Scaling the heights for inspiration

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am

When Davi Russo arrived in Shangri-La in Yunnan province - a place so beautiful it is often referred to as an earthly paradise - his experience was anything but heavenly. The 29-year-old New York photographer was, at an altitude of about 3,300 metres above sea level, suffering from altitude sickness.

'I'd never been at such a height before. I had a headache and nausea. I was the weakest one,' he says. 'Embarrassingly, no one felt as sick as I did. During the three to four days of the journey, I felt like [I was] in space.'

Russo was among a group of nearly 20 artists, film producers and crew members on a 10-day tour to explore the inner part of China last month. Organised by fashion brand Diesel, the New Grand Tour project invited artists hoping to be inspired by Tibetan culture. The expedition, which began in Shanghai and passed through Yunnan's capital, Kunming, and Lijiang, included Suitman (Young Kim), Jose Parla, Rostarr (Romon Kimin Yang) and Deanne Cheuk, all artists from New York. The works created during the trip are now on show at Pacific House until November 25.

Thanks to a mainland doctor who travelled with the team, and his acupuncture and traditional ointments, Russo was back on his feet in no time.

Throughout the trip the group was captivated by the splendid scenes of snow-capped mountains, blue lakes and waterfalls: Shangri-La, close to the border with Tibet, was formerly called Zhongdian until the central government approved the name change in 2001.

The group also admired the beautiful architecture of Tibetan monasteries. Receiving blessings from the chief lama, who strives to preserve the traditional Tibetan art of thangkah painting, was a special highlight. He was also the first subject of Rostarr's sketches.

Russo was fascinated by a class for the junior monks and spent an evening taking photographs of one heated debate. 'It was amazing how beautiful it was, like watching a Greek play inside a theatre. A monk who stood up to raise a question would say: 'Tell me the answer'. If the one who sat down didn't know the answer, the first one would push for an answer again,' he says. 'They made a lot of aggressive motions like clapping and striking - different types of body language. The gestures were very powerful, showing their eagerness to learn.

'It was completely contrary to the general impression ... about monks who are believed to be emotionless and calm.'

By contrast, Korean-American artist Suitman captured the serenity of life among a group of cheerful children living in a nondescript area.

'Those kids came from poor families without any toys. Their school was so run down the windows and doors were all broken. But they remained so cheerful, learning and playing inside. Smiles always lit up their faces and their faces were full of life. They really touched me and I got so much out of them,' Suitman says. 'They'd never even had their photo taken before.'

Instead of taking portraits to document his travels, Suitman chose to put the children in his trademark outfit - an oversized black suit, bow tie and thick, black plastic-rimmed glasses. He took two dozen of these portraits and they are available for sale. The proceeds will go towards repairing the children's school and providing supplies.

'It was a really important trip for me,' Russo says. 'I had the opportunity to go to places that I never imagined myself travelling to. The trip reminded me of how small I am. I live in New York, I am a city boy, born and raised in New York. I come from a country of convenience. Everything is so convenient and we can get everything within 24 hours. It turned out it wasn't like that [in places like Shangri-La]. Sometimes we take things for granted.'

Hong Kong is the first stop for the New Grand Tour project exhibition and the team will return to the mainland in May 2008 with a full exhibition of their work in Beijing.

The New Grand Tour, BRAVE, G/F Pacific House, 20 Queen's Rd Central, until Nov 25. Inquiries: 2525 0559