Young Beijing

by Jonathan Napack


Beijing is on the more. Venues for contemporary art are multiplying exponentially. Official attitudes have relaxed dramatically, with the government often lending support to exhibitions in the form of its imprimatur and, increasingly, its cash. With the new freedoms have come successes overseas. In the last few years, Chinese artists have begun to exhibit regularly in international shows, leaving behind the "Chinese art" ghetto that many of them resented.

It's important to place this activity in perspective. Just seven years ago, there were no significant contemporary art spaces in Beijing. Foreigners could not legally operate galleries or, technically speaking, trade in art. Unofficial exhibitions were organized furtively, without advance publicity, and usually lasted just hours, until the police arrived. A few artists got rich on the overseas market for Chinese "Political Pop"--a genre that clumsily lifted from both Warhol and 1980s Soviet art while shamelessly pandering to Western stereotypes. But most artists lived in desperate conditions, marginalized both economically and socially, like the conceptualists who inhabited Beijing's "East Village" in the early 1990s. In those days, the extreme dedication of artists like Zhang Huan, Wang Jinsong and Ma Liuming deeply impressed foreign visitors.

In 2004, by contrast, roughly a dozen galleries operate in the capital, most of them owned by foreigners--from other Asian countries, the U.S. and Europe. Chinese museums are showing experimental art with surprisingly little censorship. And the material circumstances of the artists have changed drastically. Those who can sell, profit from global market prices but pay low Chinese living costs. Those who can't, moonlight in the booming design and media industries. Either way, artists in China can become remarkably affluent, relative to their country's average income--a fact that has repercussions both for their personal self-confidence and the content of their work. Unlike most developing countries, China has produced a younger generation of artists who show little interest in poverty and the ravages of early capitalism, preferring to address personal-social rather than political-economic issues.

What happened? A lot. First, the country has undergone an information revolution. The government still controls the media but has radically narrowed what it considers censorship-worthy. Lifestyle magazines discuss once-taboo topics like homosexuality; newspapers report aggressively on corruption; books freely critique many government policies. Internet use has expanded dramatically, while regulations that previously limited travel overseas have been noticeably relaxed. Periodic crackdowns still occur--like the national propaganda department warning against "overly negative" reporting that was issued in early April to Guangzhou's Nanfang Zhoumou (Southern Weekend), by far the country's most respected weekly newspaper. (The rebuke was followed shortly by the arrest of the editor-in-chief on "corruption" charges.) But overall, people are much better informed. This applies not just to artists and intellectuals but also to business-people and government officials.

Second, the economy has crossed a certain Rubicon. Though prosperity is not yet widespread (only 8 percent of the populace currently qualifies as middle-class), a moneyed elite has quickly emerged. For them, China is a place of abundance. With more stability in their lives, they have begun to undertake private, wealth-based pursuits--like real estate investment or, in rare instances, collecting art. (The downside of this scenario, of course, is a crime boom and the genesis of an underclass.)

Third, a new generation has come of age. People in their late 20s or younger didn't experience Mao's China. They never denounced their parents or spent years of "reeducation" shoveling pig shit with farmers. As children, many had McDonald's, not gruel and pickles; Celine Dion rather than The East Is Red. They are more globalized and more assertive than their elders, who idealized a West they didn't really know, when China was a much bleaker place. A minor but crucial change affects communication--foreign languages were almost absent from the curriculum until Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978. Now the younger generation, in impressive numbers, can talk confidently to strangers. (Last year, China had more students taking SAT exams in English than did the U.S.)

Finally, a decisive shift has occurred in the role of culture, spurred by the Jiang/Zhu government's recent alteration of Communist Party policy. With the announcement of Jiang Zemin's "Theory of the Three Represents," the Party's theoretical constituency was explicitly recast from workers and peasants to the "advanced forces" of society, including entrepreneurs and artists. This startling change--viewed by many here as an abandonment of old-style Communism for something closer to a Taiwanese of South Korean economic model--was justified with the roundabout formulation that China is still in the "primary stages of socialism and so must pass through a period of controlled capitalism before realizing its ultimate egalitarian ideal.

Thus the political context for art has changed. Ideological conformity matters much less than before, though conservative taste still reigns in official circles [see article beginning on p. 1341. The leadership, determined to join the club of "advanced nations," has begun to see contemporary culture as a potential status symbol. Jiang Zemin, according to informed sources, was so intrigued by how the French state used modern art to burnish its image that he invited professors to give him informal tutorials over dinner.

