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LOVE IT AND LEAVE IT: Australia’s Creative Diaspora

LOVE IT AND LEAVE IT: AUSTRALIA’S CREATIVE DIASPORA

Is the publication to accompany the Exhibition of Photographs by Nathalie Latham

Held at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra May – July 2007

Below is the Transcript of Interview Nathalie Latham (NL) with Denise Keele-bedford (DKB)

at the Confucian Temple in Beijing China on 30th October 2005.

(DUE TO THE LENGTH OF THE INTERVIEW the Blog will be uploaded as two separate blogs.)

NL What’s your title?

DK-B Visual Artist

NL Where were you born?

DK-B Adelaide in South Australia.

NL Where were your parents born?

DK-B  Both in Melbourne.  My father was born in Carlton and my mother in Fitzroy, so I am very much Australian.

NL When did you start practicing your art?

DK-B  I started formal studies about 15-16 years ago.  I have three children and growing up with the children my interests were mainly photography and various crafts.  I did a lot sewing making my children’s clothes.   When the opportunity came to do formal studies I grabbed it.  I started with private lessons and got to appoint of wanting to do institutional studies.  I did a Diploma of Arts, Bachelor of Arts then onto Masters.  I finished my Masters in 2002.  That was at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), since then, well I am still learning, I continue to learn, will always be learning, researching and making art.

NL When did you actually start painting or start doing art as a child?

DK-B  I always liked to dabble but one of the things I mainly remember as a child was that I loved to design.  If I was sick at home in bed I would have big sheets of paper and I would be designing houses and streets of houses and towns.  It would grow and grow.  I remember doing that and thinking, oh one day I would really love to be an architect.  Then when I went to High School I had to decide on what stream I would take.  In those days you had a choice of academic or commercial stream.  My parents asked what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be an architect.  Their response was that girls don’t do that.  I am one of seven children, most of my siblings were factory workers and they had one girl go into an office which made them very proud.  If I wasn’t going to be an architect what would I do so thought I should become an office worker, so that was the stream that I took.  My parents were very happy because their last three daughters became office workers.

I think as soon as the opportunity came for me to do some study I did. I loved school even though I had nearly been expelled at one point.  I loved the fact of learning and then as years went on and the opportunity did arise I took that up.  I had left school at fifteen.  I had a breakdown about 1989 that caused a whole shift in my life.  When my therapist asked was there something that I had ever wanted to do and I said architecture, she told me that I could, that anything was possible.

I also loved the idea of drawing and painting, my school art teacher had been the influence, and so I decided to take up lessons in drawing.  It really leads from there.  I also returned to study and undertook an ACRACS course (Advanced Certificate in Residential and Community Services – Intellectual Disabilities)

NL In terms to your relationship with Beijing. When did that actually start?

DK-B  In 2002. I had an interest in the age of the place. In Australia as we are aware indigenous people have been around for some 40 – 60,000 years but white Australia is so young and I am interested in seeing different cultures and looking at their places of worship, like this, and belief systems.  I was intrigued to come to somewhere that was vastly different to the country that I know and looking at its history.

A girlfriend of mine was coming to China with a group to do Feng Shui studies so I decided to come with them.

NL Can you describe the journey in a bit more detail?

DK-B  On the first journey we had to do some prerequisite studies in Feng Shui.  When I travel I also like to do some research, to find out a bit about where I am going and what I will be doing there.  We were only going to be in Beijing for a few days and then travel.  We went to Guilin and Yangshou in the South.  I knew that in Xi’an there is a museum of stone tablets and I have an interest in calligraphy, mark making.  Illuminated Manuscripts have been a big influence in my art making as well.  Because that is all on vellum, I was interested to see how the Chinese put calligraphy into stonework. When I went to the museum   I was blown away with what I saw and the mark making on the stone.  That was the end of that particular trip.  It was very moving for me to be in that particular museum.  I could have stayed there for so long.

The opportunity happened for me to come back, so I did.  I had a residency in Beijing with Red Gate Gallery in 2003.  While I was here for that residency I discovered the Confucian Temple, the stone tablets here and what is called the craft of ‘tuo’ that I had first seen in Xi’an.   It is an ink rubbing of imagery and text of the stone.  I applied to the Australia-China Council for a residency to come back again. Then in 2004 I came back for two months.  Again I had a fantastic experience in learning that particular craft.

