Coming back to the La Tour Morgan Suites after my 2 week sojourn to Beijing and Qinghai, was a bit like coming back to school. I was glad to be met at the airport by my trusty interpreter, Sunshine. She had arranged a swish committee SUV to collect me and glide me back into the fold.
It was fun to reconnect with the gang of world artists, see the finished pieces of work that were still in process when I had left, and get the low down on what I had missed whilst away. From all reports I hadn’t missed much and I was very glad I had taken the opportunity to broaden my China horizons to Beijing and Qinghai, outside of the Changchun symposium circle. It seems that after the blaze and drama of the Fire Ball Full Moon Party, the committee had been struggling to find ways to entertain the artists, especially those that had finished their sculptures and had chosen to stay around the hotel. I had missed an interesting excursion to Harbin, another larger Jilin city, and a day trip to a famous volcanic mountain lake in the region, who’s name slips me. A few of the artists had joined into a ceramics symposium that was going on at the Changchun art school, which sounded fun. Aside from missing these activities and the numerous outings to more dumplings restaurants, I knew I did the right thing to get out. There rumblings of minor disgruntlement from many of the artists, who, obviously trying not to come across as ungrateful were getting a little fed up with some of the vagaries and inefficiencies of the committees modus operandi. Whether it was screw-ups with travel arrangements or disappointment with poorly located or shoddy finishing of the sculptures, there was a brewing atmosphere that “the fun was over”.
All we had to do was get through the next round: the symposium closing ceremony, the high-tech development-zone sculpture park opening ceremony, the opening ceremony for the International sculpture conference……and then 2 days later the conference closing ceremony. It was certainly lined up to be a busy week and as it turned out not without a few surprises.
Two days before the opening ceremony we were all bussed out to the new sculpture park where our pieces were being installed. This was in the same hi-tech zone we had been taken to for the propaganda tour of the future city. The huge new park is to be the ‘rest, relaxation and reconnect with nature area’ for the 3 million or so inhabitants of the as yet unbuilt new city. It is a massive area of new woodland and lakes, that has roads and bridges for electric golf buses to carry you around to view the sculptures, (sorry not the paths and glades you might hope for). You can even take a boat if you wish! I am not sure if it is an entirely man made wetland, or the remaking of an old natural one. There was no way of knowing as everything was dug up, re-banked and littered with instant trees. Hi-Macs, drain pipe trucks, tree trucks, turf trucks, flower trucks, electrical trucks, sculpture trucks… all buzzing in and out of the zone. The rush to finish was clearly on and the typical Chinese solution for these kinds of get-it-done dead lines was being employed…..bring on the people power! There were swarms of workers, men and women, doing everything they could to get the job done in the next two days. Hi-Macs smoothed down the banks, turf layers rolled out the grass, flower planters filled the beds with ready flowering plants, electricians pulled wires to cheesy fake Victorian street lamps and kitsch plastic outdoor speakers disguised as mushrooms, bunny rabbits and squirrels! Piles of electrical lighting fixtures lay by the roadside being untangled and installed. The lakes would periodically erupt with sequenced fountain routines, complete with piped classical marching music, whilst the areas that were definitely not going to be finished in time were being hidden behind huge full color bill boards showing the architects impressions of how it will all look in the end. It was mayhem. To cap off the comedy the ‘fake’ soldiers were stationed throughout the route to stand to attention and give us their best salute when our electric golf buses passed by!
Back at the car park, I was not a little upset to see my name, completely mis-spelt, carved into a huge rock listing the participating sculptors. The committee had done well to spell my name correctly throughout the whole event, but this kind of lapse on the last lap was inexcusable. Luckily my name was not at the top of the twenty foot high monolith so I ducked under the barrier, with my black marker pen in hand, and made the necessary corrections! With the magic of Agent 7, the stone carvers were put to work and the next time I saw it they had rectified the mistake.
“The dream of human harmony” was installed in a relatively good position in the new park. It had clear open space around it and was visible down a long stretch of the road as you approached. They had sadly overlooked my request to have it placed on the lake, which is it’s natural position. Whether on fire or not a 10 foot steel ball floating on the water creates a powerful image. They missed that one. The other minor disappointment was seeing the ball on its boring stand that the committee thought necessary for it to fit the ready made concrete slab. I really didn’t like it. Luckily whilst I was taking some pictures of the ball, Mr Wong, the metal sculpture coordinator happened to come along, so I snagged him for one last request, to get the landscapers to bury the stand and grass over it. This would leave the ball resting on a mound of grass, which I would prefer. I doubt the sculpture will ever be burned again, unless the park managers get inspired one day and want to burn off some cuttings. I was lucky that the full moon had come when it did and I had managed to get the pictures I needed of it on fire. Destiny was on my side for this sculpture, it was a good friend. I hope many future generations of Chinese find pleasure and inspiration from it.
The committee was definitely on overload and you could see the stress on their faces. They had never managed a symposium with this many sculptors before and the strain of keeping things running smoothly for 6 weeks was certainly showing. To give them their due they had done very well to get this far …bulk things could have gone very wrong…..they were lucky.
However the elitism and nepotism inherent in the one party system could not help but rear its ugly head, unfortunately to the detriment of my poor interpreter Sunshine and her lovely twin, Sunny. It doesn’t bear going into the whole long story, but in short these two sweet young ladies had been having a bit of a tiff with one of the other interpreters who happened to be the daughter of the director. The daughter, with her obviously privileged position, had been nitpicking at Sunshine for a while over petty stuff. The worst offense being that at one point, whilst I had been away, her boyfriend had briefly visited her in the lobby of the hotel, completely ‘not on’ according to the rules. This had got back to Daddy, and Sunshine was duly reprimanded. However, things got worse for the girls when, on one of our group nights out at a restaurant, there was a mysterious arrival of numerous tubs of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, passed around to all, interpreters and artists.
