I’m about to embark on a 10-day research trip to China that will take me first to Beijing and then to Shenzhen and Guangzhou. I will be meeting artists and visiting different art organisations and I’m scheduled to give lectures on my curatorial practice and my work as the director of Artspace. What follows are my impressions of certain aspects of life in China.
As a European passport holder, I have to wait longer for my passport to be processed. I’m able to collect the visa from the Chinese Consulate in Auckland only a few hours before my departure for Beijing. When I reveal to the driver of the shuttle to the airport that I’m going to China, he mentions Fonterra [dairy company based in New Zealand, whose biggest client is mainland China] and the botulism scare, which has been leasing the news since the beginning of August.
It’s my first visit to Mainland China. Beijing is hot and grey, my friend takes me to her flat located in a hutong, an agglomeration go narrow alleys typical of the capital. Her neighbourhood is a mix of newly refurbished one-storey buildings, mostly done up using the funds made available by the government in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, others, though, look like work has never been completed. My friend Rebecca is a journalist who’s been in Beijing for eight years. She is very busy with interviews, since the next day is the beginning of the trial of fallen politician Bo Xilai. Most people are predicting he will be made an example of and will probably be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in jail for corruption, bribery and abuse of power. I’ve installed a virtual private network (VPN) on my phone so I’m able to access parts of the web that are blocked in China.
I take a plane heading south to Shenzhen, an enormous city on the Pearl River delta not far from Hong Kong. I’m a guest of OCAT- Contemporary Art terminal, an arts institution created in 2005 within a huge residential complex that stretches for kilometres and covers an area that is equivalent to three stops on the metro line. from the minute I hop off the taxi I feel heat and vibrancy in the air. The district is bustling with young people: there are many cafe’s and design shops, and OCAT occupies a few industrial buildings from a former electric factory. Carol Yinguha Lu, OCAT’s director, takes me around and I notice her team are very busy installing the group show Animism which will open in a few days. I’m giving a talk that night and while we’re setting up, many guests start to arrive. I can’t help but notice that most of them are very young. Carol has warned me everyone is 22 in Shenzhen- she’s not kidding. I turn to talk to the translator to go through the key concepts for the talk: she’s also 22! At the end of the lecture there are many questions. I do my best to answer them despite the jet lag starting to kick in, but it’s not easy to address the most philosophical among them.
My friend Adam Avikainen, who visited New Zealand in 2012 when I invited him to be part of an Artspace show, is completing his three-month residency at OCAT, where he has been creating a large series of paintings that will feature prominently in Animism. The banner for the show portrays Adam’s ancestor- from Finland the Avikainens moved to Minnesota in the United States- the mysterious image shows his great-grandfather wearing a white apron and mask while using a stethoscope on a tree.
I forgot to mention there’s typhoon and bucket loads of water are falling. We plan to visit the city of Guangzhou, which is a two-hour train journey away, during which you pass through an endless landscape of factories. When we arrive we’re really hungry and we end up choosing a halal restaurant that luckily has a menu in English. so far our pointing has not been so effective. We order far too much food for two people, and my favourite is a dish with eggplant and beef: the flavour us incredibly rich and the bill is so cheap.
Heading for the Times Museum we’re in a taxi for almost 40 minutes before reaching land that only a few years ago was countryside, and is now filled with tall residential buildings. The museum is on the 19th floor and was designed by Rem Koolhaas. It isn’t open to the public before stuff are installing new show, but OCAT has alerted them of our visit so we’re able to go in.
The other highlight of the day is our visit to the gallery Vitamin Space. Finding it is a mission since it’s tucked at the back of the big market: we need to phone someone who can give more specific directions in Chinese to the taxi driver. You get to the gallery from a flight of stairs, after passing mountains of crates from different parts of the globe. The exhibition they have on is of Xu Tan’s works ranging from one of his first art installations in the 1990s to the present. It’s very interesting to follow how the materials employed in his works change- from the plastic wires that, we’re told, are no longer available, to the slide projections on the wall from the late 1990s, to physical evidence of studies of the soil, to video interviews and new technology used to keep track of what will happen to a square mere of land acquired by the artist for a period of 100 years.
When we speak to Xu Fang, one of the directors of the space, we learn among other things about his keywords research as well as the geographical importance of the development of certain art practices in China. This occurred mainly because everyone from Ghangzhou was from elsewhere and didn’t have any claim on the land- one reason why dematerialised practices thrived.
Animism is an incredibly tight, fascinating project curated by Berlin-based Anselm Franke. The show occupies one space with giant floating monitors and makes sense seen from every corner of the space. The departure point- to talk of things which are alive or hold spiritual currency though mainly film and inanimate objects- is complex. Animation tough offers a handy entry point, hence the 1937 Skeleton Dance from Walt Disney and Len Lye’s films, which are right at the beginning of the exhibition. Adam’s work covers the back wall of the exhibition hall and the closer you get to it, the more you start to work out details. He has been making these works with the help of natural ingredients, mango fruits and ink, which are meaningful to the place and the season: they tell an epic story.
I fly back to Beijing and decide to spend the day as a tourist. Rebecca and I head for the Great Wall, noticing the landscape changing dramatically as soon as we leave the urban sprawl behind us. The Great Wall is amazing and the day is sunny and gorgeous: you can see far in the distance. Tourist places are scattered everywhere, and they try to sell you things also on the wall’s outposts.
Once back in the capital I visit the Forbidden City, starting from Tiananmen Square and passing under Mao’s face: the day is foggy and there so many tourists it’s really difficult to see anything.
I give a talk at an artist run-initiative, Homeshop, close to Bexinqiao subway station. The space is home to artists’ studios and various activities which are run by a lively community of Chinese and international artists. When I meet them, they tell me of the difficulty of meeting rent in an area that is becoming more and more fashionable. Not far from them is Arrow factory, a tiny project space with a little bar that is open only at certain times of the day, next to a pancake vendor.
I gather my courage on one of the last days of the trip to visit 798, the art district, and see what the fuss is all about. The development has been rapid. The square footage is taken over by bars, restaurants and boutiques and finding the dealer galleries becomes a sort of treasure hunt. At Pace Gallery I get screamed at when I try to take a photo of an architectural detail. There’s an entrance fee at The Ullens Contemporary Art Centre, where they have a big exhibition of assemblages of colourful things that seem like exploded cakes. I’m not impressed, but as I am about to walk out, I can find a little room with works by Teaching Hsieh. He is the Taiwanese artist who made a career in New York in the 1980s with staunch durational performances. Four walls are taken over by his One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Clock Piece) in which Hsieh punched a time clock every hour and took a picture od himself every time he did that. The photographs are also compiled in a six-minute movie that shows him with a shaved head at the beginning of the project and with long hair after one year. This work was included in the group show Post-Office at Artspace in 2010.
It’s my last day and at breakfast there’s Anchor butter made from New Zealand: it must be time to return. Since my trip, Bo Xilai has been sentenced to life imprisonment, Fonterra cleared from botulism traces in its dairy products and I failed to get rid of the VPN from my phone- a good reminder of China’s looming presence and the long shadow it casts on our world.
Caterina Riva, 2013
Published on art news, New Zealand, summer 2013