Hics from the sticks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am


In an episode of American television show Mad Men, one of the copywriters, while stoned, has the best idea for an advertising campaign ever - whereupon he proceeds to celebrate his achievement with lots of brandy. The next morning, waking up half-dead in his office, he remembers he had a fantastic idea but has forgotten - completely and forever - what it was.

The three artists of the Yangjiang Group need have no fear of suffering a similar loss. Instead of forgetting their bright ideas while sozzled, they get drunk with the specific intention of thinking them up. And the words they splash with inebriated hands all over the canvas aren't notes to refer to later - they are the art.

It's Easter and we have descended on Yangjiang, a 'tiny' city of 'only' two million people or so in southwestern Guangdong province. A four-hour bus trip from Zhuhai, this brand new town is home to Zheng Guogu (Zheng National Valley), Sun Qinglin (Sun Celebrate Unicorn) and Chen Zaiyan (Chen Again Scorching).

My travel companion and I have heard they do drunken calligraphy and installation art with a twist - yes, even in the often bizarre world of installation art, getting friends to write out all the words of Das Kapital in Chinese characters on 7,000 loose pieces of paper, then filling a stadium with these while a football tournament involving six teams is being played, counts as 'a twist' - but we don't know anything else about the three.

We expect them to be a bunch of mildly subversive, acutely suffering artists in their mid- to late twenties, subsisting on scraps, living with their parents and surfacing briefly, on the odd occasion they are sober, to thrash out ideas for the next bacchanalia on a Formica-topped table with deep cigarette burns, before getting sloshed again on the cheapest of rice wine.

We picture them as having asymmetrically cut hair, if any, perhaps with that awful bane of male humanity: a goatee. We imagine them dressed in black polo-neck jumpers and wearing large black-rimmed glasses, wafting about androgynously and wand-like.

What we get, though, is three - well, geezers, quite frankly, ranging from 36 to 43 years old, chain-smoking and dark of tooth. The only thing that hints at 'artist' is a tuft of hair on the back of Zheng's head, dyed a rusty orange.

In fact, they look more like bus uncles or vaguely criminal construction site foremen, or maybe low-ranking government officials on an outing, than anything connected with the creative arts. But, then again, theirs is very far removed from what we normally think of as art.

When Zheng picks us up at the hotel to go to the heung ha (ancestral village or countryside) for dinner and a chat, we receive more proof that our preconceptions - or rather, prejudices - are misplaced. His car is an enormous roaring four-wheel-drive beast with the word 'JEEP' emblazoned on the bonnet.

All right, so maybe they're not poor, either.

Over dinner at a red-brick shack far away from town, Zheng tells us that instead of being a wild, constantly drunk madman, he is now a teetotaller. He stopped drinking two years ago, after a nasty shock. First he got paralytic, dashing off some well-executed art before driving home. On the way, he crashed into another car head on, sending its driver and passenger to hospital. His own car was completely wrecked but Zheng staggered away unscathed, to wake up in his own bed blissfully unaware of what had taken place. One must assume, however, that he would have had something of a headache.

When told what had happened, and after paying 16,000 yuan (HK$19,600) for his victims' hospital bills, Zheng reckoned it was God who had saved him that night, and that He might not be so benevolent next time. It was time to give up drinking.

Sobriety has clearly done him no harm, though. Over the three days we spend with Zheng, with the other two group members drifting in and out of the various places we visit, his output of original art is incredibly high. The sheer volume would just not be possible to produce for someone continuously engaged in getting drunk and/or nursing a hangover.

Sun and Chen, however, are still doing the drunken calligraphy thing with a vengeance.

The trio, who started the Yangjiang Group in 2001, came to calligraphy by vastly different routes.

The brooding, intense Zheng, who is actually quite wand-like after having lost 30 pounds from just not drinking beer any more, became a calligrapher as an act of revenge. His teacher in primary school set about him for writing characters the wrong way, making the rebellious or possibly dyslexic Zheng copy each character 100 times until he got it right. He never did, and the teacher washed his weary hands of him, declaring that the boy would never amount to anything.

Zheng set out to prove that, in a country where the highest form of art is to slavishly copy one master or another in calligraphy as well as other ink media, there is no 'right' way to write Chinese characters - the only thing that counts is self-expression.

Jovial but quiet, Chen, the most uncle-looking of the three - who is a married father of one - learned art the 'normal' way: by studying classical calligraphy at Guangzhou University of Fine Arts.

