‘You spin around once and everything is different’
‘The first piece of advice when you consider going to China: ignore the dominant image of China as it is presented in the media. A kind of fear can creep into that condensed image of a superpower, which isn’t helpful, and which narrows your view. After one week in China I already noticed that I had to deconstruct my ideas. The history of communism; the influence of the Cold War; comic books such as Tintin in China; the idea that China is poor and that it is all about cheap labour; that China is the factory of the whole world. Made in China! Okay, but then what? We are dealing with a country that will take up a leading role in the 21st century. I wanted to forget everything and look at it anew. Thus an open mind is the first piece of advice. The second piece of advice, connected to the first one, would be: be super flexible. Flexibility is essential in China. If you visit with a preconceived plan, things will definitely turn out differently than you think.’
Simon Wald-Lasowksi (1980, Paris) graduated from the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, worked as an advertising photographer and art director and then studied at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, in order to further develop his autonomous work. Now he just got back from China and is still reeling from his return flight and an intense year as artist-in-residence at the Institute for Provocation (IFP).
The IFP is an independent art platform in Beijing with a project space for exhibitions, performances, screenings, workshops and conferences. It is a leading platform, with both a theoretical and a practical profile, and a strong network throughout China. Artists that are in residency there can therefore also do research outside the capital at fellow institutes, allowing them to review the diversity of cultures in the country and the rapidly changing society from various angles. Wald-Lasowski experienced that diversity and vitality from up close.
Eateries with spiders and scorpions
‘You spin around once’, he says, ‘and everything is immediately different. China changes so rapidly. I saw entire streets disappear from one day to the next. When my sister visited I wanted to take her to a neighbourhood full of food stalls, popular with tourists from inside and outside China, because you can show off, shuddering from the eccentric snacks such as scorpions or spiders. It turned out the entire street could no longer be found: cleaned out, crushed, and replaced by representative buildings. And that was still a remote thing for me. My own studio, my living space and the complete IFP had changed address when I came back to Beijing after a month of traveling through China. The government is a fast decider, not used to discussion. Even a month is plenty of time: you may also receive a notice to pack your things within 24 hours. Everything that seems self-evident today may have faded by tomorrow. That summons an intensity of life that has something addictive to it, and that brings people closer together; when you are amongst each other, before long you pour your heart out. Conversely, you also become acutely aware of how safe and comfortable the Netherlands can be, sometimes even stupefying; we almost forget what we stand to lose.’
When Wald-Lasowski started his residency, the IFP was housed in a hutong in the old centre: traditional wooden architecture situated around a courtyard, with a rural atmosphere, in the ring around the former Forbidden City. ‘It was picturesque; a historical image of China before the Cultural Revolution. The government now claims that area as a showpiece. Small businesses, eateries and markets have to give way. The IFP was located there for almost ten years. When I came back from my field trip, it was suddenly located high and dry in art district 798: on the third floor of a house near a former military factory complex, now occupied by art and art trade. From a roof terrace on the fourth floor, you can watch that district and the modern city: you have a direct view of the gentrification. It is less romantic than a hutong, but it is exemplary of the setting of contemporary China, so in that sense it’s more realistic. For me that was fine; I wanted to get to know the country, and with this experience the bubble had been popped.’
The art district as ideal selfie hotspot
Art district 798 is a mix of studios, galleries and art dealers, with ‘experiment next to commercialism,’ as Wald-Lasowski points out. The nineties saw artists, important names today, pioneering there. ‘Now there are bombastic as well as modest showrooms and studios; high and low culture come together. There is conceptual art, art as a trade commodity, and art as craft, made by bizarrely skilled bronze casters and stonemasons. And on the ground floor there is the oasis of ABC, Art Books in China, a cultural bookshop that is run by six superpower women. They publish artist publications, make exhibitions with them, and organise art book fairs; this meets an enormous need, because hardly any printed matter is being produced and distributed anymore. IFP and ABC also cooperate with each other. Because they are independent institutes, they can give just that extra free spirit to the block. To me, as an artist, what is most fascinating about the whole setting is that it functions as the ideal selfie hotspot. The industrial surrounding with its graffiti draws crowds of people, also on Mondays, when the galleries are closed. 798 still represents something other than a shopping mall, maybe because of the idea of freedom wandering there.
Beer fountain celebrates dazzling cooperation
In his own sculptures, videos and installations, Wald-Lasowski also conjures a world of extremes. His work arises from a vortex of art, design and utensils. He is a collector and storyteller, with an eye for the character of objects that come into the world as a bargain or throwaway. He’s after their symbolic meaning: the soul of the things. His palette d’objets, as he calls it, using a term of the surrealist French writer Louis Aragon, is coloured by toys, curiosa, mantelpiece knick-knacks and everyday objects such as cleaning gloves. ‘Various continents and cultures have a different palette, despite all the international trade,’ he says. Nevertheless, his work has a strong core: it reflects the consumer paradise, just as tempting as it is insatiable.
