On my crowded flight from Beijing back to Heathrow this month the majority of passengers were laptop-toting students about to embark on the new term at British universities. Glasgow School of Art’s new teaching venture with the Chinese Academy of Fine Art in Beijing (see Report) and the presence of an exhibition by Glasgow’s post-graduate students on the Hiscox MFA course (24 Sep – 8 Oct), is part of a much wider globalisation of education that parallels the sea-change in China’s economic development.
If much recent art is concerned with the impact of globalisation, it is hard to imagine a nation where the issues are more keenly felt than in China, where the transition to a high-tech, consumer and increasingly urban society is stretching existing structures — economic, agricultural and familial — into new shapes. Under these circumstances how elastic can art-making be? Indeed, when Chinese contemporary art has gone from marginality to shop-front mainstream in less than a decade, how elastic might it want to be? While this year’s Beijing Biennale embraced the moniker of the globalised art world, its strict national segregation — one venue for Chinese artists, one for a poor selection from the rest of the world — and its restrcitions to traditional media simultaneously resisted it, a number of concurrent shows filled the vacuum.
Spread across three venues, including 798 Dayaolu Workshop, a vast former factory space in the Dashanzi factory district which is both Beijing’s Hoxton and its Cork Street, the exhibition Convergence at E116°/N40° (20 Sept – & Oct), brought together a group of artists possibly ambivalent about current developments — from Wim Delvoye’s ‘Art Farm’ to Xing Danwen’s ‘Urban Fiction’ photographs which place the artist herself in a number of satirical scenarios played out on models of Beijing’s glitzy new housing developments.
Dashanzi, a vast network of commercial and contemporary spaces, has only been running since 2002, but already is so embedded that it is spawning alternatives, notably the East End Art Zone, a network of new spaces including the artist-led Platform China, in a light-industrial complex near Beijing airport.
One response to the pressures of the gallery system is the abandonment of conventional authorship. This is a key aspect of the work of the Complete Art Experience Project, a collective of ten artists who specialise in experimental practice and alternative models of exhibition making. Their first ever exhibition, Incest, launched Platform China as a venue, and involved cannibalising each other’s works.
A US show this autumn gets round the economic impossibility of sending ten artists overseas by sending only two of them to construct an artwork using crates packed in secret by the other eight. Project 24, staged in the atmospheric and gargantuan site of a Beijing film studio soundstage, ran for only one day. Events included an evolving action painting, as well as an ongoing ‘funeral’ performance of the Eagles’ song ‘Hotel California’. There was however a gnawing sense that technology and scale were dominating what might have been an intimate event. A brief glimpse of 24 felt like stumbling onto the backlot of an excessive U2 video. There was a fleet of wedding cars, a bevy of traditional Chinese brides (exquisite 6ft tall models) and white-clad western-style brides (small and male), and the staging of a ‘car crash’ with a jeep suspended from the ceiling and an understandably recalcitrant live horse being prodded into a prone ‘dead’ position. The scene would later be subjected to outside forensic investigation. As a western observer viewing an artist-led project, one couldn’t help admire the ability to marshall such resources but while it was also possible to read aspects of 24 as a parody of art-world happenings and their almost immediate transformation into enshrined historical documents, one also longed for less muscle.
An elegant subversion of art world norms as well as a deeply emotional articulation of material change and generational differences was found in ‘Waste Not’, a beautiful, fragile and emotionally resonant project by Song Dong at Beijing Tokyo Projects (25 Aug – 23 Oct). The artist is a well-established figure from an older generation whose 1996 performance ‘Breathing’ is a key work of the last decade.
Working alongside his widowed mother, Zhao Xiang Yuan, he sought to make sense of a longstanding Chinese tradition of frugality, as well as his mother’s own historical experiences of material want and personal uncertainty by enabling her to display her life-long collection of goods, saved ‘just in case’. The gallery was filled with thousands of objects. A cupboard full of scrap material beautifully folded and displayed, a row of broken televisions, hundreds of pencils, pens, plastic washing bowls and thermos flasks were laid out in the space with immaculate care. These items, regarded as potentially life-saving by older generations accustomed to crisis and as oppressive clutter by younger generations, finally found unexpected use as art objects. Questions of hoarding, preservation, necesssity and excess were hanging in the air, as well as a distinctly memorial atmosphere, as though each set of objects corresponded to a life that had been or perhaps might have been.
Moira Jeffrey is art critic for the Herald, Glasgow