The curator and broadcaster was planning a show of work by Chinese artist Hsiao Chin — then lockdown struck.
Hsiao Chin, ‘Power of the Light’ (1965) © Courtesy of 3812 Gallery
January 2020: before Covid
Stillness and solitariness are overrated — at least that’s always been my view. My cultural heroes include Charles Dickens, who lived and wrote among London’s roaring streets, delivering to order wonderful novels in two-month slices. And Alfred Hitchcock, who wrestled masterpieces out of the hustle and din of Hollywood studios, what one old lefty called history’s biggest experiment in art and business.
For the past 16 years, working as a curator, writer and broadcaster, I have been skipping back and forth between London and China. When I like myself, I think I’m in a picaresque novel, moving from one global arts adventure to the next. When I don’t, I am exactly the kind of person I loathe: a globetrotting member of an elite group. Six times to China last year; brief trips to the US and to various cities across Europe as well. All for work, which may mitigate my sins — and certainly pours balm on my residual Methodist conscience.
My most recent long-haul trip was to Shenzhen in southern China in late January (early Covid time in Wuhan, 600 miles north), pitching with an architectural practice for a new cultural quarter. The population of this most hectic of Chinese cities is six years younger than the average in China — and our proposed strapline is Manman Lai (“Take Your Time”). The young do have time. As soon will I, it turns out, as long as I remain well.
I stay in Shenzhen for two days and then skedaddle back to London, rather than on to Beijing, in the belief that I will be safer. So much for my prophetic powers.
I am also there to begin serious planning of an exhibition — with artists after my own heart; or maybe my heart follows theirs. Artists on the move. The Chinese artist Hsiao Chin was born in 1935 in China, moved to Taipei, then shipped himself to Madrid and Barcelona — and on to Italy in the 1960s, where he became a major figure, founding an important avant-garde movement, Movimento Punto. His paintings can be found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, and Hong Kong’s M+. He is now 85, part of the Chinese diaspora of artists whose place in the art history of Europe has still not been written. The earliest painting in the show that we’re planning together is 1959; the most recent 2017.
Hsiao Chin’s ‘The Origin of Chi 3’ (1962) © Courtesy of 3812 Gallery/Janfi Chung
I’d agreed to curate his retrospective at the Mark Rothko Art Centre, in Daugavpils, Latvia, where Rothko, one of the greatest artists of the second half of the 20th century, was born as Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in 1903. He packed for the US when he was 10, and the rest is art history. Both restless artists, both looking for what Rothko called “pockets of silence”. Hsiao met Rothko in 1968 in New York. He was a silent man, said Hsiao.
I am readying myself to travel to Latvia via Milan — which in the ’60s, when Hsiao arrived there, attracted artists from all over the world — when the grilles come down across Europe. Milan becomes a hospital, not an inn, to quote a great 17th-century writer, Sir Thomas Browne; and I inherit the stillness and solitariness I have always avoided.
I’m easy with small spaces — planes, taxis, even lifts — as long as they move. But now I have to be still yet global, liaising between the Baltics and China from a small flat in central London.
In effect, I’m curating this exhibition on WhatsApp. I would not advise you to try this at home. Unless you are desperate. I am. With Farida Zaletilo, the Rothko Centre curator, I agree the shape of the show, then I am treated to photographs and videos of what a constellation of works looked like on the wall. The great conductor Toscanini once said that music needed to be experienced live — the gramophone (as it was then) was the death of music. I feel that way about art on a small mobile screen.
Paintings need to be encountered, physically. The scale, the modulation of colours, the drama of the elements, the energy of the marks (Hsiao makes what I can only call luscious brushstrokes in his mesmerising abstract work) — anything and everything that matters about a painting is obliterated on a mobile screen. Like Rothko, Hsiao imagined his paintings as acts of spirituality. Phones are not good as meditational mandalas.
Hsiao, 85, whose new show has just opened in Latvia © Courtesy of 3812 Gallery
Hsiao and I have to communicate remotely. He is in lockdown outside Taipei; I am in London. We agree to make a brief film. I send him my questions and a member of his foundation films him there. He can speak Mandarin, English and Italian, but for me he speaks English (thank heavens). He is most moving when he tells me that he had to leave home to rediscover the power of Chinese culture. In Milan, he began to read Laozi again. For the film, he is elegantly dressed, in pink shirt and bow-tie. I wish I had as much hair as he has.