Tuesday, 25 January 2011

798 Art Zone, Beijing

Low and behold, there is a cool contemporary side to Beijing . . . this was confirmed by a visit to the 798 Art Zone. I was not quite sure what to expect. Stephie warned me that it is not like Chelsea in NY nor the Design District of Miami and has become very commercial. It was exactly that, a lovely commercial art district with numerous galleries, an industrial complex of ex-factories, Soviet built, Chinese run, a sturdy compound of bricks, pipes and unmistakably sturdy interiors. That was cool.

red dinosaurs by resident artist

The scene stealer and highlight was the Ullens Contemporary Centre for Contemporary Art.

The Ullens are big collectors, I was only familiar with their name being associated to a beautiful sailboat that was in Venice at the Biennale last year and also recognised them to be big big patrons of art, the biggest collectors of Chinese art nonetheless. Their art centre was well worth the trip, the head curator there is none other than Jerome Sans and for me, he managed to strike a great balance between slightly low brow hype which is very accessible to the young fickle generation, something a bit in between, and then last but not least one of the most substantial and holistic solo shows I have seen in a long time. He then managed to make all these shows sit together and work together. In truth, I know very little about Chinese art, sure I am familiar with the masters like Cai Quigong and the new guard comprised of Cao Fei and Yang Fudong, that is quite limited so getting thrown in deep at 798 and particularly at the UCCA was a great introduction.

First room by Yang Yong titled Lightscape reminded me of what Urs Fischer did for PPR last year in Venice, cool, fun, lights with pics of fashion, fast life, luxury. Good looking hype that touches upon and comments on the new generation of materialist superficial chinese (the world) obsessed with gloss. It was definitely good looking but too disposable and trendy for my taste, which was probably the point!

The next was room was interesting and guest curated by Rong Rong, Qui and Ren Hang's Inner Ear. Contrasting 2 photographers one from the rural contryside showing rural Chinese life, the other a Beijing hipster who explores eroticism and urban life. The contrast was great . . . on their own they might too fashion-like where you have young photoraphers referencing Araki or Cartier-Bresson but put in this context of modern China and placed next to each other it had weight and relvance.
The next room was interesting, another contemporary Chinese master, Ling Jian's Moon in Glass. Beautiful chinese women in mirrors reflected off mirrors. I liked it, though it feels pop-like the theme was interesting and that whole Dorian Gray thing going on, reflections, moonlight, highlights. . .tears and smiles . . . things not as they seem.

Last but not the least, a show commissioned by Jerome Sans and designed specifically for the Centre by Liu Xiaodong, called Hometown Boy. The museum officer did good to force me to enter the right way as it was truly a journey. The show is by one of the most prolific of Chinese contemproary artists. I did not realise this till much later. What I did realise and appreciate from early on was his thought process and his sincerity. The fact the as an artist he acknowledges the conflict between expressing himself as an artist and being a professional artist how the paradox exists. The show was about his homecoming. After 30 years, he decided to go home, a rural China which is far removed from the fast life of Beijing and everywhere else he presides as a very famous individual in the art community. He wanted to go back to capture moments, his past and what to him is a China which is disappearing.

The way the show started with extensive diary entries and pics, from the initiation of the project and his talks with Jerome Sans to the end. We are invited to go with him through time, it was like reading his script for Hometown Boy.

In a way it was a script, as for him as a painter, he painted throughout his friends and family iconic Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien godfather of Taiwanese indemependent cinema and a prolific filmmaker documented the process. There are layers and we were invited to join the show and become an audience before the "show" (film) even started.

It was walls after walls of sincere anecdotes, pictures, and thoughts. One reaches the last picture, the last day at home where Liu is pictured with his parents, their dog and contemplates preparing to grow old in the way that his parents have.

We then see character studies where he draws his friends in a in few phrases comments on their qualities, their uniqueness. It was lovely.

The black walls then open up to vast space with high ceilings, the "script" becomes paintings.

Liu captures a moment in time, freezing it forever but having shown us the story before. What was refreshing was that the paintings were beautiful, classical in composition, modern in technique and contemporary in its feeling. He has a cute voice, sensitive and but cheeky and not for a moment condescending. It felt the whole way that he was in touch, there is a sadness but an appreciation. Not for a second does the nostalgia feel forced.

Home, 2010

Next, the documentary . . . by this point, in my mind I had accepted that Liu is able to use different mediums to create his own world, perhaps what Jerome Sans says is true, he approaches art as a filmmaker, yet, he is a painter, that is what he does, he has left the filmmaking to a filmmaker. I love that this is possible, he admits that as a painter he captures a single dimension, one angle but in cinema, you can capture almost all.
My Egypt, 2010

Until that day I had not heard of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, I did not know how famous he was or what he had done, what I did know was that the documentary I watched felt like he captured not only what Liu talked painted but real life. It was that other dimension that Liu mentioned at the beginning of hte film. It felt seamless. I really loved how the paintings literally came to life and you see the longing, the sadness, the hope, quite simply a glimpse into the daily lives of a group of people dear to the artist, of whom he believes will be left behind as China's past as the country goes through speedy urbanisation. The music used to accompany the story was classical . . .fitting, as it gave it a certain grandeur, the dialogue natural and I liked the faded tinted shots that were interspersed throughout to give it a feeling of a fading world, but a valuable one at least for the artist. It was hard to believe that in some parts that the documentary was made last year and not 50 years ago.

What then happened to me was that the documentary made me go back to"watch" the paintings again, at least now that I know who some of the people are more. The oil on canvas becoming more than just paintings but life, captured in time.

The UCCA was not all, the Zone, like all of Beijing is large - what I was curious to see was some of the big galleries with the blue chip work. There were other smaller galleries around the palce but they felt derivative and I guess a bit commercial.

Originality Square
I liked Faurschou Gallery that had an exhibition curated by Jeffrey Deitch with 3 big American artists paying tribute to the BIG American painting. David Salle, the late Robert Rauchenberg and Micahel Belvilacqua.

Next was Continua Gallery, a cheeky show by Nedko Solokov.

All in all the fact that it exists, 798 is evidence of a market for art that exists and an indication that truly, this is just the beginning. For such a tightly controlled country, the fact that this market should be able to exist, let alone grow sheds light on Chinese pragmatism (Stephanie's theory but she has her whole team at HSBC in corporate banker is only none Chinese person there). They are able to see that the "market" for Art is big and not only that but a very lucrative one. It is also those weird markets that have very little relation to reality and a piece of work can be priced just so because the people who drive market say so. So if one is pragmatic then will realise that if he can create then control and drive the market, he will be rewarded. Unfortunately what this has also created is very commercial hype, the recession a few years back highlighted the real deal and the derivatives so at least there is some balance. On the other hand, one can see it as the country actively investing to improve and develop, to own for themselves these fragments of frozen time if one believes that art captures certain moments it time, it freezes it, there is value in itself..

Liu raises this point about art for the community and the art market, the value of art in itself and the monetary value. In Hometown Boy, he is painting his old friends and family, he is a professional artist and those paintings are worth something in the market. He explained that he did not want to "use" his friends and his home as he is a professional artist, he raises this paradox between art and the art market. He then goes on to explain that his friends do not feel this way, that they are being used for commercial gain that hey are happy to contribute, to spend time with HIM even if it meant sitting for him. They are removed from the art market and to them, Liu's art means that he is working, happy and they get to spend time with him. I wonder if life in China, despite its hardships and poverty can continue to be so simple.

Many questions . . . not many answers, was completely inspired by what I saw.

My introduction to this side of Beijing would be further explored that night at the Prada show where the new Beijing would come out in full force.

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