Pandas, politics and performance


Some years back, when Stavanger2008, European Capital of Culture was still glowing from its appraisal as ‘best artistic programme ever’ I gave a speech at one of Edinburgh´s universities, where a bunch of exceedingly sparky students bombarded me with alarmingly smart questions. Some days later, a very fine certificate arrived, a masterpiece of exotic fonts and enthusiasm, rewarding my ability to survive the experience. I never forgot it, and suitably framed, this art work still rests splendidly in the Edinburgh family home. The original invitation had come from an American academic, Professor Joe Goldblatt, who leads various remarkable international initiatives in cultural event management, was then tenured at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh. A great liberal, Joe proved to be a new and passionate convert to Scottish Nationalism and a powerhouse of cultural diplomacy, event creation, and policy. Then time passed, and we lost touch.

Then suddenly this summer, the ‘phone rang. It was Joe, sparky as ever, inviting me to China. I was to talk about the ECOC process, but also how arts organisations like Bergen National Opera can empower cities in surprising ways. And I was charged with taking about culture buildings: how they can be ‘living spaces’ and function well beyond being mere venues.

Chengdu, he told me, had set itself the target of becoming China´s ‘culture city’. Fascinated by Edinburgh´s status as a ‘festival city’ Joe had been charged to assemble a team to advise the city. We turned out to be a mixed and international bunch – a university boss, a council chief who happens to be an excellent musician, a leading Hollywood scriptwriter and director, the UK-based creator of Olympic and Commonwealth Games ceremonies, and the boss of an opera company with a small budget and fiercely international aspirations – i.e. yours truly. I googled Chengdu – a ‘small’ population around 20 million, an extraordinary history, a fabulous mix of ancient culture and futuristic technology. Great food. And pandas.

The occasion was to be the 2018 Chengdu Global Events Summit, themed grandly Cultural Creativity and the Rise of World Cities, and sponsored splendidly by NBD, the National Business Daily, a kind of Chinese FT with, in its media group, an astounding 50 million readers. In charge of our visit is the hyper-energetic, super-organised Dr Chris Wang, a Goldblatt pupil and now the new managing director of Joe-initiated The American Event Management Institute.

Sir Timothy O´Shea, ex-principal of Edinburgh University and current Chair of Edinburgh Fringe Festival and I arrive blinking from London into a murky Chinese pre-dawn. Chris is there, beaming and spry with Li Yijia from NBD. She and I bond immediately over a loathing of early mornings and a love of shopping. We arrive at the Shangri-La Hotel, where the lobby is the size of a respectable football pitch, sumptuous flowers are everywhere and a bunch of Texans are roaring at the deeply embarrassed front desk team. Sleep perhaps? No chance. We will breakfast with Chris and Yijia in a dining room with twelve international food stations ranging from porridge and coco-pops to spicy noodles. I have an odd mix of cucumber juice, pancakes and dimsum.

After an uneasy nap, we walk miles along the river, find one of Chengdu´s fourteen universities, then a park full of beautiful planting, pilates classes, teahouses, outdoor hairdressers and some rather doubtful temples.

Next day, there is a strict plan. We climb onto a small bus with dainty lace curtains and cross the city to the new Buddhist Creative Art Park, a marvel of studios for contemporary ceramics, print, fabulous furniture and vast oil-painted canvases layered with knotted rope. We lose Joe briefly, to recover him from a vast sculptural woven cane sofa where he is faking a blissful coma. On to the elegant Museum of Contemporary Art, then to Chengdu´s great pride and joy: the Giant Panda Park. And there they are, natural clowns, huge and bumbling, lolling on branches, munching bamboo, batting their cubs. They are enormous, slightly grubby, extremely woolly and absolutely charming.

After this, pandas are inescapable. They appear on headbands and nail art, billboards, car stickers, elevator signs, high-fashion T-shirts and cakes. At the Kuan and Zhai Alleys where we dine, we count seventeen panda merchandise stores in one block. Next morning one of our party, a little perturbed, says that he dreamed that he was conversing with a panda about the costs of child care.

