798 Beijing Biennale started a few weeks ago and this afternoon I decided to take a look. Unfortunately the area is so sprawling that it's hard to know which galleries are participating and where they are, so I ended up just wandering around.
I haven't been there in almost a year and the 798 area has changed quite a bit with much more commercialism. Every other street corner has a stand selling drinks and popsicles and Chairman Mao has officially become commercial in this art district. Many spaces that were previously galleries are now shops selling Mao's face plastered on canvas bags, mugs, notebooks and T-shirts. What used to be kitsch is now a free-for-all.
The art is on the whole the same quality, young artists still trying to shock viewers. One had a solo exhibition opening today called "Emergency Exit" which seemed to feature only one piece -- a larger-than-life large man pinned to the wall by a charging bull with steam blowing out of its ass like a rocket. It was disturbing to look at, but you couldn't help but want to get a good look too.
Nevertheless, there were some other interesting pieces worth checking out.
Another piece was a giant square that was completely red -- as if it was covered in the ink used for Chinese chops. And in it were hundreds of Chinese characters in varying degrees of relief.
I particularly liked one oil painting called Flag Raising, a long rectangular work showing Tiananmen Square in the background with the flag in the middle, but everyone who has come to watch the daily ceremony are behind a chain-link fence. It's quite apt because today the square was closed off for rehearsals for the upcoming October 1 parade featuring 200,000 participants.
A quirky piece was a photo sequence of several months where the photographer made a small model of the CCTV tower and took a picture of it on a patch of dirt. Several weeks later weeds start to grow around it and then another few weeks later the greenery almost covers it up. The next picture shows it set on fire and then it is covered in snow. The following images shows it completely disintegrates and disappears completely, covered by weeds again. So much for making a lasting impression.
There was also another exhibition called "Our World At War" presenting images from war photographers. A number of areas were covered, like Afghanistan, Liberia, and Somalia. Some pictures featured people with limbs amputated, others of women with written captions saying they had been raped or been forced to watch their parents be shot to death. While the captions were shocking, the photographs gave dignity to the subjects.
My favourite show on the moment is "The Chinese", portraits by Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer. A year before the Olympics they covered 30,000 kilometers photographing a variety of people, young and old, rich and poor. What's even more striking are the juxtaposition of the images, particularly when a poor person is placed next to a wealthy one.
All the portraits are staged, but that is the only consistency -- there's a rotund man in designer jeans standing in front of his mauve Lamborghini; a man carrying on a pole live chickens and ducks strung by their feet; a blacksmith with a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he holds a hot iron in a clamp; a rich woman who made her money through a cosmetics empire sitting by her dresser table and dripping in jewels; a young acrobat with a determined look on her face as she travels with her circus family; and even a prostitute in her underwear striking an unattractive pose.
Before I left 798 I checked out the UCCA or Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and found it had expanded with a lounge area for drinks and snacks as well as a restaurant called Super Gan Bei. I had read that the former chef of Blu Lobster, Brian McKenna was working at the restaurant, so I'll have to return and see how the food is.
In some ways it's disappointing to see 798 as commercial as it is now, but in other ways it's good to see so many people out to see art, even if some of it is mediocre...