It is not an exaggeration to say that everyone who learns Chinese calligraphy will at some point come across Wang Xizhi, China’s most celebrated historical calligrapher. Fewer perhaps know that his iconic work, the Lantingxu, was written while under the influence and in subsequent sober attempts, he was never able to surpass the eloquence and unrestrained fluidity of the original.
Humans have been making alcohol for donkey’s years. Even before Wang Xizhi was writing in the 2nd and 3rd century, beer, wine and spirits rushed through the human blood system, intriguing and intoxicating artists the world over. Today, it seems, not a whole lot has changed.
“Art and alcohol have one thing in common, both are stimulants. They increase our sensitivity to life and can relieve numbness.” It was this idea that prompted Nanjing artist Gao Lei to take his art out of the white cube and present it amidst the rough walls and subdued ambiance of Hermit Bar. It’s like a series of art exhibition openings, except the wine just keeps flowing.
Matching the miscellany of tipples stacked behind the bar were paintings, photography, moving image, music and even a cocktail made from the very components of Gao’s Breathing Project installation; bean sprouts.
“I don’t really care if it’s an exhibition or what it is”, said Gao Lei. Art is not the focus, nor is alcohol. Hermit is a meeting point, a place to hang out. Hermit Art is the background that you may or may not notice; the legs paddling under water that quietly make everything better.
A stone’s throw from Hermit, Nanjing’s Glassbox theatre group was also conjuring up themed cocktails at the Loop for their performance of that famous Shakespeare play, “To Beer or Not to Beer”. Whether or not you embraced the drinking game that coincided with the play, the energetic cast and their rib-tickling rendition of Hamlet had the audience in raptures. A drink or two helped grease the cogs as audience members took to the stage for some impromptu acting, blurring the line between actor and audience.
The play was nothing short of playful. King Claudius with his bling bling sunglasses and diamond-encrusted crown deserves special mention, as he frolicked in a plastic ball pit against a curtain apparently made from the hair of My Little Pony. Polonius’s death saw him dive head first into a basket of popcorn, not before rubbing ketchup onto his white T-shirt for dramatic effect, while a quick gurgle of water and Ophelia bit the dust.
To the alcohol infused cast as a whole, nothing seemed impossible, meaning the audience got more bang for their buck with a sped up 5- and then 1-minute version of the play.
We would not be thrilled to find our doctor or taxi driver had been on the tipple, but when it comes to artists, drinking and its manifestation in their work can make it appealing. Or drinking ourselves might make us see differently. Of course, there’s overdoing it and excess drinking has played part in the early death of many a talented artist; Van Gogh, Amy Winehouse and Gauguin to name a few.
Traditionally in China, drinking a little everyday was considered healthy and inebriation could unlock an artist’s most sincere expression. But then again, those of Wang Xizhi’s generation also sipped on the black ink with which they wrote for its alleged healing properties. But whatever tipples your fancy, the combination of art and alcohol in Nanjing is bringing people together and broadening the city’s cultural landscape.
So we can definitely say cheers to that!