An Artist’s Journey: China, 11 July 2014

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The Western at the Great Wall,” photo by Iris Lau

Every student in the workshop had to have their photo taken with me. I was a “famous artist” from America, even though I told them I wasn’t. They thought I was being modest. No, really. I’m ordinary. Not to them.

And I expected that many artists wanted a photo op after my lecture and presentation. Only one artist wanted to yell at me… the rest wanted to be close to a “famous American artist.” Again, not so famous. Pop, pop, pop. I hope I was patient, as much as I hate to be photographed. Ironic, eh?

It happened a couple of other times. Someone would approach me: picture? Then every member of the family had his turn.

It’s fair. I ask to take pictures of people I find interesting or exotic. Not that many Westerns still venture here, so exotic. And I was somewhat approachable. I was traveling with a group of women, but was often separated from them as I sought the best angle or light, or examination of a detail. I hope I looked friendly. I know I looked odd.

The group at the top of the Great Wall were the most insistent… At least a dozen people had to have their photo with me. What were they thinking? They were friendly, but were they mocking me? Did they want their friends to see how large Americans really are? Were they just excited to put their arm around a stranger?

Was I friendly enough? I tried, but it was a strange sensation all around. All I hoped was: one more photo for world peace!

*****

Today was my last full day in Beijing, in China. A few brief impressions:

–This is a land of contradictions.

–The proper Chinese way to hand something to someone is with two hands, and a slight bow. It took some practice but now feels natural. I’m insulted when handed things with one hand. I’m being dismissed as unimportant. On the other hand, people seem surprised and honored when I do it the “right” way. Another “world peace” moment.

–Young people here don’t have hobbies. They work. They go to bars. They sing kareoke. Volunteer opportunities are rare, too.

–Chinese are a deeply spiritual people, many practicing Buddhism and Taoism. Western religions might have problems here, but traditional Chinese religions seem to have many practioners. Anyone who says China is godless is a Cold War bore.

–Roaches are everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

–I’m open to new foods, as long as they are vegetarian. I tried and liked dozens, including bamboo root, seaweed noodles, candied taro, dragon fruit.

– On hospitality on restaurants: there isn’t any.

–Also no napkins. Carry tissues. Handy for the squat tiolets, too.

–Police and soldiers are everywhere… and they are unarmed. Still, they are scary.

–Children are allow to run wild. Conformity comes later. I’m not a fan of this practice.

–Make no mistake: Capitalism reigns here. Everyone has a business. Everyone is trying to make a yuan. Everyone.

–Chinese are a fiercely patriotic people. Their middle class is stronger than ours. Don’t get cocky.

–There is pork in everything. EVERYTHING.

–Flowers are no where to be found. I was delighted to see roses growing along the highway in Beijing, but that was the only place. This is a land of extraordinary natural beauty, but there is no beauty in thier lives. It’s a gray place.

–The people who know you are wonderful. Strangers are not, with the exception of older women. Always a connection there.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 10 July 2014

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Fan Dancers, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

I row two -three days a week to try to be fit, I have a daughter who just graduated from college, I have a mortgage I will never pay off…. I do not think of myself as old.

In China, women must retire at age 56; men at 60. That’s the definition of elderly. Sure, lives are harder here. But still, this age feel young.

My guide in Beijing was shocked to learn I was nearly 58. That’s old! Of course, he was also shocked to learn there were many poor people and homeless people in America… apparently we all are rich! He didn’t believe that my family home is half the size of his family home. He was taught we all lived in mansions. But that’s another blog.

So, as a woman two years past retirement age, I should be dancing or doing exercises in the park, playing majong, caring for my grandchildren. I should not be working. Working is for the young.

I look at the women who are my age and they DO look old. They also look happy. I bow and smile and greet them. They bow and smile and greet me back. We are crones. Our children are raised. We can play. Our lives have been returned to us.

Crones know each other.

Younger people here are so rude to me, at least ones who do not know me. It’s not just me. It’s not personal. Push, yell, ignore.

The ones who have become friends are solicitious, making sure I find the step, hold an umbrella over me against the sun, pour more tea. The older women are kind, thoughtful, friendly. We don’t need a common language. We have one.

It’s a immediate sisterhood, this momentary connection we crones have. We know stuff. We know a lot of stuff. But if no one listens, we don’t care: we will fan dance in the park with others our age, knit on the bench together, play a game. Sing a song.

We don’t care. We are happy.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 9 July 2014

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Atop the City Wall, Xi’an China, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios
There’s something about standing on a 700 year old wall, peering out at the moat through an archer’s window, taking in the ancient while dwarfed by the modern high rises towering overhead, that is humbling and a little terrifyig. What does this wall mean to me? What does it matter?

And what are national treasures, really? I just toured the Forbidden City. (Sorry, photos will have to wait until I return to the States… the iPad refuses to import more photos, though I will try again!)

It was crowded and boisterous. I was in awe of the artistry, the history, the stories of emperors and concubines and lives ruined or elevated on a whim. This expansive complex, with a garden I could spent a lifetime admiring, all for one emperor. Who needed walls? And gates? And 27 bedrooms to shuffle his sleeping habits so as to foil assassins?