It later transpired that these were not ordered by the committee, who had to pay for them. The daughter, knowing this was going to be a problem had gone around the whole restaurant taking pictures of the guilty interpreters who had ice cream in their hands. Sadly for Sunny and Sunshine their picture caught the director’s eye and though completely innocent, the finger of blame was pointed at them. The next morning, with 2 more days to go, they were summarily fired…..amidst floods of tears. You see what I mean by ‘like going back to school’!
The Hong Kong sculptress Winny (who Sunny interpreted for) and I stood strongly in their defense, to the point of raised (translated) voices and venting of accumulated grievances. All to no avail I am afraid. The director was not to be embarrassed and the girls had to go. We had lunch with them the next day; they were very brave about it, relieved to be out of the niggly system and keen to start their new university term. I was given a new interpreter…who I soon discovered was the director’s niece! I, of course, rejected her as there were only a few days left; so I stuck under the wing of my good friend, Agent 7. It was amazing how much the director sucked up to me after that for the rest of the symposium, I guess for fear of me getting word out of his blatantly unfair behavior.
From here on the roll of ceremonies became a bit of a blur. I hope I do not come across as too cynical here, but the lasting impression was that we, the international artists, had fulfilled our purpose of sculpture-making and were now something of a rent-a-crowd for the extravagantly staged and massively bannered, photo-ops set up for the squads of nameless important people that were trumpeted in to speak and be clapped whilst sitting on their elevated platform.
On most occasions we couldn’t see the VIPs though, because the event planners had omitted to create a press box of any sort. Consequently there was a mad free-for-all of cameramen and photographers in front of the stage, completely blocking the view of the seated audience, who sat around talking to themselves, whilst the drone of slowly translated congratulatory speeches bumbled on. It was all a bit strange and clichéd. The fun part was the obligatory military brass band that played to order for the arrivals and departures of the VIPs (in their fleets of blacked- out black SUV’s) or any waiting time between. The big joke being the music selection, which on some occasions was so overly ‘jolly’ it might well have been music heard at a sea-side circus! The finale topped off the show perfectly, with … wait for it …what would you expect? …the release of hundreds of colored balloons; the symbolic turning loose of thousands of homing pigeons and of course, the massive explosions of colored daytime fire works and smoke bombs that temporarily blotted out the sun! Great choreography, great crescendo, great pomp…well sort of!
During one of the ceremonies in the old sculpture park, 7 and I managed to sneak away and take some pictures of my “Power of Nature” sculpture that had been installed in the middle of the park. Aside from the ugly temporary stand, it had been well positioned at the top of a small hill so the silhouette of the spiral was clear. I was a little sad to say goodbye to it…it being the first bronze piece I have made. I was thankful for the opportunity to have made such a piece on someone else’s budget and I look forward to creating similar pieces in the future.
The much awaited sculpture conference did have its interesting moments. The international speakers offered some very helpful insights from their experiences in the world of public sculpture creation, curatorship and installation. The conference hall was large and the audio system shaky, so the intimacy and discussion I had been hoping for did not come to pass. I did manage to get some personal contact with a couple of the speakers after their talks. Simon Hitchens, a sculptor from the Royal Society of British Sculptors, gave a useful talk about the logistical process he went through on a recent public commission in the UK, from the legal aspects, social significance, project management requirements, and practicalities of creating his piece. It was very helpful to hear the in’s and out’s of this process, especially with regards to the underwater sculpture project we are developing in the BVI.
It was at the final gala dinner, the evening of my night train to Beijing, that I managed to complete my small, but symbolically important, diplomatic mission for the BVI Tourist Board. Hadassah Ward, the director of the Tourist Board, had entrusted me to give the Mayor of Changchun, Mr,Cui Jie, a BVI flag as a gift and a letter of respect and appreciation for inviting a BVIslander to the symposium. Mr Cui Jie, the mastermind behind the International Sculpture Symposium, had been at the opening ceremony of the new sculpture park, but he was one of the inaccessible VIPs that was whisked away from the stage after the ceremony.
Fortune had it that we were seated next to the VIP table for the dinner, so true to form, with her cunning guile and good looks, Agent 7 managed to catch his attention as he got up. She then politely introduced me to him and translated our five minute chat, whilst I presented him the BVI gift. I was pleasantly surprised at how aux fait he was with our distant islands, it being one of the smallest dominions in the world. But, of course, the BVI has great significance with Chinese officialdom and big business, as 10% of Chinese companies are registered in the BVI. Mr Cui was obviously very aware of this. Even in his relatively small city of 8 million people, many of it’s major companies are registered in the BVI. We went through the telling insider joke, that in China IBC’s are only known as BVI’s!! He aptly pointed out that up until now China has only had an economic relationship with the BVI, and that he was very happy that my visit constituted the beginning of a new cultural relationship between the China and the BVI. I was honored that he recognized the importance of these kinds of international cultural connections and we both agreed that it was a very valuable way forward for the future that needs to be developed. China’s foreign policy is, after all, based on friendship and fostering harmonious ties between nations. After thanking him for hosting such an intrepid and inspiring event, he thanked me for making two sculptures for his city and we said our goodbyes. It is amazing how destiny works its way in our lives, that within hours of my final moments in Changchun, I get the opportunity to speak to the most powerful man in the city, and someone who I had in my sights to meet from the outset. The interesting and funny thing … that made me chuckle to myself as I walked away … was the warmth and personable nature of these kinds of meetings in China. The whole time I was talking to him, with 7 translating, and the press cameras snapping away, he had pulled me shoulder to shoulder and we held hands!!