Art Renaissance in China: Beijing leads as the new modern arts capital
China’s capital is home to an unlikely art renaissance
If you find a boring or unoccupied moment in Beijing, try the following experiment: open your well-worn travel guide to any page, and count the number of times you spot the words “ancient”, “traditional”, or “the Middle Kingdom”.
It’s hard to separate the real Beijing from the stereotypes, so deeply have they become ingrained. So it’s all the more unexpected when relic-weary visitors learn that Beijing is also a leading center of modern and contemporary art. Forget about all those kung-fu clichés; the new Chinese artists are in many ways far ahead of their counterparts abroad. Even before Yue Minjun and Ai Weiwei came into the world spotlight, China had a growing network of underground galleries and artists, sometimes operating without official approval. The subculture that emerged was as subversive as it was eccentric.
The following decades elevated modern art from a cultish fringe to a respected form of expression. While the list that follows is far from complete, it offers a brief introduction to some of the most representative spaces in this surprisingly modern spread.
The 798 Arts Zone
The undisputed capital of the modern arts scene is the 798 Art Zone, a half-million square meter complex of red brick at the rim of the Fourth Ring Road. Named for its first incarnation as a military factory, the arts district sprawls over half a million square meters at the rim of the city. Beginning in the 1980s, artists annexed the deserted workshops and squeezed their studios and spaces between the derelict machinery and dripping pipes. Dozens of high-end venues have now set their roots there, as well as many offshoots and branchings from institutions abroad.
Visiting the Art Zone is like stepping into an unusually fashionable alternate reality. The factory buildings, designed after the austere functionalism of the fifties — peeling Maoist slogans still visible — have been spray-painted over on every surface, not with slum graffiti but elaborate polychrome murals in intricate detail. A huge bespectacled octopus menaces passersby, and a giant green rabbit leaps from one of the windows. The central plaza, appositely named Bauhaus Square, is populated by modern sculptures and ringed around with cutesy cafes and vintage shops. At the south end, a stack of railway cars has been turned into a panel of psychedelic murals.
Once through the looking-glass, the first sight is a menagerie of twisted animals, while swarms of brass bugs pour down the steps of a gallery nearby. The creatures of this brass menagerie were welded together by Zhu Bingren, China’s brightest sculptor in brass and copper and a descendant of a long line of metalworkers. His otherworldly creations, including orchards of blossoming metal trees and alien animals, are on permanent display at the nearby gallery.
A few steps further, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is one of the district’s flagship galleries. The Center’s four spaces, guarded by caged dinosaur sculptures — because why the heck not — host about fifteen exhibitions per year, along with film screenings, classes and lectures.
At present, the Center is dominated by jarring introspections of modernity and futurism, ranging from drawings to computer and film displays. The current exhibit, ‘The New Normal’, takes its title from a bureaucratic euphemism for diminishing growth and failed promises. True to its name, the exhibit is full of tense forebodings and unsettled cynicism for a post-globalised world. Perhaps the most unnerving display is ‘The Mercy of Not Killing’, a three-dimensional panorama in which spectators feel as if they have the power of life and death. “The important issues invariably are those that exist between people,” curators wrote in their introduction. “Viewers are forced by their proximity to confront a crisis of ‘others’.”
At the South end of the complex, opposite a row of spray-painted murals, the Beijing Commune has launched several of China’s hottest stars. The is a tongue-in-cheek jab at China’s awkward relationship with idealism and orthodoxy, fitting for a space that has incubated several famous upstarts. Its alumni include Yue Minjun, whose laughing self-portraits have become iconic in China’s contemporary art. His Cheshire grin is a sort of mascot for 798, copied in sculptures and paintings throughout the Art Zone.
If you find the scene at 798 a little too refined, you might prefer a short stroll to Caochangdi, 798’s punky younger cousin. Beginning in the 2000s, when rents at the larger Art Zone began to soar, the fringes of the contemporary art movement left in search of greener and cheaper pastures. Their eventual destination was Caochangdi, a proletarian village which has since become known as “Beijing’s Williamsburg.”
