Tong Kunniao sits in my kitchen in Berlin. We met a year earlier at an event of the PS1 MOMA curator in Beijing. He is currently on the Berlin leg of his European tour, taking in Bucharest, Rome, Florence, Venice, Berlin, then back to Romania. Are my Chinese and German worlds slowly converging?
Before coming over, he worked frenetically on his Beijing solo exhibition. Day and night, hardly sleeping, grabbing the occasional nap in a tent inside his studio on the outskirts of Beijing. His work leaves no time, no space for normal life.
On the street in front of his studio, the aroma of cooked potatoes, slightly burned, hangs in the air, reminding me of my grandmother. I like this village. It is located close to a lake in northeast Beijing, a popular destination for daytrippers at weekends and on holidays but during the week the lakeside is quiet and peaceful. It feels so remote from the more immediately recognizable Beijing. A good place to focus your mind, with distractions at a minimum.
Tong Kunniao loves being in his studio. On his own, deep in concentration, away from the artist quarters of Beijing.
The first time I visit him in the village, we call in on Jiang Jie, his professor, whose studio is in a sidestreet around the corner. He wants to collect an old straw cape which belonged to his late grandfather. Tong Kunniao sometimes sleeps here in winter - his studio is colder than hers, so she has given him a key. Xiao Bai, a white longhaired cat who runs free in the neighbourhood, appears at once. He attends to her, he loves animals, they are nicer to look at than people. Humans need clothes. Animals are innately interesting, he can watch them for hours on end. He opens three art books and places food on each. The cat can decide for herself which artist she prefers as a plate.
We often wander through the village down to the lake, have a coffee and a bite to eat or we just talk. Every time we are out and about, we find objects which catch our eye. In winter it could be a grey block of ice which looks like a miniature mountain and takes months to melt in his unheated studio. In spring we might see a bizarre artificial tree and coloured balls on strings which ultimately find their way into his installations.
I like to speak with him in images. His way of seeing always has an element of surprise. One day he asked me: “Do you think the shadow of the heaven is round?” I enjoy spending time with him in Beijing. Our visual perception overlaps.
Tong Kunniao takes me along to an opening in a private museum in Beijing’s far north, an almost village-like area. A thick mixture of fog and smog hangs over the city. Most people we meet here seem to know him. Tong Kunniao’s first major installation Sagittarius is part of the collection in this impressive complex, a vast site resembling several hangars in a row. The exhibition features an American artist and afterwards we join the private after-party in the cellar of the museum. Countless bottles of champagne are lined up on a long table. We drink, we dance. Everyone seems to get drunk rather quickly. Outside, you can’t see your own hand in front of your face, the mist has turned everything white. Ghostly. The museum’s grand entrance is locked, we can’t get out.
One day, I notice a particularly sweet smell in his studio. Tong Kunniao loves fragrances. He has sprayed all the artificial flowers in his studio with intense perfume, an aroma which stays with me for days.
As his solo exhibition draws near, his studio looks as if a bomb has gone off in there. He must have been working at an incredible rate, energy levels set to maximum. I had visited him a few weeks earlier so I can see how much he has done in the meantime, working in a frenzy. He does an interview while he paints. Lunch at a nearby restaurant takes all of ten minutes.
Tong Kunniao caught my attention the first moment I saw him. His idiosyncratic style, his outward show of extravagance, his unorthodox thought patterns in conversation all set him apart from the other artists I know in Beijing.
One of the first things he tells me is that his name means bird. Sometimes he really does have something of a rare bird about him. He loves being on his own. The sense of freedom. He has a clear goal in mind, he wants to create something meaningful.
He signs almost everything with the same signature, a personal tag he designed himself. It pops up everywhere. Above his bed, in the dorm he shares with two other students at the CAFA, Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. Or tatooed on both of his thumbs. Each piece of his installations bears his signature, as if he has turned himself into a brand.
“Looking down from the high speed rail, there is a building in the distance that looks like my signature.”
A Tong Kunniao universe. Or is he constructing himself? We discuss this question when he visits me in Berlin. The idea of creating a Tong Kunniao strikes a chord with him.
His art is very much a universe of its own, a newly constructed world, a Tong Kunniao world. His thoughts, dreams, old flames, memories, pain, all of these flow into his installations. He binds things together, often powered by motors. They take on a life of their own, discovering freedom through movement. Enthralled and inspired by all manner of machines, he was especially fascinated by the German Museum of Technology when we were in Berlin.
Everything he has collected at flea markets or found in the environs of the village where he has his studio is integrated into his works. We even pluck the shells of dead beetles from trees in the woods. Many things which we discovered together have been adopted, adapted, remodelled in works of art. It can be an overwhelming experience to enter one of his exhibitions, confronted by a cacophony of artificial hens squawking, drums beating, silicon pigs’ tails, all this screeching, rattling and crying.
“The pig tails want to dance. Who cares if it is out of joy or sadness; it’s already a done deal. These pig tails will strike out a sharp tambourine rhythm on the cutting board. These tails look like they’re thrashing about completely at random but the motors underneath spin absolutely smoothly. Structural arbitrariness must be limited. The stuff that hides behind is frightening. If we want freedom, we must leave. We have to do something to get away from the pigs' asses.”
Standing in his studio, I often think of Renaissance period cabinets of wonder – this wealth of sketches, notes, paints, tools, unfinished sculptures, such as a machine constructed from a stone gherkin and brass instruments, spewing out blue foam. The most diverse materials enter into new relationships and a new universe is born.
Tong Kunniao hails from Changsha in Hunan like his father. His mother comes from Kunming in Yunnan. As a child, he went back and forth between the two capitals of these provinces. He seems closer to Yunnan. His relationship to his family is ambivalent. They are important to him, of course, but he prefers to live independently, on his own terms. Fixed structures are anathema to him, towing the family line an inconceivable prospect. He is a closed circle, centred on his work. He chooses to drift, but with an aim in mind.
He can find inspiration anywhere. At the zoo, for example, one of the places he likes to visit.
This is where we meet, Beijing Zoo on the west side of the city. I have been here before, with Boer and his family. I don’t normally like zoos, it depresses me seeing all those animals caged up. There are two white whales in the aquarium and Tong Kunniao records the sounds they make. Back outside, he climbs into the elephant’s empty enclosure and notes down new ideas in the book he always carries with him. I am learning to look at the zoo with fresh eyes today. It’s a good day.
In Berlin I get to see a different side of him, building up a more complete picture of who he is. I realize how much he misses China, his studio, his work. Chinese food. European food all tastes the same to him. He feels alien, out of place, I wish I could help him feel more grounded in Berlin, but it isn’t easy. Life would be too distracting for him here, he says, which I can understand. My apartment in Kreuzberg overlooks a cemetery and we take a walk there together. He lies down alongside graves, films the little figures which stand on the well-kept, almost mawkish gravestones. He likes it here but he doesn’t quite trust Berlin as a whole. It feels like a shell, he says, its people crave excitement but on the inside, it is empty.
I think about his words when he is gone. And how our worlds and thoughts exist contemporaneously, yet can be so very different.