Chinese Contemporary Art: “Charm & Passion”

I have been living and working in Beijing’s
“798”
for a month now.
I visited this most important arts district in China for a few exciting
days in 2008.
This time I feel I have lived in China and that might be why I cannot
wait to get out of here.
The city and art scene have not changed much.
There is still the energy of a nation moving with tremendous momentum
towards something.
It feels like the future of the planet is being hammered here.
Being an optimist I was hoping that somehow this was a cyclopean move
for some greater good.
Not anymore… Let’s hold our dragons and imagine you just dropped by my
apartment and we walk towards the core of 798. Here is a video clip of
what was going on a couple of weeks ago in that area.

Wolves from Jorge Misium on Vimeo.

First, this open space is surrounded by several large galleries,
most notably Pace Beijing,
which sits to the right of the wolf pack. The work is by Liu RuoWang and
it is called “Wolf Coming!” This sculptural arrangement points out what
I would consider the two main characteristics of contemporary Chinese
art: material quality and closeness.

Money goes a long way when making in China. Materials are cheap and
labor is ridiculously over exploited. A ballpark number for what a
laborer makes is 150 USD a month! Workers are stashed around worksites
or if they commute a bus ride is subsidized to the equivalent of a US
nickel. So when artists make in China, they can make a lot, by thinking
big or by planning for a large number of multiples. The sculptural
arrangement in the video has for example about 100 wolves. There are
catches to this ability to make sans limits. Work is usually inefficient
and done under dangerous conditions. Welders working without masks are a
common site in Beijing. And the application of resins without any
protective gear is prevalent to the point that streets in the art
districts usually reek of solvents. Even if you are all for exploiting
the workers in this nominally communist country, you still must be
vigilant to achieve good work quality. Notice in the video that out of
about six people, only one is doing the work and the surface finish this
person was achieving was spotty.

This stress on the materiality of the work can produce eye catching
stuff, but it underlines the conceptual vacuum of Chinese contemporary
art. Dematerialization is not a word that you will hear in China. Not in
the art world, not in the new consumer society. Art in China is after
all fulfilling its perennial function of money validation. From
Renaissance riches to recent hedge fund wealth, art has served in the
West to make money respectable, clean. And in China, there are today
gobbles of money in need of validation. Lots of cash and lots of dirt on
it, sometimes literally like in the case of coal mining fortunes. So
here comes art fulfilling its perennial function of wealth cleansing.
And Chinese artists have joyfully joined the ride. We’ll come back to
contemporary Chinese artists and their non-seditious ways in the next
installment.

What I would call “closeness” is patent in the great majority of
contemporary Chinese work. And it is the only formula in commercial art.
By closeness I mean work that is readable, easily interpreted. In the
case of the video above, the wolves ominously surround a lonely figure
in an arrangement that can be easily read. There is no challenging, no
“uh?” when viewing Chinese art. I believe this is in part tied to the
peculiarities of the Chinese language. Not to mention a society that has
demanded sacrifice from its citizens in the name of growth and some
greater Harmony that is constantly referred to. Point is that viewers
are not confronted by Chinese art but lead to some easy experience. I
have rarely seen a Chinese visitor pause in front of an artwork save to
take a souvenir photo. The use of artwork, particularly sculpture, as
props for “I was there” type of snapshots is a prevalent sight in the
art districts. Even the best efforts in showing Chinese art get
sidetracked by this obsession with avoiding openness and confrontation.
There is a good “Great Performances” survey show going on at the
mentioned Pace Beijing. Several of the best recent performance works in
China are included. However, the scant available literature for the show
includes tidbits such as the following: “Undoubtedly, Chinese
contemporary art is radiating extraordinary charm in a passionate
manner.”

In addition to the pioneer 798, there are other art districts in and around Beijing.
They tend to be sites commercially developed in a short time.
CaoChang
hits a few high notes without the crassly commercialization abundant in
798.
The art space growth is however not integrated into the colorful local
community, but driven by developers constructing and leasing large
amounts of space.
The banners and billboards for CaoChang say it the Chinese way: “Art –
Harmony – Joy – Justice – Abundance – Peace.”
SongZhuang
on the outskirts of Beijing is China full steam ahead.
This large district self-proclaimed "the world’s largest artists
gathering area" boasts some huge bland art centers with names such as
“Sunshine Museum” and art zones named for example “The National Defence Art Zone.”

So here I am writing these notes at 2 am. I am awake because of the
concrete pouring going on down bellow across the street in my
neighborhood’s gargantuan construction site. It was a two football field
hole in the ground one week ago and now the construction is reaching
the street level. The signs outside the site say it all: Another five
million square feet complex going up in Beijing. What no one told me was
that the construction site was 24/7. Day and night machinery sucks in
the concrete from trucks and pukes it down below making the sounds of a
moaning animal. That sound shouldn’t be that bad for going to sleep, but
there’s the systematic blaring of a horn marking the operation that is
most irritating. Just when you start finding peace of mind after a
minute of whale bewailing, there goes the horn again. The neighbors in
my apartment tower and the one next to it must endure this operation out
of adhesion to the greater Chinese societal Harmony. Or because of
their belief that this consuming over-labored society is going to make
them rich too.

Construction Site: 5:000.000 square feet from Jorge Misium on Vimeo.

In Beijing’s haze I keep remembering a bad joke from my teenage years.
This man goes to hell and he gets a tour of the place so he can choose
in what area to reside. They go first by a typical torture chamber where
people are being flogged and the like. Then there is the deprivation
area where people are desperately famished and thirsty. Next comes up a
flooded area where fellows stand in shit up to their knees. People in
this sector are however chit-chatting, having drinks, listening to music
and even smoking in a party-like vibe. The man immediately decides to
choose this area of hell to dwell in for the foreseeable future. The
guide says fine and goes away. Just then, the PA systems blares “Break
is over, back to standing on your heads.”

All videos by Jorge Misium.


Jorge Misium is an artist who in the last two years has lived and worked in Dallas, Venezia, Montevideo, New York and Beijing.

also by Jorge Misium

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