China Punk | James Bollen

by Liz on September 22, 2011

in Art & Design,Travel

Li Youran inside the People's University, 1999

James Bollen is a Shanghai-based British photographer whose work was shown this year at SH Contemporary, one of Shanghai’s most talked about art fairs. He recently discovered my blog, and I thank him for this, because if he didn’t, I may never have had the privilege of seeing his portfolio online.

Bollen, while technically not an Asian contemporary artist, represents a growing community of expatriates and foreigners whose insights into China are enriching the larger narrative of contemporary Asia. Bollen’s medium is the quiet lens of photography, and his stage is urban China. And even by the standards of the crowded, Flickr-driven photosphere of today, the results are simply sublime, because as you may see for yourself, Bollen is no ordinary photographer.

Inside the Forbidden City, 1997

Urban Abstract

Ji'an Road, Luwan (All photos: James Bollen)

I’m still not sure when photography is just photography, and when it crosses over into an art form, and no doubt the debate rages on, somewhere within the realms of secluded, ivory towers. But recently I was struck by an interesting idea about the medium, and it’s stayed with me since. I think photography is striking not because it’s necessarily an art form, but its grasp of life is so final, and so absolute, that it reminds our absent-minded selves that life is the ultimate art form. We’ve just forgotten to look around. The best photographers know this very well, and using what they know, they’re able to give us the world anew.

I love Bollen’s photographs because they’re not just beautiful to look at, but because they serve as a valuable documentation of a decade in the life of China. He’s seen dramatic changes in Beijing, where he says many of the places he’s photographed “no longer exist.” He documented the nascent punk scene in China’s capital back in 1999, and it’s good that he did. The Scream Club, a popular punk hangout, was demolished and replaced by a bus depot so that “there’s nothing physical left to remind anybody those places existed in Beijing.” Save, perhaps, for Bollen’s photographs, which gently remind the observer of China’s forgotten moments as the country now races to a “glorious new past.”

Bollen’s impressions manifest themselves in his city walks, so he keeps his equipment light and portable, which includes a 35mm rangefinder, an iPhone, and a Rolleiflex3.5f. Equal parts spontaneous chronicle and unofficial history, Bollen’s work is an archive that I’m sure we’ll revisit several times over, and each time we do, we do it to realize how much China has transformed, mutated, or as is sometimes the case, just stayed where we last left off, always ready to continue a never ending conversation.

Outside the Drum Tower underground station, 1997

Alley running past All For One bar, Sanlitun South street, 1999


Earthly quarrels

by Liz on September 5, 2011

in Opinion,Travel

A Uighur girl in Xinjiang (via photochoi on Flickr)

Look on a world map, and you’ll notice China is a vast country. Positively massive.

I realize that now, but most of the time I don’t give China’s portly silhouette much thought. I just assume those have been her borders for some time, occasionally contested by an uprising in Tibet or tumult in Xinjiang.

But all’s not well on the western front. News of unrest has become increasingly frequent, as has China’s response to fresh violence, especially in Xinjiang where there’s an ongoing crackdown to buffer against potential riots by the local population.

The natives of Xinjiang are Turkic Muslims whose customs and culture are worlds apart from that of the Han Chinese. Historically, they are a fusion of Turkish, Mongolian and other East Asian migration. They’re completely unique, neither East nor West. I personally find them fascinating, but right now, and depending on whom you speak to, they’re either causing trouble or in trouble themselves.

Uighur children in Xinjiang (via photochoi on Flickr)

Most travelers to China, myself included, first encounter China’s Uighurs in cities like Beijing or Shanghai. Their food is popular, and in restaurants Uighur women often sing and dance in a display of culture that’s perceivably exotic. As a visitor, I thought they were merely a part of the local color, but in China they are becoming increasingly linked to Islamic militancy, a trend of suspicion with a twin in the mirror, and if a twin, a hard-earned lesson as well.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which undoubtedly will be occasioned with fanfare, and for obvious reasons. The day was a tragedy, but what followed was hardly reparation. Islamic militancy became such a blanket term for everyone who didn’t fit in or belong. In retrospect, it was a psychically damaging error that can’t be undone, at least not right away.

I feel similarly about the Chinese approach to Xinjiang, as they deal with a Muslim population that’s sitting on a resource-rich hinterland inside unilaterally defined borders. That’s because whenever Uighurs are treated with disdain, or perceived as a threat to security, it becomes clearer China’s reeling from historical amnesia. In its restrictive authoritarian approach to government, China’s cosmopolitan past seems further away from reach than during the Mao-jacketed era of a few decades ago. An angry China also raises the specter of a scary China, and a scary China is probably an irremediable scenario that can’t be undone, not even by all the Confucius Institutes in the world.

