Each morning, a group of neighbours assembles to dance in the small courtyard below my Beijing apartment – one of the many self-organized troupes that meet every day in plazas and parks throughout the city. I watch them sometimes as I drink coffee, admiring their dedication and lack of inhibition. Since January, however, it’s often been difficult to make them out from my 17th-storey window. A thick haze of pollution obscures the view. The US Embassy’s air-quality monitor, updated online hourly, currently reads ‘Hazardous’, the highest level on the index. In such conditions, the website warns, ‘Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.’ Yet my neighbours continue their two-step workout, calling to mind allegorical images of the danse macabre: skeletons holding hands, exhausting themselves in a manic, futile effort to cling to life.
There are days, too, when the waltzing outside evokes for me another kind of dance in Beijing. I am thinking of the ceaseless activity of the arts professionals who, lacking any true vocation except the will to keep dancing, spin like tops. And yet, despite the difficult conditions this can produce, Beijing remains home to a thriving creative scene, one filled with talented artists and a strong contingent of gallerists, writers and collectors who nurture, present, interpret and support their work.
Curatorial practice remains lacklustre in most of our non-profit venues. For this reason, the best way to see contemporary art in Beijing is often to visit commercial galleries – ones such as Beijing Commune, Galleria Continua, Galerie Urs Meile and Pékin Fine Arts, where hardworking directors and staff ensure that their spaces are clean and well-lit; signage is present, accurate and makes sense; electronic equipment is operational; and attention is paid to the arrangement of the art works in the space. Institutions with larger ambitions would do better to focus first on these basics before claiming importance by virtue of their curatorial rigour, square footage or their degree of autonomy from the marketplace.
One exception to this situation is Taikang Space, a not-for-profit platform whose programme regularly features well-organized exhibitions such as the 2012–13 show ‘Rural North China: 1947–1948’, the latest instalment in Taikang’s ongoing investigation into China’s rich documentary photographic history. The jury remains out on the Today Art Museum, China’s first non-profit privately owned contemporary art museum, now under the new leadership of Xie Suzhen. But tam’s Wang Guangyi retrospective last winter (guest-curated by Huang Zhuan and accompanied by a thorough, scholarly publication) and their more recent exhibition of Liu Xiaodong’s 2013 Hotan Project (again guest-curated, this time by Hou Hanru and Ou Ning) suggests there is reason to keep an open mind.
Among the most inspiring artists working and exhibiting in China’s capital are those who critically engage the world outside the gallery. As Okwui Enwezor rightly observed in the summer 2011 issue of Artforum, shortly after Ai Weiwei’s detention: ‘Everyone has been feeding at the trough of surplus capital emanating from regions where consumption of art is tolerated so long as artists steer clear of political and ideological pronouncements and keep their swords of critical relevance safely in their sheaths.’ But many artists are making critical gestures. Chen Shaoxiong’s most recent ink paintings and related videos transform images of global protest culled from social media websites, while Dongguan-based installation and video artist Li Jinghu’s most recent collaborative project with artist Gong Jian, the Urban-Rural Fringe Group, calls attention to the waste and chemical run-off associated with factory production, the dispossessed peasants, abandoned animals and other undesirables that gather in China’s no-man’s land. Similarly socially engaged artists include newcomer Li Liao, whose Consumption (2012) documented the 45 days the artist spent working on an iPad assembly line in Shenzhen; Sun Xun, whose animations investigate pivotal moments in modern Chinese history; Yang Shaobing’s paintings and video installation addressing coal mining conditions in rural China; and the artist and film director Zhao Liang, whose documentaries have examined the fault lines in China’s legal system and the social stigma of living here with HIV/AIDS.
Formal innovation is also on the rise. Some of the most interesting painting happening today deploys abstraction, occasionally nudging the medium into the arenas of sculpture and installation. The work of artists as diverse as Li Shurui, Wang Guangle and Xie Molin are notable in this regard, as are the recent, experimental paintings of Xie Nanxing. There is also a lean, new aesthetic shared by some of the best recent sculpture, including elegant, witty works in marble and wood by Hu Qingyan.
Oddly, several artists in Beijing are now attempting to position their work as a critique of ‘the art system’, but it is not. It is a completely uncritical reflection of professional ambition and the desire for recognition within the international art world, dressed up with some half-understood buzzwords borrowed from e-flux journal (which, to be clear, I enjoy reading). These artists are wallowing in their own ca-reerism and inviting us to watch. Do the sensible thing and look away. There are plenty of other talented artists here whose positions and creative approaches will challenge you to reconsider everything you thought you knew about contemporary Chinese art.