Monday, Aug. 26, 2002
In Nanjing, It's Art for Art's Sake
By CRYSTYL MO
The peasants are stealing your artwork!" I yelled to Yu Xiao Yu. I had just run halfway across a tiny, muddy island on the outskirts of Nanjing, dodging several avant-garde sculptures and art installations along the way."Really?" asked the artist, as his round face broke into a smile. "That's great!" A group of fellow Nanjing artists laughed and pointed at the leather-faced farmer in a worn Mao jacket who, along with his wife and son, was cheerfully scooping armfuls of seaweed from Yu's installation: a giant ditch in the shape of a gingerbread man, which was filled with water and what was once $50 worth of seaweed.
I had come to Nanjing to join the city's contemporary artists for an outdoor festival featuring some extremely down-to-earth and earthy art. Although Nanjing, twice capital of China, has long been renowned for its artists, they have historically been more traditional poets, writers and classical painters. This festival, entitled "Basking in the Sunshine," indicates that Nanjing's modern artists are coming into their own, with revolutionary new ideas.
"Nanjing artists are different," says Guo Haiping, a crew-cut painter and restaurateur in his 30s. "We're not like those serious, solitary-minded Beijing or Shanghai artists." In a country where contemporary art is often politically sensitive and inaccessible, Nanjing's recent crop of modernists stands out. Their tightly knit community is committed to bringing art�and a bit of humor�to the common people.
Guo's restaurant-cum-mini-gallery, the Banpo Village Caf�, doubles as a salon for Nanjing's creative population. Painters and performance artists crowd every table, cracking sunflower seeds and chatting till the wee hours. While discussions often center on the struggle to bring modern art to the general public in a tradition-bound country with a skittish government, the crowd also dedicates plenty of time to laughing, drinking tea and making the most of the anti-9-to-5 lifestyle. And visitors, even nonartists, are readily welcomed. In one evening, I was invited to four artists' studios as well as to lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and after-dinner snacks.
Tang Guo, one of Nanjing's most successful contemporary painters, has a studio that could have been clipped from an architectural magazine: a polished black brick floor reflects light from an elegant hanging lamp wrapped in handmade paper. The walls are a washed-out olive green, and Tang's jewel-toned works lean against furniture and walls with a deceptive casualness�precisely where they will be noticed most. In contrast, Guo Haiping's studio in the city center is haphazardly filled with his signature finger-painted monochromes and random objects�a toilet hangs on the entrance room wall, covered from top to bottom with Guo's red fingerprints.
After my studio tours, I met photographer Li Chaoyin for lunch. We took a stroll down Shizi Qiao, the lively pedestrian-only street below his studio, which is Nanjing's choice spot for people watching. We ate at Nanjing Dapaidang, a vast restaurant made up of several tiny kitchens. Everything looked and smelled delicious. We selected carefully: tiny, crisp shrimp in a mandarin orange juice concentrate; rice and pork steamed inside bamboo rods; and for dessert, a candy-sweet, whole steamed pear.
That night, I visited the Double Nine Gallery, which hosts monthly exhibits of contemporary artwork, to meet up with my seaweed-artist friend, Yu. "I am so happy that the peasants took my seaweed," he said. "It adds the final step to the evolution of life symbolized in that artwork. What more could an artist wish for but that even a farmer gains something new from his work?" He paused, and for a moment I wondered if Yu really imagined the farmer was sitting up thinking about primordial soup as symbolized in installation art. But Yu, like many of his Nanjing compatriots, was humorously realistic. He knows art can be nourishing in many ways. "They'll think about my artwork," he continued, "every time they eat my seaweed."
Click to Print Find this article at: