Artist Residency at the Guanlan Original Printmaking Base in China. Geoff Gibbons
Thanks to the encouragement of Grace Meyers who had undertaken a residency at Guanlan before, I applied and was accepted to work there during four weeks spanning July and into the first week of August. Grace was already working there when I arrived, having been granted a second residency, and thanks to her Chinese language skills, I had a fairly smooth introduction to my new environment.
It took me a while to appreciate the unusual nature of where I was staying. It soon became apparent however that I was living in a rather special place which was quite unlike the normal residences of most local people who live in small apartments in high rise tower blocks. The printmaking centre is based in an historic village of old Hakka houses that date back at least 200 years and set amid beautiful tropical gardens with broad waterlily ponds and forest walks. It was a popular destination for local tourists, particularly on weekends when they would stream in to explore the village and gardens. There was a big team of security guards to keep an eye on all visitors. The village also housed several studios for local working artists and associated galleries for the display and sale of their work. Not too far away from the centre was the Guanlan Art Museum, a most impressive postmodern building devoted to the exhibition of prints by both national and international artists. The museum’s vast exhibition galleries spread over 4 levels and showcased the 2017 Guanlan Biennial of International printmaking during my stay. The work was of a very high standard and most prints were on quite a large scale. Etchings, lithographs and relief prints of over 1.5 metres were not uncommon. I saw a fine exhibition of prints by several high profile contemporary Chinese printmakers that had just opened at the art museum during my final week there. Most had senior positions in tertiary art institutions where printmaking was taught. Their work was often conceptually interesting and technically very impressive.
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The main print workshop is also very spacious and is well equipped with a wide range of excellent presses for intaglio, lithography, relief, and especially for screen printing. A team of technicians regularly worked on the production of editions of large scale screen prints while others were assisting artists working in other processes in relief or intaglio. We were assigned our own studios in the mezzanine area above the main workshop with views out over the banana palms towards the fields and trees beyond. There were three other international artists working there during my residency, Swapnesh from Goa in India, who worked on large zinc plates, Pahlevi from Sumatra in Indonesia who made colour woodcut prints, and Amania from Egypt who only arrived a few days before my departure.
I began making drawings outside despite the challenges of working in the sultry conditions of high humidity and temperatures. We had frequent deluges from the heavy monsoonal rains that characterise the weather at this time of the year so taking a strong umbrella with you was a common precaution. I was fascinated by the weathered walls of the old houses and the dark staining from lichens, mosses and moulds that adorn their surfaces. The village retained its granite stone paving and heavy wooden doors with wooden hinges that squeal when opened. My own house had a set of these front doors, deeply grooved with age and bolted with a heavy iron bar.
Artists and workshop employees would take our meals at a cafeteria on the outskirts of the base. We would usually be served plenty of tasty courses made from fresh ingredients in the adjacent kitchen. The long hours in the workshop did tend to generate quite an appetite. We would often continue to work on well after the evening meal until 9.30 or 10 at night.
The technicians employed at the print workshop are all highly skilled and would ensure that your editioning was completed to a consistent standard. Leo was the head of etching there and he made exquisitely fine copper plate intaglio prints via burnished aquatints. They could easily be mistaken for mezzotints. All of the high quality rag paper and copper plates were provided. You enter into a contract to supply about just over a quarter of your edition to the Guanlan Base and hand them your plates once the edition is completed.
Getting your usually damp prints home safely is quite a challenge. I made a long journey with Swapnesh to a special art precinct in another city to find an art supply outlet that had larger diameter storage cylinders to accommodate our editions. It was a most interesting excursion. We travelled by taxi and gained a good appreciation of the size of so many Chinese cities with their forests of tall apartments. The art precinct was also fascinating with a concentration of galleries selling all manner of paintings, both traditional and contemporary. We eventually found a few art materials suppliers in the back lanes who sold a great range of quality brushes, paints, and the cylinders we were after, all at very good prices.
I was also impressed by the long tradition of woodcut prints that was still thriving today. I saw many fantastic woodcuts being made by contemporary artists living there, often on a very large scale and very finely worked. Survey exhibitions showed the history of woodcuts, especially covering the past 3 or 4 decades from the late 1960’s when they were so instrumental in communicating the achievements of successive regimes. It was clear that there was a strong commitment to the art of printmaking at the national level with impressive resources devoted to fostering and showcasing the work of artists working in this field. My thanks to Patricia in administration and Mr. Guo Qingwen, head of the workshop for giving me this opportunity to make new work at Guanlan and helping to make my stay there so memorable.