PRINT December 2006

Philip Tinari

OVER THE COURSE OF A FEW DAYS LAST APRIL, a group of artists in Beijing shot Chinese Crackers, a ten-minute film based on Ed Ruscha’s Crackers (1969)—a book in which the artist’s photographs illustrate a short story by Mason Williams, “How to Derive the Maximum Enjoyment from Crackers.” (In this instruction manual–style text, the reader is told to seduce a woman and, after taking her to a “skid-row flophouse,” convince her to lie down on a bed laden with salad, pour dressing over her, and then leave in a chauffeured car for a “suite of rooms in the finest hotel in town” to enjoy a box of crackers alone.) Set far from Ruscha’s Los Angeles, the film’s geography is immediately recognizable to the Beijing art world: For the “finest hotel in town,” the Chinese team chose the Lido Holiday Inn, the logistical hub of the neighborhood where most of the city’s galleries and studios are located. The “skid-row flophouse” is a hotel attached to the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The grocery store where the film’s leading man, played by artist Liu Wei, buys the salad and dressing is where you would likely run into Fang Fang—the gallerist behind the country’s “Cartoon Generation” of Murakami-esque young painters—buying his morning baguette. And the bar in which Liu first woos his date is Eudora Station, a cheesy but unavoidable umbrella-and-terrace number not far from the postindustrial Factory 798 gallery district—an establishment where you might encounter gallerists Max Protetch and Leng Lin discussing their next deal by day, or auction-darling painters Zhang Xiaogang and Yang Shaobin playing pool and drinking by night. The actors themselves are no less familiar. Both Liu and Chen Wenbo—who plays a bellboy here but is in fact a painter and veteran of the groundbreaking “Post-Sense Sensibility” basement exhibitions of late-’90s Beijing—saw works sell for $66,000 at Sotheby’s New York in September. Pi Li, cofounder of UniversalStudios-Beijing, the most important space to open here this year, plays the chauffeur. (He is behind the wheel of a BMW belonging to Zheng Lin, director of Tang Contemporary Art, whose Beijing branch opened in June.)

However, the very colloquialism of the film—its seemingly cozy familiarity with places and players well known to hometown audiences—belies the fact that the project provides a singular illustration of the complex tensions underlying this pivotal year for the Beijing art world, in which everything seemed to evidence an upheaval in China’s relationship to the West. Indeed, Chinese Crackers was anything but a simple act of appropriation: It was commissioned not in Beijing but in Berlin—by Jonathan Monk, under whose name it appeared just a couple of months after its making, as part of Art Basel’s “Art Unlimited.” That such a knowing portrayal of the scene here and now was presented in Basel as a Chinese reinterpretation of a Western work—but credited to a Western artist who did not participate in its production—points to more than simply the postcolonial tensions arising when one locale speaks for another, or when China functions as a site of cheap outsourced production for a more heavily capitalized international art world (although both points are relevant). Rather, this film project, from its conception to its presentation, underscores a broader scheme of issues inherent to bringing China and its art scene into the global fold—a process now driven above all by a heated market for contemporary Chinese art.

The art world here has grown crowded, with new Chinese money, domestic and foreign auction houses, major international museums and art fairs, Western collectors who came early to Chinese art, and even various subsets of the PRC government all competing for chunks of a pie that seems to be getting bigger by the day. Just around the time Chinese Crackers was filmed, the third edition of the China International Gallery Exposition, Beijing’s major art fair, brought together mostly Asian galleries for heavy trading; Council, one of the savvier of the homegrown auction houses, held its first sale; and Lu Jie and his Long March Space declared with great fanfare the opening of a Chinese branch of the Artist Pension Trust. Elsewhere, Sotheby’s New York this year presented its inaugural auction of Asian, mostly Chinese, contemporary art, selling Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120, 1998, for $979,200, then the highest price yet paid for a work by a PRC artist. (This sum would be surpassed twice in the September sales, first by Chen Danqing in New York, then by Zhang, again, in Hong Kong.)

But the ascendance of the market in Beijing made 2006 a year not only of new cars and apartments but also of deep-seated neurosis and anxiety among artists, curators, and gallerists trying desperately to shore up their places in an ambiguous new order. It seems inevitable that the current scene will evolve into something more stable, an art world where different players, Chinese and foreign, maintain distinct spheres of action and influence. The mechanics by which this might be achieved, however, are still only partially clear, leaving everyone in Beijing in conflicted relation to the very concept of “Chinese contemporary art,” which has largely ceased to be a point of pride and come to seem merely an advertising slogan, bound to fade over time. The unspoken question at every art-world gathering is how to consolidate a position that can outlast the current infatuation with Beijing and its artists, which seems certain to expire on August 8, 2008, when the Olympics-countdown clocks positioned around the city reach zero.

