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Painting the city on a shifting canvas
Contemporary visual arts are flourishing in China’s restless and sprawling capital

FABLED as the ancient capital of China’s north, modern Beijing is a smog-choked city of 22 million. It combines the endless, characterless sprawl of Los Angeles (minus the glamour or optimism) with the dreariness of the most soul-crushing eastern European urbanism. Its only obvious drawcards for the casual tourist are a handful of historic and modern monuments, its proximity to the Great Wall and the chance to eat Peking duck in its city of origin. But for all its faults, and for reasons not easily quantified or articulated, Beijing remains weirdly fascinating. It’s the undisputed artistic and intellectual capital of China and Beijingers are keen to remind people that what they lack in style they make up for in substance. First among the city’s artistic lures, at least for foreigners, must surely be its enormous visual arts scene. In the past two decades the Chinese contemporary art scene has boomed so much as to completely change the polarity of the international art landscape: China is now the world’s biggest art market and Beijing is where almost everything is being made. The city is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of art galleries and dozens of villages housing artists from across the country and the world. A trip through the Beijing art world offers a stimulating introduction to the city and a guaranteed way to get right under the city’s thick skin. There are three main contemporary art districts. The closest to the city is also the most visited. Dashanzi, or 798 as it’s known in reference to its biggest building, is a huge complex of disused arms factories in the eastern suburbs. It’s here you’ll find some of the best-established and largest galleries in the country. Set within the soaring vaults of the old industrial buildings, the galleries at 798 are almost as dramatic as the art they contain. Here you’ll find renowned galleries such as the Long March Space, a rambling series of rooms exhibiting everything from vast installations to video works and paintings by up-and-coming and veteran artists. Upstairs is Chinese Contemporary, a relatively small gallery by the hangar-like standards of 798 but one representing some big names in Chinese contemporary art, including Zhang Xiaogang, Huang Rui and the Luo Brothers. Another space with a vibrant exhibition roster is Amelie Gallery, featuring an eclectic range of shows, from avant-garde photography to landscape. The 798 complex takes up several city blocks but is relatively accessible: the idea is to simply turn up and see what’s on. In recent years, however, it’s arguable that the art has become somewhat secondary, as 798 is now home to bars, restaurants,

clothing stores and a boutique hotel. During the Olympics it even hosted an exhibition of Nike shoes, none of which has exactly enhanced 798’s image among the city’s avant-garde as a gentrified cultural theme park. Whether this criticism has any merit is a matter for debate, but those serious about Chinese contemporary art do need to go farther afield. Founded in 2000 by Ai Weiwei, artist and architect of the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium, Caochangdi has since succeeded 798 as the hot spot of contemporary art. Centred on a series of complexes designed by Ai, the galleries offer a huge range of local and international exhibits. At the northern entrance to the village is the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Founded in 2007 by Chinese photographer Rong Rong and his Japanese partner Inri, Three Shadows is housed in an enormous grey brick building designed by Ai that is a nod to both Beijing’s old hutongs and the Great Wall. The gallery, a non-commercial space, was the first in China devoted exclusively to photography and video, and features a changing roster of museum-quality shows.

A trip through the art world is a guaranteed way to get right under the city’s thick skin
Attached is an excellent cafe and bookshop where you can pick up free publications such as the CIGE Gallery Guide, which has numerous reviews, or Gallery Sights, which includes maps of Caochangdi and other art districts. Or you could just rest, drink tea and, in winter, watch the snow fall in the serene grey courtyard. In the immediate vicinity of Three Shadows are commercial galleries and mini-museums that offer the chance to spend a day wandering from gallery to gallery. Next door is Ai’s original building, China Art Archives and Warehouse, a cavernous space showcasing avant-garde (especially conceptual) art from across the world. A few blocks to the south is the stunning ‘‘red village’’, a complex of minimal red-brick courtyard buildings designed by Ai and connected by a labyrinth of alleys. Each building houses numerous galleries, many set among peaceful, beautifully tended courtyard gardens, making for one of the quietest and most pleasant walking tours the city has to offer. A visit to Caochangdi is a must but it is also a reminder that it is difficult, if not impossible, to entirely appreciate art in China on a merely aesthetic level. At the time of its founding, Caochangdi was considered to be on the periphery of the city. In

