Sunday 4 August 2013

interlude: Hangzhou to Shanghai (14 November 2010)

If you've read the previous posts, you'll know...but for the rest of you: I was in China, doing a whistle-stop tour of artists in their studios, photographing them and their environment. Hack stuff, really, with a more indulgent attitude...

I was about to get onto a very, very fast train and go a long, long way in a short time.

I'd done this before, and in China too. In 2010 I'd travelled from Hangzhou to Shanghai and stuck a Flip to the window of the train. This is a shortened version of the trip, including a simulated at-the-same-speed drive back to the hotel from the station.

I don't think there's a square metre of waste ground visible in the whole thing. It's all homes or factories or roads or agriculture or power generation or railways or canals or shops or hotels or...

It's still over 30 minutes long, and fairly lo-fi, in order to come in under the blogger size rules...blah blah blah...

Xiao Kegang

It was a relief to walk into Xiao Kegang's studio at the end of the day. Its brightness and simplicity (a glass-fronted street-mall shop space) made the previous visit seem stifling.

Below, the tones of his paintings were beginning to create a blurred edge with the marble floor; above, the building leaked in harmony with his lines.

A messy, unfussy tray held the tea. Everything felt both impermanent and assured. His slashes of paint made compelling pictures, his studio, shop, space, whatever you wish, was as welcoming as he and everyone around him. 

Xiao was one of a few of the artists we visited whom I'm sad not to see over here for the Edinburgh show.  When I walked into his studio, it was the first time since leaving Heathrow, touching down in Beijing, rushing to another internal flight, arriving late at a new hotel, getting up to no coffee and was the first time I'd felt relaxed all day and billiard balls with backlight are always a big bonus...

Day one ended with a small banquet. The next day would see us cross China on the extremely fast white train.

Friday 2 August 2013

He Duolingh, he not a beatle

He Duolingh bears a disconcerting resemblance to Paul McCartney so it's a relief to see that his hair is not dyed, that there is variance of colour, all the way to grey, contained in its palette. Either that, or he's got a better hairdresser.

The resemblance isn't just personal: the work has an overall sugariness tempered with attempts at something harder. It has a smell of David Hamilton as well, an echo reinforced by the net strung across the gym-sized studio and a pile of sportswear in the corner. And the evident joy taken in conducting simultaneous interviews has a familiar, beatle-y ring to it.

Visiting He Duolingh's studio was a good introduction to the culture of the successful artist which seems to be thriving in China. He lives and works in a purpose-built enclave of artists' studios, constructed in an inward-looking circle. His studio is in a little side road, the tail on the Q, the superior studio with its own leisure facilities beyond the netball court.

In a way that was to become familiar, he started the interview waiting for every question to be asked then translated. Before long he was interrupting the translator or answering the question before it was translated.

Did he, like some would later, eventually break into broken English in frustration at the translation? Maybe - I don't remember, because there was something increasingly uncomfortable about the works around us - not the rather fay, wireframe bicycles and cellos, but those Hamilton-like canvases. Dodgy, I'd call them.

As a little after-thought, a dessert to his main course,  He took us to visit a neighbour in the enclave,  a young man about whom they all agreed he must have considerable backing from rich parents, given the cost of the studios, the quality of his materials, and the swankyness of his car. As for his work, this tribute, or fan-wall, or obsessor, to Avril Levigne doesn't seem that different to a million teenagers' walls. It's not a surprise to discover that we have no record of his name.

Next: Xiao Kegang

Moving Beyond: He Gong

In April 2012 I accompanied Janet Mckenzie Spens on a trip to China in order to interview and photograph painters in their studios. The expedition was the result of a chance meeting on a train between a Chinese poet and a young Cambridge graduate. It culminated in the show,  Moving Beyond, which opened at Summerhall in Edinburgh on July 31st and runs for 6 weeks.

The initial choice of artists were largely of an age which meant that, having first trained in their art, they were then sent to work in fields and factories, separated from family and friends, unable to pursue their artistic ambitions.

A change of attitude at the highest level saw a reversal of this.

He Gong was one of the first allowed to leave China in order to study in the West. He met us from the plane driving a white, long wheel-base Defender of which he is vastly proud, all spattered in premiership football club stickers.

He Gong loves to talk. There is a constant sense of subversion in his growling voice, a subversion which keeps sliding into humour, often self-deprecating, but usually with a sharp point. He is that rare person, an artist who listens to what other people have to say.

The university at which he teaches does not, in his opinion, provide enough accommodation for students; he has bought a couple of small apartment blocks next to his studio, so that he is always available to his students. The resulting atmosphere is akin to a mixture of miniature kingdom and amusement park.