For those of us who want a happy ending to the breaking story of the 21st century, we can only hope a smarter and more sophisticated China will emerge, one that’s worthy of all the Dior swag in Shanghai. Perhaps something even better. What we want is a true leader that will wisely grant Tibet and Xinjiang their independence, restore faith in her neighbors, and treat its own citizens with the democratic respect they deserve.

Wishful thinking, you say? Maybe, but here’s to hoping it’s not.


(From L to R, top to bottom) Chinese supermodel Ming Xi, a peaceful protest in Dalian, a Geisha of nylon and styrofoam, modern architecture in Korea, a basketball brawl, and KARA's new Japanese commercial

@Evan Osnos witnessed history in the making, as Vice-President Joe Biden made the rounds in Beijing, all the while doling out some quirky, off-hand comments to his Chinese counterparts.

@Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph reports on a middle-class protest in northeast China that ended peacefully, where everybody went home safely after getting what they wanted.

@FP Passport summarizes the ugly but mesmerizing brawl between two basketball teams. Hopefully this isn’t an augury of U.S.-China relations.

@Speaking of ugly, self-entitled reviewers on Yelp can now have their fifteen minutes of fame, thanks to a new satirical Tumblr.

@Change of topic: the Beijinger has an inspiring story of two expats who founded a shelter for visually impaired orphans in 2002.

@More inspiration: 15-year-old Madison Gunst won the first annual K-Pop contest in New York, and her K-pop idol Jang Woo-hyuk wants to meet her!

@On the subject of K-pop, girl group KARA is now starring in a Japanese television commercial for a diet, vinegar drink, but something tells me that’s not the only reason they stay so enviably thin.

@More diaphanous women: Chinese supermodel Ming Xi smiles shyly for Bonae’s Blog in Central Park.

@dezeen magazine showcases a nature-centric, modern residence in Gyeonggido, Korea, away from the madding crowds of Seoul. Very nice.

@Trendland profiles a Brazilian sculptor with a sense of fun when its comes to nylon rope and Styrofoam.


@I just started a new Tumblr, #KoreanPeopleProblems, and frankly speaking, it’s been very cathartic. Very.


Liu Bolin | Eli Klein Gallery

by Liz on August 8, 2011

in Art & Design

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 58- Olympic Emblem, 2007

As I considered a blog post about Chinese contemporary artist Liu Bolin, my mind was at a loss. What could I possibly add to what’s been said about Liu’s Hiding in the City series? Liu is an artist known the world over for his ingenious body of photographs, a man willing to stand patiently for over 10 hours as his assistant paints him to merge fluidly with the background of his choice. So I sought some professional opinion on China’s Invisible Man.

Eli Klein has represented major Chinese contemporary artists at his Soho gallery for four years. In the past, he’s introduced some of China’s most notable artists to New York, including Cui Xuiwen, Zhang Dali and Yang Qian.

“Outside China, Liu is the most famous Chinese artist in the West. For his art.”

Mr. Klein has been bridging the cultural divide between New York and Beijing, and his reasons are compelling. “Chinese contemporary art is underrepresented in America. It constitutes a quarter of the world, and it’s becoming more powerful each day. It’s natural then its art would also be rising.”

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 89- Forbidden City, 2010

The rise Mr. Klein alludes to is multifarious. Chinese contemporary artists have become globally prominent in the art world over the past two decades, a change that’s both reflective of Chinese society and its increasing exposure – and response – to Western art and popular culture. Great talent has been borne out of the contemporary art movement in China. Artists like Wang Qingsong, Wang Guangyi, Ai Weiwei, and Cai Guoqiang don’t just bridge East and West, they bridge two significant eras of Chinese modern history. They haven’t just lived through the Mao years then capitalism with Chinese characteristics, either. They also try to explain what has happened, or is happening in present-day China. Like all great artists, they convey the conditions of human life in a way that resonates with their best audience.

And what about Liu Bolin? Liu was born in 1973, so he doesn’t share the reminiscences of the Cultural Revolution that artists such as Wang Guangyi or Zhang Xiaogang pour into their works. Instead, Liu’s art is uncompromisingly modern and Chinese, but Chinese in a way that’s discernibly universal, because Liu’s art is a form of social protest against conformism. The conformism Liu is rebelling against was best explained by a performance he enacted at the gallery not too long ago, when he disappeared into a rack of popular magazines, a vivid illustration of how fashion and propaganda are obliterating individuality.

