PRINT December 2008

Colin Chinnery

BEIJING’S SLUGGISH APPEARANCE became glittering and contoured this year. The city’s countless drab concrete blocks even seemed to give off an enthusiastic glow after their Olympic paint jobs. But perhaps more than its face-lifted surfaces and liquid flows of capital, the city’s real asset is time. Beijing has plenty of time, moving at a slow, epic pace that, in the wake of the Olympic Games, seems to stretch out forever in the public consciousness. This is what lends the city its remaining poetics, what still allows us—well after this summer’s international exposure—to find an idiosyncratic experience of rhythm and space here. In fact, so much time has passed in this city that it is as if the material residue of China’s longue durée hovers in the air, drifting back to float among the sedimentary layers of smog. What does it mean to be in a place where the air itself seems to be laden with historic opportunity? And is it even possible to create meaning amid such thick optimism, which persists despite the stirring financial crisis?

Visiting the 798 Art District in Beijing these days might provide an answer of sorts. Walking down the freshly resurfaced roads of the district, with its immaculate flower displays on the sidewalks, one sees signage for dozens of galleries, cafés, advertising agencies, and shops. Posters for exhibitions seem to parody one another in an orgy of similar colors and forms. Even the twisting, rhythmic text of the neighborhood’s graffiti promotes the government-sponsored message GO CHINA! This inoffensive calligraphy forms the perfect backdrop for the brand-new 798—a good place for a cappuccino.

In fact, 798 began as an independent group of artists and galleries inhabiting a vacated industrial shell. In 2001, artists had discovered and colonized this Mao-era military factory complex with studio space and workshops. Three years later, in these pages, the On the Ground article for Beijing chronicled the budding 798 scene and its artists’ fight to make the alternative area a protected cultural district, against demolition and redevelopment plans. The authorities did indeed shelve these plans, and by 2006 the district was confirmed safe from development. By 2007, it was labeled by the government as a “Base for Artistic Industry”; this year, the compound, now sporting nearly two hundred galleries and numerous amenities, was designated an official tourist attraction in the same category as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

As is so often the case in the Chinese art scene, one must be careful what one wishes for. The upstart artists and gallerists eager to persuade the state to save the 798 area from redevelopment made such an effective argument that the government not only sanctioned them but also took hold of their project. If art can raise property values, increase tax revenue, attract tourism, and heighten the profile of a municipal district, how could the government pass up such an opportunity? Now busloads of international tourists disembark at the gates of 798 and swarm through the area, where they can buy cloisonné trinkets in boutiques or see multimillion-dollar paintings at the newly opened, twenty-two-thousand-square-foot PaceWildenstein satellite. Contemporary art becomes just another facet of the city’s hyperdevelopment—a layered chaos in which postmodernist architectural forms and international luxury shops sit on top of a chinoiserie world of bronze dragons, dry ice, and potted bamboos.