He Gong's studio is far from the gob-smacking immenseness of many that we visited. Parked at one end is a replica of Che Guevara's motorbike which He Gong had intended to use on a re-creation of the famous ride. However, that plan had fallen at the first fence when he wasn't allowed to import it. He did still make the ride, albeit on a Yamaha.

In the way that it often seems to happen in China, it transpired that the hotel we were staying in (a modern, business man's hotel, catering to Chinese rather than foreigners, and thus having no coffee available in the mornings) was owned by He Gong's brother. A small banquet appeared at dinner time. He Gong's appetite is as enthusiastic as everything else in his makeup.

He's a charming man, warm and welcoming. When there, he told me that he often drives to Tibet with his students. I asked him about this again two days ago. It appears that I'll be joining him on the Tibet drive, either this Autumn or in the following spring. Watch this space.

Next: He Duoling...

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Web Patrol

 The web is strung between a high brick wall and the plant you see later. Behind it curves a white wall, accounting for the light that falls so conveniently on the spider at the centre of his web.

He's too close to the wall for a head-on shot from this side. There is a ring of dead flies around him on the web, his larder laid out.
Moving in closer I'm my usual inept self with focus on the macro, always over-estimating my depth of field. Luckily, with the help of Lightroom (fab tool that it is), there are enough colours, shapes, and textures to keep the eye amused

A moment later, and he's off on patrol, heading up the top of the support rope, motoring along as if on a tight schedule. Perhaps he has to do an entire circuit of the web...

His destination is the flower head to which this side of the web is attached.  In the images  taken earlier there appears to be a big stash of web getting tangled up, so maybe he's stretched that out ...

There's certainly a few loose strands on that rope. I give you a spider.

Friday 22 June 2012

Greek Victory

At the bottom of the street is the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of London. That makes Moscow Road, on which it sits, a cultural collection point for Greeks in London.

In 2004 Greece won the Euros, much to everyone's astonishment, not least their own. That night the celebrations filled the street, with dancing and shouting and music and fireworks and real joy.

People wrapped themselves in flags, the whole street turning blue and white. I was out there with an early Nikon DSLR, the D100, I think. (The exif datas has gone from this copy, and I'm not about to connect the archive.)

I took hundred of pictures, but this one seemed to sum it up. He was sitting on his girlfriend's shoulders (they took turns), the upward angle giving that slight sense of movement to the image; the blue of the flags has all but gone, yet still makes itself known, even under the sodium light; the noise has the same dramatic effect as grain; and, above all, he looks properly happy.

Who is he?

It doesn't matter, because all I have to do to make this picture complete is to give it a name, and it can only have one name: Greek Victory.

This evening, Greece plays Germany in the second Euro 2012 quarter-final. I don't think Moscow Road will be blocked tonight.

upside fucking down

The overriding stunner on the D4 is its high ISO performance.  In other words, it takes damned good pictures in very low light. This is great fun indoors, with people, but it becomes positively transformative outside with a macro lens. The usual problem with these is finding enough depth of field to make a picture in which the whole of the bug is in focus. With a high ISO and low noise, ramping up the numbers bring the focus under control.

As this is the big time of year for all things creepy crawly and flowery, I took the D4 and an old 105 macro out for a run the other day. The cow parsley alway offers a captive show, being apparently irresistible to any thing resembling an insect.

After a few minutes I came across this couple.

In my usual short-sighted way, it wasn't until I was checking the image for focus in the monitor that I noticed the couple-ness. In approaching the plant I brushed some grasses which, although not directly touching the cow parsley, did appear to have some kind of mechanical connection. The insects' ground moved beneath them. They ignored it, far too absorbed in what they were doing.

After a few of these transmitted wobbles, they became mildly pissed off, muttering about respecting an insect's privacy. They headed slowly towards the edge of the flowers as if preparing to take off and disappear, the last inhabitants left on this particular planet.

But I had misinterpreted their intention. There was still stuff to do, so they weren't about to leave their love nest. Rather than taking off from the edge, thy did that one thing that makes me want to be an insect: they walked over the edge and turned the floor into the ceiling, and the ceiling into the floor.

A moment later, they were back doing what they wanted to do, only this time hanging upside down from the underside of the cow parsley

Getting these pictures onto the computer,  I fired up Lightroom 4 and pulled the pictures in. The latest version has the controls layed out in a new way. It's the first time Adobe have moved away from the old wet, darkroom, analogy, and it's a triumph. Backlit images used to be hard to control. Not any more.

Looking at these, in this colour space, there's more that could be done, but I'll leave them like this for now. Anything you you think of that might improve the images, it can almost certainly be done, and easily.

It would be useful, but not essential, to know what these insects are.  It's not that I'm a bug freak, just that there's something frustrating about having a picture in which I can't put a name to the contents although there are occasions when having to make up a name serves the image better. I'll show one of those in the next post.