Top 7 Shows to See in Beijing

From a historical revaluation of the 1985 New Wave movement to Qiu Zhijie’s performance lectures, these are the best shows from the city

BY Nooshfar Afnan in Critic's Guides , Reviews Across Asia | 24 MAR 21

Following outbreaks of COVID-19 in the run up to Chinese New Year, Gallery Weekend Beijing has been pushed back to the end of April. But a slew of shows has already opened in the year of the Ox, encouraging us to think imaginatively – from a new take on 1980s Chinese art to an unlikely pairing of works by Liang Shaoji and Yang Fudong. Here are the highlights:

li nu peace piece
Li Nu, 'Peace Piece', 2021, exhibition view, Spurs Gallery, Beijing. Courtesy: the artist and Spurs Gallery, Beijing

Li Nu

Spurs Gallery

13 March – 18 April

Greeting visitors as they enter Li Nu’s exhibition ‘Peace Piece’ – the inaugural show at Spurs Gallery, formerly known as Boers-Li – is a massive, corroded-iron wall in front of which sits a wheelchair fashioned from a chair and bicycle. Taking its title from Johann Sebastian Bach’s orchestral suite, Li’s Air on the G String (2021) is inscribed with German and Russian phrases which translate to: ‘When the Spirit Cries’ and ‘What Do We Do?’. Quoting the East German guard, who escaped in 1961 during the construction of the Berlin Wall, and Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, the work introduces a wider exploration of border crossings in the show. In Migration (2019), an open suitcase holds a small screen playing footage of a durational performance. We see Li running through Beijing, with his car’s license number written on his jacket, where he usually would not be allowed to drive. Li raises questions about freedom and argues that at some level we are all immigrants.

liao fei straight line
Liao Fei, A Straight Line Extended, 2021, stone, steel plate, concrete base, 290 × 165 × 90 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Vanguard Gallery, Shanghai

‘Silent Thunder’

UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

6 March – 23 May

The purpose-built exhibition space that houses the group show ‘Silent Thunder’ was designed by artist Liao Fei to emulate ancient Chinese temples and gardens. Labyrinthine walkways with hidden corners nod to the history of enshrining sacred objects. Within this space, four artists explore the processes of translation through which Buddhist art has developed. While Liao’s carefully balanced, minimal sculptures, such as A Straight Line Extended (2021), evoke a sense of calm and encourage contemplation, Shao Yi’s sculptural installation ‘Wooden Mold Series’ (2010), transforms industrial wooden moulds into spiritual symbols, placed high on display shelves. Chen Lizhu’s series of minimalist abstract oil paintings, such as ‘A Group of Meditation Spaces’ (2018–19), use a reduced palette to create a moment of serene reflection. Meanwhile, Chu Bingchao’s video Image-making (2021) takes an unsentimental, quasi-scientific approach to measuring the ‘true’ dimensions of ancient Buddhist sculptures using digital technology.

m art group inside out
M Art Group, from 'Waves and Echoes: A Process of Re-contemporization in Chinese Art circa 1987 Revisited', 2021. Courtesy: Inside-Out Art Museum, Beijing

‘Waves and Echoes: A Process of Re-contemporarization in Chinese Art circa 1987 Revisited’

Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum

14 November 2020 – 9 May 2021

This extensively researched group exhibition moves away from the mainstream narrative of 1980s Chinese art to offer a more inclusive history. Curators Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu connect the 1985 New Wave movement – usually considered the beginning of contemporary art in China – to previous generations of artists working against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. Archive material, documentary footage and original works from the period are presented alongside re-creations, giving viewers an overall sense of artistic production of the time. By the end of the 1970s, various artist collectives were emerging, such as the No Name Group, offered each other support and improved access to resources, while allowing for individual expression. Shanghai-based M Art Group, founded in October 1986, took a radical, anti-art stance. Video of the Performance (1986) shows the artists rejecting old modes of artistic expression and adopting more experimental forms, such as performance. In one such piece, artist Song Haidong burned his painting.

li gang purple
Li Gang, Purple, 2018, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing


