The Affinities of Art 藝海因緣

The following essay was circulated among friends on 26 August 2016, the day that Lois Conner formally presented a painting by the celebrated Hangzhou artist Zhang Peili 張培力 to the research centre that I founded at The Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. It also happened to be the day on which I moved to Le Quartier Français, Featherston, in The Wairarapa, New Zealand.

That presentation at the Australian Centre on China in the World also marked the opening of an exhibition of Zhang Peili’s work in the Centre’s gallery, curated by Olivier Krischer, titled ‘Zhang Peili: from painting to video’.

Peili’s painting now hangs in a building designed to house a research centre conceived with the support of the then-prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, and supported by Ian Chubb, the vice-chancellor of ANU. The building was designed by Gerald Szeto, a friend whom I met in New York around the same year I encountered Lois Conner in 1996.

Lois’s work features prominently in the work of China Heritage; it provides the visual elegance of the home page both of China Heritage and of China Heritage Annual. I am publishing this essay to celebrate my long-term friendship and collaboration with Lois, and my friendship with Zhang Peili, whom I first met in 1992.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
26 August 2017

The Affinities of Art


To Celebrate Lois Conner and Zhang Peili 張培力

26 August 2016

Geremie R. Barmé

At the opening of Lois Conner’s exhibition, ‘Beijing: contemporary & imperial’, at the Cleveland Museum of Fine Art, March 2014.

It’s twenty years since Lois Conner and I first met at her Gramercy Park apartment in Manhattan. It was the height of the northern summer of 1996 and I was coming to the end of three months as a visiting professor at New York University. An Italian doctoral student who attended my seminar on the new Mao cult and had followed my work on Chinese art over the years suggested an introduction, and Lois invited us for dinner.

Sitting at a small table in the boutique-sized vestibule of Lois’s apartment (I recall we had pasta with pesto that Lois made using basil she’d grown at her parents’ property in Pennsylvania), it was not long before the sassy lady from PA asked me to read her teacup. Not the tealeaves, mind you, but the Chinese poem written on the side of the crude pottery cups we were drinking from after dinner.

Our mutual friend was appalled. Loud and brash — affectionately known to everyone as ‘Brutta’ — the friend shouted at Lois that she couldn’t possibly ask a noted Sinologist to read lines on a cheap teacup. Having only recently faced Q&A sessions in New York following screenings of our film The Gate of Heavenly Peace, during which one retired army man accused the film’s director Carma Hinton and myself (I was the main writer and academic adviser on the project) of having ‘allowed that Communist Deng Xiaoping to smile’ in the film, I was well used to New York brashness. Anyway, I thought: you can take the girl out of Chester County, but not the country out of the New York artist. I’d soon learn something that Lois’s legion of friends both in the US and world wide were familiar with: she is a charming mix of no-nonsense directness and extraordinary artistic finesse.

The verse on the cup was taken from the Tang-dynasty writer Bo Juyi’s 白居易 ‘Poem Sent upon Hearing at Night of District Governor Jia of Changzhou and Cui of Huzhou Celebrating in the Jinghui Pavilion at Tea Mountain’ 《夜聞賈常州崔湖州茶山境會亭歡宴因寄此詩》:


From afar I hear of the evening gathering at Jinghui
Girls bedecked with pearls and jade, embrace all in song and music
In the cups from which guests drink two realms stand their ground
Celebrating in the candlelight spring tea as one

It was over that teacup that Lois and I struck up a friendship. We were both particularly smitten with Dragon Well tea, the genius loci of which was near West Lake at Hangzhou (I’d first visited the lake during Spring Festival in 1975, Lois went there during her original China sojourn in 1984) and most years since then we have gone there to work, and to enjoy at least a few hours at the lakeside Hupanju 湖畔居 teahouse enjoying tea and looking at the lake while discussing poetry, lotuses and the world of art, letters and politics, all topics that are so often the stuff of conversations among those involved with China. (Lois’s work on Hangzhou would feature in the December 2011 issue of my e-journal China Heritage Quarterly, which was devoted to West Lake, as it does in China Heritage.)

