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'Trash' to brash: China's contemporary art
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - Being hip and avant-garde is hardly the criterion that Chinese cultural mandarins like to adhere to when they judge which Chinese contemporary art is worth presenting to the world. Underground art is spiritual pollution, gaudy art is pornography, and post-Mao pop art is reactionary trash - these are but a few of their judgments.

Times change, though. With all the art indicators pointing east at the 50th Venice Biennale, Beijing's arbiters of taste are being sharply reminded that much of Chinese contemporary art discarded as trash here at home is a hot commodity abroad.

At least 30 Chinese artists are showcasing their work at the international exhibitions at the Biennale, which opened on June 14 and runs until November 2. The official representation of six artists - ironically those led by the Ministry of Culture - was canceled because of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

There is much that Ministry of Culture commissars can be annoyed about. Had it not been for the SARS crisis, the 50th Venice Biennale - the most significant showcase of contemporary art in the world - would have unveiled China's national pavilion for the first time in the Biennale's more than 100 years of history.

The participation of the Ministry of Culture marks the first time the state has given its blessing to the display of China's avant-garde art at the all-important Biennale. It also indicates a watershed in official policy, which has thus far held that Chinese contemporary art as subversive, disturbing and too abstract to appeal to Chinese esthetics.

According to the organizers of the Biennale, the China International Exhibition Agency, appointed by the Chinese Ministry of Culture, announced with "deep regret" its withdrawal from the art event.

All other works by Chinese artists involved in the various different sections of "Dreams and Conflicts - The Dictatorship of the Viewer", directed by the Italian curator Francesco Bonami, are exhibited at the Arsenale Giardini, said the organizers on their official website.

Most of the works in Venice are being curated by Hou Hanru under the rubric of "Zone of Urgency", a melange of new-media installations and video art selected to illustrate his notions about the chaos of Asia's new cities. He believes that urban development has been so fast that it has entered what he calls "post-planning phase".

It includes works by the likes of Yan Lei, who in the past has parodied China's new consumer society with installation works with live pigs - and another with noodles, in which he eats a string of noodles that he then pulls back out of his mouth.

However shocking these works may appear to Chinese state curators, they now have come to realize that contemporary art is imbued with sharp-edged social commentary, unlike the state-enforced strictures of "socialist realism" that depicted beaming model workers and peasants.

Official tolerance of the new, abrasive modern Chinese art has been on display since 1999, when 19 Chinese artists appeared at the Venice Biennale, more than from any other country, and took the event by storm.

"That was the big breakthrough," said Ai Weiwei, a sculpture and installation artist who left China to study in New York but is back at work in Beijing. "After that the police began to leave us alone. People here now want to be seen as Western and contemporary. And the government now wants Beijing to become more international, a place of mixed culture."

Treating artists as employees of the state propaganda department is a risky strategy for a Communist Party that has always kept a tight grip on culture. In the past, when they insisted on doing art for art's sake, artists were rounded up and criticized.

In the late 1980s, hundreds of artists flocked to Beijing - regarded as the art capital of the country. Settled in a collection of villages near Yuanmingyuan - the Old Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing - they were regularly raided by the police, fined and sometimes expelled. The repeated crackdowns, especially after the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, forced many contemporary artists into exile.

Now they are coming back and, like Ai Weiwei, opening up their own exhibition centers and workshops.

Once underground-turned-official artists have carved a niche for themselves in the very heart of China's sprawling and secretive military industrial complex. Factory 798, where tens of thousands of workers once produced military products in workshops designed by East German architects, has become a New York SoHo-style artist colony complete with galleries, bars and nightclubs.

The factory, like thousands of other obsolete state factories in the capital, has been relocated but the walls still carry slogans exhorting the proletariat to keep Mao as the "red sun in their hearts". Some of the redundant factory machinery remains, but in the liberated spaces dozens of artists, sculptors, designers and architects have moved in.

"The painters are here now becoming part of a network of artists in global cities," said Robert Bernell from the United States, the first foreigner to move in and rent an old engine workshop. "Chinese art is no longer being shrugged off as a fad like post-Soviet art but is here to stay," he added.

Burnell worked for the US multinational Motorola before setting up Timezone8 to publish books on Chinese contemporary art.

The art colony now includes the Tokyo Gallery of Japan, which opened the Beijing-Tokyo Art projects in October. The New York-based Long March Foundation also launched its Cultural Transmission Center here in February. Both initiatives focus on Chinese contemporary art.

The Loft is another former military research factory that has been turned into a new media restaurant-gallery. The manager, Lin Tianfang, says Chinese contemporary art is a success not least because of its political background.

"The Cultural Revolution was a shock but it liberated people's thoughts," she said. "It gave them freedom from traditional ideas and allowed artists to be more daring and forceful."

(Inter Press Service)
Jul 4, 2003

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