Since completing the Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours) from SCA in 2012, I had the luck of winning an arts prize that handed me a three-month residency for Red Gate in Beijing, all expenses paid. Red Gate Gallery is China’s first, and highly successful, contemporary art gallery. Founded back in 1991 as the brainchild of Australia founder Brian Wallace, the gallery now also operates as an international residency program. I stayed in the Bei Gao studio complex leased by Red Gate in one of Beijing’s many satellite artist regions where creatives amass for the cheap rent and abundance of big, hassle-free studio space.
This was my first arts residency. I’ve yet to decide whether it was a working holiday or business trip. As another resident put it, you can be as serious or as relaxed as you see fit. For me, having space and time that would otherwise not have been available, to an inexperienced arts graduate from Sydney, was a welcome encouragement. It’s also an opportunity to get immersed into the exponentially evolving art industry in the biggest, dirtiest and richest Asian continent.
Kehinde Wiley’s studio, Bei Gao. Photo: Bryden Williams.
Interestingly, there is a mix of local Chinese artists and International names located throughout my immediate area. In addition, there are a number of international residencies operating nearby. You also get ex-pat artist occupants such as New York based Kehinde Wiley. His large-scale realist paintings depict an African-American minority in a pseudo grandiose pose that references classical portraiture. Wiley rents a studio in Bei Gao and he commissions Chinese workers to create the paintings for him. His studio is located nearby mine and one day I saw about 15 people working away priming canvases and outlining background floral detail. What appears to be a disused warehouse could just be a quiet vine cloaked façade to an arts production facility. This is something that strikes me about the Beijing art scene. Here, art is a practice of carefully fabricated abundance. Whether you are an emerging artist looking to meet a deadline by having friends and neighbours joining in on the production of an artwork, or a heavy weight like Ai Wei Wei who has an enormous warehouse complex in the nearby Caochandi district with a loyal staff and dedicated workers with scheduled tasks and ongoing deadlines, China has art in abundance.
Dong Yuan, About a Short History of Everything, installation (detail). Photo: Bryden Williams.
A group of us from the residency visited Chinese artist Dong Yuan’s recent exhibition at Gallery Yang in Beijing’s prestigious, and highly commercialised, 798 Art District. The district is populated by a handful of long-time, quality art galleries and museums and then there are the craft shops, overpriced cafes and so-so independent galleries. Much of 798 is forgettable, with the exception of a select handful of destinations. Entering Gallery Yang I discovered over 800 individual paintings arranged like a giant puzzle affixed to the walls. Yuan uses painting to depict a personal space in homage to her Grandmother. Each of the paintings varies in size from dollar coin miniscule to Plasma TV jumbo. Viewing this exhibition on a whim, I was blown away by the amount of pieces that contributed to the whole picture, of a lounge room, kitchen, living room and garden. Each work placed upon or beside another, as if the frame, canvas and paint itself were no longer important. It was difficult to overlook the immense detail of all the canvases. This show embodies the arduousness and detail-perfected nature of much Chinese contemporary art today; produced en masse, manufactured almost to perfection. And in Yuan’s case, each piece painstakingly hand painted.
Empty gallery (detail). Photo: Bryden Williams.
Ji Zhou, Ashes of Time, installation (detail). Photo: Bryden Williams.
Another 798 standout was Beijing artist Ji Zhou’s solo exhibition at Tang Contemporary Art Gallery. Zhou’s grey-scale photographs of landscapes shrouded in dust appear as ghostly representations of unreal realities. Entering the main gallery space I discover that there are in fact multiple levels and a huge white cube foyer where Zhou placed multidimensional everyday objects on mirror surfaces. Tyre’s, speakers, ladders and chairs have been frosted with a grey dust and disappear into mirrors. A possible favourite for me. After gallery Tang I visited Tehching Hsieh’s 1-year performance exhibition at UCCA. Clad in overalls Hsieh punched a time-card every hour, for one year. This subverted discipline astonishes everyone who pays the measly 10 Yuan to see this show. 16mm time-lapse documentation projects onto wall, surrounded by thousands of enlarged negative strips pinned to the wall, another important performative learning experience for me.After lunch I visited PACE Gallery, one of the re-purposed Bauhaus factories infamous for their exciting and high-grade contemporary art installations. Here the space is carefully balanced. The current Yin Xiuzhen exhibition complements the aesthetically pleasing curved ceilings and polished concrete floors. The balance between empty space and art is sparse, but the place is so nice. You can’t help but admire the gallery space as a glorious housing for Xiuzhen’s fabric clad machines and colourful urban objects.
