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China as a gallery of contrasts

The conventional and the cutting-edge jostle for prominence as art spins off an exploding culture.

October 16, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Beijing —

AN enormous bald fiberglass nude by Chinese sculptor Xiang Jing sits heavily on a pink bench in a room of her own, staring glumly into space. Smaller, life-size figures lined up in an adjacent space at China Art Seasons gallery seem to be gripped by anxiety. Petulant, grim or wary, they are on the move but lost in some internal crisis. One young woman sticks two fingers in her mouth, as if stifling a scream. In another work, three dark-suited figures merge into a bundle of nervous energy.

This is contemporary art in China, or at least one aspect of it.

In the capital of China, where a new Great Wall of high-rise apartments encircles the city and billboards advertise Western-style residential developments called Napa Valley, Upper East Side and Vancouver Forest, the contemporary art scene reflects the dynamic, weirdly conflicted side of life here. Overseas investors and newly rich Chinese fund more and more trendy galleries. Brand-new artworks depicting subjects that would have been banned a few decades ago sell for tens of thousands of dollars -- and much more at auction a few years later. Jet-setting artists with lots of studio assistants own fashionable restaurants and send their children to private schools.

"The speed of the economy brings opportunities for artists," said Li Guosheng, a Chinese businessman who opened Chinablue Gallery in Beijing three years ago and has engaged superstar artist Ai Wei Wei to design his second commercial outlet for Chinese contemporary art. "The artists' success is comparable to economic growth in China."

But Beijing is also a city of sharp contrasts between rich and poor, old and new, government control and free enterprise. The art scene reflects that divergence as well, and never more so than this fall. The Beijing International Art Biennale, an enormous state-sponsored exhibition at the Millennium Monument Art Museum and the National Art Museum, is billed as "the largest international art gathering ever held in China." But it's merely a backdrop for a batch of far more adventurous shows in independent galleries.

Despite stunning growth in Shanghai and other cities in China, Beijing remains the nation's cultural center and hub of art production. But it didn't launch its Biennale until 2003 -- long after such international extravaganzas popped up in other cities around the world -- and the show doesn't follow the art world model. The organizers seem to have no interest in promoting Beijing as a place to see forward-looking art. A statement posted at the two museums and printed in the Biennale catalog explains that the art was chosen to illustrate "humanistic concerns" and encourage "harmony between art and the public, harmony between people and harmony between man and nature."

Assembled by a committee to end all committees -- composed of 58 directors, curators, advisors and coordinators working in consultation with a host of embassies and art organizations -- the exhibition represents 462 artists from 69 countries in a public display of openness. But it's almost entirely restricted to painting and sculpture, excluding the photography, video, new media and installation preferred by many young artists.

The result is a melange of traditional art and reworkings of modern styles, lightly sprinkled with works by leading avant-garde Chinese artists and teachers, such as Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong, and internationally renowned figures including German painters Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. In an apparent attempt to cover all bases, the organizers added small shows of contemporary art from Italy, Russia and Uzbekistan; a roundup of French Impressionist prints; a spotty survey of European and American art called "From Ingres to Warhol"; and a tribute to the late traditional Chinese painter Huang Zhou, on view in adjacent rooms.

"It's a very strange show, but very Chinese," said Yu, whose painting "She -- A Peasant in the Suburbs" looks rather out of place in such conventional company. Part of a series of diptychs on Chinese women, it pairs an image of an elderly woman working out on an exercise machine with a portrayal of her fully dressed but up to her waist in water. "I hoped they would choose one of my new works," Yu said, "but they took the same painting that was at the Shanghai Biennale last year."

Dismissed as an academic exercise

WHILE many artists, curators and gallery owners disdain the Beijing Biennale, they tend to view it as a harmless academic exercise rather than a cause for protest. Concurrent independent shows are a measure of Beijing's artistic evolution, they say, not a Salon des Refuses. Nonetheless, the difference is striking.

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