Creative non-fiction / December 2015 (Issue 30)


Artists in the World

by Rose Draper

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In 2014, after many years of creative burnout and illness, I decided to withdraw in an attempt to reset myself. Thinking I would never return to my field, I went to China to undertake my first artist residency with Red Gate Gallery's residency program. Living in Feijiacun, a small and dusty itinerant village outside Beijing's 5th ring road, I nervously committed to an artists' life in China's cultural mecca. My studio was cold and cavernous, and I wondered if I was capable of filling that space creatively or physically. In what was to be my first ever grey spring, I wanted to heal, rediscover my motivation and reignite my creative flame.

Despite feeling innately connected to China through longtime obsession, Feijiacun was overwhelming. My point of reference for understanding it became the other residents, all international and all in the same boat. Through humour and the discovery of gradual routines (Jenny Lou's for one), each of us was able to wrestle with our own personal culture clash.

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On Day 3, I met André.

André's mission was to meet and photograph artists around the world solely through word of mouth. At the culmination of month-long art trips, he would paint large-scale maps of all these connections—a tattoo of degrees of separation. After seven years on the road, André's project had become a trustworthy compass by which he could navigate even the mind-bending diaspora of Beijing.

I joined him for some of his journey.

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In the southeast corner of Beijing, at the end of a bone-rattling bus trip, lies Songzhuang art village. Proclaimed to be Beijing's future artists hub, it is more metropolis than village, weighted down with numerous galleries, exhibition spaces and arts buildings. We walked the empty streets, amazed at the residential megaliths that seemed abandoned. We soon discovered that residents move south in winter months, returning with warmer weather (a month or so after our visit).

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Over two visits, we met a mix of local and expat artists with long histories in China, and while André quietly photographed them in their most personal space, I was granted glimpses of their studios, works and lives. From the benefactored New York artist to the non-English speaking traditional Chinese painters, the Songzhuang experience was humbling. To see many different artists and their creative process was a lightening experience for me. The weights chained to my creative spirit began to lift.

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Village life remained simple yet messy. Bad Mandarin collided with bad English, and somehow it all made sense. The summer snow arrived, and slowly the artist life seeped into my bloodstream. My studio became more like home, and my desire to make began to stir.

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In a few short weeks, Beijing's grey ceilings gave way to occasional blue, and sometimes even the sun could be seen, burning dangerously. Trees turned green, laden with cherry blossoms. Ugly buildings and enormous, threatening intersections seemed approachable. Feijiacun became our normal, the truss of residency interweaving us.

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After my first three weeks, André's journey was nearing an end with nearly sixty artists met. He began to paint his final tattoo on a studio wall for the Red Gate Open Studio event. Gradually the human chain unfolded.

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André and I talked often about what it means to be an artist, and what so many years of his great art trip have revealed. How do others create? Is there a correct code or process? And how does he manage a life of constant travel, strangers and strangeness? Does life (and art) repeat itself?

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Buried deep in a hutong in the Dongcheng district was a small gallery space, literally the front room of its curator's home. She had invited André to exhibit his work. The gallery was near impossible to find, making directions even harder than usual.

André would paint wayfinding "crumbs" on the hutong walls, and I would record him doing it.

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Dajingchang Hutong was a maze of front doors and windows, some still with crumbling imperial features. The Chinese habit of adding rather than rebuilding resulted in a haphazard charm. Broken chairs chained inconveniently to the road denoted parking spaces, and evidence of busy lives was accompanied by muffled conversations and Chinese melodies.

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Beijing has a particular smell—persistently grey and dry. Dust. Fine grey dust coats most things and Party-grey paint coats the rest. Very few messages or ads last in the hutongs—as soon as they are put up, they are painted over by the government. For the most part, the hutongs remain unadorned, save for the human condition. Painting the hutong was an unusual and risky proposition, one we hoped would last long enough to do its job.

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Over the space of an afternoon, André painted breadcrumbs in sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious places, much to the curiosity of locals.

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Later that night, he painted a small tattoo on the gallery wall alongside his artist portraits, while visitors perused and mingled.

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By then it was time for André to find his next big city somewhere in the world, to meet more artists. His final task was to paint over the Feijiacun studio tattoo, and this is when I felt the heaviness of an ending. All those connections erased.

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In my time in Beijing, I realised that there is no right or wrong—that our process is our own and an unspoken regard exists between those brave enough to venture into this terrain.

Surprisingly, after a lifetime as a professional creative, this was revelatory.

My Red Gate residency enabled me to reject conservative obligation, client briefs and subjectivities. I learnt how important it is to indulge, acknowledge and care for my creative flame, allow it freedom and space. And choice.

Artists are thrilled to be included in André's Never Ending Art Trip, to become a part of the greater documentary project that is Artist in the World. André lives a gifted life, but it takes enormous courage and discipline to make it work, like he does.

Accompanying André, I gained clarity about my relationship with my own creativity.

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My sense of possibility, potential, and purpose came back to life in that enormous studio in Feijiacun. Although Beijing took me quite a while to process, to come to grips with, I felt more alive than I had in years.

I rediscovered my motivation and productivity, and my China glow lasted far beyond my residency. I honour myself better with my professional choices, and I feel ready to continue the work.

Does art repeat itself?

Perhaps I'll know after my next residency.


You can find out more about André and his Never Ending Art Trip here: http://www.artistintheworld.com

And Red Gate Gallery here: http://redgategallery.com

and here: http://redgateresidency.tumblr.com


 
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All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.