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LOVE IT AND LEAVE IT: Australia’s Creative Diaspora Part Two

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 Part Two of the Transcript of Interview Nathalie Latham (NL) with Denise Keele-bedford (DKB)

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

NL This time you have rented a studio here.

DK-B  Yes it is rented, it is not a residency.  I have a contract to rent that studio for five years at this stage with the option of taking it on for ten years or more.  Last year when I was here, I was introduced to these studios and decided to take one up and have it internally constructed; I am currently living and working there.

NL Can you tell me a bit more about the studio as it is quite a particular part of the community?

DK-B  Suo Jiacun village and the Beijing International Art Camp (BIAC) is out on the North East of Beijing heading out towards the airport, it is an area where there are little pockets of groups of artists studios. BIAC is on the edge of Suo Jiacun village.  There are approximately 100 studios where artists live and work.  Some use them as day studios and there are several internationals who also have studios.

NL A lot of people live there too, don’t they?

DK-B  Yes, many, many Chinese artists live there.  Laetitia, a French lady who is director of Imagine Gallery, lives there with her Chinese husband Xiao Rong, a musician.  The complex is a mixture of day studios; artists’ homes and there are also some galleries.  It is a great hub of artists, of various disciplines.  A lot of different work is being produced there.  BIAC is a compound and as an Australian going there I feel very safe and secure in knowing that I can be there really without any concerns.  It is comfortable, I am interacting particularly with many Chinese artists and of course other internationals coming in and doing the same thing.  Originally the developers were growing grass here to sell.  Li Gang who I mentioned before, along with his wife and the developers designed the whole centre and Li Gang introduced me to it when I was here last year.  I was with an Argentinian artist and a New Zealand artist who were having residencies here and we decided to take up studios at the same time and design the interiors.  Mine was not even built at the time.  Simon’s was built and he was well into designing the interior. Gabriella’s was halfway through being built and mine was a dirt plot and I was asked if I wanted one spot or the other spot so I just picked one.  Eventually He Ying, Li Gang’s wife sent me photos of the studio and what it was looking like.  I was in Australia at that point, had made up a design, sent it across and asked her opinion.  She liked the design and overlooked the erection for me.  I returned in June to furnish and finish it.  Now it is up and running.

NL  It was interesting because we were walking through that hall and there was a strong sense of design

DK-B  Yes, we were talking about the studio before and I was saying how I really enjoyed designing the interior of my studio.  It was kind of like here is my big moment in architecture to design the interior of my art studio.  Yeah so, I guess it is the love of the buildings or the way things are designed that still all comes into it.

NL It is also the fact that you are interested in places of worship

DK-B  Yes, and I was just thinking that looking over here and the way these buildings are designed, and all based on a grid.  It is very interesting when you look at Chinese architecture very much based in grid forms.  Everything is very precise and in line. I was talking before about Feng Shui and the good Feng Shui of how a building is set and the place.  The Imperial palace for instance had to have a mountain behind it because that is Feng Shui.  So they made a mountain, it is a man made mountain that is why it has a moat; something had to go in the hole.  They dug the hole to make the mountain at the back of the Palace, then filled the hole with water.

NL       So what does this mean to you as an artist? What does it mean to you being in this place called Beijing?

DK-B  It means many things actually.  My studio is a large space of 90 square metres, so it physically has floor space, has height and great light.  For me it is an ideal space to be able to produce work. I have a great trough, which is very important for water, washing brushes etc.  So there is that part to it.  Another part is that I can come to the studio here in Beijing; I can focus on a particular body of work that I want to produce.  I don’t have to think about the everyday things that I think of at home, like driving a car.  I don’t drive a car here I ride a bike.  I don’t have to worry about maintaining a car, maintaining a garden or the bills, all of those things that come with everyday living at home.  I have so much more time, so much more thinking time, so much more time to be able to produce and that is extremely important, especially the thinking time because we can get tied up with life and all that is going on around us, with family and all.  When I am here I have a concentrated time to be able to think and to work.  Another factor too, is that it is a different place to work.  I like to work with different environments and when I come here I can discover different environments.  Once this exhibition is in the gallery (see Footnote) and open I already have another project that I am working on here.  Access to materials and access to assistants are also reasons for being here. To get materials and to get things done here can be frustrating and can seem like it takes a long time but then all of a sudden it all falls together.  Even during my time here this time I have days of extreme high and other days of questioning what the hell am I doing here and so there are those extremes.

