Sunday, September 30, 2007

Journey to China: The Summer Palace

[Temple embellishment-The Summer Palace, Beijing]

Mr Li met me at Beijing International Airport. There were perhaps one thousand cardboard signs held by one thousand greeters, each with a thousand distinct names written in black marker. It took ten minutes to find mine. The fourteen hour plane trip melted away as a renewed jolt of adrenaline shot through my bones. It is nice to arrive as a guest in a foreign land...

Mr. Li took my bag and negotiated a taxi into the city. Crowded freeways heaved under the strain of congestion and sleek office towers reached the heavens. As far as I could see, endless forests of construction cranes filled the sky. Beijing is growing. Beijing is expanding. Beijing is not fooling.

In the backseat of the Taxi, Mr Li was full of questions for me.
"What is your opinion of China? What area of art is your expertise? Are you hungry? Feeling tired?"

Soon we were discussing my impressions of the architecture, the traffic, the color of the afternoon air, the smells of spicy food from a passing street vendor... The thrill of travel is often simply the perception of simple things as being novel, beautiful and magical. So it was when the taxi finally reached our hotel , snug in Haidian district, the University district of Beijing.

In two days I would be lecturing about how art changes lives at The International Conference on the Comparison of Chinese and Western Art Education. For the time being, I would need to sleep. My hotel room was waiting.

After checking in and crashing on the bed for an hour, Mr. Li awoke me. It was dinner time.
Eating in China is so constant a theme, and so important an aspect of life that one of the common greetings in China is: "Have you eaten yet?" Our party of art professors and translators met in the lobby and we walked west to a lavish former royal garden residence of a Qing dynasty prince that had been turned into a kind of fantastic theme restaurant called "Bai Jia Da Yuan"

[The garden setting and costumed servers of the Bai Jia Da Yuan]

The jaw-droppingly picturesque restaurant promotes their establishment with the following lines:

"...When you go into Restaurant of Family Bai, you will hear the leisurely ancient music, lingering and reverberating, and smell the fragrance of flowers and grass permeating in the air. By a squatting down ( ancient form of etiquette) and a saying of " Nin Ji Xiang" ( ancient greeting, meaning " Good Luck to You" or " Welcome "), the " maid of honor " holding a silk handkerchief in the hand, will lead you into this poetic and picturesque wonderland. Architecture of the Qing Dynasty, garden of the Qing Dynasty, habiliments of the Qing Dynasty, etiquette of the Qing Dynasty, music of the Qing Dynasty, caterings of the Qing Dynasty .. The impressive cultural atmosphere of the Qing Dynasty, all will take you back into the history 300 years ago."

It was time for my first meal on Chinese soil.

The meal was a sumptuous banquet. We were served Peking duck, shrimp, whitefish, sea cucumber, wine and a dozen rice, vegetable and fruit dishes. Did I mention the wine? Toasts to our new friends, toasts from our new friends, toasts to the arts, our respective nations and the beauty of the evening contributed to my swooning feeling of excitement and joy. I learned that I would have a full day in Beijing to myself before the train trip to the conference , and I eagerly chose to see The Summer Palace.

The true name of the Summer Palace is Yíhé Yuán; literally "Garden of Nurtured Harmony." begun in 1750, it was a vast garden built by the Emperor, who wished to have a retreat from the Forbidden City.
Destroyed by Invading French troops in 1860 and again by French British and American forces in 1900, the Summer Palace was rebuilt by the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi who used funds earmarked for the Chinese navy to carry out her plan starting in 1903. (The vision of this stunning place burning twice under the pompous hands of Anglo-Allied powers was haunting and horrific to me.)

The next morning , Mr. Li Xiujian joined me as guide, and friend to the Summer Palace.

[The steep steps leading up longevity hill to the temple of the fragrant Buddha at the Summer Palace.]

[The view from the top of the steps, looking back down over Kunming lake.]

[The old and very modern collide. A view of Beijing in the distance...]

[My airport greeter and translator, the charming and highly educated Mr Li Xiujian.]

[Yours truly, posing with a lion-dragon at the base of the famed 17 arch bridge.]

This stunning 150 meter long bridge was built in 1750 by the Qing Emperor Qian Long. The bridge is constructed of 17 arches. The number 17 is based upon the use of Chinese numerology.
The number eight is symbolic of luck and wealth . Nine is considered the most auspicious for Emperors. The largest arch in the span of the bridge is the ninth, symbolizing the Emperor, with the remaining sixteen arches being split: eight arches on each side...

There are 544 carved stone lions along the railings.

[Travel back in time across the lake on one of the dragon boats...]

[The Grand Pavilion]

[Standing in the center of the pavilion, and looking straight up...]

After walking through innumerable palatial residential structures and courtyards, we found ourselves funneling towards the eastern entrance of the "Long Corridor".

The Long Corridor, it is said, was built by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty in order that his mother might safely walk by the lake shore without the inconvenience of having the sun shine upon her pale complexion...