But a new context would mean little without new artists. "Generation" is a powerful idea in modern Chinese culture--film historians talk about the "Fifth" and "Sixth Generation" of filmmakers [see article beginning on p. 130]--but the emerging art scene is more diverse and individualistic than any before. For one thing, Beijing no longer utterly dominates as it did in the 1990s; Shanghai and Guangzhou now have very strong contingents as well. Lineages have become fuzzier a younger artists reject collectivism. Thus it's harder and harder to recognize any schools of the sort that critic Li Xianting identified with such alacrity in the 1990s ("cynical realism," "gaudy art," etc.).

One finds, moreover, two distinct "new" generations--the under--40s pressed hard by the under-30s, who were teenagers or younger at the time of Tiananmen Square and don't remember the days before China's economic reforms deepened and radicalized. Yet the two groups have more in common with each other than either has with the previous generation, raised in isolation from international trends and facing difficult choices about emigration.

Younger artists have gotten used to traveling and working overseas, without the wrenching farewells that their elders had to late, and they likewise enjoy considerably more mobility within China. People now shuttle frequently net just between Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta but also between secondtier cities like Nanjing, Kunming and Chengdu. Beijing is still by far the biggest cultural center, but the consensus is that most of the best new artists are from elsewhere--like Yang Fudong (Shanghai) or Zheng Guogu (Yangjiang, a small city five hours' drive from Hong Kong).

Three esthetic currents are discernible in Beijing. One is hardly a trend al all but a continuation of the concept-based experimentation of the East Village school by younger artists, like Cang Xin (37) and Ma Liuming (35), who were just coming to notice in its final days. Song Dong (38) is the most difficult to categorize. Although he spent time with the East Village artists, he was never intimately linked to the scene. His work spans video (Father and Son in Tai Miao, 1998, an eerie evocation of the artist's father, featuring a slow digital merger of their faces), bizarre forms of bricolage (Eating the City, 2003, a representation of the Shanghai skyline made entirely of edible materials) and artist's books (Chopsticks, 2007, a bittersweet diary of marriage produced during a stay in New York).

A good many Beijing artists explore the possibilities of digital photography and other forms of sophisticated image manipulation that came in with the globalization of China's media and printing industry in the late 1990s. Zhao Bandi (41) was a pioneer in this field. His panda doll photographs--clever if not especially deep parodies of image-and-text advertising messages--were selected by Harald Szeemann for his Arsenale show in the 1999 Venice Biennale. Appropriately enough, Zhao makes most of his income not from selling editions but from endorsements and other promotion-related fees. Hong Hao (39) creates direct-scan images of everyday objects, in addition to his well-known altered maps and pseudo-documentation projects. Xing Danwen (37) first made her mark as a documentary photographer of the East Village artists. She studied in New York from 1997 until 2002. After a few false starts, she found her way with gorgeous, almost abstract close-ups of computer debris found in China's industrial wastelands--work that will be published by Scalo later this year. In her new series, "Urban Fiction," she plays with the kind of AutoCAD images that have become ubiquitous in condo-mad Beijing as symbols of middle-class aspiration.

Chen Lingyang (29) emerged with her 2000 work Twelve Flower Months. Here the "new slickness" meets compulsive transgression. The photo group is a book of days, with flowers framed by decoupage shapes based on doors and windows of traditional Chinese garden architecture. For every month, Chen presents a different flower, and a different view of her vagina during menstruation. A powerful effect is created when these floral images, beautifully printed and evoking one of the most refined of China's high cultural traditions, are juxtaposed with physiological sights denied by that culture. But Chen's more recent works--such as a digital series of huge female figures on rooftops--have evidenced a less confrontational approach and a slackening of inspiration.

The most eye-catching movement of all represents a kind of intensification of 1990s art. The watershed event was "Post Sense Sensibility" (1999), one of the last truly underground shows. Organized by artist Qiu Zhijie and curator Wu Meichun, it provoked international outrage for the use of live animals and human cadavers--some of them "borrowed" under suspicious circumstances from local morgues. But the show included virtually all the artists who have emerged in the early years of the 21st century.

