China: Beijing & Chongqing

Beijing

For one month, we stayed with Yannis Zhang and Yumo Wu (collaborators from our Iceland project) in their studio in Beijing. The studio is located in the T3 International Art Community, a closed art district just outside the T3 airport that’s home to both famed and emerging Chinese artists. Each artist’s studio acts as both a place to work and a place to show and exhibit artworks, and there is even a museum and restaurant. Even though each artist played a critical role in how their studios were designed and constructed, there is a unifying architectural vision that holds the entire district together put in place by its founder that gives it a unique and cohesive look. We’ve been thinking for weeks what to compare this place to in the west: is it like the Bauhaus? or Dia: Beacon? The truth is there’s just no good comparison. It has the density and quality of artists you might imagine from some downtown Manhattan in the 60s dream, but the institutional resources you see at a place like Bauhaus or Mass MoCA: how is this even possible?

And of course like almost everything in China, it has been around less than a decade, and everyone is excited and ambitious about what is in store for the future. Meeting Xiao Lu, working with Jia Jing, and sipping tea with Hu Yinping were some of the highlights of staying in this wonderful place.

We spent our time focused on four events that acted as both the conclusion of our Iceland project, and the start of a couple new ones: a concert and exhibition in the 798 Art Zone at Li-Pi records, a booking-signing-style presentation of our album at Readway, a new collaborative dance piece with the furniture design company Thrudesign, and an exhibition at Semi-Underground Space (Yannis and Yumo’s gallery space in T3). Besides being fulfilling and fun, each event gave us a window into some aspect of Chinese culture that was new to us.

Li-Pi records in the 798 Art Zone

798 so clearly exemplifies the changes that China has endured since it opened up decades ago. It’s somehow more dense with art than any SoHo or Williamsburg could be, but has also gone through the classic gentrification one expects in fast-forward. It’s transformed from a military factory facility, to artist studios, to a kind of cultural amusement park full of visitors excited to take selfies at every corner. We’d never seen anything like it. Our show at Li-Pi records was a nice way of finally presenting our work from Iceland together the four of us, in at least one person’s home country, and the owner of the store, Machu, is an all-around cool guy with an amazing vision for art and music.

More about our Heartwood project here.

More about our Moving Ground project here.

Our two new collaborative works, called “Moving Ground” and “Heartwood”, brought totally different approaches to music making for the duo, fueled by some amazing artists from Beijing. “Moving Ground” focused on creating paintings through sound with Jia Jing (you can read more about that here), and “Heartwood” was about creating new music for dance in collaboration with this exquisite furniture design company called Thrudesign (more on that here).

All in all, we can’t believe how much happened in Beijing. Yannis and Yumo called it “China-speed”, and we believe them! People here are super ambitious, and really ready to work hard everyday for what they believe in.

We also shared our time at Yannis and Yumo’s studio with a painter from Spain named Gerard Torres Sanmartí, a super kind soul and talented artist who, in this total China-speed style, painted 60 paintings during his one month residency.

Alongside all these projects was of course a constant background of surprising cultural differences in China, like: how did having just one phone between the two of us go from being this convenient thing we just do because having a sim card from a specific place makes no sense in our lives to being an all-out social statement? In China, everyone was so shocked and amazed we could manage with just one phone, and it’s because your phone is you in China. Your Chinese identity card and phone number are linked together and connected to every online account, like WeChat and Email; its used for services that allow you to pay for everything from food to toll roads, and also allow you to accept payments as an arts organization (like in Yannis and Yumo’s case). It was often people asked us where they could hear our music, and Spotify and YouTube were no help, but managing to upload a video to QQ’s video service was shy of impossible for us as foreigners.

Not having a Chinese phone number meant pretty much not being able to pay for anything, and just carrying around a ton of cash all the time (their largest denomination is also equivalent to only a €10 bill…). So we quickly became customers of the bank of Yumo, where Yumo would use WeChat to pay and we would just pay her back in cash for everything from groceries to train tickets.

