“IT IS THE SECOND EDITION, but really it feels as though it’s the first,” said Amber Wang, this year’s director of Gallery Weekend Beijing, or GWBJ. She’s eager to break the city’s recently uncharismatic relationship with the art world. And it seems to be working, as enthusiasm abounded across the participating twenty-two galleries in the 798 and Caochangdi arts districts as they welcomed an international crowd of curators, dealers, and collectors who came through, readying themselves for Art Basel Hong Kong. Shanghai is still on the rise, opening new museums and attracting artists fleeing an increasingly bureaucratic rigidity in Beijing. “But Beijing will still always be a hub for artistic production,” said Jo Wei, curator of the Public Art Projects for GWBJ. “I am from Shanghai, and I relocated here to be closer to the art schools. Young curators need to grow together with young artists,” she said, proving the exodus wasn’t hemorrhagic. Beyond the Beijing-Shanghai rivalry (and whether or not you agree that it exists), the event brought out some of the emotion and character the 798 district had before it became one of Beijing’s best-known shopping destinations. I know this because in 2005 I was there as a very green art volunteer for the second edition of the Dashanzi International Art Festival. The area was full of studios, experimental galleries, and bookshops—even taxi drivers didn’t know the place existed. Also during that period, the artist Huang Rui was bringing attention to the district to prevent it from being redeveloped. Now the gentrified 798 is opening its own auction house: a long way from its free-spirited and nonprofit beginnings. Capital can save an area from demolition, but it also tends to trim the fringes off any art scene.
In the morning we toured some of the Caochangdi neighborhood’s galleries. At Taikang Space, curator Jia Li introduced us to “Genders Engender,” a group show centered on fighting sexual harassment within the Chinese art scene. White Space featured Wang Haiyang’s abstract paintings—created to cope with his sexual energies during a recent hospitalization—along with videos and installations depicting human communications through images of gums and saliva. Shanghart showed academic paintings and drawings by Liu Xiaohui. In Shanghart’s project space (“It’s very trendy for galleries to open one,” said curator Zijin Miao) were interventions by Yunyu Ayo Shih, Lin Aojie, and Richard Kuan, one of which involved cleaning the pipes of the gallery’s heating system. In 798, dealer Urs Meile made me pause on Shao Fan’s masterful ink-on-paper drawings of strange, childlike creatures. “They are extremely peaceful,” Meile said. It’s true—we can always use a little more of that.
At HdM Gallery, Hadrien de Montferrand had invited Spencer Sweeney to curate a show on New York City at night. I later ran into dealer Isabella Bortolozzi, who used Sweeney’s exhibition as an excuse to visit China’s capital city; one of her artists, Danny McDonald, is part of the show. The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, or UCCA, was hosting “Spices,” Xie Nanxing’s exhibition on the history of old master painting. And in UCCA’s Great Hall was “Odysseus Factor,” a spectacular exhibition of Sarah Morris’s films, paintings, wall paintings, and drawings. Beijing, 2008, her film documenting the city preparing itself for hosting the Olympics, was also on view (the artist went through an insane amount of red tape to get the piece made). It’s a vivid and touching portrait of a city and its people, despite the awful bureaucracy.
The next day, we packed in as many shows as we could before GWBJ’s gala dinner. Galleria Continua exhibited massive mushroom sculptures, light installations, and live birds in cages, all courtesy of Carsten Höller. “Shadows,” an exhibition by Liu Wei at Long March Space—featuring heavy orbs moving slowly around geometric blocks—was a fascinating demonstration of gravity. Beijing Commune had new sculptures by Richard Deacon, while Boers-Li Gallery put together a group show of five Berlin-based artists who possess “an energy similar to what’s happening in Beijing,” said Waling Boers. Pifo Gallery paired abstract paintings by John McLean and Wang Jian (McLean’s are colorful, while Wang’s, inspired by evening train rides, are black-and-white). Both of Tang Contemporary’s spaces were showing Zhu Jinshi’s heavily impastoed paintings and his magnificent rice-paper boats.
The most arresting experience, however, was Paul McCarthy’s video survey at M WOODS. On view were pieces from McCarthy’s early black-and-white action works all the way through to his exquisitely petrifying opus, the seven-hour-long White Snow, 2013. It is rough and mystifying—not too unlike Beijing itself.