only a decade, Beijing has swallowed it up and it is now prime real estate. As has already happened to other art colonies throughout the city — such as the Zhengyang Creative Art Zone, which was demolished in late 2009 — the whole of Caochangdi is slated for destruction and redevelopment for housing. The protests of artists and gallery owners may have had some effect, because there seems to have been a stay of execution, although its fate remains uncertain. More disturbing still was the disappearance of Ai, who was arrested on April 3. His whereabouts remained unknown until he was released on bail last month. The charges against him are tax fraud-related, but many believe his imprisonment was a warning against his outspoken political views at a time when talk of a Chinese ‘‘jasmine revolution’’ was in the air. Perhaps the vitality of modern Chinese art stems from the fact that the avant-garde still has the capacity to provoke the powers that be in a way that in the West has long seemed hopelessly quixotic. Other than 798, the one art village unlikely to be threatened with imminent destruction is Songzhuang, in the Tongzhou district slightly north of the town of the same name, about 50 minutes by road from downtown Beijing. Comprising dozens of individual art villages and complexes, Songzhuang is now home to thousands of artists, including such senior figures as painters Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun, conceptualists Wang Jin and Zhu Fadong and satirical photographer Zhao Bandi. For now the outlook of Songzhuang seems good; the local authorities in this satellite city seem to recognise the importance of the creative community and have encouraged events such as the annual art festival. Beijing, however, is a mercurial beast. Life in this city can change at a moment’s notice — so get there quick, before someone changes their mind.


Beneath the turquoise waters there are coral gardens inhabited by schools of brightly coloured fish

The authentic escape
Get away from it all on Sulawesi’s Togian Islands
ON a map, Indonesia’s Sulawesi looks like a starfish being blown eastward in the wind. This is the world’s 11th-largest island, a geological oddity populated by some of the most exceptional creatures and cultures in Asia. Although I’ve journeyed for nearly three full days to reach the remote Togian Islands in Sulawesi’s heart, I’ve come as much for what the islands lack as for what they have. I’ve come, in short, to get away. My quest is for an authentic escape: a place where the flotsam is driftwood instead of plastic, there are no crowds and the peace is all-pervasive. It’s at sunset on the third day when I finally step on to the dock of Togian Island Retreat with owner Sylvie Manley, the sun kissing the western horizon in a blaze of orange fire and my bones still buzzing from a 21/2-hour boat ride. ‘‘I don’t like to use the word resort,’’ she says as we walk towards the cottages. ‘‘For me, it’s much more than that.’’ Indeed, for a Robinson Crusoe fantasy, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better image. On the broad porch of my cottage beneath the shade of a coconut grove, I sit in the dusk with a cold beer, admiring the weatherbeaten wooden jetty jutting into the water like a crooked spine. There are tiny volcanic islets in the distance, the sea is as flat and clear as glass, a turquoise mottled cobalt with seagrasses. There are no phones here, Manley has told me, and no roads, television, internet access or neighbours. If the apocalypse were to happen elsewhere, it’s entirely conceivable that you’d miss it. This is not to say the islands are without their comforts. I’m stirred from my reverie by sudden cries of ‘‘Mangia! Mangia!’’ from the Italian travellers next door. They’re hastening towards the cafe like predators out for blood, and I can soon see why. This tiny outpost, so isolated it can’t even receive mail, serves, amazingly, what must be some of the best international food in Indonesia. I’ve been on the road a long time, and after living on rice for nearly two months, the menu is almost pornographic. I gorge on creamy pumpkin soup and mixed green salad,

