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by Summer Kumar
Shanghai’s long, stale summer may be just heating up, but the Chinese art market has been boiling over for months. Zhang Xiaogang’s "Bloodline" paintings are especially popular -- in March Sotheby’s New York sold one of the dour grey portraits for $2.11 million, a record price for a work from the series. Material from China’s tumultuous history is also hotly pursued, as indicated by the record sale of Xu Beihong’s subtly political World War II-era painting Put Down Your Whip (1939) for $9.2 million in Hong Kong.

As always, dealers urge caution, but habitués of both Shanghai’s 50 Moganshan Lu and Beijing’s 798 Art District have been in an ebullient mood, excited to see Chinese work earning at the top level, rivaling brand-name Western legends like Damien Hirst and Jasper Johns.

Trendy, status-conscious Shanghai is the undisputed financial center of China, but Beijing remains a serious rival for the title of cultural capital. Beijing dedicates more resources to the arts than does Shanghai, and Beijing artists consider themselves to be more serious and less flashy than their southern counterparts.

Early this summer, I took a trip to Beijing to visit the city’s famous 798 Art District, a converted factory complex in Dashanzi in Beijing’s northeast section. Almost a decade ago, artists began turning this moribund munitions plant into a center of art and performance spaces, studios, workshops and galleries. The entire compound is surrounded by a brick wall and threaded with footpaths, an enclosed miniature city. Major galleries like Red Gate Gallery and Tang Contemporary Art anchor the space, and rumor has it that the Guggenheim Foundation may create a permanent presence here soon.

What’s more, 798 has been enjoying a new air of legitimacy since the city saved the area from encroaching development, citing a desire to preserve this cultural draw for visitors to the 2008 Olympics. Some fear the neighborhood is jeopardized instead by an influx of tourism, or by the creeping commercialism that has resulted in corporate sponsorships and rising rents.

During my visit, I did see one commercial photo shoot in progress, but the charming assemblage was anything but corporate -- a pouting teenage couple lounged on the hood of a Jeep parked on a weedy lot while a small camera crew puttered around. One young cameraman asked my permission to take some shots of me and then proceeded to follow me around Long March Space, snapping photos while I took notes on the excellent "NONO" exhibition there.

"NONO" at Long March Space
Conceived as a show without a unifying theme or any curatorial meddling, "NONO," Apr. 21-June 17, 2007, was directly produced by 11 artists who are loosely affiliated with one another, and with Long March Space artistic director Xiao Xiong -- though Xiao adamantly denies any involvement in the final product. According to their press release (ironically titled "A non-explanatory explanation"), the word "‘NONO’ was what kept surfacing as everyone was shooting down the title proposed by someone else. It soon became the title."

For a show without explanations or preconceptions, "NONO" certainly generated a lot of paper, including several press releases, a preface and a 45-page catalogue. A sample, from assistant curator Huang Si: "Is NONO a double refusal and rejection, or is it the rejection of refusal? Is it saying no, or not saying no?" But if the concept (or anti-concept) is a bit muddy, the work on display was uniformly clear-sighted and cool-headed. As was intended, the work speaks for itself.

Despite -- or because of -- the market boom, many artists in "NONO" made work that commented on the contradictions and limitations of contemporary art. The best of these was Xu Zhen’s monumental untitled sculpture, a send-up of Damien Hirst’s "Natural History" series. It consists of what seems to be a bisected brontosaurus displayed behind smudgy glass in a water-filled case. Visitors can walk between the two sections of the 30-foot-long dinosaur and view its realistic resin innards.

Xu’s work has been dubbed a tribute, a commentary or an obvious jibe (Conceptual Art as dinosaur?), but no explanation accounts for its striking presence. Like Hirst’s work, Xu’s must be experienced to be appreciated -- and despite the obviously long-deceased subject matter, the brontosaurus feels very much alive, a damp, green, menacing presence. Because of its size, the installation was set outside of the main gallery in the courtyard, and in the oppressive summer humidity (Beijing is farther north and usually cooler than Shanghai, but this summer, it has been just as bad), the damp green glass and looming monster have a dark, jungle feeling very much at odds with more aseptic conversations about authenticity and redundancy.

Despite the apparently wide-open frontiers for Chinese contemporary art, many artists’ works raised issues of confinement, wildness and delineations of private space. Zoos, cages and animals behind bars were recurrent themes. Wang Wei dealt with these issues most expressly in his site-specific installation No Nocturnal Animals Here, a darkened, life-size display of four empty animal cages made to look like a zoo’s nocturnal animal house, complete with simulated vegetation, food dishes and signs with tags like "From the tropical and temperate rain forests of Asia, Europe, North and South America." Despite the title -- and the obvious fact that a gallery is not a zoo -- visitors were seen tiptoeing cautiously through the poorly lit exhibition, as if expecting an animal to pounce on them any moment. In short, this obviously harmless space provoked the same eerie sense of dislocation as Xu Zhen’s murky underwater dinosaur -- a sense of wildness encroaching on a civilized gallery space.

