"You Are Welcome To Travel By Our Plane"

June 20, 2008

With a prestigious grant from the Asian Cultural Council, Hammer adjunct curator James Elaine moved to China in April 2008 to seek out emerging artists within China and throughout Asia. This blog provides a fascinating insight into Jamie’s travels and the art world in China.

"You Are Welcome to Travel By Our Plane"

On May 7 I boarded a Sichuan Airlines flight headed for Chengdu and Chongqing. The trip was my second outside of Beijing to visit artists, art schools, museums and galleries in regions not usually visited by westerners or, for that matter, the Chinese art world. I landed in Chengdu and was met by Xiao Hu, my guide and translator. I had studied Chinese for several years before coming to China and can somewhat make my way alone, but it really helps to have a guide. Life is so much more enjoyable and productive and you can avoid ordering 'dog' on the menu when you have a native speaking guide traveling with you. After a day in Chengdu Xiao Hu and I boarded a bus and took a five hour ride through green hills and rice paddies to Chongqing where I was to meet the artists of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Chongqing is in a beautiful mountainous region and is more lush and tropical than Beijing. I felt that I was in another world there, one with a closer connection to an ancient eastern culture. The Sichuan Fine Arts Institute is one of the five most prominent art academies in China and the only one in southwest China. Over its 65 year history it has produced a number of now internationally acclaimed artists such as Zhang Xioagang, Feng Zhengjie, Luo Zhongli, Zhou Chunya, Ye Yongqing, and He Duoling. I spent the first two days meeting the art faculty and art students, and visiting artist's studios. Generally the studios in Chongqing are huge, beautiful, and really cheap to rent. These spaces would be impossible to find or afford in NY or even in LA. One of the most interesting studio visits I made was with Feng Bin, artist, professor, and the director of the Chongqing Art Museum, which is located on the campus of the Fine Arts Institute. He told me an incredible story about Armand Hammer and the influence Hammer had on young Chinese artists in the 1980's . . .

Hammer in Beijing 1982

In the spring of 1982 a groundbreaking exhibition opened in Beijing at the National Art Museum: the Armand Hammer collection of paintings. This was the first time that western art was exhibited in China. Before this exhibition artists and students were only able to see reproductions of western work in magazines and catalogues. Feng Bin, who was at that time a student at the Sichuan Fine Art Institute in Chongqing, was dying to see the paintings. At that time the Institute did not allow students to travel to Beijing to see the show. The Institute deemed the exhibition irrelevant to their studies unless the students were enrolled in the Oil Painting department. Feng Bin was a student in the traditional Chinese Painting department and was forbidden to attend. He was, however, determined to see the paintings he had heard about all his life but had only seen in poor reproductions. He and another art student friend decided to go anyway. They had very little money to get there and couldn't even afford train tickets. But by altering their identity cards to read that they were from Beijing they were entitled by the government to buy half price train tickets to travel 'back home.' They told no one and left at night to begin their journey across China to see Hammer's paintings.. It was a long trip from Chongqing to Bejing. They spent three days and two nights sitting on a hard train seat before arriving, for the first time, in Beijing. They found an underground hotel for 5 yuan a night. Today that would be about 75 cents. The room had 6 to 8 beds in it, but no bath, no sink, no toilet-nothing but the beds. This was their home for the next 5 days, but it didn't matter to them. No hardship mattered to these artists, they were in the capital city and were going to see the Hammer collection of 19th c. western paintings. It was a dream come true. Feng Bin and his friend wanted to buy the exhibition catalogue but could not afford the high price. They spent the next few days repeatedly going to the Hammer exhibition as well as touring the city and going to the other museums of Beijing before they had to make the long and arduous journey back to their home in Chongqing.

Their escapade might have gone unnoticed, but when they returned to the school there happened to be a group from Chongqing's only TV station filming a news article on the Institute. Feng Bin was so elated and excited by his adventure and the paintings he'd just seen that he could not stop himself from telling the TV crew everything they did. The show was broadcast with his full story and, of course, was viewed by the head of his department at school. The next day he and his friend were called into the director's office, were given a bad report on their school records and told that they would be expelled if anything like that ever happened again.

A young Chinese student I met in Chengdu during this trip told me that he could not believe that I was able to see a Van Gogh painting everyday at work at the Hammer Museum. He told me that we did not know how fortunate we were to be able to see paintings like Van Gogh's anytime we wanted. It is his dream to someday see a Van Gogh or one of the many great masterpieces of art in western museums. I think that we have had so much for so long that we have lost our ability to appreciate the privileges we have been so blessed with, such as having "Hospital at Saint-Remy" in our own backyard and not being 'expelled' for viewing it.