Construction site at 798 Art District, Beijing, 2008. Photo by Matthew Niederhauser for ArtAsiaPacific.

The Beijing National Stadium under construction in early 2008. Photo by Matthew Niederhauser for ArtAsiaPacific.

Exterior view of Pace Beijing. Photo by Yu Long. Courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York.

Beijing Before The Olympics: Business As Usual?

Features from Jul/Aug 2008

In early May, Guo Xiaoyan, the newly appointed chief curator at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), posed against a towering hibiscus-purple wall inside the recently established institution’s industrial-chic factory space. Behind her, young men perched atop ladders as they filled out the floral patterns on the wall, using stencils churned out by a dozen art students chatting quietly below them. Guo explained that the wall is one of several ambitious site-specific installations that UCCA has commissioned for its building, this one by the Taiwanese artist Michael Lin, known for his massive installations of floral prints. Although it is half-covered in scaffolding, the installation is expected to be completed, like almost everything in Beijing, before the 2008 Olympics in August.

“The Olympics are an opportunity for us to communicate and share our art with different communities,” said Guo. “Everybody here is trying to put on their best shows in August, so what you see then will be a good representation of Beijing’s art community.”

Outside UCCA’s walls, tourists dodged crater-sized potholes as dump trucks roared down the dust-clogged streets of the 798 Art District. Property management group Seven Stars is repaving the streets, installing new electricity infrastructure and landscaping the former industrial district.

As the city approaches “8/8/08”—which, with its numero-logical connotations of good fortune many times over, is the most auspicious opening date possible this decade in Chinese culture—Beijing’s art community has also pursued breakneck development and attracted increasing international interest. From its earliest days, when art in China first began to take the forms it is recognized for today, Beijing’s art communities have passed from sensation to legitimization: the clandestine exhibitions once forced into apartment-complex basements have since been welcomed into official spaces as the market for contemporary Chinese art has exploded.

Curator Karen Smith, based in Beijing since 1992, said, “Most artists have their hands, minds and lives full right now with the commercial shifts in the art world.” As part and parcel of those changes, the Olympics, a mix of limitless opportunity on the one hand and endless tedium on the other, seem to inspire both excitement and ambivalence in the local community. Some are preparing for the increased foot traffic in the city’s exploding art districts with enthusiasm, while others are lying low to avoid controversy and still others are going about business as usual.

Important art centers in Beijing, such as UCCA and Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in the nearby Caochangdi art district, have chosen to take advantage of the Olympics opportunity by staging shows promoting their own assets. UCCA has organized a sprawling, 60-artist exhibition of the Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection, entitled “Our Future,” asserting the Ullens’ position as vanguard supporters of Chinese contemporary art through displays of works and new commissions by the likes of installation artist Chen Zhen, political pop painter Wang Guangyi and new media artist Cao Fei. Three Shadows will show new work from its founders, photographers RongRong&inri, known for lyrical self-portraits set against dramatic landscapes, focusing on themes of growth and regeneration. Other galleries have announced shows featuring their biggest names and strongest talents, with galleries like PKM, also in Caochangdi, pulling in outside curatorial brass such as University of Chicago professor Wu Hung, whose activities extend from 2004’s blockbuster survey “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China” to one-off commercially-oriented group shows. A glut of foreign institutions, New York powerhouse Pace Wildenstein chief among them, has similarly chosen August as an opportune time to inaugurate Beijing branches.

One trend seems common: a dedication to Chinese, not foreign artists. In spite of offers from foreign institutions to showcase top talent from outside of China, art institutions in the city have recognized the Olympics as an opportunity to invest in the longevity of the local community.

To an extent, this sentiment is echoed by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG), whose events include a public sculpture display and the Beijing Biennale, curated by the Chinese Artists Association members Jin Shangyi, Liu Dawei and Feng Yuan under the vague theme “Colors and Olympism,” to be hosted by the National Art Museum of China and the Central Academy of Fine Arts Center.

Two of the best-known artists slated to participate in these officially-sanctioned events are Cai Guo-Qiang and composer Tan Dun. Cai is the chief special effects designer of the opening and closing ceremonies, and Tan Dun is a musical planner for Olympic events. Both live in New York, where they have achieved a high degree of success: Cai was feted in a recent retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, and Tan’s commissioned opera, The First Emperor, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006. As successful expatriate Chinese living in New York, their return to China at the invitation of BOCOG holds symbolic importance to a country whose artists often found it necessary to pursue their art and livelihood abroad only a decade ago.

The details of Cai and Tan’s contributions to the Olympics have been closely guarded by Olympics officials, who have offered little more than short, bombastic press releases that essentially confirm the artists’ involvement but provide little specifics about what they are planning. Despite the fact that their contributions have yet to be realized, opinion over their participation is already divided in an arts community still wary of the relationship between creative expression and the party line. “Cai Guo-Qiang’s opening and closing ceremony programs will do much to focus world attention on the rich cultural life of Beijing, and of course on the dynamic and extremely international contemporary art scene here,” says Meg Maggio, director of Pékin Fine Arts gallery, which she established in 2005 after working as director of the pioneering and now defunct Courtyard Gallery. The curator Karen Smith, however, contends that they will be “predictably suitable.”