The artist Liu Wei even put exercise equipment in a cage. In A Life Style, Liu Wei placed pieces of bright blue and orange gym gear, the type commonly seen in public parks and along sidewalks in Chinese cities, inside a cage with a concrete floor littered with cookies, banana peels and other food trash. Liu Wei is playing with the very fluid nature of public and private spaces in China -- in the summers, families move entire living-room sets out onto the sidewalks, and bathing and brushing teeth in traffic is not uncommon -- but at the same time, the steel bars and banana peels are a clear echo of Wang Wei’s animal environments.

Other "NONO" contributors created work more politically charged, but wild animals continued to pop up. In Artistic Proposals for the 192 Member Nations of the U.N., by Zhu Yu, the artist creates 192 works tailored to the political and social reality of specific nations, each with detailed notes and photos, and presenting them as project proposals, the sort of thing you'd send to a residency program or fellowship. Many of the most relevant came from Africa, lately a source of much interest for Chinese investment. If some are a bit stale (the Congo features the Virgin Mary cradling a dark-skinned Jesus amid a sea of similarly dark-skinned children), others are instantly compelling: Kenya features a gorilla lounging on a treadmill on the side of an urban street (echoes of Liu Wei?); the savannah landscape of Togo is populated with lions and dragons of the Chinese New Year variety; in Rwanda, Chinese stone lions are balanced on African women’s heads as they move through the marketplace.

As China’s power grows, new questions arise about the ways the nation uses its investment dollars for dubious ends. The relationship between China and Africa was also key to another work in "NONO," Kan Xuan’s China Brand No. 8 -- Entering Africa. The brand in question is "Laoganma," a popular hot sauce exported to Africa. Kan Xuan’s installation consists of two videos running one after another in a short loop, less than three minutes long. In the first, images of African wildlife flash on the screen, including an appealing meerkat; in the second, the spokeswoman for the Laoganma hot sauce brand distorts her mouth in reaction to the spicy flavors. Jars of hot sauce are scattered over the ground in front of the video screen, and throughout both segments, African drum music pounds in the background.

I recently visited a Chinese propaganda museum that featured a series of posters from the 1950s to the 1970s depicting Africans and other dark-skinned people as alternately hapless victims of imperialism or eager cohorts in the global struggle against capitalism. Seeing the work of Zhu Yu and Kan Xuan reminded me again of the ways China has imagined the African continent over the last century, as a place of economic and political opportunity as well as untamed wildness.

"Theme: Park" at m97
Returning from Beijing’s fertile Dashanzi area to Shanghai’s slumbering Moganshan Lu was a study in contrasts. The packed earth trails, scrubby bushes and log benches that dot 798 make the place seem like an artist’s summer camp, while Moganshan is all concrete and hard angles. Some excellent shows have opened in recent weeks (including Earthlink gallery’s Wang Qiang retrospective), but other galleries are winding down for the summer.

However, the intriguing new photography gallery m97 is not on summer vacation. Its most recent exhibition, "Theme: Park," June 2-July 6, 2007, featuring black-and-white photography by Yan Cheng and Yan Changjiang, returned again to the topics of space, confinement and wildness, with photo series titled "Echo" and "Zoo at Night," respectively.

Yan Cheng’s "Echo" features photos of sagging amusement parks in the industrial city of Shenyang. Like all long-disused public facilities, they appear rusty and sad, touchingly out of date. But some of the images -- such as Echo #01, a picture of a still Ferris wheel rising behind a Socialist Realist propaganda sculpture -- hint at a more complicated public past. The toiling men and women depicted in the heroic sculpture are as touchingly out of time as the rollercoaster in Echo #02.

Echo #13, an image of a dome-topped empty cage, is one of the most formally lovely shots, and another reminder of the tension between viewer and viewed, inside and outside, that appeared in the work of Liu Wei and others this summer.

Yan Changjiang’s "Zoo at Night" is a photo study of caged animals after hours at a Guangzhou wild animal park, and a perfect compliment to Wang Wei’s No Nocturnal Animals Here from "NONO." Like Yan Cheng’s theme parks, Yan Changjiang’s zoos are human creations for entertainment and public recreation, but at night they are still, wild and without any human presence. The sanitized world of a suburban theme park becomes mysterious, untamed and perhaps dangerous.

"Haunting" is a word too often used, but Yan Changjiang’s cityscapes are truly haunted -- by the ghosts of loping antelopes, or a flock of flamingos ethereally illuminated by floodlights.

SUMMER KUMAR is a writer and critic living in Shanghai.