As unlikely as it sounds, the self-possessed, soulful-looking Sun learnt calligraphy from an illiterate relative. The relation, an ironsmith, had no work coming in before one Lunar New Year and grew worried about money. He noticed a neighbour, a writer of calligraphy for New Year door couplets and wedding cards, had more work than he could cope with. 'I can do that,' the enterprising man thought, and started copying his neighbour's art, without being able to read a single word.

Is it really possible to get Chinese characters down like that without practising for years and years, and without knowing what they mean?

Sun assures me it is indeed possible, especially if you trace the characters. But even if the story isn't true, it underscores the very core of the group's world-view: that anybody can write calligraphy; that, contrary to popular belief, there are no rules; and that a market vendor describing what he's got on his stall and how much each item costs (a frequent topic at their exhibitions) is just as much calligraphy art as a perfect copy of a scroll of some dead master.

When you look at their art, or just their calligraphy, or syu fat (shu fa), as they prefer to call it, it is obvious that, despite the characters' ostensible illegibility, they are written by people who know what they are doing.

The group base their calligraphy on current affairs, especially football, reading newspaper stories and then writing their reactions to them while drunk (or not, in Zheng's case). Waking up in the morning - or rather the next evening after drinking/working all night and sleeping all day - they are often surprised to find they have produced large canvases of work and also covered every other surface, including their cars, in calligraphy.

After dinner, what few suffering-artist preconceptions we still have are quickly put to rest. The group's main studio is a massive 'iceberg' set in a traditional garden - Zheng's design - for which he has had to fork out a small fortune to placate the local council and his neighbours. It is a very affluent neighbourhood.

The inside of the building can best be described as cavernous - an open space three storeys high with a winding staircase in the middle.

On the roof is something that at first glance looks like a classical garden, complete with rocks and a carp pond. On closer inspection, the 'rocks' are revealed to be sacks of cement artfully arranged to look like natural formations. Here the group displays its large canvases: stunning, paint-dripping things, which, if you look closely and can read Chinese, are indeed calligraphy, shot through with the odd English word. There is black on yellow, yellow on black and black on white; swirling, unreadable characters in various bold colours, creating a Jackson Pollock-like effect of seeming effortlessness.

Well, when I say 'unreadable', I mean, of course, 'unreadable for me'. Looking at the yellow-on-black canvas, I recognise only two characters: those that make up the word 'urine'.

One canvas - or mural, really - is mounted above a large gnarled tree trunk of the style so beloved by tea ceremony masters. And it soon becomes depressingly apparent: instead of getting drunk with the Yangjiang Group and seeing them in full splash, cranking out calligraphy, we are going to be treated to gallons and gallons of tea. (But at least it's Iron Buddha and of excellent quality, even I know that).

Why do they want to spend so much time with us, we wonder? We conclude that few other journalists have been here, to far-away Yangjiang, to see these drunken artists. No, almost none have visited. Other than a number from all corners of China, the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and ... oh, Austria and Belgium. Apart from them.

And have they ever exhibited outside of Yangjiang, maybe in Guangzhou? No, hardly anywhere; just London, Liverpool, various places in Germany, Belgium, France, Sweden, Australia, the US ...

It turns out the Yangjiang Group are megastars on the arts circuit. We stand corrected, and not a little chastised.

THE NEXT DAY, after a terribly, terribly early, almost beer-less night, Zheng picks us up in his roaring vehicle, which looks like it should be thundering across some African savannah looking for lions, not put-putting sedately around the fascistically manicured, nouveau-riche streets of Yangjiang, to take us to his house, or rather, flat.

Zheng's flat is on the fifth floor of a walk-up and ... there the similarity to any apartment I've ever been to in the mainland, or anywhere else, ends. It is several flats combined into one. A winding staircase goes up to the roof, which has three sitting areas (the use of which follows fung shui principles) and a collection of large carp, swimming around the intricately laid-out borders of the roof.

Inside is a large studio, where Zheng's assistant struggles to keep up with the artist's feverish creativity. For Zheng is about so much more than drunken, now teetotal, writings about football. It seems that everything the man touches turns to art. Here are beer cans and shampoo bottles made of bronze and copper, enormous canvases based on photographs and turned into upholstered fabric - the largest shows one of his installation happenings: the digging up of a 10-metre-high tree and its journey from Tianjin to Beijing - as well as bread covered in wax and made to look like a decorative rock.

