I joined the AAA family as the China researcher shortly before the opening of the second Beijing Biennial on September 21, the most pleasant and fruitful month of the year on many levels. To cover all the happenings during the Biennial for AAA naturally became my first mission. Rumors and expectations were both running high before the occasion, when Beijing's art scene customarily exploded with numerous satellite shows in addition to the Biennial. As usual, artists, curators, art centres and art workers were all geared up to take advantage of the opportunity and to put on the best shows of the year. Luckily for me, I have a lot to report on.
With an outrageous budget of nearly ten million RMB, this year's Biennial is still hard to take seriously and is more commonly regarded as a waste of money and energy. The bulk of the Biennial was housed in the Millennium Museum, an official venue more renowned as a pet project of Jiang Zeming's, built for the sake of good fengshui, more than anything else. In the absence of a formal museum for contemporary art in Beijing, it's also the most regular venue for contemporary art events of a more official nature in Beijing, despite its excessively furnished interior and inflexible structure. The Biennial itself is a mixed pot of paintings, mixed media on canvas, sculptures. Works were haphazardly plastered onto the walls of the museum, given little consideration to their relevance or irrelevance. Aesthetically lacking, this show lived up to the hotel-lobby standard set by major biennials and triennials held all over the country. It's no wonder that many visitors and professionals alike tried to run as far away as possible from the Biennial and turned their attention to the rich pool of exhibitions happening in the city during opening days of the exhibition.
Riding the Biennial heat this year is the 798 Biennial which opened on September 22. Like the Beijing Biennial itself, the 798 Biennial was loosely organised and just as unreal. It so happened that the 798 Biennial was no more than a name to unite all the open studios and events happening in the 798 area during this period of time. The Biennial was opened with a group show curated by Shu Yang in 798 space but funnily, a visit to the show on the second day revealed that the same space was completely stripped off the paintings and photography that were there on the previous afternoon and transformed into the venue for a one-evening party of a commercial nature. I was told that after the party, they would return the space to its original state. Such an act is actually a customary operation of this space. Completely commercially driven, the swift face-change of 798 Space best illustrates the real motive behind many of the art-dressed spaces in this area.
Fortunately, there is no lack of serious galleries operators and curators in this epicentre of Chinese contemporary art. Among the dozens of shows on view around this time, Waste Not , Transexperiences , Clues , Convergence at E116 ¢X /N40 , To Each His Own were the highlights. Curated by Chicago University professor, Wu Hung, Waste Not struck a high note among the recent programs of Beijing Tokyo Art Project. The absence of a clear curatorial direction had dimmed the energy and potential the gallery displayed when its move into 798 first initiated the unstoppable inflow of artists, art spaces into the same region. Waste Not "explores, on two levels, how daily life enters contemporary art," as Wu Hung wrote in the booklet for the show which was cleverly fashioned into a household register found in China. Song Dong has conceptualised this show to exhibit only those objects that his mother Zhao Xiangyuan has gathered over decades and by inviting his mother to prepare the exhibition for him, managed to help her out of the grief as a result of his father's death, ingeniously incorporating the discussion of "the nature of the art medium and the artist's identity" and that of "the ethical dimension of contemporary art and private intention in a public exhibition" in one show. Aesthetically, all the mundane household items were sorted out in category and covered every inch of the large gallery space.
The highly anticipated solo exhibition of Chen Zhen, Transexperiences did provide an unusual experience. The refined craftsmanship and presentation of 20 works by Chen Zhen from 1990 to 2000, as some artists commented, was an eye-opener for artists in China. Despite its brief history of less than a year in Beijing, Galleria Continua has gained a considerable following with its professionalism and an inauguration show that emulated a museum display. Transexperiences is the second show of the gallery. Trying to give a comprehensive coverage of Chen Zhen's work from different periods of the decade, the gallery space however appeared to be slightly more crammed than it should be, filled with many of Chen Zhen's well-known pieces, including le produit naturel /le produit artificiel to Crystal Landscape of Inner Body to Beyond the Vulnerability. As one of Chen Zhen's titles suggests, Transexperiences created "a world in and out of the world", the transition being an effortless one.
Clues in White Space was a round up of four big shot artists all born in the 60s, whose life experiences and art practice both bear witness and thus offer clues to the dramatic transitions in China over the last four decades. This provided the basis for the formation of this exhibition, which showcased many strong and exciting new works of Fang Lijun, Wang Yin, Yang Maoyuan and Xiao Yu. Despite having a glossy and well-conceptualised catalogue to accompany the show, the barely designed display of artworks in the space diminished the conception of the show and unfortunately that of the works.
Convergence at E116 ¢X /N40, To Each His Own were two group shows curated respectively by Feng Boyi and Gu Zhenqing. Convergence at E116 ¢X /N40 carried on Feng's model of working, presenting works of over 50 international artists, with a very loose curatorial concept. The lineup of the artists had no lack of international stars and famous Chinese artists. The Dayaolu Studio is an unfurnished, rough but extremely open structure in 798 and was the impressive setting for this exhibition. Such an immense space however proved to be a rigorous challenge to the installation of artworks and the exhibition itself. Some of the works were nearly cancelled out by the particularity of the architecture and few of the installation pieces were actually related to the space they were in. In To Each His Own , another brainchild of Gu Zhenqing's, he once again exercised his well-tested formula of creating a playground in the exhibition in the style of a street party where the audience were engaged into the realisation of some artworks. While some critics may claim that Gu's exhibitions are not intellectually challenging, his unique model of combining art with partying seemed to come off quite well with a younger crowd of exhibition-goers.
The general sentiment among the audience this year could be described as lukewarm. Many reflect that too many of this year's shows are more marketable and conformist than experimental and that's why the 24 Hours show has become the talk of the year. Organised by members of the Complete Art Experience Project, an artists' initiative founded early this year with a mission to push forward experiments of models and formats of art-making and exhibition, 24 Hours was an unconventional exhibition event taking place in an unconventional venue. In the second studio of the Beijing Film Studio, eight artists, including Rania Ho, Liu Ding, Qiu Zhijie, Shi Qing, Zhang Hui, Yu Ji, Wang Wei and Wu Ershan, conceptualised and presented art projects that all changed and evolved over the course of 24 hours from 3pm on the first day until 3pm the next afternoon. Such an action-packed event,experimental in nature, posed a challenge to the creativity and stamina of the artists, as well as the regular viewing habit and acceptance of the audience. Many happily made the long trek out to Haidian, not once, but twice.
- Sat, 1 Oct 2005