Contemporary Chinese Art

Christen Cornell manages Local Consumption Publications and 'Artspace China' a blog on contemporary Chinese culture. Currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Sydney on China's contemporary art districts her article outlines the very latest developments in this volatile field.

Shisanling Art District, Bejing.

Forty kilometres northwest of central Beijing, on the road to the much-touristed Ming Tombs and the Great Wall, a new Chinese art district is in the final stages of completion. Housed partly in a Ming Dynasty garden, with ancient trees and secluded courtyards, the Shisanling Art District includes fifty residential studios for purchase and over one hundred and fifty rental spaces. By the time the area officially opens later this year, Shisanling will boast two galleries, a lecture theatre, restaurant, hotel, consultancy services for collectors, international exchange programs, and its own organic farm and vineyard. Purchase of the district’s apartments is by invitation only, with some of China’s most successful contemporary artists (and a few non-Chinese internationals) already having secured their place in the project.

It seems fitting that this new district shares its use of the Ming Dynasty garden with a five star hotel next door — and not just any five star hotel, but one available only to high-level Communist Party leaders. The Shisanling art district itself feels like something of a luxury resort, an artists’ retreat designed in accordance with the most refined of China’s aesthetic traditions and buttressed with a strong sense of international prestige. If there is a class structure to Beijing’s art districts then Shisanling represents a good suburb. A business venture of artist come entrepreneur, David Wei, the Shisanling Art District has full support from the local government and protection under its cultural policies.

All this might sit oddly with Western expectations of China’s contemporary arts community — those that pitch the artist as in opposition to authority and the status quo. It also doesn’t quite square with our understanding of Beijing’s other art districts — most famously 798 Art Zone, Caochangdi, and Song Zhuang — or at least the way they have been reported in English language publications. Beginning as spontaneous art communities, and converting rural and industrial space, these districts have most commonly been discussed in the context of their planned demolition and ongoing harassment from the authorities. Unlike that of Shisanling, these are the stories that strike the right note for a Western audience, and that have helped keep the districts financially afloat. We like the idea of the outsider artist, especially in China, and buy into the larrikin romance.

But the power structures are changing in Beijing, and the art districts are changing with them. As the Beijing Urban Plan (redrawn every five years) extends its reach to the outer areas of the city, the fate of its far-flung art communities is increasingly brought into question. At the same time, however, local and district level governments are beginning to see value in the idea of an arts precinct — that is, if packaged as a symbol of Chinese cultural prestige — and this interest somewhat changes the rules of the game. No longer simply the refuge of the outsider, or the domain of the Western collector, the Chinese art district is increasingly coming under the patronage of the Chinese government, and the political system that comes with it.

798 Art Zone, Bejing. Photo credit: Gao Xiaotao, 2011.

Anybody who has spent some time in Beijing has probably at least heard of 798 Art Zone, the most celebrated of all China’s contemporary art districts. Housed in a 1950s, Bauhaus-style factory complex, the area began in the early 2000s as a cheap rental space for artists and quickly gained mythical traction amongst foreigners as an underground scene. By the mid-2000s, when Chinese art began to boom, the neighbourhood had become a hot spot for buyers on the global art circuit, with overseas galleries, cafés and bookshops popping up like mushrooms after rain. Tourists came to get a sense of the action, and the majority of those buying art were non-Chinese collectors keen for a piece of contemporary China.

For years the district was going to be razed for housing, and waves of indignation rippled through its transnational community every time a new date for demolition was set. Shows were treated with suspicion by the authorities, and often shut down, which only fanned the flames of the area’s sense of purpose. In 2006, however, as the country was gearing up for the Olympics, a delegation of high-level party officials visited 798 and, seemingly impressed by its commercial potential, decided it should be protected as an official Cultural Industries Precinct. This conferral of a then-new, national category represented a deal. The artists and their transnational galleries could stay so long as they followed the party’s rules, and contributed their economic success to China’s nation-building project.

Li Hui, V, May 28 2011—July 10 2011. Lasers, LED panels, smoke, mist, transparent, acrylic, stainless steel. Installation view at Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, 798 Art Zone Bejing. 
798 Art Zone, Bejing.

Today, 798 feels like something of an art themepark, with tour groups following bobbing yellow flags through its backstreets, and shops selling graffiti-style 798 mugs and t-shirts. While it is home to some of China’s largest and most prestigious galleries — such as the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art, and 798 Space — it’s also sanitised and commercialised to the hilt, with design shops and apolitical graffiti selling the idea of a contemporary art lifestyle to China’s new middle class. Flush with global capital, yet administered by Chinese institutions, the district now plays an important role in the rhetoric of China’s harmonious society, while providing a cosmopolitan face for Beijing.