With an enormous beer fountain fizzing through the exhibition space, at a temporary location that IFP, for the occasion, found at a fellow institute, he threw a party in honour of the dynamics, and as an ode to the fluent cooperation. Colourful animals from the toy industry lend a face to the fountain, between the streams of beer spouting in curves through the space. The ice-bear, unicorn, tiger and other animals are made of extra shiny, varnished plastics, designed as bottle holders: lying on their backs, paws held up to hold the bottle, and their mouths opened in a bottomless thirst. The festive sculpture carries a critical undercurrent. ‘As an art viewer, do you attend the opening for the art? Or for the drinks? Maybe it is an obscene rather than a festive fountain.’ And there is more that is flowing through it: ‘The influx of information and our tendency to go along with that, even when we are being consumed by it. Or the desire for attention, for a rush, the rush of booze, but also of love.’
Last but not least, the company of animals stands for the unity that struck him in Beijing – in a double sense: as an illusion, with individual wallowing as the flipside of modern communism, but also as an indispensable source and concentration of strengths. ‘What is more important than the location of the IFP, whether the organisation is in a hutong or in art district 798, is its human face. The location is not the special reason to go on a residency here; the great idealism is. The organisation is strongly non-hierarchical, with a fluent, friendly interaction between everyone, artists, founders, technical support; you can eat together, dance, go to karaoke. And work together. Status matters less than the human dimension. At various levels. China is not the most suitable place for meditative box ticking or a role as a hermit, at least not when you go there for the first time. Rather, you draw knowledge and insight from the encounters. What is most valuable is the living information.’
Parade of hands offering or invoking something
Personal contacts form the counterbalance to the spinning producer and consumer society, that you can easily get lost in, even when you step into the maze deliberately, as Wald-Lasowski did. He went to Yiwu International Trade City, one of the most extensive wholesale markets in the world, with a mega shopping mall that has 75,000 small cubicle shops, selling exclusively samples and models, from kites or roller skates in all possible and impossible colour combinations to two hundred shops just for umbrellas.’
‘Surprisingly enough,’ he says, ‘you see few expats in Beijing, but Yiwu exceeds every image of international business. I filmed there for two weeks and had to force myself every day, because of the size, the scale, and the visual overload. I don’t have a moral judgment about that; as a consumer among consumers I am also sensitive to glitter and glow. An interesting aspect is that the Eurocentric view of the world doesn’t function as an anchor here at all. Many products do not meet the EU norms, which does not mean they don’t have a function. Maybe these toys provide moments of lightness and distraction to children in countries that are having a hard time, such as Syria or the Palestinian territories, countries with strong business ties to China. The reason I had to force myself had to do with the physical reluctance that was building up. You can walk around those monster shop-windows for two weeks without ever seeing the same passage twice.’
This ramble, which was ‘toxic and hypnotising’, comes back in concentrated form in the film that Wald-Lasowski shot there. ‘The buying of stuff gives you a kick, a kick that I attain indirectly through the camera.’ He made a two-hour loop of images, which he jestingly called ‘love letter’, in which the bright influx of objects glides by in slow motion and in close-up. Suspended cleaning gloves form a parade of hands that quietly supply the principle of give and take. Or that avert evil. With their open palms and stretched-out fingers, they are reminiscent of amulets, in a continuous mantra casting a charm at economic compulsiveness and dominance.
An archive of monkeys eating, dancing, playing, working, and traveling
The half-year in China was a cauldron of experiences that changed his life. And at the same time, it was no more than just a taste. ‘In Beijing and on the trips further afield, made possible thanks to the Mondriaan Fund, I have discovered and gathered so much that I am far from finished! A palette d’objets can be taken along in boxes, but it is also about friends and colleagues. A meeting with Maohou master Qiu Qiu has also shown me the love for things at the other side of the spectrum: small-scale and hand-made. Qiu Qiu doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Chinese, but we understand each other perfectly through body language and phone apps. The Maohou tradition is a kind of folk art that has almost disappeared, with figurines that are cut from the cases of insects (cicadas) and magnolia buds, both materials from traditional Chinese medicine. Monkeys are created in all kinds of social situations, eating and dancing, playing, working and traveling. I have photographed Qiu Qiu’s entire archive, so that it is preserved and we can make a publication of it. The monkeys reflect our alter egos. They present the human efforts to put things in order in society, they present all of our fussing, with a healthy satirical streak.’
Simon Wald-Lasowski stayed in Projectstudio China for six months in 2019. Artists and intermediaries could apply until 2 September 2019, for an artist-in-residency grant for one of the working periods at the residencies abroad in 2020.