AT NIGHT, WHEN the sun finally, reluctantly, sets in the stifling Beijing summer, the view from the apartment window takes on another form; layered silhouettes of tall buildings frame a sign that glows rich and red in the velvety poison of the polluted night air. 'Beijing Youth Daily' it reads, both in characters and English, and because I'd been here a few weeks, I read it as an instruction.
China seems full of instructions – moral and ethical directions about how to experience the world. Even the limitless, otherworldly expanses of the Tibetan plateau were punctuated by roadside eulogies reminding us to 'cherish nature', 'protect nature', 'enjoy nature'. All justifiably laudable. It was just that any irony seemed to hover ever so slightly out of reach. Or maybe it was just that these signs made you feel that someone else – older, wiser, more experienced – had been there before. Even the pathways of the Beijing Summer Palace were lined with little just-short-of-discreet signs exhorting you to 'Mind the Steep Path'. It could have seemed caring, it could have seemed quaint, but there was also an infantilising undertone to all this instruction. Someone else always knew best, and you could only ever be obedient and mindful of the instructions.
By day the view was different – the tall buildings beyond, framed a closer view of the kitchen at the back of the famous, many times awarded, and inspirationally titled Beijing Da Dong Duck Restaurant. Every morning the young chefs would assemble in the small courtyard below the apartment, languidly smoking or talking in groups to passers-by on bicycles, or squatting to admire mounds of magnificent melons or vegetables assembled for inspection before slaughter. The chefs were smart in pristine white overcoats with double-breasted black buttons – the starch creases still visible from the fourth floor. Yet, above and below them, the general filth and grime of Beijing provided richly textured counterpoints to the immaculate pristine whiteness of their uniforms bent over the glistening wet perfection of opened melons.
So much in Beijing offers pleasures in such contrasts. The roofs littered with debris and detritus – smashed toilets, badly bandaged air-con outlets, a tangle of feral electricity wires, bits of roofing material, and all covered in the smothering dust that is part pollution, part Gobi desert. The streets and roads and pathways are much less littered, but even the slow roving teams of street sweepers can do nothing to obliterate the tiny particles of dust and fumes and poison that veil every surface.
There's not much you can really do in a month-long residency – you can either produce work on a business-as-usual basis, churning out the production line as if the place and the context didn't make a difference, or you can invite the experience in as an antidote to a symptom you are not yet aware of. I have always taken the second direction, and so the sign from the late-night apartment view seemed all the more a portent – to my clue-dependent methodology, I read it with an invisible 'see' in front ... '(see) Beijing Youth Daily' and so that's what I tried to do.
IT WAS REASONABLY easy. There were kids, and old people too, in the courtyard even before you got through the metal gate and onto the footpath. The apartment was at the edge of two major traffic intersections – one leading north-south, the other east-west, like all major roads in the country's built-for-order capital. As soon as you left the building you were right in the middle of Beijing youth.
The courtyard itself was an island within the eternally moving, tooting, belching, growling, smog-producing traffic. The city was sense-surround – the noise, the particularly haze-suffused quality of light infiltrated your inner being – wrapped around you, as you ingested it whether you wanted to or not. A major overpass of the third ring road ran to one side above a tiled area that housed a small kiosk and a battery of still brightly painted keep-fit equipment, courtesy, according to the labelling, of China Sports Lottery that had installed them in compounds and parks all over the city in the escalating hysteria of pre-Olympic fever.
A smart-alec artist from the brilliant Long March group had already installed a set in a gallery in Da Shanzi in a heavy metal cage surrounded by rotting fruit and food. There the equipment looked so naïve and pristine in its incarceration – the bright blue and yellow even more perfect beside the decaying vegetation so that it even looked a bit stupid. In the compound of our building the exercise equipment was lined up in a corner beside the infinite lines of garbage bins – one for this, another for that, another for something else – all devoted to sorting out, sorting through, categorising and ordering and labelling the rubbish.
