Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Soft Power: Upcoming Exhibition in Beijing

September 22nd, 2015

"Soft Power: A Self-Criticism" Book and Photo Installation

My first solo exhibition in Beijing opens this Sunday, 27th September. It's a book and photo installation inspired by living in the unique conditions of China today. Conditions which have me looking at censorship in other places, particularly my home country, where 'freedom of information' has never really been free.

Opening is this Sunday at Meridian Space, a gallery/performance venue behind Beijing's National Museum.

This exhibition is part of Beijing Design Week.

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Mao’s Office Window

July 9th, 2015

Sneak peek at a series in progress.

Windows are barriers, lattices, screens. They keep out enemies, the hot and cold, and they shut us in.

These Cyanotype murals are views of rooms in China where pivotal people stayed, slept, and worked to change the country's future. The window paintings are all diptychs: they portray the perspectives of those inside them, and those of us peering in from outside.

In Mandarin, the polite way to say '[western] foreigner' is "outside country person", which hints at the historic insulation of the country. Foreign perspectives of China – those from outside - are inherently incomplete. These dual views of the same window show how different the opposing sides appear of what is inherently the same structure.

Cyanotype Painting in Progress

Painting in progress: Office Window of the Great Dictator, from the Outside

Cyanotype chemicals are pale green when first painted, then darken as they dry, and turn blue in the sunlight.

maos office windows

Finished prints, Office Window of the Great Dictator

Visible are silhouettes of his calligraphy, which was surprisingly refined.

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Printing a Cyanotype Mural in Beijing

June 9th, 2015

In Beijing, we have reliable sunlight only half the year. To make my blueprints, I need strong sunlight and no rain. In spring, the pressure is on to create work which I've designed over the winter.

Below: a video of Cyanotype printing on the rooftop of my studio, illustrating the process from fresh painting (the photochemicals are green) to quickly layering negatives before they are exposed to the sun and turn blue.

Cyanotype Mural Printing from Elizabeth Briel on Vimeo.

Best played with sound off - 

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Timelapse Mural in Yantai

May 2nd, 2015

For a recent project in the coastal city of Yantai (Shandong province).

Sponging the first layer of a mural creates an atmosphere and texture which enables freedom of later layers.

Yantai Mural from Elizabeth Briel on Vimeo.

Painting in the hot sun of Shandong province, China, spring 2015

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Paper Collection-in-Progress

April 9th, 2015

Clips from a long-term project across China, searching for paper for my artwork: from Silk Road papers from Xinjiang to tea papers in the Southwest to the famous Xuan paper used by artists and scholars for centuries. 

Translation: Alicia Cai
Music: "Zheng" by Jonny Faith

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Qingdao Cyanotype Mural

October 18th, 2014

cyan mural

Cyanotype mural in 50 pieces, mounted on canvas.

Printed on Idin Paper. 1.5 x 2 m, 2014

In Qingdao:

New China straddles the old.

Thousands of words in white overlap in blue: Korean, English, Chinese. A reflection of the many languages spoken in this port city.

cyan mural test closeup

Cyanotypes are painted in the dark,

qingdao in green
and the results are an alchemy of timing, water, and pure guesswork until sunlight brings out the blues.

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Bright summer days in Beijing

June 24th, 2014

Summer in Beijing is here. Skies are clear, blue and bright.

Writing has taken a back seat to enjoying life and art in this hectic city.

acupuncture girl

Model from acupuncture shop, Beijing. Study for a series of large-scale photos, a meditation on censorship in the US called  Soft Power, to be exhibited at Meridian Space Beijing in 2015


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Shadows of Heritage Beijing: 1

May 1st, 2014

As more of Beijing's neighborhoods are smashed in the name of progress, those of us who live in them can do nothing. Many of the residents prefer to live in modern flats provided by developers. 

Why wouldn't they?

These apartments are warmed in the winter – with free municipal heating - by the coal which fills the city's skies. They have private toilets and hot showers and other luxuries which are rare in the hutongs, Beijing's old courtyard homes.

In the meantime, as the wrecking ball does its work, I do mine: I photograph shadows of the elegance which was, and may not be for much longer.