The unifying issue for these artists was nihilism--of an extreme sort hardly found in the history of Western modernism. (Probably the closest parallel would be Russian artist Oleg Kulik's staged rape of a Chechen girl in Moscow, a piece admired by several Beijing artists.) The point of this nihilism is, of course, a topic of much discussion, but it boils down to this: a frustration with the moral bankruptcy of Chinese society mixed with a contempt for the hypocrisy of the West.

Some of the older artists in the "Post-Sense" exhibition hinted at the source of this despair: 35-year-old Qiu Zhijie's most famous work, after all, is his Assignment No. 1: Copying the "Orchard Pavilion Preface" a Thousand Times (1990-95), in which he transcribed that text, a canonical piece of Chinese calligraphy from the 4th century, over and over until the paper literally turned black. But the works of the artist pair San Yuan (31) and Peng Yu (31) almost defy definitions of extremity--a frozen dog, steaming under a dazzling spotlight (Shanghai, 2002); a 4-meter-high column made entirely of human fat (shown in the 2001 Yokohama Triennial). Their most recent work, al the independent show "Secondhand Reality: Post-Reality" organized by Gu Zhenqing during the Beijing Biennial, had guard dogs chained to treadmills in prolonged confrontation [see p. 137].

Early performances in Beijing by Yan Lei (39) were among the most intense of the 1990s. After moving to Hong Kong in 1997 (he stayed five years), he shifted from extreme body experiments to malicious pranks. He forged invitations to participate in the 1997 Documenta and sent them to leading Chinese artists, mocking their aspirations to international acceptance. He contributed to one group show by placing a banner that read "Welcome Yan Lei to Shanghai" at the entrance to the gallery, thereby deeply angering the other artists. For the 2003 survey "Alors, la Chine?" in Paris, he hung a massive portrait on the Centre Pompidou next to Georges Pompidou's image (recalling, implicitly, Mao's on Tiananmen Square). It depicted a Chinese illegal immigrant he found painting portraits in the courtyard in front of the museum. For the current "Fifth System" in Shenzhen, sponsored by a real-estate company, he has fenced off one hectare of land and declared that it cannot be developed (at least for two years, the running time of the exhibition). Yan Lei says he believes art is a sham and that real life as closer to "art" than we might think.

Cui Xiuwen (34) is less brutally frank, but no less provocative. Her photographs in the series "Chengcheng and Beibei" (2002) explore the sexuality of young children in a manner somewhere between those of Sally Mann and Larry Clark. In her video work Lady's (1998), she concealed a camera in her underwear and filmed the goings-on in the restroom of an upscale Beijing "karaoke" (i.e., nightclub-brothel). A constant stream of women pass in front of the camera, but they are viewed only from behind of in the mirror, applying makeup and adjusting their breasts in the "private" space of the bathroom. These works express something about contemporary China not only in the subject matter but in the lack of "responsibility" and propriety on the part of the artist--it's an ironic form of protest via celebration of perverse societal values. Liu Wei (32), not to be confused with the older painter whose name is identical in its English version, specializes in paradoxical installations such as Event of Art (2003) shown recently at the opening of the Duolun Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai. Though the English phrase "everyone has a right to speak" was projected on the wall, visitors who picked up one of the accompanying microphones found their statements ruined by ear-shattering feedback.

This fast development is increasingly supported by an emerging infrastructure. Several art magazines--such as those whose titles translate as Art World and Modern Art--appear regularly now, and mainstream newspapers have art coverage (particularly Beijing Youth Daily, with a weekly supplement). The Web site at is probably the most important outlet of all, a venue for many important critical statements with a chat room that serves as an important forum for public debate. Specialized art bookshops also exist, most notably publisher Robert Bernell's Timezone 8 just across from Factory 798 in the new Dashanzi Art District. The firm's Web site,, and on-line newsletter provide a wealth of information on contemporary Chinese art events around the world. Its publishing branch produces dozens of English-language (or bilingual) monographs and books of art criticism.

The de facto legalization of foreign investment, in the art business has led to the beginnings of an active commercial gallery scene in Beijing. This has given artists another option and has changed the calculus for galleries overseas. Co-owned by Belgian businessman Frank Uyterhagen and Chinese art star Ai Weiwei, China Art Archives & Warehouse is sharply focused on cutting edge artists, with a spectacular hangarlike space on the city's outskirts. Courtyard Gallery, located next to the Forbidden City and directed by American expatriate Meg Maggio, represents a sometimes uncomfortable mix of genuinely important artists like Zhang Dali and some decidedly more commercial fare. Red Gate, founded by Australian Brian Wallace, works mostly with painters like Wang Yuping and Huang Yan in a spectacular space, a hollow vestige of the old Beijing city wall. The Factory 798 complex includes Beijing-Tokyo Art Projects, owned by Tokyo Gallery in Ginza (a key supporter of the Mono-ha movement of the '60s and '70s), as well as White Space from Berlin and China Art Seasons from Singapore.

