I took a couple of workshops recently in Beijing. They were both well worth the time and in each case came with an added ‘bonus’ experience.
Through visiting a children’s toy exhibition and seeing a detailed model re-enacting the ‘Monkey King Wrecking Havoc in Heaven’ (as well as an exquisite diorama of Arhats at the Lama Temple) I had become interested in traditional dough figures. Originally used in festivals and also when someone passed away. In the latter case small sculptures were created in the image of the gods that relatives would like their loved ones to be blessed by in the afterlife.
It’s a 4,000 year old art that is dying out in China – there is no specific job role that comes from it, lack of elders to teach it and lack of patience of students. It takes years of constant practice to perfect.
I took a workshop in dough figure making run by an organization that supports the disabled community. The highly skilled teachers have disabilities themselves and the money goes back into the community. My teacher was Master Yan. He showed me his bulging scrapbook full of newspaper articles, commissions and official commendations. He carefully guards his dough recipe although I know it contains wheat flour, glutinous rice flour, honey, mineral pigments and glycerin.
He took me through some simple figures – a rabbit, rooster then mouse. Each model was satisfying in its particular set of deceptively simple actions to create more and more complex shapes.
At the end of the workshop the translator, Meixin, was going in the same direction as me so gave me an informal tour of a local Hutong. The Hutong we visited is one of the last ‘authentic’ ones left - elderly people play mahjong on the sidewalk. Beside them are their pet birds and crickets, in fine wooden cages.
Meixin let me know that officials had once lived in many of the houses on the street. The number of octagonal posts above the doors reflected their position. She said it was sad this life was changing. People used to live in close communities here - with unlocked doors and shared communal facilities.
I have also started a series of night lectures on contemporary Chinese art history – taken by Zhang Fang (of my last post). The first lecture gave a good grounding in how contemporary art came about in China following the cultural revolution. As the history got nearer to the last twenty years Fang was able to tell us personal antidotes about artists in the slides and also her experience of living through both eras of pre and post open China.
We don’t live far away from each other so shared a taxi back to Caochangdi at the end of the talk. As we stopped at a set of lights a black car pulled up next to us with a large sleeping man in the front passenger seat. Weirdly, after seeing his face only thirty minutes before in an art history slide, it was Ai Wei Wei. Fang, who knows him, shouted “wake up Wei” loudly in Mandarin and he looked up sleepy and confused. Recognizing Fang as our cab pulled forward, I could still hear him laughing as we rounded the next bend. Only in China.