I am on my way to IMPACT 9 international printmaking conference to exhibit East/West, a portfolio of prints made by students and staff from the BA and MA Fine Art courses at Norwich University of the Arts. IMPACT is the largest and most influential printmaking conference in the world, bringing together delegates from all continents for a five-day bonanza of exhibitions, academic papers and illustrated talks, workshops, trade fair, networking and socialising. This year it is being hosted at China Academy of Arts (CAA) in Hangzhou.
Our portfolio project, East/West, has been conceived specifically in response to the geographic location of IMPACT this year. We invited students and staff from Falmouth University to collaborate (in the past we have invited Boston University, Asagaya College of Art and Design in Tokyo and California State University), the simple concept being the extreme of easterly and westerly locations of the two universities – Norwich in the east of the UK and Falmouth in the west. The project was proposed to the IMPACT selection committee underlining the conceptual cadence of showing this whole Western-European originated project in the Far East.
I am sitting in a departure lounge at Hong Kong International airport waiting to catch an internal flight to Hangzhou. Without a doubt, international air travel engenders a surreal state of being – simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in particular. It is the hinterland that Foucault refers to as heterotopia, a restless, feverish paradigm. Sleep disruption and skipped time zones account for much of this dislocation. The only indication of outside temperature or humidity come from the occasional zephyrs intruding through sliding doors positioned beyond prohibited zones. Otherwise, it would appear that Earth is in a constant state of bearable.
It is the ubiquitous nature of airports that does much to erase any sense of continuity or cultural identity. Global locations flickering on departure boards, announcements in multiple languages – these things reinforce the timeless, placeless, temporary envelope of existence. Especially when you add to that the atlas of food outlets such as sushi bars, Italian coffee bars, Irish pubs and Vietnamese street food, and the outlets for Burberry, Versace, Out of Africa, Tommy Hilfiger and Hello Kitty!
I am a well-dressed, well-fed, sweet-smelling cartoon and I don’t know what time it is! Someone passes me on an escalator and embroidered on the back of their polo shirt are the words “Enhancing Your Airport Experience”.
A taxi drive from Hangzhou International Airport gives me a strong first impression of the city’s fringes. Bewildering amounts of concrete and steel are being utilised to build sky-high housing and a transport infrastructure to serve it. Dotted in and around the new are fragments of an older and much more modest city – smallholdings, textile mills, timber yards. Like much of the eastern coast of China, Hangzhou is developing and expanding with palpable urgency.
On arrival in Hangzhou city centre, the individual sounds of hurried movement meld into one overall metropolitan chord. From my hotel room I catch glimpses of West Lake, a cooling, calming buffer to the city and one of the reasons why Hangzhou has become favoured as a place for Chinese people to take a holiday.
After a breakfast of steamed fish-balls, straw potatoes, greens cooked with shrimps and assorted pickles, I get a taxi for CAA. I know it’s not far but none of the travel apps work on my phone. Also, when I took my 50p Hangzhou street plan out of its cellophane wrapper I was unable to separate the folds due to some mysterious and seemingly miraculous exposure to water (or glue).
China Academy of Arts is an impressive complex with a stunning entrance. I am greeted by students studying printmaking. They demonstrate an inexhaustible enthusiasm and desire to be of assistance. They lead me to the Heng Lu Art Museum, the venue for East/West, and after a little uncertainty about which space is allocated for the show, I eventually set down my well-travelled portfolio box and installation tools. Aided by students assigned to assisting delegates, my system of wide pins and devilishly powerful miniature magnets works to hang the work. With surprising speed, we get most of the prints neatly affixed to the wall in time for lunch.
The students invite me to join them in a small unfussy noodle bar just a stone’s throw from CAA. Conversation is impeded by language difference (I can say hello and thank you in Mandarin but that is it). Remarkably, though, we somehow manage to talk about contemporary art, English food, post-punk and indie music, fashion and Norwich.
After lunch we finish installing the work, add the vinyl text which explains the project, and position a plinth to hold the portfolio box and printed details of each individual work. In my opinion, the show looks really good and the students that have helped like it too. Over the coming days I’ll be able to gauge the response and hopefully make some new contacts in the print world as a result.
