Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A green goodbye

The train to Chengdu is practically a jet plane. There are stewardesses in uniform and two cleaners who forlornly mop the shining floors throughout the journey. A security guard doubletakes when he sees Julia and I, fixing us in his mental inventory.

I'm writing this entry in hazy sunlight as we tumble mile upon mile through terraced fields. There are fir trees cresting the hills like green teardrops. Cupped in the valleys are rice paddies and low houses and crop stoops. There are ploughed hills and little scatters of villages and people working in the old ways, but my eyes have been starved of green in CQ so that's my predominant sense, that we are aswim in green. The land here is lush - we're going west, cutting across the vegetable gardens of China. It's late afternoon and Julia is trying to photograph the moon dancing along the telegraph poles.

An hour ago we said our goodbyes. Yan Yan, Deng Chuan and Wang Jun came to see us off. I felt sadness squeeze my ribcage as we parted. The two months in CQ have been guided by the care and kindness of these people, especially this trio - and they have become fast friends. The gatherings around art-making and hotpots have often been celebrations. I will miss this little gang with their sweetness and eccentricities. It's been awhile since Julia and I were part of a group and I've missed that social clustering. By cutting this link we also cut away from our shepherds through this land. We're out on our own now with a smattering of phrasebook Mandarin and a guessed itinerary. Julia has been awake half the night with a cold and I'm coming to earth after the rush of the teahouse exhibition. I wonder who's taking Ciao Q out for a walk this afternoon?

(Typing this up a year after it was written in my battered notebook, I'm happy to say that emails between myself and Wang Jun are a regular habit, with a visit forthcoming from he and Deng Chuan, that Yan Yan has sat in this house in Manchester with us for a meal and that Wang Jun snored his way from Yorkshire in the back of our car on one of our many expeditions during his Manchester residency early 2010, and that Ciao Q is still apparently wreaking havoc on his walks...)

Friday, 24 December 2010

Private view/punch up

Two students - Shu Jing and Yuan chao - have volunteered to help install the exhibition in Jiao Tong teahouse. At 10 am we meet in the studio, collect the long list of 12 or so pieces that I've selected from the original 50, plus string (always essential), pegs, nails, extension leads, lights, pencils. We set up camp on one of the trestle tables in the teahouse.

Hanging work is in itself one of the arts - to speak to the surrounds and yet have the works in dialogue with one another, to choreograph still space, to state simply, but keep ambiguity. My works spark alive when there is sunlight pouring through them and the world's colours. The teahouse is a dark space and the pieces look alright only in the windows and near light sources, which are dim. We set up some discreet lamps and peg the pieces into position so that they frame the fanatic card players but don't bug people.

Wang Jun's piece is an installation of overpainted magazines - it's a work that I've loved since he first took me round his studio and it' a pleasure to see it here, abutting onto the real. He lights the shelves he's used with bright fluorescents so that they glow like a shrine in a cliche. The mugs of the regulars here in the teahouse feature as part of the work, anchoring it in Jiao Tong.

Yao Bo meanwhile has placed pots on nine tables on the raised area in the middle of the space. Underneath each is a piece of off white paper with a black rectangle screenprinted onto it. From inside two of the pots can be heard her voice, reading aloud from her response to Beckett. The tiny electric voices crackle and whisper; people put their ears to the lips of the pots to hear. It's a show-stealer.

By 2 o'clock Wang Jun has installed his piece and lit it, Yao Bo is still tweaking her lights. Mine hang in the wondows opposite the entrance with card players sitting under them. One man loses his cash and holds his head in his hands. Julia snaps a portrait. Behind him, the poem says: Protect Me.

The guys who frequent the teashop stroll between the pieces and we chat it through. Someone offers to do some calligraphy for me - showing me the steadiness of his hands.

A journalist asks me why I bother putting my peculiar poems in places where no one will understand them. I take a deep breath at all the suppositions in that statement. I explain that if the work is placed among the world's bustle, it has the chance to be more alive than in the pages of a book. The room suddenly is unusually noisy. Yan Yan taps me on the shoulder: "For example, look over there. Real life."
There is a punch up taking place between two card players and people join the scrum. Yan Yan glances at me and grins: "It's real," he says again.

Private Views are posh showbiz and this one's no different. After the fighting has died away and the sore heads have been rubbed better, the art people arrive. The official opening is at 7pm, although the teahouse remains open all day for usual business. Julia and I are invited to join a long table of the local great and good, sipping flower tea. I end up swapping lines of poems with a DJ who wants to showboat her English and quotes lines of John Donne. In reply, I try her with a line from Tony Trehy. We struggle with the translation and she passes the line "Never to have compromised with transcendence" over to Yan Yan who shoots me a pained look.