Galerie Urs Meile Beijing

13 March – 2 May

For its first Beijing group show, Galerie Urs Meile presents key works by its core artists, from Shao Fan’s traditional ink painting to Cheng Ran’s virtual-reality environments. Sculptures by Not Vital, Hu Qingyan and Yang Mushi, among others, are presented alongside paintings such as Wang Xingwei’s oil-on-canvas Chinese Tea Ceremony (2021). Marion Baruch’s simple, yet intriguing Au-delà du temps. Le rouget et le noir (2017), is made from polyester, remnants from the textile industry, whose practices she questions. In Cao Yu’s Kneeling Figure III (2019), traces of the artist’s genuflections on raw canvas are faintly discernible, symbolizing the feeling of humility and freedom that artmaking inspires in her. Lively colours abound in a painting by Rebekka Steiger (Pacman, 2020) and a group of sculptures by Ju Ting (Coral, 2020–21). Following a year of isolation, bringing together the gallery’s artists in a group show that reveals unexpected synergies, feels impeccably timed.

qiu zhijie
Qiu Zhijie, 'Lectures', 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Continua, Beijing

Qiu Zhijie

Galleria Continua Beijing

10 December 2020 – 11 April 2021

For his latest exhibition, influential artist, curator and theoretical writer Qiu Zhijie delivers 14 lectures broadcast live from his studio, the gallery and Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he is dean. On display in the gallery are several work stations, which host artefacts and teaching tools related to each lecture. Qiu has described his lectures – which explore a variety of topics from mythical creatures to historical events – as akin to performance. Offering advice on nurturing creativity, he suggests art should be part of daily life and encourages independence. Qiu urges artists to ‘reappear on the cultural scene as someone more than a supplier of objects’. In another instance, he suggests getting rid of ‘the habit of relying on work proposals and drawing designs’. He continues, ‘we should trust the process of creating with our hands instead of waiting for inspiration’.

gao ludi banana
Gao Ludi, Little Banana, 2020–21, acrylic, watercolour, oil on canvas, 270 × 200 cm. Courtesy: the artist and White Space Beijing

Gao Ludi

White Space Beijing

13 March – 5 May

Stepping into one of Gao Ludi’s shows is always a feast for the eyes. Yet, despite his liberal use of fluorescent hues, the artist’s palette retains its nuance. Stressing the flatness of the picture plane, Gao deconstructs everyday objects into large angular or rounded forms painted in blocks of saturated colour, outlined in contrasting tones. In ‘Journal’, his fifth solo show at White Space Beijing, the artist offers us his response to life during this past pandemic year. Images of food, eyes and flowers prevail, as do human subjects, such as the Football Fans (2020–21), whose faces we see in close up as they excitedly watch a match. As a nod to the show’s title, the paintings are hung against large, pale-grey rectangles that resemble the blank pages of a journal, with the occasional fluorescent-orange corner signifying a bookmark and giving us the sense that we are turning the pages of the artist’s life.

yang fudong
Yang Fudong, First Spring, 2010, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Shanghart Gallery, Beijing

‘First Spring: Chapter One’

Shanghart Gallery

13 March – 2 May

In an unlikely pairing, ‘First Spring’ brings together works by conceptual artist Liang Shaoji and video artist Yang Fudong to explore the unexpected visual and spiritual unities between their dramatically different practices. In Sound of Heart (2014), Liang suspends rows of cut bamboo from the ceiling, creating an ‘instrument’ that can seemingly produce a heavenly sound from nothing. In fact, the work is silent but, as the pieces gently move, we might imagine we can hear a melody. In the adjacent space, Fudong presents one of his characteristically non-linear films, First Spring (2010), in which people of different eras and cultures – some dressed in historical costumes, others in fashion-forward Prada – converge in Shanghai. At times, they share the same space – eating, walking, balancing on cables – but they never directly interact. The lack of audible conversation leaves room for imaginative interpretation. The film’s score carries through next door, animating Liang’s instrument.

Main image: Chen Lizhu, A Group of Meditation Spaces, 2018–19, oil on canvas, 80  × 60 cm (6 pieces). Courtesy: the artist and Wellside Gallery, Seoul

Nooshfar Afnan is an art writer and critic based in Beijing, China.