My artist colleagues exclaimed at the Tibetan monastery parked alongside the Mongolian yurt, the Buddhist stupa jostling the Khazak village, and I handed out cigarettes to the inhabitants and smoked with them in contemplative silence.
This huge park had everything: every talent and vice, every power or weakness, each innate characteristic, of the fifty-six cultures. And it was only a park. Outside the park was real China, not so small, nor nearly so easy to get around, and in it, too, all these similarities and divisions existed. To cope, you needed a handle and they were easy to come by. The Hui were good gardeners, while the Loba made the best mountaineers. Mongolians were terrible drivers but good with animals, and if you wanted to buy on the black market, you’d best find a Manchu to bargain on your behalf.
Wandering through the space—one culture to each acre—high on a combination of jetlag and nicotine, I felt I’d fallen into a kaleidoscope. Each time I thought I understood something, China revolved and the picture changed; sparkling, fascinating, gaudy, but transient. I’d assumed I was visiting a huge coherent population of uniformly-clad Chinese and instead found myself in a fragmented continent with more cultures in one place than I’d seen even at the United Nations. Despite having a focus, I had no base, no security. Around me, the painters and photographers with whom I was to collaborate, were secure in the permanent ideology of Chinese architecture; praising the philosophy of the moon bridge and the rule of nine that determined arches, and yet I was drifting without moorings.
Writers are supposed to interpret reality—it’s our job description; but Beijing was like reading the future in chicken entrails, it was probably all there, but I couldn’t see it. Although I learned to fit in: to eat street food; to sing along with whatever pop tune was on the taxi radio so the driver could ‘learn’ the Western words by ear; and to smoke like a native—I never found a sense of balance. I experienced the city with one foot on the pavement and the other in the gutter, always stumbling over my own preconceptions and fighting for clarity through the pall of cigarette smoke and pollution. It was the first city to defeat me, defy encapsulation, and destroy all attempts to create a “sense” of itself.
Over a year later, I’m still trying to put a frame around ‘my’ Beijing. Trying and failing. The only lesson it’s taught me is to distrust everything except direct experience, but that direct experience can be as unhelpful as everything else when making the imaginative leap. But that failure contains something coherent too, a reminder that some experiences defy categorisation and require something else; expression without form, or maybe impression without editorial guidance. Beijing, for me, can only be described in fragments that don’t join up and perhaps that’s a more honest view of the city, and of a writer’s role, than I would have dared to express a year ago.
Thought in an Urban Shade" was a words and pictures exploration of parks and
gardens in Beijing, Dublin, London and Paris by the artist Fion Gunn and the
writer Kay Sexton. ‘Green Thought’ received funding from Culture Ireland, a
residency with Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, and exhibition sponsorship from
the Irish Embassy in London
· Oh Art! Gallery, Bethnal Green, London. 2 December 2005 – 6 January 2006
· National Botanic Gardens, Dublin. 2 February – 8 March 2006
· Waterloo Gallery, London. 6 May – 12 June 2006
· International Gallery, Tsinghua University, Beijing. 20 September – 4 October 2006
Acrylic on Canvas
Broken in Beijing
Kay Sexton - Continues Below
Per Contra Spring 2007