China 2008

Shanghai to Hangzhou, and Beijing.

Summer 2008 I spent two weeks in China with a dozen students from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Our trip was sandwiched between the devastating Sichuan earthquakes, in western China, and the start of the Beijing Olympics. I remember being warned against going to China. Concerns had ranged from aftershock earthquakes, to general anxiety about the food. The night we arrived I ate several mysterious dishes off of a customary lazy susan.

Shanghai has a distinct style of graffiti: phone numbers. The entire city is littered with phone numbers, allegedly of employers, scrawled and stenciled throughout the city. When we visited the M50 Art District, I was happy to find the familiar aesthetic of colorful wild styles graffiti, and interested in the way it’s centerpiece wall divided the arts district from the greater wall of distant looming apartments. Further down Moganshan road I discovered a gallery looking for artists to customize shoes they were about to donate to the children effected by the earthquake. I painted a couple happy Ice Cream People.

The staple narrative of the trip was the clash between ancient traditional Chinese culture and modern day development. Beautiful traditional temples were nested in the cracks of giant highly populated cities. Traditional foo dog statues were paired with cartoon mascots to guard the threshold of a chain restaurant. Even the Great Wall of China had been exploited with the addition of a fast twisting sled ride built right off the side.

While in Hangzhou I rented a bike, which was definitely not built for a 6’3″ american, to ride around the West Lake. It was funny how we also became attractions. In the water town of Xitang, as we take photographs of a village built on a river, we also get our photos taken. When approached to get his photo taken, my friend John made a habit of holding his pose long enough to capture his own photo of his new photo acquaintance.

John and I also found ourselves in the hidden underworld of The Bund Canal in Shanghai. After negotiating a good price for wheels you strap to your shoes, we rolled below the canal to find a psychedelic tram that ventured to the other bank. Expecting a low tech airport style tram, by the men in formal business attire we were grouped with, we were totally surprised by the tunnel’s intense led light show and waving inflatable tube men, which I vaguely remember was supposed to be a metaphor for hell? Also, with purchase of tram ride, we gained entry to an Aquarium and Sex Education exhibit. We happily discovered “lucky sea mammal taxidermy” at the aquarium, and a deluxe array of perverted kitschy sculptures in the sex exhibit.

Our next train was to Beijing. It was an overnight sleeper, with a window view survey of China’s rural countryside. That night we tango’d with a menu dish called “rape with mushroom”, which turned out to be a cabbage and mushroom stew. In Beijing we visited the 798 Art Complex, which is said to be the heart of China’s art market. We dared to enter the Forbidden City, and later caught a preview of the Olympic nest building. Ironically, the Olympic architecture was far more forbidden then the city. The nest was still under construction and heavily secured with armed guards.

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