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Newsletter 283

Published April 25, 2019
Shenzhen’s God of Wealth

As I write this I’m flying down to Shenzhen from Xi’an. By now I’m getting towards the end of a China tour that began in Xi’an, travelled east to Beijing, returned to Xi’an, is heading into Shenzhen, then flying back to Beijing. This is what happens when you try to combine three separate sets of tasks into one trip. It’s nuts.

Nevertheless I’ve seen some remarkable things, most recently the Hanyangling museum, just outside of Xi’an, which is barely visited by the tourists that swarm all over the Terracotta Warriors site. The figures in the Han tombs are mostly doll-sized and found in much greater numbers. Instead of 8,000 life-sized warriors  there may be 50,000 figurines representing all aspects of life at that period. Most of them seem to be smiling – suggesting that their lot was better than it had been under the preious dynasty, the Qin. There are also vast quantities of clay horses, cows, dogs and pigs, all accompanying the Emperor into the afterlife.  Only a tiny portion of the Han tombs have been excavated, so there’s enough to keep archaeologists busy for a few hundred years at current rates of progress. Archaeology is possibly the only thing the Chinese do slowly.

As for China itself, well the same infuriating obstruction and censorship appliy every time one logs onto the Internet. The same spitting, pushing and shoving takes place in all public places. Restaurant touts and hawkers are perpetually shouting at you in the streets. People sit around with their phones blaring out music or chat, wth no thought of anyone around them… But if you can endure the chaos there’s a great vitality in everything.

And there are always surprises. After becoming accustomed to a fairly standard brand of rude, abrupt waiter or waitress, I found the friendliest restaurant I’ve ever encountered in China. In a local place in Xi’an the staff were all smiles and laughter. They all wanted photos with the foreigners. When we departed even the other customers waved goodbye!

The moral of the story is that China, despite its many frustrations, is a pretty magical place – at least for a week or so.

China had a big impact on Suzanne Archer when she travelled there a few years ago. On the evidence of her retrospective, Song of the Cicada, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, every place Archer has visited seems to have fed back into her work quite a dynamic, unpredictable fashion.

Archer’s show is the subject of this week’s art review. It reveals an amazingly versatile sensibility, willing to veer between abstraction and figuration, and to go wherever mood and moment dictate. I couldn’t help thinking that Archer has ‘the right stuff’ compared to all those artists who are forever fastening onto topical themes and issues. It lends their work a mechanical aspect – even if the politics are heartfelt. What one looks for in an artist is a free flow of imagination, not a correct set of attitudes.

This week’s film is Burning, by Lee Chang-dong, a Korean director who doesn’t make many movies, but every one of them is an eye-opener. I had slightly ambiguous feelings while watching Burning, but it’s stayed in my mind like only the good films do.

By the way, Nick Shimmin has written to tell me that my thoughts on the Chinese film industry are far too pessimistic, and there’s currently a boom in independent productions. I only hope he’s right. If I still remain a little sceptical it’s because he cites An Elephant Sitting Stillas an outstanding example of the new cinema. I wouldn’t dispute the quality of that film, but when the difficulties of getting a feature made and shown lead a 29-year-old director to commit suicide, it strains the definition of success.