After more than two and a half years of discussion with Chinese artists, musicians, writers, bloggers, performers, filmmakers and arts professionals, about everything from yaogun to blogging to queer film, Artspace China is wrapping up the conversation here.
Thanks to all those who’ve been involved as readers, guest authors and interviewees. It’s been great talking to you!
The website will remain as is until the beginning of 2014, so all archives will be available until then. Artspace China’s Facebook page will keep chugging as well, keeping our presence online with regular posts of contemporary Chinese film, art, literature and music news.
Any further iterations of the Artspace China project (yes, there are possibilities) will be announced at the Facebook site as well, so keep your eyes peeled.
Until such time, happy travels, take care, and …
In April 2011, I posted an interview with Josh Feola, co-founder of Beijing’s Pangbianr and central engine of Beijing’s DIY music community. Pangbianr, which translates loosely as ‘fringe’, was a wee one year old at the time, and was only beginning to feel its way, coalescing a sense of energy and self-sufficiency in the city’s underground music scene.
Almost two years later, Beijing DIY still feels like a nascent phenomenon, ever-morphing and ever on the brink of becoming (as any good DIY scene should). It’s more international than ever, hosting an increasing number of overseas acts, from punk to experimental to noise. At the same time, though, there are more mid to top-level labels in town, more of a push to ‘discover’ and promote Chinese rock – and an urge to become a ‘real’ band.
Contemporary China has a habit of building industries, or art complexes, for the sake of economy and reputation, overlooking the value in grassroots cultural communities. In this catch up interview, Josh gives an update on the scene, pointing to the value in the DIY ethos, and the dangers of commercialising too early.
I sat in the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane last week, resting my weary art gallery feet after many hours traversing the Asia Pacific Triennial, and watched a charming Chinese animation for children, called Where is Mama?. Created in 1960 at Shanghai Film Studios under the guidance of the legendary animator Te Wei, it tells the story of a group of tadpoles searching for their mother. They plaintively question goldfish, shrimp, turtles and other creatures on their journey through a watery landscape. Each frame is rendered in deft, minimal brushstrokes with ink and wash, influenced by the watercolour paintings of Qi Baishi.
In these digital days its artistry and simplicity were a revelation. Art historian Lin Ci speaks of the ways in which scholar painting techniques which vividly evoke, not an exact likeness, but a “spiritual resemblance” to aspects of nature such as plum blossom, birds, bamboo, stone, withered trees and orchids allowed the artists to “play the game of inks” better. For scholar officials trying to distance themselves from the realpolitik of the imperial court, these freehand ink paintings of birds and flowers could “bring comforts to their hearts” he says, evoking an endearing image of the lonely scholar contemplating his garden and disregarding the painting conventions of his imperial masters. (Lin Ci, ‘Chinese Painting: Capturing the Spirit of Nature with Brushes’) Watching this little film certainly brought “comforts to my hearts” after a somewhat disappointing APT experience.
It may seem a long distance between a sweet animated film and the great masters of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, however, the adherence to the beauty and discipline of calligraphy and ink painting so evident in every frame of Where is Mama? is the very thing that so often joins past and present in Chinese art. In a catalogue essay for Ink – the Art of China at the Saatchi Gallery in London in June 2012, Dominique Narhas had this to say: “Ink painting brings us into contact with an immersive intimacy in which humanistic themes of man’s relation to himself, to nature and to the other are played out against the great backdrop of constancy and change.” It is precisely this notion of constancy and change, the intertwining of past and present, which distinguishes contemporary Chinese art in the global marketplace and results in works which are able to reference tradition and convention yet speak to the contemporary world and an international audience.
As a species with the power to imagine, we have a complicated relationship with the idea of disaster – of the apocalypse, of Armageddon. Of course we do not wish our own destruction, but we find it impossible not to envisage the event, to construct narratives around the end of the world: the skies turning black and the waters rising. Despite ourselves, we are drawn to images that visualise our inner fears and, more recently, our sense of guilt at the damage we know that we do to the planet.
Chinese-Australian installation artist, Shen Shaomin, works precisely within this psychological repertoire, his visions of a warped natural world tapping into anxieties about civilisation’s ghastly effects. His Unknown Creatures (2003) and Experimental Studio (2004) series consisted of sculptures made out of bone – bizarre and unsettling collections of fantastic animals created through errant biological mutation; while later his Bonsai Series (2007), exhibited at the Sydney Biennale in 2012, comprised of a range of miniature trees, tortured into shape with bolts and wire.
The Day After Tomorrow, Shen Shaomin’s first solo show in Australia in ten years, continued with this eerie aesthetic, expanding further on the themes of human brutality and its impact on a fragile environment. Showing at Gallery 4A between 15 November – 10 December 2011, the exhibition transformed the greater part of the gallery into a white crystalline world twinkling in darkness, evoking a vision of an unnatural reality hovering somewhere between the near future and present.
‘Art is a Thinking to Enlightens the Future’: art as a brand, art as aspiration
Since the district’s official classification as a Creative Industries Precinct in 2006, 798 has spawned a range of cultural enterprises, many of which have taken on the idea of ‘art’ with which to brand their businesses. Walking around 798 today, the word ‘art’ is constantly flashing up before you, on billboards advertising galleries or design consultancies, on signs for gift shops, hotels, bars and cafes. Artopal, Artside, 798 Art Hotel, such and such Art Centre or Artspace … Visitors are repeatedly running into odd composite bi-products of the word ‘art’ – uses that suggest the term’s ability to ‘value-add’ to all kinds of entrepreneurial pursuits. In both English and Chinese, the word often looks raw and partial, slapped onto ventures and slipped into business titles in a way that suggests its newness – or even more so, its novelty – as a Chinese marketing category. At 798, the term ‘art’ has a faddish quality to it, a kind of hype and artificial freshness reminiscent of the thousands of so-called ‘Twenty-first Century’ housing developments, or many SoHos, under construction across the country.
To the extent that art is a brand at today’s 798, it is one that conflates notions of the global and the contemporary, and one that is consonant (or you could say ‘harmonious’) with national discourses of China’s economic development. At 798, the word ‘art’ occurs frequently alongside the terms ‘new age’ (xin shidai), international (guoji) or ‘contemporary’ (dangdai). Billboards advertising Coca Cola or Vitamin Water do so by situating 798 within a perceived pantheon of global and cultural cities (‘Available in New York, Paris, Japan, and now Beijing!’). In signs, advertisements and art-branded objects at 798, ‘art’ generally represents a component in a contemporary urban lifestyle, the latest in fashion and, by virtue, a hallmark of a Chinese cosmopolitanism.