There is, of course, a long tradition of the expatriate artist. Fitzgerald and Hemingway left a trail of expat glamour along the left bank that still beckons smitten American intellectuals today, and artists from Gauguin to Kerouac have fled the confining norms and lifestyles of their home countries to search for inspiration abroad.
The New York Times recently ran a piece about expat artists in China, profiling several of these artists and exploring their reasons for heading East. Among them are familiar expat justifications for leaving home: lowered costs, the escape from gentrification and market-and-money driven societies, and the creativity that emerges from the challenges and constant stimulation of immersion in a foreign culture.
China, with its relentless blind march into modernity coupled with its low cost of living, has a particular appeal for expat artists. Living in Beijing I remember being stupefied by the size and scale of the art in the Dashanzi art district, the way it rambled boldly this way and that drunk on sheer exuberance. There were giant boobs. Massive installations in old factory spaces. Life-size Maoist soldiers and rooms full of TV’s. Dashanzi didn’t have the stale, postured pretension of other art districts in major Western cities. It was giddy and taken with its own life force.
It is this type of energy that expat artists seek, and China provides it (along with a fat heap of frustrations, cultural differences and political threats which are stimulating when not maddening). But the same energy can also be found in many other places, particularly developing countries where artists don’t have to obsess as much over striking the balance between earning and creating, and where daily life serves up a chaos of encounters that get the creative brain off and running.
The uncertainties; the need for constant observation and awareness; the thrill in detail and novelty; the conscious and unconscious struggles to dig in deeper; the search for local stories and puzzle pieces to put together; all of these components of expat life are also keys to the creative process. So it seems that living overseas and creating are natural compliments.
Then there’s the sense of creative abandon abroad, the liberation from whatever aesthetic, social, cultural norms might reign in the artist in at home. To put it very simply: you’ve just got to pay more attention living overseas. And that’s what artists do – pay close attention to the world, and then remake it.
I live in Oaxaca for a host of reasons – my husband’s Oaxacan, I can’t imagine living in the States after five years abroad, I can survive off of a meager salary and still treat myself to beers and good food from time to time. But living here also keeps me sharp. There is always something to study, intellectually or aesthetically, from the smell of the air to the old man carving spoons outside the market. There’s always a new puzzle, be it one that makes me want to scream and bemoan the loss of cheddar cheese and an easy sense of belonging or one that delivers me once more to that childlike state of awe.
So expat life, for many artists, is a way of tapping into and enhancing the creative flow, even if it means at times you get bowled over by a river you can’t control. It allows artists the freedom and stimulation to create. And to take breaks from such creation to eat fresh, warm, hand-rolled tortillas at the market, as I’m going to do right now.