China – Losing yourself in 798

The beginning of another week, another 7 days of surprise and adventure. Let’s see what they bring. Saturday was a complete right-off after the escapades of Friday night and the very early Saturday morning, but that was expected. All I did was sleep intermittently and blog, send e-mails and eat…RJW went out and got me a yoghurt drink and a couple of red bean sweet egg tartlets things for dinner from the cafe downstairs. I don’t think we could have done anything productive that day. Sunday was different. We woke up early and I battled to upload images to my blog. We then got a taxi and made our way to ‘798’, the infamous art district in Beijing. We were going to cycle but we weren’t sure where it was and it was a pretty hot day. Next time we will though. ‘798’ is initially a maze, then you work out its grid-like structure after eventually giving in and purchasing a map from one of the galleries. Can’t believe they charge for these things. RJW got some beautiful photographs that day and is turning into a very good documenter of our China travels. Below you’ll see me hunting through business cards trying to find the location of ‘Platform China’ and ‘Long March Space’, two galleries who I will be speaking to about my research. I will be with ‘Platform China’ on Wednesday afternoon. Established in 2005, they call themselves a “multi-functional art gallery” with galleries, project spaces and residency studios, with a goal to create an open artistic environment in which contemporary art in all its different identities can be created, shown, and discussed. They discover, support, promote and build up a platform of cultural exchange and dialogue between young Chinese and international artists. Perfect for my research right? I’m interested in their process of international exchange…in the hope it being a “transcultural” exchange.

During the wander we came across a poster for ‘Negotiations’ that we helped to install over a week ago at the Today Art Museum. It was nice to see some of the offsite venues including the Clare Rojas works at the ‘PIFO New Art Gallery’. This gallery was an architectural delight with some interestingly designed staircases which RJW loved. We came across many book and magazine shops all with a different selling angle. One was called the ‘Wishing Tree’ where you could pay 10RMB to make a write a wish on a tag and hang it from “the” tree. I liked the concept of this and the international responses that were on display. No matter how many chinese characters were written up there, people still wrote a closing phrase in english like “forgive me”, “I love you” and “keep believing”. Touching in some way. It made me wonder what the rest of the text said…forgive you for what? What did you do?

After walking round ‘798’ for quite some time, we eventually found a poster of the map that led us to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). We were actually only yards away from it. I managed to get a free ticket, again like in Paris I’m loving the free entry to galleries and museums due to being an art student. In the main exhibition space there was a very impressive installation due to sheer scale and magnitude called ‘Hope Tunnel’ by Zhang Huan. I’m not sure if you can really see it in the panorama but the photo below that really captures a lot more of the sense of space.

‘Hope Tunnel’ is a wreckage of a cargo train No. 21043 destroyed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and is a documentary recounting every step of the train’s journey from Xi’an to Shanghai to Beijing. When the earthquake happened, this train was actually passing through a tunnel in the border region between Gansu, Sichuan and Shaanxi Provinces. Loaded down with grain and fuel, the train caught fire and became trapped in the tunnel’s inferno. It took workers six months to dig out the wreckage, clear the tunnel and reopen the railway line. This installation is seen as ‘a monument to hope…to promote positive social change. A towering display of destructive power frozen in time.’ This artwork is almost like a commemoration for the victims of the disaster and well as being a time to contemplate reconstruction and the challenges life throws at us. I really would read more about it as it is quite a profound piece. I said to RJW that contemporary Chinese art often involves this notion of monumentalism…the power of art through sheer magnitude. I think they like impact…is that “Chineseness” though?

Also at ‘798’ was the Chinese publishing house ‘Timezone 8’. I have many of their books at home and they are quite difficult to get hold of, if not a bit pricey. I spent quite a while in the shop browsing, leafing through, note-taking, writing…forgetting which books I already had and which ones I’ve borrowed from University…trying not to spend money. I even had to contact my new housemate Leanne to double-check that I wasn’t going to make a duplicate purchase. A few more books won’t hurt right? I’ve already acquired a lot in the three weeks we’ve been here. Excess baggage fee here I come.

