Tuesday, December 9, 2014


On my way out of Logan and flying to JFK for connecting flight to Beijing.
Then a domestic flight from Beijing to Shenzhen. In total, a 30 hour trip from door to door
with a 12-hour time difference.

I just returned from a 5 1/2 week stay in China. The first month I was a resident at Da Wang Culture Highland with 4 other artists from Holland, Great Britain and China. The last 10 days I travelled to the north visiting Xi'an and Beijing with my husband.

I tried to journal as much as possible but kept it brief so as not to become totally burdened and bored with the task. There was very limited internet due both to the censorship of the Chinese government and the poor access that comes with being located at the base of a Mountain in a rural area. So this means that I'm trying to write about my first impressions, 6 weeks after the fact, and now at home on the other side of the globe in Boston. I hope I can capture the awe of what is was like for me.

China is indescribable. Everything is different. The language is impossible to decipher both the spoken and the written. Hand signals mean different things, even counting from 1 to 10 uses different gestures than we know. Communication is non verbal if at all. For someone whose work often involves public interaction and participation, it's a very strange way to inhabit a space.

Da Wang Culture Highland is a rural area officially cited as an arts center and shares its space with an experimental Waldorf School and several small restaurants. It's very chinese to integrate all categories of living situations together – in this case a nature conservancy plus arts center plus several restaurants plus school, plus bike path etc etc. At first I had a tough time getting my head around it, but quickly learned to just accept this new type of organization for what it was, instead of trying to reformat it into my alien western template. This became a recurring theme for my stay here, to ignore my preconceptions and be accepting of different realities.

The legendary squat toilets that everyone likes to talk about. Not so bad and really quite practical. As for toilet paper... everyone just brings their own. And if we're totally honest about it, even though it's expected to be provided, most American public toilets don't have it either. I spied many young Chinese women brandishing large packages in their very stylish and quite trendy pocketbooks.

Da Wang is located just outside of Shenzhen, a monster of a city that in the early 1980s was proclaimed to be a number one Special Economic Zone. This means that they receive priority for financial and infrastructure support from the government as a center for manufacturing and production. In a short thirty years it has grown from a very small fishing village to a behemoth city of 40 million people. I was told that it takes about 3 hours to travel from one end to the other by car.

A major road before rush hour. As one would expect in such a densely populated area, the traffic here is legendary. I even heard about 'People Jams' where individuals get stuck in a crowd while walking down the street and it sometimes can take 10 minutes or more to become clear of it.

The growth is ongoing. The web of businesses and apartment buildings is incomprehensible. The population is mostly young people transported from small villages from the middle of China. One of the first questions between native Chinese in Shenzhen is to ask each other which province they come from, because no one is from Shenzhen. Instead of an organic emergence from the roots up, it is fabricated from a predetermined plan of expansion and productivity imposed from the top down.

Shenzhen is all about the shopping mall – I only visited one here at Coco Park but saw many listed on the Metro map all over the city. Being so young, the architecture is very new and contemporary. The contrast was exaggerated even more with my return to the States - ours is very dated in comparison. They invite the best and brightest architects from all over the world to design here. It's very exciting to see.

There is an air of optimism, hope and possibility. They have a new and unprecedented consumer presence and there is no scarcity of jobs for the young like in most western cities. It definitely feels like a new frontier. That said, there is a sense of emptiness, confusion and wonder about their new identity. Building concrete infrastructure is a simpler task than the development of a city's culture and soul. China's rich history dates over 8000 years and Shenzhen is happening in about 30, creating a gap where a young and diverse population is patiently trying to find their place within the rapid expansion of bricks and mortar.

This shot was quickly taken from inside a taxi. It is what the Chinese call a Ghost City. In the whole of China there are over 60 million empty apartment skyscraper buildings. Since the country doesn't allow foreign investment, the wealthy middle class invest in the national construction projects. Historically the booming real estate market has made this a profitable investment with good returns. With this current glut of buildings, some are predicting a financial collapse. Others think the government is planning on using them to house more people that they move from the country villages.

The following posts are a collection of singular, random events that hopefully will translate into what it was like to face the challenges of daily life in such a strange land yet still be able to focus on artwork. I arrived at Da Wang without a plan and without many materials to speak of. This sounded so romantic at the time but I quickly realized that this decision was going to push me into directions where I needed to be flexible and resourceful with whatever materials I could find within my immediate surroundings.

With two suitcases, only two hands and traveling alone, my carryon needed to be a backpack. It was tricky to figure out what to bring for 3 different weather latitudes, art supplies, gifts, and electronics for over a month. 

This post is part of a series documenting my experiences in China. 
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