Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Art Pilgrimage Beijing

Is it possible to comment on art or China in 2006 without resorting to the word boom?

After several intense consultations with Roget’s, I became convinced that it is possible, and so dutifully report the following: In 2006, the Beijing art scene is prospering! It is active and robust – if somewhat rambunctious.

It takes almost no time or insight to come to this conclusion; the evidence is everywhere. A new gallery opens somewhere in Beijing nearly every week. Across the city and far out into the suburbs, art events spring up in arbitrary, unchartable ways that suggest a free-for-all, but depend on discipline. There’s money everywhere. Over the past few months, Chinese contemporary art has become hot as increasingly vigorous local buyers, mostly from the real estate and energy industries, build a domestic market and Western collectors hop onto the Next Big Thing(s) via auctions and exploratory trips to local galleries and artists’ residences.

The force behind Beijing’s current cultural hyperactivity is the city’s economic and urban growth. It is a force that nourishes and inspires the city’s artists, providing a foreground of futuristic, uncontrollable construction and offering unprecedented chances for work and recognition. These conditions are not taken lightly, and among Beijing’s active artists there is a mood of passion and responsibility that is exhilarating.

At the same time, two decades of double-digit economic growth are finally having an effect, as contemporary art is embraced by wealthy Chinese as an investment tool and symbol of national pride, and huge sums of public money are put toward improving the city’s cultural life. The number of serious contemporary art collectors is small, but growing, led by Guan Yi and Jia Rui, among others. In the private sector, a convenient marriage of artistic imagination and corporate resources is producing corpoculture – a characteristically Chinese hybrid spearheaded by the real estate developer SOHO and observable in Beijing’s rapidly proliferating ‘office complexhibition spaces’.

But for its obvious benefits, the inflation of Beijing’s contemporary art scene is having a flattening effect. As demand surpasses supply, mediocre work is increasingly being put up to fill the gap. In the auction houses, speculators are overzealous, driving up prices, rewarding first- and fourth-class artists as equals. With so much to gain, it’s perhaps unsurprising to find some of Beijing’s established artists stuck in neutral – regurgitating past successes and producing what sells, i.e. ‘edgy’ subject matter like Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen.

“China has never before encountered this much market attention,” explains Leng Lin, a local artist, writer, and curator. “This isn’t necessarily bad, but Chinese artists don’t really know how to deal with it yet. The best will ride it to a higher level, others will be enslaved by it.”

The risks and rewards of Chinese art’s newfound celebrity are apparent in Dashanzi at 798, a complex of disused Mao-era electronics factories that, through the efforts of local artists and entrepreneurs, was converted into the city’s largest arts district. The story of this transformation is now part of Beijing legend, a parable on the desire and sense of mission that fuels Beijing’s contemporary arts. Its current condition as a kind of modern art theme park shows the extent to which its supporters have succeeded, and the ambiguous consequences of that success.

“During the first few years,” explains Lee Ambrozy, art critic and producer for the Star Gallery in Dashanzi, “there was always a threat of [798] being destroyed that brought people together and made it thrive.”

As the story goes, under an air of impending doom – the government had longstanding plans to turn the area into an ‘electronics city’ – the compound’s residents combined and pushed forward, staging massive curatorial experiments and establishing their own international platform, the Dashanzi International Arts Festival (DIAF). In the process, they developed their own model of cultural development and community building, in which ‘illegal’ but ‘tolerated’ activities can be assimilated into Beijing’s art economy. After years of oscillation, Beijing’s government finally declared the area protected and, now re-christened Dashanzi Arts District, it is being integrated in the city’s pre-Olympic plans. Berenice Angremy who, along with artist Huang Rui, co-organises DIAF, describes Dashanzi as “…another way of thinking. What’s important is that it is a public space where many different forms of art can be represented in a transparent way… That was unique to Beijing, and that is why it is so popular.”

Dashanzi is very popular and, with its immediate future secure, its character is changing: tourists are more visible; the line between gallery and gift shop is less distinct. As more bars and restaurants move in, 798 has ceased to be an affordable refuge for many artists, and, while it still hosts several of the city’s best galleries, some in Beijing’s art scene stress looking beyond.

“798 established an approach that’s very useful,” says Chaos Chen, a Beijing-based curator and founder of art consultancy chaosprojects. “It created lots of new opportunities for artists and art-related businesses. And this is a model that’s being tried out elsewhere.”

The 798 model can be seen at work in the many artists’ compounds and gallery clusters sprouting up in the villages around Beijing’s fringes, like Caochangdi – home to China Art Archives & Warehouse, MoCA Beijing, and the ‘soft’ opened China National Film Museum – and Jiuchang – site of another post-industrial redevelopment that’s already being hyped as a kind of earnest anti-Dashanzi.

It is also present, in an indirect way, in projects launched in galleries like Amelie, Beijing Art Now, and the Long March Space, all of which are currently developing strategies for ensuring the sustainable development of Chinese art in the midst of the current speculative frenzy.

“We need an organic and incubatory system for the young artists to survive and succeed,” Amelie’s Creative Director Tony Chang says in explaining the gallery’s Support Chinese Young Artists Program (SCYAP). “We need art buyers who recognise the real beauty of art instead of return on investment ratio.”

Efforts like SCYAP and DIAF represent only a small part of the hundreds of experiments that now comprise the Beijing art scene. For the visitor, recognising the full picture is hardly necessary; the individual pieces stand on their own. But in exploring the galleries, museums, and workshops scattered throughout the city, it’s useful to remember that Beijing’s contemporary art is determined by Beijing’s contemporary condition, which, at the moment, is one of pride, agitation, and above all ambition.

From a distance, Beijing’s freewheeling development can look reckless, and the long-term effects of the city’s unscripted cultural growth spurt are impossible to read, but many here take a pragmatic, “wait and see” attitude. David Tung, executive director of the Long March Space, explains, “There is a statistic saying 300 new museums are being built throughout China. But what we don’t know is: Do they have collections? Who’s going to run them? Where will the staff come from? The ability to generate is obvious, but there’s no talk yet of sustainability – how can 300 museums be maintained? – that’s a question that we’ll probably come to in about five years.”

Originally published in Art Review Magazine, October 2006