I find China very challenging but what it makes me do is slow down.  I have to slow down, I have to listen, I have to be prepared if I am going out for the day.  Like coming here this morning becomes a journey.  It is not just jumping in the car and whipping down the street.  Yesterday we went to the art supplies.  It was not just a matter of jump in the car go to the suppliers get what you want and back home.  It is quite a journey to do it because of the language, planning what else I can do while I am out, and these sorts of things.

NL       It is also difficult to get around Beijing, it takes so much time

DK-B  But then on the other hand, I wanted steel curves for the work that is going up next week. So the questions, where do I start? How do I find somebody?  So I get on my bike and head off down the road, go in and out of all the little factories and shops and here is a man making stainless steel balustrades with curves.  I ask him can he do something like this for me, okay so I’ll come back.

So I went back to the studio, did a drawing, took a piece of work that I needed the curves for and returned.  Every time I have a discussion like this it draws a crowd.  The shop was quite small and we had about ten people in there and I was the only female.  I was really quite pleased because I was able to go through the whole negotiation with only one phone call to Li Gang to help me translate.  I went back the next day and he had a sample for me to look at, he asked if I was happy, and is it what I want.  I went back yesterday and here they were all finished, perfect, just what I want.    So things can happen very quickly too.    That work was done in 3 –4 days.  Again another reason for being here is that access to what I want is available.  It seems that it is matter of slowing down, looking, talking to people.  Another reason is the interaction.  Beijing is a hub for internationals, I am not just interacting with Chinese artists, I am also interacting with others, like you.  International artists come flooding in, some come, stay a little while then go, others I suppose like me, fall in love with the place and keep coming back.

NL       So how much of the year do you plan to be here?

DK-B  It is getting that way that two months at a time doesn’t seem long enough.  I do have commitments at home, I have a family, and I have a husband.  He is extremely encouraging; he survives quite well by himself.  At this stage he has been to China with me, he came last year for a couple weeks while I was on residency.  On my first journey he said “No it is not a place for me”.  But when I asked him to come last year, his brother had been here and he said, “Walter, you are mad, you must go, just try it”.  He really loved it, he enjoyed the art scene, coming in and meeting artists, seeing what the art world is like here and one day I hope he will come back when he could stay much longer.  But for me there is a tug of the commitment in Australia and wanting to be here.  I could stay several months at a time.  It is early days yet because the studio is only very new and it is here whenever I want to come and it is here for other people to use.  Yeah so there is… I don’t know if you know, that pulling.  There are also such great opportunities here.

NL       So in terms of your practice – how has it effected your practice?

DK-B  The culture, there is still a sense of the historic, not so much the modern for me with China it is the historic.  I go back to the belief systems, significant places.  I mean even the project that I will be working on once the exhibition is up is still based on history and belief systems.  So is using Chinese materials, papers.  I have worked with paper a lot; I love some of the papers here.  The paper that we used for the ‘tuo’ is just a gorgeous paper.  So those sorts of things are coming more and more into my work.  I was talking earlier about the illuminated manuscripts and vellum, I went through a whole process of working out how to get paper to have the same sense of vellum.  I was very pleased at getting to a particular point where I felt that I achieved it, with beeswax actually.  When I was here a couple of years ago the work that I made was casting some very big cooking pots.  I was at the Pickled Art Centre that had been a pickling factory and I was casting some of the old cooking pots that were used in pickling.  I was using rice paper then filling those bowls, the castings became bowls, with different coloured rices.  The colours came from a particular banner that sits in the Lama Temple and the colours are in a particular order. So the bowls of coloured rice mimicked the order.

When I went home I made an installation using rice and paper again. Red and yellow, which are very significant here.  Multiples of nines, in the installation there were 81 bowls, nine being the highest number in the culture here.  It just kind of keeps coming through, I see these things all the time.  It keeps continually flowing through.

NL       And where did your original interest for illuminate Scripts come from?

