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    Along the Cashmere Trail
by Ilka Scobie
 
     
 
Artist's commune outside Beijing
 
Feng Mengbo
 
Feng Mengbo
Taking Mt. Doom By Strategy No. 1
1998
 
Feng Mengbo
Untitled
1996
 
Feng Mengbo
painting in progress, June 1999
 
Cashmere Goat, Inner Mongolia
 
During a recent ten day trip to China I was amazed at the construction boom, which has dotted Beijing with new sky scrapers. The Chinese capital was the starting point for our trip along the "cashmere trail" to Batou in Inner Mongolia, a trek undertaken as a fashion shoot for New York designer Jennifer Tyler. Between squeezing in tourist meccas like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Lama Temple (which boasts more Buddha statuary then any other site in Asia, and has recently been reopened for worship), I met Italian designer and art collector Andrea Cavazzuti, a resident of China for the past ten years. He and several artists live in a commune outside Beijing, with land purchased from the local peasants.

It was here that Andrea introduced us to contemporary artist Feng Mengbo, who showed at Holly Solomon Gallery in 1998. In speaking about China's contemporary art scene, Andrea said, "Installations and video are very popular. If you do installations, they say you can go abroad. Oil paintings are also being done, many of them figurative. There's a lot of enthusiasm among artists at the moment in China, with active art scenes in Shanghai and Hang Zhou. But China's still looking for an artistic identity. There's no clear trend, a lot of experimentation."

Feng Mengbo was born in 1966, the same year that Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution. Mengbo has received national acclaim, and his work is seen as a vibrant reflection of today's China. Speaking about his exhibition in New York last year, which consisted of an installation of hanging printing plates, a CD ROM of family photos and digitally produced paintings, prints and photos that suggested Rauschenbergian collage, he said "I knew Holly Solomon from the Berlin Art fair three years ago. She liked my work and offered me a show in New York. I lived in an artist's studio there, and liked the city very much. I'd love to go back to show some of my new paintings."

Much of Feng's interactive computer work includes movies and games. Milwaukee's Haggerty Museum showed his huge video game, in 1998. "In contemporary culture, the ultimate reality lies in games," he says, and in his sunny upstairs studio, five computers fill a wall.

An artist in flux, Feng has recently resumed painting. Some of the latest canvases relate to the birth of his forthcoming child. The work is done in shades of gray, and incorporates images of floating fetuses and an exploding atom bomb. Feng Mengbo, who helped pioneer technology in China's art, is now continuing his creative experimentation in the most traditional of mediums.

On the eve of the new millennium, the systematic erasure of China's cultural past has finally begun to fade. Children of the Cultural Revolution -- China's cultural avant-garde -- are producing work that promises to be well worth international attention.

After visiting Feng Mengbo and the bustling streets of Beijing, we flew to Batou. We bumped along dirt roads for five hours before reaching our destination, where mud habitats could pass as earthworks if moved to the sterile confines of a white-walled gallery. The primitive structures are certainly incongruous with the satellite dishes that service the battery-operated televisions of the inhabitants, who have neither running water nor electricity.

The other exotic local dwellings are traditional yurts, with brightly decorated tent-like roofs. The tourist attraction in the area is the Communist built Ghengis Khan Temple in the Eerduosi Plateau, with a five-meter-high cartoon-like marble Ghengis. There the Mongolians offer their wares, which range from goat-horn utensils to folk music CDs. I also came across a marble statue of a cashmere goat, one of the area's prime resources, and the purpose of our visit.


ILKA SCOBIE is a poet who teaches in the New York school system.