Beijing Beat blog with Mark Godfrey

Beijing Beat

Beijing's Art Scene Gets Bolder

Jan 7

Written by:
1/7/2008 3:46 AM  RssIcon

Weight Watchers boss’ new contemporary art centre in Beijing sets new rules in China's avant-garde scene
It’s the only gallery in Beijing’s art district that charges an entry fee (RMB30). I heard some people bitching about the fact yet the crowds were flocking to the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Dashanzi on both of my recent visits. The centre was built with the cash and connections of Guy and Myriam Ullens, a perma-tanned Belgian power couple (and owners of the Weight Watcher’s brand) with a long time penchant for contemporary Chinese art. 

 Easily the largest gallery among the many which have made the converted 798 factory complex their home, the Ullens Centre also has suited attendants and guided tours. There’s a café, an auditorium and a well-stocked gift shop. While most of the other galleries show a mish mash of local established and aspiring modern artists’ work for sale, the only work to be purchased at the Ullens are prints and reproductions on t-shirts, mugs and notepads.

The bilingual story-board introduction to the current show - appropriately an interpretation of how contemporary art began in China with the country’s opening up after the Cultural Revolution - is as succinct and well written as anything you’re likely to find on Chinese art inside or outside mainland China. The works of the 1985 to 1989 period, often juvenile but always brave, years are well explained, with references to political events that shaped the artists’ work. The Tienanmen Square period isn't ignored - the story boards describe how Tienanmen Square was occupied by the military and martial law declared in Beijing on those bloody summer days. More poignant though is what's said by the exodus of artists after the square was machine gunned clear.

Letters, sketches and personal effects in the exhibition cases alongside the main exhibition detail journeys to Paris and New York. Sad is the inevitable migration of many of the featured artists to Paris and New York – exhibition curator Fei Dawei has also spent much of his time abroad. Other artists like Zhang Xiaogang, have thrived off a current craze for Chinese art. Zhang lives in a Beijing villa from which he often appears on CNN and the pages of the New York Times. It’s not clear if he gets a cut from the RMB150 t-shirts in the gallery shop which carry reproductions of some of his signature works.

It's interesting to walk to the other side of 798 to the latest show at the Asia Art Centre, one of the newer galleries opened in the old factory complex. The new gallery, an outpost of a Taipei institution of the same name, is showing a cross section of more recent Chinese contemporary art in an exhibition titled Power of the Universe. The work on show is proof of how Chinese contemporary artists have improved their techniques on the raw, experimental days represented at the Ullens Centre. Worth paying for a look.


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