Local guide Cheng Ping (known as Vicky) takes visitors to meet artists in their studios and can advise on purchasing art; about 500 yuan ($73) for a five-hour tour. More: Beijing Journey Travel offers good-value tours to all art villages and art schools in Songzhuang. More: ChART Contemporary is run by expats who conduct tours for curatorial staff from US and European galleries and museums; they also tailor tours for visitors. More: Try to visit some of the smaller villages, such as Hegezhuang and Feijiacun, both a short way north of Caochangdi. The latter is home to Imagine Gallery, one of the few spaces in Beijing that exhibits both Chinese and expat artists, including Australians. More:

The Bajau, who live in villages built on stilts over the water, welcome visitors with kindness and curiosity
TOGIAN ISLANDS Tau Pan Kadidiri Bomba

Tomini Bay






A woman takes on the iron beasts of Liu Ruowang’s sculpture Wolf Coming

spaghetti bolognaise and a prehistoric-looking grilled fish nearly the size of a compact car. By the time the generator conks off at 10.30pm, I’m more than ready to slip into a postprandial coma, but first I take one last walk out to the end of the jetty. On this moonless night, the darkness and quiet around me are so deep they feel like an active presence. As I stare up into the sky at an endless depth of stars, I hug myself with a kind of spontaneous gratitude, feeling a solitude so rich it moves me almost to tears. Though ripe for moments of keen existential import, the Togians are also good for more secular enjoyments. These islands are one of the world’s best destinations for underwater exploration. Tomini Bay, in the bosom of which the Togians lie, is one of the calmest large bodies of water

anywhere, and one of the clearest. ‘‘Visibility on a good day can run to 40m,’’ Manley tells me as I grab my mask and snorkel next day and head towards the outrigger boat that will take us to the nearby dive site at Tau Pan, a shallow reef with steep walls dropping off far into the depths. The Togians are among the only places in the world where all three major reef environments — fringing, barrier and atoll — can be found in close proximity to one another and, rarer still, where you can dive for a week or more and never see another boat. At Tau Pan, I’m still in the outrigger boat fiddling with my mask when Silvana, one of the Italian travellers who’s plunged in first, surfaces after just a minute in the water. ‘‘Bella!’’ she coos, taking the snorkel from her mouth. I roll off the boat and am immediately in another world: a garden of hard and soft corals in whites and mauves and pinks, darting angelfish and wrasse, surgeonfish with their teardrop bodies, and orangeand-white clownfish testily guarding the polyps of anemones. The shallow reef especially is in great shape here, having recovered from a period of cyanide fishing in the 1990s. As I suck in a huge breath and freedive down about 7m along the wall, I can see huge schools of coloured fish above me, circulating like snowflakes in the sunlight. It’s the isolation of the Togians that has kept these waters — home to large marine species such

as the endangered hawksbill sea turtle, dugong, and even whales — largely free of pollution and overfishing, but it isn’t just the reefs that have benefited. Six ethnic groups share these islands, making a living from fishing and coconut farming, and of these none is friendlier and as untouched by global commercial culture than the Bajau. Also known as sea gypsies, these formerly nomadic boat people were forcibly settled by the Dutch, but now live in villages built on stilts over the water, a symbol of their connection to the sea. That afternoon I tread an hour through the jungle with Guntur, Manley’s son, to visit the tiny Bajau village of Kulingkinari. I have my camera with me but I’m feeling nervous. Too many times I’ve visited a village that’s been saturated by tourism and been met with sullen stares and demands for money, like an unwelcome guest at a human zoo. ‘‘Are you sure this is OK?’’ I ask Guntur as I enter the village, nervously fingering my lenscap. ‘‘Of course,’’ he tells me. ‘‘These people are Bajau and they love to have visitors.’’ My self-consciousness is intense, but as we walk the main street and children flood out from the doorways to follow us as if we are pied pipers, I start to relax. Mothers are holding up their babies to be photographed and old men invite us to sit for coffee — not from any ulterior motive

but out of kindness and curiosity. After the guilt I’ve felt on village visits elsewhere, it’s refreshing to be reminded how naturally people can be brought together by nothing more sinister than a shared desire to see how the other lives. An hour later, after many handshakes and countless smiles, we board the boat back to Island Retreat, skimming across the water in the late-day sun. Looking south, I can see the hills of the mainland far away in the haze, but it’s like gazing at the surface of a planet I’ve left behind. I smile and turn my face into the wind, feeling as untethered as a balloon. For a moment at least, I have truly escaped.

