Say Anything

Qing Zhang around Gallery Weekend Beijing

View of Yang Guangnan’s Nothing, 2020, C5NM Space.

MY FAVORITE WORK OF ART so far this year was made by anonymous Chinese netizens: They took the transcript of a 404’d interview with the nation’s earliest Covid-19 whistleblower and reuploaded it on WeChat in various “useless” codes, including HEX, emoji, oracle bone script, and one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s invented languages, Sindarin. Their ideal audience, one imagines, was the censors themselves.

At the Timezone 8 Café in the 798 Art District on May 22, the first day of Gallery Weekend Beijing, I briefly sat in on a meal with curator Zhang Hanlu, artist Wang Tuo, and critic Yang Beichen, who were discussing how to please such state-employed “critics.” This year has proven a particularly repressive atmosphere for Sinophone intellectuals—say so much as a word against the government’s mishandling of the outbreak, and your books will be taken down from shelves across the nation. A younger, more culturally fluent authority had arrived on the scene, and many institutions were scrambling to tweak their practices to avoid detection. I would soon realize that such concerns of censorship were representative of Gallery Weekend as a whole. Precarity and austerity, official narratives and do-nothing bureaucrats: these pressing topics would be conspicuously absent from 798 this weekend.

The UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, my first stop, was the sole institution that elected, through its curation, to deal with post-Covid life. Zhang Hui’s heroic, nearly socialist realist tableaux of doctors; Pierre Huyghe’s film of a macaque monkey, dancing in a ruined building in Fukushima; and Shana Moulton’s video installation of an obsessive-compulsive self-care routine all anticipated the present moment without directly responding to it. Though I can hardly claim to be a dispassionate observer—I worked at the museum from 2018 to 2019—it seemed to me that UCCA’s new show, “Meditations in an Emergency,” made space for thinking about the social and ideological underpinnings of today’s dystopian world.

Installation view of Tan Jing’s But there is no one for me...4, 798 Art Space.

Afterward, I walked over to a press conference of sorts at the 798 Art Center for the opening of “Those who see and know all, are all and can do all.,” curated by none other than Zhang Hanlu. The curatorial text mentioned art’s “priestly function,” its ability to structure emotion and belief specifically in a hyper-digital age—most of the artworks were videos—but I felt lonely and out of place watching people pull their masks down to drink champagne. The work that stood out to me the most embodied the opposite of religious ecstasy—Tan Jing’s But there is no one for me...4, a gloopy pink mass mounted on the wall and dripping liquid that puddled on the ground. Like an outsize pituitary gland, it served as the reductio ad absurdum of art-world vanities including success, money, and glamour.

I missed the performance I most wanted to see—Ge Yulu’s bike ride into Beijing Commune—but did catch the show, later, in which a battery charged by Ge’s peddling powered a ring of small monitors in the otherwise pitch-black gallery. Each played one of Ge’s funny, lowbrow performances: staring at a CCTV (a closed-circuit television, not China’s official news channel) until a security guard comes to stop him; or planting a fake street sign named after his given name, Yulu (which also means “Yu road”), until the cops arrive and take it down. Such gently irreverent acts reminded me of what life is like for ordinary Chinese folks who have to make light of the pervasive surveillance state that has only intensified during the pandemic.

A VIP tour.

I couldn’t make the official press walkthrough either, but on Sunday I managed to hitch a ride on a glorified golf cart with a bunch of “VIPs” (wealthy and bored collectors, for the most part) for tours of galleries including Long March Space, Galleria Continua, and Magician Space—all safe, anodyne shows. Zhao Zhao’s exhibition at Tang Contemporary, “White,” was a labyrinth made of cotton. The pages-long press release mentions that the artist, who hails from Xinjiang, has “anti-authoritarian” tendencies and that he has performed “voluntary labor” in the province of his birth, but nothing more. In allegorizing government whitewashing and the suppression of Uyghur internment, the show reveals how its conditions of impossibility are also conditions of possibility. One of my companions delayed the tour by asking for prices. Unlike me, she seemed resolute in acting as if nothing had changed.

From a logistical and business perspective, Gallery Weekend Beijing was a success: it undoubtedly jumpstarted sales, helping many spaces to weather the recession, and its volunteers were solicitous and respectful to me, despite not knowing who I was (a rarity in this context). But I did wonder, walking under APEC-blue skies, whether our new reality hadn’t somehow slipped through all this art that tried to grasp it. It was ultimately the small gestures, unambitious and quotidian, that I found most appealing. Yang Guangnan’s aptly titled Nothing, 2020, a video at C5NM space, rapidly cut between different slamming doors. I stood outside with a friend—the tiny venue was not open to visitors—and listened to the crunchy, abrupt sounds.

Those of us with privileged lives would like to believe that when one door closes, another opens. For the fossil fuel executive, the tenured professor, the safely housed creative, and the rich gallerist, this might be the case; for everyone else, the door stays closed. I think of my own, impending departure from Beijing, to start a PhD in the United States. Academia is one among countless industries imperiled by Covid-19: As the public sector continues to shrink, colleges are rushing to pledge their fealty to increasingly powerful corporate fiefdoms such as Amazon. This was what I had to look forward to. Nothing made me laugh at first, but the more I think about it, the more it seems I was listening to an elegy.

Zhu Yu, “Mute,” Long March Space.