Friday, 2 August 2013

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...

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