Painting a picture of Beijing's future in the art world

By Harvey Dzodin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 17, 2019
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The photo shows the spectacular undulating windows of the newly renovated UCCA Center for Contemporary Art where the Beijing Art Summit took place. [Photo by Bian Jie courtesy of Office for Metropolitan Architecture]

Every Spring, the crème de la crème of the art world migrates from the four corners of the globe to Art Basel Hong Kong to buy, sell and network. In the art scene, Beijing has increasingly been playing second fiddle to Hong Kong and Shanghai. A way was needed to entice the art elite to enrich and be enriched by Beijing's art scene. Thus, Gallery Weekend Beijing (GWB), centered in the 798 Art District, was born in 2017. Now in its third edition, GWB has come a very long way. Still, it takes more than a high visibility weekend to fully establish Beijing as China's art capital.

I attended the first GWB and to be diplomatic, I can only say that it was a very modest first step. The event needed much better organization, marketing, outreach and participation. But based on my recent attendance, I can attest that it has truly made incredible progress.

In the past, some artists turned up their noses at 798 saying that it was too commercial. This reminded me of the story of an infamous New York bank robber, Slick Willie Sutton. He was caught after many successful robberies and was asked why he robbed banks. Sutton said "because that's where the money is." Well, 798 is where the art is! And the art featured at GWB is world-class!

To me the most memorable exhibit out of the many other excellent shows was the installation of portraits "The Moroccans" that covered all three levels of the massive Galleria Continua. The installation was created by the French-Moroccan artist Leila Alaoui and this was her first solo exhibition in China.

There was also an exhibition of promising young artists in the new 798 Art Center titled "Hic sunt leones," which is Latin for "Here there are lions." Its title refers to the designation of early map makers for territories not yet explored that were thought to be places filled with fear and danger. Maybe "Lion cubs" might have been a better title as the young artists were at the beginning of a promising artistic arc. Another notable work was "Levi'sKhan·Overture" by Yuhan Chang, which drew many visitors to the exhibition. It explores today's complex relationship between individuals and countries through aesthetic, rhetorical and other dimensions.

How do I know that this show and GWB was a success? Because I encountered leaders of the art world like the fabled collector and former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg patrolling the works of the lion cubs for Chinese art stars of the future. His encyclopedic donation of contemporary Chinese art valued at more than US$250 million forms the core of the new Hong Kong museum M+, which he said will open later next year. 

For the first time, this year's GWB featured a three-day Beijing Art Summit curated by Colin Siyuan Chinnery and Mari Spirito and joined by several heavy hitters in the art world. Together they examined subjects such as how art promotes urban development, Chinese art markets, art ecologies, and the intersection of art and technology. Thousands of netizens also participated online. 

The most spirited discussion to me centered on whether Chinese art was overly influenced by Western art. This debate of sorts took place between lawyer-collector Liu Gang and Long March Space founder, Lu Jie. I believe that China is now powerful and sufficiently self-assured to fully express itself, art-wise and otherwise, through its rich heritage, prosperous present and bright future.

However, of all the accomplished speakers at the Summit, one stood head and shoulders above the rest - Wang Yanling, the CEO of the Sevenstar Group, which runs 798 and who was the founder of the 798 Art Zone. He detailed how 798 morphed from a former East German aircraft factory into a world-renowned tourist attraction and site for artistic pilgrimages.

The statistics he cited were staggering. Last year more than eight million people visited 798, 25% of whom were foreigners. There were 1,280 art exhibitions and cultural exchanges in 285 art and culture facilities, including national level culture institutions such as the German Goethe Institute. By 2020, 150 heads of state would have visited as would ten million annual visitors. 

CEO Wang isn't content to rest on his laurels and has big plans for his art venue. He wants to expand 798 into Beijing's diplomatic areas and create the world's largest art residency program. He even acknowledged during the Summit that 798 would also be a perfect venue to build a Museum City Beijing, an idea I proposed in China Daily in 2015. This would ideally consist of establishing small branches of internationally known museums in a single area of Beijing to create a critical artistic mass.

GWB shines a bright light on contemporary art, but currently, only for one weekend each year. By contrast Museum City Beijing could be a year-round activity in cooperation with several global iconic museums such as the Guggenheim, Hermitage, Louvre and Smithsonian. When I first proposed the idea, I thought that the Olympic area would be the best choice, but after Mr. Wang's presentation, I recalled Willie Sutton's famous words and remembered that 798 is indeed Beijing's premiere contemporary arts venue, also making it a worthy venue.

Museum City Beijing would expose Chinese art lovers to art that they previously would have only seen in books or online. There is indeed no substitute for the real thing. It would also encourage many to visit partnering art institutions and museums abroad to see the full breadth of their collections. At the same time, at a minimum, each partnering institution would be required to reciprocate by sharing an equivalent amount of Chinese art in their own countries. It should be obvious that this would help build two-way cultural bridges and be a truly win-win arrangement for both sides.

I look forward to the time when an even better Gallery Weekend Beijing rolls around next year and beyond that, to the establishment of Museum City Beijing. Until then, I am planning to visit 798 as often as I can and to follow CEO Wang Yanling's quest for artistic excellence and building cultural bridges through win-win cooperation to and from China and the world.

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