The cutting edge, however, still belongs to temporary exhibitions organized independently. Beijing's property boom has opened up new avenues for sponsorship, and exhibitions have become more ambitious. In December 2003, the flamboyant real-estate developer Lin Jian (his motto: "when everyone goes right, I go left") opened a space called the Left Bank Gallery in his Left Bank Community development, lending one floor of a raw, unfinished building to peripatetic independent curator Gu Zhenqing--only to order him to dismantle Huang Yong Ping's Bar Project, marking the third time the piece (a life-size mockup of the U.S. EP-3 spy plane captured on Hainan Island) had been censored in China [see "Artworld," Jan. '03]. The piece was finally shown in Shenzhen, Hong Kong's Tijuana, later the same month at the He Xiangning Museum's Center for Contemporary Art.

Of the new generation of curators under 40, Pi Li, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, is China's eminence-grise-in-waiting; articulate, polyglot and well-connected politically, he has worked on sensitive projects like official Chinese representations in the 2002 Sao Paulo Bienal, the 2002 Shanghai Biennale and the Centre Pompidou's 2003 "Mors, la Chine?" Very different is Li Zhenhua, a free-spirited cultural entrepreneur who uses the umbrella of M.S.G. (Mustard Seed Gallery)--formerly a physical space, now an unmoored organization--to dabble freely in film and music as well as art. (He organized several legendary Great Wall music parties, replete with electronic music, DJs and live bands.) Zhang Zhaohui is an astute critic/curator who studied at Bard College before returning to direct the curatorial department at the He Xiangning Museum, to help found the X-Ray Art Center, to advise real-estate companies sponsoring exhibitions and, now, to serve as a Beijing-based research fellow for Hong Kong's Asia Art Archive. Zhang Li is another up-and-coming curator, who collaborated with artistic director Shimizu Toshio on the exhibition "Love: Photography and Video from China" (1999) at an international arts festival in the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa. Shu Yang has organized some notorious performance festivals, like the 2001 Chengdu Biennial in which a pig died during an "operation" being performed on it. Last but not least, Chaos Chen carne back to China after stints al the Asia Society in New York and the Kunst-Werke alternative space in Berlin to take on a curatorial role at Beijing's new Millennium Museum. In hardly more than a year, she has put together some impressive events of a type never seen al a state-run venue, from a survey of Frank Gehry and California architecture to a conference on Wim Wenders and German New Wave cinema.

As for the future in Beijing, signs are ambiguous. This spring, the city played host to its first international art fair, China International Gallery Exhibition [Apr. 22-27]. In the initial two days, little work was sold, but a surprisingly strong roster of dealers from Japan and Korea used the fair as an opportunity to network with their Chinese counterparts.

The Factory 798 compound has been targeted for demolition in 2005, under long-standing plans; but officials in Chaoyang District (where 798 is located) and some of Beijing's vice mayors want to preserve it as a "cultural zone" in harmony with plans for the 2008 Olympics. A nonbinding resolution to that effect was passed in the March session of the National People's Congress. Twenty museums are scheduled to be built in time for the Olympics, but they include a Museum of Tap Water, among others. (Not to be outdone, Shanghai says it plans to build 100 new museums for the 2010 World Expo.)

Throughout the early months of this year, the 798 community had been preparing a large-scale arts conclave intended to assure the area's preservation. Just before the opening, however, the property owners, Seven Stars Group, used a flurry of "building safety violations" to force dissolution of the central organizing group for the Dashanzi International Art Festival. Individual leaseholders then opted to continue many of the scheduled events under the more amorphous designation of Dashanzi Art Month [Apr. 24-May 23]. A representative from the Beijing mayor's office monitored the situation, and apparently turned in a strong recommendation in favor of the art-district concept. On opening day, a large number of security guards were dispatched from the Beijing city government--ostensibly to ensure crowd control and safety regulations, but in effect to shield the festival organizers and attendees from landlord interference.

Author: Jonathan Napack is a freelance writer who lives in Hong Kong