It’s spring in Beijing. Despite the smog (apocalyptic) and the traffic (makes Manhattan look bucolic) and the general grittiness of a place which is in a continual process of flux and reinvention, this city is inherently beguiling and seductive. In addition to willow and flowering cherry trees, the weight of imperial and revolutionary history, and the ever-surprising inventiveness and enterprise of its inhabitants, there is, of course, the art. This is a city of art superstars and art mavericks, of postmodern literati and of traditionalists, of hyper-inflated prices (and egos) and of sheer hard work in thousands and thousands of studios. From Songzhuang to Feijiacun, from Beigao to Qiaozi Town, in studios ranging from the large and palatial to the humble, artists are working. Artists from all over China and, indeed all over the world, flock to Beijing. Why? Perhaps this question is best answered by an account of some exhibitions I have seen in the last two weeks of April.
Chinese contemporary art (‘Zhongguo Dangdai Yishu’) is like nothing else on the planet. For sheer bravura spectacle, artistic bravery, and innovation it is hard to beat. The unique historical accident which resulted in artists encountering every phase of Western Modernism and Postmodernism all at once, during the 1980s reform era, provided them with the freedom to invent, reinvent and transform historical conventions unburdened by reference points which western artists take for granted. They are often iconoclasts, as well as inheritors of a valued and treasured tradition. This apparent paradox plays out in surprising ways.
At Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, the mid-career retrospective of Xu Zhen (though perhaps we should call him ‘the artist formerly known as Xu Zhen’ as he now operates as a corporation, ‘MadeIn Company’) is sheer spectacle. An extraordinary diversity of installations, performances and objects across multiple platforms and media makes for a very powerful experience, sadly not always the case in the contemporary art museum. The exhibition as a whole, and individual works within it, pack quite a punch. Surprise, delight, awe at the artist’s sheer inventiveness is the initial audience response, followed by a growing awareness of Xu’s thoughtful representation of some of the big issues of our times. The Duchampian wit and irreverent Pop sensibility is underpinned by the artist’s critical gaze on both Chinese society and the international art world.
Described by curator Philip Tinari as the key figure of the Shanghai art scene, Xu is a significant influence for Chinese artists born since 1980. The UCCA show includes more than 50 installation pieces, 10 videos, 40 painting and collage works and several performances (including slipper clad grandmothers who followed audiences around the gallery) and spans his oeuvre from the late 1990s.
One enters the museum to encounter a monumental sculpture in which the heads of Ancient Greek gods and goddesses have been replaced by inverted Buddhist statuary. In Xu’s hands this literal overlapping of East and West, the continuing concern of so many Chinese artists, becomes parodic. A multi-coloured Goddess Guanyin presides over the ‘ShanghArt Supermarket’, a replica of a convenience store, staffed by cashiers at the cash registers, in which the contents of every package have been removed – and are for sale. This is the literal embodiment of consumerist emptiness. In an interview with Ocula the artist said ‘We consider that exhibitions nowadays are a product, and that art is being sold…’ You wander through rooms containing museum vitrines showing the cross-cultural connections of bodily gestures, or witty replica oil paintings complete with carefully rendered camera flash. Courbet’s notorious La Source with camera flash obscuring – of course – the very source of the painting’s controversy cleverly skewers the phenomenon of art tourism whereby people experience artworks only through the lens of their camera. Images like these may be found in many vernacular Chinese photographs of the 1990s as citizens took up the opportunity for travel outside China.
Smaller versions of Play the architectural construction of black leather, ropes and bondage items now in the collection of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery reveals another aspect of the work of Xu and his art corporation. These works, and the upside down be-feathered tribal people hanging, bound, in contorted poses from the ceiling above us, are deeply sinister and to some extent defy interpretation. Their sheer physical presence is enormously powerful. They suggest the ways in which religion and tribal identities are merely another brand in today’s world.
