|'Trash' to brash: China's contemporary
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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