It is the agreement among scholars and bedazzled tourists alike that at the top of all classical Chinese corridors must be listed the "Long Corridor" at Beijing's Summer Palace. By any standards, ( artistic, architectural, or for sheer ostentaciousness), the Long Corridor is a force to be rekconed with. A seemingly delicate structure of 728 meters, it stretches its 273 bays between the hill and the lake, broken at even intervals by four octagonal pavilions, each honoring the four seasons of the calendar year. Upon all of it's beams, and upon every square inch of it's visible surface are vibrant hand-created paintings featuring full-colored images of poetic landscapes, mythological and traditional human figures, floral motifs, exotic and domestic birds and scenes reflecting historical battles and popular folk stories.

These paintings total more than 40,000 in number. Mathematically, a focused and captivated visitor would need eight hours simply to linger two seconds before each individual picture.

My guide Mr Lee was an avid student of the stories and characters depicted in the decorative panels, and I got a detailed rundown of the major stories and symbolic motifs that were represented.

[ A portion of the seemingly endless Long Corridor]

[A final view of the Temple of the Fragrant Buddha.]

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

China: Ascending Mount Taishan

"Professor John Paul, I have a question for you: It has been keeping me up at nights, thinking and wondering... In many paintings created from the west... Why is there no mountain?"

The question was asked by my new Chinese friend and translator, Wang Qi. She repeated the last part for emphasis and waited for my answer: " Why is there no mountain?"

What a question! We were on a lumbering tour bus, winding it's way upward past lush forest glens, rocky outcroppings and temples half shrouded in swirling veils of atmospheric mist. We were on our way to ascend to the summit of the greatest mountain in China. The great mountain of the east and the first mountain under heaven, Mount TaiShan.

What was she really asking me? It gave me an electric thrill just to ponder the true meaning of her question as my brain searched for an answer to this strange-sounding inquiry. "Why is there no mountain?"

Having just lectured at the International Symposium on the Comparative Research of Contemporary Chinese and Western Art Education, I had learned what "The Mountain" really symbolized...

I had a discussion during dinner the previous day with a famous professor from Peking University, and we were asking each other questions about aesthetics. In China, the term aesthetics refers to an appreciation and knowledge of art- not just in technical terms- but as a hierarchy of beauty and as a moral force. (Tell an American artist that their work should reflect a hierarchy of beauty and be a moral force and you will be called a damned fascist.)

I asked the Chinese professor about this hierarchy, and I was told in no uncertain terms that the most beautiful and moral thing on Earth was : "The mountain." The next most beautiful thing was "The mountain, against a sunset" Next came "The mountain in fog" followed by various combinations of water, trees, rocks, flowers and other aspects of nature.

To this I answered that in my painting classes back in Los Angeles, I liked to give my students an assignment: I ask them to bring to class an object that they find beautiful. I stunned the Chinese aesthetics professor by telling him that some students might bring a finely crafted porcelain vase holding a rose, while another might bring in an old worn shoe.

"How could an old shoe be beautiful?!" he burst out. I defended that the shoe could be beautiful because it reflected the journey of the wearer. It 's form had been creased and weathered through years of fulfilling it's purpose, which was to protect the tender foot of its owner. The materials may appear stained and discolored in fascinatingly unexpected ways over time. It could certainly be beautiful, I argued.

The professor from Peking laughed. "But, could an old shoe be a moral force?"

Before I could formulate a suitable Zen-like retort, the professor continued: "The mountain is symbolic of where the Earth meets heaven. It is where the gods dwell. It is the Emperor. it is unmovable, eternal, unshakable. It is symbolic of the ever-lasting. The mountain is like a god."

So, when my translator asked me "Why is there no mountain" in most western art, she was really saying "Why is there no GOD in most western art?."

Why is there no sacredness in most western art?
Symbolically, literally...I was shaken by this observation.

The ascent to the top of Mount Taishan helped me to understand the cultural connection and reverence the people of China have for the mountain...

The base of Mount Taishan features a huge map, describing the various ways to scale the home of the gods. We would be going to the tip top!

Here I stand in the first stage of the ascent: a huge open square-shaped courtyard. In Chinese aesthetics, the square symbolizes the Earth. The tall stone columns are carved with dragons, symbolizing power and eternity. They lead up to a second courtyard, shaped like a circle. The circle symbolizes the heavens. Thus, Mount Taishan is where the Earth and the heavens meet.

The towering detailed dragons are so incredible... and in between the two rows of columns in the center of the stairway rests this huge stone carving representing the ancient Emperor's climb up the mountain...

The Emperor would have traveled with an army, aided by elephants and horses. The carving depicts the seemingly endless layers of clouds and steep cliffs.

Finally, the Emperor is shone as a proud figure seated on his mountain-top throne.

Here is the circular courtyard at the top of the stairs, representing heaven. It is here that we board a bus to take us to the waiting cable cars. ( Elephants would have been cool, too, but it would have taken months to reach the top).

Rising up into the mist...

