Ai Weiwei Back in Action at 798

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As promised in a previous post, a few words about the Ai Weiwei exhibit I happened upon while visiting 798 last month. Over the years, I have in various places and ways expressed reservations with Ai’s work, and more particularly, his reception in Western media. This exhibition, though, marks a kind of turning point in my appreciation of him, at least as an artist in China. I am reminded that he is in factstill full-voiced, relevant, powerful, and really worth the hype in many ways.

Ok, it seems important to mention that this is Ai’s first solo exhibition in China since he was censored all that many years ago (since 2008, to be precise). This is important because, in the political history which will come to dominate understandings of Ai in the coming years,  Ai’s “return” to the Chinese domestic art scene signals either an escalation in the sometimes downright hostile tit for tat between artist and political authority, or perhaps a mollifying pivot to a kinder, more gentler relationship between Ai and his minders. I actually hope for the latter, if only because it has the greater potential to bring to view the type of work currently on exhibit at Gallerie Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center.

For those not already aware, the exhibition is a reconstruction of an ancient  (400-year old) dwelling located in Jiangxi that was slated for demolition by Chinese authorities. Here’s what it looked like from a photograph displayed in the exhibition:

 

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Instead of such a fate, Ai has had a portion of the structure disassembled and then reassembled in two spaces, which are adjacently situated Beijing’s 798 arts district. I toured the exhibit, albeit too quickly, in the company of Sichuan artist Zhong Biao, whose impressions were in and of themselves interesting to record. What follows, though, is largely my take.

The colors.

The work is mammoth and impressive for sheer size and scale (and complexity). I’ll begin, though, with a small observation: the way that Ai paints some material objects found on site in the village in Jiangxi. We’ve seen this strategy many times in Ai’s work, most famously the ancient urns and other vessels which he similarly painted, and in some cases branded with marks of global capitalism (Coca-cola, for instance).  The idea was clear enough to me in the past, and as an abstract notion — that crude paint on old and therefore venerated objects brings about meditation on value of all material objects in our midst — it made sense enough. But seeing is believing in this case. Here I am reduced to my own poor photography, which is not enough to convey just how vapid, yet vibrant, and saccharine to the point of being painful these colors really are.

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The objects are painted ornamental elements of the original structure, brought to our view in a dedicated space of the gallery again as if to pose the question of viewing itself, ornamentation emanating from ornaments defiled and in their defilement emanating yet again. The effect is riveting, something like a car accident one views from the vantage point of a passing car. I both couldn’t bear to look, and couldn’t pull myself away.

The footings.

The colored objects (and also ladder, which I won’t get into here) are truly but a minor element in the vast work that, and here’s the major point, encompasses two full galleries. This is an important point because few artists in China living today could not only lock up two galleries for the purpose of exhibition, but also force cooperation between the galleries that required, beyond logistics of timing, etc, actually boring holes right through their walls! The reconstruction of the ancient dwelling was not done, in other words, in one gallery, but in two, and this required building supports across the two (or is that three?) structures, an architectural wonder further accentuated by the video projections of the “other” galleries constantly in view. Again, here Ai deftly captures long-standing questions of exhibition, space and viewership. We are complicit in uncomfortable ways, captured by cameras so we have a constant sense of watching and being watched in the simultaneously authentic and yet entirely artificial space.

What captured all this most powerfully for me was the single footing, separate from the other (I presume) original pieces of support because instead of stone it is actually made of glass:

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and a close up:

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Apart from the obvious meditation on functionality and aesthetics of the built environment that such a choice occasions, Ai includes within the footing a note composed by his six-year-old son which reads:

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心平而好, which literally could be rendered “with a peaceful heart all is well” but which might further be interpreted to say: F*** You! (to use a favorite Ai Weiwei-ism). Ai’s heart is not so peaceful, and yet he quietly and painstakingly assembles this massive work, supports it beautifully on an impossible sentiment encased in glass. I half wondered if at any moment the entire structure (and the two galleries with it) might not collapse at this very point. Fortunately that did not come to pass.

