…continued from the previous blog
The afternoon is taken up with seeing art. We pile into three taxis and tackle a major show of the ten last years of Chinese contemporary art, Reshaping history, at the National Convention Center. The setting is slightly industrial, slightly art-fair, but the very large number of works are given the space they need. And space some of them do need – cheap labour costs are apparently one of the reasons some artists can afford to make massive art pieces. The show is very enjoyable and informative. There is artistic skill at every step – technical virtuosity with both traditonal media – eg, ink painting, though with a twist – and media more familiar in the West. In fact, skill is in such supply that a few of us are taken more than anything else by an installation of found objects, where skill is not an appropriate yardstick. The objects are land deeds in frames; we learn later that the deeds are probably pre-1949 (ie, pre ‘liberation’). The work is by Mao Tongqiang, and it is immediate and poignant.
On then to 798, Beijing’s best-known area for ’emerging’ art. Our guide is Yuan Huang Jing (or just ‘Jing’ – the given name comes at the end) and her Canadian partner Gordon Laurin. 798 is an area built by East Germans during a period when the USSR was out of favour in China. These are large industrial buildings with a Bauhaus feel. We get a pre-preview of Jing’s forthcoming show. These are smallish monochrome paintings which read initially as photos of fairly uniform surfaces. On just one or two a multidigit number is written. I learn only a day later that these are ‘political’ works – small-intervention rather than storm-the-palace political: the numbers are like those you see written on the pavement all around Beijing; you call one and can arrange for new identity papers or the like.
We take in more art, and get a glimpse into one studio space. Most studios, it seems, are gone, the artists forced out by rising rents (no surprise there). The Ullens Center is one of the main spaces. We see works by Olafur Eliasson + Ma Yansong, Ai Wei Wei and others. Skill abounds, but I’m not so sure about the substance.
We take in a few beers seated outside. 798 is a pleasant area, with bits of greenery and little traffic. It seems that bodies may fly but brains take the train – it is around 10am in Ireland, 5pm in China, and for the first time I’m properly awake. I’m liking Beijing.
…to be continued