Times are changing in Beijing’s legendary 798 Art District. Since 798 became the center of the Chinese art scene almost a decade ago, the area has transformed from an intimate arts community into a minor metropolis of international cultural institutions and chic, high-rent Western cafés. And though much of China’s art elite expresses discontent with this metamorphosis, the perception remains that 798 is where it’s at in contemporary Chinese art.
Still, the sharp downturn in the global art market -- very much being felt here -- has prompted a certain amount of reflection on the changes that have hit China during the country’s manic development. A case in point is "Comerchina," a recent show by the pioneering Chinese contemporary artist Huang Rui (b. 1952), held at the Chinese Contemporary Gallery in 798, May 23-June 22, 2009.
Those who follow the Beijing art scene closely might remember that at Huang’s last solo exhibition -- in the 798 Art District in 2006 -- four "visitors" from Sevenstar, the state-owned electronics company that owns and manages the area, ordered the removal of his work Chairman Mao 10,000 RMB, a wall-sized image of a Communist Party slogan that Huang had made using Mao-portrait renminbi notes. Apparently, the whiff of controversy that emanated from the gesture was too much for the tetchy bureaucrats. As a result of this seemingly gratuitous act of censorship, Huang replaced his exhibition’s centerpiece with two red curtains that closed tightly over the gallery’s main wall.
Three years later, red curtains again hang on that wall.
For "Comerchina," the curtains have been pulled open around a new work titled Shadow, connecting it implicitly with the themes of the earlier piece. Also making the connection is the fact that the two works share a theme -- money. Shadow is composed of a series of 27 canvases which fit together to form the image of a giant 100 RMB note. On the surface of each silk-screened fragment, Huang has added the word "Comerchina," stamped in red and in English like a brand, and a number, sequencing 25 of the 27 canvases.
Only two sections, at the left and on the center row of the giant bill -- corresponding to the bill’s Chairman Mao watermark -- have no number or logo. Here, Huang adds only the subtle grey silhouette of the character for jianchi, meaning "to persist" or "to uphold."
The meaning isn’t clear until you realize that this mosaic is part of a larger series. Three other giant bills, not on display here, feature other characters that together read "Uphold the dictatorship of the Proletariat," one of Deng Xiaoping’s "Four Cardinal Principles," and a slogan that was painted on walls across China in 1979, just months after the PRC launched China’s so-called "Opening Reforms" -- and Huang launched his career as an artist. In the early ‘80s, the phrase served as a simultaneous embrace and rejection of modern capitalism, much as Huang’s ironic work does today. With a kind of pokerfaced post-Pop irony, Huang reflects on the confluence of revolutionary ideology and commerce.
Rather than simply circle within China’s ideological limbo, however, "Comerchina" puts China’s contemporary art market -- and specifically the 798 community of galleries, collectors, art stars and autocratic property managers -- at the center of its crosshairs. Thus, for the present show, Chinese Contemporary’s second floor is devoted to a series of prints entitled "Hall of Fame." For this series, Huang uses fragments of commercial imagery silkscreened onto 100 canvasses. His collection of images includes slick ads for Mercedes-Benz Land Rovers, mascara ads advertising "Lash Lust" and recumbent models -- but also fragments that are more art-world specific, like a page from a magazine listing the 100 most influential people in China’s art market (this is the first image of the series), the cover of Time Out Beijing, or a recent exhibition poster for superstar "cynical realist" Yue Minjun.
Overlaid over each of these canvasses, Huang has stamped the large logo he created for this show, a three-by-four grid of numbered circles resembling the keypad of a mobile phone (red numbers run from 1 to 9, with * and # symbols in the bottom positions) overlaid with the letters of the word "COMERCHINA," in blue. It’s as if the artist is saying that all the various imagery, high and low, has been swept together into one undifferentiated blur.
On the floor of this gallery, Huang has installed 12 vinyl stickers that form a large-scale version of the same "Comerchina" logo. Prior to this show’s opening, we are told, Huang invited some children from the community to play a hopscotch-style game, leaping from one sticker to the next. As viewers walk around the exhibition, they traverse this playing field themselves, following in the children’s footsteps -- perhaps reflecting on how they too were first indoctrinated in the game of art and commerce.
What does it all mean? All these disparate elements are best understood when you grasp where "Comerchina" falls in the art-and-commerce game for both this artist and the space in general. Back in 2002, Huang launched his own 798 Space Gallery -- for years the district’s best known exhibition venue -- with photographer Xu Yong. In 2004, Huang directed the first Dashanzi International Art Festival, which became the rallying point among the art community, rescuing the district from an ill-conceived plan for demolition connected with last year’s Olympics. Today, even though 798’s survival as an art district is secured, Huang and several other artists who pioneered the area’s first galleries and studios are being pushed out by extortionate rent increases -- in excess of 400 percent, according to Huang -- and frustration with the commercialization of the area.