I was talking to a lady last night that did her studies in Chinese Art History and she told me that there are some other terms for that particular process.  I said that there was a lot of discussion at the time of what the correct word was and ‘tuo’ seemed to be the correct word for what I was doing.  When I took some private lessons my teacher Laoshi Ho invited me to come to the Confucian Temple and work with him.

NL How did you find this teacher?

DK-B  I found him through a dear friend of mine who I had met in 2003.  Li Gang is an artist. He is a sculptor and has a place at Bei Gao called the Pickled Art Centre. It is a hub where many international artists come for residencies.  He also has a foundry and does a lot of bronzing for people.  He seems to be a central contact for artists here.  If you need information about a particular form of art making, Li Gang is the person you go to.  If he doesn’t know he will find it for you.

When I approached him and said I wanted to learn this form of craft he found my teacher and then said that he hadn’t even met him, himself.  He knew that Laoshi Ho was the top ‘tuo’ craftsperson, and is the head here at the Confucian Temple, so Li Gang said, “he is the person I have approached and he will teach you.”  He does teach the craft to Chinese people.

NL How many foreigners has he taught?

DK-B  None.  Just me.

He has had modern stones made, based on old designs and they are the stones that we learn on.

‘Tuo’ is a very involved process and perhaps if you walk around here today you will see some of the stones where, throughout the ages, people have tried to make rubbings of the mark making but haven’t known the process.  So a lot of the stones are very badly stained with ink and the concept of the process is to be able to take a rubbing of the markings on the stone without leaving any residue of ink.  That is why we worked on new stones.  After my lessons at his home had been completed, he then invited me to come here.

NL How long was that?

DK-B  It went over about five or six lessons.  It was always quite a journey because I was living in the North East of Beijing in Chaoyang district and he lives on the South West district, so to travel there was quite a journey.  I travelled mostly by taxi.  Sometimes I would catch a train across town and then take a taxi the rest of the way.  I’m learning Mandarin that I call survival Mandarin.   The first time I went there a Chinese friend of mine, who lives in Beijing and speaks English very well, came with me so that he could translate.  Working with another artist, I think, is a beautiful process because you can learn so much without language just by showing and looking.   My teacher knew about six words of English and most of the time it would be NO because I was doing it wrong and then take me through the correct process.  Because we had the lessons in his home, quite often his small daughter would come in to have a look and we would interact.  We had many cups of tea and worked on the stone tablets.  When we got to a particular point that was the end of the lessons, he asked if I would like to come to work with him at the Temple and make some rubbings here.  So I did. I came in and worked for several days on the big tablets you would have seen as you came into the Temple.  Those tablets are listings of scholars.   Next-door is the old university where people from all over the country would come once per year and sit for exams.  The best, then the people who came second, then the people who came third would be listed on a stone tablet.  They were the tablets that we were making rubbings of.   That system of examination ceased in 1904 because it was deemed to be a bit on the corrupt side because some of the examination would be whether you were beautiful.  If you were good looking of course you were given a better position of work.  For me, it was again a fabulous experience working with him.  We always drew a crowd and had many people around us asking questions and looking at what we were doing.  We always took the opportunity that if we had a person who could speak English and Chinese we grabbed that person and he would say can you tell my student this or I would say could you ask my teacher this.  So this was another way for us to be able to communicate.

NL Were you actually doing this in the gardens?

DK-B  Yes, out in the front area that we just walked through.  Bus loads of people come through and many, many Chinese people.  This temple is a very quiet area.  The Lama Temple is very popular and many people go in crowds there and this place is a beautiful place.  Some of the trees here are believed to be some 700 years old.

NL Please give a background of your teacher and how does he become the head copier.

DK-B  It seems that this particular craft is passed on like most crafts.  It is a bit like our indigenous people and the story telling, how artists pass on particular symbols onto the next in line.  It doesn’t seem as though it is something that is vastly popular.  I think because there are limited stones and limited stones that they will now make rubbings from.  In the history of these stones people would take rubbings and then they would destroy the stone so that their rubbing of it was all that was left and that would become the famous piece of writing.   He was taught from somebody else who retired and passed on and he has been at the Confucian Temple now for ten years with this craft.  This has made him the head person and he now passes onto others.  In a section that is now being renovated there were a couple of people who, for the tourists, would make rubbings of modern stones.  I’ll explain the process a little more.    If you know anything about brass rubbing, copies or facsimiles are made of, say church, brasses that people could then do rubbings from.  It is the same with the stones.  There is the old original carved stone.  They make a carving into a new stone as a facsimile, which then becomes the stone that student’s make rubbings from.  That is how I learnt.  There is a particular set of new stones here that the students use and sell the rubbings to tourists.

