The art of urban guerrilla tactics
China destroys Huang work of art, this was the headline in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant April 2003. In the article their Beijing correspondent Jan van der Putten described the destruction of a work by Huang Yong Ping at the Guangzhou Triennial. The work destroyed was Bat Project II, a sixteen meters long replica of an American spy plane that made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan in April of last year. Van der Putten could barely contain his indignation about these communist culture bureaucrats who destroyed the work of an internationally renowned artist. According to Van der Putten, the fact that this work was considered unacceptably shocking merely goes to prove that the motives for the censorship were of a political nature, namely concerning Chinese - American relations. For years Chinas relationship with modern art has been extremely tense. These days a great deal is possible, but a great deal is not.
This newspaper article is typical of the way that China is reported. The implicit message is that despite the economic reforms Chinas artists are still suffering heavily under a communist regime. And Van der Putten is, of course, right to be indignant about the destruction of Huangs work, because it is a denial of the artists right of free expression. But what was his motivation for writing this? Out of compassion for the Chinese art world? If that is the case then he will be disappointed. Chinese artists, curators or art critics no longer experience the censor as a world shocking phenomenon, but at most, as an irritating circumstance that they just have to deal with. As early as five years ago, one of the most active ambassadors of Chinese contemporary art, the critic and curator Hou Hanru, said in an interview: There is no systematic or governmental censorship, it happens only occasionally. 1 Anyone who talks to some of the original insider art adepts in Beijing will have this confirmed. The Europeans who just keep on writing about the censorship and who remain so keen on the pop-arty, politically correct paintings, the political pop of the early nineties, now that is a real thorn in their sides. Why is there nothing being written about the many interesting presentations and exhibitions in cities that have come to terms with the bureaucracy, such as Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai?
The interest in China is nothing new. For at least the past ten years the world of architecture has shown an intense interest in the developments in various Asiatic countries where the economy has been booming for so long. The urban dynamics are unimaginable and on a scale and tempo unparalleled in the West. These developments have been thoroughly documented, in exhibitions such as Cities on the Move, and in numerous magazine articles. But much has changed in the last five years, concerning the Internet for example. Good literature on Chinese contemporary art is difficult to find in the Netherlands, but everything can be ordered via the Internet. The discussion on Asiatic art is as concentrated and specialized, as the country is immeasurable and complex. In the absence of a regular system of art magazines in China a website such as http://www.chinese-art.com has grown into a high-quality electronic magazine on contemporary art, with background articles, reviews, information on current exhibitions, and the most recent literature. Chinese theorists/curators living in the West such as Hou Hanru and, less well-known in the Netherlands, Wu Hung, have been steadily working on the deepening of the theoretical discourse on Chinese art, one of their latest epic achievements being the production of a Bible-sized catalogue to accompany the first Guangzhou Triennial entitled: Reinterpretation: A Decade of Chinese Art (1990-2000). But the virtual China is not the real China. What is the current status of the art-scene in a city like Beijing, still regarded by many as the Mecca of contemporary art in China?
Fuck Off (buhezuo fangshi)
In Beijing I spoke with Ai Weiwei, one of the curators of the controversial exhibition Fuck Off (2000), currently working as architect and artistic director of one of the first exhibition spaces for contemporary art in Beijing: China Art Archives & Warehouse (CAAW). Most alternative exhibition spaces are located on the fraying edges of the city, far from the gaze of the culture bureaucrats. I imagined that the CAAW would be a dusty, old, isolated building, particularly considering the district in which it lies: here, the immense glass office towers that are springing up like mushrooms everywhere else in the city, are replaced by shabby low-rise buildings. What I encountered was nothing like this cliché. The CAAW turned out to be housed in a stunning, austere and sober stone building, designed by Ai Weiwei himself, as were his house and office, situated just a stones throw away. [fig. 1] [fig. 2] In the same way that Donald Judd had a museum specially built in the Texas desert as a perfect habitat for his minimalist art, a small modernist art mausoleum has risen in this dilapidated suburb of Beijing. Ai Weiwei produces exhibitions here with work from young, as well as more established artists. During my visit, there was a solo presentation by Li Zhanyang. For a number of years he has been making realistic, colourful, clay sculptures of everyday, metropolitan scenes. A group of Chinese people all trying to board a bus at the same time, an argument in the street, any observation can give rise to a sculpture. [fig. 3] [fig. 4] Seen from a Western perspective the works of Li Zhanyang could perhaps be described as naïve realistic. But this sort of easy comparison holds no water here. In China nothing is what it seems, this was impressed upon me. The new left-wing political movement are being called the new conservatives, while the right-wing movement are regarded as radical avant-gardists. It all depends on the context. Later, while drinking tea in Ai Weiweis house, he tells me more about this schizophrenia in the Chinese art world: It is good that China has become so much more open, but the fact that curators are still working from an isolated position is not healthy. There is very little critical writing on art in newspapers or magazines. Art is not a part of modern life, even though it does have a very important function. It is the artists who make us aware of the problems of modern China. Currently there is a danger of art being presented as a part of a new, highly coveted Western lifestyle. Then people will start to see art as a superficial phenomenon and the content of the art will be neutralized. Another complicating aspect is the fact that you cannot just say: we will modernise China now. It is a complex and difficult process. Modernism is not simply a choice; it is the philosophy and the attitude of an age. The modernism that currently exists among certain Chinese artists is not actually being represented at the international biennials where foreign curators present Chinese artists. Usually these curators do not take the time to learn about how Chinese art is embedded in society. This can be seen in the superficial choices they make in the selection of the works.