Others are less guarded with their invective. More than a year ago, artist Ai Weiwei criticized the organizers of the Olympics, which proved quite seductive to Western journalists, who relished the contradiction between Ai’s open criticism and his involvement as an artistic consultant to the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, who designed the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, the city’s new emblem.

“I very openly criticize the tendency to use culture for the purpose of propaganda, to dismiss the true function of art and the intellect,” Ai said in a controversial Guardian article published August 9, 2007. Pointing to what he sees as the hypocrisy of nationalist posturing and crude commercialism underlying the rhetoric of healthy international sportsmanship, Ai insisted that he was designing for the architects and not the government.

Speaking with ArtAsiaPacific over a year later, Ai reiterated his original stance. In the midst of references in Chinese media to the “Holy Games” and “Holy Torch,” he describes China’s government as being “without any ideology of its own,” and says the artists associated with the Olympics “are only trying to please the government.” To him, pre-Olympics anticipation has led to a dangerous increase in nationalism as opposed to patriotism, and its organizers have already failed to capitalize on the event’s potential for positive change. “The Olympics are an opportunity to redefine the country, but the message is always wrong,” maintained Ai.

In fact, the very same nationalism that Ai spoke out against on the part of the Olympics organizers has already stoked the pride of several Chinese artists. As tensions have mounted internationally, they have similarly festered in Beijing, where some artists have reacted strongly to the growing international concern over China’s role in recent Tibetan unrest. French prime minister Nicholas Sarkozy’s suggestion that he might refuse to attend the Olympics opening ceremony and an incident during the torch relay’s French leg has focused particular attention upon that country. A popular Chinese campaign to boycott French businesses has been mirrored in the decision of several prominent artists, Yue Minjun, Wang Guangyi and Lu Hao among them, to withdraw from an exhibition of contemporary Chinese work to be shown at the Musée Maillol in Paris.

But not all Olympics apprehension is politically oriented. Leo Xu, a curator at Chambers Fine Art Beijing, says the Games not only bring much-needed attention to the art scene, but also the potential for overexposure. “Contemporary art somehow turns much more official and ‘legitimated’ when it gains more visibility,” says Xu. “For instance, the over-saturated 798 has been undergoing tremendous renovations. But I am not quite sure if this is a fleeting prosperity for the art scene. The Olympics don’t seem to be such a great opportunity.”

All these tensions reflect an awareness of the high expectations being placed upon the city right now. Amid some people’s hopes for significant shows and provocative statements lies the understanding that despite the strain that has been placed upon the burgeoning art community, change doesn’t always occur overnight. “Statements are few and far between in Beijing organizations these days regardless of the Olympics,” said David Tung, deputy director of Long March Space gallery, expressing a sentiment not uncommon in a city where veteran players are weary of the commercialism and opportunism that characterize its ever-expanding art market.

In Beijing today, where so much seems inevitably impacted by the Olympics, the boundaries among the Games, international politics and art are ever shifting and porous. The ambitions of some in the nation seem echoed in the transformations within its art industry: although China’s art communities were once scorned or held at arm’s length, they have since been embraced by government organizations as cash cows and highly effective national marketing devices.

The money rushing into Beijing from both domestic and international collectors and organizations may be both a curse and a blessing. While many in the art community lament the proliferation of tourist-trap, mass-produced “galleries”—such as one venue in 798 that welcomes visitors entering the main gates of the district with a large sculpture of two-meter-tall breasts—the money being put into 798’s infrastructure, for instance, is necessary to substantial institutions and speculators alike. Galleries, say several curators and managers, have repeatedly lost power on days when the outdated industrial power grid reached its capacity.

The infrastructure support from the government-run company that manages 798, Seven Stars, comes with some much-noted control, although the situation has changed since Seven Stars’ intervention forced the Dashanzi International Art Festival to splinter its activities into a set of officially unrelated events in 2005. Now, relationships between tenants in 798 and its managers have become more permissive and cooperative. Not only are the property managers repairing the local streets with cobblestones and a newer, uniformly branded set of signs, but some galleries consult officials about the content of exhibitions to avoid controversial misunderstandings that could lead to forced closures or other complications. Guo Xiaoyan says that UCCA is not concerned about the potential for heightened political sensibilities during the high-profile Olympics season, because planning for “Our Future,” like at least some other exhibitions, included consultation with authorities.

If some art institutions are playing it safe, the public visual landscape of Beijing is enthusiastically proud. Nearly every exterior wall in certain historical districts has been repainted in the last few weeks. After international demonstrations during the itinerary of the Olympic Torch Relay, computer screens throughout the country’s Internet population, now the world’s largest, were emblazoned with viral nationalist iconography: 心 China, literally “heart China.” Banners of all sizes proclaim the Beijing Olympics slogan in Chinese and English: “One World, One Dream.” But it is clear that even in Beijing there are many cities, many dreams and many different expectations.