31 Oct

Career Suicide: Ten Years as a Free Range ArtistI thought I would spice up our imaginary (and in most cases non-existent) relationship, dear reader, with some teasing previews of the good seeing-to that awaits you between the covers when you buy Career Suicide. It’s also coming out soon for the Apple store and other ebook formats (available as an ebook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Apple Store, etc. now) so that might tempt you if you like ebooks or if you’re one of those zealots who threw all your DEAD TREE books and BARBARIC CDs onto the bonfire because you think it’s the future and you’re the protagonist in a William Gibson novel or something. See, this is what passes for marketing when I do it. I’m not going to kiss your arse. You should read the book, it’s good. It will improve your world a bit, I think. A number of people have said it’s better and more grounded in reality than Sarah Thornton’s book about the art world, which honestly isn’t a very high bar to hurdle. Still, I thank these people for the compliment.

The section excerpted here deals with my last period of work and residence in China; some of it has taken on new resonance following the arrests and disappearances of Ai Weiwei, Ai’s colleagues and various other artists and activists in the last few years.  It wasn’t exactly an idyllic utopia when I was there 2006-2008, but I wonder now how myself and my colleagues would have fared in the considerably more draconian climate that came into effect shortly after I left.

Ni hao, PRC Blue Army sock puppet whitewashers! Please criticise interfering, arrogant foreigner in comments!

I’m splitting this into several parts to be published over the next few days. It may interest you to know that this part of the book is the nucleus around which everything else was written. Following a conversation with one of the friends mentioned later on, at first I wrote it as private catharsis for myself. My secondary objective was to make my friend laugh. Having achieved both of these aims, I went on to catalogue some of the other highly educational artistic catastrophes I’ve been lucky enough to get tangled up with… and lo, a masterpiece was born.


The problems start before I do. I get an email warning me that when I arrive I’m to take a red taxi, not a yellow taxi, or a green one, or any vehicle calling itself a taxi whether it looks like one or not. At the time this raises a smile; obviously someone’s just had an adventure because it’s the kind of stipulation that only comes after a narrowly averted disaster.

It should also act as a reminder of the way things go, since I’ve been to China before, but the intervening time had eroded away my first temporary attempt at a Chinese mindset. But it doesn’t act as much of a prompt, possibly because my first Chinese experience was with younger people, the beneficiaries of China’s opening up to the world, and some of them have rather more open minds and hearts to match. Go as little as ten years further back— look even to people in their late twenties— and for the most part it’s Cultural Revolution damage as far as the eye can see.

The Chinese don’t recognise special cases, such as the special case of sitting on a plane for about twelve hours, being exhausted and jetlagged and finding yourself in a place where you’re mostly illiterate and generally have hardly any idea how things are done, no matter how many reading hours you may have logged, no matter how much interest and sympathy you may have had before you arrived; I had a lot of both. They always act as if you just hopped on a bus an hour ago to pop over from Britain to China. For obvious reasons most Chinese people have never been outside of China, never had the opportunity to walk in another person’s shoes. You can’t blame them for never having endured a long haul flight to London. Most people in the world, in fact, haven’t had that experience and it’s certainly not a black mark against them.

There’s a kind of wilfulness to ignorance in China, though, a strange national pride in some people that they know nothing and care less for what goes on outside their borders, or even beyond their own neighbourhood in many cases. Although they’ve been overcompensating recently, they missed the Industrial Revolution first time around and it didn’t bother them one tiny bit. As I mentioned previously, taxi drivers in China clearly don’t do the Knowledge. I never met a single one who knew where he was going. If you ask one to drive you to the other side of the city they’ll look at you as if you just asked them to fly you to the moon using their own fart power.

Much later, we go with Cai Xia to her home city of Guangzhou. Huge chunks of it have changed beyond recognition since she was last there, a few months ago. We spend about two hours driving around, trying to find the place where her parents live and where she grew up. After about an hour, she realises that she can’t find it because she’s in totally the wrong area of the city.

In the same city on another occasion, at the opening of a brief exhibition that I have work in, I bump into Elaine: the artist who beat me to the residency in Kyoto five years earlier. I tell her what I’m doing there. She says “So you finally got out to Asia, huh?” and I politely remind her that I don’t want to get out to Asia as such, and that China, Japan and Asia are in no way interchangeable either in my mind or in reality. She understands this, of course, but her question also seems to suggest that I may be some kind of rice queen who just wants to be the only white person in town. I guess that she’s half justified, in the sense that there’s no failure like an ex-pat failure and there have been lots of ex-pat failures in Hong Kong and Guangdong for the best part of a century, but I don’t think that I fall into that category. This meeting also emphasises how incredibly tiny the art world is. Even in a country as vast and populous as China, in a fairly obscure art gallery, there she is, the woman who five years previously got the gig I wanted in Kyoto.

At my host gallery’s studio complex in Shenzhen there are meant to be three Chinese artists and four foreigners, including me. I’m the last to arrive because I have a commission to finish in Britain. In the typical Asian way, jetlag be damned, I’m expected to be on duty from the moment my wheels hit the tarmac. The Metro station that the gallery has always insisted is closest to my destination totally isn’t. It’s August, so I arrive at the gallery office bedraggled and so saturated with sweat that it’s actually dripping out of my clothes. The sun is merciless but I look like I’ve been caught in a monsoon. Everyone finds this hilarious, which is probably the first and the last time that I get a genuine and untempered response out of anyone in a position of authority there.

Shenzhen is a vast, boring and depressing Communist clone of its neighbour Hong Kong. In fact Kowloon and Shenzhen sprawl into each other to a large extent, despite the fact that the Chinese government maintains a distinct and strict border between the two even though Hong Kong has officially been Chinese since the Nineties. In practice it’s not very Chinese at all. Hong Kong is Hong Kong and China is China. Those who can get away with it go to Hong Kong to party, to shop, for decent food, to see films that aren’t dreary Communist-endorsed shite.

Most of the people travelling in the reverse direction out of Hong Kong and into Shenzhen are foreigners headed into the city’s immense industrial hinterland to negotiate deals for dirt-cheap manufacture of whatever they need. If they have any spare time, these very welcome running dogs of capitalism tend to congregate at the foreigners’ bars near the port in Shekou. The foreigners in turn attract ravening hordes of slutty Chinese gold diggers. I never came to a firm decision with regard to who is preying upon whom in this scenario.

Continues in Part II, or in the book you will buy shortly from here:




    […] Read Part I and the background to this post. […]

  2. SHENZHEN « CAREER SUICIDE - 18/12/2012

    […] chapter to Shenzhen in my own book. You can read a substantial extract from that chapter here (Shenzhen: The Empire of Fuckedup), and buy the book […]

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