Lìjiāng Studio, weeks 25 & 26 – Nà Mǎ 纳 玛

Last week was a really intense week. It was Shān (Miranda)’s last week in the Studio and in China. We had: 2 Mandarin classes;

2 trips to the Public Security Bureau to organise her visa;

1 visit to the artist Mù Yún Bái’s house to look at some work of his to buy;

The ditch I fell in. But not in the daytime. It's quite obvious in the daytime!

The ditch I fell in. But not in the daytime. It’s quite obvious in the daytime!

1 rather dramatic and thankfully helmeted dark and rainy night fall into a deep ditch with water in it (that was me…I got away with bruised ribs and a few scratches);

1 delightful trip with Hé Jī Xīng, Hé Jī Yǔ, and Hé Èr Gē to some nearby mountains to go mushroom-picking;

1 last-minute purchase of low-crotch baggy cotton pants (the van home from Lìjiāng for M’s last time waited for us);

1 last walk to Lāshìhǎi that ended up having Miranda’s foot stuck knee-deep in mud; 1 poor muddy little microbat collected into my hat from hanging in the sun on the giant mud pile;

1 train trip to Kūnmíng where we booked a bed each but then gave one to some other nice bed-less passengers and snuggled together in a very narrow single bed on the false assumption we would still be able to sleep;

1 lost or stolen phone somewhere between a taxi ride and picking up Miranda’s luggage;

1 cranky airline check-in staff;

1 really bizarre and rather hilarious report of stolen phone to police (which involved several police phoning their friends who had a tiny bit of English and then handing me the phone, and getting picked up and dropped off at the Kūnmíng Train Station in an awesome 80’s cop car complete with the occasional flashing lights and siren wail to move through the traffic faster);

1 small box of Miranda’s things posted home; and

1 Miranda safe and sound on her flight.

You’re not allowed to bring knives on any long-distance Chinese public transport, and they have luggage scanners at every major train and bus station. But I really wanted to try to get my pocket knives home. I have no idea how I got them here from Kūnmíng, since I came on the train – but last time I tried to travel with one I had to leave it with security to collect on my return. So I packed them both between 2 steel scourers, and put that inside a silver-lined coffee bag. The staff member who was checking what was in the bass bag went straight past the “coffee bag” when she was unpacking it, and I didn’t say a thing. So my knives are home! : /

The whole luggage situation was quite stressful – one bag was overweight and the other one was full of weird objects that they wanted to examine – namely an electric-acoustic bass with various metal components, as well as electronic metronomes, tuners, etc. Eventually we got everything through, but we were glad we checked in 3 hours before her flight!

Miranda's last Lashihai photo - on the dam wall with Yulongxue Shan peeking out between the mountains and the clouds.

Miranda’s last Lāshìhǎi photo – a beautiful day, baggy new pants, and muddy legs on the dam wall, with Yùlóngxuě shān peeking out between the mountains and the clouds.

To be honest, after I got back from Kūnmíng, I slept for 2 days. I was so tired, and a little bit freaked out! I was suddenly more isolated than I’d planned – no Frog, no Jay, no Miranda, no Hildy, no recorder (it had mysteriously stopped working at the Qílín dance), no phone and as I discovered no internet connection either. Oh well, I thought, I’ll snuggle into bed and watch a movie. But my computer had other plans, and my CD drive reported an unfixable error!

So I read some books and had some quiet time. I bought a new SD card to try in my recorder, and despite it not recognising various other ones, it works fine. I got myself a wonderfully awful alarm clock, and began to try to settle in to the new normal Lāshìhǎi.

I had my last 2 lessons with Shàng lǎo shī, our wonderful Mandarin teacher. She is just so lovely and funny and undeniably adorably clumsy, and she’s moving to stay with her sister who’s gotten into a PhD in computing at the University of Chéngdū. Shàng lǎo shī is a wonderful person and I wish her all the best in her life.

I took copies of the beautiful posters for our Lesser Heat Festival from July down to the old people’s gathering area and gave them to the head of the Nàxī Jíxiáng Village Orchestra to distribute as mementoes.

Drying limes

Drying limes.

And then I started working again. I’ve started on the “Second Iterations Family Portraits” (working title!). First up is Ānǎi, wonderful grandmother. I’m already having trouble – I want the piece to connect to the first piece, but not just restate or recapitulate it. I wrote down an updated list of descriptions and thoughts about Ānǎi, but so far that hasn’t helped much. One thing I love that isn’t in the First Impressions portrait of her is the way she calls Dūdū for food, and the way she calls the chooks for food. But I am not sure if I want to put those calls in as a literal mimic or not. So I’m a little bit stuck.