What the exhibition demonstrates for me is that Ai is a highly competent artist whose “issues” may not be as universal as worshipping media outlets would have us believe, but at least speak effectively to some core issues operative in China’s “rise”, for lack of a better word. In other words, if we must have celebrity artists such as this, I guess Ai Weiwei is a pretty good choice.

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798 Alive and Well

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Can’t say how many times over the years I have encountered the idea, while traveling in China and more particularly Beijing and more particularly still the Northeast district (Chaoyang), that the 798 arts zone is “dead.” Its been dead since shortly after its birth in 2001, a pronouncement made famously by one of its progenitors (I’ll resist the word “father”), Huang Rui. Huang was early on disgusted with the commercial/propaganda vehicle that the area quickly became once the Chinese government changed its original plan-to demolish the entire factory (built, for those unaware, in the 1950s by Chinese -East-German joint venture). Whatever Beijing authorities had planned at the time, no doubt it was not what turned out to be the most lucrative thing imaginable– a free, independent, international/global center for the production, exhibition and appreciation of contemporary art, both Chinese and non-Chinese.

The word “independent” here, though, is what caused problems in the views of Huang and others. Once the Chinese government got involved, there was immediately a chilling effect on the scope and of course content of the art created and exhibited. Meantime, and in curious lock-step with the increased surveillance and hence control of the artistic “message,” the commercial value of space in the entire 798 area rose so rapidly that most artists were priced out. Thus, it mattered little whether 798 was doomed for economic or political reasons, it was still doomed.

Or at least, such is the narrative. I’m certainly not going to propose that either one of those interferences with the development of an arts district is not in effect in the case of 798, but I still find, year after year, that visiting the zone remains a rewarding even impressive experience, where art of significant quality is on display in a density and variety that few places in the world (I know that’s a big claim–would love to be challenged on this point) can rival.

Here, then, a few rather pathetic shots from my own  camera with a bit of commentary.

Outside

the first thing I like to observe at 798 is its edge. I love the ay the art and building come to an abrupt halt, here on the northwest corner. The installation of traffic mirrors to aid in safety a good example of something you won’t find often in Beijing, despite the fact that quote a few places could use them. The fringe of the above ground heating system, still wrapped in insulation, and the remains of whatever structural gate previously bordered the space when it was a factory district in the 1950s.

 

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Here the makings of a typically elaborate exhibition, this one in the courtyard beside PACE Gallery, Beijing. Not a great deal to be discerned at this stage of installation, but typically arresting image of an airplane wing jetting up from underground.

 

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798 Poeisis

This is one of the most interesting elements of 798 to me– the people who are constantly engaged in the incessant building, demolition and rebuilding that an arts district of this scale requires. I’ve often thought that if anyone really needed to obtain a thorough picture of what this place is they should contact whatever outfit sends workers in to actually make what we see visible. And then have a few sit-downs with the workers. One of these days I’ll find a way to do this.

 

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the Inside:

Too much to report on this at once. Here just a few shots from a Fang Lijun exhibition, which included both oil paintings and woodblock prints, demonstrating that his work is still current and suggestive. going on while I was there. More impressive still was the Ai Weiwei installation I saw, but I’ll write about that separately.

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Cultural un-development in China

Quick quiz:

The following quote from the NBC WorldBlog:

“Whenever I get back to New York, I’m in middle earth, and when I’m in Europe I feel like I’m in a museum. And here it feels like the right pulse of time.”

Question: where’s the “here” here?

对了。Its Beijing. Granted, the year is 2009, when the Beijing Olympics were still bouncing about the echo chambers of very recent memory banks. I’m often given to wondering since about how Beijing/New York (or Paris or…) is doing in that comparison. Recent reports like this one in Chinarealtimereport, suggest that its not going so well, at least if we take Beijing 798 as something of a center of potential for cultural development. That phrase is at least 1/2 in effect, which is to say the Chinese government is about to “develop” another 50 billion yuan into 798, a place not want for capital investment, as far as I can tell. What it has been lacking in many people’s estimate in recent years is something genuine amidst the rapidly spreading shlock of unscrupulous consumerism. Indeed, a development from consumerism with scruples to the worst of the laissez faire (which is to say massively engineered top down extravaganza that this bit of “cultural” investment appears to be) is precisely what will destroy the “cultural” part of the comparison with New York or any other vibrant urban center the world over.

