Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Letter from Beijing
by Jonathan Napack
Tiananmen Gate ads on the Beijing metro
Dongbianmen Watchtower, home of Red Gate Gallery
Xu Bing
Tian Shu
(or Book of Dreams)
installed at The China Art Gallery in 1988
Xiao Lu and Tang Song's performance and installation "Dialogue"
in "China/Avant Garde" at China Art Gallery
Zhang Dali's studio
The Courtyard Gallery
Hu Xiangdong
Crystal Cabbage
in "Poly Phenolrene"
at Bow Gallery
Zhu Min
Untitled, May 18, 1999
Sun Yuan
in "Post-Sense, Sensibility, Alien Bodies and Delusion"
Lu Hao
Bird Cages
Liu Liguo
Classical No. 1
If capitals are semiotic landscapes, Beijing is a minefield. The city could be a theme park of discredited ideologies.

The North China plain sprawls like an ocean, broken by island monuments of inhuman scale: the Temple of Heaven, the Tiananmen Gate, the Mao Mausoleum, Kentucky Fried Chicken. They blaze like marquees for the idea-systems -- Confucianism, Communism, Capitalism -- that have swept this city.

Ironically, Beijing was a bystander in these political movements. The city was founded by Kublai Khan and the Mongols, restored as capital by the Manchus and reinstated by Mao in 1949 (the Nationalist capital was Nanjing, in the south). Beijing is a border zone, the wellspring of oppressive foreign dynasties.

To know Beijing is to understand that, while capital of a vast country, with elite universities, brilliant intellectuals and a sophisticated audience, it is historically a conservative, even backward city, far away from the open ocean and liberating influences from abroad. Beijing is both birthplace of the democracy movement and heartland of 2,000 years of autocracy.

Beijing broods in quiet one-story lanes hidden from the expressways. Its moods are as harsh as its weather -- dust storms, mud, rain, temperatures seesawing from heatstroke to frostbite with barely a spring or autumn in between. The city has even seen plagues of locusts, the result of Mao's order to eradicate the sparrows.

Politics are pervasive in Beijing, and its artists approach art as a game of political and cultural symbols. The pivotal "Stars" exhibition of 1979, which took place in the heady days of the "Democracy Wall" movement, included many works freighted with hidden meanings. Political art went into hiatus during the subsequent crackdown (Wei Jingsheng spooked the authorities by calling for a "Fifth Modernization," i.e. democracy), but by the mid-1980s, with the liberal Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, the so-called "Beijing Spring" was underway. Despite the "Anti-Bourgeois-Liberalization Campaign" of early 1987, artists explored issues of cultural identity with new freedom. Perhaps most memorable was Xu Bing's Tian Shu (or Book of Heaven), an enormous scroll of nonsense characters exhibited at the China Art Gallery in 1988 (and subsequently in the West).

The climax of this period came in February 1989 with the exhibition "China/Avant-Garde," whose organizers included Li Xianting (about whom more below) and Gao Minglu (curator of the 1998 exhibition "Inside Out: New Art from China" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Perhaps the only major avant-garde exhibition ever held in a Chinese museum (the China Art Gallery), it was notorious for a performance in which a pistol was fired (the artist, Xiao Lu, was immediately arrested).

The post-Tiananmen crackdown put an end to all that. But only two years later the art scene was thriving again, led by the young men disillusioned by the failure of the democracy movement and the vacuous consumerism taking hold in China. The dominant movements were the "Political Pop," exemplified by artists like Wang Guangyi, and the "Cynical Realism" school represented by Fang Lijun and others.

These terms were coined by Li Xianting, otherwise known as "Lao Li" ("lao" is an affectionate epithet meaning "old"), who since the 1980s has gained stature as the ultimate arbiter of art in the capital. Lao Li holds court in an old courtyard house in central Beijing, in rather Socratic fashion mediating discussions among the artists, writers and hangers-on who daily gather at his place. Some criticize the "cult" around Lao Li, and it is true that unknown young artists come to his house asking for guidance in a manner resembling the "shangfang" (best translated as "to kowtow while giving a petition to the Emperor") of Imperial China. Lao Li, however, seems little interested in these trappings, and is still China's most insightful critic, and its least politically compromised. The story goes that the police once searched Lao Li's house and, upon finding some documents, accused him of being anti-Communist, to which Lao Li replied, "I've only been telling you that for years!"

By the end of the 1990s, "Political Pop" and "Cynical Realism" began to seem dated, with their references to a grimmer, more politicized world. Younger artists have created a multiplicity of trends, exhibiting in guerrilla-style underground shows that tend to last three hours -- that is, until the cops show up. While the mass media remain as tightly controlled as ever, new opportunities have opened up for exhibiting and working in Beijing and many older artists, such as Zhang Dali, have returned from abroad.