I’ve also continued on my next idea for the Yù lóng xuě shān Rhododendrons work. When I was messing around with ideas for another approach about 6 weeks ago (oh dear), I ended up drawing out one of the species, RhododeRhododendron Yunnanensendron yunnanense, onto manuscript. That got me thinking about drawing all 10 species of blossom on a manuscript as a graphic score. Each blossom would be positioned on the manuscript as if it were a point on a scatterplot indicating that species’ Mean Flowering Day (x axis) and Mean Elevation (y axis).

I sat on the idea for a while, talked it over with Miranda and Hildy (my sister) and Jay, wrote to Robbie asking for these meta-data averages and close-up photos of all the species, and kept sitting on it. Now in the past few days I have finally started building the work. I’ve got my ~A2 manuscript (I couldn’t draw small enough to fit them all on A4); made a scatterplot of the above-mentioned stats; done a bunch of maths to convert the datapoints to mm on my manuscript; plotted the points; chosen my final blossom shots to draw from, and drawn a bloom! Of course I started at number 1, so it’s good old Rhododendron racemosum, which is always the example, being first.

But in the midst of drawing it, and definitely by the end; I’ve begun questioning whether I’m doing this the best way. For starters, why did I make the data space tall and thin? It would make much more musical sense for it to be short and wide, giving the players more horizontal space to read the complex information I’m giving them. And why did I commit the drawing straight to the manuscript? Maybe it would be better to draw in on plastic overhead sheets so I can overlay it onto all different sizes and directions of manuscript until I’m happy. But I’m not so good drawing with pen as pencil, and pencil doesn’t go on plastic sheets. Or maybe I should draw just on plain paper so I can photocopy onto plastic sheets and go from there. Then I thought well I can just do the drawings more than once – go-on Naima, commit them to the manuscript now! But the drawing I did today took about 3 hours. And there’s 10 of them. 30 hours is already a lot of time, let alone drawing more than 1 of each. Sigh! So I’m not entirely sure what to do now. Start again, lose some detail to photocopying but gain flexibility; or continue on in perhaps not the best format?

Just-polished boots. A huge thank you to Emily whose father donated these boots to me. They are honestly the best shoes I've ever had, and they've been all along the East Coast of Aus; helping me do fieldwork in the Northern Territory; and now helping me hike and walk through muddy puddles and still have dry feet here in China. And there's a lot of life left in them yet!

Just-polished boots (behind: a sleeping Dūdū and an awesome broom made from old Brassica stalks). A huge thank you to Emily whose father donated these boots to me. They are honestly the best shoes I’ve ever had, and they’ve been all along the East Coast of Aus; helping me do fieldwork in the Northern Territory; and now helping me hike and walk through muddy puddles and still have dry feet here in China. And there’s a lot of life left in them yet!

And one final great thing is that I finally started writing blog posts again! I must apologise to anyone who was hoping to read anything during my long silence. All the routine went out the window. I wrote this last Sunday afternoon, for the 10th-23rd of August. Then last Sunday night an internet cable that had been dodgy gave out, and just got fixed on Friday evening. Expect a sudden glut of posts as I backdate. I’ve already started on them and I’ll pop them up as they happen. It’s good to be writing again.

Things I saw in town:

Things I saw at home:

Qíng Nà Mǎ

晴 纳 玛


好久不见了! – 山慕

LiJiang, the other Lijiang, not the city I live near, but the river near Guilin.

LiJiang, the other Lijiang, not the city I live near, but the river near Guilin.

Let’s play a game: Two truths and a lie.

Since I’ve been in China I have done the following things:

Gone night swimming in my underpants in a river surrounded by mysterious Karst mountains with an old man named Mao.

Caught a cable car up a Himalayan mountain.

Seen a man whistling softly in the early morning light, responding to the dawn chorus of birdsong; then pulling out his slingshot and killing one.

CaveyCavey good times. Made even better by our guide chain smoking inside the enclosed cavern...

CaveyCavey good times. Made even better by our guide chain smoking inside the enclosed cavern…

The answer, probably obviously, is that I cheated, and they’re all true. China is amazing, and anything is possible. I’ve been here almost 6 months now, and my time is almost up for this adventure. I have somewhat neglected this blog, so first this is a “now” post, and then I’ll do a series of posts of the art projects that have occurred since we last spoke, dear anonymous internet friends.

