In early November 2007, the new Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) debuted in Beijing’s famous 798 arts district with an impressive survey exhibition titled "’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art." Designed as a show that examines the moment "when China began reinventing its own culture," it features works by more that 30 Chinese artists, from Chen Zhen and Huang Yongping to Xu Bing and Zhang Xiaogang. The vernissage for "’85 New Wave" was a roll call of art-world impresarios, international curators and art critics, not to mention former French prime minister Dominic de Villepin. An impressive accomplishment, in any country.
Aside from hosting the most widely anticipated opening in Beijing to date, the UCCA succeeded in setting several precedents in one fell swoop. It is the only contemporary art exhibition center in China with the backing of a private foundation, and "’85 New Wave" set a high for curatorial achievement on the mainland. The Ullens Center even ushered in new notions of swish exclusivity with a VIP launch whose Moet en Chandon sponsorship instigated red carpet and bubbly-inspired revelry on a scale seldom seen in China’s capital.
Though 798 has been on the map since 2003, UCCA aims to become the art center’s new art center. And it is succeeding, at least in terms of international media, which converged on 798 in unprecedented numbers for "’85 New Wave."
The UCCA is the lovechild of Myriam and Guy Ullens, proprietors of one of the largest collections of Chinese contemporary art (he is the son of a Belgian diplomat stationed in China for many years). In 2002, they established the Ullens Foundation after auctioning a prized cache of watercolors by J.M.W. Turner, the results of which then seed-bedded their cultural foundation -- the primary goal of which was opening the UCCA. Now, the center plans regular exhibitions and commissions, the first being a bilingual Chinese-English installation by Lawrence Weiner on the wall in the main foyer.
Housed in a converted 8,000-square-meter Bauhaus-style factory designed by French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the UCCA is also North China’s first nonprofit museum exhibition space to focus on Chinese contemporary art. A well-staffed, spacious information desk flanks the main foyer, and the complex includes a high-tech auditorium and bookstore, café and a research center.
UCCA boasts an internationally experienced staff headed by Fei Dawei, a curator who built a name for himself during the ‘90s in Paris. Chief curator is Colin Chinnery, a musician and former staffer at the British Council in Beijing, and director of external relations is Virginia Ibbott, former head of the Tate’s international council. Jan Debbaut, who served as director of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven during 1989-2003, is senior artistic advisor.
These professional benefits don’t come cheap. UCCA charges 30 RMB for entry, enough to deter visits from the average Chinese citizen, though a pittance compared to the Museum of Modern Art’s $20 entrance fee (it comes to about $4). The price is currently the highest for any contemporary art museum in China. Still, ticket sales seem good: UCCA estimates 200-300 visitors per day.
Many of the works in the UCCA’s impressively large exhibition spaces have been little seen in China since they were made. The "New Wave" in China lasted from 1985 to about ’89, and the exhibition -- and the accompanying full-color catalogue -- is like a textbook of the period. On display in the main foyer is Xu Bing’s seminal Book from the Sky (1987-91), an installation of hundreds of scrolls hand-printed with imaginary characters, which has not been viewed in China since its controversial debut in 1989. Also especially notable are the paintings from Wang Guangyi’s "Polar Series," which pre-dates his "Political Pop" phase, and works by Zhang Peili, Gu Wenda and Lu Shengzhong.
This year’s schedule at UCCA promises a retrospective of large-scale sculptures of Huang Yongping that was organized by the Walker Art Center in 2005, as well as a rotating schedule of artist talks, seminars and film screenings. "Except for money and big studios, Chinese artists have everything they need," said the artist Gu Dexin in 1989. With the arrival of the UCCA, his maxim istruer than ever.
LEE AMBROZY is a critic and translator in Beijing.