Beijing’s Dashanzi Art District which I always think of as embodying contemporary Chinese art as so much of it comes from there, has lately been receiving the kind of attention only art seems to engender in governments, an apoplectic, insane hatred born of a class of people whose sole aim in life is promulgating a dictatorship of smallness, meanness, and a spiteful programme to rid the world of colour and life. Whatever freedom artists in China (and elsewhere) have to make the sort of work that would probably see them in prison in some other countries (like Xiaoyu’s Ruan), it always exists at the pleasure of knee-jerk morality and whims of the government and other ruling classes.
Since the start of this month, police and propaganda officials in China have launched their biggest crackdown on Beijing’s counterculture hothouse – Dashanzi art district – where at least three galleries have been ordered to remove politically sensitive works, such as: a painting by Gao Qiang depicting Mao Zedong bathing in a Yangtze river the colour of blood; a child-like depiction of the 1989 Beijing massacre by Wu Wenjian; Huang Rui‘s cultural revolution slogan made up of banknotes bearing Mao’s portrait.
China’s censors may not fully understand contemporary art, but they know what they don’t like. Since the start of this month, police and propaganda officials have launched their biggest crackdown on Beijing’s counterculture hothouse – Dashanzi art district – where at least three galleries have been ordered to remove politically sensitive works.
On their orders, down has come an oil painting by Gao Qiang depicting a sickly yellow Mao Zedong bathing in a Yangtze river the colour of blood. Out has gone a child-like depiction of the 1989 Beijing massacre by Wu Wenjian, who uses stick figures to illustrate tanks and soldiers shooting at people. And back to storage has gone the centrepiece of the celebrated artist Huang Rui’s first solo exhibition on the Chinese mainland: a cultural revolution slogan made up of of banknotes bearing Mao’s portrait.
SCALO Books have just published Beijing resident Karen Smith’s Nine Lives – The Birth of Avante-Garde in New China, and she was at Timezone8 Books in 大山子艺术区 Dashanzi Art District, a couple of weeks ago talking about it.
Karen Smith, Nine Lives – The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in China
In the early 1990s, the idea of contemporary art in China simply did not compute to a foreign audience. But in 1993, ten contemporary Chinese artists debuted at the 48th Venice Biennale. They were immediately hailed as progenitors of a Chinese “avant-garde.” Their brightly colored, Pop Art-inspired paintings played with socialist motifs, parodied Mao, and gave a visual expression to the feelings of disaffected Chinese youth. They were everything western audiences expected of contemporary art from the People‘s Republic of China. But a number of critics were rather guarded in their opinions. Was this another flash-in-the-pan phenomenon just as Soviet art had been in the 1980s? Could a Chinese avant-garde maintain a distinct identity of its own and shake off its penchant for imitation? The answer is clearly “yes.”The emergence of a market for their art transformed the lives of these avant-garde pioneers from rags to riches, from outcast to hero, from social pariah to cutting-edge cool in a Chinese society adapting to a new era. They did not change but China has changed. The ideology they once had to fight now propagates a cultural climate of laissez-faire that is tantamount to encouragement. Set against China’s official program of modernization, Nine Lives paints a compelling picture of artists working beyond the pale of official culture, who started a new cultural revolution that is sweeping China today.
Factory 798 in Beijing was the site of the Dashanzi International Art Festival earlier this year, and is one of the centres for the contemporary art scene in China. A couple of days ago, it received a thorough condensed history at Wikipedia, the online distributed encyclopeia. This is well worth reading as an introduction for anyone interested in what’s going on in the China art scene at the moment, which may be history if the developers have their way. (Found at Danwei)
Xu Yong, who runs 798 Space in the Dashanzi arts district in Beijing, where the recent 大山子艺术节 Dashanzi International Arts Festival was held is the subject of an interview today in the New York Times, and talks about the threat of demolition hanging over the factories – like similar artist spaces in Shanghai and Guangzhou – has temporarily abated.
For Mr. Xu, 50, part of the factory’s value is intrinsic. The compound was active in the 1960’s and 70’s and many Maoist slogans (like “Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts”) painted on the walls during the Cultural Revolution remain visible. Such propaganda, once ubiquitous, is now rare, and the building is a powerful reminder. “The Cultural Revolution was terrible, so most people would rather simply forget it,” Mr. Xu said in an interview, “but we need to take stock of the past.”
For now, the scales seem tipped in favor of the art. When the developer moved to shut down the Dashanzi International Art Festival in late April, citing violations of parking and fire regulations, the government rejected the complaints and sent word that the show should proceed. “Even a year ago that would not have happened,” Mr. Xu said, adding that he was told by “a reliable source” that the government planned to protect the area so it could establish an art district similar to SoHo in New York in time for the 2008 Olympics.
