The First Five-Year Plan

Angie Baecker at the 5th anniversary gala for the UCCA in Beijing

Left: UCCA director Philip Tinari, UCCA founders Myriam Ullens and Guy Ullens, and UCCA CEO May Xue. Right: A bodybuilder performs at the gala for the fifth anniversary of the UCCA. (All photos: Yangzi)

DIVINING HIERARCHY AND POLITICAL WILL from ceremonial detail is an art, and nowhere more so than in China, where the political system is opaque and lives have literally hung in the balance of imperial banquet seating arrangements. So it was the week before last, when Beijing played host to the eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, a scripted political circus that saw Xi Jinping—the ultimate compromiser’s compromiser, if you will—succeed Hu Jintao as grand poobah of the realm. China watchers scrutinized the new leadership’s dress and demeanor for the slightest indicators of their intentions—red tie for reform, or was that a cryptic half-smile for the status quo?—but really, who the hell knows.

And so it was at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, where UCCA rolled out its red carpet to celebrate the center’s fifth anniversary, just a few days after the Communists had rolled up theirs. Gao Gao, UCCA’s newly arrived donor relations manager, fresh off a stint at the Serpentine Gallery, had masterminded the evening’s events: champagne reception, silent auction, gala dinner, and afterparty. As revelers arrived, art-world insiders were, as always, closely attuned to the Kremlinology of who was invited, where they were seated, and how the center would choose to present its bumpy five-year history.

As attendance goes, there were no surprises among UCCA principals—founders Guy and Myriam Ullens gamely posed for photos with UCCA CEO May Xue and director Philip Tinari. Former director Jérôme Sans showed up, mingling over champagne in the nave with his cabal of European supporters, but Fei Dawei, the curator who served as the center’s first artistic director, sent his regrets. “The Ullens always do things so extravagantly,” an artist groused as he sipped the free champagne.

Left: Artists Li Shurui and He Xiangyu. Right: Artist Qiu Zhijie with LEAP editor-in-chief Cao Dan.

Yet the evening was designed to be a little more than your average lavish anniversary fête. In a cultural landscape where sybaritic feasts are typically the province of corrupt mandarins practicing late Roman degeneracy, this gala dinner had the distinction of being not only self-congratulatory but also self-supporting. Tables sold for between 30,000 to 100,000 RMB to the center’s supporters. After years of experimenting with various financial models, and to no small amount of criticism—selling off the collection to fund operations, indulging in corporate collaborations, searching in vain for a Chinese partner—the philanthropy model, so pedestrian elsewhere, was finally being test-run in Beijing.

After drinks, guests were led into a section of UCCA’s main hall, cordoned off for the event and set with a stage plus fourteen tables. Patrons who had splashed out for tables included a range of individuals and organizations that mostly consisted of galleries, but also Sotheby’s, Art Beijing, Christian Dior, web developers Plus Factory, art shippers Hai Long, and facilities managers Aden Services. Donors helmed their tables as if they were fiefdoms, themselves tributaries to UCCA. Lu Jie of Long March Space brought along two UCCA veterans, artists Qiu Zhijie and Xu Zhen, while Waling Boers of Boers-Li Gallery brought artists Qiu Xiaofei, Song Kun, Chen Yujun, and Huang Rui. White Space’s Tian Yuan had invited artists Li Shurui and He Xiangyu, and behind me Lu Jingjing of Beijing Commune sat with Wang Guangle and Zhao Yao.

My table was cohosted by Arthur Solway of James Cohan Gallery and Yashian Schauble of the Australia China Art Foundation, there with artists Sonia Payes, Yun-Fei Ji, Wang Gongxin, Lin Tianmiao, Gao Weigang, and Parkett’s Dieter von Graffenried. As we settled in, talk show host Chen Luyu—“China’s Oprah” minus the media empire and more than a few pounds—made her way to the stage to serve as the evening’s emcee. After the obligatory felicitations and opening statements, a video narrated by Xu Jiang, president of the China Art Academy and nephew of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, played, featuring milestones in UCCA’s history juxtaposed with that schmaltzy favorite of government officials and philanthropists alike, footage of small children enjoying themselves at UCCA educational events.

Left: Curator Jérôme Sans with Laurence de Failly, Dimitri de Failly, and Morgan Morris. Right: Artist Wang Guangle.

FLO Prestige, whose restaurants serve the French food of choice for Chinese arrivistes, catered the meal. As the evening’s dinner was served, it became apparent that each course would be paired not just with wine, but a performance arranged by MadeIn Company, who had provided “artistic direction” for the evening. Magicians followed the foie gras, while a Jessica Rabbit imitator crooned as seafood vols-au-vent were cleared away. Toasts and speeches were made at points in between. When Tinari took to the stage, he exercised the assimilated expatriate’s vanity of acting as his own interpreter, concluding his remarks by invoking the UCCA’s three responsibilities—to its supporters, to its public, and to art—in joking tribute to the “three responsibilities” that Xi Jinping had outlined the week before.

Then the food, and the performances, escalated. Longevity noodles were served. Tracksuited dancers slung noodle dough over their heads to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.” And finally, after a main course of seared Australian beef tournedos, the lights dimmed and four oiled bodybuilders emerged under the spotlight. “This is too much, too much!” a writer at my table shrieked as the men flexed and clenched muscle groups to Sarah Brightman’s “A Question of Honour.” Li Shurui got up from her table to poke the thigh of the nearest bodybuilder, one index finger outstretched, and even Lin Tianmiao, the seasoned gala dinner attendee and ruthless fruit ninja seated to my right, looked up from the carnage on her iPhone.

Last, an anniversary cake was wheeled out to Handel’s Messiah. I fully expected someone to burst out of it, but later Gao and Tinari told me they had decided against it, the lessons of Marina Abramović’s 2011 Los Angeles MoCA gala fresh in mind. (Performers are performers, and food is food, and never the twain shall meet.) As guests lugged gift bags of limited-edition prints and plates to the nearby Xian bar for the afterparty, it seemed UCCA’s new funding initiative had gone off without a hitch—a promising start to the next five years.

Left: A magician performs at dinner. Right: Leela Schauble and James Cohan Gallery's Arthur Solway with artist Sonia Payes.

Left: UCCA founder Guy Ullens with host Chen Luyu. Right:  Australia China Art Foundation's Yashian Schauble, Parkett publisher Dieter von Graffenried, and critic Karen Smith.

Left: Domus collection director Wu Hua and White Space Gallery's Tian Yuan. Right: Artist Wang Jianwei and MadeIn Company's Xu Zhen.

Left: Art Beijing director Dong Mengyang with friend, Beijing Cultural Bureau Cultural Industry Section Chief Lin Zengwei, and collectors Wang Jun and Xu Jiali. Right: Beijing Commune's Lu Jingjing and dealer Sabine Wang.

Left: Minsheng Museum curator Guo Xiaoyan with artist Lin Tianmiao. Right: Artist Huang Rui with architect Yung Ho Chang.

Left: LEAP editor Sun Dongdong with curator Bao Dong and UCCA's You Yang. Right: Platform China's Sun Ning with artist Gao Weigang.

Left: Artists Liu Xiaodong, Li Songsong, and Nie Mu. Right: Artist Yang Shaobin and collector Wang Jun.

Left: Aden Services's James Johnston, Catherine Chauvinc, Sebastien Puydebois, and French embassy commissaire divisionnaire Thierry de Wilde. Right: UCCA's Paula Tsai with Luther Lowe and artist Yun-Fei Ji.