Artlink on the Road: a China Diary

March saw a little bit of history being made in Sino-Australian cultural relations with Artlink being the first Australian art magazine to be launched as well as offered for sale in China. Perversely we were not offering the Chinese an issue of the magazine about Australia, our normal subject area, but about China, a subject area we have only visited occasionally. In the manner of all human vanities that may have been one of the reasons we received such a warm reception. Imagining the reverse - reading an issue of a Chinese art magazine about Australian art  is in the current state of art writing in China unlikely.

March saw a little bit of history being made in Sino-Australian cultural relations with Artlink being the first Australian art magazine to be launched as well as offered for sale in China. Perversely we were not offering the Chinese an issue of the magazine about Australia, our normal subject area, but about China, a subject area we have only visited occasionally. In the manner of all human vanities that may have been one of the reasons we received such a warm reception. Imagining the reverse - reading an issue of a Chinese art magazine about Australian art – is in the current state of art writing in China unlikely. Compared with Australia, China is only just beginning to reflect on its own very recent history of modern art. But one day no doubt Chinese art critics will be curious enough about Australian art to reciprocate. Given the speed at which the culture is absorbing international influences, this may happen sooner than we imagine.

The rationale of The China Phenomenon was to provide an overview of the last 20 years up to the present, sketching in the emergence in the eighties of art which broke free of officially sanctioned Communist propaganda art while trying to avoid the attention of the police. Not intended for local consumption, this art aspired to stretch out to the West. The fact that the West was ready to embrace it accelerated the rapid spread of Chinese art through the art world. The authors of the articles were an international mix of native Chinese, westerners living in China, an American, and several Australians including Chinese-Australians.

What was a little unexpected was that The China Phenomenon has been as much welcomed by the art community in China as in the rest of the world, and for similar reasons. Several Chinese commented that they were using it as a research tool in the preparation of conference papers and articles!

The seven-day Artlink cultural delegation to China in mid-March 2004 was a modest one by normal standards – just myself and Binghui Huangfu, Director of the Asia-Australia Art Centre in Sydney, co-editor of The China Phenomenon.

Binghui was born and brought up in Beijing and left China in 1989 for Australia as an adult. Her recent positions as a curator of Asian art have taken her back to China frequently, so her experience of the bureaucracy as well as the art world is second to none. As a native Chinese who is passionate about her country she is also prepared to tough it out in the face of political censorship which is still brought to bear on artists and curators, though this is now a far cry from the situation just five years ago. By contrast my first hand experience of China was precisely none.

First stop Hong Kong, and initial surprises were thick grey pollution, and the pedestrian walkways in the air allowing travel from building to building without touching the ground. The Hong Kong Arts Centre on Harbour Rd Wanchai, is a utilitarian 12 floor building packed with gallery, administration and theatre spaces and the headquarters of a remarkable new art school. The Hong Kong Museum of Art on Kowloon on the other hand is a monumental pile, surrounded by acres of plaza. It does not stray far from middle of the road Chinese arts, and ink painting. On show was a touring collection of drawings done by soldiers and others during the Vietnam War co-curated with the British Museum. The first of our launches took place that night at the Asia Art Archive, a new research and publishing centre under the directorship of Claire Hsu, in the heart of the art and antiquities precinct in Sheung Wan. Speakers included the Australian Deputy Consul General John Pilbeam and Chang Tsong-zung prominent Director of HanArtTZ Gallery.

