I first came across contemporary Chinese art in an exhibition at the Luxembourg Garden in Paris many years ago. The sculptures and images were riveting: not at all the classical brushwork that I’d known before. So I was very keen to visit the Factory 798 art zone in Beijing.
It was a little disappointing. It is huge, and there are striking works which you come across (I’ve blogged about some of these here), but the place as a whole is a strip mall for the arts and fashion. An example of the gentrification was the exhibition called "Miss Dior" a publicity event by Dior in a space called the Ullens Center for Contemporary Arts. The photo above is of the centerpiece: a kitschy installation made with Miss Dior bottles.
I’m sure that by now young new artists have found a cheaper place to work in.
The Chinese art scene is red hot. In the last decade there have been influential shows of Chinese contemporary art around the world. This art is being bought locally and supported by the government, most visibly in the form of public art commissioned by municipal governments.
I found that contemporary Chinese painting has to negotiate a tightrope. On the one hand it may fail by giving up an unique Chinese visual sensibility and merge into a western contemporary movement. On the other, the Chinese visual history may overwhelm any attempt to modernize. In walking through Shanghai’s M50 or Beijing’s 798 art districts we did not see a single ink drawing showing cars, buses, or cities. There was, however, a very clever calligraphic take on Mondrian.
I find that the cleverest and the most innovative work is being done by sculptors. Three random works which caught my eye are pictured above. These are not, by any means, the most influential works of Chinese sculpture. The first is an edgy representation of a (pink!) spider, the second a clever take on bonsai, the third a quirky quote of classical Greek sculpture. Perhaps the freedom to explore is related to the fact that Chinese sculpture carries less of a cultural load than painting or ceramics.