The Togian Islands have a handful of resorts; most are located near the town of Bomba in the far southwest or on Kadidiri Island near the central town of Wakai. Transport to the islands is available from several locations, with the town of Ampana in Central Sulawesi and Gorontalo in North Sulawesi being the most common access points. All resort tariffs include three meals a day. For the highest level of luxury, Walea Dive Resort offers a package including air and sea transfers from Jakarta and three dives a day from j1280 ($1690) for seven days. ● ●

The time I served up the full McCartney on a rainy night in Ise

IT is a rainy night in Ise. I’m not exactly hovering by my suitcase — that was stashed some hours ago at a ramshackle ryokan — but I’m certainly trying to find a warm place to spend the evening in this Japanese country town. The local mall is deserted and only the clang of railway bells stirs the air. I’m getting that lonesome me feeling; an outsider in need of a beer.

There’s a light on down a cross street where I slip through some slatted doors. Inside, two women of a certain age are prepping ingredients. They’re startled that a gaijin has appeared from nowhere, but since I’m their only customer they can’t claim there’s no room,

an occasional strategy for fobbing off foreigners. I mind my manners and am on my third drink when the kindlier of the two brings some special pickles. ‘‘Story,’’ she says abruptly. We establish that I’m from Australia (‘‘Ah, koala!’’) and before long she transforms into an aunty and is whipping up comfort food. Feeling the code has been cracked, I track down the source of some singing in an adjacent alley. A high, tremulous voice is making a meal out of a ballad. There’s a

door ajar and I slide into a tiny bar. It would struggle to accommodate six people with two of them standing. The only other patron is a bloke sporting a cap and polyester leisurewear. He’s making meaningful eye contact with the woman behind the bar as he wrings the

As I begin to sing, all the years I misspent playing in piano bars come flooding back

emotion from a song. He’s also halfway through a bottle of soju, the Korean distilled spirit that’s more like ethanol than vodka. There’s some truth to the national joke that Japan plus alcohol equals karaoke. The woman fixes me a drink before having a turn at the microphone. She’s slightly more restrained than her male admirer but equally enthusiastic about melisma, a kind of pitch oscillation on key syllables. It can be tricky for amateurs.

What’s always been striking about karaoke since it emerged from Kobe in the early 1970s is how graciously the Japanese will applaud lousy singers. The worse the better, it seems. I would generally prefer to poke my eye out with a chopstick than have anything to do with karaoke but I can feel my turn is coming. I dodge for another couple of rounds. Then, sure enough, a catalogue as thick as a phone book comes out and at the back are the inevitable Beatles selections.

May I not rot in hell for choosing Yesterday. The backing track is quite convincing. Whoever knocked it off did a good job. As I begin to sing, all the years I misspent playing in piano bars come flooding back. I’m on a roll and glide down the first day-e-yay-e-yay-e-yay like a trickling stream. In my peripheral vision I notice my new friends turning pale. But it’s too late to turn back and I serve up the full McCartney. The song ends and there’s deathly

silence. Our gang has clammed up. Perhaps they think I actually am a Beatle. Either way there’ll be no more singing while I’m around. I don’t want to spoil the party so I leave. At least the taxi driver is pleased to see me. This is our third ride together so we’re almost old friends. Best not to reveal that his passenger is the dreaded Karaoke Killer, a toxic force at singalongs. All it takes is enough booze and an old Beatles song. Office parties beware.