No need for a taxi back – I’ll use the lake as a navigation tool. Set back from the main road, the pockets of recreational park engender a sense of the woodland that is visible rising up the hills on the other side of West Lake. There are cicadas, softer sounding than the Mediterranean ones, tree frogs, tuneful birds and large hornets. As I near the point adjacent to the road that gets me back to the hotel, the park widens and people are ballroom dancing to slightly distorted music issuing through loudspeakers hidden in the undergrowth.
It is the IMPACT conference registration day and after toast and coffee (managing to negotiate my way past the fish and pickles) I head for CAA. There is a little time before registration starts so I take a detour by crossing the road to the Temple of King Qian. It costs the equivalent of £1.50 to walk among the tranquil gardens of bamboo, gingko and pomelo trees. The large wooden statues of Buddha are impressive and so are the temple buildings with pitched, tiled roofs.
IMPACT 9 conference title is Print in the Post-Print Age. I can’t help but observe the irony of this when I am issued with two tote bags full of exquisitely produced printed catalogues that comprehensively cover the conference. Our project, East/West, is featured in the 351-page book of Exhibitions, Open Portfolios and Workshop Demonstrations. This lavish production is translated into Mandarin as well as English, the official conference-language.
This afternoon a number of delegates, myself included, took a 30-minute coach ride to the fringe of the city to view an exhibition of contemporary colour woodblock prints by the artist Wang Chao. At first glance there was nothing to indicate that these works are from this century, indeed they could be prints from the Chinese translation of the Diamond Sūtra printed in 401 CE. On closer inspection, depictions of US stealth bombers, army personnel and airmail envelopes emerged. The technical skill had to be admired, because although these images look like pencil lines, they are actually cut from hard wood; the fine lines left raised. Moreover, I think it is the contemporising of a traditional process that brings these works to the fore with their provocative cultural and post-colonial references.
You know, when you are told there will be food at a preview, you should always ask how much. I walk back from CAA with one little scented cake-thing in my stomach.
IMPACT 9 officially opens with keynote speeches from Xu Jiang, President of CAA, Dr. Carinna Parraman, Deputy Director of the Fine Print Research unit at University of the West of England, Cao Yiqiang, Dean of the Advanced School of Art and Humanities, and Professor Jo Stockham, Head of Printmaking at the Royal College of Art. The essence of these addresses centred on the influence that the digital has on the continued viability of traditional print. There were merits in all four speeches, but one thing in particular stuck in my mind: an example given in Dr. Parraman’s talk about the surgical application of 3D printing. In her example she described how MRI scans of children’s brains are rendered in 3D using a 3D printer, models that allow neurosurgeons to rehearse surgical procedures with their teams prior to operating on the patient.
At the conclusion of the keynote speeches, and after group photos, a fleet of coaches bussed us away from the CAA Nanshan city campus and took us to the more rural (city fringes at least) Xiangshan campus. Built in the last couple of years on what appears to have been run-down westerly suburbs of Hangzhou, the immaculate Xiangshan campus hosts a crafts museum with collections of vernacular furniture, screens, pottery, tools and a fascinating display of shadow puppets. The campus also has a Bauhaus Institute and Gallery, which represents one of the most complete collections of original Bauhaus artefacts I am aware of outside Germany. What’s more, the nearby student accommodation, which is nestled on a wooded hillside, subtly fuses Walter Gropius minimalism with Chinese architectural fundamentals. A campus signpost points away to the Foundation Department and I wondered if Walter Gropius’ curriculum is followed, at which point three students shuffle past, carefully balancing fragile modular structures fashioned out of card, glue and dowel.
Back at the Nanshan campus and the official opening of IMPACT it is difficult to take in the work effectively as people jostle with their tote bags (bursting at the seams with catalogues). Also, there is hardly enough time after opening speeches to see any work before a welcoming banquet is declared open. We all shuffle to the CAA gymnasium where a table groans with an array of food. I make mistakes: choosing spider crabs legs cooked in chilli that burst and splatter their contents all over the table, then prawns that repeat the embarrassment. Then, as if possessed by some malevolence, a pear does exactly the same – a pear I ask you!
