A junkyard jaunt through an artist’s psychogeography – Robert Foyle Hunwick
UK artist Gareth Fuller calls his door-sized monochrome artwork, Beijing, unveiled at the Art Beijing fair, earlier this month, a “mind map.” Like his previous works, these psychic illustrations of physical spaces are drawn with whimsical detail, literary reference, and topographical disregard. Fuller’s version of the Forbidden City, for example, weaves in a reference to China’s Belt and Road initiative and its high-speed rail network.
Fuller’s reimagination of China’s capital speaks to its fraught history of hegemonic expansionism, cultural appropriation, ethnic strife and political correctness (at least no one calls it Peking any more), as well as good old-fashioned blood feuds, border tensions, and foreign and domestic plunder. A palimpsest of detail, Beijing reveals more with each viewing, from cultural allusions and jokes to an accident involving a seven-foot ditch, commemorated by an ankle with a question mark.
Mind-mapping, or psychogeography, is a form – in text or art – that imbues old-fashioned techniques with a radical energy. It has been particularly embraced by slightly avant garde British chroniclers such as Will Self and Iain Sinclair. “Armed with a notebook,” Sinclair vows in Lights Out for The Territory, his 361-page traipse around London, “I would transcribe all the pictographs of venom that decorated our near-arbitrary route.” Like Sinclair, Fuller has walked the walk. Yet Beijing is already in a cycle of self-effacement and remaking, tearing down and throwing up. Vandalism isn’t an anti-establishment act in China; the authorities are the vandals.
I met Gareth last year in a Beijing bar – pure happenstance because he neither drinks, nor socializes much whilst his work is in progress. That night, he showed me his work; I shared amusing gifs on WeChat. The kinship went from there. When he finally unveiled Beijing in May, it was after some thousand hours pounding the streets of Beijing. That’s progress: His last piece, London Town, was acquired by the British Library and the Museum of London for their permanent collections, and took a decade to compile, prompting one well-meaning writer to describe him as a “crazed cartographer.”
We have to be a little crazy, though, in order to stay sane. Shortly after his exhibit went on display, I joined Fuller to witness first-hand his pedestrian process. Our destination was Dashengzhuangcun, in the deep south, an area of Beijing rarely seen by anyone other than demolition teams and suburbanites under siege. We found it quiet, sunny and oddly bucolic: old men cycled past, trees offered pleasant shade, and there was only the distant clank of construction. One side was enclosed by hoarding, behind which we discovered a half-dug canal, either abandoned or unfinished, full of scattered placards and garbage. Next to it were funeral mounds, crowned with plastic flowers, stones and tributes.
I wondered if it was some informal pet cemetery (which have started to appear in the suburbs, in increasingly elaborate form), but the headstones put that to rest: they were marked with the names of mothers, fathers and children.
Proper graveyards are rare in China, where cremation is preferred. Besides, that’s good land which could be better used for SOHOs and other property developments. Many still choose to dig makeshift (and illegal) plots in the boondocks, where the land is harsh and remoter; family members might carry their loved one’s body there, perhaps under nightfall, and lay them to rest beneath soil. Then, later, a digger’s claw might gouge that earth, scoop out the sod, trash and bones, and the memorial will be gone.
Right across from us, it was already happening. Behind another blue awning, a sea of broken bricks and cement stretched as far as the eye can see. “Watch out for holes,” Gareth warned, and reiterated the point by falling into one. Other than the odd worker who paid no mind, we were alone in this devastated vista: the remnants of tangled wire and rebar scattered with children’s toys, crumpled shoes and torn documents speak to the familiar tropes of qiangchai, “forced demolition.” Something bad happened here.
An ersatz Qing-style village was being rapidly assembled over some of the ruins. By a stroke of luck, we found a portal to this New Era civilization – a ragged hole in the compound wall – and scuttled through. There were double-glazed doors and smart office-like spaces within the gray courtyard walls of this dull replica. Beijing’s architecture blends an accidental Brutalism with this sense of the absurd: new luxury residences are cluttered with such neo-classical features as non-functioning fountains, while neighboring Soviet-style blocks decay behind a jumble of barriers, walls, gates, bollards, barred windows, and fences.
“Development here is enormous, powerful and imposing,” as Fuller described. To assemble his vast canvas, he said he “drew an abundance of what appear as homogeneous blocks, but in fact, none are ever the same: the patterns and details are all unique.” He (generously) compared life outside the Fifth Ring Road of Beijing’s outskirts to “the rise of 1930s suburbs like Bromley in London, complete with local ‘across the garden fence’ gossip and stroller-friendly routes.”
The relative solitude we found by strolling, a flaneur lifestyle rarely appreciated in big cities, was punctuated by idiosyncratic interruptions from wild dogs and old men walking backwards (it’s seen as good for circulation). We ended up plane-spotting at the edge of Nanyuan Airport, another lost landmark earmarked for expansive replacement. In Beijing, Fuller depicts this infrastructure as a peng niao, a roc-like giant mythological Chinese bird. “It seemed seductive in an odd sort of way,” he said, recalling these “metal roaring birds in the sky.”
Juxtaposition is common to all cities, but especially Chinese ones, where purposelike barriers corral so many of these contrasts apart. “We seem to create cognitive gates which determine our privacy,” Fuller mused, after we ducked underneath a torn fence over a quietly vibrating railway line. “Maybe these gates are opened wider in China until you step beyond the walls.” ∎