In the spring of 2004, German artist Sebastian Heiner sat in his home in Berlin’s Mitte district. Laid out on a table in front of him were the books about China given to him by friends – “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”, “Home of the Dragon”, and so on. The covers of these books were invariably decorated with dragon motifs or pictures of girls with long braids and narrow eyes. With these impressions in his mind, Sebastian set off on his journey to China. He found that China and Beijing were completely different to what he had imagined.

After visiting several of China’s famous historicaland cultural sites, Sebastian started to think about finding a studio and getting some work done. As luck would have it, the artist Liu Ye was able to lend him a studio situated in Xiaotangshan, on the outskirts of Beijing. So Sebastian began to work as an artist in Beijing, an in this respect he is different to many other foreign artists who visit China.

Sebstian stayed at the studio during the week with his Chinese assistant Zhu Di. Zhu Di would use a Chinese painting brush to write the odes of Su Dongpo in a canvas, reciting aloud as he wrote. Sebastian couldn¡¯t understand the spoken words or the written characters; all he knew was the general theme of the poem, that the poet was pondering over an ancient battle or describing a lavish banquet. Using bright, vivid oil colours, he painted over the meaningless-to-him Chinese characters, mixing and applying paint with his hands, elbows, brushes, a broom, clohts or an anything else that camt to hand. With forceful spontaneous movements he obliterated the Chinese characters, sometimes leaving a few isolated ones behind, sometimes leaving nothing at all.

They filled their spare time with quiet activities – reading books, listening to music, watching DVDs and eating fresh fruit and vegetables. Sometimes they climbed the foothills at the edge of the Yanshan mountain range. Sebastian often made phone calls to friends in the city or back in faraway Europe.

On the weekends they went back into Beijing… too many people, too much noise, too much of everything. Sensitive people are like sponges; they absorb a lot, whether they want to or not.

Sebastian and Zhu Di carried on working in this way, going back and forth each week between thr uproar of Beijing and the peaceful countryside, for four whole months.

In addition to paintings, Sebastian also made several small drawings. In these works, human figures emerge from the delicate pencil lines, wandering in an indefinable space, like ancient ancestors appearing in dreams. Perhaps Sebastian, far from his homeland, was using this as a way to reconcile his feelings of homesickness.

A German art critic once commented on Sebastian’s earlier work in this way: “He has established an intermediary zone between concrete and abstract… and crossed the borders of revelry.“ The works that Sebastian produced in Beijing have pushed out the boundaries of this intermediary zone. The rift between the artist¡¯s cultural backround and the space was working in caused his works to show more anxiety, more restlessness, more resilience and more conflict. These works can be seen as the soliloquy of an stranger, relating the process of the artist’s internal oscillation between conflict and resolution.

Artist are often inspired by a change of environment, when everything is suddenly new, unknown and felle like an adventure. Although looking at this from another angle, it is ineresting to note that painting can also function like a sort of protective screen. Wherever an artist travels, he is always engaging in pretty much the same activity, an activity that can provide a way out of any difficulies or culture shock he may encounter.

Nie Mu
Curator of Record of a Journey to the East
Beijing 2004