Gallery Weekend, 798 Art Zone, Chaoyang District, Beijing
by Francesco Tenaglia
The coordinated opening of the Beijing galleries—now in its third and largest edition to date—takes place, traditionally, in the 798 Art Zone district, located in the Dashanzi area, in the northwest sector of the Chinese capital, surrounded by modernist international architecture and by urban development particularly favorable to car drivers (surely more than in the first and second rings of the enormously spread-out urban area), in stark contrast to the characteristic and Instagrammable little hutong alleys that attract hordes of backpackers from the areas surrounding the Drum and Bell Tower south to the Forbidden City. The neighborhood has been home, since the mid-1950s, to a factory complex that produced weapons and that has witnessed considerable changes dictated by the economic and strategic policies of the Deng Xiaoping era, leading to a significant divestment in the industry—and turning the complex from an international benchmark to a gritty mass of abandoned buildings in the early 1990s. The project of 798 was also the cause of disputes regarding the architectural style to adopt, because of taste conflicts between West German consultants, who were pushing for a post-Bauhaus functionalism, and the Chinese desire to flatter the taste of the Soviet Union, which leaned toward Socialist Realism, with decorative elements taken— as in other nations in the socialist bloc—from local vernacular visual elements. The original military nature of the complex and the initial disagreement on the style to be adopted echo the current ambivalence—rather than calling it a “rivalry,” it would be more appropriate to use the phrase “search for a distinctive positioning”—between the cities of Shanghai and Beijing in the arena of international contemporary art. Whereas Shanghai, together with local industries, is geared toward combining an openly commercial drive (shown by the fact that there were two major art fairs alongside the biennale this year) with research on younger styles of art, Beijing has a historic penchant for the protection of the avant-gardes that have arisen in the nation since the1980s and is in search of organic continuity or a raison d’être for experiments with a younger generation, following the model of the Gallery Weekend in Berlin. The presence of important international guests is interesting; in a pop-up exchange with Zurich, Galerie Eva Presenhuber presented a solid show by the New York-based painter Sarah Hughes, and Mai 36 presented the Cuban artist Michél Perez Pollo. Among the most thought-provoking exhibitions, it’s worth mentioning that of the Galleria Continua—founded in Tuscany in 1990 and now present in France and Cuba, as well as in China—which features the photographic work of the French Moroccan artist Leila Alaoui (victim of a fatal terrorist attack in 2016), delicate research on the definition and the shifting construction of cultural and individual identity in people coming mainly from the Mediterranean. The large scale of the prints displayed in the central hall of the gallery creates a dramatic effect. Galerie Urs Meile, in The Code of Physiognomy, shows some works that painter Wang Xingwei (b. 1969) has made since his most recent solo exhibition at the gallery in 2016: the human figure, captured in overly indolent or exaggeratedly artificial postures, is the pivotal element for the construction of almost surreal and desolate cartoonish vignettes. Long March Space—initially conceived as a traveling project that would follow in the footsteps of Mao’s march—offers a wonderfully curated retrospective of the work of Wu Shanzhuan, a Conceptual artist educated in Germany and an important exponent of the New Wave ’85, a complex movement following the Cultural Revolution that has put into dialectical relation local artistic traditions and official government-supported styles with impulses toward Western theoretical discourses and art production; New Wave ’85 marked China’s entry into the field of contemporary art. Star Gallery presents a selection of images by the Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Liu Heung Shing that document, with an admirable compositional grace and an astute instinct for the moment, scenes of ordinary life in the early 1980s. Liang Shuo delivered one of the most interesting exhibits at Beijing Commune: a spiral-shaped architectural structure forces the visitor to simulate, while inside it, the unrolling of a canvas roll that depicts a landscape alluding to traditional figurations populated by the contemporary, fanciful, or grotesque, or interrupted by blank areas. Noteworthy among the institutional spaces: the Faurschou Foundation, with a spectacular installation by Doug Aitken; M WOODS Museum, with the first Richard Tuttle solo exhibition in China, curated by Victor Wang; and the now fundamental hub for Western art in Beijing, UCCA, in its new space, recently redesigned and rationalized by the superstar international studio OMA. The Beijing Art Weekend has the air of a growing enterprise, one that plays an almost institutional role in reconstructing and systematizing Chinese avant-garde artists and their relations with their Western counterparts. It is also designed, logistically, to intercept an international audience on their way to Art Basel Hong Kong.