That night I told Lois I’d recently started a project on Yuanming Yuan 圓明園, the Garden of Perfect Brightness. The ruins of that vast imperial garden-palace from which Qing dynasty emperors ruled China from 1712 until the garden’s destruction in 1860 lie to the north-east of Beijing in what is now the university and high-tech Haidian district. She immediately went to her meticulously arranged files and was soon showing me black-and-white prints of work she’d made at the garden-ruins during her first stay in the Chinese capital over a decade earlier. A photograph she shared with me that day was of a piece of a broken marble decoration from the Jesuit palaces at the gardens half buried in the ground. It would later feature in the published version of my 1996 George E. Morrison Lecture, The Garden of Perfect Brightness, a life in ruins.

At the Western Pavilions 西洋樓, Garden of Perfect Brightness, Beijing. Photograph by Lois Conner.

We made a date to meet at Yuanming Yuan in the northern summer of 1998. On that first field trip, with our maps, anthologies of poetry, essays and imperial writings at the ready we spent weeks exploring the vast Trümmerfeld of the garden. We moved slowly, searching for the remains of the once famous Thirty-six Scenes of the gardens, walking with Lois’s formidable luggage of photographic equipment (banquet camera, lens, tripod, 7×17″ film holders, custom-cut film) and my mini-library. Over the following years during numerous visits, we created a portrait of the place, scene by scene, in all kinds of weather and seasons. We’d later travel to the Qing-era Summer Hunting Lodge at Chengde, to West Lake as well as other sites around Beijing and China that inspired the poetry or ideas emulated by the emperors Yongzheng, Qianlong and Jiaqing when building their garden follies.


Lois and I have been meeting in Beijing, New York, Hong Kong and Australia to work together on a range of projects ever since. Some of the work Lois made in my company featured in ‘Beijing, the unfolding landscape’, the first exhibition in the Gallery of the Australian Centre on China in the World in May 2014, when we celebrated the ‘soft opening’ of Gerald Szeto’s building (I also first met Gerald in New York in 1996; it turned out that he and Lois were close). More of that work features in our joint book project, Beijing, contemporary & imperial, published by Princeton University Press in 2014, which we launched along with the opening of the exhibition.

At the site of Enyou Temple 恩佑寺, Peking University, August 2012.

The Italian friend who introduced us that evening at Gramercy Park and I had first met some five years earlier. She was an upcoming specialist in contemporary Chinese art who at the time was working at the Italian embassy in Beijing. We made a date for lunch at Ritan Park and she invited another friend to join us: it was the Hangzhou-based artist Zhang Peili. I had enjoyed Peili’s work since the mid 1980s when the feverish art movement of that era broke onto the scene and I’d done an unofficial survey of contemporary art under the tutelage of the critic and curator Li Xianting 栗憲庭 (whom I had known since 1983).

Peili and a group of artist-thinker-raconteurs including Geng Jianyi founded the Pond Society 池社 at a time when roiling artistic groups and grand manifestos proliferated. This West Lake collective would feature in some of my work in 1986, and as well as in Seeds of Fire: Chinese voices of conscience, which John Minford and I published in Hong Kong later that year. The book launch for Seeds took place at Johnson Chang’s HanArt gallery in Kowloon. Johnson’s gallery would become famous as it featured and promoted many contemporary mainland artists after 1989. He would also be Lois’s Hong Kong dealer.


Over the next few years, Peili would spend time both in Hangzhou and New York. It was a period when post-1989 art was being ‘discovered’, first in Hong Kong, then in Australia and eventually globally. My first encounter with Peili in the company of Brutta left me wondering if he was one of the new Chinese ‘pet primitives’, someone patronised in the style of the cowed artist savants assembled by well-heeled New York matrons with a nostalgie de la boue (‘nostalgia for the mud’) that Tom Wolf deliriously described in 1970 in Radical Chic, That Party at Lenny’s. But I soon visited him, and his friend and fellow artist, Geng Jianyi 耿建翌, in Hangzhou where Jianyi was toying with the idea of starting a Mao/ Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant, long before it became a fad. It was during that visit that I discovered during hours of badinage that Peili was already showing himself to be a feisty artist and thinker who would not simply give in to the blandishments of the West. As revived Mao-era ideology waned, a new strain of socialist nationalism was taking root in the country. At the time I summed up the sentiment in the contradiction between the rhetorical question ‘Will whitey like it [our work]?’ 老外會喜歡嗎? and the assertive rejoinder: ‘Anyway, whitey just can’t understand us!’ 反正,老外不懂. Peili and I have enjoyed a jousting relationship ever since.

