1 Nov

Read Part I and the background to this post.

Buy the book.


Career Suicide: Ten Years as a Free Range ArtistMy studio and living space is ridiculously huge even by Western standards. It takes me longer to walk from the sofa to the television than it did to walk through all three rooms of my flat in Edinburgh. In China they’d normally put four apartments in a space that size, then also stack an absurd number of others on top of it, and underneath there would be microscopic shops selling exactly the same things as every other block in the neighbourhood. I have it to myself, which would feel needlessly greedy and a waste of space even in the UK. The Chinese artists have thoughtfully left this studio, the fourth, to me because the number four is associated with death and therefore considered dreadfully unlucky. I never work out whether they think that Chinese superstitions are so ethnically discerning that they’ll pass over someone of European origin, or if they just don’t care about the possibility of me being afflicted with whatever it is they fear will happen. They’re in number five.

The first I see of the people who will be my colleagues for the next few months is when I do the presentation that’s been requested of me. I have a shower that completely floods the kitchen if it’s used for more than thirty seconds, then I change into clothes that immediately get sweaty again. Eventually I extract the location of the artists’ presentation. It’s next door, in the studio of the Chinese artists. I already grasp the fact that anything and everything you learn in China is strictly on a need-to-know, eyes-only basis— if you’re lucky and the person in question likes you. It’s more normal for all information, harmless or otherwise, to be guarded and doled out like rice during a famine.

The other foreigners, from Greece, Spain and Indonesia, seem wary and exhausted. Thanos, the Greek who I think has been here longer than all of us, seems particularly tense. In fact, he looks so tense that he’s about to snap himself in half, or snap somebody else. The only Chinese person there that I immediately make a connection with turns out to actually be from Hitchin and educated in Britain. As is customary in China, there are numerous people of unknown purpose and employment lurking around, none of whom are introduced to me.

The others, including the two Chinese artists, zip through what seems like interesting and diverse work, although they don’t seem terribly enthusiastic. I never found out what the deal was with the third artist. I never saw him. Apparently he was too important to actually show up for his own residency, which is typical in China.

Thanos doesn’t want to do any of this at all. “Does anyone really want to see this whole thing again?” he says. This is greeted with the kind of heavy silence we all get used to as the months go by. I hate using that old cliché ‘inscrutable’, but that’s exactly what those silences are, and exactly what I think they are intended to be.

“I do!” I shout cheerfully. “Oh, of course the English guy wants me to do it,” he says, but then grudgingly goes through what is obviously a very well practised talk about who he is and what he does. He also acts as if he has somewhere else he urgently needs to be. I guess that may be why he’s so incredibly impatient with Yuan Yuan, who is our main point of contact for the residency.

If I’m totally honest, even though I think he’s being a prick, you wouldn’t even need to understand a word of Mandarin to perceive that she’s not translating Thanos’ words at all in any meaningful sense. It’s equally obvious that she’s sanitising and simplifying things as she sees fit. He’s been learning Mandarin already, and several times he stops her and makes her translate properly. Occasionally the Chinese guy from Hitchin also intercedes in both Thanos’ talk and my own. A few nods are elicited when he does this, emphasising the suspicion that he’s actually translating intelligently while she’s just talking gobbledygook about stuff she doesn’t even understand in the first place. In the process of rendering it into English I think she even censors the gallery director’s welcoming speech, which seems to be a sardonic and rather hyperbolically masculine welcome to the arsehole of the Chinese art world.

I do understand some Mandarin from my time in Beijing and Qingdao. Most people in China, however, simply refuse to believe that such a thing is possible because according to them Chinese is the most difficult language in the world. As time goes on I settle into what seems most comfortable for everybody; I either don’t let on how much Chinese I can speak, or I pretend that I can’t understand them when they speak to me in Mandarin or Cantonese. They in turn pretend that they can only understand me when I speak English, even if they don’t know a word of it. In lengthy engagements they even sometimes forget that they’re deluding themselves about the language abilities of foreigners (as indeed they delude themselves about so many other things) and talk about subjects they don’t want me to know about (or me) in Chinese as if I’m not there… because I don’t speak Chinese. Except that I do.

I’m not proud of it, but ultimately I refused to speak Chinese under any circumstances and didn’t bother learning any more because all I ever got was needless, passive aggressive resistance from most Chinese people every time I tried.

Anyway, the word “arsehole” or something similar to it is definitely in the director’s speech, several times. With hindsight I agree with him that Shenzhen probably is the arsehole of the Chinese art world, even if we disagree on everything else. I’ve never been to anywhere less artistically inspiring than Shenzhen. The Chinese men all laugh knowingly at this talk of arseholes. The very few women all look demure and pretend they haven’t heard whatever it is he’s just said. As interpreted by Yuan Yuan, the director’s matey rudeness becomes a Confucian exhortation to work hard, along with something confusing about “Beijing is the head, here is lower parts of the body, like the stomach.”

The deputy director (or something to that effect) invites us all to participate in the Shenzhen sculpture exhibition that will happen in the winter, after we’re gone. In the now familiar manner, the gallery’s director is far too important to actually converse directly with us. As a group, all the artists have between them worked in virtually every medium, genre and idiom except sculpture, so this idea seems somewhat quixotic and random. I’m also not sure why they would deliberately schedule us to set up our work after most of us have gone back to the other side of the planet. For the time being I take it at face value because I’m too dazed, hot and exhausted to do anything else.

Afterwards they offer pieces of orange and melon, with a tiny pile of cocktail sticks. The melon’s far too big to fit on a cocktail stick, but I try anyway, mainly as a way of tuning out the tension that hangs heavier than the air in the Chinese artists’ stifling studio. People mill around with no apparent purpose, on an indeterminate timescale. I have no idea what’s meant to be happening now. I obviously look lost. The Spanish artist, Jesús, is leaning against the wall near the door. He catches my eye and flashes an expression obviously meant only for me: “This is normal.”

Eventually we go to dinner accompanied by a vast number of hangers-on, most of whom weren’t at the presentations and are never seen again. This en masse dining and the directionless preamble that goes with it will turn out to be a bugbear of mine as the weeks and months go by.

Somebody insists on trying to make me smoke the horrendous Chinese cigarettes seen all over the city, the packet gold with red writing— the colours of prosperity and good fortune. Or to use my own cultural reference point, the colour of shitty old B&H from their heyday in 1970s Britain. “Happy Shenzhen cigarettes,” he says, “Make you happy.” Telling him I don’t smoke just precipitates an even more insistent entreaty to contribute to the smog that’s shrouding our attempts to see and taste what we’re eating. The pollution is so bad in Shenzhen that merely stepping outside your front door is like puffing about four packs a day. You don’t even need to smoke in China; you can get emphysema for free just by breathing. On the other hand, I suppose you could look at it from a different perspective and reason that you might as well smoke heavily and incessantly since your respiratory system is getting raped daily anyway.

“No thanks,” I say, in the hope of getting him to leave off and sit down. “I’m already happy.” This amuses him greatly, as it does some of the most vociferous smokers when it’s translated from my Chinese into their Chinese. Nearly everybody understood what I was saying already, but they still wait obediently for it to be translated into the most complicated language in the world that no foreigner can speak. China says: Happy? We’ll soon change that.

Continues in the Career Suicide book, which you can buy from your appropriate e-reader store, or here:




    […] in Part II, or in the book you will buy shortly from […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: