During a recent visit to Beijing, the conversation at a local restaurant on a Saturday night turned briefly, only briefly, to politics. The video artist Wang Gongxin spoke excitedly about China's so-called Jasmine Revolution, which has been much reported in the American press but barely felt in Beijing art circles. Apparently, he noted, 700 people had descended on a McDonald's in the Wangjing neighborhood, in response to a call on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
Even U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman showed up at the McDonald's, though he was wearing a jacket with an American flag patch, which drove Chinese bloggers crazy. They complained that he was grandstanding in anticipation of a run against Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. But then Lin Tianmiao, Wang's wife and one of the most famous women artists in China, turned the conversation to her upcoming 2012 retrospective at Asia Society in New York, ignoring the nearby television blaring reports of the turmoil in Libya.
The whole scene was a little surprising. Some successful artists in China look forward to political reform, but many more of them are in bed with the ministry of culture. In that sense, the Chinese avant-garde is conservative. The current system has made them millionaires, and the last thing they want is change.
Little overt political art is on view in Beijing's famous 798 gallery district. Once a massive munitions plant built in the Bauhaus style and covering acres of land, 798 has been SoHo-fied, with more boutiques and cafes opening each month. The area includes the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and Pace Beijing, as well as a number of other good galleries. Ullens Center opened in 2006 as a nonprofit private museum sponsored by Baron Guy Ullens, a Belgium businessman with a massive collection of Chinese contemporary art.
Arguably of greater interest than revolution is the fate of the Ullens Center, now that its founder has begun to sell off his collection, offering over 100 valuable works from the 1980s and early 1990s at Sotheby's Hong Kong on Apr. 3, 2011. The sale is estimated to bring $12 million-$17 million, not quite as much as Ullens raised when he sold his JMW Turner watercolors in 2005 for $20 million to pay for opening the art center in the first place.
It is no secret that Ullens has been trying to offload the entire operation. He was in negotiations for several years with Minsheng Bank, which already operates a museum in Shanghai, but the company would not meet the Baron's (undisclosed) price and walked away from the deal. Minsheng is now rumored to have bought instead the old Panasonic factory, planning to turn the 60,000-square-meter facility just outside the industrial zone into a Beijing museum.
Meanwhile, several strong shows were on view at galleries within the art district, with works on offer for substantial prices. At the top of the food chain was "Beijing Voice: Together or Isolated" at Pace Beijing, featuring two mammoth sculptures. Song Dong's work consists of a pair of solid brick walls, built in parallel, with a kind of tricycle-cart contraption inserted through slots at the walls' bases, as if to suggest the constraint of elementary mobility ($280,000). Wang Jin, who is perhaps better known for his theatrical, large-scale, high-key photographs, here presented what looks like a shiny, stainless steel version of a tyrannosaurus skull, titled My Head ($180,000).
A younger artist to watch is Liang Yuanwei, whose painted abstractions mimicking the texture of flowered fabrics are priced at around $68,000. She is slated to show in the China pavilion at the Venice Biennale along with Song Dong, who has the main exhibition there.
Pace Beijing president Leng Ling has held onto his old gallery, Beijing Commune, running both spaces. Beijing Commune has become a kind of feeder for the bigger gallery. The star of the Beijing Commune group show was an older artist, Li Yousong, whose realistic paintings evoke mid-20th-century murals and would fit right in at Rockefeller Center. Art stars Takashi Murakami and Zhang Xiaogang are among his supporters. Prices were not yet established for the paintings in the exhibition.
Likewise, it was hard to determine if the works were for sale at Boers-Li Gallery, where a historic survey of Chinese video art was smartly installed on computers stationed on old wooden desks.
In contrast, Star Gallery was featuring a show of paintings by Huang Yuxing, decidedly for sale. The haunting, Neo-Ex-style pictures of disembodied heads and cadavers in forests filled with klieg lights were selling for up to $38,000, not bad for an emerging artist.
Outside 798, at Pékin Fine Arts over in the nearby gallery district of Chaochangdi, was "You Are Not a Gadget," a witty group show focusing on the impact of the internet on daily life and identity. The young artist Leng Wen took over a wall with a series of lightbox works titled "Desktops," consisting of digital portraits of attractive young websurfers with their desktop icons scrolling across their faces. The editioned works were priced modestly at $2,000 each.
Also interesting were the set of tapestries produced by artists Zhuang Hui and Dan'er in collaboration. Titled My Spam, the trashy looking but nevertheless craftsmanly works used images from email spam -- Viagra ads, mostly -- and were priced at $19,000 a piece.
The show included two very different video artists, both worth keeping an eye on. Huang Ran, a recent graduate of Goldsmiths in London, presented an extremely stylish video of three men of different ages, chewing a single piece of gum then passing it between them. More melodramatic was Yan Xing, who showed documentation of his heartfelt performance, titled DADDY, in which he spends an hour describing his childhood with his single mom and analyzing the impact of having an absentee father.
Both the video show and the exhibition at Star indicate that a new generation of Chinese artists is coming up in the ranks and will no doubt soon be showing in New York.
The Chinese art market may be exuberant, but that hardly translates into freedom of expression for the average Chinese citizen. One man who is acutely aware of this contradiction is Zhao Liang, a wonderful documentary filmmaker best known in the United States for his feature Petition, in which he followed the fates of Chinese villagers who come to Beijing to have their grievances heard. His latest film, Together, which focuses on the treatment of HIV positive residents in China, was recently showing at Beijing's BC MOMA movie house.
Zhao speaks eloquently about the need for freedom of expression and democratic elections, which is not something that a Westerner hears that much from Chinese artists. His next project involves traveling through China and meeting with human rights activists who share his beliefs. In his circle, reform of the Chinese political system is not just dinner conversation and involves greater risks than showing up at a McDonald's for an afternoon.
BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, WIld East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).