DK-B  We were talking earlier about when I started my art practise.  As I said photography had been an interest of mine, which then went onto video.   My parents used to bred Maltese dogs and went to shows with the dogs.  The Maltese Dog Club wanted to have their shows video taped so they came to me and suggested that I make videos of their dog shows.  That was all very well but how was I to do titles, so I learnt calligraphy.  I took myself off to calligraphy classes.  I could make little title cards for the films.  It actually became quite a good little business.  I was doing more than just the Maltese, I would go out to the Royal Melbourne Show and film a lot of the different breeds, tell people about myself and make films for the dog clubs and sell videos to the members.  I enjoyed the sense of the writing, the mark making and then made discoveries.  On my first major trip overseas I was introduced to different cultures.  I went to Thailand, onto Italy, France and England and I was seeing different cultures and different places of worship and through this came upon illuminated manuscripts.  I am not exactly sure where or how.

The discoveries were about the sense of one God, but how different cultures see what we call God or energy or spirit.  There is some kind of energy that we can never quite put our finger on, so different cultures put different names to it and I find it really intriguing.  Illuminated Manuscripts are part of the story telling.  In my history, going back to the Celts and it will be interesting for me because I have been coming here now for quite a few times and next year my husband and I are going to Scotland and Ireland.  There is a little island off the coast of Scotland called Iona where the Book of Kells was written.  The book is an ancient Illuminated Manuscript.    I am kind of in being with China and Chinese culture and how that has been influencing my art practice, so I am interested to see how going and revisiting aspects of my cultural history will affect me, because it has been China for sometime now.  How that melds together in the future I don’t know.  There are things like the stone circles, not so much Stonehenge because it is so commercialised now that in a way the spirit of the place has been scattered, so I am looking forward to going up into Scotland visiting some of those stone circles and just walking on the ground.  This year when I went to Central Australia walking on the ground around Uluru just literally brought me to tears.  It was a shock to my system that I had that reaction.  We were driving, my husband was driving and I could hardly see the place because the tears were just pouring.  I was overwhelmed by the sense of the place, the age of this rock and how people have abused it.    They have climbed on it when our indigenous people are saying “please don’t climb, we prefer you not to”.  Yes, yeah I was very, very surprised at how it affected me.  Again, Uluru is a significant place.  But I don’t know whenever that emotion is going to strike me.

NL       Going back to the interview and the reason for the photograph – many people don’t know their favourite place, but for you, you came straight out with the answer

DK-B  I think because, even though it was a year ago and a year can be very short or it can be very long depending on whom we are and how things work for us.  In some instances it can be a long time.  It felt like a long time coming back here but now that I am here it is like it feels like it was only yesterday.  I think because so much happened in this place for me.  I still don’t know if it was a major shift within me or what it was.   Because of the opportunity to be here, as I said before I felt very privileged.  Here I was a Westerner being taught this craft by this man who is acknowledged in his position.  The crowds coming the interaction and then just being able to spend time by myself in the hall and just working away there in the quiet.  There was a great sense of solitude and occasionally people coming in.  I remember there was one German guy who had been studying Chinese writing and he had been here for about three years with his study and he said, “I am just amazed at what you are doing, I would love to be doing what you are doing”.  He again was a bit blown away that here was a Westerner in this place doing this.  There were many, many Chinese people coming in and questioning me.  Laoshi Ho was working in a room at the end of the hall and I would point down the hall and say there is my teacher.  I could not hold great conversations because of the language.

It still has a lot of those memories, it is a very quiet place, and you can see it is a lovely place, quiet, peaceful surroundings.  People like to just come and sit.  When we were working on the stones out the front there was a Westerner coming in each day and just sitting and watching.  I went over to him and asked what was his story.  He said “It is so hectic, it is chaos outside of these walls, I come in here it is so quiet and peaceful. Watching what you people are doing is my thing.”    I think it is probably the memory when you ask, “What is your favourite place”.    For me it is probably still that memory and the experience of last year.

Footnote:

  1. The Exhibition mentioned in the Interview was the first that became an ongoing series of seven Cultural Art Exchange Touring projects. Nv Yishu: Series One with Melbourne based artist Liliana Barbieri was held at Imagine Gallery November 5, 2005 – January 15, 2006.

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