In 1999, the Brisbane-based historian Sang Ye and I created an installation for the third Asia-Pacific Triennial that featured a two-storey-high inflatable Hua Biao 華表 decorative column at the entrance to the gallery, with a smaller wall panel and video installation inside the gallery proper titled ‘Totems Poles Apart’. It was put not far from Peili’s own, far more sombre video work. I enjoyed Peili’s bitter-sweet (nah, let’s be frank: sarcastic) comments on the artistic presumption of two ‘paper crawlers’ 爬格紙的 like Sang Ye and myself.

Every year since then (until my 2014 illness), Peili, Lois and I have tried to meet up in Hangzhou, along with our friend Geng Jianyi. When I last visited Beijing in late 2014 following months of intensive chemotherapy Peili flew in from Hangzhou to see me.


The year 2008 had found me in Beijing where, among other things, I was working on my project ‘Organic China’. This was supposed to form the basis for what I hoped would be a new intellectual centre for the integrated study of China at The Australian National University, one founded on ideas I first articulated in the 2005 essay On New Sinology. On 26 April 2008, I was present when Peili unveiled a new video work at the Boers-Li Gallery at Caochangdi. It was only a few weeks before the devastating Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan and I would introduce my second major essay on New Sinology, Worrying China & New Sinology, written shortly thereafter with a description of Peili’s installation, ‘A Gust of Wind’ 陣風:

The viewer enters a vast studio space cloaked in darkness. In the centre of this cavern is a pile, an ill-defined mass of ruined walls, collapsed roof beams, vegetal remains, crushed furniture, scattered books, broken lights. It is the devastated husk of a large and comfortable sitting room.

Walking around this 3-D wreckage the viewer sees five single-sided screens at the back of the studio. The screens show five perspectives of a living room appointed with all the markers of bourgeois comfort — from a large-screen TV and cut flowers, to a capacious fish tank, a Chinese-style chair to oil paintings; there’s a bust and photographs on the walls, and well-stocked book shelves. The screens have projected on them views of the room from different angles taken at alternating speeds. The mesmeric images create the illusion of a living space, it remains yet a stagnant scene, one that despite the kaleidoscopic effect conveys the impression of permanence, fixity and material certainty. As the cameras pan, tilt, glide in and seemingly caress the objects in the room the curtains suddenly flutter, animated initially only by a teasing breeze. Gradually, the movement increases as the welling air picks up its assault, the trees outside shake and the curtains billow inwards. Soon the scene of restful contentment is undone by insistent waves of wind from the outside. They build into a blustery crescendo, seen still from every angle on the screens, until the chandelier falls, sparks fly, the windows blow in, walls collapse, and the roof in tremulous fury crashes down. The place is reduced to a dusty wreck. Angry bursts of light caused by electrical faults irradiate the room in its dying moments.

‘A Gust of Wind’, by Zhang Peili.

On the opening night ‘A Gust of Wind’ was already an overwhelming, deeply disturbing work. This creation by one of China’s most creative video artists provided a powerful meditation on the instability of the middle-class dream, a visual essay on the fragility of modern lives. Following the mass devastation in Sichuan ‘A Gust of Wind’ seemed hauntingly prescient and truly horrifying.

Of course, the Wenchuan Quake did not strike the prosperous middle-class world of Eastern China, it hit the western hinterland, where so many who helped build the country’s modern prosperity through their labour come from.

Later, in August 2008, Lois and I would be back in Beijing to follow the summer Olympics. Lois spent the night of the opening ceremony on 8 August making work near the main stadium; I had been commissioned by The China Quarterly to write an analysis of the event and watched it with my Boston collaborator Carma Hinton and other friends on TV far outside the official exclusion zone (my analysis of the opening ceremony appeared in early 2009 under the title China’s Flat Earth: History and 8 August 2008). The following night we were invited by then-prime minister Kevin Rudd to join him and Ambassador Geoff Raby at the Australian Embassy for an informal meeting with the head of CCTV and other Chinese dignitaries and business people. It was during that informal chat that I first noted the importance propaganda officials placed on the media portraying an ‘accurate’ and ‘scientific’ version of what they dubbed ‘The China Story’ 中国的故事. I knew Fu Ying, formerly China’s ambassador to Canberra, latterly at the Court of St James’s, had emphasised this new approach to global Chinese propaganda. That’s why, before Xi Jinping made The China Story a cornerstone of his international propaganda stance in 2013, I presented my own ideas on the subject in Telling Chinese Stories in Sydney on 1 May 2012 and established The China Story Project with colleagues later that year.