We eventually found the ‘Long March Space’ where they were exhibiting as part of the Shanghai Biennale 2010 ‘Act I:Long March Project –Ho Chi Minh Trail’, a group show of the artists Chieh-Jen Chen, MadeIn, Wang Jianwei, Zhang Hui, Liu Wei and Wu Shanzhuan. It is ‘a rehearsal, which implies a call to arms of ideas and expression, an action derived from form, and criticism and self-criticism administered between the intellectual left, artists and curators. It attempts to suspend and anatomize their roles, a reverse engineering of artistic production. In a day and age in which the capitalist cultural industry leaves no stone unturned, we aim to rehearse rather than produce. Our act of ‘rehearsal’ is the way of journeying on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.’ Here you can see how it links to the Shanghai Biennale’s theme of ‘Rehearsal’. In the introduction, the artists state 13 keys missions…

1/ The Ho Chi Minh Trail project is a rehearsal for the theatre of mass media – society – art; it is an act of preparation to hurl oneself into the eventual event—a kind of reading of society.

2/ Ho Chi Minh Trail is not a search but an encounter, not an expression but an immersion.

3/ Taking on the burden of history is not an act of retracing historical memory, but a restless attempt to position the present in history

4/ When you are told about a way called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this is what we call a political moment; and in this moment, you are not innocent. Anybody who has not been told about the trail is also not innocent. The Ho Chi Minh Trail exists in every one of us.

5/ Journeying between historicism and opportunism?

6/ How can artists avoid massaging ideology?

7/ Art as an autistic theatre—a closed circulation of images, symbols, power, and values.

8/ Under the weight of truth, we search for the luggage of history.

9/ We are not seeking for a new political topic or space but a renewal of our political approach.

10/ Be cautious of identity politics, the politics of discourse, and the culture of healing as therapeutic means for political compensation

11/ How can we arrive simultaneously at the originality of art and radicality of politics.

12/ With what has the historical practice of socialism left us?

13/ One must first become an artist then an individual.

I became particularly focussed on points 3 and 8…all regarding the notion of historicism and its influence on the creative process. This constantly infiltrates my PhD research as how can you understand contemporary Chinese art without placing it within its history? Finding that luggage? We are always wanting to know it, but how if you are so far away from it can you understand it? In rear gallery alongside Liu Wei’s sculptures and site-specific installations ‘Merely A Mistake’ was a visual mapping of the infrastructure for the mission and grounding for the ‘Long March Space’. An interest construct which, at some stage, I will deconstruct through critical examination.

Opposite this gallery was a clothing shop called ‘WO2‘ where I indulged in buying a bespoke bat-winged interchangeable sweater cardigan thing in electric blue. They sell solid block colour simplistic designed clothing (a little like American Apparel), alongside designer vintage like Vivienne Westwood. I bought it as I don’t think you could get this in the UK. It’s pretty individual and very snug. RJW and I are going on the premise that if its different, cheap enough and we like it…to get it then. We’ve agreed to have a mass clear out of clothing and shoes when we get back. China makes you realise how little you really do need to live, and also how commercial the world is, it’s all about the money, money, money…hence why I included the Chinese Coca-Cola sign too. Everywhere you go, no matter how rich or poor the area is, you will see neon signs for every brand under the sun.

As we kept on wandering, it became more of an exploration of ‘798’. You never knew what was there or round the next corner but you knew that it would somehow capture your attention. There are so many art galleries and creative enterprises going on here, it is sometimes, but not always, difficult to establish which are the key players and respected spaces. A lot of it comes down to design, branding and sheer professionalism…and that quality was easy to notice.

RJW and I went to ‘Timezone 8’ restaurant for dinner, on his friend Cory’s recommendation. It was evening by that time and a little chilly though we still ate alfresco. They had free wi-fi so we had brief online chats with a few friends as well as trying to call our Mom’s in England. I couldn’t get through. The food wasn’t too fancy, just a little more Western familiar and afterwards we were both shattered and headed straight home for super sleeps. Getting lost in 798 and in art tires you out.

Here are a couple of photographs which RJW took on the way home. Beijing light fantastic.

