In terms of the production of quality work and its presentation to a broad audience, 2010 was an unprecedentedly strong year for China. A new generation of artists was beginning to locate opportunities to exhibit both within and outside of the existing gallery system. These new artists were increasingly joined by a vocal critical culture that manifested itself in an explosion of textual commentary on visual phenomenon, most clearly in new publications like LEAP and Randian but also in the seemingly recent viability of independent editorial and critical ventures launched by artists and curators alike. Despite this profusion of excellent writing and artwork, however, as a curator I remain most drawn to and critical of exhibition programs on a larger scale; while there may now be hundreds of artists of note across the region, the real political and theoretical battles continue to be fought out within a few key spaces. What follows is my take on how the major galleries, alternative spaces, and museums that shape this scene have fared, based entirely subjectively on how frequently and positively they have appeared in my exhibition notes over the past year.
Movers and Shakers: 5 programs that defined 2010
The dark horse in this race is Taikang Space, the non-profit venture backed by a corporate behemoth in the insurance industry and led by the curatorial talent of Tang Xin, as it moved into an expansive new home in Caochangdi. Largely owing to its “51sqm” project space program for emerging artists, which gave support to an incredibly strong roster of emerging artists including Wang Yuyang, Liu Chuang, Pei Li, Xin Yunpeng, Hu Xiangqian, Cai Weidong, and Su Wenxiang, the space was able to edge out any competition from the commercial sector despite a lackluster program in its main space--a problem set to be remedied in the coming months. Vitamin Creative Space was also on the move, abandoning its retail outpost known as The Store in downtown in favor first for a white cube space in Caochangdi and later for an office tower duplex, now known as The Pavilion. Lending its support to an artist cinema, a natural food market, a solo exhibition for Duan Jianyu, and satellite projects by Pak Sheung-Chuen and Xu Tan, Vitamin contributed to the destabilization of any single focal point for the geography of Chinese art. Boers-Li Gallery moved in the other direction, quitting its longtime hangar space in Caochangdi for smaller and cleaner pastures inside 798. Although this move kept the gallery program out of commission for most of the year, it rallied in the last quarter with impressive projects by Qiu Xiaofei and Chen Yujun as well as a video retrospective featuring Zhang Peili, Li Yongbin, Chen Shaoxiong, Yang Fudong, and others. Also in 798, Beijing Commune insisted on setting the standards for clean curatorial work and impeccable hangings through successive exhibitions by Xiao Yu, Hu Xiaoyuan, and Liang Yuanwei, as well as a strong group show with work by Lu Yang, Pan Xiaorong, Wang Guangle, and Zhao Yao. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the sloppy and overly ambitious installations at partner space Pace Beijing. Finally, and quite contrary to the Commune model, Platform China remained true to the rough-and-ready model of exhibition-making that defines the Beijing scene, surprising many observers with excellent solo presentations from Jin Shan and Jiang Zhi, as well as multiple curatorial endeavors in the form of Beatrice Leanza’s Third Party, The Company’s A Project, and Jungle. The center of creativity in the Chinese art world, it would seem, remains firmly rooted in Beijing.
Benched: 5 programs that failed to meet expectations
The greatest disappointment of the past year has been the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Following a mass exodus of curatorial talent from which it never recovered, hamstrung by the flamboyant tastes of director Jerome Sans, and tied into awkward partnerships with a growing list of other institutions that bring little to the table, what could have been the leading Chinese museum has instead delivered a facile set of spectacular but disappointing installations (alongside a very well-received and popular program of events in film, fashion, music, design, and literature). The Shanghai Biennale, which remains the best chance for a periodic exhibition of international note within greater China, gave itself away with abandon to the theoretical fancies of Gao Shiming, who brought a half-baked idea of “rehearsal” that was barely visible in the exhibition itself, and the conservative political machinations of Fan Di’an. Needless to say, this was not the year for a curatorial resurgence. ShContemporary, once the leading art fair in Asia, continued its downward slope despite a valorous last ditch attempt by outgoing director Colin Chinnery to brand the event as a moment for curatorial and intellectual exchange. Unfortunately, the list of speakers was not enough to counterbalance a lack of interest brought on, in part, by the runaway success of Art Hong Kong. Osage Gallery, now with spaces in Shanghai and Hong Kong, also saw an off year with the closure of its Singapore branch, a move between locations in Shanghai, and a generally lackluster set of projects that could not quite choose a viable direction. Nevertheless, the gallery group seems poised for better things in the year to come with the recent addition of curator Pauline J. Yao to the current management roster of dealer David Chan and critic Lee Weng Choy. Finally, and on a different register altogether, temporary Hong Kong alternative space Woofer Ten managed only to further isolate an insistently introspective art scene from the international art world and a broader audience despite a set of grand gestures toward community art--a promising initiative if ever there was one, but one handicapped by a failure to think through the notion of “public.”
On Deck: 5 programs to watch for 2011
The Taipei Contemporary Art Center opened to much acclaim but ultimately remained quiet for much of the year; hopefully, this artist- and curator-run initiative housed in a comfortably mixed-use building will manage to pull together an exhibition program on an even higher profile in the year to come. Similarly, the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai brought the city one of its most pleasant architectural spaces for top-caliber international exhibitions, but filled it only with a crowd-pleasing set of dubious works by auction stars whose names, no doubt, would ring true with visitors to the Shanghai Expo. Perhaps, without the latter distraction, the curatorial team led by Lai Hsiang-ling will manage to produce more rigorous projects when left to its own devices. Also in Shanghai, the year to come should see the opening of the Himalayas Art Museum (formerly the Zendai Museum of Modern Art) in a magnificent new space designed by Araki Isozaki. Helmed by Shen Qibin, this may well be one of the few private museums with the financial smarts to see it through a key period of exhibition practice now that the back-to-back Olympic and Expo years have finally come to an end. ArtHub Asia, the Shanghai-based organization led by Defne Ayas, Davide Quadrio, and Qiu Zhijie, already produces many of the best cultural projects going on in China and further afield, including the Moon Life Concept Store and Double Happiness exhibition projects of the past several months, but for whatever reason its organizational backbone has yet to receive the recognition it deserves. Further south, longstanding non-profit Para/Site Art Space is now poised to piggyback on the developmental success of the neighboring Asia Art Archive. Para/Site Art Space is preparing to expand on an organizational level into the growing Hong Kong art infrastructure also, including upcoming developments in the form of the West Kowloon Cultural District, PMQ, and the Central Police Station.
The Beijing art world bids a fond farewell to Ren Lan (better known as Wawa), a capable writer, respected translator, friend to all who knew her, and loving wife and mother. Although her time came far too soon, we stand together in wishing her a tranquil passage; her smile will be missed at each and every exhibition opening over the coming years. Survived by her husband, artist Jiang Zhi, we take heart in the knowledge that her memory will live on.
--Robin Peckham, writer living in China
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