Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Genhe Tour: a journey to the coldest place in China

Out of the blue I received an invitation to participate in the Burnt By Snow festival, which was taking place over the soon approaching Christmas weekend. It was not entirely clear to me where this was happening but, since I didn't have any other Christmas plans, I said yes and then did my research. It was then that I realised it was to be held in Genhe, a small city in the far north of Inner Mongolia, close to the Russian border. 

Getting there turned out to be quite an expedition in itself. From Xiamen in Southern China it would have been easier to get to Europe than to Genhe. The flight north was long and included stops and changes at each of which new people got on looking more and more seriously dressed for extreme weather. Never having flown along this central axis up through the heart of the country, I was keen to see the landscape from above but it was only when we got as far north as Shanxi that the clouds parted and the mountains below came into view.

I have gazed down over Northern China many times from planes flying from Europe to Beijing and it has never failed to startle me how, in spite of the inhospitable landscape, people tenaciously cling on and make a life here. This is particularly true of Inner Mongolia where winter temperatures plummet to fantastically cold numbers that seem purely abstract. Stepping out of Hailaer airport and meeting the other artists who had come for the festival, the cold was no mere idea anymore, it was a slap-you-in-the-face concrete reality. It immediately woke me from the hours of transport lethargy and introduced a sense of urgency about wrapping any exposed flesh and moving on and out to Genhe. My now reddened cheeks tingled and went ever so slightly numb as if the dentist had missed the mouth and injected them by mistake. This was just the start; it was to get a good deal colder as we headed northwards up to the higher land around Genhe.

Bodies and bags were squeezed into the mini-bus, rearranged and then squeezed again to stuff every last cubic centimetre of space. The precision with which the driver staggered our entry into the vehicle, so that the baggage could be layered around and upon us, was impressive. As he was marshalling us I thought, I bet he was an expert at Rubik's Cube as a teenager. Packed like proverbial sardines then, we set out on the three-hour drive through the darkness to Genhe.

The main road between Hailaer and Genhe was little short of a disaster. The cold and ice had wrecked havoc upon the driving surface to the point that, in places, it was little more than a scree slope. On top of this, blocks of ice were strewn and once in a while almighty pot holes tossed the minibus one way and another. The windows were coated with a tough layer of ice on the inside of the vehicle and the long-suffering suspension sounded as if it might give up the ghost at any moment and abandon us to our fate. What should have been a three hour journey ended up taking four and half and, arriving in Genhe, I stepped out giddy as if I had been five rounds on a roller coaster blindfolded.

We had a day to settle into this iceberg of a city then, on Christmas morning amidst light snow that me feel like I was inside an ever so slightly dystopian snow globe souvenir, we drove out through the suburbs and on to China's Cold Pole. It turned out to be about an hour outside the city, on a hill surrounded by a birch forest where a team of police cars was waiting for us. It was a God-forsaken place in the middle of nowhere. I felt momentarily sorry for the policemen who had to sit and freeze in their cars and watch performance art but then, considering how the police have historically been so hostile to performance art in China, I thought there was a rough justice in this posting after all. Actually, this festival enjoyed an unusually positive relationship with the authorities; the local government even supported it, a very rare thing for performance art in China. 

The Cold Pole may well have been stunning but I really couldn't tell as it was so cold I hopped around in the snow for five minutes trying to take it in then darted inside the gift shop. The shop sold local specialities and souvenirs that nobody seemed interested in but it was well heated so the place filled up. Soon enough the cigarettes came out and the room stank to high heaven of smoke, as indeed most of the restaurants we ate in during our stay in Inner Mongolia did, too.

After some delays, the media crew and local government officials rolled up the hill and spilled out. The festival's curator, Yang Dezhong, gave the inaugural performance, followed by two Thai artists Aor Nopawan and Mongkil Plienbangchang, who must have been suffering having just flown in from a sultry 37º Bangkok. There was talk beforehand of people stripping off, nudity being a bit of a thing here apparently, but in the final event wisdom prevailed and the clothes stayed on. We were told to limit the duration of performances to ten minutes for safety reasons and that was pretty sound advice. The cold was such that every physical action they made in their performances was modified and approximated, lending the performances a rough urgency. Afterwards, their were interviews  and I was asked by CCTV to explain what performance art is. I fumbled an answer but I honestly think it is better not to ask what it is but rather to put that concern aside and instead ask, what did I just see, and how does it make me feel? It was too cold for such subtleties. 