Monday was another day of ‘798’. I didn’t quite feel myself that morning, just a little yukky like I could get ill but my body couldn’t make up its mind. RJW has been feeling the same too recently with a bad sore throat. By late morning, he had his meeting confirmed for 4.30pm with ‘Yuanfen Flow’ (as part of ‘Yuanfen Investments’) with Russell Haines, the Design Director, who we met on Friday evening. This meeting was to take place at their office in the 798 art district and was to give RJW an insight into what they do, which is ‘weaving together the passions of individuals from the Arts, Technology and Business, generating innovative and sustainable solutions not yet imagined. Transforming ideas and the way we live.’ Well phrased and articulated. This only left us with a few hours in the morning to cycle and shop. We headed to Nanluogu Xiang, specifically to a t-shirt shop called ‘Plastered 8’, which took about an hour to cycle to after stopping to photograph the burnt out carcass of a building next to the CCTV building. This monumental building was actually set on fire by fireworks on its opening night. I initially thought it was a rusty unfinished build…

There were many other little clothes shops and boutiques along that street, but then mostly tourist paraphernalia which was worth ignoring. Theres only so much Mao tat you can take in. RJW bought a two-colour long sleeve sale t-shirt with a bicycle print on it from a place called ‘NLGX’, an independent brand and design community. I think we were only there for an hour before we had to cycle east to ‘798’. It’s great to be able to cycle round the city. You feel so free no matter how much traffic and noise is around you no matter how much of a distance it is. We just have map troubles at the moment as the big map is only in Chinese and the inner city map is in English…combined we do get somewhere but have the ability to get lost. That hasn’t happened yet though. Fingers crossed or “daumen drucken” (thumbs in) as the germans say.

We arrived in more than enough time for RJW’s meeting and as he headed off to discuss all things design, I went for a very quiet, peaceful wander to see what I could find. Many galleries, and in most countries too, close on Mondays, so there wasn’t much art to see…more books to read, shops to browse, people to watch. And people watching is good here as mannerisms, actions, interactions and exchanges can happen so differently physically and verbally. I somehow managed to purchase more clothing that afternoon. The first being a t-shirt with an envelope on the front from the ‘Design 360’ shop. When I bought this it made me realise how much of a geek I really am, a stationary, archival geek. I already have one t-shirt with a typewriter on the front at home. Seriously. But that’s who I am. Anyway, the envelope “T” was limited edition from a new Hong Kong based designer called ‘Little Factory’ and part of the exhibition ‘Thinking Thing: Seeking Soul – New Asian Generation Design Exhibition’. It was displayed so beautifully as shown in the bottom image below. Liking the Warhol Mao wallpaper by the way. These were sneaky shots as I was told no photography. iPhones are good for that.

When I took the t-shirt from the display table it left an empty gap, which I kind of liked. Removal of an object to bring significance. It’s amazing how you notice something more when there is a void. The second purchase was a very eastern influenced simplistic japanese vest and dress piece from ‘Future Store’ which I need to collect on Wednesday. This didn’t leave me with much cash left so I spent the rest of the early evening walking and watching, largely watching the development of this interactive projection just down the street from ‘Yuanfen Flow’. I think it used Photoshop or some sort of image editing software to draw, edit, manipulate and paint an image which was then projected. The image changed so quickly.

RJW rang me just after 7pm to say he had finished his epic meeting as I just entered the Yuanfen Flow office. Timing eh! It had really been good for him to see what these guys did, inspirational. Everyone was ready for food, so we headed to the ‘Timezone 8’ restaurant (again) for dinner with Russell and his two colleagues Steven and Josh. Russell managed to blag the “798 workers lunch” for 55RMB which made us all happy and laugh at the fact he managed to get it, it was nearly 8pm. That was a good deal. Then came the cycle home…easy route, long distance. It took us 40 minutes to get back but super worth it. I think it’s about 12km from 798 to our apartment. That evening, I spoke to my PhD supervisor Joshua via MSN about the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) conference at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou. It is under the theme ‘Art in the Public Realm: Mass Culture and Identity’ where I will be presenting a doctoral paper, most likely on the changing identity and reception of contemporary Chinese Art through “transcultural” curating. The title still need to tweaked and emailed to Joshua asap so I’d better get my thinking cap on. Titles are always the hardest thing to come up with…its like titling an article, book or piece of artwork. Often it comes out of the blue when you least expect it. Notepad and bic biro at the ready. This conference will be a little daunting but good for my overall professionalism. The greatest things come from doing the things that scare you the most, right? More on ‘798’ to come but we’re going to get caught in the tourist trap first.

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