Finally we reach the topmost series of summits. Here I am with my new friends and translators, Qi ( In white) and QuinHua. Both lovely ladies are art aesthetics professors in China. What wonderful people!

The first temple can be reached by a steep set of about twelve thousand stairs ( seen disappearing down to the right.) I would have taken that route if I could, but our tour time was limited. We still have a lot of climbing before we reach the sacred temple at the very top...

The smoke is incense being burned in the shrine. A steady ringing of a huge bell fills the air.

Thousands of metal locks are placed on the shrines by married couples who scale the mountain. They leave the locks and then throw the keys off the side of the mountain to symbolize everlasting love.

The smell of burning incense , smoke, tolling bells...

The beginning of our steep ascent by stairs...

Beautiful Professor Zheng from Tsinghua University is a remarkable woman who scampered up the steps with ease...

At the top of the steps sits the highest shrine of Mount Taishan...

The temples in the clouds...

...and ancient walls where Emperors of the Qin, Han and Tang dynasties carved their identifying marks directly into the rock.

The final shrine is buzzing with activity.

An amazing day at Mount Taishan, in Tai'an, Shandong China.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

China: Art Behind Closed Doors

It was time. I felt it in my gut. It was time to put down my chopsticks and put a pencil in my hand…

While attending the International Symposium on the Comparative Research of Modern and Contemporary Chinese and Western Art Education, I became hungry for some creative action. For days, every conversation with my Chinese colleagues had been revolving around questions of aesthetics, issues of philosophy and modalities of learning. Before heading out to breakfast at the elegant Hotel and conference center, I stashed a handful of art materials into my backpack. The objective: To provoke my new-found Chinese colleagues into the act of making some art.

Eating is a serious business in China, as even our breakfasts consisted of a buffet fit for kings. I decided to forgo my early morning feast and play the role of independant Western-artist. Sitting down with only a steaming glass of soy-milk, I boldly removed the materials from my backpack and began to create an artwork right there at the table.

I was sitting next to the wife of our host, the Director of Shandong University. She immediately began exclaiming something excitedly while I told her through our translator that I was intending to create a gift for her.

Taking a common pencil and a soft sheet of artists printing foam, I began etching the design of a feathered crane into the surface. A small cluster of onlookers drew nearer, and I handed them samples of the foam to inspect. I told the professors that they were welcome to come to my room that evening to learn how to create a block print of their own!

This invitation was casual but markedly insistent. I knew that they would not, out of grace, decline the invitation. So the conference continued on through the day, with further discussion of artistic direction, artistic concern and artistic inquiry- all verbal of course. Finally our sumptuous evening dinner provided me with the opportunity to remind my new friends of my invitation. “We will be there at 8:30 pm“, my translator Wang Qi said.

I hurried back to my hotel room to spread out newspapers, lay out an ink tray, brayers and more printing foam. When the professors arrived, I experienced one of the most magical evenings of my teaching career.

I did a little demonstration of how to create a block print. Indeed, this is one of my favorite art projects, being a huge hit with children and adults ( and was used in the creation of the project I was involved in for the United nations Environmental Programme.)

Explaining how my attentive participants could use color, line and design to create their own artwork, I was met with a primary question: “What were the rules?” I had the delight of answering that there really weren’t any rules…just creative choices.

They were in new territory…

Quin Hua, my translator Qi and the good professor Steven Fletcher ( From Northern California) were first in line to begin the process. I taught them a little and had them go through the entire art making process themselves:

Step One: a rectangle of color is created on a piece of paper. Issues of color choice, and random or controlled imagery come into play. These colors will form a base upon which the print will be applied.

Steps two and three: An image is etched into the printing foam, and printer's ink is rolled onto the etched surface. Step four: the inked foam surface is pressed onto the colored paper surface.
The results: Joy.

The way they described the process filled my heart. They described it as …“freedom”.

A knock at the door signaled that more distinguished professors had arrived and I had Professor Quin Hua do the honors and teach them the just-learned process. I handed her the torch and just sat back with a smile on my face. Mess-making. The smell of oil pastels and printing ink was sweet to my senses.

At one moment, the scene before me made me laugh. Here were these distinguished professors from Beijing’s top Universities kneeling down beside my bed , coloring like happy children. Steven Fletcher quietly went next door to retrieve his flute, and began playing a gentle song as the impromptu workshop unfolded.

Their apprehension about “not being qualified to create art" was surprising to me. They were some of China’s most esteemed professors of art aesthetics, but did not create art themselves. My dearChinese hosts told me that they had not actually made art since they were very young.

A print of her childhood home...

We discussed how this project could be included in their curriculum, so that their students could experience these sensations of choice making, creativity and “freedom”.

The evening was enlivened further as Steven offered to give flute lessons. Professor Cheng broke into song, and danced spontaneously while Steven played. We all clapped and laughed and joined in. It was the most memorable of times.

Time for music, dancing and childhood songs... I am sure we kept many guests awake.

There is nothing as thrilling as having barriers erased between people.

Art triumphed.