As with the 798 phenomenon, this past year contemporary art enjoyed a greater level of acceptance—or appropriation—by government authorities than ever before. It was not only the financial incentive created by a skyrocketing economy that earned state endorsement for this newest luxury market; thanks to the Olympics and all the political momentum they created, 2008 saw institutional acceptance for contemporary art as a politically expedient form of global prestige as well. The National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) started its firstever run of contemporary shows, including “Gerhard Richter: Paintings 1963– 2007”; a large-scale international new-media exhibition, “Synthetic Times: Media Art China 2008”; the Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective “I Want to Believe,” originating from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; and “Moving Horizons: The UBS Art Collection,” featuring works by major international artists from the 1960s to the present day. Marking a further expansion of official culture, plans to build two major government-sponsored contemporary art museums have recently been announced: an eight-hundred-thousandsquare- foot contemporary wing for NAMOC near the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium, and a seven-hundred-thousand-square-foot museum at the brand-new Yihaodi International Artbase, supported by the normally cautious Ministry of Culture. Such initiatives were foreshadowed in this year’s influx of private dealers and global capital—perhaps nowhere better epitomized than in the strange couplings of East and West at “Encounters,” Pace Beijing’s inaugural show in August, where Zhang Xiaogang was paired with Jeff Koons, Wang Guangyi with Andy Warhol, and Liu Wei with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Such willful internationalism has been matched by a swell of cultural return and reclamation: All this new energy and institutional support did not go ignored by Chinese artists around the world. As if summoned with some clarion call, every prominent diasporic Chinese artist either moved back to China or had a major show here in 2008. In Beijing, Cai’s retrospective at NAMOC was the artist’s first large-scale exhibition in China since leaving for Japan in the ’80s. Likewise, Huang Yong Ping’s retrospective “House of Oracles,” organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2005 and shown at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing this past spring, was the artist’s first solo exhibition in China since leaving in 1989. Like Huang, Wang Du has been based in Paris since 1989; he, too, moved to Beijing this year and hit the ground running by putting on two solo gallery shows of monumental installations—“2008/8002 Réalisme noctambule” at Arario Beijing and “International Kebab” at Tang Contemporary—as well as running the emerging-artists program at UCCA. And Xu Bing, who has been living in the United States since 1990, was invited back to Beijing to fill a vice-presidential post at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, arguably the most important job at the country’s most prominent art institution. The perfect and perverse accompaniment to all this breathless national reinvigoration? The Olympic Games, of course, which with a desperate sense of historical urgency created the largest spectacle in recent memory: Zhang Yimou and Cai’s opening and closing ceremonies, which incorporated casts of thousands and were watched by more than three billion people around the world.

How can a situation so overwhelmingly positive feel so unsettling? Seeing each new massive exhibition space and monumental installation makes one long for the intimacy of ideas. The counterpoint to the city’s colossal and neurotic stampede has continued to be the artists who survive in its wake. If many Chinese artists have been straining under the constant pressure to demonstrate a linear relationship between their work and its socioeconomic and political contexts, there are those in Beijing who seem uncannily impervious to the overwhelming circumstances in which they exist. This lack of obvious and literal signification—a stubborn independence from context—marks a sharp turn away from direct communication, harmonious consensus, and the grand universalism of monuments.

Zhu Yu, for example, deliberately explores miscommunication and illegible symbols instead of common accord. Locking himself away for half a year, Zhu emerged with 192 Proposals for Members of the United Nations, 2007, a set of Photoshopped collages, each of which portrays a ludicrous scenario supposedly emblematic of a member nation. The work offers absurd suggestions for installations and performances, rarely based on knowledge or actual experience of these countries. Whether a proposal to open a “virgin clinic” in France for female war protesters or to spray-paint koala bears in Australia to look like pandas for a nature documentary, the work’s misreadings glibly ignore the myth of stable states and national identity. Similarly, Liu Wei recently produced the video Talk, 2008, for which the artist interviewed dozens of people from different cultural spheres and then mismatched the questions and answers to form new narratives, independent of any particular opinion the artist or interviewee might have had. This crossfire generates an alternate public sphere, bound not by straight talk but by dysfunctional exchange. And in Toothpick, 2007, Zhao Zhao—one of the most compelling artists of the ’80s generation—secretly chipped splinters of wood off the major Ai Weiwei installation Fragments, 2005, and made a perfect set of toothpicks with them. From the useless to the useful and back again, Zhao wryly shortcircuits the functionality of both artwork and dental accessory.

Such a plunge into the meaningless and ineffective is quite a departure from the tasks that the Chinese administration has had at hand. The late Deng Xiaoping once said that it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice; nowadays, “catching mice” means making a buck and not rocking the boat. What the Chinese government only recently realized is that contemporary artists can certainly make a buck, more bucks than you can shake a little red book at. But as the torrent of the economy slows, what ultimately sustains Beijing’s art scene will be the long-term release of subtle ideas.

Colin Chinnery is an artist and curator based in Beijing.