‘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.
This shiny, commercialised idea of ‘art’ at 798 speaks specifically to Chinese aspirations of global influence, as fanned and shaped by Chinese political rhetoric (this is the Chinese century, etc). It expresses a possibility to engage with global subcultural identities, within the boundaries of the commercialised sphere. Most importantly, however, it speaks ‘the present’ with a fervour that is almost religious. Against a backdrop of politically manufactured anxiety around China’s so-called ‘backwardness’ (or luohou), ‘art’ at 798 constructs a localised idea of the contemporary – contemporary styles, contemporary capital, contemporary influence – and situates Chinese society within that.
This marketing of a global/contemporary at 798 results not only from consumerism’s fetish of the new, but also to this cult of a ‘new’ and/or ‘future China’ that has emerged with China’s entry to the global market – a both local and international craze. At 798, ‘art’ represents a kind of arrival, embraced by tourists keen to experience a contemporary China but even more so by the many locals rehearsing and experimenting with emerging forms of Chinese identity and self-perception. ‘Art is a Thinking to Enlightens the Future’ reads an oddly translated sign in an art-themed gift shop (Yishu shi Yizhong Qishi Renlei Weilai de Sixiang), suggesting art as a means of realisation. In signs at 798, ‘art’ often represents a potential, or an experience of an imagined future – a component in a process of self-fulfillment with both personal and political resonances.
If ‘art’ is a brand at 798, it is not simply a reiteration of other global art brands such as the Tate Modern, MOMA, or maybe Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, or Van Gough; nor is it a Chinese rip off (or daoban) of these. It might echo, or even ape, international art/design styles in some senses, but then interprets them in a way that is relevant to the Chinese experience. ‘Art’ as commercialised at 798 represents new possibilities for Chineseness, as experienced by both locals and visitors. If ‘798 art’ is a copy, or a shanzhai, of international art brands it is one that has arisen due to a gap in the local market and is given meaning entirely in relation to it. It’s a little like China’s Lao Wang fast food restaurants that translated the globally successful Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise for a local market. In a similar way, the ‘art as brand’ phenomenon at 798 has fed off the international status of the contemporary Chinese art industry, and then reconstituted this success for consumption by a local audience. Rip offs, or daobans, are simply cheap versions of the original, but 798 is a re-interpretation of the transnationally conceived ‘contemporary Chinese art’ that has emerged from the exigencies of the local experience.
‘Art’ in the gift shops, ‘art’ in the t-shirt shops; ‘art’ sold as an attainable – if apolitical – ‘lifestyle’. This is ‘contemporary Chinese art’ translated into Chinese consumer culture, understood in relation to Chinese perceptions of global status and style.