Porcelain and River Mud: a Chinese Art Residency

I am startled from my reverie by the crackle of the airplane speakers. They announce that our descent to Shanghai had begun. As the eleven-hour flight comes to an end I look through the window to see a limitless sky of unblemished, pre-dawn pink. As my eyes adjust from the light of the cabin I just make out below, mountaintops, dark shapes emerging through pale valley mists. An ambiguous landscape apparently devoid of human presence but fluid due to the motion of our plane. The sun fails to rise as we descend, so that time itself goes into slow motion. The space, the time, the empty abstract forms; it seems for a little we are inside an ancient Chinese painting of uncertain perspective.

I am on route to my third residency in China. Art residencies can be a curious form of practice. They may seem to offer an opportunity to develop new work. Free from the routine demands of normal life, with the stimulus of a new environment, a different culture even, there is the possibility for an intense period of study and a reappraisal of practice. On the other hand most residencies have the expectation, explicitly or implicitly, that the artist will produce a resolved body of work that in some way reflects the environment or context of the residency’s locus. This expectation is despite the fact that materials and equipment may be unfamiliar, time limited in terms of the natural pace of the craft, and the local way of doing things initially strange, or even incomprehensible.

It is perhaps inevitable that those who have but a few weeks with little opportunity to accumulate local knowledge will make work that relies on what they already know and understand. It is a strategy that fails to recognize that in foreign countries, as with the past, ‘they do things differently…’.

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