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Borderline Art: China Daily


China Daily  9/9/2012


Borderline Art   Art professor canvasses China’s North Korean border, Shenyang, China by Ian Lang

Hot-border coverage of the South China Sea loves a shot of a man in uniform. Soldiers on rocks, presidents in flak jackets. Arty-types need not apply. Yet Britain’s own former colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong prove that frontiers are much more than their fences. They build unique cultures too, as a gaze shifting north to China’s older, harder edges reveals.

Working on a tiny sliver of land separating North Korea, Russia, and China, University of New South Wales art professor Ian Howard’s urgent daubing is turning heads –and watch-tower cameras. Politicians not painters, usually mark the lines of these frontiers, light-years from the planet-circling images of 1970s M*A*S*H when Malibu hills doubled for rugged South Korea.

The works are rubbings, following ancient traditions but with a modern twist. Blank gallery-size canvasses up to four-meters long are impressed with wax and crayon to create life-sized records of pivotal sites defining China’s revolutionary past and still controversial present.

Colleagues from Shenyang’s Luxun Academy of Fine Arts help rub at ten strategic sites over one-thousand kilometers of China’s border with North Korea. Our journey takes two-weeks from the delta of the Yalu River up to the six-thousand foothighvolcanic caldera of Lake Chon, sliding on downthe Tumen River through vast forests to China’s Russian frontier-town of Fangchuan near Vladivostok.

Media-images prepare us for razor wire and guns­ – and yes,they’re there­­ – but soon we discover new border-cities too, bristling instead with curious Chinese and Russian touristsbeneath canopies of micro-wave towers.

At Jinli’s massive twin-city still awaiting occupants only a decent five-iron from North Korea, any contest seems to be between competing Ferris-wheels rather than sentries. It’s a fluid transition zone where armed DPRK and PRC boats play chicken with each other almost courteously­ – provided neither crew set foot on the other’s bank. Farmers work rich soils each side nonchalantly.

With Beijing’s recent flood the worst for sixty-years, Tianjin soaked to the core and floodwaters testing the Three Gorges Dam, even the best line-drawing of politicians can get stretched. Rivers, mountains, and volcanoes dictate the terms. No wonder the permanence of inscribed stone tablets have been used over dynasties to mark Chinese history. Surviving war and disaster, scholars and artists have rubbed them ever since.

Dressed liked a truck-driver true to his working-class childhood, Howard’s pedigree in documenting modern demarcations has taken him from the Berlin Wall in 1968 to the Great Wall in 2000, rubbing US Air force jets fresh from battle, to documenting the Israeli barrier separating Palestinian territories from Jerusalem in 2009. On the way, his almost obsessive perseverance has earned the respect of defense gatekeepers from the Pentagon to Beijing, with works collected by major Australian art museums.    

“Military-art illustrates histories not many get to see this close up”, Howard notes, looking for defining edges of national identity through the flash-points.

The twisted metal of a Korean War-bombed bridge over the Yalu River to North Korea provides a key site. As he works rubbing steel jags, a newer bridge across the border carries slow-moving trains to Pyongyang, followed by a procession of hardy new three-wheeled agricultural vehicles. Chinese tourists jostle for better views of the art and other side. Our hosts report binoculars on the other side seem keen to view the canvas too.

A tall lanky figure, Howard’s character reflects an almost Confucian-style pragmatism, with a more independent Lao-tse-like drive to understand nature at its most elemental. Remarkably, he is probably more energetic now than when I first started making Asian art films with him twenty years ago. Maybe it’s just that new cameras are getting lighter for both of us.

“Contemporary art in China–especially figurative painting–is amongst the most skilled in the world”, Howard observes – a key reason that first brought him to China in 1994 as both artist and educator, adding “it’s clear massive economic growth is creating powerful challenges for China to express its contemporary cultural identity beyond borders. The time’s right for East and West to better know each other through creativity”.

With a dream to “circumnavigate” its fourteen international borders–the second most in the world after Russia–his rubbings may soon demystify a new China’s borders too often brought to attention through violent incident. After all, these borders might just be the world’s most expensive national art.

Gallery showings of the works with accompanying video documentaries of the first installment of Borderline Art are expected later in 2012 at the Luxun Academy of Fine Art, Shenyang, and in Beijing, and at Watters Gallery, Sydney in March/April 2013, with negotiations for the UK in train.

Professor Ian Howard is Dean of the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Australia. Hong-Kong-based Ian Lang is a visiting Professor at the Beijing Film Academy and Honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne.

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