Artist YAO WEI talking about her ongoing “Big Beauty” project, in which she transformed herself into a “femme fatale” by dressing in sexually provocative clothes and applying make-up—both of which she had never done before. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Feb 27 2015

Beijing Report: Three Exhibitions In 798 Art District

by Michael Young

Beijing’s 798 art district may well have become more of a general tourist attraction, but it can still put on a good exhibition when it matters most—like on a recent, cold winter’s day, where the temperature was freezing, but a curiously blue sky beckoned one to step out to the galleries.

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art remains consistently good in its programming and is currently showing a standout exhibition of works by artist Liu Wei. Sadly, I couldn’t linger too long, because of pressing flight times, but a young collector who had flown specially from Shanghai for the opening forwarded a one word endorsement of the exhibition: amazing. This, coming from Kelly Ying, co-founder of Shanghai’s Art021art fair, was some recommendation.

Several top-of-the-line galleries are still firmly entrenched in the 798 art district and seem able to afford the soaring rents. Pace Beijing, Tang Contemporary Art and Galleria Continua, for example, all just a stone’s throw from each other, are currently showing a joint exhibition across the three respective sites, entitled “Beijing Voice: Unlived by What is Seen.” It presents the work of young Chinese artists and is curated by independent curator Cui Cancan and the artist-couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. The latter are among the few artists to still occupy a studio space in 798, and they, along with the ever-youthful art-duo Gao Brothers, can often be seen in the area’s narrow streets.

“Beijing Voice: Unlived by What is Seen” is, in fact, an annual exhibition that is now in its fifth iteration. It was established in 2008 by Pace with the intention of showcasing current art trends in China, which—according to the curators—include artists who develop “modes of existence that interrogate life itself.”

Art for such artists is no longer predicated on their works being shown inside a gallery or, for that matter, the creation of visual objects. Rather, the significance is in the way art and life is increasingly becoming indivisible. Art is a social experience that permeates all aspects of life. The Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh explored similar territory nearly 40 years ago in his performance project Thirteen Year Plan (1999), where he developed the idea that art and life were one and the same.

Almost 80 hours of video interviews on show at the exhibition attempt to give the participating artists a vehicle to talk about their artistic process and inspirations firsthand, rather than to present a documentation of the experience. Hu Yinping talks about how she tried to film her parents during coitus, while other artists talk about street racing in Beijing. Perhaps more engaging is Yao Wei, who excavates the notion of femininity, glamour and how wearing sexy clothes and make-up can transform an ordinary woman into a femme fatale.

In contrast, Zhang Mingxin has filmed his guerilla-like activities, in which he goes inside museum spaces and adds elements to ongoing exhibits. In another work he questions the reality of what we see; over a two-year period he bought four stalls from street vendors and assumed their roles. These stalls—Natural Health Tea, Jiangnan Leather Factory, Pancakes, Super All-Purporse Adhesive (all 2014)—which are exhibited at Tang Contemporary Art, demonstrate how objects can add an underlying complexity to a simple story.

ZHAO ZHAO’s Secret Love (2014), from his performance series “Slap and Secret Love, Leather Shoe and Family,” where artist Sun Yuan agreed to be stabbed in the back with a knife by Zhao Zhao. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

BILL VIOLA, Inverted Birth, 2014, still from video: 8 min 22 sec. Courtesy Faurschou Foundation, Beijing. 

Yet “Beijing Voice” is far from being at the vanguard of art and, instead, appears somewhat passé. For example, Zhao Zhao, the enfant terrible of Chinese contemporary art, exhibits a series of color photographs of a performance where he stabs artist Sun Yuan in the back. The work could have been plucked from the late 1980s, which was when an outpouring of avant-garde art emerged from the underground Beijing East Village movement. 

The opaqueness of “Beijing Voice: Unlived by What is Seen” is thrown sharply into focus by the Bill Viola exhibition that is currently on view at the nearby Faurschou Foundation. “Transformation” is the American video artist’s first solo show in Beijing and will surely not be his last. There are only three works on display, but one, entitled Inverted Birth (2014), held its world premiere at Faurschou. The exhibition is a triumph of conceptual restraint.

The idea that is explored in these works is one that Viola has approached before in his practice, and one could criticize him for this. But so elemental is his conceptual premise—birth, life and the finality of death—and so moving are his actors (who, for example, struggle heroically against raging torrents of water in his video installation The Raft, 2004), that I, for one, could forgive him almost anything. Without one word being spoken, Viola manages to say so much more than the several thousand words spoken during the 80 hours of video featured in “Beijing Voice.”

BILL VIOLA, The Raft, 2004, still from video: 10 min 33 sec. Courtesy Faurschou Foundation, Beijing. 

“Liu Wei: Colours,” at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, is on view until April 17, 2015. “Beijing Voice: Unlived by What is Seen,” at Pace Gallery, Tang Contemporary Art and Galleria Continua, is on view until March 15, 2015. “Bill Viola: Transformation,” at Faurschou Foundation, is on view until March 22, 2015.