Raining today, in fact it’s the remains of a tropical storm that swept up the east coast of China last night, though without the drama of a typhoon it is simply heavy rain, albeit warm. After gazing for a few minutes at rivulets of water meandering down the window, I am thoughtful of home and family and autumn and Marmite.
The day is spent between viewing the numerous exhibitions and attending academic papers and themed panels. Highlights include papers from Catherine Hehir of the Crawford College of Art and Design Cork and Noelle Noonan of Limerick College of Art and Design talking about their collaborative projects with artists and students in Ireland. These projects conjoin print process and social media. Caren Florance, a research student from the University of Canberra, presented accounts of her recent text, language, performance and book works. Jo Ganter and Raymond MacDonald of Edinburgh University co-delivered a paper and short performance to illustrate their collaborative work on abstract musical scores.
In the main Nanshan campus galleries I was able to be more systematic about viewing work. My breath is taken away by a 10-minute animation by Sun Xun that used woodcut blocks for each frame, the immaculate and intricate screen-prints by Stephen Chambers RA, which are contrasted by the raucous colour of Endi Poskovic’s cartoon-like woodcuts, and the sheer scale of Kiki Smith’s raw earth etchings.
A short walk from the main Nanashan campus is the Xihu Contemporary Art Gallery where I found Stephen Mumberson’s hypnotic film/interview in which he describes making Invalid Geometry using ‘solid works’ software and rapid prototype process.
After a 20 minutes’ walk I found the Sanshang Contemporary Art Gallery, which is unlike all of the other gallery spaces (and perhaps a little more European and provisional or basement-like). There is a slightly more political edge to the work here as well, with examples being Inger Lise Rasmussen’s photogravure plates of regeneration in China, Bianca Cork’s Screen-prints of shipyards, docks and breakers yards, and Bodil Sohn’s imprints from needlework samplers.
At the CCA there is student work on display, work by their own students and seven other prominent institutes and academies within China. The work ranges from highly figurative to risky, edgy, with socially critical imagery. In some cases the work upholds traditions and other expands the field, exploring contemporary methods and agency. What unifies all of the work is the undeniable quality, scale and ambition. These students invest everything in their art.
Actually, somewhere in between seeing all of these exhibitions today I managed to visit the printmaking studios. They are underground, the only facility on the entire Nanshan campus that is in a basement. And as I descend the concrete stairs to reach the main entrance, I understand why. Above the door there is a sign in both Mandarin and English “Air Defence Basement” and a schematic of a person entering at speed. The doors are massively thick steel with heavy rubber seals. It is a remnant of the growing tension between China and Soviet Union in the 1970s, which underlines how the proliferation of arms is in nobody’s interest.
I advance into what looks reassuringly like a printmaking studio and take in the vastness of this provision. There are several large rooms accommodating undergraduates and postgraduates, each with their own set of presses and associated processing areas. Not surprisingly, the postgraduates get slightly better equipment, but it is all very generous. CAA supports woodcut and other relief processes (but not lino as there is no such thing in China), Etching, Lithography (stone and plate) and screen-printing (authographic and photographic). They use water-based screen inks but I notice all other processes and materials are traditional oil-based.
There is a special opening at the Henglu Gallery tonight, which is the gallery hosting East/West. It is packed and I spend two hours talking to delegates about our project. Business cards are exchanged, potential collaborations sketched on imaginary cigarette packets, compliments reciprocated and all in all the evening is a wonderful thing.
Rain has stooped. Half moon. Making my way back to the hotel, past the open-air ballroom dancing, just at the bottom of Pinghai Road where the lights and LED screens dazzle, I notice a slug slipping its way over a PVC hoarding towards the ground (I empathise).
I have tried walking a different way every morning so far, in an attempt to increase the chance of finding something interesting and unexpected. But this morning I am joined by one of the conference delegates, an American who has just finished a residency at the Guanlan Printmaking Centre and Museum in Guanlan, so I think it best to walk the way I know, rather than embarrassing myself by getting lost.