Thus, the red "censor’s curtains" that frame Shadow in the lower gallery are as much about economic gentrification as they are about direct political pressure (the art community has long suspected that the friction between Huang and Sevenstar is less about politics than it is about commerce anyway), and reference the way these forces continue to converge in China. The gallery did in fact close the curtains over Huang’s visual mosaic the day after "Comerchina" debuted. After a few days, however, they were opened -- supposedly because Chinese Contemporary itself made the decision to shutter at the end of June. Huang Rui has already moved his home and studio out of the art district he once crusaded for, into Beijing’s rural outskirts. There is no longer a lease with which the state-owned enterprise managing 798 can threaten Huang or the gallery.
Gao Shiqiang: "The Other There"
On a quiet alley at the south end of 798, the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art is just a few steps away from the throngs of tourists, cafés, corporate photo shoots and marketing spectacles that have transformed the neighborhood of galleries and studios into a cultural theme park. As smaller, grassroots art spaces shut down and relocate, international art organizations like Iberia -- an expansive 2,000-square-meter exhibition space and research center established by Spain’s International Art & Culture Foundation -- move in, bringing with them resources to curate large-scale exhibitions of video and installation work, a rarity in Beijing just a few years back.
Like "Comerchina," "The Other There," Apr. 26-June 20 -- an ambitious solo show by Hangzhou-based video artist Gao Shiqiang (who is represented by Max Protetch in New York) -- has an elegiac feeling despite continuing the disorienting, sprawling, formally scattered character of a lot of Chinese contemporary art. It consists of works drawn from the artist’s career, put together to form a single meditation. A sense of historical angst nevertheless shines through loud and clear.
The central works of the show, installed in various adjacent chambers of the large warehouse space, are long, complex video pieces that most viewers will catch only a few minutes of -- the vids are impossibly lengthy, clocking in at a total time of three hours, 50 minutes, 19 seconds, and employ a vast number of actors and settings. Each explores a different aspect of life in China; some approach the subject from an almost ethnographic angle, others are palpably staged. Each is presented differently: one, for instance, on a mounted television, another projected onto a sheet of glass, a third projected onto the wall.
Red (50:06, 2008) plays on a flat-screen TV, and shows a man wandering over a vast field of wet grey soil, which stretches all the way to a pale slate horizon. Attached to reeds protruding from the ashen mud are torn fragments of red cloth that convulse in the wind. The subjects in Gao’s landscape seem utterly disoriented to find themselves with their feet sinking into the earth beneath.
The political symbolism is unmistakable. "The Red Revolution was, undoubtedly, a magnificent jolt and beautiful ideal. But this ideal brought constant tragedy to mankind," writes Gao in his statement about this piece. "For those of my generation, history has transformed into a trance, and the real world into a joke." It is this sense of the real world as a joke -- and not a very funny one either, more like a specter of itself -- that Gao traces in his various projects.
Interspersed with the show’s video projections are sculptural items. In front of Red, Gao has installed How Should I Tell You?, which is something like a hulking trunk or treasure chest, made out of wood but lined with lead. The lid is propped open, with a red paper flag attached inside. As the viewer passes on his way to the video screen, a fan inside the trunk switches on, blasting warm air from inside the trunk onto his face. Once again, the theme of experience reduced to a disembodied jolt, or shock, a disconnected esthetic impulse.
In other galleries of the show, the other video projections are accompanied by similar lead box sculptures. In the final room, two boxes stand before City, a twisty lead-and-iron sculpture of an abstracted industrial landscape, about 12 feet in height (a ghostly rust color, it’s as if the image of China’s massive industrialization has been reduced to a mythic prop). Peering into the first chest, titled Peach Blossom Spring, we can see a murky substance at the bottom and can just make out the outline of the image of peach blossoms (a symbol of the "Land of the Immortals" in Chinese mythology). The lid of the adjacent box, Defense of the Quotidian, has a toilet plunger attached. The inside of the box is caked with dried dog’s blood, as though a crude, stomach-churning act of purification has been carried out. Both capture a sense of being between the ridiculous and the sublime.
On a sheet of glass suspended above these two trunks, Gao projects his 2007 film Great Bridge (27:05), a black-and-white portrait of a middle-aged man going through daily routines in his home. In this setting, Great Bridge, originally intended as a commentary on the legacy of mid-20th century Chinese history (the Nanjing Bridge in particular), takes on new connotations -- life suspended between the sacred (Peach Blossom Spring) and some forgotten terror (Defense of the Quotidian).
Perhaps the most poignant gesture here is the way that, for the show overall, the halls have been painted a matte black, and the artist has scrawled footnotes to his work on them for the visitor. At the opening to the final chamber is Gao’s white chalk scrawl, describing the film as "a quartet of history, life, language and mind." Above, scrolling red LED marquees offer still more fragmentary commentary; one of Gao’s myriad LED footnotes reads, "The narrators of history were in fact strangers foreign to the land." It’s as if the installation of the show acknowledges that the artist’s attempt to capture history is itself incomplete, and can only be supplemented endlessly. He is himself a "stranger" to history. More than just a collection of the artist’s recent work, "The Other There" is a portrait of Gao’s own status as a stranger in the land he was born into. It’s a sentiment that many share right now.
BLAKE STONE-BANKS is a writer living in Beijing.