Talking with one of Laoshi Ho’s students I asked how long she had been a student and she said “four years”.  She is still not at a point of being able to take rubbings from ancient stones.  She takes rubbings from the modern facsimiles.  Laoshi Ho does the rubbings from the old original stones.

I was asked why. What do they do with all of these rubbings?  They are generally passed onto other museums.  He will make copies that then go to other museums and people can purchase them.  There is a set of stones here called ‘Da Xue’ which is Confucian writings and perhaps we can walk down there and have a look at those.  While I was embossing he was making copies of these stones and they were to go to other museums.

NL So he physically sculpts them out himself.

DK-B  No. No, he does the rubbings.  These stones are hundreds of years old and he does rubbings using ink onto paper.   So when I talk about a rubbing I am talking about a rubbing on paper made with ink that then goes to other museums or is sold to the public. The rubbings are for the museum archives.  This is his main job here.  It is interesting one day I walked in and he was digging in the garden.  So even though his main job is the main printmaker or rubbing expert he does other things also.  When something else needs to be done he gets involved in that as well.  For him to do a rubbing of the ‘Da Xue’ stones it would take him one week, a good five days for one rubbing of this set of stones.  This is where I say it is quite an involved process and I felt extremely privileged to be here.  Because as I say he had not taught another weiguoren, anybody outside of the Chinese, this craft before.  So I was in a very privileged position.  It is very hard to put into words because I felt……. it is overwhelming to recall the experience that I had because when we had finished the formal lessons, he had invited me here to work with him, which I did and then after that because the first process of the rubbing is a form of embossing.

Embossing is using paper.  You could put paper onto the cobblestones here and wet the paper then the paper is pressed into the indentation.  When it dries the pattern of the indentation stays in the paper and that is an embossing.  When we make a rubbing, a ‘tuo’, the first part of that before you put the ink on is an embossing.  You ink the paper on the stone when it is still damp but if you just allow the paper to dry and remove it from the stone the mark making or the incisions in the stone stay on the paper and that is what an embossing is.  Because I was so very new at the ‘tuo’ craft I was not allowed to make ink rubbings but was allowed to make embossings.  In the Forest of the Thirteen Classics I was basically given free reign to be able to make embossings where ever I wanted to.  We would discuss different stones and a lot of the stones have images of dragons and clouds and so forth in them apart from the text.  I spent about the next two weeks or so in the hall making embossings.

When I applied to the Australia-China Council for the residency to learn the craft, I wanted to be able to take knowledge of the ‘tuo’ craft and put it into a contemporary practice.  The way I was going to do that was to go to the Dashanzi Art Centre, which is a major contemporary, art centre here in Beijing and make rubbings of the ground hole covers.  The ground hole covers are beautifully designed with patterns and have text in them to explain that the cover is for, electricity or for water or sewerage or whatever it might be.  Many of them have dates on them.  One of the oldest at Dashanzi has a date of 1953 because that is when the ammunitions factory was built there.  Between working at the temple here, depending on the days, I had to watch the weather because it was starting to get cool.   The drying time is influenced by the weather.  I went to Dashanzi and marked on a map where the covers were that I wanted to make rubbings from and check that it was possible.  I then needed to buy a hammer, a chisel and sandpaper to be able to clean these things down.  I endeavoured to find groups of them so that rather than just working on one and having to wait around for a few hours for the thing to dry I could work on three or four in an area.  It limited in a way specific covers.  That was to do with time restraints.  Next time I come here to do it I would come in the summer because the drying time is quicker but getting towards halfway into October and into the weather we are having now, it takes much longer to dry and so I was working between the two.  Coming here to the Temple and going out to Dashanzi.  I now have a lovely body of work of embossings from the Temple.  I don’t have as many of the rubbings from the ground hole covers at Dashanzi but have some embossing of those.  It is because I was too late with the weather, it was getting very cold and things were not drying.  I did put the process into practice and it is one of those things that I will revisit next time or maybe another time when I come back.

To be continued……….

Thanks to the image takers, Walter Magilton, Jennifer Kearney.

 

 

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