We spent the morning in 798 district – larger, more established and more obviously a tourist destination than it was three years ago (and perhaps inevitably less interesting). I’m finding it hard to make sense of the different strands of Chinese art practice. There’s a traditional strand of beaux arts practice brought in by the French in the 1940s and represented by the amazing rotunda of casts in the Academy, and which was added to recently from Copenhagen (hard to imagine us adding to our collection of casts). It seems that students are still encouraged to – or possibly required to – draw from the antique following the conventions of traditional academic practice, now abandoned in the west. There’s traditional Chinese ink painting, still practised traditionally, but also being reinvented, as evident in a recent exhibition Ink Art in Contemporary China at the Met. There’s contemporary abstract art. And there’s art in a more international, experimental manner as represented in private collections. But it’s very hard to work out how they interact, if at all, except all strands seem to be represented at the Academy.
We have just come back from a wonderful outing to meet Mr. Zhu. We drove deep into the countryside outside Beijing where the landscape becomes hilly and full of vineyards. This is where Mr. Zhu has the headquarters of his agricultural empire, including camels. When the communist regime began to encourage private enterprise, he saw the opportunity of marketing juice. Now he supplies all the fruit juice in China. From this benign agricultural activity, he has built his own private museum of geological specimens, the most remarkable fossils, as well as rare bottles of wine and juice packaging from around the world. The British Ambassador arrived and we had the most delicious meal of the finest thin beef and fresh vegetables gathered straight from the fields, cooked in little stewpots in front of one. We drank the best French and Italian wines washed down with plentiful toasts.
We took Ai Weiwei’s diploma to his studio in a house somewhere in the deep outskirts of Beijing. He was elected an RA a couple of years ago, just after he came out of prison, but we don’t like to consign the diploma to the vagaries of the international post. It was unexpectedly moving handing it over to him. He asked how many there are. The answer is not many, about 25, because we are only allowed to elect two a year, and we don’t always remember those two. He is the first Asian artist. I read out the Obligation, which I luckily remembered was printed in the copy of my book which I had brought to give him, although I’m not convinced it was strictly necessary. Continue reading
By a weird coincidence, as I arrive in Beijing, I am reading an excellent biography of Sir William Jones by Michael Franklin and discover that Jones was not only interested in Persian and Arabic, which I already knew, but translated a Chinese ode when he was in Paris in 1770 having had dinner at the house of Joshua Reynolds with Whang Atong, a visitor from Canton. Jones collected Chinese manuscripts whilst a judge in Calcutta and tried to persuade Whang to translate more early Chinese poetry into English, long, long before Arthur Waley.
It all came back to me from my one and only previous visit to Beijing: the immensity: the airport which is twice as big as any airport anywhere; the ten lane highways; not knowing where one is going, north or south. Luckily, Philip Dodd was there to meet us, tell us our schedule and explain the ropes. My hearing has gone altogether and it is eerily quiet.
I’ve always liked Hong Kong; the sense of concentrated energy, the ever higher high-rise buildings in the folds of the hills, the way that the man at the Mandarin greets one by saying ‘Welcome back, sir’ as if he remembers the last time. It’s not been so easy this time because I arrived with a streaming cold which only got worse, but this has not prevented the usual overwhelming hospitality: lunch with David Tang in honour of Zaha Hadid who has opened a new design building earlier in the week; a talk at the Fringe Club in which I tried to describe the history of the RA and its current interest in Hong Kong, followed by a talk on the history of art in Hong Kong by Victor Lai which I was luckily able to follow thanks to simultaneous translation; and lunch with Adrian Cheng, our new, energetic and capable trustee who seems to own half of Hong Kong including the Grand Hyatt where we had lunch. Continue reading