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In my first three days here in Beijing I have visited the two main gallery districts. The largest and best known area, the 798 District, I managed to cover on Saturday thanks to Megan and KC Connolly (bloggers for our site – check out some of their posts). We also hit the Cao Chang Di district, which is where I had been staying at when I first arrived in the city. I’ll talk about those galleries next time but lets take a look at some of the things I saw in 798.

The first thing I noticed is that there are a lot of international galleries in operation here. A lot of European spaces but the American’s have begun opening galleries as well. PaceWildenstein has opened a large space deep in the heart of the 798. And their space is quite impressive. Unfortunately the art really isn’t. They were showing the work of Zhang Xiaogang and honestly it was pretty boring. Painting on mirrors and a series of molded objects that just didn’t hold my interest. Like I said, the space is great and when walking around the gallery you kinda wish the art was equal to it’s environment.

Another blockbuster show was Ai Wei Wei’s solo show at Faurschou Beijing. His work is often dynamic and controversial and yet this show felt like it was just tossed together. There was one of his large map sculptures, this one titled World Map from 2006. It was, as you might imagine a world map only it was made up of layers of cotton stacked and cut to shape. About five feet high or so it really made one want to wander through it but unfortunately we weren’t allowed. I had visions of people stumbling through it and knocking bits of it over. My one complaint is that the piece was flat on the floor with no way to grasp its scale. It would have been nice to have a bird’s eye view of it since it really was quite impressive. There was also his piece from Documenta 2007 titled Fairytale Dormitory. While certainly not as impressive as when installed in Kassel it makes for an interesting inclusion here. When installed at Documenta Ai brought over 1001 farmers, laid-off workers, street vendors, minority people, students, rock singers, and white collar workers to live in the installation in groups of 200 each staying for one week. There aren’t people living in these spaces here in 798 but you get the idea. Another fun piece was hisFlower Seeds which was a stack of porcelain sunflower seed placed on the floor. It was all great stuff but I was left with the feeling that this was all just tossed together. Ai Wei Wei is in the midst of some politicking that I think has moved him away from getting involved in the gallery scene.

An exhibition I really quite liked was Anthony Gormley’s at Galleria Continua. It was smart and sophisticated. I haven’t quite processed the show yet. It entailed a complex web of silk covered bungee cords exploding across the gallery in a seemingly random pattern until you notice that the figure of a person is in the center of the space. The figure is created with packing polyhedra. Not sure what that means but it sure looked cool. It seems his work is playing with mathematics and I even thought a bit about animation software like Maya. Animation as sculpture and in a good way! There were also several of his drawings and smaller metal works that were all pretty amazing. Megan and KC attended his artist talk and reported their impressions on Our Daily Red.

One really heinous show was up at Joy Art. This was a solo exhibition for the sculptor Chen Wengling. Chen works in a hyper-real style and here his monstrous sculpture is commenting on the current economic situation. The centerpiece of the show is a large sculpture of Bernie Madoff being crushed against the gallery wall by a large bull who happens to be breaking wind. Yes, you read that correctly and it’s title is What You See Might Not Be Real. The piece is well done. He certainly has a team who knows what they are doing. But one has to wonder what is really going on in his head. I couldn’t figure out what was more annoying: the fact that it was a fart joke or that this was being displayed in an art gallery. It really reminded me of those little jokey sculptures you can buy in a hallmark store. It is like a Hummel figurine detailing a fart joke. Um, yeah. I understand the need and desire to critique corporate culture but work like this doesn’t critique it in a way that makes one think. I don’t think it even deserved the term “didactic” because it isn’t teaching anything. Even in a broad sense.

One other place we checked out in 798 was the Space Station. They had an installation by Wang Wei that was pretty great. Wang has divided the space into two and re-created two restrooms from the 50s and 60s. Titled Historic Residence the spaces are modeled after historic architecture in Shaoshan Dishuidong, Hunan Province with one space an apple green (a play on the stage name of one of the residents) and the other a pale yellow. The two spaces are eerie and resonate with nostalgia for a bygone era. It is interesting to see an example of an artist struggling with a past that feels so distant to contemporary artists. It is impossible to ignore the history that bears down upon Chinese artists. And it is exciting to watch them grapple with it.

Culture has changed so rapidly for the Chinese that each generation of artists are struggling with very different ideas, ideals and environments from the previous. It has been a really interesting experience. I saw many other shows that I’m going to talk about in the coming weeks. I’m going to try and post some more things on the blog so keep tuned. I’m heading out to check out the city.

Ai Wei Wei

"World Map" is on view until 12/20/2009 at Faurschou Beijing. All images are courtesy of the artist and Faurschou Beijing.

Chen Wenling

"What You See Might Not Be Real" is on view until 10/11/2009 (although I saw it on the 15th) at Joy Art.  All images are courtesy of the artist and Joy Art.

Anthony Gormley

"Another Singularity" is on view until 02/28/2010 at Galleria Continua.  All images are courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua.

Wang Wei
There is no official website for the gallery but the link will take you to an information page.  "Historic Residence" is on view until 11/07/2009 at Space Station.  All images are courtesy of the artist and Space Station.

About Author

James Nadeau is an independent curator, video artist and writer based in Boston. He is editor of Our Daily RED, the blog of arts journal Big RED & Shiny. He is a graduate of the Comparative Media Studies department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He completed his undergraduate studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His video work has been screened internationally and he has presented papers on media and film at conferences nationally. He has programmed film and video in several festivals throughout New England and he is currently a technical instructor on film in the Literature Department at MIT. He is currently working on a manuscript on reality television under consideration by Lexington Books.

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