Wandering to the next page


150 x 120 cm
Pen and ink on cotton board
The artwork for Beijing was created through eleven months of combined exploration and drawing – an organic process that integrated reading, personal conversations, and on-the-ground pedestrian investigation over a cumulative distance of 1,350km. Characterising the largest work within the Purposeful Wandering series to date, this encyclopaedic drawing invokes the ancient, mythological and modern narratives of China and graphically describes their collision within the municipality of Beijing. By interrogating and then visually transcribing the urban centre and its rural surroundings, Beijing builds a personal picture of China’s cultural capital, expressing its distinct social, political and economic power, as well as its evolving ambitions.

Time and tension

The culture, history, and contradictions of Beijing first arrested me in 2014, when I visited the city for the first time and became enthralled by the evident tensions between past and present. Every city has to balance calls for preservation against the demands of progress, but Beijing can at times appear to be potentially at war with its own heritage. Through many journeys around its lesser-known districts and outskirts, whole landscapes are punctuated with broken bricks and rebar debris. Suburbs are demolished to be re-staged as modernist villages with imperial architecture, at times rendering the sprawling mega-city foreign to its locals.
Standing on rubble by the 5th Ring Road
In 2017, Beijing’s recycling system was known to be highly efficient, if controversial. Huge mounds of waste were sorted by people living on site, in small dwellings, amongst the decay.
Known locally as ‘the great bricking’, this detail denotes a period where many small businesses, cultural hubs and late night spots were demolished or bricked over in an attempt to beautify the historic Hutong alleyways, bringing them back to their former (and perhaps more peaceful) glory.

The rhythmic commute

Based in a tiny studio far from Beijing's centre, a daily commute became an initiation ritual, regularly followed by multi-directional wandering and immersions into the city’s ebb and flow. But Beijing felt overwhelming, and it was only when I discovered the ‘Sixth Ring Road’, which I came to know as the outermost tributary and boundary, that I was able to establish a cognitive border that would give boundary to the work. By circumnavigating the metropolis, I was granted audience to the outlying communities that serviced its heart.
My monogram marks the rooftop of a nondescript apartment block. This was my home and studio in the district of Tongzhou, east Beijing.
Fossil fuel cars fall off the sixth ring road and are recycled by robots into autonomous vehicles, which are each sent to the centre of the city.
This work includes an ancient Buddhist symbol, whose endless knot and circles contain the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, here surrounding a fictitious temple of smartphone. The pagoda-like structure is crowned by the universal Wi-Fi symbol, and a battery icon reads as full.
By the sixth ring road of Beijing, I witnessed an unusual marriage proposal. The bride-to-be’s ring was delivered by an aeroplane. This eye-witness story has been future proofed – the ring bearer is now a drone.
Warning: Don’t walk at night and stare into your phone in unknown places. After falling 1.5 metres into a concrete trench, ankle twisted, I dusted myself off and limped onwards.
This symbol belongs to the Chinese word ‘Shòu’ 壽, it means longevity. It lies in the centre of the work, above the Great Wall, floating above the city. As it does, it wishes all who come upon it a long life.
The legend of Meng Jiang tells a story of her husband being snatched away and sent to build the Great Wall. After many months, winter descended, but she still had no contact from him. She dreamt she saw him shivering in the bitter cold, and he called out to her. The next day she made the gruelling journey to the Great Wall to find her husband, only to find he had already died. Meng Jiang was told his bones may have been buried in the wall. So heartbroken, she wailed and wept for three days and nights. Then suddenly, the wall beside her collapsed, exposing a pile of white bones.

Ring road

Beijing led me to walk all the city’s ring roads, tracing the spider web of growth that emerged from the first of these beltways, which are largely unique to Beijing and intimately related to the city’s political and social history. I formed a white pentagon by shaping negative white space to symbolise the Wu Xing – a fivefold conceptual scheme in Chinese tradition, including the elements wood, fire, earth, metal, and water that are applied to various phenomena. I added this imaginary pentagon to the built environment to represent the Taoist system, which is vastly important in Chinese culture.
The five elements; wood, fire, earth, metal and water inside the Wu Xing pentagon.
A map of data, displaying wandering research.

Drawn on the axis

A year was spent gathering stories and experiences, marking the canvas, and mapping a sense of the place. The final composition for Beijing was based on the city’s foundational axis – the ley line that stretches from the Drum and Bell Towers in the north to Yongding Gate in the south, with Tiananmen Square at its centre – a nod to the importance that feng shui retains over Chinese architecture and daily life.
This detail shows the headquarters of Chinese Central Television, a building that resembles a pair of trousers. To the right, it includes Citic Tower, know locally as China Zun - Zun meaning a type of ceremonial Chinese wine chalice, thus, the image of the wine bottle, with glasses at its base.
A social media sewage works – binary code flows in and out from the river of data.
China is trailblazing in nuclear energy. It claims to be closer than ever to developing a Thorium reactor. In this artwork, Beijing is powered by thorium, a cleaner and safer alternative to uranium. This drawing celebrates their possible achievement in the future, the race flag waved, a trophy, and a cutting of the ribbon are depicted as emblems to mark the occasion.
Looking into the future, I included the concept of vertical farming and automation into the artwork of Beijing, marked here with a carrot and drone delivering produce to an autonomous vehicle.
The Temple of Loneliness and Confusion represents times when I felt alone in the city, overwhelmed by its frenetic energy. There were stories in the news of migrant workers from all over China feeling the strain of working far away from friends and family. While part personal, this temple is a testament to all those that chose to up and leave to survive.