We then drove a short distance to an excellent local restaurant housed inside a log cabin. Through a combination of underfloor heating, big plates of food and blueberry alcohol served in teapots, we warmed up, relaxed and sang songs. This was so comfortable, in fact, that it was difficult to pull ourselves out of there and face the Siberian chill once again. Still, as the light was receding, we did just that and headed to a nearby riverbed for the next round of performances.  

It was my turn now and I decided against leading a way-losing tour, or anything as rash as that, and instead traced out a short phrase in Chinese through walking slowly through the snow. This was inspired by the views of Inner Mongolia seen from a plane and from Chinese landscape paintings upon which there is usually an inscription. Mine, then, read like the title of a landscape ink and wash paining, "A Poet Walking in the Mountains". I concluded by walking into the distance, back towards the Cold Pole. The title of the work, Some Lines Written Above Genhe, is in reference to Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey and the tweed suit is my attempt to embody what poetry had become for me in the UK. Having been asked recently to record English poems for a Chinese newspaper I was surprised to find that I actually quite like Wordsworth, so this was not for me a wholly ironic gesture, it was more a suitably incongruous one.

I later heard that a Mongolian woman who had been watching the performance asked, "is he connecting with the heavens?" She asked because this is something she said she could do. I gazed up at the sky for a length of time at both the beginning and end of the performance to put my actions into a relationship with my other self, who is more typically flying above the Genhe's of this world at 10,000 metres. While this might not have been connecting with the Gods in the way she practiced it, I had to ask myself whether maybe, through performance, I too was attempting in another way, to connect with the Gods.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Way-Losing in Cologne: three days of getting lost

This video captures some impressions of the three days of tours that I led around Cologne getting lost in the suburbs. It was curious that on each of the three days, the three different groups all chose to head to the east side of the river so, if the background of the video looks consistent, there is a reason.

What the video does not capture are the many vivid and interesting conversations we had over the course of the walks. For those you really just have to have been there. With thanks to Globalise Cologne for the invitation to get lost in the city and to Wilco for additional photos. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Dazu Rock Carving Tour: an international artists' group brings fresh eyes to a Chinese package tour

I consider myself a veteran having taken quite a number of Chinese bus tours. Almost every time I've been on it has turned out to be so bad it has been paradoxically great; there is a perverse pleasure in being shunted around as one of the masses within the world's largest domestic tourist industry. Today was going to be another tourist bus experience, a day trip to the Dazu Rock Carvings. There was to be a curious twist, however. The group was made up of artists and curators from around the world brought together for an exhibition in the Chongqing and now enjoying a day off. Many of the foreigners were new to China and most had never been on a package tour like this before. Little did they know what was awaiting them.

We got off in style with the bus waiting for us in a different place to where we had been told to assemble and when we finally connected, we were then driven through the mounting morning rush hour traffic to a point in the city centre where we disembarked and waited for a new coach to take us onwards. This quickly came and we were carried off again into the thick of the now slowly creeping traffic, our guide urging us, in Chinese, to relax. Mystified but excited to be rolling out of the city, we finally reached a B-List stop-over attraction after an hour or two. This turned out to be a newly reconstructed historical site that housed a few souvenir stalls. It seems its primary purpose was as a toilet stop.

We broke out into groups and seemed to quickly exhaust the site's potential, our visit lacking any context or, beyond the restrooms, purpose. The thirty minutes we had to look around were more than enough.

Our next stop, the China Dazu Best Kitchen Culture Museum was another story completely! This was a place that stretched the definition of museum to well beyond breaking point: it was very plainly a shop and restaurant with an attitude. The Dazu in the title is the giveaway: this meant we had arrived in the vicinity of our destination, the Dazu rock carvings. The 'museum' was a coach party's lunch and shopping stop par excellence. What's more, looking around it in the company of a group of artists new to China, allowed me to relive my first encounters with Chinese bus tours. Some were downright incredulous.