798 Factories, the gallery/bookshop/bar scene in Beijing in a glorious old East German high-modernist arms factory screened two films last night on urban development in Beijing. The first from Jasper Goldman and Beatrice Chen is From Hutong To Highrise, the second from Zhao Lin, City Scene. (From danwei)
The 大山字 Dashanzi Arts Festival at 798 Factories made the news in Australia today, and not just in buried in the entertainment section next to Harry Potter, or even in the arts. Both The Age and Sydney Morning Herlad featured the festival, 798 Factories, and the artists right up there with Sonia Ghandi in the world news.
In a defence industry complex in Beijing this week, workmen were erecting what seemed to be a 10-metre-high replica of the rocket and space vehicle that took China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into orbit last October.
The replica is covered with small white ceramic tiles, the kind commonly found in public toilets. The panels set into the side of the rocket turn out to be porcelain urinals. Literally, it is an artistic piss-take by its conceptualiser, Wang Boyi.
That kind of irreverence is to be expected at Factory 798 at Dashanzi on the city’s north side – a colony of avant-garde artists, galleries and super-cool bars that for the past two years has precariously occupied a space amid military laboratories producing electronic and laser gear for China’s armed forces.
Both articles give a good insight into the art scene, but are sold short by the usual idiotic and patronising titles: Bauhaus to China’s Rescue and the execrable What would Mao say? This cultural revolution is a playful romp. Actually, no it’s fucking not a playful romp. It’s fucking art and Mao is dead and rotting. It’s great to see serious contemporary art in the world news section along side ‘important’ stuff like killing people, but it’s really pathetic to see the representation of both China and its contemporary art packaged as a stereotype where people still wave the little red book and dress in Mao suits. You wouldn’t have an article’s title “What would Hitler say? This Holocaust is a playful romp”, so why is it acceptable to trivialise the 文化大革命 Cultural Revolution like that? A little more effort so readers start to update their perceptions by about thirty years wouldn’t go amiss.
Beijing 798 is a study in contrast, one location, two milieu, fifty years apart. Reflecting on art, architecture and society, the images and texts in this book offer a microcosm of the radical social and cultural changes that have swept through Beijing (and for that matter China) over the last 50 years. East German designed military factory turned contemporary art and culture center, Beijing 798 is captured in the 200 vintage black and white images of the industrial space and its programmes at the height of the revolutionary milieu of the 1950s and an equal number of color photos of a radically different milieu, 50 years later in the present. In the contrasting images of model workers, Great Leap Forward parades, East German state visits and Big Character Posters on the one hand and today’s images of contemporary art exhibits, rock and roll concerts, artist studios, galleries, restaurants, this book bears witness to the birth and becoming of China’s new society without losing sight of its past.
Beijing is becoming the home of avant-garde art in China according to several newspapers which ran the article on 798 Art Factories, the former atomic munitions factory in northeast Beijing. Many of the artists who exhibit and are part of this scene are part of the upcoming group exhibition in New York and Chicago, Between Past and Future, and had work in the First Guangzhou Triennial in 2002 at the 广东美术馆 Guangdong Museum of Modern Art. Currently the district is in the middle of the 大山子艺术节 Dashanzi Yishu Jie – Dashanzi Art Festival – Radiance and Resonance Signal of Time, a one month series of exhibitions, performances, lectures, workshops and screenings.
Under the aegis of local gallery owner Huang Rui, the line up of international and local artists will be one of the largest and most diverse China has witnessed. Hailing from Japan will come members of the Yamagata Film festival, from the Ivory Coast, multi-media installation artist Guillaume Paris and from Western China, performance artist Zhu Ming – whose photos of himself rolling around inside a giant plastic bubble are now world renowned.
Described by organizer Berenice Angremy as being a “connection between the visual and the audible” the festival will take as its theme the everyday and natural linkage of what one both sees and hears. “We want to show that art is definitely a cross-language, that it can transcend the traditional gallery boundary of being purely visual. Like Factory 798 itself, one needs to use more than just one sense to fully appreciate it.”
Just like the 小谷围 Xiaoguwe Artists Village in Guangzhou, the 798 Art Factories have developers lurking like greedy vultures over this prime real estate. The hope of the festival though is that through reminding residents of this priceless arts community right in their midst, the community and the factories’ high-modern East German architecture will not be replaced by another toilet-tile apartment block.
ziboy, Beijing photographer Wen Ling has been keeping a photo-blog of the scene for the last couple of years.