June 20, 2024
Art Gallery

At Gallery Weekend, Beijing’s art scene is better co-ordinated but losing its character

The entrance to Beijing art hub 798 has an enormous new sign in English declaring it “The Global Art Destination”. The branding around this year’s Gallery Weekend Beijing (GWBJ), which held its eighth edition last week, similarly leaned into Beijing’s international bona fides.

“798 is considering its future, it wants to be global—and already is,” said Aria Yang Jialin, the program director of GWBJ, which is owned by 798’s parent company, Seven-Star Group, originally an electronics manufacturer. “Beijing also needs fairs and events, which can do more than a single gallery.”

This year marked GWBJ’s first time overlapping with the city’s two main art fairs, Beijing Dangdai (23-26 May) and JingArt (23-26 May), making for a busy few opening days with dozens of events impossibly strewn across the massive, traffic-choked city. While still a far cry from the packed offerings of art weeks in Hong Kong and Shanghai, it shifts towards a more coordinated showing from the Chinese capital.

“This year we have formed an art season for Beijing through collaboration and cooperation,” says Bao Dong, the Beijing-based curator who founded Beijing Dangdai. “Of course, we hope that this art season with unified effort can continue, and become a regular event. Beijing’s position in the Chinese and Asian art landscape is becoming increasingly important” as “one of the central cities for art research, exhibition and trade in Asia.”

At the same time, with predominately safe, commercially focused exhibitions (with a few noted exceptions), Beijing’s exact position within the arts landscape of Asia, or even China, has become murky. Its beloved grit is being polished away in a mercurial effort to replicate Shanghai’s glitz. Already stripped of most nonprofit and independent spaces, Beijing is now witnessing the demolition of its few remaining artist villages. The city’s once large expatriate contingent, including many artists and curators, has also shrunk considerably due to Zero Covid measures and political interference.

“Beijing is Beijing!” Yang said, when asked about its identity. “Beijing has rich resources of artists and galleries. But it needs a spark, for its light to burn. Beijing is already an international city, a global art destination for 20 years. You can’t define Beijing, it has a lot of meanings.”

GWBJ this year sponsored eight international curators to come tour exhibitions and studios, outreach it plans to continue annually. “It is a very different year, vibrant and energetic,” says Yang, with expanded collection and studio visits. “The exhibition level is very high—Beijing has it.”

A still from Mia Yu’s Fossil Sunlight, Sedimentary Bodies

The opening weekend brought in old friends “not only from Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, but also from the U.S. and Europe,” said the Beijing-based art historian, curator, and artist Mia Yu. She currently has a standout collaboration with Li Yong at Goethe-Institut Peking, Fossil Sunlight, Sedimentary Bodies (until 23 June) exploring the ecological devastation of the fossil fuel industry in China’s northeast, plus its current economic devastation with the move towards cleaner energy.

“Beijing still has the highest concentration of artists, curators and intelligentsia in China. But does it matter?,” Yu said. “Infrastructure enabling conversation and exchange… becomes increasingly thin. Sometimes I also wonder if there is still such thing as ‘Beijing spirit’?’ of not complying with the official agenda or the market rules, and seeking for alternative spaces and possibilities beyond the set boundaries.”

Citing the vibrant artist-organised exhibitions of the 1990s, Yu recalls how, “Just a few years ago, you could still find at provocative shows at independent art spaces such as the Bunker and DRC No. 12,” all now defunct. “The tension between the status quo and the grassroots self-organization was once the impetus beyond many initiatives and was also what made this city’s cultural life vibrant and interesting.” Shows now can “seem a bit too safe and familiar. Overt professionalism makes everything look rather predicable and boring, no? Where did Beijing’s rough edges go?”.

A few spaces did organise compelling and even provocative shows. Female sexuality, often taboo, was explored through Kang Chunhui’s delicate, often labial flowers displayed in landscapes and cityscapes of her native Xinjiang at Ink Studio (until 18 August). At Galerie Urs Meile (through 4 August), Cao Yu’s literally cheeky take on the female gaze involved entering through a curtain displaying a giant scrotum. Societal examinations included Zhou Yilun’s theatrical parody of how China appropriates Western culture at Beijing Commune (until 29 June)

Nonprofit Macalline Center of Art pulled from its collection to examine our era with An Atlas of the Difficult World (through 30 June), referencing feminist poet Adrienne Rich and featuring 20 artists including Patty Chang, Leelee Chan and Wolfgang Tillmans. At Tabula Rasa (until 7 July), Li Tao’s installation about trained human behavior, used an ostensible theme about the evolution of capitalism to parallel China’s harsh Covid lockdowns.

Many quietly say that Beijing’s censorship is currently gentler than Shanghai’s, though the balance frequently reshifts. Some spaces continue to push against the grey line, and removed works this year included a political slogan from the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous mass economic campaign that caused a famine that killed 15 to 45 million people, and an image of a girl urinating. However, sensitive works including things like a Xi Jinping slogan, Covid policies, female sexuality, and queer communities have remained up—so far.

“All of China has censorship, and all countries do too,” says Yang. “For example, Rirkrit [Tiravanija]’s work with a live bird can’t be shown in the West. Or Huang Yongping’s Theatre of the World, featuring live insects and lizards, and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s fighting dogs on treadmills, also removed from the same 2017 Guggenheim exhibition of Chinese contemporary art. “All countries have different conditions, and none has total artistic freedom. We have to respect each country’s cultural expression.”

The general consensus is that a slowed Chinese economy has taken its toll on Beijing’s art market, although a strong local collector base sustains its numerous galleries. “Sales were very positive and optimistic, especially when everyone’s expectations are relatively constrained,” said Beijing Dangdai’s art director Bao Dong. “No matter what the external environment is like, Beijing is always the most direct mirror that reflects the state of China’s economy and art market.”

Currently that economy is navigating a nation-wide property slump; though the government claimed growth of 5.3% in 2024’s first quarter, many question the accuracy of that figure, given stagnation on the ground.

“Sales exceeded our expectations because the overall global economy was not particularly optimistic. Collectors are becoming more and more cautious,” and reassessing their priorities, said Jia Wei, a partner at the Beijing gallery Spurs. “The current sales situation is not bad, so I feel that everyone is observing the market again. For galleries that have been working for a long time, this situation will not have a serious impact, but for those who want to make short-term profits through art, it is difficult, so I think from now on, practitioners need to make long-term plans.”

“Beijing has many galleries, a critical mass,” Yang said. With the Central Academy of Fine Arts plus relationships with dealers and the “atmosphere”, many artists choose to stay in the city. While second tier Chinese cities are trying to build up their own cultural infrastructure, “only Beijing plus Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong have sufficient ecosystems”.

“The domestic market has slowed down a bit this year and is a bit calmer, but it’s still very active,” said Jia Mingyu, a representative of Sprüth Magers, which joined GWBJ’s visiting sector with Andreas Schulze’s first solo exhibition in Asia. “In the case of a cold market, it is understandable that everyone huddles together to warm up at the same time,” Jia Mingyu says of the overlap with fairs. “Hopefully the future will be better.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *