Blue sky in Shangrila, from my studio residency at China Exploration and Research Society
Last week, before catching the bus to Shangrila, L. and I sat down to breakfast in a swank hotel dining room in Lijiang. It was a change from our recent morning fare of slippery Yunnan noodles and miniature steamed buns, served by indifferent staff in hotel cafeterias who shut the doors at 9am sharp.
Here, the ambience was discreet, the food was exquisite, and both of us were in our own version of heaven. Our stay at this deluxe hotel was not thanks to my ever-thinning pocketbook, but through a well-meaning and well-connected friend of mine.
L. had his first taste ever of smoked salmon, brie, croissants, and Thai fruits. I savored fine coffee and homemade fruit compote with a hint of cinnamon. L., a university student, was the research assistant for the first stage of my paintbrush search through western China. He’s from a small town near Kunming, and foreign delights such as these were ones he’d never imagined he’d try.
Now he sits down in a flurry of excitement, hands clutching a plate loaded with exotic foods from the buffet.
I smile at his happiness, the first sign of it after several hard days on the road.
-How’s your room?
He laughs softly.
- It’s the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever seen. It’s like a dream!
He glances around, shyly, marveling at the other guests. They wear expensive hiking gear and casualwear designed in Western cities, made in Guangdong factories, and bought on trips to Australia or Italy to give face and evade China’s luxury taxes.
He bites into salami on toasted rye bread.
- They must all be very rich.
- Probably. Do they look very happy to you?
Before he can answer, I add:
- I’ve only met one happy millionaire in my life.
He nods but, I can tell, doesn’t believe me.
- He was happy because he gave back a lot to others.
Now L. wears an “I’m listening because you obviously think this is important” expression. It’s the same look my classmates had during lectures by an abstract expressionist who remained stuck in a ’60s heyday, his ideas long since irrelevant.
Then I remember the businessman who, a few months ago, had said to me:
- You want to show art in China? You’ll soon learn the phrase ‘Poor White People’ in Chinese.
As in, don’t let anyone see you are one.
And he’d given me a knowing look, which said:
- No one will buy art from you in Asia, or anywhere, if they think you’re poor, if you’re not well-connected.
Because no one wants to buy a losing investment.
No one wants to buy an artist who is going nowhere.
We were in a noisy Hong Kong cafe. It was crowded with polite businesspeople.
They kept their elbows in, their voices down, as conversations ricocheted off the tiled floor.
He quizzed me about my exhibition goals in China, and not for the first time, nudged me toward opening a gallery space in a city I call home. A space to exhibit other artists’ work as well as my own.
As any analyst will tell you, it’s smarter to spread your bets than to just invest in one. Many successful art gallerists come from a financial services background. After all, the industries aren’t that different: both trade in high-ticket items whose current and future values require considerable education to understand.
Art, for me, is not a piece of stock.
But I could see his point:
Artists and writers are considered bottom-feeders. There are too many of us, competing for too few places, in creative industries that are, at best, marginal to the lives of most people.
The rare successes are cash cows to be humored and managed.
As a gallerist, I’d be higher up in the chain.
I’d have more face, not to mention a 50% profit on any art that I sold.
But I have never given a damn about that chain.
Moving to China was a slap in the face to ideals I’d forgotten I had. Though it gets harder as bones grow older, as inter-urban travel has lost its novelty, as the wrinkles deepen in the smiles of loved ones, I am still unwilling to trade my freedom for security. I don’t kowtow to a hierarchy of well-known exhibition spaces and collectors, to fashion in art or media or ideas.
I rarely use the word “Freedom”. It’s jingoistic and has become a rallying cry for unfortunate acts around the world, perpetrated by my compatriots, in the name of a peculiar brand of democracy.
For many Americans, “The price of freedom” conjures up guns and offensives.
For me, it means giving up what is natural to hold dear: security.
Because security is an illusion.
And pursuing security means we build prisons around ourselves, to forget how transient we really are. How fragile. No amount of Hermes handbags, of paintings or books or children we make, will save us from where we are going someday.
Not even delicious meals. But they’re a nice way to forget for a while.
L. smears his mouth with a cloth napkin, leans back in his chair, and grins.
- Wow, this is like a paradise, a dream come true. I never believed I could come to a place like this! It’s the dream of every Chinese.
I wonder if the other Chinese guests feel that way. Or if it’s a dream they’ve already begun to take for granted.
- Ready to go and explore the old town of Shuhe? It’s just down the road.
He nods and smiles, pleased with me for the first time in a few days, happy with what the day will bring, though it’s just begun to rain.