Operation Ink Freedom
If I am to believe Ai Weiwei, then the CAAW is the only real non-commercial establishment offering space for experimental art in Beijing. But that proved not to be the case. The city is bubbling over with new initiatives as a direct result of the process of urban renewal and the economic reforms. In order to attract foreign investors the historical centre of Beijing, with its traditional courtyards and hutongs, is having to make way for large commercial centres. Video artist Lin Tianmiao, who lives in such a courtyard, told me that for this reason she is living in a constant state of uncertainty as to how long it will be before she too has to leave her home. The English-language, almost propagandist TV station CCTV 9 is keen to emphasize how the government is striving to conserve and restore certain sections of the hutong districts. They will, however, be nothing more than nostalgic tourist attractions that are only reminiscent of the past. Beijing is a city in transformation, in those areas that sometimes seem completely fixed in a city like Amsterdam. The arrival of the post-political, capitalistic, commercial centres also creates all manner of undefined, temporarily vacant buildings and spaces that can be used by artists. Hou Hanru: Artists have developed strategies for mobile, temporary, flexible interventions in the urbane emptiness of public locations in the city, such as, garages, empty building sites, and public transport systems (
) Art actions have become a genuine urban guerrilla. 2 But others tell me that this tendency is already somewhat in decline. This illustrates how difficult it is to get to grips with the tempo of this city. The continuous vitality also produces a counter reaction. Curators and artists are seeking consolidation, wanting firstly to build a cultural infrastructure where experimental art can be shown on an established basis. In the cheap suburbs of the city, particularly in the Chaoyang district, artists are building their own art enclaves. The CAAW is one example, but so are the Shangri La Artist Community and the increasingly well-known Factory 798 terrain. The factory terrain 798 was built by an East German architect in 1951 with the help of the Soviet Union and was, for a long time, the most important producer of military electronics. The Bauhaus-style halls have been standing empty since the economic reforms and are therefore enthusiastically annexed by artists and entrepreneurs, who open new exhibition spaces, workshops, and trendy restaurants. Meg Maggio, the American curator of The Court Yard Gallery, the best commercial gallery for contemporary art in the centre of the city, tells me that there is a good chance that Factory 798 will also be demolished in one years time: The occupiers of that terrain actually want to build apartment complexes, but right now they dont have the necessary permits. By establishing all sorts of small cultural businesses there, they are demonstrating that they can also be real-estate agents, in the hope of finally convincing the authorities to give them the permits for the exploitation of the site. At the moment the demolition seems a long way off and there is an infectious enthusiasm around Factory 798. Six months ago a Tokyo gallery opened a new annexe there: Tokyo Art Projects. [fig. 5] [fig. 6]
[fig. 7] Curator and critic Lu Jie received me at the factory terrain in his, currently empty, '25.000 Cultural Transmission Centre', which promises to be not just a gallery, but a workstation to research the development of new forms of exhibition production. With his American-sponsored project The Long March Project he realized a variety of works on location in inland China, along the historical route of the Long March of Mao Zedong. A concept he devised during his study at the Goldsmiths College in London, he tells me. His first exhibition bears the significant title Operation Ink Freedom. Besides the artists workshops, the Factory 798 terrain also hosts the Yan Club Art Centre; a cross between a bar, gallery, and podium, and the publishers Timezone 8. But nothing is certain in Beijing. This is also evident in the gallery announcements that appear every month: new spots are being introduced as fast as they are disappearing. Thus it appears that the well-known presentation space for new media art in the lounge bar The Loft, hasnt held a presentation in months due to lack of funding.
