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At the moment I’m working on an article about Beijing’s art scene. It’s an intimidating topic, and I’m mostly just running around trying to speak with people who know the situation intimately. In the next week or so I’ll post up a few of the most interesting interviews. This first one is with Brian Wallace, the founder of Red Gate, Beijing’s oldest contemporary arts gallery…

BM: Hi Brian. While I’m in Beijing, I’m trying to assemble a kind of oral history of how the contemporary art scene has developed here. As the founder of Beijing’s oldest gallery, I’m curious about your experience. How did you first get involved?

BW: Well, when we opened Red Gate there was actually one other gallery, the Concert Hall, and that subsequently closed. At that time there were no other galleries, but even before that Beijing was already hosting exhibitions of contemporary art. That’s how I became involved, by organizing some of them, in 88 and 89.

Things were opening up at that time. Contemporary art was still misunderstood or frowned upon, and attracted a lot of negative attention – this was still really early days, in the 80s, after ‘the 70s’. There was no market, there was no interest, people didn’t know what it was. So all of that had to be developed.

But there were still groups of active artists. We – and when I say ‘we’ I mean the greater we – were using places like the Temple of Longevity, the Confucian Temple, the Temple of Wisdom Attained (智化寺), the Ancient Observatory, which were just empty spaces, and surprisingly they let people rent them. And so different artists were getting together, and people like me were organizing events, and then a few people like curators, but I don’t think they used that term back then.

BM: And what was the character of the work at that time? Was it motivated by social commentary or it more based in the literati tradition…

BW: There was a lot more work coming out of the literati or tradition of ink painting, a lot of abstract ink painting. That was the early days for many of these very very young artists who were inexperienced and living in a world that had been closed off. So for them to start making comments on what was going on around them, there were only a few that were really getting there. Fang Lijun was one of them, with his lithographs long before he got to oil painting.

BM: And to what extent where these artists spurred by what was going on outside of China?

BW: It was very insular, because they had no idea what was going on outside China, and had no access to information in those days. Then there were a few embassy people, cultural attaches, who were very interested in what was going on and they pushed things along at bit. They had more resources to do things than students, so they helped things along quite a bit.

And it was still very early days for artists to be able to go overseas. And that was before 89. Then people like Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, who were earlier graduates from, say Hanjou and went abroad before 89 were still unknown. So, the 80s was definitely really early, in terms of exposure.

BM: In writing about the evolution of Chinese contemporary art, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on the year 1985, and what’s called the New Art Movement, I realize that this is before you arrived, but what’s your impression of the significance of this time?

BW: The tag “New Wave Art” or the point in 1985 people were able to relate to much later; they didn’t recognize it at the time, no one around could look at it objectively. Even in the late 80s we didn’t know about these terms – cynical realism, and all of that, so it all came later when historians and curators like Li Xianting were able look back at that fairly objectively and start categorizing.

The New Wave artists… well, first of all if you go back even further, you’ve got 79 and the Stars Group. And that was when there was still political discussions on the subversiveness of abstract art. It was felt that there was something wrong with it and it couldn’t be shown. From then on, up to I guess 85, there was a sort of free-for-all, with a lot of younger artists coming out of the schools doing whatever they wanted.

And it’s too simple to say ‘from 85, New Wave art was created,’ but I guess during that gestation of the 80s you could see people were starting to do more things with there work, rather than just the physical side. They were really thinking about what was going on.

BM: So if the 80s can be considered a gestation period, with 85 as its peak, 1989 must considered its end…

BW: Yes, everything stopped in 89. It was actually through to the summer 91, when people started to pick themselves up again. Business started again – that was the most noticeable development – back in the late ’80s, there were the “soul traders” (个体户) a new group of people who, one work would selling cigarettes off the back seat of a bicycle, the next week whenever that corner was, there’d be a little booth there. So, people could go out and start their own businesses. And that was a real change in economic development. But after 89 all of that stopped as well, but in 91 those kind of people bounced back, so there was an energy. My observation is that people started to relax a bit and say, ‘Ok, we’ve had enough of this mourning or period of being glum and depressed. Let’s get on with things again.’ And I think things noticeably picked up around that time. And that’s when we started talking about opening a gallery.

BM: So the halt to things in 89 was mostly self-imposed, not mandated by the government?

BW: Yeah, self-imposed. People were pissed off, and it was actually much harder to exhibitions. After 89, I was living in the Friendship Hotel and so we knew that we couldn’t go back to the Observatory and try to organize a public exhibition, so we were doing them in our apartments in different places. But even the Friendship Hotel got wind of these activities and didn’t want us to do them. No one was interested in doing anything public. So it was a pretty tough time.

And then in the early 90s government policies relaxed and the whole economic took off. Way back when Deng Xiaoping said, ‘Develop the economy,’ and ‘Capitalists are good,’ and all of that, I don’t think they had any idea how fast and how far that would go. But the resilience is there, and given the opportunity, back in the early 90s, it just took off. Then the government sort of kicked in and was claiming credit for it and controlling it, and now you see what you see out there today. And so it’s just been a whirlwind since then, and the Chinese artists have reflected on all of that.

BM: And is it fair to say that after that point, say 1992, it’s been a more or less straight, upward trajectory?

BW: And after, say 92, it’s been a more or less straight incline. But the economy in the last 3 or 4 years has really taken off, so it’s taken it to another trajectory. And Chinese art has taken off in the last couple of years as well. And at the same time, things has relaxed so much, there’s less concern with what artists are trying to do, the government’s got other worries. They’ve realized that this group of artists are not going to bring down the government, they’re not that subversive, let them be, they’re making money, places like 798 and the studio areas further out have brought a lot of cache to Beijing, and it’s all wrapped up in this drive to present the city in a better way. Society itself has relaxed so much in the last few years, and that will continue to happen for a while.

BM: So, last I’m curious to talk a little about this relaxation you mentioned, because several people I’ve spoken with here have talked about how much looser things are becoming, but actually this is a phenomenon that I don’t see reflected in the foreign press. And I wonder if being censored may even function as a sort of marketing strategy that attracts coverage and adds some aura of edginess to works that are often recycling the same themes – Mao, Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen, commercialization – that have been prevalent for decades.

Well, tales of censorship do have an appeal to readers overseas, but I don’t think many artists actually strategizing in that way. It’s been a long time since there been harassment by the authorities toward a particular artist. Back in the 80s, there was an artist community at the old Summer Palace, and the local police just hassled them all the time. And sometimes there were artists who were looking for trouble and getting into trouble. But I don’t think it helped their careers back then.

But certainly when all the journalists come in, they all talk about this. They want to know what the position of the government is, what are the censorship policies. And really, there are two things that they’re worried about: one is over the top political stuff and then what could be seen as pornography – whether you’re in a public space or at 798. But otherwise there’s so much more to talk about that’s what we try to get these journalists interested in.

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