Whenever China’s mentioned it is often bicycle and cutesy mini toys. Actually there is art in China flourishing North East of Bejing in a district called the 798. Foreign correspondent Kevin Crow beats us to it from the most critique Art compound in China.
5 AM. Beijing Airport, China. Dim ﬂuorescent lighting. Lofty ceilings. A sparse redeyed population of international all-night warriors. We trickle through the airport like zombies; security dots the gateways like potting plants. These things paint the airport in a ghostly landscape, visible only to the intuition.
Ghosts? Spirits? Ancient lands make such things seem possible. The human populations of yesteryear believed in them. They believed loud cymbals could drive them away. A dance or a snort of sweet incense could draw them in. The proper Feng Shui could move and manipulate them. Today, such ideas (to most) are little more than curious folklore. Trite? Geist? The truth is in between.
The sun creeps up as the cab rolls on, airport to apartment, morning to afternoon. The sunlight exposes the morning fog for what it is: a thick, brown blanket of ﬁlth swallowing the city. The cab rolls on, past smokestacks billowing coal-smoke. Every high-rise apartment building has a smokestack. Almost every apartment building is a high-rise.
The burning coal provides free heat to every city north of the Weihe River, courtesy of China’s unelected government. The cities to the south brave the long, cold the winters. Some citizens move to Beijing speciﬁcally for the heat. Due to China’s dual ID card system, this is only possible if the citizen moves from an urban area—not from a rural one. Why? The government says it wants to discourage massive urbanization, encourage agriculture production. But because the government provides special urban ID cards to those rural children who score highly on standardized tests, many urban Chinese speculate that the government’s true aim is to vacuum intelligence to the urban centers, keeping the rural populations uneducated; ignorant. Concentration of intellectual elite? The truth is in between.
However. Beijing is alive. Bustling, thriving, loud, and dirty; in its center lies the Forbidden City. Directly to the East is the 798, an urban arts district which emerged in the last decade or two from the remnants of a communist-commissioned joint factory industrial district – steel; brick; hammer; stone. Smokestacks and piping abound, much of it peppered with grafﬁti. Yet all the shocking street art in the world couldn’t hide the gentriﬁcation. The skinny streets are lined with boutiques, record stores, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and especially, art galleries: a 10′ x 15′ arts & crafts shop stands on my right, run by a few friends who pooled their meager savings to “make a go of it” in the art world.
To the left, a half-ﬁnished renovation; a shopping mall in the shell of an old sweatshop. To the right, a mobile gallery in a converted school bus pedalling obscene images of a pornographic acid trip. To the left, a New-Hampshirian yuppie gallery pedalling idealistic images of leisure boating. Right, a former newspaper stand selling art to beneﬁt underprivileged children in a north-eastern province. Left, a street vendor overcharging a tourist for a nice warm hat with a red plastic star on the front. Right, a grandiose gallery featuring larger-than-life images of Chairman Mao… Left…well, this one lacks an opposite, and that’s part of what throws you off about the 798: Left, right, left, right, and the truth is in between.
The 798 is almost Brooklyn and it’s almost Beijing, but it isn’t true to either one. Central to its lack of honesty is China’s lack of free expression. Citizens are routinely harassed, ﬁned, and imprisoned for speaking out against the government, and this breeds a palpable fatalism, apparent in almost every aspect of life in Beijing. Yet here, in the 798, the fatalism gives way to something different: The art is critique; where possible, creations are either subtle, multilayered observation or impersonation of another’s criticism, actualized in a separate context.
For example, Yongbo Zhao’s gallery hides in the heart this arty district. Zhao is a self-proclaimed “critic and mocker of his time.” He is a Chinese artist living and working in Berlin and Beijing. His work is at once vivid and captivating, and immediately you can tell that he is critiquing something. Exactly what is less clear.
All of the paintings in his gallery feature at least one image of himself, mouth open, usually prodding or prying at some unwholesome creature located amongst or nearby men at work. His paintings are crowded, but not modern, smilar to a Hieronymous Bosh gallery of villain. They are whipped up, apparently quickly, in a classic realist ﬂurry. But neither the realism nor the lighting is ever especially compelling. What’s compelling is him, Zhao, ever-present in sly mockery. But what is he mocking? It seems he can’t quite say. Perhaps he isn’t allowed.
At the same time, he claims idea is more important than method,
and it may follow that we are not to critique his technique too harshly. The more cynical amongst us may infer that Zhao prefers to crank out a high volume of large paintings simply to sell oodles of shit for shitloads of money. And, of course, to publish books and books and books and books (the gallery walls are lined with volumes of his images). Is Zhao a “critic of his time”? Is he just another annoyingly image-savvy countercultural capitalist? Where lies the truth?
Across the street from Zhao cues another gallery featuring work of a style similar to Chinese cartooning: exaggerated facial features and expressions, bright colors. At ﬁrst glance, these images seem innocent. Beautifully painted, masterfully sculpted, but devoid of any social or political commentary. But wait! Look closer: that ﬂuffy old wolf-man with the massive grin contains vague reﬂections of the colors of the Chinese ﬂag, and his palm is covering the mouth of that little girl. Does he represent the government? Is he silencing her speech? Is he just a goofy grinning wolf?
The truth is in between.
Everyday, the city government in Beijing publishes a number. Everyday, the U.S. embassy in Beijing does the same. These numbers indicate the density and intensity of the city’s air pollution. Any number above 100 is considered “very polluted.” 150 is “protection recommended.” Above 200 is “hazardous.” Most days I was there, the Chinese government published a number between 70 and 130. Most days, the U.S. published a number between 180 and 250. Fuck it. Open the window, look outside, take a deep breath, and decide whether or not you’re comfortable existing in a wonderful world of beauty and shit. 70? 250? In China, the truth is always in between.
And what is the truth? The culture is remarkably rich. There are art forms more ancient than my native language, there is food that contains spices I could never have dreamt, and there are teas that can heal almost anything that ails you. So if you wind up hacking a bit of coal-dust from your lungs, my advice is, don’t sweat it.
The 798 is going to be an international hotspot for art and culture in the future. Anyone who visits will feel the raw potential pulsating through its streets. Right now, the 798 is in an awkward stage. It tries too damn hard and, honestly, it isn’t quite sure what the hell it is. Nevertheless, it feels like a talented kid brother. You make fun of him while he’s learning to play football; while his long legs are ﬂailing wildly in an uncoordinated tangle. But deep down, you know that one day those legs are going to be muscular and precise, capable of executing moves you merely imagined. And deep down, you’re a little afraid that your kid brother is going to beat the ever-loving shit out of you. Not only that. He’s gonna do it on his own terms. In his own way. Bouncing between extremes. Ultimately ﬁnding his truth exactly where it belongs: between the lies. Between the broken bits. Between the starving purists and the yuppies. In between. The truth is always in between.