Next day we are to meet the Chengdu Government Leaders to learn about their plans, and to exchange questions. They are serious, articulate and able. And all but one – who more than holds her own – are male. The interpreters, Chengdu natives but graduates of the UK´s Bristol University, are challenged as the conversation swerves around ‘profit’ as in financial terms and ‘achievement’ as in growing self-esteem and softer benefits. Then, off to Marquise Zhuge Liang temple full of gloriously dressed statues commemorating great generals. There is much discussion about their girth. “Ah” says our guide “they have generous tummy”. We nod happily. Yijia whispers in my ear: ‘generals´ tummy is an important status symbol. We nod gravely. On to the new Hibiscus Park near the airport where vast glass hangars are soon to open to new technology start-ups and creative industries. Dinner, where Sir Timothy cheerfully refers to one of us as a ‘party animal’ – a late-night bar session is mentioned. He is corrected politely – a small but significant cultural difference in the land of less liberal speech…

The Summit opens the following morning, just as Norovirus chooses its victims. It strikes me around 01.30 with the force of a large panda paw. Yijia appears early with sinister files of Chinese medicine from her mother; these taste like bitter liquorice. She comes back with a doctor who applies a stethoscope to my stomach, shakes her head, says ‘frantic intestine’ and prescribes a bouquet of pills and powders. Down the corridor my US colleague Tak is in a worse state. An ambulance is called.

At 14:00 I apply more make-up than I´ve worn since the age of 16 and make my way queasily down to the Summit with a still-white face, clutching my speech in very large print. The previous evening, Chris has requested a re-write – I cannot talk about Bergen National Opera working with the prison inmates on Ulvsnesøy, the island which bridges full incarceration with a return to normal life. Chinese prisons are different, he says darkly. I re-frame, to talk about ‘behavioral difficulties’ although it´s not confirmed that these are acceptable either. Then there are the pictures I am showing of a land sculpture project with farmers in Jæren: huge haybales arranged as a verse of great Norwegian Arne Garborg´s poem Mot Soleglad. “What is this text? Is it a message?” asks Chris, alarmed. No, it´s a meditation on the land´s relationship with the sea and sky. This makes its way past the authorities.

The Summit venue is Shangri-La´s fabulous ballroom, all gold, chandeliers and plush white chairs with the inevitable toy panda nestled in their folds. I rise to speak and find that few things focus one´s attention away from nerves more than trying to remain upright with a swimming head. Speech over, I listen to David Zolkwer´s brilliant inspiring presentation about Olympic scale events. I´m not prone to tears, but his ability to make work that is both global in scale yet brings to the audience a deeply personal experience is a rare and precious thing. Lei Ping, President and Chief Editor of NBD gives a formidable summary of the media group´s activity, as does the charming Wu Jiaming, responsible for Chine Culture Group´s corporate communications. Richard Lewis, another staunch proponent of Scottish independence and ex leader of Edinburgh city culture talks with sterling clarity about funding and political engagement. Sadly, thanks to Noro, I´ve missed Joe´s wisdom and eloquence, Sir Tim´s witty description of Edinburgh´s great Fringe Festival and Humanitas prizewinner Mark Zaslove talking about the evolution of animation, one of Hollywood´s fantastical contribution to film overall.

Later, we sit on a panel with major Chengdu impressarios. Huang Yong talks about China and jazz, Ye Dan talks passionately about celebrity, and Zhongjun Ma, a massive figure in Chinese TV (and also described wonderfully as Best President of Companies with Good Word of Mouth 2018) tries to moderate an unruly discussion. I say forget celebrities and concentrate on grass roots talent development. Ye Dan is bemused: ‘grass roots’ most probably does not translate kindly into Chinese. Joe Goldblatt, ever the consummate cultural diplomat, quotes poet Lao Tzu. David Zolkwer talks about the power of the community and we all agree about ‘living buildings’. Later I feel arrogant and ignorant – we visit a great ancient country, and after two days have the impudence to comment on its creativity… David and I discuss how panels breed inappropriate pontification.

24 hours later, I limp off the plane. The questioning (and questionable) art installation on the rock outside the airport: BERGEN? suddenly makes sense. My limbs are in Norway. My head is still in the Far East. Frantic intestine is somewhere in between.

Mary Miller

26 November 2008


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