Tehching Hsieh, 1 Year Performance, installation (detail). Photo: Bryden Williams.
Having visited a handful of exhibitions at Red Gate Gallery, I’ve viewed work from emerging Chinese sculptors and established local artists. The recent young sculptors exhibition featured works from Beijing artists, including some great translucent crystal resin pieces by Li Jinguo. A torch light hangs suspended in the air, casting a fizzying luminescent three-dimensional representation of light while a giant syringe filled with billiard balls lays flat on a plinth, complete with polished steel needle fixtures. These works, and many of the works from these exhibitions, are duplicated and inherently prepared for quick sale. It is the fact many artists adopt a systematic approach to the fabrication of their works, wherby the steel mill or plastics factory run off castes or duplicates of the work itself, that promotes a more market aware art practice.
One interesting approach to factory utilised art and design production is being led by American creative team Recycled China, whom over the last two years have been working in Beijing creating tiles from discarded rice wine bottles and scrap aluminium. Jeffrey Stephen Miller, one half of the team whom I lived next door to, tells me that the ceramic pieces they use in the tiles are sourced from ceramic factories in Beijing and Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. The discarded baijiu (rice wine) bottles and assorted plates used in the tiles were sourced after Jeff and his creative partner Thomas Schmidt stumbled across a large amount of defected items at a ceramics factory in Jingdezhen. After shipping them back to Beijing, the pieces are crushed with a road-roller and then combined with molten aluminium created from scrap metal. The result is a strong and attractive tile that is made entirely with recycled waste. Originally the aluminium was being processed in a workshop just down the road from our studios in Shangri La but that site has since been sold and only recently been converted into a Sichuan restaurant. Some of Jeff and Tom’s pieces were on display at Caochangdi art district amongst other satellite venues in Beijing as a part of the 2013 Beijing Design Week. Read more about Recycled China here.
A group of us from Red Gate took a day trip to the SongZhuang artist colony - the biggest art colony in Beijing. There we toured a select few gallery spaces. The first gallery we visited was built on top of a refurbished World War Two bunker. The underground space had been converted into a functioning wine cellar - a savvy approach to ensuring the wine never runs dry in the upstairs gallery. Unfortunately, our driver wasn’t briefed on where to go, and communication broke down, leaving our group wandering around a calligraphy art fair. We drank from last nights opening drinks that we found waiting on a wine splattered trestle table beyond the cubicles of feverishly self-promoting artists and their supportive families. The objective of the trip was to visit an exhibition at SongZhuang Art Centre, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the SongZhuang art colony. Making our way through kilometres of studios, warehouses and roadside farmland, we finally we arrived at the mammoth art gallery. The show was big, scattered throughout two very large floors. The premise of the exhibition was a 20th anniversary celebration of SongZhuang’s art residents, a select group of whom contributed a portrait each, over 200 of them. The thrill of the exhibition was in the random placement, absence of titling, and freedom to view each work individually or as a whole. Meanwhile, a young girl was happily roller blading across the polished concrete floors and clunking up the stairs amidst the opening social scene. A freedom not permitted at any other heavyweight galleries I’ve been to in Beijing.
Red Gate Studio (detail), Bei Gao. Photo: Bryden Williams.
PACE gallery, exterior (detail). Photo: Bryden Williams.
Interestingly, next door to the gallery is an abandoned block of recently completed high-rise apartment buildings. Apparently, the owner managed to have them built without a permit and are now just standing there, brand new, waiting to be demolished. Beijing is filled with brand new buildings. Shopping plazas, galleries and apartment blocks are built with haste and exist as cavernous memorials to China’s expanding economic prowess. There are quality art institutions like UCCA, Red Gate, PACE gallery and Pekin Fine Art who regularly rotate exhibitions and provide the backbone for commercial exhibition spaces alongside many other art galleries and museums in Beijing. Then there are the silent buildings of what could be called Beijing’s idle art scene, or non-scene. One example is Red Brick Gallery, located down the road from our Red Gate studios. Built only a couple of years ago and since then left practically empty, this strange giant is made from red bricks and features a few burgeoning works from the inaugural show. There is so much empty space, you can’t help but notice the cracks in the concrete and the flaking plaster as it sits in stasis, waiting for a new show to fill the space. Indeed, in Beijing a shopping plaza is planned, designed, constructed and completed before any companies agree to use the space. Some plazas are successful, some are dead. I have found that the same situation applies to art galleries. Many new galleries and museums are built fast and cheap and it’s safe to assume that their success depends as much on the ever-swelling real estate bubble as it does on the industrious nature and sheer scale of contemporary Chinese art.
Red Brick Gallery (detail). Photo: Bryden Williams.