I was not perfectly well towards the end of our trip to Guangzhou. The Family was happy to prune the must-see list. We thought that the provincial art museum looked interesting, and was worth a visit. When we took an escalator up from the nearest Metro station, we didn’t realize that it was a long walk. Eventually, with a little help from friends, we reached a building which looked like a museum (see the featured photo) and had a large sign across the top in which I could make out the characters for art and museum.
The foyer was crowded. A special exhibit of paintings by members of the Cantonese diaspora in the US was being inaugurated. Since we could not understand the speeches, we went on to the galleries. The permanent collection included a very large number of paintings (and calligraphy, of course) from across the centuries. I’m not well versed in the history of Chinese art, and being ignorant of the writing, cannot use this as a guide. So I admired the paintings as objects in themselves. I like a certain kind of monumental painting that is natural in older scrolls; a huge vista is painted in quick strokes and broad washes. Then if you look closely, you see a few tiny human figures hard at the mundane work of their daily lives. These are hard to photographs, because of the difference in the scales of the two things you would like to capture. It is much easier to take photos of the other kind of thing I love about Chinese classical painting: close observation of nature. I liked this picture of a heron waiting above a waterfall for fish, and the horses. Chinese painters saw horses very differently from the west; their vision if of powerfully muscular animals. That is the emphasis you see in the photo above. Both photos were taken by The Family.
One discovery for us was of the near contemporary cartoonist called Liao Bingxiong. He was born in 1915 and died in 2006, his life straddling the part of the history of China which would both give him ample material for his art, and a hard life because of it. The exhibition on his work covered a whole floor. The name was new to me, and I found later that some assess him as the greatest cartoonist of modern China. He is certainly important enough that I found a course in the Humanities department of the University of Oslo on his work.
The extensive collection of his work was not hard to appreciate. He seems to have criticized the Kuomintang government in the 1930s, then the Japanese in the 1940s, and Mao Zedong afterwards. He was banned from publishing cartoons for a decade, and was reinstated only after Mao’s death. I took the photo you see above. Similar drawings appear a couple of times in other periods of his work. It seems that he relentlessly questioned privilege and took the side of the underdog throughout his life. The walk was tiring but we found a new major artist at the end of it. Not a bad day’s work.
Looking for easy credits in college I came to a course called Photogrammetry. After this I was hooked to aerial photography. Many years later, I walked into an exhibition of photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand in the Luxembourg gardens of Paris called “The Earth from the Sky”. This was a science made into art. With camera drones this has become easy today, when it is allowed. But for an amateur like me, the only way is still to take a window seat on a plane or to climb a high tower.
Coming in to Guangzhou, I looked past The Family, out of the cramped aircraft’s window, and saw a city where land and water mingled together. The first impression was of low houses in the baked-earth colours of southern Spain, but with flat roofs. The feel of Guangzhou on the ground is nothing like sparsely-populated Spain. This is, after all, one of the earth’s most crowded regions. Atmospheric haze is a major problem in tropical air. Even the cleanest of air will have so much water vapour that the saturated colours of Arthus-Bertrand’s photos are not visible to the eye. One can edit one’s photos to get a similar effect, at the cost of the reality of the tropics. Over a city the air is never clean. Although Guangzhou is not the most polluted city in the world, not even among the top 100, there is a definite haze visible from the air.
The views of central Guangzhou come from the top of Canton Tower. We managed to make it to the viewing platform of the tower in the golden hour before sunset. Looking east you can see the many bridges which connect the Huangpu and Panyu districts. We never managed to explore these two regions, although there are many historically important things to see in these parts of Guangzhou. The modern city is enormous, and includes many districts which historically were separate towns. Panyu was one of these. As evening fell we sat in a cafe in the Canton Tower and watched the enormous traffic jam centered on the nearest of these bridges. I was happy that we had elected to travel mostly by the metro. Looking west (featured photo) towards the posh district of Haizhu, taking a photo against the setting sun was a bit of a challenge. Later we would walk through this area, but for now one of things which intrigued me was the long island with the huge park which takes up much of the foreground of the featured photo.
The photo above is of the Tianhe district in the last light of the day. This is the new town, with all the swanky high-rises and the signature buildings by the world’s major architects. They lie in the shadows at the base of the tall towers. Beyond the high towers you can see the hills which are a special feature of Guangdong province. The Chinese word Tianhe translates into Sky River. The same translation works for the word, Akashganga, which describes the Milky Way in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. Akashganga. Tianhe. Which way did the cultural influence run?