The Chinese Bubble
(Written by Willemijn)
After more than three weeks in China I start to have a longing to speak the language, I wish I could understand more. Of course I’m stupid because I didn’t install any translating apps, (lack of space) but still, they mostly help you ordering a drink, find your way or tell the taxi driver where to go. You can’t really have a good conversation, and really get to a deeper level of understanding trough an app.
Last week we visited Ruth. She writes for an art magazine and is allied to the Luxun academy of arts, she was part of the delegation that visited Enschede last summer. We got in touch when I arrived and she invited us to her and her partner Mr Cheng’s place in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, where Dalian is situated. So of we went, with the plan to spend a weekend there. Of course when we arrived Ruth had made a week long planning for us, so we decided to stay a bit longer, till Wednesday – our visas also needed to be extended after all – by then we really had to go back.
In Shenyang we were taken by her and best friend Terry – both their English names – to the 1905. An old factory that had been subjected to the same transformation old factories worldwide undergo, into a creative space. It was now home to numerous (craft)shops, restaurants and exhibition spaces. There was some kind of festival going on, ‘poetics of digit’, students and alumni of an American university and Chinese students presented their works, at that very moment we could visit some performances. We entered a dimly lit room, and an American girl showed a video-montage of reflections on water escorted by hypnotizing music. Then a Brooklyn based guy took place behind a table with equipment, he started to create frantic feedback noises which generated and influenced the abstract images on the screen, it was all very familiar.
Afterwards we were taken to not one, but two restaurants. First we had a little pre-dinner hotpot, almost like tapas, and then we joined the party of the professors, artists and staff of the festival at a Mongolian restaurant. Here we took place at one of the tables placed – as in halls of a courtyard – around an enormous stage. During dinner we were treated to some traditional – and a bit less traditional – Mongolian music performances, só loud we could hardly speak. So when one of the American teachers almost chocked in a pepper that was stuck in his throat the whole party quickly decided to return to their more quiet hotel. We left the table, just refilled with new scales full of traditionally prepared fish, and also headed home.
Ruth obviously enjoyed showing us around, the next day we visited Beiling park, a park that stretches around the mausoleum of one of the emperors of the Qing dynasty, Huang Taji. It was build and completed in the period 1643 till 1651, and walking around in it was an amazing experience. This was the old China, the China you get to know through movies and books. The mausoleum is a complex of different buildings that you enter though a gate. There are lots of different animal statues, symbolizing family members of the emperor, which is depicted by a dragon. One of the buildings was dedicated to ‘the second son of the dragon’, an enormous statue of a turtle. You could stroke its head and leave a small financial offer on it, for luck. I did, and hoped the ‘second son of the dragon’ would never visit the big supermarket that we went to afterwards. There his cousin the tortoise could be found, in an aquarium at the seafood department.
Walking amongst hundreds of Chinese tourists Ruth was philosophizing about the life in China. According to her the busy life that Chinese lead and the fact that it’s crowded and noisy everywhere makes it difficult to reflect. You simply don’t get to think deep, or be sad. It was a rather on the spot remark since also in the park it was packed and sound was coming from everywhere. In general in China there is music on the background at a lot of surprising places. Later, when we had lunch, she told about the Chinese way of thinking about death and the afterlife, – we have three lives apparently – and I wished we could talk about it more than our respective vocabularies allowed us to. The next day Ruths partner, – a painter and teacher at the Luxun academy – Mr Cheng, came home. To welcome us we had tea, went for dinner and had a karaoke night at their little house bar. Mr Cheng is partly Mongolian, and proved us so by singing some Mongolian songs in a deep reverberant voice, I replied with a weird, live version of killing me softly and Maarten, Ruth and I gave our best scarborough fair. Altogether I felt as much part of the Chinese life as possible for us.
During all these encounters I think that it is a pity I cannot get into what Ruth called the ‘Chinese way of thinking’. The more poetic way their language functions. As long as you can’t ‘get’ the language or have a very skilled interpreter you don’t have access to it. It gets stuck somewhere on the way while talking about the amazing food, complimenting the beautiful parts of Chinese culture and telling and hearing little anecdotes. I wonder what they talk about amongst each other. Also if the company we are in, artists, designers, writers and museum staff ever discuss politics.
I feel locked in my own bubble and the wall is Chinese. Caused by the governmental blocking of websites such as Facebook, youtube, gmail, vimeo and countless others I am condemned to do other things with my time, like making work. (A VPN would solve this, but like this I figured I would experience being here more intensely) My primary news source is the Volkskrant website, where I read every day about today’s turmoil in Europe and the US; another mass shooting, a completely escalated referendum and our new, not very visionary ‘cabinet of compromises’ for instance, and it all feels very far away. I also read about the neighbor about 250 kilometers Eastward who is annoying the whole Western world – it’s as if it doesn’t exist here.
I normally reflect on politics – in general, and somewhat hidden in my work – but here I simply can’t, because it’s not part of my daily life here. Politics aren’t discussed and certainly not critiqued openly, what we talk about is our experiences, how nice it is to be here, how friendly the Chinese people are, or oil painting. In Shenyang our host told us she thinks a person like Mao is too close to us in history to judge his legacy, but when we eventually can it would be a more mild one than we tend to inflict upon him today.
All this forces me to turn to a different place for inspiration and ideas, inwards. For the first time I make work based only on what thoughts and feelings are brewing under the surface, mostly about the dreams I had since I am here. As if lying on my own sofa, I write down my dreams meticulously, analyze them and distill images out of them. The Chinese Bubble makes that I am busy with my most intimate work so far. The personal can be political too.