Song Zhuang, China’s largest and oldest art district, is currently undergoing its own transition, and one that will see the area increase tremendously in size and stature. Situated in Beijing’s eastern boondocks, where rents are still cheap, the area has for years been considered far enough off the map to avoid government or commercial attention. A trip out to its sprawling cluster of old villages and converted factories at present, however, involves a drive past blocks of empty construction sites enclosed by billboards advertising the new and improved Song Zhuang — a future art district in planning.

Billboard on the outskirts of Song Zhuang.

Within the existing Song Zhuang, artists are being moved from their old spaces in converted warehouses, or still waiting on news as to whether their traditional village style homes, or recently built studios, will be torn down. In exchange for their cooperation, they will be given leases on new, purpose built spaces, at reasonable rates; more public funding for galleries; increased administration facilities; a new railway station connecting their area to the city; and development of a new commercial district. If Shisanling is a good suburb, Song Zhuang is currently at the wrong end of town, but this revamp might help connect it not only with global networks but also China’s growing domestic art market. As with 798, in Song Zhuang there is currently the sense of an offer, a collusion of economic and cultural interests packaged in the logic of China’s economic development.

But what happens if artists choose not to cooperate or, even worse, to pass judgment on the workings of the Communist Party? Readers have probably been waiting for the mention of Ai Weiwei who, at time of writing, had just been released from three months’ detention under investigation of tax evasion — charges broadly considered punishment for his provocative stance against government censorship and corruption. Ai is a rare and symbolic figure in the Beijing art community, his family background and international connections providing him with an unusual position and confidence. Part of the reaction to his detainment was a reassessment of just how far the Party hand would reach into the transnational Chinese art community, and how much goading it would take to get it there.

Caochangdi, the art district Ai Weiwei established in the early 2000s, has for the last few years been looked to as an alternative to 798’s over-commercialisation, a more intellectually focussed collection of galleries, studios and institutions situated an extra ten minutes’ cab ride northeast of town. In April 2010, it was announced that the area would be demolished, and so began a year-long campaign by its artists and village leader for protection as a Cultural Industries Precinct. In April 2011, just a few weeks after Ai Weiwei’s detention, and just as the area’s large-scale international Photo Spring Festival was about to kick off, the residents of Caochangdi were told their art district would be protected. Receiving these two pieces of news together felt less of a coincidence than a reminder. High profile artists like Ai are allowed to continue their work, so long as they contribute their economic success to China’s development, and stay on the right side of the political line.
Of course, government support of China’s art districts has the potential to be a positive thing. Where granted, artists can keep their studios, their communities, their interface with the commercial art world, and might benefit from China’s increasing prosperity. It also makes sense for Chinese people and institutions to determine what is Chinese art, rather than a select group of foreign investors and curators, even more so because art in China has traditionally been a nationalistic pursuit.

Sunshine International Art Museum, Song Zhuang.

Complications arise, however, when this investment comes with an implicit warning. Many artists in Beijing’s new and improving art districts resent the feeling of intervention, and are wary of what might be expected in return. The first few months after revolution spread across the Middle East — the context of Ai Weiwei’s detention — were a particularly tense time in Beijing. In March 2011, four artists were detained after a performance in Song Zhuang which touched on China’s recent crackdown on dissent. In June, 798’s Incidental Art Festival was shut down by the local authorities for its inclusion of the words Ai Weiwei on a blank wall. And in April, Song Zhuang’s 8th Documentary Film Festival was cancelled by the festival organisers themselves, citing unspecified 'pressure’ as influencing their decision. Self-censorship remains the most powerful form of control in the Chinese arts community, encouraged by a lack of transparency in the system.

This shift to Chinese administration of its own contemporary art world perhaps represents a double-edged sword, the increasing power of China to define its own art coming with its own restrictions. It’s interesting that the majority of China’s successful contemporary artists hold dual citizenship, with passports to Europe, America or Australia, yet choose to stay — and most of them choosing the political centre of Beijing. There is seemingly something in this tension between opportunity and authority that makes Beijing the country’s cultural centre as well. This is the city’s paradox, the contradiction that continues to make it attractive to young Chinese, and increasingly international, artists.

Christen Cornell is a writer, researcher and arts manager with a background in both publishing and the visual arts. A fluent Chinese speaker, she has lived and worked in China a number of times since 2003. She manages Local Consumption Publications, as well as Artspace China a blog on contemporary Chinese culture and is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Sydney on China’s contemporary art districts.


Card (detail): Billboard on the outskirts of Song Zhuang.