THE WEEKEND BEFORE the fifth edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong, a rivalry of sorts peaked between the Beijing and Shanghai art scenes. Expecting to divert the art world en route to Hong Kong, amid lifted visa requirements to allow visitors to the mainland for seventy-two hours, both cities packed the weekend with openings. Shanghai, with its meteoric rise in the art world, has worked hard to eclipse Beijing’s status as the country’s art capital. This year, Beijing pushed back, inaugurating Gallery Weekend Beijing, a spinoff of the Berlin edition helmed by Thomas Eller, who reached out to a mere forty thousand special guests.
The first day began with a handful of openings—fourteen galleries total, plus a few museums, were chosen to participate. Most events took place at 798 Art District, the massive decommissioned military factory that plays equal host to some of China’s best galleries and tourist traps selling CHAIRMAN MEOW cat T-shirts. Still, it’s the place to be: Urs Meile’s new space kicked off the weekend with a performance by Cheng Ran, and Platform China also moved from Caochangdi, the nearby arts district, in late 2015. “We want people to know what the real galleries are,” Platform China director Sun Ning told me. “There’s a lot of rubbish. 798 can be kind of a mess, but we know who’s good.”
To that end, the weekend saw a number of shows organized by young China-based curators, a stark contrast to the international prestige-mania characteristic of Shanghai. At Long March Space, Robin Peckham put together “Marching in Circles,” a show dealing with the chaos of art-world oversaturation, and at Galleria Continua, Colin Chinnery curated Zhuang Hui’s work on the Qilian Mountain range. “I’m working to make ends meet!” Chinnery said at the opening, sarcastically.
Tiffany Xu of Cheng Art caught the show and weighed the competitive vibes. (She inaugurates her new art space soon.) “We like galleries to compete,” she said. “Then you can be someone. Or maybe you’ll be forgotten.”
“In Beijing, most radical spaces really are commercial galleries,” said Beijing Commune’s Lu Jingjing, when I stopped by to see their new show, curated by Yao Mengxi. “You do shows that you won’t sell. It’s a competition, but it’s from your peers.” (In that vein, galleries competed quite literally: A Best Exhibition prize would be awarded by a jury assembled by the Gallery Weekend.)
“Have you graduated yet?” Michael Xufu Huang of M.Woods greeted UCCA director Philip Tinari, who is studying at Oxford, at the opening of their new show later that evening. “I’m graduating,” Huang added, with a smile.
The exhibition title, “The New Normal,” refers to Chinese government doublespeak to explain the flatlining of Chinese growth, while the Chinese name “State of Exception”—clearly it has less of a ring in English—alludes to the term given to emergency orders that have become normalized in China. The show was originally set to feature only Chinese artists, but as of a few months ago, almost one-third of participants are foreign, though global political tides clearly made the topic more urgent. “You can’t talk about globalization in China without including international artists,” curator Alvin Li said.
“Beijing has been waiting for something to put us on the international calendar,” said Billy Tang of Magician Space later on at the official Gallery Weekend Beijing gala dinner. “It’s super smart that they’re tapping into the momentum,” he said, adding cautiously, “to bring the crowds back.”
Crowds there were. The overbooked event (nearly four hundred people RSVPed) had a last-minute change of venue to Art Factory, right inside 798. Over the weekend, dealers from Blain|Southern and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, as well as Pilar Corrias and Esther Schipper, among others, made the trip. From São Paulo, Daniel and Alexandre Roesler made their first trip to Mainland China since 2003, en route to Art Basel.
I asked MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach what he thought of the Beijing edition of Gallery Weekend, versus the Berlin edition, and he accidentally responded in German. “It’s total déjà vu,” he offered as an excuse.
On Saturday there was plenty else to see around the city for those who didn’t want to be boxed into 798, from a project by Lu Pingyuan at JNBY, a high-end mall, to the Shen Xin performance at the small alternative space Salt Projects, Yuan Fuca and Liya Han’s newish spot on a historic hutong. I opted to go to Caochangdi, where Ink Studio opened a show of Tai Xiangzhou paintings.
“Five years ago, no one would have considered Shanghai important to Chinese art,” said gallery director Craig Yee. “Now Beijing is doing this Berlin personality,” he added.
“It’s not because of me!” a nearby Eller replied.
The weekend, like a lot of things in China, came together quickly and at the last minute: The first newsletter didn’t go out until January. Eller first visited Beijing in 2006 and noticed some key similarities to Berlin: “You’re close to power and you’re close to artists,” he said, noting both cities really have no significant art fairs. “So you put your money with the galleries.”
After the Ink opening, I headed to the VIP dinner at Green T. House, JinR’s palatial restaurant-cum-spa on the outskirts of Beijing, decked out with pond-size bathtubs, a collection of caged birds, and a massive garden and reflecting pool. A song from the sound track to Arrival played in the hangar-size dining room on repeat.
Sunday’s big draw was Linyao Kiki Liu’s Si Shang Art Museum, with openings of ADL’s Tides of Sand and Steel and a show of recent acquisitions. The appointment-only private museum, complete with an on-site hotel, lies past the Beijing international airport—practically in a different province—but it didn’t stop anyone from making the trek. Liu’s mom personally poured the champagne.
ADL’s was yet another exhibition that dealt with the anxiety of place as globalization renders each one more like the other—or nonexistent. The research-driven artist collective began documenting the desertification of places such as Ningxia and Hebei provinces during a residency with the museum.
A few fairgoers noted Beijing’s smoggy skies as a strange counterpoint—China’s premier vowed recently to make the skies blue again. “It was so blue. Almost APEC blue. I thought they put blue dye in the sky,” said Anna-Victoria Eschbach of publishing platform Tria. They had just released a book object from Lin Ke, the artist who seems to be everywhere after relocating from Hangzhou to Beijing a few years ago. “You do still have to move to Beijing to be an artist,” Randian editor Daniel Szehin Ho noted.
The weekend capped off with another edition of Serious Adult Dance Party at Lantern Club hosted by Liu and Biesenbach—a reiteration of the Shanghai Art Week fete at the now-closed Shelter (and, reportedly, the most successful night in the infamous club’s history). The dance part was more restrained—people still had to make flights to Art Basel. But it’s clear that Beijing wants to be taken seriously.