Unlike 798, Caochangdi is not yet part of the tourist circuit and is much more difficult to navigate, not least because many of the streets are unmarked. But despite the rough edges and remote location, the presence of several creative heavyweights has turned the village into a busy laboratory for aesthetic innovation. Most of the showrooms benefit from productive exchanges with artists in Hong Kong, Europe and around the world.
Among the must-visits is the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, a repository of photography and film founded by husband-and-wife pair RongRong and Inri. Designed by Ai Weiwei — most places in Caochangdi are somehow connected with China’s most famous rebel — the extensive library and performance spaces have a permanent collection of photographs from a long list of luminaries, as well as a satellite institution in Xiamen. In June, Three Shadows will celebrate its tenth anniversary with a large-scale photography exhibition, to be curated by the art historian Wu Hung. The gallery is also home to one of China’s most prestigious photography awards, with submissions ranging from gritty commentaries to cryptic visual puzzles.
Nearby, the de Sarthe, an outpost of the larger institution in Hong Kong, presents human society through a more abstract lens. At the time of writing, it featured the work of Lu Xinjian, a Shanghainese visual artist who focuses on urban geography. His first solo exhibit, ‘City DNA’, established his reputation by reducing cityscapes to geometric shapes and hieroglyphics. The new show, ‘Infinite Lines’ takes the concept a step deeper. Cities are resolved to their bare contours, like giant fingerprints, effectively turning the webs of social relationships and connections into an elegant set of mathematical figures.
A gloomy, brooding atmosphere prevails at Pekin Fine Arts, which at the time of writing was occupied by the unsettling monsters imagined by Liu Di. Liu, who won the coveted Lacoste Elysee Prize in 2010, explores the blurry seam between nature and human society. Most of his works explore themes of abnormal growth. His exhibits, ranging from photos to advanced 3D films, are full of ordinary animals ballooned to skyscraper sizes. The huge animals “point to the unreliability of common sense,” the artist writes, a coded reference to China’s sometimes agonizing growing pains. The gallery, founded by China veteran Meg Maggio, also has a branch in Hong Kong’s Aberdeen.
While most of the art scene is located in the suburbs, you don’t need to go that far to find good art. Capitalising on the hipster chic of the Drum Tower and other old-style neighborhoods, many up-and-coming art spaces have opened in the city alongside noodle stalls and bun shops. The inner warrens make an ideal habitat for rising artists, even if they mostly pay in exposure.
In the heart of the old quarter, I: Project Space is more of a workshop than a showroom. Located in a pleasant old-style courtyard, the collective focuses on art creation and exchange. The space is home to several artists-in-residence who earn their keep by producing and sharing their new works. In June, Chinese painter Lianghao will explore grassroots, village-level relationships in an exhibit punningly titled ‘Agricultural Association’. In the following month, it will feature Jannis Schulze’s ‘Pagu’, a multi-media installation of photography, text, and video exploring Beijing’s ‘Utopian Dystopia’.
If you don’t make it by July, you can still attend the third ‘Independent Art Spaces Festival’ in August, an annual collaboration by small collectives and spaces around the city. The festival is held in spaces ranging from large galleries to private apartments and digital spaces. “In a time where space is not any more necessarily connected with a locality,” says media liaison Antonie Angerer, “we want to also show projects of art that happen outside of the institutional system.”
At the southern edge of the city, Red Gate Gallery delivers modernity with a unique twist. Instead of framing its art with futurist architecture, the gallery is located in a 600-year old Ming dynasty watchtower, with new works displayed between Imperial masonry and arrow-slits. It’s the oldest private gallery in China, which has through collaboration with international residency programs hosted hundreds of international artists as well. “Some of our leading lights were Su Xinping, Tan Ping, Liu Qinghe and Sui Jianguo,” says founder Brian Wallace, “and each of them has played a major role in the Central Academy of Fine Arts nurturing the new generation of artists.”
For something more challenging, the Intelligentsia Gallery has a well-earned reputation for bewildering even the more hard-nosed connoisseurs. Their displays are more like puzzles than artworks, in spaces ranging from empty factories to hourly hotel rooms. “Intelligentsia creates a space for positions and oppositions, for dialogue and contradictions.” the collective explains in the cryptic ‘Intelligentsia Manifesto’. We haven’t yet quite figured out what that means, but we’re all in favour.
This article was written by Andrew Wincheta for Art Republik.