At first glance, the furniture looks as though it's of the traditional hardwood variety, but it turns out to be full of thousands of little holes - Zheng says it takes him about six months to 'moonscape' a whole chair. A large piece of red fabric embroidered with streaks of yellow, blue, purple and white is in fact drunken calligraphy that has been run through the computer and turned into cloth in a factory.

A long tea ceremony follows (Zheng's flat has at least two large tree trunks for this purpose) before - so help me God - there is yet another art-filled place to see.

This one is in the countryside, and is the kind of place that evokes only one reaction: gobsmacked. My companion starts mumbling about 'megalomania' but I don't know; when each canvas measures several square metres and many of the installations include office furniture, sofas and trees covered in dripping wax, it seems obvious that you need a lot of space. Included here are, naturally, a large carp pond, a separate building just for dinner and a towering skeleton of concrete, which in the future will be an exhibition space. Oh, and there's a brook with imported boulders.

Small wonder the group isn't interested in moving to Shanghai, Beijing or even Guangzhou - it owns large chunks of Yangjiang and its environs. Zheng indicates that the bribes, sorry, 'tea money', he has had to fork out to buy the flats and all this land, as well as placating the neighbours of his monster iceberg building, runs into the hundreds of thousands of yuan.

Which leads us to the question: who buys these canvases and installations? The group is surprisingly cagey about this, either changing the topic or mumbling that we should ask their 'handlers': Guangzhou-based Vitamin Creative Space (although I doubt that, with Zheng's obvious fierce independence, he will let himself be handled by anything or anybody).

I do ask them, but they don't answer e-mails in Chinese nor English. It is all very mysterious - the group can tell me how much they have to bribe people to put up a building or ten, but not where the money comes from. Perhaps they've done well from wagers, because, as well as football, the group has a keen interest in gambling, writing about it in large, rambling characters on canvas - using a billiard cue. Or chopsticks.

Here is an extract from Sun's The Gambling Ring Made for the Director of International Football Association (two by five metres, paint on canvas with chopstick): 'The most vulgar description I have ever heard of football is as follows: 'The football is like a 16-year-old girl, rolling around and being publicly [raped] on a field by 22 men, then she is pulled into five-star hotel rooms by greasy, gluttonous politicians for private raping and last she has to serve as the object of [gratification] for billions of fans and gamblers.' How can one poor little girl take this much sexual assault?'

Pretty articulate for an evening spent drunk out of your skull; what's more, many of the words on this canvas are legible.

THE NEXT MORNING, I take a walk around Yangjiang, a city that seemingly sprang forth, fully formed, in 2010 or thereabouts. There are huge empty spaces decorated with lampposts, man-made lakes, China-style skyscraper residential buildings - all concrete, tiles and metal. It is soulless, spiritless and colourless. It is difficult to imagine a place like this fostering three such incredibly creative forces.

I ask Zheng what inspires him. What made him the creativity-on-steroids machine that he is today?

He replies (albeit cagily) that even as a child, he would make his little room something special and that the design thing, although he studied at the Yangzhou School of Fine Arts, had always been with him. He, like Yangjiang, seemingly sprang forth ready-made.

When I return to the studio, it immediately becomes clear where that creativity came from. Even in the garden surrounding the iceberg I can hear it: wonderful traditional music cascading out, bouncing off the calligraphy-festooned walls. And there in the cavernous reception hall of the Yangjiang Group's studio, which is also a concert hall/working space/tea rooms/cyber cafe/photography studio/hang-out space and God knows what else, sit Zheng's 60-something father and two other elderly gentlemen, churning out beautiful and incredibly loud tunes, some of which I recognise from my collection of traditional Chinese music. But the instruments are not exactly traditional.

Zheng's father is plucking a small, bright blue electric guitar with built-in amplifier - which he built from scratch. A-ha - so it is genetic. The erhu (a two-stringed instrument) being played is also electric, complete with amplifier. And as if those two aren't generating music that is loud enough, the third instrument in this very traditional Chinese ensemble is ... a saxophone.

This is the Yangjiang Group and everything around them in a nutshell. They take tradition, everyday life and people's conceptions about - oh, everything - turn them upside down and shake them vigorously. Before covering them in wax.

The Yangjiang Group will exhibit with Vitamin Creative Space at ArtHK 12, which begins on Thursday at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.