It may seem contrary, but I can’t ignore how new or renovated art spaces affect the way works are shown and received as well as how they represent a gallery’s plans and priorities. Any conclusions must remain highly speculative, but in the choices made and priorities focused upon as manifest in physical spaces, we can perhaps gain some insight into the nature of a gallery.
Tang Contemporary originally opened their Beijing space in 2006 and have occupied their site with a series of large-scale installations and commissions. One in particular that stands out for me was Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Freedom in 2009, which seemed to push the space to an extreme, saturating the structure in gallons of water from its serpentine fire-hose. Although not necessarily a consequence of this piece, at the end of 2010 Tang made the dramatic leap of gutting the space and starting again from scratch.
Tang’s renovation follows a number of other occasions over the past few years where major galleries in 798 have renegotiated their relationship with their space. From Pace Beijing’s launch in 2008 (only to subsequently close for 10 months for a second refurbishment), to Boers-Li Gallery moving from their warehouse-like spaces in Caochangdi to a white cube space in 798, and finally Long March Space’s rationalisation of their disparate collection of rooms with the addition of a strong assertion of presence on their street frontage.
The major change at Tang’s space is the creation of a new public entrance at what used to be the rear of the building – essentially reversing their floorplan. This particular change seems to reflect a larger shift of balance in 798 as a whole. The established presence of Pace Beijing in the 'Originality Square' over the road from Tang’s new entrance has created a new point of attraction on the Northern side of 798. Overall this has shifted the balance from the established centre of 798 (around UCCA), which anchors the main Western and Southern entrances to the district. It suggests that the area around UCCA has reached some kind of threshold, and no longer provides the opportunities that galleries require. So for Tang, no longer does one come from the direction of UCCA, following the side-streets to the cul-de-sac, at which their main entrance used to sit; now one approaches from the northern of the two main east-west roads that cross 798.
The new entrance has also been built out from the original building to the very edge of the road (conveniently putting you in the path of oncoming traffic). Its slightly bowing façade in unfinished concrete is built around two of the ubiquitous raised steam pipes that snake around 798, a lingering reminder of its industrial past now clad in bright metal sleeves to smarten their appearance. Inside, the previous space lives on as a ghostly exoskeleton. The main space is the same size, but feels a bit smaller, which may be due to the ceiling originally left au naturel now being boxed in. A new set of smaller exhibition spaces and offices have been built against the back wall with a new screen wall and stairs up to the offices.
(Image: Huang Yong Ping, Leviathanation, 2011, Mixed media)
Tracing the Milky Way, the re-opening exhibition curated by Jerome Sans (Artistic Director of neighbouring UCCA), is a group show that aims to impress. Perhaps predictably for their first show since renovation, the focus is on several spectacular installations by some of the big names of recent Chinese art. In the main space is Wang Du’s banrye (2011) in which a goods-tricycle labours under its massive cargo of Coke cans and bottles, reaching up in a bulging mass to the ceiling. This extravagant piece is matched by Huang Yong Ping’s train carriage/cod hybrid Leviathanation (2011). Unfortunately, these two images of excess completely overshadow one of the nicer pieces in the show, Yang Jiechang’s Landscape Da Vinci (2009). This is a vertical format, single-channel video of the artist firing arrows directly at the camera, against the backdrop of a misty hillside (not wholly unlike those seen in Renaissance allegorical landscapes). But this piece seems to suffer for its slightness, positioned uncomfortably in one corner of this space, attempting to hold its own against the bombastic presences around it.
(Image: Yang Jiecang, Landscape Da Vinci, 2009, Video installation)
In the smaller spaces, room-sized installations by Shen Yuan and Chen Zhen provide some thoughtful and succinct presentations. Shen Yuan’s Class Room Assignment (2011) scatters desks incorporating firecracker-making machinery across the walls and ceilings, with the remains of exploded firecrackers littering the floor and marking the space with their residue. Its meaning may be opaque but the melodrama is effective. Chen Zhen’s Social Investigation – Shanghai 1 (1997) is a sprawling piece that deserves sustained analysis, incorporating video, collaged and annotated photographs, banners and stacks of giveaway posters, all recording the artist’s photographic research into the urban development he saw on his return to Shanghai.
One factor in the development of a gallery space is to provide a flexible setting for the work of the artists and curators, but this provision goes hand-in-hand with a sympathetic reaction by those users to the space. Unfortunately, Tang’s renovation has yet to see such an effective use. Given this opportunity to work with a newly revamped space, the show feels as though it was not thought through well, especially in terms of placement and scale. Huang Yong Ping’s piece in particular seems too big to give the other pieces in the room breathing space. Of course every artist and curator will have their own reactions to the new setting and it will be fascinating to see how Tang Contemporary continues to develop its space as a site for contemporary art.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Tang Contemporary and the artists.)