Today I ventured out to 798, Beijing’s home to contemporary art. The site of the art world here in Beijing is itself worth the hike. The galleries have taken up residence in a disused electronics factory that was apparently built by the East Germans, by the look of things, in the 1950s. As I was guided around the space by one of my fellow ArtSlant contributors, I was amazed at the buildings, much more than I was by the art: the original Bauhaus style with Communist slogans still sprawled across the walls made the buildings sights to behold.
I was struck by the immensity of the spaces as well as the design – dwarfing Chelsea’s biggest spaces, and making art gallery hopping in Paris appear as precious as a tea party.
That said, I didn’t think that the galleries always used their spaces to their advantage. Pace Beijing for example, had both an extraordinary building and an exhibition of work by the hottest name on the US art scene, Sterling Ruby. The Pace gallery occupies a former arms factory, a building made prominent by a sawtooth profile roof with repeating clerestories.
Despite the height of the ceilings, the clerestories ensure they come so low that the space becomes effectively horizontal. Nevertheless, some of the Ruby sculptures were extreme in their verticality and thus had to be hidden behind supporting concrete pilons. And the result was a closing down of the building on the art work, completely distracting from the reason we are presumably enticed inside. I was so much more intrigued by the building than Ruby’s sculptures, and yet, in another space, the reverse may have been true.
A highlight of the day was the non-profit art center, Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. But again, it wasn’t so much the art that appealed to me, rather, the whole experience of visiting the space is what I will take home with me.
As a part of their “service,” I was greeted by a young man who showed me around an exhibition by Los Angelean Walead Beshty. The man went to great pains to explain the art to me — all about transition and transportation of art to the museum; it was okay, but nothing earth-shattering.
And as he meticulously pronounced certain words, slowly and carefully to ensure comprehensibility, it was all I could do to stop myself telling him that he was far more interesting to me than the art. Though the art wasn’t as chintzy as some of the work I had seen during the day, the young man fascinated me because he had clearly read the script and was regurgitating it with great competence. I wanted to know what was not in the script.
I have seen this again and again over the past week: Chinese people following a script. And when the script doesn’t quite go according to plan, the trouble begins. My guide at the UCCA was the same – when I asked him a question, he struggled to answer me, and simply repeated what he had said before, not because he didn’t know the answer, but because I think he had not necessarily learnt the vocabulary to answer. I was so appreciative of his English, especially because my Chinese now extends from “hello” to “thank you.” And what I loved most of all was his eagerness to impress me, to make my visit to the UCCA a pleasant experience; it didn’t really matter that he was not always informative and that I didn't always understand his English.
When he had difficulty explaining why a particular photograph was very grainy, I wanted to save him, and so I asked where he lived. This is always interesting: which ring road orients them? And if I am courageous enough, I will ask how they live, what floor, how big, and then, if I can, how much. Some things I take with me wherever I go, and one of them is an obsession with apartments: how big, how much and where? My three favorite questions.
I didn’t get this far with the guide at the UCCA as I thought better and asked him about his studies: marketing and publicity. This of course raised a whole new set of questions, beginning with how he got to be a guide in an art gallery. His story was quite common for a young Chinese man, but for me as the foreign listener, it was fascinating. When he asked me if I had enjoyed my “visitor’s experience” I was profuse in my thanks. I find it special and unique to be in a world where as a foreigner I am made to feel so welcome. It’s for these reasons that at the end of my day at 798, I was ultimately more impressed with the people I met than with the art that I saw.
(Images: Pace Beijing; Party Members in 798; Tatsuo Miyajima, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust Also on exhibition at UCCA; Walead Beshty; Courtesy Frances Guerin)