The Forbidden City is a magical mystery tour. Yet, this treasure, this planetary historic masterpiece, had trash dropped carelessly on the marble courtyards, and bottles tossed in the ponds and moat, and one teen mindlessly attacking an ancient wall with a frozen water bottle. Thank god he wasn’t Western. But I wanted to run up to him and demand he stop, before more of the tiles cracked. This is our human hertigage! This is one of those places that shapes our worldview. If we don’t understand the nuances of the culture and history, it’s too easy to go to war. And the artistry! How DARE you attack the art, just because it looks like a common wall.

We shamelessly treat the treasures of our species like common tourist traps. It will hurt our hearts.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 8 July 2014

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“The Knitter,” ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

Most of the shop keepers and vendors were not yet open. This is a street that is keeps trading hours into the wee hours of the morning, and vendors open late.

She was sitting in front of her wares… I have no idea what they were… alone, near the end of the street. The few shop keepers around are yelling, cajoling, following the few early shoppers.

She was knitting. Buy something, don’t buy something. She was knitting. I greeted her in the few words of Mandarin I have. She smiled. I motioned to her knitting. I motioned to my camera. Could I photograph her? She waved me away, not harsh, but clear. Ok. I thanked her.

I few minutes later I caught up to the two young Chinese women, recent college grads, who I’m traveling with. I told them about the woman. Would they go talk to her with me?

Tell her I’m a knitter, I said. Tell her I love her face and want to remember it.

They spoke. She demured. They delivered my message. She, modestly agreed.

I do love her face. I do want to remember it. I will remember it.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 7 July 2014

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Bamboo rafting on the Li River, north of Guilin, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Digital Infrared
I’m watching the karst mountain peaks recede as the China South 737 lifts us away from what must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet… and one of the most familiar to any student of Chinese art.

It’s also a place of stark contradition, like everywhere you step in China.

The unusual peaks have an extraordinary beauty in their structure. Like the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the peaks are layered, one behind the other as they fade into the horizon. Look carefully, and you’ll see a ruined former temple or pagoda perched impossibly on a narrow crag, still proclaiming its purpose. Mist hangs between them.

Unlike other peaks, these formations sit amid large expansions of flat, arable land. Through them flows the Li River and her many tributaries. This is the fisherman’s home, and many still catch and cook right on a bamboo raft on the water’s edge.

If you have seen a Chinese brush paintings of the mountains, you have seen karst of Guilin.

Contrast this beauty with power lines crossing the rivers and hills, cell towers perched atop them… the magic is gone. There is construction every where to accommodate the people relocating here to work in the area’s main industry, tourism. The construction replaces the crumbling buildings, hastily built just a generation ago.

Guilin is certainly a tourist destination. Get out of the van and four women try to sell us trinkets. We’re taking a river trip on a bamboo raft.

This is a water craft like no other. Think Hunk Finn the on the Mississippi. Eight bamboo poles, each about six inches in diameter and maybe 12 feet long. There is enough room for two secured chairs, an umbrella, and a riverman who guides the raft by pushing the river bottom with a 15-foot pole. It often disappears below the surface of the water.

There are hundreds of tourists on these bamboo rafts, and yes, you can get wet.

Touristy? Yes. Stunning in beauty and a glimpse into the rural Chinese world? Without question.

This is the land of Chinese brush painting. Not even the cell towers can mar it for long.

20140707-180111.jpgBamboo rafts fill the river with tourists, but nothing can spoil the natural spendor. ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Digital Infrared

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 6 July 2014

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Two years ago, my friend Renata was teaching at the University of Zhongshan in southeastern China.

“Come to China,” she said. “They will want to know your art.”

Last December, the Regional Arts Commission offered me the chance. They awarded me an artist support grant to travel to China, talk to artists, teach, learn, and expand my social practice project, Dare to Touch the Face of God.

Not many people know the term “social practice.” It’s the idea that art is more than beautiful — it’s important. And the shear practice of creating and viewing purposeful art can spark an action or open a heart.

As I described it last night to about 35 Chinese artists and creative professionals and students: social practice art is where our ideals meet action. Stop talking and DO.

Dare to Touch the Face of God is an artist’s response to violence and intolerance in our world. We often feel helpless in the wake of horribleness. Social practice art offers action.

Last night, 15 people who never thought they could have an impact on the world inscribed prayer flags. China understands Prayer Flags. China understands the consequences — and power — of action. Had I brought 40 flags, I’m sure all would be inscribed.

The prayer flags are inspired by the tradition of Buddhist prayer flags. Many Chinese are Buddhist and it’s a familiar symbol. According to tradition, the inscribed prayers are lifted by the wind, carried around the world, and touch every being who feels the breeze. The idea that a normal person could add their messages of harmony was novel and exciting. That it was art? Remarkable.

No one asked questions — maybe it’s a stupid question, maybe someone is listening to the question — but every single person wanted to speak to me after the talk. One woman hugged me and, which tears in her eyes, told me that she didn’t know that one small act could be so powerful. She didn’t know that art could change our lives. Her life.

It can. It does. And it takes the collective to do it.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 5 July 2014

A few images: Sun Yat-Sen’s family home, lotus farm, Buddhist Temple. @2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, all rights reserved.20140704-215153.jpg
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