Chinese, Koreans and even some French, were very kind and helpful. To escape from the heat we spend hours in the air-conditioned café, talking and watching “The voice of China”. My hostel was only a 20min walk away from Forbidden City. I never felt a bigger clash between rich and poor before.
The first day, I met an American foreigner called Chase working for an NGO, who lived in Africa for 5 years before coming to China. He travelled most of his life, and could also speak bits of Chinese. We spend hours walking around near the Lamatempel Temple (Yonghe-Gong), and escaped from a huge storm which flooded couple of Beijing’s subway stations. The smog was very intense that day, so we spend most of the time in cafes and bars. We went to a place called Dada Bar, especially popular among foreigners, to hear some live music. Most of the foreign people I met worked as freelancers, English teachers or for some international tech companies. There was a huge mix of people from very different backgrounds and nationalities, all very open and friendly, but I have to admit it felt like a bubble environment. Many Chinese people are crazy about the western life style and some will try to imitate it in order to meet foreigners’ needs – at least this was my impression. Certainly, it didn’t feel very authentic, but I guess it’s part of our globalized world.
The day after, I met another friend from Vanessa called Banban (I really enjoyed their nicknames). Banban is working for a well-known indie music company called Modern Sky Entertainment. She is also in charge of their new artspace project in Beijing named Modernsky Lab. It’s situated in SOHO Beijing and will try to promote young, creative minds by organizing concerts, art shows and other kinds of events. We also walked around the famous 798 Beijing art district and I saw couple of interesting exhibitions that I would like to feature here. The art district is by now pretty commercialised and mixed up with galleries and shops from all kind of fields. Nevertheless, I could find some interesting exhibitions, especially “Reservois Dogs” by Zong Ning in Gallery Yang, Sui Jianguo’s exhibition “Untouchable” in Pace Gallery and a retrospective of William Kentridge at Ullens Center of Contemporary Art, which I would like to share with you in the upcoming postings. Back to Shanghai, I also checked out the Chen Zhen exhibition at Rockbund Art Museum, as well as Yona Friedman’s “Mobile Architecture” and Ilya & Emilia Kabakov’s “The Dream City” at Power Station of Art.
All in all, my trip to China felt like balm for the soul, I guess it was the most interesting journey I made so far and I’m definitely looking forward to go back to China soon. I will try to share more impressions from my trip, as well as some exhibition reviews from Shanghai and Beijing in the upcoming posts. So stay tuned, and don’t hesitate to comment the posting or contact me.
Lots of love,