The renegotiation of Beijing’s relationship to the West was also spoken to eloquently in a yet-untitled film by Ai Weiwei, the artist, architect, and curator who has functioned as tastemaker and godfather figure for the local art scene since his return to Beijing in 1993 after a decade in New York. The work takes as its subject a late-May tour of the city by the International Council of New York’s Museum of Modern Art—an institutional trip planned long before the auction houses jumped into the game, and anticipated by many older artists and galleries as the moment when Beijing would truly arrive on the global stage. The group’s journey was filled with studio visits to painters like Fang Lijun and the Luo Brothers, and included the standard trip to collector Guan Yi’s private museum, a greatest-hits collection on the outskirts of town. On the third day, the council visited Ai, who had, unbeknownst to his visitors, rigged his home with five surveillance cameras, hidden beneath shrubs and behind grates. In the resulting video work, the eighty dignitaries from MoMA are seen parading across the artist’s gray brick courtyard and into his critically acclaimed living space, their movements documented with entomological precision. One camera angle shows only the councilors’ shoes—here, say, the loafers of a Japanese industrialist, there perhaps the pumps of a German duchess. Another captures only torsos as the visitors gaze upon a studio shelf, which on that sunny afternoon held Neolithic vases covered in industrial paints: Ai’s Colored Pots (24 Parts), 2006, which would soon make its way onto the cover of the Sotheby’s New York catalogue. Is the implicit violence of surveillance here a tool of the underdog or the overlord? Put another way, is the ritual pilgrimage to the House of Ai—now a required stop on every foreign art-world itinerary of any renown—a gesture of respect or condescension, an exploration or an imposition? Ai’s work was a catchy stab at the nascent realities of a rebalancing system—questioning Chinese artists’ rote reliance on disconnected outsiders for recognition, as well as laying plain the unease currently at the heart of the Beijing art world, where everyone seems to be watching everyone without letting on.

The idea of the local scene’s increasing self-sufficiency hinted at in Ai’s video seemed borne out by several shows later in the year. After a lazy summer, Galleria Continua, one of the best of the Western galleries in the city, opened “A Continuous Dialogue”—an eight-person multigenerational group show including work by Ai as well as Cao Fei, Kan Xuan, Gu Dexin, Lu Chunsheng, and Yan Lei. (Just a few weeks later, most of these artists again appeared together in the “China Power Station: Part I” exhibition organized by Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art and London’s Serpentine Gallery, consolidating their status as the group that has obtained a real domestic and international curatorial consensus.) And this fall, Tang Contemporary’s series of Guangdong-focused shows, as well as the prominence UniversalStudios-Beijing’s first few exhibitions have given to southern artists like Zheng Guogu, Xu Tan, and Chen Xiaoyun, have marked another significant trend—Beijing’s acceptance of creative centers beyond itself.

In mid-September, no less an entity than Art Basel made its first foray into China, with a slickly produced panel discussion titled “China: New Opportunities in the Global Art Arena.” It brought the whole Beijing family to the National Art Museum of China in proportions likely unseen since the epoch-making “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition opened in 1989 (and then was immediately closed down, after the artist Xiao Lu shot her own installation with a pistol). Hundreds of well-dressed Beijingers drank champagne on the veranda of the museum, now clearly no longer a symbol of government repression. Inside, after cocktail hour was over, museum director Fan Di’an—the most important champion of contemporary art inside the Chinese political system—chaired the conversation as Ai, Fei Dawei, Elena Foster, Huang Du, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Ou Ning, Craig Robins, and Wang Hui held forth. The museum’s staid Socialist atrium had been bathed in international cool by means of a giant backdrop in the Art Basel font. Some speakers called for the importation of one or another model from abroad; others insisted on China’s uniqueness, or asserted its coming power. And yet the event proved less important for any single comment than as an instantiation of where things stand right now—somewhere between the inchoate 1990s and a big, bright future that seems to be taking shape even though no one really believes in it. Translating for the speakers from a glass booth at the back of the hall, I could not help but recognize what an extraordinary moment this is for Beijing’s art world: As of 2006, the city no longer feels peripheral, its artistic infrastructure no longer seems fragile, and yet everyone still knows one another’s names. The evening ended with a euphoric dinner at—where else?—Qu Na’r, a restaurant designed by Ai on the East Third Ring Road. Its name, appropriately, means “where are we going?” If the surveillance cameras were running, no one noticed.

Philip Tinari is a Beijing-based writer and curator.