Next day China Eastern Airlines to Shanghai. 15 minutes after our arrival, the curator Gu Zhenqing was there ready to talk about the launch being hosted at the newly opened Duolun Museum of Modern Art, where he is Chief Curator. This museum is the first government-funded institution in China dedicated to contemporary art. Before taking us to a restaurant frequented by the art crowd for its top-rated food and cheap prices, we visited the impressive Shanghai Gallery of Art, a private gallery which is a third of the new '3 on the Bund' a warehouse building, gutted and dramatically refashioned by British architect Michael Graves into a gallery, upmarket shopping and exclusive restaurant, all overlooking the legendary Huangpu River with eye-popping views across to Shanghai's collection of signature modern buildings. In line with all the firsts which tend to describe daily life in China, the Shanghai Art Museum was showing the Haudenschild Collection of Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video, on loan from the USA, and until now regarded as too risky to be shown in a state-funded museum. Next was Eastlink, an rambling series of galleries and studios in an old factory complex which also houses the warehouse space of ShanghArt Gallery. The director Li Liang, is an artist who started Eastlink to provide a space for fellow artists to work and show. He also runs the Australian residency there, funded by the Australia-China Council. The Duolun MoMA is a purpose built museum which opened in late 2003. Sited in the historic precinct where radical writer/poet Lu Xun. father of modern Chinese literature lived in the 1930s, it offers exciting architecture, including a glass-roofed café-bar on the top floor used for functions such as the Artlink launch.
Australian Deputy Consul General Gary Cowan spoke to the assembled crowd of artists, curators, writers, journalists, diplomats, students and interested people in perfect Mandarin. Other speakers were Museum Director Shen Qi Bin, himself trained as an artist, and Yang Fudong, wunderkind photomedia artist (Artlink cover artist) who underlined the need for the level of critical writing in China to improve. Lively discussion followed the speeches and an air of excitement at the advent of this publication. Artlink donated 90 copies to the Museum for sale at the launch and in their bookshop.

After the kinetic light show that is Shanghai at night, Beijing was huge and grey. Our final launchpad, Red Gate Gallery, occupies two floors of a massive ancient watchtower, part of the old Beijing City Wall, mostly demolished during the Cultural Revolution. Australian expatriate Brian Wallace who founded the gallery regards himself as privileged to be allowed to share this extraordinary heritage site and it is a tribute to his selfless dedication to Chinese art and artists as well as his diplomatic skills that he has won the trust of the city authorities as well as the art community. Red Gate is the mecca for arts-related visitors to Beijing and its reputation ensures a big crowd to openings. A restaurant banquet for artists and their friends is also de rigeur to round off a successful event. About 300 people attended the Artlink launch the next day at which Fan di An, Deputy President of the Central Art Academy spoke eloquently together with Sean Kelly from the Australian Embassy. Amongst the crowd were many of the artists and writers featured in the magazine, as well as Robert Bernell who runs the only English-language art bookshop in China, TimeZone8, where he is doing a brisk trade in The China Phenomenon, complete with an insert carrying all the texts in Chinese.
All the launches were attended by journalists and writers from daily papers, weekly and quarterly magazines and radio stations and generous reports, stories and interviews were published before and after the launches, some with numerous colour pictures. This seems to indicate either a lack of arts news in China or a keen interest in foreign views of Chinese culture.

In our final day together in Beijing Binghui and I visited the so-called Artists' Village on the outskirts of the city, where around 2000 artists at various levels of professional practice take advantage of cheap rents in the seedy blocks of flats which are standard issue in the capital. We met several of the artists who were featured in Artlink, all of whom were 'market ready' with catalogues, CDs, brochures and sample prints - a heavy pile of printed matter duly shipped back to Australia. Our final visit was to the already legendary Dashanzi complex (described in Artlink pp 42-47), a gigantic former factory compound now occupied by scores of galleries, artist and designer studios and restaurants. Space 798 is a huge light-filled gallery, and the site of recent ground-breaking exhibitions.

Beijing with its population equal to the whole of Australia is not surprisingly a powerhouse to which the world is drawn in every discipline and every pursuit imaginable. A permanent building site, and losing more of its historic hutongs (alleyways of old courtyard houses) every day, the city changes constantly, with construction work round the clock. The effect on artists is to force a pace of life which keeps the top players constantly on the move around China, the region and the world. But the stories of artists living like rock stars on their foreign sales is largely mythology. Life is a struggle in every way. Unlike many western peers however, it was notable that young Chinese artists have not sacrificed family for career - children, spouses and grandmothers coexist with the creative lifestyle. The still marginal position of women in the visual arts may have a lot to do with this.

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