Constructing The Real (E)state of Chinese Contemporary Art

Relections on 798, in 2004

By Thomas J. Berghuis

That night in May my taxi cut through the traffic on Beijing's fourth ring road. I was on my way back from Tongxian driving towards the direction of Dashanzi. All around me it was pitch dark, which allowed me to contemplate the art scene without having to look at the way in which, almost overnight, the rest of the city is reconstructing itself into becoming an international commercial platform. I asked myself: What is it that makes Dashanzi so important as an art district? My thoughts wondered off in the night.

I was amongst one of the first to visit the 798 Factory grounds at Dashanzi. It was in late 2001 together with Li Xianting that I visited the first art related location. Situated in an old basketball court off the road moving into the 797 compounds. At the time the court hosted the office for the ‘New Wave’ art magazine. The magazine was supported by a group of artists and art critics including Wu Wenguang, Qiu Zhijie, and Li Xianting. Unfortunately time had already caught up with these pioneers, and soon after moving to Dashanzi the magazine got into financial trouble. China seems to have changed much since the 1990s. Many residents, including members of the local art scene are no longer willing to embrace a publication that does not seek to provide basic entertainment, or for that cost aims at least to provide us with the 'shock of the new'. An art magazine will perhaps best be operating like a soap opera.

Only three years ago I spoke with a number of people about the large number of contemporary art exhibitions that where held in China. In 2001 we counted around 400 exhibitions had been staged in the spring and autumn in Beijing alone. Everyone seemed to be working hard in keeping up with the spirit that originated in the early 1990s - a spirit of constant experimentation that demands a strong attitude on the part of the artists and their curatorial cohorts. All where producing a constant flow of challenging works that would create a new discourse that would forever change the way we conceive art practices in China.

Back to Dashanzi, the place that I came to visit again in the autumn of 2002. Already so many things had changed in the year since I had first arrived here. Several artists and their close friends had started to rent a space amidst the old factory halls at 798 and suddenly there was talk of a new art district. During my visits I further saw the 798 Space for the first time, which was under construction and I was told that it would become a full-grown art space. I also visited the Beijing Tokyo Art Projects, which hosted an exhibition by Feng Boyi, and featuring a group of ten artists, some of who had built up important relations with the area itself.

Amidst the excitement of new developments there was nevertheless talk about a possible demolition of the district in a couple of years time. However, nobody at the time seems to have thought that this would already become a reality in 2005. This became more evident a year later, when I again visited the district during the time of the Beijing Biennale, when it hosted an unprecedented number of satellite exhibitions. Having seen these events - several of which were held at temporary exhibition spaces in old factory halls such as at Dayaolu - I suddenly became aware of the effectiveness that this district could offer in becoming a place that would showcase the true might of 'Chinese art to come'. Less did I know at the time that such development would further mark a situation that invited more commercialism inside the district, which already became evident when seeing the numerous cafes and restaurants emerge.

Some will argue that the current Dashanzi Art District has no relation at all with the Soho district in New York, but in fact it has already managed to encompass all aspects that allow the recent district for experimental art production to become a site for fashionable marketing of contemporary popular culture, which beckons China's 'new rich'. This even becomes evident in analysing the terms that are commonly used in describing this district, which like Soho, is said to be offering 'lofty' spaces that accommodate artistic creativity, and offers the visitors a touch of the trendy lifestyle that has become common ground in New York, and other metropolises around the world.

With this thought in mind the entire area now becomes a site for gazing at what is thought to be the Chinese contemporary culture at its best. Somewhat like the 'fresh cream' covering the coffee that can be ordered in the numerous cafes that cover the area. In between these places for relaxation lie the numerous art spaces, including commercial galleries and factory halls that offer the visitor a vast array of photographs, paintings, and sculptures, which together form the basic attraction of the district, aside from the bars and cafes. Most of all, the spaces itself offer the most exciting sites for attraction, even despite the fact that many of the most exhilarating factory halls usually remain empty throughout the year.

This became the setting amidst plans to host the First Dashanzi International Art Festival. Starting in April 2004 the festival aimed to present a wide range of activities covering visual art, film, music, and performance events that would mark further promotion of contemporary art to the local community, most of who had only read about such contemporary experiments taking place in Beijing through several popular publications in life-style magazines and newspapers. From the start it became clear that the festival would focus on attracting a popular crowd. This would further help in making 798 part of Beijing, in a way that the municipal government could also be interested in preserving the location, and creating more attention to contemporary art culture, which would fit well with promoting Beijing as an important cultural capital in Asia.

For a few years now experimental art production in China is working into moving itself away from the underground scene. With the assistance of major national institutes for the promotion and education of visual culture, including museums and academies, there is a drive for the promotion of experimental art, which became so popular amongst members of the international art scene during the entire course of the 1990s. With the help of such organizations as the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Ministry of Culture, and working together with local and international art institutes, there is now a drive to show contemporary art from China in a way that can balance out the former distinctions between official art production and unofficial experimental practices in visual art that became so popular overseas, and thereby came to formulate a discourse on its own.

