The Concrete Hour by Kate Downie is on show at Where Where Art Space
until Sunday 18 December
Kate Downie offers us a hot cup of tea as we unzip our jackets. A patent Beijing winter, all brick-cold and yuck-grey, patters rain against the windows. Over on the sofa, a cat curls up – round as a coconut, pale as snow. The studio purrs with the evidence of a mind on fire. You can see the scattered handiwork – maquettes, prints, sketchbooks – of a woman who shows indomitable faith in neglected spaces. As a girl, Downie says that she liked to play rough. As an artist who loves doing fieldwork, she has camped in some pretty rough places – in breweries, on oil rigs and under bridges. Now, she’s in Beijing.
Over the past 20 years, the Scotland-based artist has been known primarily for her drawing, painting and printmaking, but her debut solo project here in China marks a new period in Downie’s career. Adept at ink drawing in the Western tradition, she’s shifting now to Chinese ink-and-wash. Instead of pens, she’s using Chinese brushes. And with those brushes she’s exploring the jarring visual contrasts of China’s contemporary urban landscape.
What interests Downie most is the lack of what she calls ‘a middle scale’. Unlike her native Scotland and many places in Europe, the urban landscape here in China is not ‘levelled out’. You’re walking through a hutong, you round a corner and bam – you’re standing in front of a skyscraper. ‘I’m amazed,’ she says, ‘how Chinese people can jump from one scale to the other – almost seamlessly.’
These juxtapositions were particularly potent for the artist on a recent trip to theYangtze River Bridge in Nanjing. When completed in 1968, the structure was considered an architectural triumph. ‘I’m obsessed with bridges,’ says Downie, who often focuses on these constructions in her work. True to form, she couldn’t resist taking a closer look.
‘I did my first proper trespass there,’ she says. ‘I climbed over a wall and found myself on the muddy tideline of the Yangtze, with all the farmers and the fishermen.’
By trespassing, the artist subverts the icon, urging viewers to look at the world from a fresh angle.
‘What’s extraordinary for me, as a European, is that you’re looking in one direction and you see the bridge. Then you turn 180 degrees on the riverbank and you have traditional bamboo and net fishing. This form of fishing has been practised the same way for hundreds, if not thousands of years.’
The polar dissonance of this image is precisely what Downie’s current show plumbs. For her main work, she draws directly onto two opposite corners of the gallery walls. In one corner, she executes a drawing of a hutong intersection; in the other, she has drawn the skyline as seen from the intersection at Guomao.
‘I was inspired because your Western idea of a skyscraper is all shiny. It’s exciting to see a dirty one,’ says Downie, referring to the charred building that was to be the home of the Beijing Mandarin Oriental hotel before it was ravaged by fire in 2009.
Downie’s approach is subversive. In real life, the towers are massive; in Downie’s world, the scale gets flipped. The hutongs are scaled up; the skyscrapers are scaled down. Iona Whittaker, the young British writer curating the show, calls Downie’s piece ‘an inversion’. The artist agrees, saying: ‘I’ll be drawing them more or less the same size, but the bridges and the skyscrapers will have to come down a little because it’s in the gallery, and the hutong will have to come up – to be almost life size. So they will form a kind of ecology of importance in the space.’
Downie’s concept, her ‘ecology of importance’, finds parallels in classical Chinese concepts born of Taoism, but they are also applicable to urban design. If the hutongs can be thought of as yin, or feminine energy, and the skyscrapers as yang, or masculine energy, Downie’s re-equalisation of scale might create a new harmony of male and female energies. The dissonance that comes from two scales clashing in the real world is sublimated, so that the clash, re-imagined in the artist’s head and redrawn with her own two hands, becomes something that people can walk into and feel.
‘The places I go to are not poetic in the traditional sense, but you create a poetry from what there is,’ says Downie. Two of her artistic influences from the West, Edvard Munch and Joan Eardley, were both sensitive in equal measure to interior and exterior landscapes. ‘Munch used to say “It’s not what I see, it’s what I saw,”’ she explains. Downie is likewise sensitive to landscape and the shock of new places.
Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where her father taught neurology, she moved to Aberdeen, in the Scottish countryside, when she was aged just seven years old.
‘When you suddenly change your landscape, and I don’t just mean the landscape but the colour of the light around you – because you go through different hemispheres – everything changes, absolutely everything.’
But the one constant in her life has been art. Downie says that she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t creating. ‘I still kind of have a seven-year-old’s sense of change. Yeah. And you kind of hold on to that sense of shock, as it were.’
At one point, Downie tells us that one thing she really likes about her stay in China is how she has found ‘freedom to roam’. Her face is almost taut in its energy, a shining beacon. Talking with the artist, you feel like she’s flying between two poles – rapture and curiosity – and that, here in the Middle Kingdom, with its great absence of ‘middle scale’, both poles are spinning. ‘I like to explore,’ she beams. ‘I like to get dirty.’