on the Edges
Stanmeyer/Saba for TIME.
UNDERARTIST: ON THE FRINGE: Mao Xuhui appreciates the quiet pace
of life in Yunnan.
Creative types are finding inspirationand freedomin China's
By TERRY MCCARTHY Kunming
At first you don't believe what you're seeing. On half a hectare of sloping
clover meadow rises a surreal construction of dozens of red towers, conical
as beehives, some of them four or five stories high. They have no windows,
only small spikes protruding from the smooth, terra-cotta exterior. Inside
are vaulted galleries full of large sculptures: female forms, Buddhas,
herds of sheep. It could all be from a fairytale, but in fact it is a
privately owned sculpture garden on the outskirts of Kunming. It was built
by Luo Xu, a 44-year-old sculptor. Enjoying a freedom inconceivable for
artists in the metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, Luo uses the halls
as a place to live and work.
Artists thrive on tranquility. Monet found peace and beauty in his garden
in Giverny, Picasso went to Juan les Pins and Van Gogh to Arles. Now Chinese
artists are discovering the southwestern province of Yunnan as a place
where they can work close to nature and far from the cultural commissars
in the capital. Kunming and the small town of Dali four hours to the west
are attracting a growing number of painters and sculptorsand their
output is getting noticed by collectors and dealers outside China.
"I can't live in Beijing," says Luo Xu, who was born in Yunnan. "They
would close me down," he adds, pointing to the striking nude figures in
one of his halls. Art exhibitions are regularly shut down in Shanghai
and Beijing for being too "controversial." But in Kunming, the local government
is more worried about poverty and drug smuggling than policing artists.
Luo spent a year studying at Beijing's Institute of Fine Arts, until his
mentor, the head of the sculpture department, advised him to go home.
"He said Beijing would destroy my art."
Certainly, the big-money art markets are in Beijing and Shanghai. But
Mao Xuhui, 44, whose work has been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe, says
Beijing's artists obsess about politics, engaging in a constant cat-and-mouse
game with the authorities. "They are always trying to do something shocking
to get noticed. They cannot paint calmly, they have no larger vision."
Visions take time to develop, and time is one thing Kunming has in abundance.
"Here life is so slow," says painter Li Ji, 37, who also teaches at the
Yunnan Art Institute. "People can spend a day drinking tea beside the
lake. You would never get that in Beijing." Time seems almost to have
stopped in the Upriver Club, a Kunming cafE set up by painter Ye Yongqing
last year. In the late afternoon people sit around the club drinking chrysanthemum
tea, chatting and playing cards. On the walls are paintings by Ye and
artist friends who come here to swap notes. Upstairs is an exhibition
of works by painter Chen Anjian depicting laid-off workers. "Probably
the government wouldn't like these paintings, but what are they going
to do?" says Ye with a smile.
Word is spreading among artists about the area's relative freedom and
clean environment. Two well-known Beijing painters, Fang Lijun and Yue
Minjun, have opened studios in Dali. Local artists are delightedthey
foresee a network that will help painters and sculptors find space to
work, free of pollution and politics. It may sound surreal, but the art
scene in Kunming is hardly abstract.
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