There was another special thing about being there in May specifically: a kind of pollen fell from the willow trees for weeks, blanketing the ground like snow. But that’s not all, they’re also a fire hazard. Occasionally, a passerby’s cigarette would light a huge fire, and we’d be stuck in traffic without visibility; at the same time, they’re really beautiful!

Also, the T3 art district is also surrounded by small villages on the outskirts of city that create an almost senseless juxtaposition we are still digesting. But perhaps this is one of the most interesting things in making art is a place that is so quickly developing. It’s a country that is clearly so diverse in so many ways.

And of course what is it to discover a new place and culture without enjoying its food. Our most memorable experiences were spent at T3’s restaurant, where 10 RMB gave a different set of two dishes everyday, each one completely delicious and new to us. There was also Yumo’s signature silver ear fungus, jujube, lotus seed soup (could you guess that that’s a dessert?) And of course there’s the duck too!

Chongqing

If you’re from the West, this might just be another gigantic city that you’ve never heard of: it’s the world’s largest municipality with a population of 30 million. We stayed here for about a month and know that we’ll miss the foggy mountain views, passersby fishing and swimming in the river, xiao mian lunches, and of course the amazing artists that call this place home.

The trip from Beijing was a 12 hour train ride on the fast train that took us through villages and mountains.

For the month of June, we were in residence at Dimensions Art Centre, a place hosting local artists as well as artists from abroad, like us. DAC organizes exhibitions and events in the neighborhood of Huangjueping. Many locals told us Huangjueping is much closer to what China was like in the 80s, a hold out from the fervent capitalist growth and constant development we became very used to in Beijing. We completely believe them, and instantly fell in love with the districts charm and authenticity. Informing an artists subculture, it’s also home to the old campus of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, just down the road from DAC. So while Beijing taught us many things about what being an artist is like in Beijing, Chongqing gave us a more general understanding of Chinese culture.

Even if our stay was rather short, we managed to walk around and explore the city and its multidimensional soul. For us, Huangjueping seemed to be characterized by many spaces that are neither clearly functional nor abandoned yet. The city also sits at the confluence of two enormous rivers, and we’d often find ourselves walking alongside the Yangtze, where plenty of people enjoy fishing throughout the day. The streets were always filled with people playing cards and mahjong, sitting for a smoke, or dining with friends and family.

One of the very unique features of the city of Chongqing are the men carrying stuff around and up the hills with the help of bamboo poles: they are known as “Bang bang” and they are numerous and like playing cards when not busy. We were told you can hire them for carrying anything: fruit, animals, people, you name it!

Behind the suggestion of Tu Laoshi, and accompanied by a very patient new friend, we also made it all the way to a picturesque ancient town in the province of Sichuan, called Jiezi, in order to meet the xiao master Gao. Besides an extraordinarily memorable all-tofu-hotpot and a very long hiking up the mountain to a Buddhist temple, this was a much need reprieve from the loud and crowded city life in Chongqing.

Sichuan food is, of course, world famous and it goes without saying that we enjoyed three spicy and delicious meals a day. From xiao mian (the “little noodles with a big taste”), hot pot, to pig foot soup, we’ll miss everything this part of the world has to offer.

Performance of Blaise Schwartz’s piece Double Fields at DAC

We also had the chance to create sound for another performance alongside a resident French visual artist, Blaise Schwartz, and two local dancers, Haoran and Kunlung. The performance piece was premiered at DAC and performed on a second night at a cool local art location/jazz bar called “In Free Live”, where many expats as well as Chinese locals gathered for a very pleasant evening.

Our own project focused on creating intimate house concert experiences around Huangjueping, where just one listener at a time heard a piece we created that included the sounds of the city and the Guqin (an ancient Chinese instrument). As always, giving these small house concerts was such a wonderful way of connecting with the local community.

So here we are after two months having learned a lot about music, people, and travel in a place seemly opposite to the Europe in which we’ve spent the last year. Perhaps to the disappointment of relatives and friends, we didn’t see the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, nor take a cruise on the Yangzte River, but we found people, places, and art that stretched our imaginations, inspired us, and introduced us to a different way of life. We’ll be back in October in Shanghai, and cannot wait to pick things up just where we left them off.