Lots of our sorted rubbish never reached those bins. To our huge relief, we'd worked out a way of appeasing the terrifying, contained aggression of the ladies who worked the building's lift. Every day they took on their role with a surly officiousness that would have brought Genghis Khan to his knees. Each brought her own stool, a series of paper bags, and a sawn off broom handle to press the button that conformed to the destination of each intruder who dared to enter the lift.
From the time we arrived the lift attendants glared at us – a practised glare that had reached a peak of efficiency, persisting through each trip as we were driven to more extravagant attempts to smile and nod and gesticulate encouragingly. Nothing broke the silent lack of acknowledgement and disapproval. The frost inside the otherwise claustrophobic lift was too much for me – I preferred to walk the four indescribably filthy staircases. But the Beirut bomb-site ambience of the stairwells unnerved my otherwise complacent daughter. The only other place I can remember stairwells so dramatically defunct was in a dense inner suburb of Bombay that was later bulldozed. The stains and scrawls and graffiti walls of that stairwell had provided a wealth of inspiration for the Indian artist Nalini Malani, who embedded similar layers of implications and traces of used lives into her own (often heartbreaking) work.
But these Beijing walls were different – not as oozy, no traces of betel-nut juice (or was it blood?) from floor to ceiling – but almost as evocative: scratchings and smears and layers and layers and layers of dust. Where it could lie vertically, the dust piled up in little drifts that welcomed other bits and pieces of detritus – clots of hair, packaging, the works. I hadn't seen any Beijing artists deal with this inspiring littered-ness in their work yet, but I'm sure they must have. Their subject-matter was more often overt politics. Lots of frank paintings about Chinese-ness. Identity stuff. Who are we? – who are we really ? And more and more computer-produced imagery. It seemed to me that the mess and leftovers of a society could tell quite a bit about the desires and values (or otherwise) that it held dear. Of course I'm not alone in this realisation and Chinese artists were probably onto it too.
GUIDE BOOKS AND FREQUENT visitors to Beijing are keen to note with horror the number of historic sites that have been trashed in the modern history of the city. And I'm sure it's lamentable. In the three short years since we'd last been there, entire areas of hutongs had disappeared, and who knows what else had been bulldozed to make way for the legions of new skyscrapers that had amassed during that period. And the buildings were still coming. The silhouettes of cranes, the background noise of jack-hammering, the exoskeletons of girders were showing no signs of abating.
The city is so enormous that it seems unfathomable. The skyline so far above you, through so many inner city areas, that at times it seems as if you are travelling in a subterranean way through a place that has begun to echo the 'caverns measureless to man beneath the sunless sea' of Coleridge. Not that Coleridge was imagining Peking at the time. He was, as anyone of a certain age educated in the 'Commonwealth' knows, describing Xanadu, which lies north of Beijing, but which bears not even a remnant of the mystical majesty that his opium-addled imagination might have recognised. Xanadu, like Beijing and almost every other city in China, is moving singlemindedly into the twenty-first century.
At its core Beijing is an intensely ordered city, a capital built on a strict north-south, east-west axis with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen at its heart. The direction of the streets is noted by colour, and the signposting of highways, streets and even bridges is well marked. But for me the unfathomable nature of Beijing was the result of many factors: my own out-of-town (well out of town) status, the misty miasma of the poisonous cloud that shrouded the entire city, and what felt like the looping insanity of the ring roads. Every time we'd set out for a particular direction in a taxi, we'd be taken in a different direction. I'd do my best to keep track of where I was, but then all of a sudden it would seem as though entire building blocks had been moved overnight. The effect made my powers of negotiating space as queasy as Coleridge's might have been.
While this response might sound riddled with a loopiness of its own, it should be understood in the context of the city. Every night, throughout the night, I could hear the jack-hammering going on through the double-glazing of the windows. And every morning there would be vast tracts of road that had either been removed or returned. I couldn't understand how this could be done in such a short time and with traffic that never stopped flowing. I began to understand Paul Theroux's conviction that the Chinese were obsessed with digging.