Pioneering is what makes this city so incredibly attractive. The word engagement doesnt exist in Beijing. There is simply no Chinese character for it, but at the same time, it is a self-evident criterion of the artistic practice. Even though the opinions on how best to highlight the frictional power of Chinese contemporary art differ widely, other artists and curators that I spoke to generally share Ai Weiweis scepticism regarding the presentation of Chinese artists at international exhibitions. But nobody knows a solution. While some seek it in the power of making intimate, high quality presentations in China itself and making a personal connection with (also less well-known) artists. Others find the concessions that are made for large, internationally prominent exhibitions, necessary for the democratisation of Chinese art. Lu Jie is actually trying to find new exhibition forms, which connect traditional Chinese points of departure with Western curatorial practice.
The most intriguing exhibition in Beijing was, however, not to be found on the Factory 798 terrain, but even further from the city centre in the Shangri La Artist Community. The exhibition is spread around all the different buildings in the communal complex. On the roof, two crouching figures by Liang Shuo provide an early indication that something is happening here. [fig. 8] [fig. 9] But there are no texts anywhere to explain the exhibition, the title, or the concept. Abstract steel sculptures, wooden carvings, and abstract expressionist paintings, in our eyes hopelessly outdated, are shown alternately with photographs and installations by better-known artists. It does no harm at all because altogether it shows in plain terms, what artists are occupied with. Some works have something unmistakably familiar. Two photos by the Gao Brothers (Gao Zhen & Gao Qiang) for example. A boy lies motionless on the tarmac in the middle of an empty highway. Beside him sits a boy with a lit candle and a little further away a boy and girl are embracing. Has a terrible accident occurred, an assault been committed? Nothing of the sort, because in the photo beside it we see the same boy who we had just taken for dead on the tarmac, standing up with a torch. From a distance he observes the boy with the candle who is lying stretched out on the ground close to two fervently embracing couples. For an earlier work, Utopia of Embrace of 20 minutes (2000), the Gao Brothers invited one hundred and fifty volunteers to take part in a performance. All the participants were asked to do was to choose a person randomly, and warmly embrace them for fifteen minutes. The performance was held in various locations along the Yellow River. The photos of this performance appear emblematic for the current atmosphere in China. Groups of people standing together in empty landscapes or industrial spaces as if seeking meaning in the direct contact with each other, in a time when nobody can keep up with the incredible pace of development. The photographs I saw at the exhibition show a greater disunity. The fact that the highway is empty is anomalous and the burning candle gives the impression that a loss is being come to terms with: Later on the Internet I read that The Gao Brothers turn their ideas about life into symbols, and that their performances are not intended to simulate real life. That would explain the fact that their photos did not remind me of the phenomenological impact of performances in the sixties, and that I was only able to read something symbolic such as a loss into the work.
In the middle of the same exhibition space, opposite the photos by the Gao Brothers, stands a wall on which Wang Zi Yuan has spray-painted his mobile telephone number, together with the words: I will teach you how to lie. [fig. 10] This is a reference to the way that the Chinese advertise and communicate with each other in the city. They leave their telephone numbers on walls with a short advertising slogan. It reminds me of the wall drawings by Zhang Dali that I came across on the way to the Shangri La Artist Community. The walls that Zhang Dali selects for his tag (a head in profile) are, in his words the changing screens of the city. He wants to make his drawings a part of the changing city. After all, he believes passionately that man is a product of his environment; changes in the environment will also change the people. [fig. 11] There is a great deal more to be said about the exhibition at the Shangri La Artist Community, but the photos by Ma Yong Feng cannot fail to be mentioned. Ma showed a number of black & white photos of a naked young boy, lying on a bed, sitting in a refrigerator or on the toilet. He wants to show these photos in America but fears that they will be associated with child pornography and therefore be censored. Voila: here they are just hanging, and nobody is kicking up a fuss.
Published in Metropolis M, no.3, 2003.
1. Sjoukje van der Meulen, interview with Hou Hanru, Metropolis M, no.5 oct/nov 1997
2. Hou Hanru, On the Mid-Ground, Hong Kong, 2002.