The best that can be said about the lunch was that it was adequate in quantity, though half my table of nuisance weirdo non meat-eating foreigners (myself included) wouldn't touch most of it.  

We went back through the 'museum' which merged seamlessly into a showroom and shop. Outside, three old ladies were selling pomelos which turned out to be both good value and fresh. I think I must have spent more time with them than I did with the exhibits.

We finally arrived at the Dazu rock carvings where we were separated into a Chinese speaking group and an English speaking group. We weren't briefed on the site beforehand so didn't really know what to expect, but by this time it was clear that the best attitude to take was just to relax into the experience and let it be whatever it was going to be. We were joined by an American doctor and his Chinese student, who, for a while seemed to become our guide.

On the site proper, a new guide took over. She introduced herself as Angela and she told us she was a native of Dazu who had been giving tours for several years. She spoke through a microphone which relayed her voice into our headphones. In this way the there was not the usual earsplitting chaos of competing amplified guides that often come in places like this. What's more, her English was quite clear and she seemed to actually like and respect the place. 

She did have this habit, however, of sometimes sounding too rehearsed. For example, at one point she said the women of Dazu are known for their beauty, and as she said this she put on a falsely modest smile and tilted her head to one side. This might have been a spontaneous comment and gesture she once made, many years ago, but by now it seemed to me to have hardened into a moment she performed every time she stopped at this point. I understand that it is perhaps too much to expect that she gives the tour for five years in a foreign language and still sounds fresh. I was happy enough with what we got, which was already significantly better than average. Still, this makes me think that tour guides and actors performing long runs face a similar problem of appearing stilted. Their solutions are often different though not unrelated. From what I've seen, the most successful tour guides get over this difficulty by making their tours more interactive, primarily opening up to the group they are leading but also sometimes responding, in the moment, to the living site they are visiting. It might be a stretch, but you could say this is the tour guide equivalent of the Meisner method.

I have to admit I was more interested in the carvings depicting hell than those showing heaven. I never imagined the Buddhists would be so thorough in their administration of suffering. It seems to me that hell lends itself more to art than heaven: there is greater drama in suffering than in comfort. I immediately though of the Chapman brothers' Hell sculpture which exaggerates and locates torment to such a degree it reaches a level of black humour.  

The most famous carving, the 31-metre long sleeping Buddha, was under wraps and was barely mentioned. As the tour went on I started to realise that our guide was not just contextualising a historical and artistic site, she was also using it to deliver the messages of the sculptures. The site, I learned, was educational and devotional and, contained within the carvings, were many stories and morals drawn from different sources (Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian) instructing the viewer how to live. We were therefore treated to some of these ideas, and when she finished telling us to be nice to one another she tilted her head to the side again, and give a little smile. 

The Buddha was not the only one sleeping. Once out of the gate it was not so much a case of exit through the gift shop as exit along the gift shop road. There was a relentless duplication of stalls at each of which sat, or slumbered, mostly middle-aged women. They sold a fantastic array of Buddhist souvenirs riffing off a rock and stone theme, factory produced antiques, plastic replica swords and tray-loads of shiny plastic children's toys. Business was decidedly slow and I counted at least three stall owners who had slipping into their afternoon nap. 

We were urged, no implored, to take a ride back to the coach in one of these cars but a group of us walked anyway. There was a bit of a cultural difference here. Most Chinese tours I have taken try to reduce walking and physical exertion to a bare minimum. I can only speculate that this is because using the body is associated with physical labour, poverty and the past whereas tourism is modern, effortless and connotes wealth. Still, walk we did and, as well as saving ourselves 5 RMB each, it brought us once again to the monumental pastiche structures that clustered around the entrance. These behemoths testament to a fetishised history that announces YOU HAVE ARRIVED at a national level tourist attraction.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Way-Losing Brochure and next adventure in Cologne

Two new things to mention about Way-Losing, the guided tours of mine in which everybody gets lost. First, there are some new dates in Germany. On the 19th and 20th November I'll be leading a group somewhere around Cologne for the Globalise Cologne Festival. For full Information and booking details follow the link and take a look at their page.

Second, there is now a brochure available for anyone interested in booking one of these tours. Take a look and take an adventure.