Literally, writing this on a train. Posting it from home though, the slow trains are super comfy, but not wifi enabled... yet...

Literally, writing this on a train. Posting it from home though, the slow trains are super comfy, but not wifi enabled… yet…

I’m writing this from a train, hurtling through the Guanxi countryside. Naima, Hildy and I just took a brief trip to Guilin where we stayed in a small quiet village in the middle of a massive tourist operation. This trip has been a study in mountains, and these mountains are the ones you see in the old paintings of China; unreal in their shape and irregularity. Previous to this trip, my adjectives for mountains were limited to tall, round, small, and pointy. Now, however, they are skinny, leaning, appley, tortisey, bloopy, boppy, sneaky, triangular, square, and bizarre. (as well as tall, round, small, and pointy)

Adjectives for these mountains really don’t do them justice, so I will stop trying, and leave a few photos to speak for me.

(Our internet is being very very very slow, so I will continue to update photos as I can. The really pointy mountain photos just won’t upload! Please check back to see more pics of the crazyness)

We spent a few days hiking in the mountains, going caving, swimming in the river, and finding small freezing streams to dunk ourselves in as a respite from the clammy heat.

One night we took a night boat to drink tea and stargaze, with the aforementioned old man named Mao. We got on his “bamboo” (read PolyPipe) boat, motored out 20 meters from the shore, and then he shut off the motor, poured hot water into paper cups furnished with local green tea, and proceeded to strip off and jump straight into the dark water. The effect was somewhat less than expected, as he landed standing up with water only up to his knees… After many entreaties Hildy dangled her feet in the water and I went for a night water walk, while Mao washed his clothes in the river, and interrogated us one by one about our marriage prospects and children, (or lack thereof). 2 hours later I think he still didn’t believe us. No boyfriends, no children, unheard-of.

It’s a good analogy for the whole experience of this trip to Guilin, as it was so close to amazingly relaxing and peaceful, but included aspects of the truly bizarre and slightly annoying. I’m pleased for Mao however, that in his older age he can get paid to go night swimming. That’s a pretty good place to be in life. Something to aim for, methinks.

We’ve had an adventurous time since Hildy (Naima’s sister) arrived, we’ve spent 3 days hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, which was amazingly beautiful. We’ve taken a night bus that saw Hildy downing a bottle of herbal liquour, me cradling my banjo all night, while Naima was between 3 teenage girls and a mother with two small children on one giant bed. We’ve argued valiantly but in vain to convince an airline to let us on a plane they said we missed but we disagreed. (By the time we’d lost the argument, it was hard to say we had not missed the plane, however. Their tactic was sound.) We’ve had pedicures and unexpected massages, swam in pristine rivers until we saw someone mixing their pesticide on the banks, and we’ve been so frustrated with the non-transparency of transportation that we swore in public where little old ladies could hear but not understand us. We played with a pig, watched the neighbourhood kids do a traditional dance in our courtyard, ate bbq late at night and watched a movie that our host family all starred in, we learnt the ‘heel and toe polka’ as a trio, and spoke in Mandarin Chinese mixed with broad Australian accents. It’s as close to a secret language as I think you can get.

It’s tempting to wax lyrical about the beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge, of the misty mountains and herds of bleating goats; to describe the inexplicable joy of a panoramic view of endlessness after climbing in dense forest for 2 hours. To talk about how He JiXing and He JiYu were so joyously delighted with their own provinces beauty that they’d run ahead of us and we’d hear JiYu yell “BEAUTIFUL! PIAO LIANG!” from the upcoming peak, and look up to see a tiny 16yo in the distance, jumping and waving and soaking in the majesty of this place so close to his home. I’d like to talk at length about how having our level of language ability makes such a difference to my enjoyment of travel here, but also means that annoying conversations such as “really? No husband or children? But you’re so old!” can be understood clearly, which is a bummer. Innocence really was bliss in that instance. There’s so much to be said about the clash of cultures here, of the selfie sticks in front of ancient temples, of ErHu and bass ukelele duets, of bamboo boats made of PVC piping, and fast trains displacing whole villages. But this is supposed to be an art blog! So I will leave some photos here, to whet your appetite, and continue with cataloguing the art projects pronto.


But first: would you believe I fainted while walking up a mountain, and cursed the fact that no one was selling anything in this particular part of the national park? How about going caving with a topless ‘uncle’ who smoked the whole time? Then there was the time I was told I was unwell because I was too pale, and then was compared to a Taiwanese woman to prove their point…

I’m going to struggle to find lies for ‘two truths and a lie’ from now on in…