Tag Archives: Shenzhen


18 Dec

Shenzhen by Guy Delisle

It was slightly surreal to read one of Guy Delisle‘s other books about being a temporary resident among famished, fearful citizens in an oppressive Communist country (Pyongyang) while I was a temporary resident sitting among beautiful, healthy Scandinavians in an extravagantly equipped, wonderfully comfortable and relaxed public library in über liberal and progressive Norway. It was in some ways even more surreal to read more recently his similar graphic memoir about working as an animation director in the Chinese city of Shenzhen and to realise that he’d had almost identical experiences and reactions to the place as myself. I don’t mean I identified with it. I mean he had exactly the same experiences as I did. Delisle was there in the late 1990s and I lived there ten years later (2007-2008), but surprisingly little seems to have changed. Probably a lot more buildings went up, and the metro system wasn’t there, and the population was smaller, but I could still even recognise some of the places from his drawings. I was there as an artist in residence at a gallery in Shenzhen. You can read about the (mostly ludicrous) experiences I had at that gallery in my book.

Delisle mentions the occasional blessed escapes to nearby Hong Kong where it feels like a massive weight has lifted from yourself and from everybody else; the fine Communist art of doing the absolute minimum amount of work (or less if you can get away with it), what’s called in Russian tufta; the pathological Chinese aversion to the sun, “as if it’s radioactive” to use Delisle’s perceptive phrase; the worrying amount of time you spend, with hindsight, lying on your bed in your underwear doing nothing, just for some respite from the dirt and the difficulty and from people randomly shouting HELLOO at you on the street when it’s clearly a kind of racist dig rather than a genuine greeting. I experienced all this too. When I finished this book I just wanted to give him a big hug and tell him with relief that it was OK, somebody understands, I felt exactly the same. Continue reading


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. Continue reading


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. Continue reading

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