The consistency with which things were being not only built but re-built in the small territory that become our 'local area' prepared me to accept that anything might be possible in a city so committed to completely changing its profile in such a short time.
The fact that so many historical sites had been preserved seemed more amazing than the knowledge that so much of the old city had been replaced. The chastisements of the guidebooks seemed justifiable; there was a price to be paid for all this overnight modernisation. But as history would suggest, the Chinese had always possessed a willingness to pay a high price for change.
SO MUCH OF a political nature in Beijing inevitably falls into the liminal zones of speculation. The rumour that the cultural police had made the rounds of Da Shanzi gallery district following a fire bomb tossed into Tiananmen Square in the days that followed the June 4 commemoration spread quickly. No one was sure exactly when it had occurred – none of the press, of course, covered it, and no one I spoke to seemed to be able to track the event through the international media.
It was only word of mouth that connected the alleged fire bombing to the alleged visit to Da Shanzi by representatives from the National Security, who, reportedly, had gone from gallery to gallery in the precinct warning directors that any inflammatory images of Mao could be exhibited, but they were no longer allowed to be sold. This 'incident' seemed surprising given the leniency granted contemporary artists for so long, and particularly surprising in the lead-up to the Olympics, but if it had happened, it would not have been out of synch with other patterns of handling of dissent; just another case of growing tolerance suddenly igniting a naive and senseless retribution. At least, that's how such shifts continue to appear to the West.
Walking around the galleries of Da Shanzi had revealed a drop-off in the various ways of re-imaging Mao that had also been such a leading subject matter since 1989. Apart from the Gao brothers, who had invented a character called Miss Mao with perfectly formed pert breasts perched on a tiny body supporting a swollen face, and a mouth full of malevolently pointed teeth, new renditions of the Great Helmsman seem to have been supplanted by far more marketable, cheesy imagery. To my eyes, so much of the art of Da Shanzi was looking 'in tune' with the buying public – apart from the Long March group, there was not much toughness to be found.
And it wasn't that the Gao's Miss Mao wouldn't have been marketable; a cross somewhere between a kewpie doll, Mickey Mouse and a Gerry-G horror show, she had been produced in a range of colours in shiny-finish resin, blown up larger than life and photographed with breathtaking sophistication against a range of Beijing icons. She was a prime example of a multi-platform international art object – able to be purchased in sculptural form, as a fine art photograph, or as the idol of a coffee table catalogue. The Gaos had a well-established reputation among China's most highly acknowledged international art stars. Their earlier performance pieces – Homeless Dinner and Twenty Minute Hug – granted them a cache of street-cred that had been gradually smoothed into the slick packaging of contemporary international art.
So the point that Miss Mao would have been marketable only related to the rumour that the cultural police had made the rounds of Da Shanzi. Such stories, though, could only ever be categorised as conjecture, and would never be resolved.
The expressionless hostility we faced every time we entered our building's lift seemed enough for us to deal with in a one-month visit. The refusal to engage seemed to be a portent until we chanced upon the antidote that broke the malevolent spell. One morning, festooned with a series of bags of our carefully sorted garbage – used toilet paper, food scraps, plastic recyclables, empty water bottles, the lift lady's face seemed to momentarily lift into what could only be described as 'an expression'. Using her sawn-off stick, she prodded the plastic bag that contained the empty drink bottles and made it clear that she would like them. My daughter extracted them and silently handed them over.
The response was something like a glacier melting – as the tiny cube descended the short four levels, there was a rumbling, a slow crackling, an oozing and then a veritable torrent of communication. Not a word of which made any sense to either of us. But we understood – the empty bottles were worth something. They were a contribution we could make to her, and that small act made us useful. We were no longer pariahs. We were no longer outsiders. Well, we remained outsiders, but outsiders who could be fitted into a role that made our presence at least tolerable, and from then on there was a difference in the way we began and ended our days, leaving and returning to the building in our ongoing search to (see) Beijing youth daily.