Prior to the First Dashanzi International Art Festival there were already many events that help in describing the process of transfer between the official unofficial biases and creating an environment based on the mutual understanding that visual art can create popular attention. Perhaps one has to look further at ways in which certain cult productions suddenly become merchandised to a popular crowd, a process that has been better recognized in analysing the movie and popular music industries. However, contemporary visual art continues to be surrounded with a particular aura in which all sorts of productions are supposed to transcend popular culture market values, even despite the fact that it is used often in attracting considerable economic attention.

This situation brings with it a system of privileges, whereby only a certain group of experimental art practices are gradually used in promoting a new classification of styles. There is further an increased expectation on the receiving end of art practices. In particular amongst the ‘inside’ crowd of people, most of who have been working considerable time in the contemporary art field, and are now able to make important decisions on its future directions. Within this process there have been created different levels of mediation that determine the process of attracting attention for contemporary art practices and mediates its introduction to the general audiences. Often this is based on knowledge, but not the kind that demands understanding of art. Instead, knowledge becomes based upon personal relations and these eventually come to determine the success of a particular group of artists, where others are left behind.

During the satellite events for the Beijing Biennale in September 2003 this process became already evident, when the number of temporary exhibitions exceeded those held during any other previous Biennale event in China, and several artists where represented in multiple exhibitions that each proposed a new wave of contemporary art, but remained rather similar in its contents and working with the selected artists. Ironically the curators of these shows where later described as the ‘ringleaders of Chinese contemporary art’, a term that must have been carefully chosen in attracting attention to the fact that the current process of selection does indeed feel much like a boxing event. Indeed the art world has some resemblances to international boxing matches in which not only strength counts, but a fight can still be fixed by those who are willing to bet a lot of money on a prospective winning candidate. Luckily there also remained some more localized prize fighting events, such as in the form of the First Live Art Performance Art Festival, which still showed some works that were based on pure strength.

When I was invited to join the First Dashanzi International Art Festival activities I was immediately largely convinced about the value such an event would have on the way in which contemporary art can become represented in China. Unlike a Biennale event and all its satellite exhibitions, a festival often aims to include more general audiences, some of whom have never before witnessed contemporary art production, but for whom the open setting of a festival includes a way of experiencing a wide range of different art forms including film, visual art, music, and performances. Throughout the course of preparing for the festival I therefore took as an example my personal experiences in visiting art festivals outside China, all of which attracted a huge local crowd. These festivals where further marked by introducing contemporary arts practices in all its diversities by introducing a wide range of media, rather than merely visual art.

Ideally a festival therefore needs the support from a wide range of artists, who are willing to participate in events that will not necessarily attract attention amongst a small crowd of members who are already working in the art scene. However in Dashanzi it soon became clear that not many understood the potential value of such attention. In recent times many artists and curators were used to rely on events that would basically position itself outside the official structures, which demands a dialogue with popular media and even involved seeking ways to extent the festival in creating an international art platform. In Dashanzi it became further evident that this would eventually include getting the support of the district and municipal government, who were asked to identify the value of having a grass root location for the further promotion of contemporary culture in Beijing. This becomes absolutely necessary when considering the fact that the entire area continues to be on the list for demolition and might be replaced by commercial building complex prior to the 2008 Olympics. Unless further support is searched for, there will only be room for short-term projects by those who are out to make a fast buck out of the people that come through.

Walking through Dashanzi these days it already becomes evident to those who have visited other art districts around Beijing that this place is no longer aimed at art production, but it has become more important to introduce a market for contemporary culture and a hip and trendy modern lifestyle that comes with drinking red wine and eating with a knife and fork. Travelling back from Tongxian, where there is still the possibility in experiencing art in the making I feel less and less inclined to consider Dashanzi as being somehow representative for experimental art in China. Instead, unless something is done quickly that will aim at bringing art production to the surface again it becomes in danger of being demolished by commercialism that demands artists to negotiate a position that will create attention from a few people with economic power. The real danger for Dashanzi has always been its commercial attraction, and this has become clearer now that new spaces all involve business incentives rather than making use of the underlying potential in representing experimental art production.

Unless there are still ways to be found that will introduce art practices in Dashanzi, it will end up in become the first cultural business district in Beijing. Surely this has nothing to do with the spirit that was still evident in the 1990s, when artists where still working hard in dealing with a set of representational problems that will give new communicative form in dealing with a rapidly changing physical and social environment that encompasses life in Beijing. Instead, there is no longer the need to perform, unless it includes possibilities of producing for the sake of drawing attention for oneself. The whole situation turns into an artistic soap opera, in which people can become immediate public stars by performing according to the demands of the producers. Real constructions in Chinese contemporary art are needed to secure its continuing role inside the international contemporary art scene.

There is still hope for several further construction of art to exist, even though there may be a prize to be paid. This would involve finding support for further experimentations to draw attention from a large group of people that continue to value art as being able to communicate beyond the demands of the market. This will include assessing its important role in assessing social, political and economic changes over a consistent period of time, and at the same time demanding a historical discourse that is capable in identifying a set of stylistic developments that can become important in describing a continuum of art practices throughout a certain period of time. This demands artists to realize the importance in seeking ongoing dialogues within their internalised views on their direct surroundings and building up a dialogue that can inspire production over a considerable period of time. These are the lessons that can be learned at Dashanzi, where it will become important to strive for experimental art to be constructed, similar to those areas that have received less attention during the past few months, including Songzhuang, Tongxian, and the art district that has expanded most recently near Feijiacun.