At Redgate Gallery (now in its 23rd year, the first commercial gallery to operate in Beijing) the works of Zhang Yajie reveal some of the history of contemporary art in China. Zhang was one of the leading innovators of an artistic group known as the ‘New Generation’ in the 1990s, representing apparently banal images of daily life in a way which captured the dramatic changes of a modernising China. With expressionist brush marks and a high viewpoint his recent paintings reveal his close study of a Western Modernist idiom yet his choice of subjects suggests nostalgia for a simpler time – sinks, washbasins, taps, electrical sockets, barred windows and bleak stairwells – raw places which speak of a different China, far from the glitz, glamour and big ‘statement’ buildings of downtown Beijing today. His vivid landscapes reference the broken brush marks and non-representational colour of Post-Impressionism yet it is the images of washbasins and taps that really appeal – this is tough, uncompromising painting with an eye for finding beauty in unexpected places. Shown at this gallery, in its unique setting of the restored Ming Dynasty watchtower on what remains of the ancient city wall, the exhibition demonstrates that layering of past and present always so evident in China. The past may indeed be a foreign country, as L.P Hartley once said, but in Beijing the past is always with us. Sink No. 1 depicts the basic bathroom of one of the Soviet-era apartments which replaced the old courtyard houses of the hutong neighbourhoods, and which are now in turn being replaced by enormous high-rise towers. In Zhang’s paintings the tap water runs into rust-stained, chipped enamel basins. Such a mundane image, yet at the same time so powerful.
At Pékin Fine Arts, one of the beautifully serene Ai Weiwei-designed gallery spaces at Caochangdi, the first solo exhibition of painter Xie Qi presents an impressively assured body of work. Xie demonstrates bravura painting technique in works which move beyond the mere academic virtuosity now expected of Chinese-trained painters. These are intriguing paintings, immediately visually seductive, but slowly revealing their layers of conceptual depth. Based on the visual signifier of paper money, and in particular on Chinese Renminbi bank notes, her paintings are lushly layered, scumbled, ghostly images in which the iconic figure of Mao appears through translucent veils of paint. What could be more appropriate in today’s China than to paint money, the literal embodiment of the dramatic social change that has taken place since the 1980s, and the rise of a new world superpower? Yet this is not a Warholian ‘political pop’ exercise in pastiche. In Xie’s hands the seductive painterly surfaces appear bruised and tattered, revealing her sardonic artist’s eye observing the rapacious greed of a society on the make. Any time you open your wallet in China the irony is inescapable – you hand over images of Mao as the cash registers ring. In a painting such as 50RMB the Great Helmsman looms from beneath Xie’s palimpsest of layered brush marks like a vengeful ghost.
Finally, from the over-the-top exuberance of Xu Zhen and the painterly inventiveness of Xie Qi and Zhang Yajie, to something altogether different at Pace Beijing. Ground by Xiao Yu is precisely that. A field of earth. The vast echoing space of Pace’s 798 gallery in the old East German industrial building is filled with earth tilled and ploughed by a farmer with his cattle through the course of the exhibition. A rich loamy barnyard smell fills the air, weirdly dissonant in an art context. Xiao Yu was born in Inner Mongolia and graduated from the Mural Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts but is best known as a performance artist. He says that this work is a ritual regarding labor and consumption – ‘the workers, artists and performers are all involved simultaneously and their work will become nothingness by the end of the exhibition.’
There are inescapable echoes of Walter de Maria’s ‘Earth Room’, yet in a Chinese context, at this time in history, there are other interpretations. The enormous divide in wealth and opportunity between rural and urban China is a growing source of tension and social unrest, and the contempt with which city-dwellers regard the countryside always surprises foreign visitors. Alienated from cycles of growth and renewal, fearful of food safety scandals and toxic contamination, Chinese consumers have come to regard their food, and the soil and water which produces it, with fear and suspicion. Is this a metaphor for the ‘nothingness’ within the artworld as pointed as Xu Zhen’s supermarket filled with empty packaging? Xu Zhen himself says, ‘Chinese contemporary art cannot provide a satisfying answer to the world. Chinese contemporary art nowadays is a farce filled with surprises.’ There may well be farcical elements in the frantic operations of the art market, and not just in China. However, my interviews with Chinese artists and their galleries provide compelling evidence of the production of serious and meaningful artworks – albeit often on a vast and ambitious scale which is one of Chinese contemporary art’s distinguishing characteristics. A farce? No. But certainly – always –filled with surprises.