I want to tell you a little more about Hangzhou. As I mentioned, I have quite deliberately walked in eccentric routes around the city to try to absorb it as best I can. First and foremost it is a friendly city and the people are very open and helpful. Okay, I am not so sensitive that abruptness in a city (especially one as frenetic as Hangzhou) is going to offend me – I expect that. But it really is friendlier than many other cities I could (but won’t) name.
Nanshan Road, which traces the perimeter of the West Lake, is an ostentatiously wealthy part of the city. When I say wealthy we are talking Aston Martin, Rolls Royce and Lamborghini showrooms. The pavements smell of expensive perfume, the shop fronts glisten and by night the neon illuminated logos of global brands bleach out the night sky. Over the road is the lake, which despite being corralled by paved walkways, is really very beautiful: hazed and limpid by day and at night the horizon is punctuated by twinkling lights far off on the other side. Cicadas rasp like overhead electricity cables and Asian Starlings catcall from the trees. At dusk there are numerous bats performing skilful flight in order to catch insects drawn out in the evening.
In between the high-rise and the confidently contemporary, there are little enclaves of old Hangzhou. Surrounded, engulfed and seemingly hiding from sight of the land developers, these fragments fit like unruly tetras blocks into the grid of steel and glass. There is washing hanging, bikes and scooters propped, children’s toys scattered, banana trees and other vigorous growth, chairs, tables, flasks of tea. From these warm hearted places come the smell of cooking and the sound of clattering woks, conversations and arguments, distorted radios, scooter alarms, chirping crickets and shrilling mobile phones. I know I’m going over the top with the poetry, but it is so vivid and incredibly illustrative of humanity.
This is the final day of the conference. I want to hear about the collaboration between Emma Febvre-Richards of the University of Wellington and Nicole Starky from the School of Psychology University of Waikato New Zealand, on their investigation of memory, colour and pattern. The work focuses on how physicality combines with complex emotional stories in order to reconstruct unique realities and experience of place. Jo Stockham of the RCA presents a paper on the multitudinous interpretations of “scanning,” and talks about her curated project for The Bluecoat in Liverpool.
Professor Gu Juyi of the CAA talks about digitisation and new technology in Chinese printmaking, which appears to be at an elementary stage. This topic has been discussed at great length during the conference: do digital processes threaten printmaking or become a necessary part of the proliferation of print? Whilst the vicissitudes of this argument have been sounded from every angle, and I certainly have my view. I’ll leave it up to you to ponder dear reader.
We all move to the Pan Tianshou Memorial Museum, which houses some exquisite Tibetan Buddhist Sutra woodcut prints, along with the blocks themselves, which is something I have not seen before. Running alongside this in a room off the main gallery is a demonstration of woodcut moveable type given by Jing Jun. Whilst the Chinese gave us woodcut printing and paper in about 200BCE, it was Johannes Guttenberg that developed metallic moveable type and mechanical presses in 1455. However, the Chinese had invented moveable type using ceramics and cut wood (rather than metal) in about 1040CE, which I have to admit I didn’t know.
I suppose there is a melancholy in the air as we crown into the main lecture theatre for the closing ceremony. Dr. Carinna Parraman extends warm thanks to all…and Professor Gu Juyi reciprocates by thanking delegates and – very importantly – the students who have helped. There is gift giving and gentle applause. We all shuffle back out, a little weary but fulfilled.
As I exit the lecture theatre, the students that helped me install East/West apprehends me and extends the warmest best wishes, which I exuberantly emphasise in return. This spontaneous gesture from the students exorcises the slightly flat feeling that I have and I leave CAA knowing that it has been really worthwhile, not simply for my benefit, but for students – NUA and CAA alike.
Tomorrow I fly back to the UK. I want to get back home. Long-haul flights and hotel rooms do not agree with me. I am not looking forward to the flight back and the fake global miasma of airport lounges, the desiccating air and lack of legroom nor the jet lag.
Some of the prints from the East/West portfolio
Carl inspects his own print from East/West
“Conversation is impeded by language difference. Remarkably, though, we somehow manage to talk about contemporary art, English food, post-punk and indie music, fashion and Norwich.”