Lois and I chatted with Kevin and I told him about my recent work on Organic China (a project that aimed at bringing social scientists, humanities specialists, environment specialists and IR wonks together under the rubric of New Sinology to study contemporary China). It was also a project that led me to a field site at Huangshan in Anhui province introduced by Gerald Szeto who was by this time working in Beijing. Plans for such a new centre at ANU would blossom in discussions with Kevin from September the following year (we had come together to work on his famous zhengyou 諍友 speech at Peking University, and again at the time of the obsequies for our late professor Liu Ts’un-yan 柳存仁). In April 2010, it led to the announcement of our Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW). It has become fashionable even among people who benefitted grandly from Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership during the Global Financial Crisis and as a result of his generous support for ANU to disparage him in mean-spirited terms. I celebrated his marvellous contribution when I spoke at the formal government opening of the CIW building in late October 2015 (on that day I was the only person even to mention his name), and I take this further opportunity to acknowledge and laud his bounty and support for our work: 飲水思源.

Those encounters and the overlapping of research, friendships, ideas and intellectual passion contributed to the envisioning and realisation of the Centre, to the creation and design of its building, and to the ‘soft opening’ of the building on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday on 4 May 2014. Lois Conner’s visit to CIW then and her exhibition curated by Olivier Krischer led to the acquisition of a number her works for the CIW building, purchases as well as gifts. These include the four-panelled work in the Lotus Hall and the Leshan Buddha in the main stairwell of the building.

It also led to her generous gift to me in celebration of the Centre of Zhang Peili’s ‘Flying Machine’ 飛行器, which Olivier had carefully restored and mounted. This is a work dating from Peili’s last group of oil paintings (after this, video became his preferred medium); he gave ‘Flying Machine’ to Lois during a trip to New York in the mid 1990s, shortly before she and I met for the first time.

‘Flying Machine’, by Zhang Peili, a gift from Lois Conner.

Made in 1994, ‘Flying Machine’ is a looming and disturbing work. The dark malevolence of the unmarked helicopter harbours the potential for surveillance, violence and destruction, or perhaps it is a deus ex machina promising rescue, salvation from some accident, fire or disaster; it hovers in an ambiguous void of blue. Many writers, artists and film-makers have reflected on the airborne threat of modern warfare, and in the age of drones ‘Flying Machine’, both lyrical and menacing in intent, alerts us to the eye in the sky. In Peili’s work we get to confront its vision straight on, if not to face it off.

Zhang Peili’s ever-evolving body of work has been a companion and a challenge to my understanding of China for three decades. I am profoundly moved that Lois, artist, co-creator in many of my endeavours, inspiration and dear friend for twenty years, presented this painting by Peili to The Australian National University in this its seventieth anniversary year.* It is a gift that links our long years of collaboration and friendship with an institution that from the time I first sat in a class taught by Pierre Ryckmans in March 1972 nurtured my academic, writing and creative life for forty-three years. It was with profound regret, and I would observe perfect timing, that I bade ANU farewell in late 2015.

As the Chinese title of this essay suggests, Lois, Peili and I are connected by what is known as yuán 緣, a term that signifies the skein of seemingly predestined affinities and connections that intermesh our fate as we have and continue to navigate a course through the immeasurable oceans of artistic creation and life. Now, twenty years after I met Lois, she is in Canberra again to present formally a work by Peili to the Centre I founded with Kevin Rudd and Ian Chubb in April 2010. It is something I barely dared imagine when I first proposed New Sinology in 2005. As that heady, challenging and rewarding decade drew to a close last year a line from The Analects (as translated by Pierre) came to mind:

The Way does not prevail.
I shall take a raft and put out to sea.

For me, now, this will be an eastward journey across the waters.

* For the record, I would note that in accepting this generous gift, the main concerns of the artless academocrats in charge was valuation and insurance. Media reports of the gift fixated not on art, but the agreed value of Zhang’s painting. Later, Lois would have to go to some lengths to ensure that the reasons for the gift were duly noted in the explanatory wall plaque positioned next to the work. Sic tempus, sic mores.

Lois Conner and Geremie R. Barmé Collaborations

Portrait of the author by Lois Conner, at the Canberra home of John Minford, 2007.