What follows is the first in a series of pieces in which I consider the strange beast that is 798 Art Zone. Who defines contemporary Chinese art in the district’s ex-factory galleries, alleyways and retail zones, and to what ends?
My main interest is in what as I see as a shift in power relations, from transnational to local, from art market to mass market. Essentially, Chinese retail has taken ownership of China’s contemporary arts scene, drawing local and transnational influences together and making the place ‘neo-Chinese’.
All comments welcome, since I’m genuinely trying to get my head around this and could do with some here heres or challenges. 798, as with many spaces in contemporary China, can kind of bamboozle.
‘Only Products, No Art’: honesty and irony in the new market
In the Beijing autumn of 2011, I saw the above billboard at 798, in which two images are accompanied by the slightly odd English: ‘Only Products, No Art.’ In Chinese, the sign is only slightly less mysterious, announcing that ‘Li Qing’s Products Are Not Art’, and then giving an email address, presumably as a contact for curious customers. At first glance it wasn’t clear whether the sign was supposed to be ironic or not. If it was it would contain an extra meaning, translatable to a certain audience; it would be a comment that cut both ways, both telling it like it is yet critiquing its own message in a coded language. If it wasn’t, however, it was simply a straightforward statement, upfront about its products’ social function and declaring plainly its lack of pretensions.
The context was what made it confusing. 798 is a collection of both local and international high-end galleries – a so-called ‘international art district’ – but it’s also a bustling commercial market selling contemporary art, furniture, homewares, art souvenirs and other dinky design objects. It’s already difficult at 798 to tell exactly where the art ends and the retail begins, the galleries blurring into shops and each often resembling the other. Was this a clever and Warhol-esque comment on 798 and its relationship with consumer culture – ala Chinese artist, Zhao Bandi, or American artists, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holtzer, all of whom have rented advertising space with which to exhibit similarly ambiguous works – or simply the advertisement of a local entrepreneur? In other words, was the sign deliberately ambiguous, or only so because of its situation at a crossroads of expectations of contemporary art, and of market and avant-garde definitions?
The situation was further complicated by the fact that at 798 Art Zone, there are currently two different markets, each defining contemporary Chinese art for their own economic and cultural purposes. On the one hand, 798 still represents the contemporary Chinese art industry and its communication with the international art world, much of which still bases its valuation of art on European modernist expectations of intellectual critique and challenges to the status quo. On the other hand, however, 798 increasingly provides a means of expression for the new purchasing power of Chinese consumers, repeating styles, fashions and images with the logics of mass market production, completely honest about its repackaging of art as commodity. The ambiguity of the poster – or the ambiguity about its ambiguity – pointed to a grey zone between these two markets: that of the transnational art world, which pretends an ironic consciousness around the commodification of art, and that of a growing local and tourist consumer class, more candid about the aspirational social purposes to which contemporary art objects might be put.
In many ways, the sign was like 798 itself, unclear in its stance on the commodification of culture and, within that, on the purpose of contemporary Chinese art. As 798 develops from an elite transnational hidey-hole to a local and tourist consumer playground, the meaning of contemporary Chinese art in the space is itself transforming, dislocating the hegemony of a value system that once operated in a coded, Bourdieu-like way, with others that are more bald about art’s role in social distinction. To many in China’s contemporary arts industry, this represents a descent into crassness, the district’s metamorphosis into a sprawling marketplace separating it from high-end art spaces (such as Caochangdi, another ten minutes drive towards the airport); while to the increased numbers of local daytrippers, this represents an opportunity to engage with and ‘buy into’ the idea of contemporary art.
Is 798 an international art gallery, or a local supermarket? It is both, and the simultaneous embodiment of each identity exposes the economic logics of the global art world while pointing also to the evolving use of art in Chinese commercial culture. Whether Li Qing’s products are, or are not, apparently ‘art’ ultimately depends on their audience, and it’s the shifting composition of this crowd – along with their motivations and uses for ideas such as ‘art’ and ‘product’ – that these short pieces will attempt to address.