Chinese Lessons

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Though the invitation to travel to Beijing came up only a couple of months ago, I was preparing myself for this trip –- without even realizing it -– for almost a year.

First, I read a book by John Pomfret, Washington Post Journalist, who has a unique insight into the Chinese culture and character. In the early 1980's, he was not only one of the first Americans who was allowed to attend a Chinese university, but he also got to live with his classmates in a cramped dormitory, which gave him a rare chance to get to know them up close and personal. Twenty years later, he returned to China and tracked some of them down to learn what happened in the ensuing years. The resulting book, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, makes captivating reading that I recommend to anyone contemplating a real or armchair trip to China.

Then a friend dragged me to a movie theater to see a documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, which follows a well-known Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky, on his journey through China. Burtynsky creates images of troubling beauty that document the horrendous impact industrial development has on the environment. The video camera follows him on his photo shoots, like a Greek chorus providing extra visual information. It was difficult not to think about this documentary when, after the first few cool, sunny days in Beijing, the weather abruptly changed and thick smog enveloped the city in an impenetrable gray coat.

To my surprise, the major tourist sites –- the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City -– unique and formidable as they are, made less of an impression on me than I expected. I experienced the Forbidden City as a rather "Foreboding City," a sort of exquisitely designed, no-expense-spared imperial Gulag. What impressed, even inspired me, is the construction site of the Olympic Village with its visionary new stadium built by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. They collaborated with the most celebrated Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who came up with the idea of constructing the stadium in the shape of a bird's nest, symbolizing good fortune.

The influence of this artist and his vision is such that whatever he does commands media attention from around the world. For his conceptual project at Documenta in Kassel this summer, he brought 1,000 fellow countrymen who lived in a communal setting designed by him. The studio he built for himself on the outskirts of Beijing became the center of an artistic community whose low-slung buildings of gray bricks were designed by him in a very personal style that's minimalistic and ornate at the same time. That's where I saw a first-rate exhibition at the recently opened Three Shadows Art Centre, the first contemporary art center for photography in China.

However, the most memorable encounter with art took place at the spacious Universal Studios Gallery where I saw a video installation by Qiu Anxiong, who placed inside the gallery a real, no-frills railroad car similar to those I remember riding in Soviet Russia in the 50's and 60's. Stepping inside, one is confronted with soul-stirring footage from Chinese documentaries and newsreels projected onto all of the windows. Propaganda footage is interspersed with scenes of brutality inflicted on Chinese people during World War II and the Cultural Revolution. Each window has its own video, and each video has an audio track, and all together that creates a claustrophobic cacophony of sights and sounds inside the train. The whole installation is a memorial to a painful chapter of Chinese history that many people would rather forget, and that explains the title of the installation: "Staring into Amnesia." A Chinese lesson indeed.

Breakout: Chinese Art Outside China, edited and with text by Melissa Chiu, 2007

Trailer for Jennifer Baichwal's documentary, Manufactured Landscapes

China by Edward Burtynsky, 2005

Banner image: Edward Burtynsky, Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, 2005