One factor has been the appearance of new galleries. Previously, Beijing artists could only show in Hong Kong (where the Hanart TZ Gallery marketed "Political Pop" overseas) or the West. Since 1997, however, a handful of galleries have emerged: the Australian-owned Red Gate Gallery, formerly in a hotel but recently established in one of few remaining medieval gate towers; the Courtyard Gallery, sharing a lovely renovated house with a luxury restaurant, both owned by a Chinese-American lawyer named Handel Lee; and China Art Archive & Warehouse, a stunning loft-like space out beyond the Third Ring Road, run by Dutchman Hans van Dijk and Ai Weiwei (one of the artists in the original "Stars" exhibition and a recent returnee from New York). The Chinese-owned, British-run Bow Gallery lasted only briefly but did host Lao Li's "Poly Phenolrene."

This May 1999 show (named after a plastic Lao Li says he "made up") explored the toxicity of China's environment via young artists using plastic as a medium. Among the works were Hu Xiangdong's translucent resin cabbages, Lu Hao's plexiglas bird and cricket cages shaped like famous Chinese buildings, Wang Jin's PVC clothes and Zhu Min's performances inside plastic balloons. The gallery closed a day after the opening, which coincided with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

Li's "Ooh La La Kitsch," an exhibition that was on view earlier the same year, made a case for "gaudy art" ("meisu," which Li translates as "gaudy," might be better rendered as "vulgar" or "tacky"). Li argued young artists bear the imprint of a society that has grown economically but regressed culturally and politically. Xu Yihui's porcelain flower bouquets, the Luo brothers' kitschy lacquer paintings, Liu Liguo's decorated ceramic jars with naked bottoms -- these reflect the ugliness of the "New China."

The most important recent show, however, was curator Wu Meichun's "Post-Sense, Sensibility, Alien Bodies and Delusion." Although it included a wide selection of artists from all over China, this exhibition was most notorious for sculptures using human corpses and dying animals. Sun Yuan's Honey juxtaposed a cadaver "borrowed" from a morgue with a stillborn fetus; another room in the exhibition displayed a severed human arm hanging from a meat hook; yet another echoed with the blood-curdling moans of a goose starving to death with its feet glued to the floor.

The artists said their primary aim was to create art that wouldn't be collected by Westerners, a sentiment in tune with the nasty xenophobia of some intellectuals in Beijing. In 1998, Sun Yuan "protested" a campaign by animal-rights campaigners in San Francisco's Chinatown by creating a kind of torture chamber for live seafood, which was "exhibited" writhing and gasping on a cement floor.

That this would be lauded locally as "self-confident nationalism" reveals the extent of resentment against Western power, especially after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. For a while, artists even accused their foreign collectors of "plotting to control Chinese art."

Recently, however, with China's looming entry into the World Trade Organization, the pendulum has swung back to xenophilia -- at least, for the time being. The same kids who spit on Westerners a year ago now show off their English. The Sanlitun bar district and its newer, hipper neighbors, Cafe Havana and Club Vogue, buzz every night with young Chinese and foreigners, and underground rock bands flourish.

Alternative bookshops Arc Books and Wusi Bookstore feature an increasing number of books about contemporary art published in China (some of them, to circumvent censorship, are legally speaking, "brochures" for printing companies). The elite Tsinghua University has been hiring staff from the academies in Hangzhou and Chongqing to create Beijing's first progressive art school. Beijing University, China's Harvard, just started a new architecture faculty under the avant-gardist Yung-ho Chang.

The success of Chinese art abroad has transformed many of these artists' living standards, as their prices drift towards international levels while their own cost of living stays low. At Art Basel 1999, Lu Hao sold his Plexiglas cages out of his suitcase for $10,000; Li Liguo's porcelain rear ends now range from $3,000 to $5,000; Zhang Dali's photographs, which come as editions of 10 or so, sell for $2,000. In contrast, a lavish meal in Beijing for six, with drinks, runs about $10.

Despite its liveliness and creativity, Beijing sometimes feels poisoned by anger and intolerance, its inventiveness stunted by ambivalence towards an outside world, which has largely outstripped it. The Australian sinologist W.F. Jenner once wrote, "[China's] history of tyranny is matched by the tyranny of history -- an imperialism of the mind that finds self-affirmation in the subjection of others."

For Chinese art, the challenge is how to break that paradigm, as Taiwan has already done. Whether Beijing, so saturated with the culture of autocracy, is the place for that is an open question.

JONATHAN NAPACK is an American critic based in Hong Kong.