Beijing Beat, Part 1


Museum and gallery expansions, myriad shows, rising prices for works by young artists, the most lucrative art auction market in the world. . . . Activity in the Beijing art world continues apace this spring, despite the West’s focus on the detention of artist Ai Weiwei.


During my visit there Apr. 10–17, China Daily issued an impassive report that Ai has been accused of “economic crimes,” a charge with potentially serious consequences in a country where bribery, for example, is commonplace yet sometimes punished by death. The newspaper also carried patronizing assessments by art academy officials calling the experimental gadfly (and, lately, social-conscience prodder) a “third-rate artist” and a “plagiarist.” One Chinese website continues to run pictures of Ai’s works side by side with shots of the “originals” from which his ideas were allegedly stolen. Comments among art world insiders, even when speaking off the record, tended to run from the resigned (“terrible thing, but of course he knew this day was coming”) to the skeptical (“well, it was about time for a new publicity stunt”). No one openly expressed outrage or spoke of Ai as a hero. No one thought that petitions or demonstrations abroad would have the slightest effect on Chinese authorities.

Meanwhile, business goes on as usual in Beijing’s museums, auction houses and galleries. At the gargantuan, newly reopened National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square, the “Age of the Enlightenment” exhibition, featuring some 500 works on year-long loan from three state museums in Germany, comes off as a curious alien encampment amid countless galleries devoted to China’s 5,000-year history.

Much local publicity is currently given to the museum’s retrospectives for three 20th-century ink-painting masters. The ink surveys—showcasing Pan Tianshou’s vigorous stroke-and-blot figure studies, Li Keran’s Western-influenced depictions of dramatic outdoor light effects and Huang Zhou’s cheery ethnographic vignettes from the hinterlands—are immensely popular. Nevertheless, the 2.2-million-square-foot museum limits attendance to 8,000 visitors per day, about half the rate at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

At the National Art Museum of China (the two institutional names are maddeningly confusing, even for locals) most of the galleries are at present disgraced by near-kitsch vanity exhibitions paid for by the artists or their backers—a routine practice in all of China’s underfunded art institutions, whether public or private.

Yet thanks to sponsorship and curatorial guidance from the independent Beijing Center for the Arts (BCA), one small section of the museum offers astonishingly beautiful ink paintings by the 62-year-old, Chinese-born Li Huayi, who has lived and taught in San Francisco since 1982. With a modest, oft-repeated “it’s easy, once you learn,” Li explained to me how he begins with ink washes that yield large contrasting areas of light and dark (for him reminiscent of Rothko’s floating forms) and then overlays them with countless fine lines that coalesce into ridges, trees, boulders and waterfalls.

At the BCA itself, I caught the last day of “Omni-Dimensional Design in China,” showcasing works by five contemporary designers and teams using distinctly Chinese materials, techniques and concepts. Taiwanese-born, Beijing-based Jeff Dah-Yue Shi offered a small house, furnishings and interior décor, all made of bamboo. Yung Ho Chang, who teaches architecture at MIT as well as Beijing University, presented a model and frame sample of his chic multistory residential structure supported by fiberglass tubing, its lightweight grids also bamboo-inspired. Shao Fan, a prize-winning artist-designer from Beijing, contributed elegant, semi-abstract wooden sculptures made with hidden joinery derived from Ming dynasty furniture; they can be assembled and disassembled without fasteners.

With prices for contemporary Chinese art rising again as more and more new millionaires emerge, the Minsheng Bank is reportedly readying a 600,000-square-foot exhibition space in a former industrial complex near the 798 art district, with its scores of galleries, studios, restaurants and boutiques. The financial giant, said to be building a massive collection, already sponsors a kunsthalle in Shanghai and last year helped back the sprawling survey “Reshaping History: Chinart from 2000 to 2009,” curated for multiple sites in Beijing by art historian Lü Peng.

At the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) rumors persist that the private facility will soon close or sell its 70,000-square-foot building (and possibly its name), given that Belgian founder Guy Ullens unloaded the bulk of his contemporary Chinese collection at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on Apr. 3 for some $54 million, roughly 3 times its high estimate.

The Ullens Center was launched with great fanfare in 2007 with the aim of bringing world-class institutional standards to China. That proved an expensive proposition. Ullens sold 14 Turner watercolors at Sotheby’s in London for $19.7 million, just four months before opening the UCCA in Beijing. He acknowledged no direct link to startup costs.

The center’s first show, “’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art,” was a critical success (which no doubt enhanced the value of Ullens’s holdings) but the institution has been plagued from its inception with constant staff turnovers and hobbled in its local endeavors by a very undiplomatic (indeed, most China hands would say, suicidal) lack of executive-level Chinese staffing. The current head, Jérôme Sans, former co-director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, divides his time between China and Europe.

This spring, the UCCA’s main-space offering, Wang Jianwei’s multipart “Yellow Signal,” runs in four sequential, separately installed “chapters” through June 26. All the segments, whether video- or object-centered installations, deal with the sense of suspension (yellow light) between denial of permission (red light) and unfettered go-ahead (green light)—a condition familiar to many in China today. On view during my stay was chapter one, Making Do with Fakes (2011), its title resonant in the counterfeit-drenched People’s Republic. The work comprises a coiled, jail-like labyrinth and several ceiling-hung screens showing video projections of people caught in what appears to be a slow-motion bureaucratic nightmare—some lying, some sitting, some being operated on by suspicious-looking doctors.

The second part of this report, dealing with galleries, will appear shortly.