This development (in able hands of Melco International Development Ltd) has generated more controversy than usual, however, partly because consciousness of the use of resources both financial and natural (water) has risen considerably, and China’s burgeoning internet community–which so far China’s government has not figured out how to ‘develop’ –is very apt at expressing that consciousness in microblogs. Not to say that the push-back will necessarily stop to project. Chances are it won’t. But we could be optimistic and believe that developers and officials alike will finds ways to be guided by wisdom found in voluminous weibo postings.

Its also a moment when I for one would like to pause and note the importance of the voice of Ai Weiwei, of whose antics I’m occasionally critical, but whose basic critique of Chinese government policy where culture is concerned is more or less spot-on. We could perhaps take the positive view that Ai and others will become more central to decision making in the cultural sphere going forward. At the moment, I can’t quite be that positive.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d say we have a theme here….

TANKS

That’s right, the bang-em up, smash-em up, blow-em up beauties are pervasive. Not a scientific observation, of course, but I believe I’ve seen enough now to say that something tankful is afoot (aground) in China right now. To begin with, this image:

 

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Ullens Art Centre in 798 district and aforementioned article by Evan Osnos (see my previous post), I now realize also with write-up in Economist.  And in my own encounter at 798 the other day, I encountered this sculpture:

Video version is necessary because somehow the barking dog added to the overall menace of the experience.

Following, and not but four hours after I met the dog and its guardian Tank-Child, which is to say as I was settling in to the Hainan Airlines flight back from Beijing to Seattle, I found the following image in the inflight magazine:

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That is Hong Kong artist Amy Cheung’s “Toy Tank,” a life-size death machine made….of wood.

Not much needed to ‘unpack’ these images. China’s militarism is palpable, at least seems so to me when talking even casually with strangers, friends and family alike. Artists respond to such militarism creatively, but in so doing more or less mark the contours of its prevalence. The will to war is evident in ways very unlike those of the United States (not to mention any other country similarly set in its way). Americans go to war, destroy things and people alike in the name of (insert name), and then we do all we can to imagine its not happening. China meanwhile imagines the war to come, ever more splendidly with each iteration. These two positions, I hope, are not actually the collision course they sometimes appear to be.

Back from China, ON-OFF

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Just back from a few weeks in China where I was well protected from the dangerous platforms such as WordPress and the like. Just checking back in now with Facebook and other friends, and taking note of Evan Osnos recent piece in the New Yorker. Osnos, arguably one of the most persuasive talking heads in the Klayman documentary about Ai Weiwei, is also increasingly one of the most credible voices about contemporary China on a wide array of subjects. Particularly pleased, then, that he’s paying attention to contemporary art.

The context for Osnos’ piece is the new opening at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. The exhibition (curated by Bao Dong 鲍栋 and Song Dong 孙冬冬) is a major event in its own right, with 50 commissioned works by 50 artists or artists groups, members all born after the end of the Cultural Revolution. As to the Apple performance discussed in Osnos’ piece, it seems to me a continuation of pervious work done by contemporary Chinese artists, but a continuation of a subject that needs to be continued. I have in mind a couple of pieces by Ai Weiwei, but principally the Tate  sunflower seeds that follows a similar thread, although it does so much more obliquely.  Ai is commenting on labor in China, with hands so cheap he could commission the creation of virtually countless hand-crafted porcelain seeds. (Tate purchased only 8 million of them–there were more). Of course, Ai’s piece is about much more than mere labor, with a very wide metaphorical scope  encompassing China as symbol, but the implications of  contemporary art object as concrete commodity are there.  In this case, though, Li Liao 李燎 goes for broke, exhibiting the mechanics of contemporary global capitalism in China from source to destination. He does so by actually getting a job at FOXCON and making the iPads, etc. himself, then exhibiting them in a place where most of the consumers of art are carrying such devices in their pockets anyway.  As Osnos describes:

I watched two young men separately linger over it for very different reasons: one was a hip Chinese gallerygoer in chunky glasses and a camel-hair coat, taking it all in; the other was a gallery security guard in a borrowed suit and white gloves. He was studying the details of the contract.

