A Separate Pace

Philip Tinari on the opening of Pace Beijing


From left to right: PaceWildenstein president Marc Glimcher, translator Claire Chak, PaceWildenstein's Andrea Glimcher, Guy Wildenstein, PaceWildenstein chairman Arne Glimcher, Pace Beijing president Leng Lin, PaceWildenstein's Peter Boris, and artist Zhang Xiaogang.

Wardrobe anxieties ran high on the morning Pace Beijing opened its twenty-two-thousand-square-foot space in the capital’s Factory 798 Art District. “Are you wearing high heels?” Beijing gallerinas queried one another over MSN Messenger. “Are short sleeves OK for a Beijing opening in summer?” came an SMS from a Gagosian lieutenant. “Can we bring our two-year-old?” asked a New York Sun journalist in town to cover the Games. Seemingly silly dilemmas, questions like these actually cut to the pulsating heart of this pre-Olympic moment: Were we to regard last Saturday’s event as we would a happening of similar gravitas back in New York or were we still on the fringes, where codes do not hold iron-tight? Put another way, how seriously are we to take Beijing, even knowing now that it takes itself very seriously?

Determined not to get stuck in this anthropological conundrum, I approximated an outfit that split the difference and led my Manolo-shod date out of our hutong and into a cab. (We could have driven ourselves, if only the opening had been on an odd-numbered day; recently administered pollution-cutting policies regulate car usage according to the last digit of a license plate.) The 798 district, one of the six official tourist sites of the XXIX Olympiad, was resplendent after its makeover: beaming guards in new white BEIJING 2008 baseball caps directed hordes of visitors, flowers crowned the intersections, surveillance cameras watched the entrances. If one day has lived up to PaceWildenstein director Marc Glimcher’s widely quoted (and questioned) assertion in the New York Times a few months back that “798 now has more visitors than Chelsea,” this was it. I started by visiting a few of the shows I had neglected since the driving restrictions went into effect: Lin Tianmiao at Long March, where a perplexed Takashi Murakami queued behind us for entrance into a room of white silk; Wang Du at Tang, where Sun Honglei, an actor famous for playing policemen and mafiosi, sliced with a gallery-provided knife at a thirty-three-foot-tall shawarma skewer of photographs; a group show at Continua, where viewers stumbled over one another to stay out of the path of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s automated Dumpster-on-wheels, which traced an arbitrary path through the gallery. Once we’d had our fill of polite conversation, we headed north to the Pace space, my date thankful for the new paving-stone walkways.

Left: SCAI the Bathhouse founder Masami Shiraishi with artist Takashi Murakami. Right: Artist Zhao Gang and James Cohan Shanghai director Arthur Solway. (Photo: Philip Tinari)

What to say about a show premised explicitly on a Column A–Column B notion of East and West? Paintings by Chinese artists met their Euro-American inspirations in combinations many have imagined but none have—until now—had the capital to realize. And so Wang Guangyi met Warhol, Liu Wei met Basquiat, and Zhang Xiaogang met Koons on temporary white walls beneath sprawling “Bauhaus” semi-arches. At one point, two Chinese artists got into a shouting match inches from a multimillion-dollar Murakami “Skeleton” painting. No one seemed to recognize them, but when Pace staff asked one to leave, the Chinese rumor mill spun into effect, all talk of colonizers come to cash in. “Encounters,” as the show’s title read, have always been fraught.

As the sun set over the government-named “Originality Square,” we decided it was time for dinner. (In a surreal twist, we had to wade through a beer garden and a lederhosen-clad oompah band poofing sweet alpine melodies, entertainment for the national holiday being celebrated by the Swiss cultural center next door to Pace.) We strolled with a contingent of US dealers to a café across from the restaurant Chaoji Ganbei (rough translation: “Down the Hatch!”) newly installed in the facade of the Ullens Center. Veteran dealers Jack Tilton, Chip Tom, and Jeff Poe sat down over Coronas and asked one another whether this was all for real, the tone a bizarre mix of envy and condescension toward the big guys who had taken the great leap.

Left: Artist Ji Zhou and fashion editor Xue Tie. Right: Ullens Center director Jérôme Sans with Ullens Center founder Guy Ullens. (Photos: Philip Tinari)

On the pedestrian promenade between the café and the restaurant, unlikely encounters ensued. At one point, I darted over to say hello to Ullens Center director Jérôme Sans, who was holding court in the middle of the street with Guy Ullens himself. Murakami and dealer Tim Blum (who seemed reluctant to let his artist out of his sight for even a minute) formed another cluster. Masami Shiraishi, the founder of Tokyo’s SCAI the Bathhouse, came over to say hello to Sans, too. Not recognizing Ullens, he grunted, “Murakami, I gave him first show,” and asked who the Belgian was. In response, Baron Ullens pointed desperately at the kunsthalle to his left, saying, “See that! My building!” I promptly returned to sitting with the jaded Americans and their talk of fallen empires and surprisingly reasonable Olympic-week plane fares.

We paid our bill and entered the restaurant to find that despite repeated confirmations with the New York hierarchy, places at the table (which featured the requisite PACE BEIJING–emblazoned Chinese fan) had been set for the Pace contingent and the band of auction-happy painters and quick-to-flip collectors around Pace Beijing president Leng Lin, but not for anyone else. The New Yorkers were welcoming, but we were playing by local rules, and according to Leng’s longtime assistant and hostess for the evening, there were no seats for us. I left as everyone began sitting down, recalling the oft-recounted tale of Pierre de Meuron rushing to the capital for the 2003 National Stadium groundbreaking, only to be shoved from the construction site by a female security guard—an apt allegory about China these past five years, which now seems to govern even insignificant “encounters” such as a gallery dinner. We walked the kilometer out of 798 and back to the main road that I remember traversing the evening of the factory’s very first gallery opening, in 2002, back when T3, the Bird’s Nest, and Big Shorts were seemingly delusional blueprints. Thankfully, for the moment, in Beijing it’s not yet hard to get a cab.

Left: Artists Wang Gongxin (left) and Lin Tianmiao (right) with their son Maotou. (Photo: Philip Tinari) Right: Dealer Jens Faurschou and curator Jennifer Vorbach.

Left: Ministry of Art's Christoph Noe and Cordelia Steiner. Right: Dealer Jack Tilton and attorney Richard Golub. (Photos: Philip Tinari)

Left: Peter Boris and Arne Glimcher. Right: Critic Fei Dawei and artist Wang Jianwei. (Photo: Philip Tinari)