In September, I was an artist in residence for one month (along with my new-found ‘family,’ artists Justin Shoulder and Abdul Rahman-Abdullah) at the studio of Chinese-Australian artist Shen Shaomin, thanks to 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
Shen Shaomin’s studio is in Huairou, 50km out of Beijing. I’ve done residencies in the past in the usual artist-in-garret mode of creative isolation: from the pastoral beauty of Bundanon to solo analogue video jams at the Experimental Television Centre in upstate New York. In the world’s most populous nation with my Asian entourage (my 71-year-old parents and two-year-old daughter) in tow, this would not be one of those times.
Since becoming a mother, I am almost never alone. But rather than diluting my work, this shift has made it stronger. I fight harder for the things I want to say and do. And so, I found myself late at night in a deserted Beijing airport with my multi-generational ‘enablers.’ Under one arm: a wriggly toddler coming down from nine-hours of continuous screen-based entertainment; to my left and right, my aging but still spritely parents. With my gold suit, China-related projects to develop (including The People’s Currency) and size 5 nappies, I arrived in an unknown motherland.
The weather was dry and searing when we arrived and every day we did something different. Within the first week, Justin, Abdul-Rahman and I had taken part in an artist forum with Korean and Chinese artists; observed Chinese opening etiquette in the 798 art district, such as: any artist ‘elders’ present must make a speech, wine is free but you only get one gulp-worth in each glass, there may be an un-related flute recital by a nervous musician in silver heels; saw good shows by Zhao Zhao (Ai Wei Wei’s former assistant) and Jiang Zhi; poured water into a dry dam for local artist Gao da Qiang’s participatory art project; climbed the Great Wall; and visited the studios of artists, ceramicists and a farmer-couple turned self-taught painters.
Mikala Tai and Hamida Novakovich (from 4A in Sydney) were there to help us Australians settle in. And between them and Shen and his A-team of strong women, his artist daughter Veronica and assistant Yanzi, we had hit the jackpot: just the right balance of hand-holding and freedom in a foreign context.
The contrast between Beijing’s constant smog, angry sun, infuriating traffic and the relative idyll of Huairou was striking. Beijing was exhilarating, but I would always crave the slower pace and cleaner air at Shen’s studio. A highlight of our city adventures was seeing Justin perform at ‘Mortuary,’ a night of music and performance curated by the Asian Dope Boys. After catching an overpriced and death-defying auto-rickshaw through the late-night chaos of Beijing, we arrived at Modernsky Lab, a venue tucked away in the Zaha Hadid-designed Galaxy SOHO shopping complex in the Dongcheng neighbourhood. At around 1am, Justin (as his character Carrion) took to the stage; all inflatable plastic, latex bones and long braided iPhone cable hair. We were captive in his all-seeing red-glow eyes. I’ll never forget Justin’s precise movements and the total control with which he commanded the gaze of the beautiful, ultra-cool Chinese club kids, a post-human digital god in a smartphone tsunami.
While in China, Justin would be featured in two major publications, Modern Weekly and LEAP magazine. Abdul-Rahman and I were like proud parents; at first we joked that Justin was #trendinginHuairou but over our month in China, Justin became #biginBeijing.
Other Beijing highlights were seeing Lisa Roet’s Golden Snub-nosed Monkey as part of Beijing Design Week, and letting the architecture, history and sea of selfies wash over me at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
I also visited The World, a Beijing theme-park that pays homage to foreign cultures and their monuments. My work looks at nationalism and territory and I’m interested in the re-appropriation and reclamation of symbols and stereotypes in the forging of more open cultural identities. I walked around the decaying and diminutive Manhattan skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, Stonehenge, the leaning tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower, a simultaneously troubling and compelling experience. Here was Orient exoticizing Occident. Countless bridal couples posed for glamour photos in front of the architecture of classic Rome, London and Greece: aspirations imported/exported through globalisation. The World compressed time and culture like nothing I had ever experienced.
Back in Huairou, my family was based at ‘Holiday Village,’ a rough but comfortable farmhouse about one kilometre from Shen Shaomin’s sprawling studio residence in the Qiaozi Art Commune. Against the vernacular of the Chinese courtyard home, Qiaozi’s towering structures in brick, concrete, bamboo and steel (belonging to artists, architects and filmmakers) were like beacons to New China: international, contemporary and unapologetic.
Shen designed his four-level studio residence himself and has been building and renovating for over 20 years: “It’s his addiction,” Veronica said. The studio’s four distinctive porthole windows give it the appearance of a square ship. Inside, there are countless guest bedrooms for visiting artists, curators and friends; studios for photography, printmaking and painting; a home cinema and even a gym. Shen Shaomin’s approach to hosting us was to listen, observe and connect us to people in his world who he felt we should meet. It was an unstructured but organic process. “Life is as important as art,” Shen would say with his smoker’s chuckle. And we were made to feel a welcome part of his life.
I would commute most days down the dusty road past fields of corn and the local shops between the farm and studio on a cream-coloured bicycle (donated by past 4A residents Claudia Nicholson and James Nguyen). While Ayi ( ‘Aunty’) cooked two big meals a day at the studio, I tried to spend most meals back at the farm to be with my family. My hat goes off to my mum for cooking every day (for my fussy dad and daughter) in a basic kitchen with limited produce and holding the fort while I did studio time or field excursions.
When I was younger, I moved out of home as fast as I could. So, my biggest anxiety when approaching this residency was how the family unit would survive in such close proximity, living on top of each other in rural isolation. It was a test of endurance and patience for my parents and my daughter, but a chance for three generations to spend time together in a way that we may never get again.
As someone who is and looks Chinese, but is essentially a monolingual Australian, this residency was about returning to an unknown home. As ‘the workshop of the world’ and the source of almost everything we use or consume globally, we are all impacted by the rise of China, a country where everywhere and everything is being rapidly transformed by the hand of industry and progress. I’ll be back again soon.
Eugenia Lim was in Beijing from 7 September to 3 October 2016. She would like to pay tribute to artist Sun Shaokun (1980–2016) and thank 4A; Shen Shaomin, Yanzi and all at the studio; Justin Shoulder and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah; and her family, Mikala Tai, Hamida Novakovich, for making this experience possible.