Shadows of Heritage 1: AP

Shadows of Heritage, Beijing: I

Cyanotype on handmade mulberry paper edition variee, Artists Proof, 12 x 24 inches

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Beijing: Black as Coal

February 26th, 2014

Two years ago, as my plane circled Beijing, I smelled the city before I saw it.

The metallic tang that filled my throat and grated my lungs would soon become familiar. It permeated everyone's clothing, and made my hair smell like nights out in a smoky dive.

charcoal bonsai

Charcoal in my studio

Once upon a time, all roads led to Rome. These days they all lead to China (and China's, to Beijing), the roads are more crowded than ever, and those of us who live here are choking from the fumes. 


Smog flattens faux "Great Wall"-style buildings into silhouettes, Beijing

Every dollar spent on a product made in China supports infrastructure which - in its current form - poisons the people who live here. 

In the capital, we are poisoned by the air we breathe.

Armed for Beijing

Today the air is so hazardous that pollution levels are off the charts (and I wear a Respro mask outside)

There are many reasons. 

One is that cycling is now done by few people, apart from the very old,


and the very hip.


Another is the coal which fuels, for example, the computer I use to write these words, and the ebike I use to explore the city.

It also heats our homes.

So, on mornings like this, we breathe dust from the coal which has kept us from freezing overnight. And which heats the water for the showers and caffeine that fuel our days.

To cope, I keep our air purifiers running 24/7. We check China's AQI (Air Quality Index) before going outside. And before making weekend plans, double check the Smogcast.

As I try to reconcile what's outside my studio with what I make in it, I've become drawn to using the toxic materials which permeate my everyday life.

One of them is charcoal:

wood on wood

from the local market.

I grind it up in a mortar and pestle,

mortar pestle charcoal

strain it, and sift it into a glass cup used in Chinese medicine.

crushed charcoal

After sifting several times, the pigment is fine enough to be mixed with a painting medium (oil or acrylic). I'm using it to sketch out several new pieces on linen canvas. 

Someday I'll write about them here.

But for now, I'd like to add: Beijing's infamous dirty air doesn't even hit the top 10 of China's most-polluted cities (though 7 of them are in neighboring provinces). Millions suffer from much worse conditions than we do, but they don't make headlines - because diplomats and foreign journalists don't live there.


A security guard on a smoggy morning in Beijing's embassy district

While days like this feel apocalyptic, I'm also struck by how lucky some of us are. I write this post in the room where I teach art three days a week. Next to me is a US$3000 air purifier. In my desk drawers are quality masks I wear outside which filter out much of the pollution. At home, we use two cheap – but effective - SmartAir purifiers. 

Most of my neighbors in the hutongs don't even have toilets; affordable (non-counterfeited) masks and air purifiers are out of reach.


migrant workers on their way to a job site on a hazy morning

And yet, Beijingers manage to work hard, enjoy life, and make the most of whatever comes their way.

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Tea and Paper Travels in China

January 10th, 2014

There's nothing quite like the smell of fresh tea flowers, or a pinch of Pu'er tea to warm up a cold morning.


Nanluoshan (in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province) is a mountain in southwest China, long famous for its fine teas.

paper wrapped tea

My travels to Nanluoshan were not for tea, but for paper.

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This Dai village on Nanluoshan makes mulberry paper for wrapping the region's famous teas. 

Unlike plastic, a wrapper of handmade paper 'breathes' and lets the tea age gracefully over the years.

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There were papermakers everywhere.

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As in Thailand, most of the Dai papermakers were women.

There was even one who handled her drill as confidently as Rosie the Riveter – this was the first drill I've ever seen used at a paper factory.


We followed a woman with a wheelbarrow-full of paper pulp to a house which was filled with paper molds…

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from floor to ceiling – a long narrow shape I'd not seen before.

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Turns out it's perfect for wrapping tea cakes.

Papermaker in Xishuangbanna

After I bought 45 sheets of different papers for my China Paper Collection, I sat with my guide a while under a canopy, and watched the afternoon light fade through paper screens.

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Naturally, You Know Who was watching over us, too.

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Poster on the terrace of a Dai papermaker's home

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