Art meets nature in the hills of Guilin

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 August, 2006, 12:00am

Turn off the highway halfway between Guilin and Yangshuo and you enter a landscape that looks familiar, yet like nothing you have ever seen. The misty mountains made famous by countless Chinese paintings provide the backdrop for a vast collection of modern sculpture spread over 60 hectares. Art and nature appear to have merged.

This is Yuzi Paradise, a centre for contemporary art developed over the past decade by Taiwanese tycoon Rhy Chang Tsao. At last count there were more than 200 sculptures here, created by 140 artists from 47 countries.

'Yuzi Paradise comes from a dreamer - my father,' said his son Guang T. Tsao, who runs the park.

As the owner of one of 'the largest and most beautiful cemeteries' in Taipei, Rhy Chang Tsao became convinced that 'there is no eternity in this world except culture and art'. This belief, coupled with a love of modern art (sculpture in particular), lies behind an investment of more than 300 million yuan in Yuzi Paradise.

The younger Mr Tsao recalled how his father was inspired by his first visit to China in 1986 to invest in 'the dynamic power of 5,000 years of history, culture and art'. His mission sent him on a quest to find land to set up a sculpture park in China. A 10-year search brought the Tsaos to a spread of 600hectares of land in a neglected corner of Guangxi province.

Guilin's fame and artistic tradition played a part in the choice, as did the opportunity to provide employment in a county where land was too poor to farm. Today, more than 500 people work at Yuzi Paradise.

Rhy Chang Tsao's commitment to art is often accompanied by a puckish poke at the absurdity and brevity of life. In Putonghua, yu-zi can mean 'myself the fool' or 'call me stupid', and is a defiant response to critics who question the wisdom of spending millions on scattering art across the mountains of China.

There are more jokes at Yuzi, from the bottom-shaped logo to an art prize called the Utter Folly Cup. Yuzi Paradise first opened to the public on April Fool's Day in 2003.

Visitors to Yuzi Paradise discover a world where things occasionally are not what they seem. For example, a group of people picnicking in a grove of pine trees turns out to be artwork by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming. Other pieces are more abstract and demand contemplation or interaction from the observer.

As you make your way along the network you discover other striking structures, some looking like gigantic sculptures emerging from the rocky outcrops. These turn out to be a glass-fronted lakeside residence, a boutique hotel, an art gallery, studios and an enormous atelier where sculptors and artists realise their creative vision.

The atelier is a bustling arena with a small army of people busy casting, carving, cutting and creating. Upstairs are studios for pottery and jewellery makers and others working on various small-scale art projects.

Over the past decade, Yuzi Paradise has been the scene of 10 international sculpture symposiums, with artists from around the world gathering to exchange ideas and create sculptures for the park. The international sculpture park is just part of a 30-year project planned for Yuzi Paradise.

'My father had the dream and I have to make the dream come true,' Mr Tsao said.

He took charge of the park two years ago and has been gradually developing business projects that complement art.

'I couldn't just add another Disneyland,' he said. 'The first project was to create somewhere to stay within the park. It had to be somewhere different.'

Mr Tsao hit upon the idea of the Hotel of Modern Art (City Plus, page 2), and with the addition of a 200-room hotel, Yuzi Paradise has turned into a vacation destination in itself. Its appeal as a place to stay is enhanced by a children's area that features cartoon characters popular in Taiwan. A giant see-saw and a wealth of installations add to the treat.

The scope of the artwork at Yuzi is expanding, with regular exhibitions and art workshops at the international art centre and art gallery.

Mr Tsao is also developing a Yuzi art brand for guests who would like to buy artworks. Mr Tsao's next plan is to develop what he calls Yuzi's 'big backyard', the remaining 540 hectares of land on the site, complete with a cave system inside the mountains.

These caverns will become the venue for a spa, a retreat and an art gallery, all highly original concepts that will add another dimension to Guilin's famous mountains.