Followed by A Day Out in Beijing
When I finally made my way out Exit B at the Beijing Airport, I was hoping there would be somebody with my name on a sign.
There is always something about getting on a plane to head off somewhere that fills me with a mix of mounting excitement and mild dismay, so you can well imagine heading off for an extended weekend in China resulted in a panachage of eagerness to be off and a desire to crawl back home and sleep. I also work on the principle that if the trip is being organized by someone else, I don’t prepare anything except my presentation material and my bag, and never have contact details, back-up contact numbers and the like. It occurred to me as the plane was descending through a pall of brown cloud (huge dust storm blown in off Mongolia, as I learned later) to Beijing that if no-one was at the airport, I was rather royally in trouble… ironic, since I had, for once, cleverly asked for my cell phone to be reprogrammed for international roaming, which had for end result that it ended up not work ing abroad at all. (Moral of story: if something works more or less okay, do not try to improve performance.)
As it turned out, there was quite a committee, which heralded the four days which were to come.
Now, with millions of people travelling to extraordinary destinations, a trip like this has little out of the ordinary, except that I will never grow accustomed to the idea of traveling for my work. Illustration is a vocation of cenobitical solitude (one’s confreres are generally not in the same cloister but spread over the world) and a generally humble trade, especially when you don’t have the wherewithal or the desire to graduate to having people work for you, but prefer to keep your own fingertips ink-stained…
Somehow it still seems totally surreal to be invited across the world because of the work I do. Books generally do the travelling for illustrators, who voyage by proxy. (I rarely get out – ask my wife; she has to put up with me hanging about the place all day.) This explains why I was continually pinching myself, wondering if I wouldn’t simply wake up to find I wasn’t the person they thought I was, and I’d be abandoned to my fate.
Left: Arriving at the airport. Having grown accustomed to a rather relaxed attitude on the behalf of many organizers, where there is nobody at the airport and you have to make your way on your own, being greeted with flowers was quite a treat. Centre: Whirlwind tour of the television station – you could likely fit the whole of the television facilities in Geneva inside one of the dozen sound stages on the grounds. China has over 3000 televison stations, of which only a few hundred broadcast on a national level. Right: Getting ready for the press conference.
Add to this the fact that I am hopeless with names under the best of circumstances, my internal memory card registered full rather rapidly. Beijing went by outside the limousine window – the grandstand where Mao made his famous speech, Tienanmen Square, the Bird’s Nest and I quickly lost count of landmarks – and we were suddenly at our first stop, a lengthy press conference (lengthy in part because of the necessary translating both ways) and a visit of one of the main Beijing television studios, which was of course an incredibly huge beehive of activity. (The folks at Fantasy Art Magazine had prepared these wonderful – and slightly daunting – itineraries, which I never quite managed to remember, so every event was a surprise.)
Evening found me lolling in my hotel room – the televison complex had a huge hotel, with a lobby displaying an incredible collection of breathtaking scholar stones – bemusedly thumbing through 58 channels, all in Chinese. One of the most delightful parts of the hotel stay was at breakfast, where Wang Tong, my interpreter (and artist and writer – he gave me one of his books, which contains some of the best words I’ve ever read about art and the art of making it) would point out tables and explain where different little groups had hailed from. Since they were in the capital for cultural programs, they were already wearing their local costumes, ready for rehearsal. China is a nation of well over half a hundred nations (the government officially recognizes 56) and I soon lost track. “That group is from Gaoshan, over there, the woman with the child is Khirghiz, those people must be from…”
Then, a trip across town to the IT zone, (going anywhere in Beijing is like driving across Los Angeles – twice – except the cars in China are generally a lot newer) where I was given a tour of one of the bigger graphics hardware companies. I much admired a little machine that reads anything (even my awful handwriting) and translates it to a Word file in a few seconds. I even managed to not make too much of a fool of myself with a graphic tablet.
Left: Signing a guestbook; one always ends up with the most unadapted writing instrument for the task – in this case a broad-tipped felt pen. Centre: Snipping a red ribbon to inaugurate a new centre for research and design. Right: With Zhang Jizhong on the grounds fo the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
After lunch, and after another long drive, we visited the studio of Zhang Jizhong, one of China’s big names in film and television (who is currently developing a huge project) and toured studios with walls packed from floor to ceiling with fantastic and highly confidential concept art. After that, we headed for the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where I participated in a conference, another slightly daunting exercise given the numbers and the artistic level of the students there. Besieged by benign faces who were showing me their extraordinarily talented work and simultaneously professing how much they liked mine made me feel like replying that theirs was honestly far better and I should be the one asking them for autographs. It was incredibly surreal.
Naturally, these things always end up as impromptu signature sessions, and I came the closest I have ever been to being trampled until the two bodyguards (yes, I had bodyguards, for the first and probably only time in my life) restored a semblance of order just as my chair started to tip over backwards.
Left: Waiting to speak at the conference. Centre: A half dozen students each did a digital painting in the space of half an hour, most of them far better than anything I might have done (one landscape in particular was very impressive). Right: With the prize winners. The posters were printed (with HarperCollins’ permission), especially for the show.
Left: With a young lady who attended the conference and asked if she could have a photo. I always feel so terrible for young people for whom life is a struggle, so we stopped the whole show while I went over to say hello. Centre: The one time when the bodyguards did come in quite handy. Right: With a contingent of Lord of the Rings fans.
After the conference, we were bundled back into the cars and sped off. I never really knew at any point exactly where we were headed for the full stay in China, but then I wasn’t really interested in knowing. Being able to sit back, confident my translator would tell me anything important, I was always happy simply to sit back and listen to the rise and ebb of conversation (that and the constant ringing of cell phones – taking time out to accompany me meant that Fantasy Art Magazine was basically being edited via cell phone for a few days). Of all the languages in the world, I prefer those I don’t understand, in the company of people I enjoy being with. (Speaking only two, and with nodding to distant acquaintances with only three or four more, that leaves a LOT of languages – several thousand – that become rhythm and music. (Another amusing exercise is tallying up the languages one recognizes without understanding them; likely another dozen tops.) I have never been able to fathom those people who complain when they cannot understand the language spoken around them. Some of my happiest evenings have been spent with friends speaking a tongue I don’t – not undertstanding what is being said can have the effect of those sounds in a natural landscape – rain, waves, wind – or the urban language of vehicles, machines and the determined hubbub of passers-by.
Dinner that evening was at a restaurant that was once an Imperial summer palace, which, given that my mind still was having trouble catching up with events, was very much like stumbling into a period movie (without being hollered at by the DoP).
Afterwards, I was told to be up early and be packed and ready to go at seven. We have an appointment with a wall…
All the photos are © their respective photographers. Thanks to Wang Wei and his son Tianyou for allowing me to use their images in this newsletter.
The Middle-earth sculptures are taking shape; more news on the Weta website. Can’t show photos of them just quite yet, but they are looking VERY nice.
This is something Richard Taylor and I have been discussing off and on for nearly a decade, ever since I was first in New Zealand for The Lord of the Rings. To see it actually happening has been a mixture of trepidation and excitement, since this is the first time I have seen any of my work take the step from two dimensions to three. As we worked on the sculptures, filling in the gaps left by the paintings, imagining the other sides, imagining the things hidden or simply beyond the borders of the original paintings, my trepidation diminished, replaced by excitement, contained excitement which I can only share without really sharing, since the release schedule is (happily) out of my hands and managed by the Weta Workshop. The best place to get a first glimpse of the first two pieces will be at next month’s San Diego Comic Con.