A long overdue update – meaning that too much has been happening. A neuroscientist friend once told me that human beings can handle stress in one or two areas of their lives at any given time, but more than that and we get overwhelmed, it’s too much to manage and to process. The areas in my life that are currently in upheaval are housing, social life, health, finances and work. That’s about three more than would be advisable, but today I’m feeling more or less at peace. At least I don’t have a love life or stress about family. I’m an optimist.
End of last month I joined a group of artists to take part in the performance art festival Above the Clouds, in a place called Eden Box, a new project development situated in two valleys with hillsides devastated by mines, close to Beijing and Tianjin. I was there by invitation of He Libin, a respected performance artist from Kunming.
I must confess, I was completely out of my depth. Overworked, overtraveled, underexperienced as a visual artist – but I finally delivered an installation art work. The entire ordeal reminded me of the crippling self-doubt I felt while I went to art college. I enjoyed getting to know and talking to the other artists present. I connected with some people, even if the language is still a huge barrier. I’m continuing to chip away at the Chinese language and look forward to the day that I can have an actual conversation.
I tacked a couple of extra days in Beijing on to the trip. The last time I was there was in 2000, so it was strange to walk and cycle around in recognisable but deeply different city. I had a fruitful meeting concerning projects for 2021 which vindicated the embarrassing festival experience somewhat.
After the Beijing trip, I returned to Kunming following quite a long absence. I have been away for more than a month, looking after the cats and courtyard house of friends in a small village near Dali. Fast forward two weeks and I’m doing two Dutch Culture Nights. Film screenings of the very moving documentary China’s Van Goghs – one in Wheatfield Bookstore in Kunming and one in Linden Centre in Xizhou.
I squeezed in a hospital visit because I have been waking up exhausted every morning. This is hugely unfair, considering I quit drinking alcohol months ago. It wasn’t just the busy schedule that left me feeling like death warmed over in the mornings – my thyroid test results were off the scale. Poor timing to lose all my usual energy while my life is changing at full tilt.
Still, I did the screenings and now I’m planning a new series of Dutch Culture Nights for 2021, with the generous support of the Consulate of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Chongqing. I’m very much looking forward to more events like these, especially the lively discussions at the end of each screening. This was always my dream when I came to Yunnan – facilitating cultural exchange and dialogue.
Which brings me to the last major update – I left Kunming and moved to Dali. Here I am renovating an old courtyard home, which I hope will become the venue of an Artist in Residency programme. Last month I stumbled across this little yuanzi (院子), tucked away in Heyang (鹤洋), a village 10 kilometers north of Dali Old Town.
Dali is one of Yunnan’s and even China’s major attractions, but the surrounding countryside is peaceful and beautiful. Dali Old Town and Heyang both sit at the foot of Cangshan mountain range, which rises 2000 meters to 4000 meters altitude. A few kilometres away is Lake Erhai, which runs parallel to the mountain range, from north to south.
I thought about it for a couple of weeks and then signed a 15-year lease and paid five years rent upfront. Now, local workers are renovating the place – there was no sewage system or running water, no windows, the roof and walls needed to be fixed. It is only 43 years old, but they have built it in traditional style so it looks and feels ancient.
The top floor will be a big open studio/living room space with a small bedroom in one corner. The ground floor will contain the bathroom, my bedroom/work desk and kitchen. And, of course, the actual yard outside, surrounded by overgrown stone walls and a garden patch where I can grow vegetables.
It’s a large upfront investment – even if rent and labour are cheap. I find the initial financial burden quite stressful. Especially since I only just started out as a freelancer. But, once I’ve paid for the renovation, my monthly costs of living will be very low. Freedom!
I just read a newsletter from my old employer, Het Nieuwe Instituut, about new forms of domesticity. Inspired by Covid, which has forced us all to reconsider how to actually ‘be’ in close quarters with each other. The nuclear family is still the template, but there are so many ways to share life and living space. I will design this house for my slightly alternative form of domesticity. Me and Ding Ding the cat will be the permanent residents. A selection of friends, relatives, artists and long-distance cyclists can come and stay at the top floor. Who knows, there might be space for a lover once the dust has settled in other areas of my life. I told you I was an optimist…
I can’t wait, to come home in Heyang.