These colours are not the same without you: Chongqing clotheslines December 2009

As Julia takes pictures, I'm reminded of two lines in the poem that Ive made here:

these colours are not the same to you
are not the same without you.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Present for Xmas

Julia appears briefly at CQ arrivals gate, waves, gives a little skip and disappears again. 15 minutes and she reappears with her luggage, grinning sleepily. We hold hands as Yan Yan rockets us through the city and I point out the neons and mist. She's been held up by worldwide snow, made it onto one of the last two planes out of Manchester, got past delays in Helsinki (due to other less efficient airlines than Finnair) and Beijing (a mysterious medical emergency). 36 hours of travelling with no guarantee of arrival. Yan Yan drops us at the flat and we stroll Huang Jie Ping in the early hours, to let her descend from the adrenalin. She's my Xmas present.

Next day, I try to show off the studio and artworks to her, but Ciao Q effortlessly steals the moment by chewing open a tube of Yan Yan's oil paint and then licking it over his paws and around his muzzle. He doesn't like the taste, but loves the squeals of consternation when he chases people aropund the studio with the threat of blue paw marks. Yan Yan scolds; he hates it when Ciao Q's coat gets muddy and blue oilpaint is worse. My observation that Yan Yan's dog has the good taste to select a close match for International Klien Blue doesn't help. The favoured pronounciation of Ciao Q has changed once more to "Ciao Ko". I wearily start calling him "Ciao Ko" and the favoured pronounciation changes to Koko. Whatever he's called - not that he cares - his IKKB paws last two days.

Julia is wearing a vivid orange quilted coat that miraculously receives only one little blue smudge. Ciao Q likes her because she finds him funny. Later she takes him for an afternoon jaunt and he's won over entirely.

Later again she says to me - "You need to start thinking about how you light those pieces, they're dying in here when there's no daylight." She has a photographer's eye - unforgiving at times, but invaluable. She starts taking some experimental shots with her Leica, using the window in the hallway to frame people in the street outside.

The show is imminent and I haven't thought about light.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010


Yan Yan casually suggests that I make some "stampos" for the poster poems.

“How?” I ask with a smallscale panic already building. These are the red identifying stamps that authenticate traditional Chinese artworks. They are complex little monograms, with many layers of meaning. Usually they are a reworking of the artist’s name in zhuan seal writing, or another archaic script, bonded together into a circular or rectangular design. They are dense, beautiful handcarved stamps (rather like our old fashioned seals) and require enormous skill to produce.

I've already introduced the idea into the poems - handstencilling red circles into the compositions and using them to add extra lines.

“Yao Bo will help, of course,” he shrugs as if to say: why don’t you think of these things Davenport? So Yao Bo is consulted and she agrees to oversee my attempts to model stamps in clay. I’m turning into a technician, but one without training or indeed much idea of what’s going on.
“OK,” I say, reluctantly.
“You will learn much about the Chinese way,” concludes Yan Yan, pleased at my impending betterment.

Yao Bo’s studio/apartment is next to Yan Yan’s in 501. She’s a petite woman, but suffused with energy, making ceramics, painting, writing – and she loves dancing. She swirls in and out of her connections with people in a pair of bright yellow boots. Her daily companion from upstairs is lonesome for her boyfriend and so she has breakfast with Yao Bo – lotus root and cigarettes – and hangs out.

The pair of them patiently shepherd me through the process of making a clay mould. Yao Bo shows me her own stamp and collapses with mirth when she hears that I’m trying to make one like it. We decide that I can try for something more like an official rubber stamp; that way I might be spared humiliation.

Jiao Tong - the last teahouse

Phil writes:

To coincide with the exhibition of my work at the Chinese Art Centre in Manchester, I've decided to post the last few entries of my China journal, written late 2009 - early 2010.

Jiao Tong – the last teahouse

The last traditional teahouse on Huang Jie Ping Street is closing soon, doesn’t fit here – it’s a goner. If you happen to be in the locale of the art school, take a left down HJP, walk 500 metres downhill, go through the mobile phone shop, drop down the little stairs and you are in an anytime. The walls have absorbed so much damp, so many knocks and so many years that they are crumpling with history.

There are continual games of cards, mah jong and chequers at the tables, slow games played out over long conversations. Two huge parrots swing on perches, cawing at the assembly. The tea is local CQ and comes with a big hot water thermos for refills, supplemented by a hot water lady with a long spouted pot like a steaming watering can.

Old men drink their brews and fresh-face art students sketch portraits of the clientele over and over so that they’ll be good enough to make it into the art college. In places, the students have pencilled faces on the walls too, perhaps they ran out of paper and in their fever just kept on drawing. This is the place I see Yan Yan look happiest – a student offers him a paper and pencil and for 10 minutes he draws, his concentration absolute, his face rapt.

Part of the side wall is open to the outside air and there are washing lines out back. The roof is like that of an old barn, with a long vent letting in even more air and daylight. There are discussions, disputes, deals being made. It was the social centre for the students 20 years ago, where they planned and dreamed. Hai Zi came here to drink the rough tannic CQ tea. I am told that Jiao Tong is important, famous. Sit here on the benches in this teahouse in Huang Jie Ping in China and you can feel that you are in all ages of the world, that anyone from any moment could walk in.

“This is my idea where we do exhibition,” says Yao Bo.

I feel a jolt of excitement.