Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nell Freudenberger on The Dissident

Nell Freudenberger on The Dissident

When I was in the tenth grade, a Visiting Scholar came to our school. I went to a single-sex, private, non-sectarian preparatory school in Los Angeles, which celebrated its centennial while I was a student there. We wore violet, pink, yellow or white button-down dresses with the school’s initials monogrammed on the sleeves, or else pleated flannel kilts. The required footwear, in the late eighties and early nineties, was the saddle shoe. It was as if an enthusiastic Angelino had read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” and decided to found a school—but hadn’t gotten it quite right.

The Visiting Scholar was from China. (At that time, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask where in China). I don’t remember his name, but I know he had three of them, and that to my fascination, they began with “X,” “Y,” and “Z.” He painted traditional Chinese ink landscapes of bamboo, rocks, and trees, very fast, on a pristine, white tablet. Everyone was eager to use the hollow bamboo brushes with fine horsehair tips, the blue-black ink in tiny glass bottles, and there was a long line to paint with the Visiting Scholar. I decided to be patient. Sooner or later the other girls would lose interest, and Mr. XYZ would be mine alone.

My strategy paid off, and soon I was one of only two or three girls who continued coming to the demonstrations, as Mr. XYZ’s stay was extended from two to three weeks, and then to another month. We progressed from rocks to bamboo, and finally, the crowning achievement—to lobsters. A bamboo had three leaves on its top stem, and two on each of the subordinate branches. Similarly, a lobster’s body had three or five segments, but never four or six. I brought home large, thin sheets of paper, spotted and sometimes torn, where I had pressed too hard, which my parents dutifully admired. (To say I was not a gifted art student is to be tactful). And yet, Mr. XYZ’s instructions, delivered in the few words of English he knew, were a kind of revelation to me. You did not have to wait for a bolt of inspiration. (Who had the time, particularly if you were only in America for two months, and were possibly trying to slip the bounds of your exchange visa?) Mr. XYZ did not tell us to “be creative” or “use our imaginations;” perhaps he didn’t know those words. There were, rather, instructions: three leaves, not two; five segments, not four. In other words: there was a way to do this. There was a place to start.

I never learned whether Mr. XYZ stayed in Los Angeles, or eventually went home. I hadn’t thought of him for many years when I began studying Mandarin, in 2001. A few years later I made my first trip to China through the State Department’s generous cultural exchange program for writers, where I met university students in five cities around the country. That summer, I also saw the excellent “Between Past and Future” show of photography and video art from China, curated by Wu Hung and Christopher Phillips. Most interesting to me were the photographs from a place called the “Beijing East Village;” I lived in the New York East Village, and wondered what its Chinese sibling might be like.

That exhibit was my introduction to Rong Rong and the artists of the Beijing East Village, who appear in this novel somewhat disguised. The neighborhood, a ghetto on the eastern edge of the city, became an accidental haven in the early nineties for aspiring artists, some of whom had come to Beijing from the provinces with very little money. The photographer Rong Rong arrived there with his sister in early 1993, and wrote in his diary: “This place is actually a garbage dump for Chaoyang District. All sorts of people, such as garbage collectors, construction workers and the unemployed, live here. I don’t know how we are going to survive here on my income from limited and occasional shots for newspapers, and when my sister’s paintings can not even be sold for one RMB.”

Soon, however, Rong Rong and his sister discovered that they weren’t the only artists living there. As a way to meet people, he began taking portraits of some of the other young artists; together they nicknamed their neighborhood, “Dong Cun,” or the Beijing East Village. Rong Rong’s portraits of the performance artist Zhang Huan, the aspiring rock star, Curse, and the beautiful, effeminate painter, Ma Liuming, started a tradition of collaboration, which lasted until June of 1994. That month, the Beijing East Village was raided by police, who interrupted “Fen-Ma’s Lunch,” a performance by Ma Liuming in which he cooked fish in the nude. The performance landed him and several members of his audience in a detention center, and forced the other artists to flee their homes. In 2000, the village was razed to make way for a public park.

In January, 2005, I went back to China and interviewed some of the artists I’d been reading about for the past few years. I didn’t expect to meet Rong Rong—one of the most successful artists in Beijing, whose photographs sell for upwards of $10,000—but when a friend offered to introduce me, I couldn’t say no. During a long cab ride in the dark, to a village just outside Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road, I was thrilled and also a little worried. I was writing a novel that took place at a girls’ school in Los Angeles and an artists’ ghetto in Beijing. To me, the novel was about confusion—the way Americans determine our own identities, and about the way we imagine foreignness—Chineseness in particular. Would meeting the person on whom I’d based my character make the story I’d been writing seem wrong, or fake?

I visited Rong Rong and his Japanese wife, inri (both are “art names”) at their live/work studio in Caochangdi. The very modern main living space was dominated by a large, steel worktable, and an oversized antique enlarger. The couple works together, and their pictures line the walls: the most striking series was taken in Japan, on their honeymoon at Mount Fuji, where they’d used a tripod to photograph themselves in front of the iconic mountain in the snow. Rong Rong and inri often work naked; the series shows the two of them progressing further and further toward the mountain, until they are just black twigs in a vast expanse of frozen whiteness. “The irony is that even though we wanted to photograph Mount Fuji, you couldn’t even see the mountain,” Rong Rong told me.

I asked about the East Village of course, but the artist wasn’t especially interested in discussing such old work. Even today it’s difficult to see truly contemporary Chinese art in the U.S., since curators take some time to bring shows here. Chinese artists and curators have complained to me that American audiences are biased in favor of work that is recognizably political; oddly, we seem to prefer the reverse in homegrown art.

The day after I met Rong Rong and inri, I visited Chaoyang Park, which lies on top of the old East Village. In that season, it was a bleak, brown public space, with abandoned amusement park rides and only a few old people, walking briskly or practicing tai ji. I thought of something inri wrote in “Tui/Transfiguration,” a catalogue she published with her husband last year:

“People who go visit those places cannot perceive the world of our experience. That world does not exist anywhere in the real world. You can only possess that world with us in our photos.”

To say that this is a novel about identity and cultural misunderstanding seems a little pretentious—or as my tenth grade English teacher would’ve said, “highfalutin.’” I think that I write fiction to force myself to remember very simple things about the world: for example, that any description of character has more to do with the person observing than with the one being observed. To me, this is a book about learning to write, in particular about learning to make fictional characters. “The Dissident” is also a story about copying and faking -- which is the way I believe a person learns to make any kind of art.

-Nell Freudenberger
Message Edited by LitEditor on 11-10-2006 05:22 PM

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