This is performance art at its best, and the type that China will need more of to keep the scene fresh in the years to come. As that develops, I for one hope Evan will keep reporting what transpires. 

 

798 Website

image from ArtSignal

For the few readers not already aware, the 798 Art District in Beijing is wonderful thing to behold, by which I mean a location in China which brings about jaw-dropped wonder.  The sheer scale of the installation, with its buildings and restaurants, galleries, auction houses, and so many other art-related facilities, is already a cause for deep impression.  But in addition to this typical grandeur, one also gains a strong historical sense of where this place has come from, as the original buildings of the 1950’s East German-funded technology factory center are still largely intact, right down to the strangely airborne heating and plumbing system which lines many of the “foot-traffic only” (in quotes because it is traveled by both feet and wheeled vehicles of just about every stripe).  The presence of these structures, from infrastructure “on up” so to speak coupled with the swanky new installations both artistic and shamelessly commercial somehow so entirely encapsulates cutting-edge contemporary Chinese culture that, for expediency sake, I can’t think of a better place to visit for one who might be interested in “what’s going on” in China today.

And by visit I mean, importantly, virtually.  Simply by hitting this link one arrives at a 798 digest, something I have been contemplating since my first visit to the area in 2003, when it was a mere Maoist blueprint of what it is today.  I had often thought, perhaps because I’ve never felt that I had adequate time to really investigate what is happening in this area, a fact compounded by the explosive growth, such that each time I return its to an exponentially larger territory populated by so many new sites (largely built upon the still warm ashes of the previous tenants).  So to have a website that lists artists and galleries, gives a bit of historical information, and links to art centers worldwide, that “pulls it all together” is something I’ve been looking for.

But what are the implications?  To have centrality reduces clearly the wily nature of the place, and its wily nature is so essential to its position on the cutting edge.  Many artists (Huang Rui, one of the first residents of 798 “before its fame”) are fed up with the commercialism that saps all creative energy and are obliged to leave, and many similar art districts have grown up around 798 in Beijing, not to mention other cities. As the above banner (from the website homepage) makes clear, the market is the driving force of this operation, and the operation with the creation of this website, now seems to have a driver.

Just who this driver is is a matter of some interest.  The “contact us” leads to Hong Kong, which is unsurprising given Hong Kong’s leadership in the promotion of Chinese contemporary art extending back into the 1980s.  China Avant-garde, one of the earliest exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art (though a full 10 years following the stars 1979 exhibition in Beijing) was largely made possible by Hong Kong support.

So the website comes as little surprise, and is certainly welcome from the point of view of the would-be visitor who does not have a week, month, or year to spend in Beijing.  That said, the negative implications of putting the entire area up for sale will also be observed in this blog, among other places.

Rhetoric 修辞 Exhibition at 798 in Beijing

Mang Ke, Oil on Canvas 80 x 80 cm

Convergence

“Rhetoric : paintings by contemporary poets”

修辭: 當代詩人畫展

One of the major goals of my on-going project is to observe ways in which contemporary Chinese visual art and poetry work together. Demonstrating that this topic is relevant to prominent cultural figures in contemporary China is an exhibition at 798 at 纯粹当代艺术空间 (rather inexplicably in English: “Chunchi Art”) which opened September 25, curated by Jiang Nan 姜楠 and Sun Lei 孙磊, and featuring poetry art convergences of a variety of types.  Among the poet-artists on display, Mang Ke 芒克 is arguably one of the most famous. Above is his Untitled (2010.1.6), a completely abstract work: