“Public Service Announcement”

Arrow Factory, Beijing

A traveler arriving in Beijing in search of art is sure to be struck first by the size of the city’s enormous squares, temples, galleries, and museums—which corresponds in contemporary art to the prevalence of room-filling
installations, large-format pictures, and, until recently, high prices paid for works of art. “Small Is the New Big” is the title curator Pauline J. Yao gave in 2009 to an article in which she differentiated the work of the Arrow Factory—a noncommercial exhibition space she has been running with artist colleagues Rania Ho and Wang Wei since 2008—from the hype of contemporary Chinese art. Situated in a modest storefront in a residential quarter in the northeast of the city center—and far from the art ghettos on the outskirts of Beijing—the Arrow Factory stands out from the chic art spaces of the periphery in ways that are not just spatial and geographic. Its program of local and international shows aims to interact with social, economic, and political life in its immediate neighborhood as well as in China as a whole—and so it also stands for a model of a public-minded art independent of commercial interests and government influence.

Here, both Chinese and Western artists have developed their own forms of interaction with the audience, whether by turning the exhibition space into a simulacrum of a clothing store with dresses made of industrial fabric remnants on the model of an Herm.s dress (Ni Haifeng); studying the dynamics between collective and personal narratives on the basis of the stories of Chinese artists living abroad after leaving China in the 1990s (Lin Yilin); setting up a temporary TV studio in which visitors could sign up to make their own shows that were then “broadcast” live in the Arrow Factory’s window (Nie Mu); pointing out social and demographic changes in Beijing’s hutongs with a photograph in the style of the ubiquitous Beijing real estate billboards (Ken Lum); or staging an imaginary dialogue with the local police, who at first reacted with suspicion to the Arrow Factory’s activities (Wang Wei).

“Public Service Announcement: The Art of the Scam” continued the tradition of these earlier presentations: It too raised questions concerning the use of public space. And yet it also staked out its own territory. The objects on display were not “art” in the strictest sense; the curatorial transfer, the show itself, was the work of art. Two monitors placed in the window facing the street showed video clips about cases of fraud—the sale of counterfeit gold watches and fake ginseng, involving ATM cards and real estate. These videos, produced by the Beijing City Public Security Bureau, were provided for the show by the local police station—by, that is, the very officials who at first looked askance at the Arrow Factory’s activities. Presented in this publicly accessible space in the middle of a heavily frequented alleyway, the videos found their ideal audience from the perspective of their producers. For the Arrow Factory, they are part of a strategy of artistic appropriation that blends the desire to maintain control over urban space with the public nature of an art institution; the gesture of incorporating official government material takes up and underscores questions of art’s public identity and its autonomy as an institution. “Public Service Announcement” performed an interesting balancing act that wittily played with structures of public life in China. In presenting its particular instances of counterfeits and deceptions, it slyly offered an astute political commentary.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.