Back to the Future

Mathieu Borysevicz at the opening of the Ullens Center in Beijing


Left: Artist Wang Qingsong, a friend, and Guy Ullens, cofounder of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Right: UCCA cofounder Myriam Ullens. (All photos: Mathieu Borysevicz)

Late last Friday morning at At Café, the place to be in Beijing’s 798 art complex, someone murmured,“I hear that Tony Blair is supposed to come.” Certainly, the Chinese art buzz has spread far and wide, but this was a fascinating possibility indeed. At the next table, Hammer Museum curator James Elaine was struggling to make use of years of Chinese lessons in conversation with photographer Liu Zheng. He eventually leaned over and confessed that he’d received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council and will soon be moving to China for a year. But as one old China hand warned later in the weekend, it’s hard to get out of the abyss once you’re in. China’s an addiction.

Certainly, the opening of Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens’s nonprofit contemporary art center last weekend was a dose that might lead to harder stuff. “It looks like it’s New Year's at 798,” one perplexed visitor remarked. Indeed, as the International Center of Photography’s Christopher Phillips reminded me, this convergence had been anticipated for several years, and at that moment people were flying in from several continents. Phillips, a China regular, opted to hole up in Shanghai while the storm raged in Beijing.

A few hours later, basking in the diffuse light of Xu Bing’s classic installation Book from the Sky and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art’s GPS-controlled window-blind system, Guy Ullens recounted his China story. Anxious members of the international press corps fidgeted in an attempt to stay warm; somehow, despite its rapid modernization, the country’s thermostat seemingly remains in the miserly hands of the old guard. Ullens’s encounter with China began with his father’s stint as an embassy employee at the turn of the century, was reinvigorated by business exploits in the 1980s, and soon thereafter reached its climax with his love for China’s art and artists. As one journalist observed, Ullens looked like the archetypal billionaire with his caramel tan and neck scarf, and as if on cue, the Belgian collector recited his I-want-to-give-back epiphany: Having amassed fifteen hundred contemporary Chinese artworks, the couple decided it was time to return something to the country they loved.

Left: Serpentine codirector of exhibitions Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artist Sarah Sze, and Victoria Miro director Glenn Scott Wright. Right: UCCA artistic director Fei Dawei.

What did Beijing get? The Ullenses assembled a team of experts—with curator Fei Dawei as artistic director—and proceeded to transform a dilapidated Bauhaus-era factory building into a glimmering cathedral for contemporary art. Occupying a whopping eighty-six thousand square feet at the center of the 798 art district, the UCCA contains a library, screening rooms, a store, a café, and, of course, plenty of space for exhibitions. Manned by an international staff, the venue aims to be the most comprehensive art institution in China—and just may deserve the title. “Finally! Beijing has something that can be called a museum,” commented artist Bai Yiluo as he emerged from the opening reception.

While UCCA’s inaugural exhibition, “’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art,” wasn’t applauded by all, its backward glance helped to set the tone for the weekend. The show presents some early highlights from China’s still-young contemporary art scene and emphasizes the fervent idealism, resistance, and experimentation that formed its backbone. Simon Groom, director of modern and contemporary art for the National Galleries of Scotland, observed that UCCA couldn’t have mounted a more sobering counterpoint to the money and hype now driving Chinese contemporary art. A Sotheby’s representative from London, who himself couldn’t make sense of the astronomical prices that Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings have fetched recently, was pleasantly surprised to see the artist’s earlier, naive works. The opposite reaction came from a Western art critic, who said she couldn’t understand why the curator decided to include “so many horrible paintings.” Others thought that exhibiting something historical (read: dull) ultimately wasted a good opportunity. The Chinese art world’s reaction was generally supportive, but not without the inevitable squabbles about the accuracy of UCCA’s interpretation of this history.

At Friday night’s dinner for 700 invited guests (including around 250 VIPs flown in at the organizers’ expense), Rebecca Horn decided to make an impromptu performance as a gesture of thanks to Guy and Myriam. “It has to be political. Everything I do is political,” she said as I helped her gather a stack of white cloth napkins, some red wine, and many candles. I couldn’t help but think that her inspiration came from the scores of red-streaked canvases inside the nearby exhibition halls. But before she could begin, a stomach bug—which she attributed to dinner the previous evening at Le Lan, a Philippe Starck–designed Beijing hot spot—precluded her presentation. Horn is apparently one of several artists who have been commissioned to produce an installation for UCCA sometime in the near future. Glenn Scott Wright, director of Victoria Miro Gallery, introduced me to artist Sarah Sze, who has also begun discussions about a commissioned piece.

Left: Artist Luc Tuymans. Right: Artists Song Dong and Zhang Xiaogang with a friend.

With Sze was curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who, in his typical ahead-of-the-crowd fashion, was trying to direct the mainland buzz toward Hong Kong, claiming that the scene is beginning to generate interesting performance work. (The next day, Obrist would launch a Chinese-language version of his Do It book, produced in conjunction with Vitamin Creative Space, at Timezone 8 Books.) Luc Tuymans, who is planning a new version of “Forbidden Empire,” a group exhibition he recently cocurated with Yu Hui (and which was, according to the artist, “messed up” by Chinese officials), claimed that this time he was “gonna fuck them.” As I pondered what precisely he meant, La Fura dels Baus, the Spanish performance-art group, began a dull recital about birth. Artist Caspar Stracke reminisced about seeing them perform at the Berlin Wall in the '80s, bringing their work in line with what was on view in the nearby galleries. That a new institution set itself in motion with such a backward glance was, if only for a weekend, a brief respite from a culture relentlessly pushing forward.

Left: UCCA chief curator Colin Chinnery with artist Rebecca Horn. Right: Curators Gao Minglu, Tang Xin, and the UCLA Hammer's James Elaine.

Left: ShContemporary organizer Pierre Huber with artist Zhou Tiehai. Right: Artists Li Wei and Bai Yiluo.

Left: Virginia Ibbott, UCCA director of external relations, and Simon Groom, director of modern and contemporary art for the National Galleries of Scotland. Right: Vitamin Creative Space's Zhang Wei with artist Lin Yilin.

Left: Collector Uli Sigg with artists Ding Yi and Hu Fang. Right: MoCA Shanghai creative director Victoria Lu with Pierre-Jean de san Bartolome, France's cultural attache in Beijing.

Left: UCCA Curators David Spalding and Guo Xiaoyan. Right: Contrasts Gallery owner Pearl Lam with MoCA Shanghai owner Samuel Kung.

Left: Artists Caspar Stracke and Gabriela Monroy with PKM Gallery director Henri Stéphan Benaim. Right: Collector Guan Yi and artist Huang Yongping.

Left: Dealer Jeremy Wingfield with Christie's Asian contemporary art specialist Ingrid Dudek. Right: Artist Gu Dexin with artist and curator Andreas Schmidt.

Left: Curator Gu Zhenqing with artist Lin Tianmiao. Right: Curator Leo Xu, Chambers Fine Art owner Chris Mao, and artist Qiu Zhijie.

Left: Curators Karen Smith and Marianne Brouwer. Right:  Artist Ding Yi, curator Tang Xin, and artist Yan Lei.

Left: Collector Guan Yi, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and former Asian Art Museum curator Pauline Yao. Right: Long March Project director Lu Jie and artist Cai Guoqiang.