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Left: Guggenheim Asia strategist Min Jung Kim, Guggenheim chief Thomas Krens, and NAMOC director Fan Di'an. Right: Art historian Wanda Korn and Terra Foundation president Elizabeth Glassman. (All photos: Philip Tinari)

A surge in Chinese confidence and the daily drop of the dollar against the yuan were the deep background for last weekend’s opening of “Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation,” a show generated in the high times of the Clinton era as a sort of kickback for the selection of loans that made up the Guggenheim’s 1998 exhibition “China: 5,000 Years.” At every turn, one was reminded of the absurdity of such goodwill cultural diplomacy, given that America’s reputation is so thoroughly tarnished and China's so doggedly ascendant. And yet China is still good, for the moment, at having it both ways: The National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) insists on the distinction of “hosting” an exhibition organized by the Guggenheim (and the Terra Foundation for American Art, which stepped in to save the plan two years ago) while at the same time disregarding a great deal of protocol that attends to such claims. Enthusiasm about working in China, coupled with a Western sense of “laying groundwork,” insures that they can, at least for now, get away with it.

At the opening, dignitaries sat in the excruciatingly calculated Chinese order—whereby power diminishes the further one is from the center of the room—as Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng and US ambassador Clark Randt Jr. (the latter was President Bush’s fraternity brother) both spoke in front of a giant red ribbon. The minister deployed the obvious metaphor of the two countries as an old couple, constantly quarreling but learning in the process. NAMOC inserted additional sponsors into the Guggenheim’s own precisely calibrated sponsor lineup, such that Yang Zilin of the China Bohai Bank (founded in December 2005 in the port city of Tianjin) joined Terra Foundation for American Art president Elizabeth Glassman and Alcoa CEO Alain Belda at the podium. (The Bohai Bank head used his five minutes to praise the amateur calligraphers in his ranks.) Cadillac China, another sponsor NAMOC courted independent of the Guggenheim’s impressive capital-mongering operation, used the opportunity to roll out its new SLS, with a line of the cars labeled “Art in America Special Luxury Vehicle” parked in front of the museum (a humble imitation of the BMW fleet at both Basels).

Sun and Randt cut the ribbon, the migrant-worker security guards hoisted open the imposing Soviet doors, and the crowd made its way into a series of rooms that actually did a nice job of telling the national artistic story. A Gilbert Stuart George Washington portrait and Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians led gradually to Cassatt and Hopper, then Pollock and Rothko, Warhol and Rosenquist, Lawrence Weiner and Carl Andre, Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring, Kara Walker and Matthew Barney. The curators—a trio comprising Susan Davidson from the Guggenheim, Betsy Kennedy from the Terra Foundation, and Nancy Mowll Matthews from Williams College Museum of Art—had pulled together an impressive range of loans from more than seventy museums and collections around the country, all willing to put their prize holdings on an Air China cargo liner.

The NAMOC had been remade by preparators sent from New York, who brought things like track lighting and precision digital projectors. Dan Flavin’s green crossing green (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) has probably never looked so good. Walker even shipped three overheads for her installation Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, yet We Pressed On), the cruel pathos of which was thoroughly lost on opening-night viewers, who used the projections as backgrounds for their own shadow puppets. Overheard in front of John Currin’s Thanksgiving: “Americans are so skinny!”

Left: A musician at the opening ceremonies. Right: Dealer Pi Li and artist Cai Guo-Quiang.

No Chinese bureaucratic milestone is complete without an awkwardly MCed banquet, and this one was spectacular. NAMOC research head Chen Lusheng, an archetypal Communist Party middle manager, read off names of dignitaries present in groupings spaced by musical interludes from a Chinese Kenny G wearing a white dinner jacket and playing “American music” (Carpenters, anyone?) on a soprano sax. NAMOC director Fan Di’an stood a few steps to the side through each of these naming marathons, scanning the crowd to search out faces that had not yet been introduced and then semidiscreetly whispering these into his MC’s ear in a valiant effort at bureaucratic damage control. The main table, reserved for people like Krens and the Cadillac brand manager, was graced with an impressive flower arrangement that later found its way onto the atrium floor in front of the exhibition’s title wall. I asked Beijing’s gallerist of the moment, Pi Li, who was seated next to me at table eighteen, where he would be now had he chosen to follow his old mentor Director Fan from the Central Academy of Fine Arts to the museum a year ago. Without a pause, he pointed to Manager Chen holding the name list on the podium and said, “Right there.”

Saturday night brought the real party. A fairly slim Guggenheim list gathered in the former prince’s palace that developer David Tang long ago turned into the China Club for cocktails and dinner hosted by Guggenheim-trustee hopefuls (and China-hedge-fund billionaires) Wilbur and Hilary Ross. It was one of those quarterly everyone-who’s-anyone-in-Beijing gatherings, loved by people like OMA partner and CCTV project manager Ole Scheeren and real estate magnate Pan Shiyi of Soho China. Artist Liu Xiaodong, whose Three Gorges painting cycle currently holds the auction record for a living Chinese artist (snapped up by a restaurateur during the November Beijing sales), sat next to me reminiscing about the year he spent in New York (1993–94) living in the basement apartment on East Seventh Street that had previously been occupied by Ai Weiwei.

Artist Cai Guo-Qiang (who will get the full-rotunda treatment in New York in January 2008) showed up halfway through dinner, fresh from meetings at the Olympic committee, with whom he is planning the opening-ceremony pyrotechnics. He missed a speech from Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, head of the American delegation to the “six-party process,” who joked about how nice it was not to be having dinner at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse with the North Koreans. The crowd-pleasing Krens ended the night by declaring that the Guggenheim is “inching closer to acquiring a significant building here in Beijing.” Like Minister Sun’s old couple, we may just be stuck with each other.

Left: Artists Zhan Wang and Zhang Xiaogang. Right: Artists Liu Xiaodong and Liu Dan.

Philip Tinari