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 93 - Supermarket No. 2, 2010

Liu’s manifesto has a ring of truth, because it speaks to the quiet anguish of every man about our own inadequacies and irrelevance. We inevitably enter into a certain kind of relationship with Liu’s art, because he communicates his feelings so well, we don’t really needs words to understand his philosophy. And his expression is so powerfully true that, as I stood before his works, I felt that his feelings of undue protest were my own – and not someone else’s. And through Liu’s deft artistry, I began to understand Chinese contemporary art is not just art that’s Chinese, but art that’s compellingly universal.

Liu Bolin, Teatro alla Scala, 2010

The Invisible Man exhibit at Eli Klein Gallery has been extended to September 28. For more information see Eli Klein Fine Art.



An American in Beijing

by Liz on May 15, 2011

in Books & Entertainment

My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing
By Alan Paul
272 pp. Harper

Sitting here in New York, I can’t think of a city and a destination farther away than Beijing. Yet Beijing and China feel closer to Americans than ever before. From the clothes on our backs to the public art on display in our cities, China becomes more accessible, and therefore real with each passing day.

But great change has also wrought great fear. Opportunists have often taken this moment to depict China as the looming threat to all things good, wholesome, and American. And America’s got company. I’ve encountered similar apprehension elsewhere: armies of drones, endless lines of workers toiling in factories, playing catch-up for now, but plotting an imminent takeover in the future.

Which is why I found Alan Paul’s tale of expatriate family life in Beijing so refreshingly defiant. Paul’s adventures in China are manifold, but what really resounded was his simple challenge to his readers: who says China and America can’t interlock in an embrace of brotherly love?

The notion this stirring message raises even the slightest provocation, or that Paul actually takes great care to humanize the Chinese individuals he meets on his journey are bold gestures that rarely make headlines today. But Paul, unlike some of his more insular compatriots takes the path less traveled, and his stories illustrate they made all the difference: Paul was rewarded beyond measure because he leaves himself open to the possibility, and not the threat of China. For the rest of us trying to make sense of this world, it’s a solid piece of good advice.

Woodie Alan band members, from lower left: Alan Paul, Woodie Wu, Dave Loevinger, Lu Wei and Zhang Yong. (Photo by Ge Xiaoxue)

Paul’s years in China initially resemble his life in suburban New Jersey, a domestic world revolving around his three children, as his wife diligently works her way up the corporate ladder at the Wall Street Journal. But Paul’s trailing spouse status is a minor footnote to his unexpected and remarkable achievements. From forming a blues band with three talented Chinese musicians and another American expat, to starting an award-winning online column about China life for the Wall Street Journal, Paul’s story is imbued with wildly good humor and “the sense of possibility and reinvention” that begins the very moment he arrives in Beijing. As Paul notes in one passage, where else can a white man sing the blues, unfettered, to an audience awed by his unique presence, his performance?

I felt a visceral connection to Paul’s story for a multitude of reasons. I found myself nodding along to his disappointment in his fellow expats, or those who “spent most of their time trying to recreate their home life in China,” only to fall drastically short of their expectations. I was enthralled, not mortified, upon reading his account of driving in Beijing: “You feel alive behind the wheel, maybe because of the very real possibility that you could soon be dead.” It’s not ironic then, that Paul’s experiences in China make him come increasingly alive, in one page-turning episode after another. Paul checks the rearview mirror, but leafy suburbia is receding well into the background. His life begins to resemble China itself, where “things happen fast,” and where “you better not look down if you want to keep on flying.”

I loved Big In China, and reading the book will make you love the big, cushy Panda Dad who made it all happen. But a tiny part of me wanted much more insight into the lives of his Chinese brothers: Zhang Yong, Lu Wei, and of course, the unforgettable Woodie Wu. These were real people I was aching to learn more about by the end of the book, not just as musicians but also as contemporary Chinese individuals that Paul encountered in the flesh. I’m certain their warmth, and candor as gracious Chinese hosts to their American guest and eventual friend had an immeasurable influence on Paul’s outlook on China. Paul’s impact on the Chinese he encounters is clear. The Chinese impact on Paul’s growth and change is, like the Chinese themselves, subtle and resides between the lines.

But Alan, if you’re reading this, I hope your book sells a gazillion copies, Montecito Pictures will assemble a star-studded cast for a box-office hit remake of Big in China, and you’ll be able to fly to Beijing first-class, whenever you want to jam with your Chinese brothers. Because, and let’s be honest – there’s nothing the world needs more than an East-West hybrid blues band that can tell us in defiant affirmation: yes, differences can be overcome, and yes, it can be done.