Saturday, January 22, 2011


798: 现代艺术区 (Beijing Modern Art District).

It's cool to see "modern art" in Beijing, but it made me a bit uneasy when I was there. Many people don't like modern art, but I like it as long as the the theory is sound and the execution is creative. However, to me modern art is only modern if it is unconventional and avant garde. Since modern art and even post modern art with its austere shapes and random splashes have already been done and over with in the West, to repeat these trends in a different location just isn't "modern art" anymore. I can't help but think of an idiom that I learned today in class that goes something like “第一个吃蟹子的是英雄”. The literal translation is "the first to eat a crab is a hero" but a more meaningful translation means that while the first to do something is courageous, or avant garde, the second guy, the third guy, and the rest that follow are just hungry guys who decide to eat crabs cause they saw another guy eating it the other day. Similarly, while Marcel Duchamp's ready-found urinal piece was bold and revolutionary, the next guy who decides to buy a urinal from across the street and put it into his art exhibit is just plain lazy.

When I was in 798, I had the distinct feeling that the modern art district was geared not towards the Chinese/Beijing audience, but rather towards Westerns who have already developed a penchant for modern art. After all, who was I with but a herd of international students from the States? The district focused heavily on themes from the Chinese Revolution and even reflected some corrupt societal realities through nude photography, however, Cultural Revolution slogans, nudity, and abstract art are so typically "modern" art in the Western sense that to see it in a Chinese context was like seeing some kind of frame work awkwardly filled with a new subject matter. The fusion was sometimes disorienting and unnatural, like a painting of modern sky scrapers in Van Gough's expressionism style. In some ways, pop art, propaganda slogans, etc can be visually powerful, but nevertheless highly superficial (on second thought, superficial representation is what iconic art is all about). By focusing all of modern art on the Cultural Revolution, I felt like I was given bite-size history that completely eluded the rest of Chinese culture. Of course, I'm generalizing here. I did see a few great exhibits, though I guess in the end, I was left wanting. I also appreciated the giant sculptures in 798, which most of my pictures are of.
Anyhoo, another theory of mine for why the Chinese Revolution/Cultural/Mao was such a prominent theme is because it directly affected artists in China. And who doesn't like to reflect on the history of their own craft?

Optimus Prime! at least 3 story tall...

Man shouting at the sky

Huge sculptures

This exhibit was pretty cool. It is essentially an exhibition of the physical building itself. I loved the folding windows and truly the design was much cooler than any actual "modern" design I've seen. It reminded me of a gothic cathedral, sturdy but airy and light. It used to be a factory, and you can still see the slogans written all across the top. This one in particular says "long live Chairman Mao"

More shouting figures

1 comment:

  1. "...the next guy who decides to buy a urinal from across the street and put it into his art exhibit is just plain lazy."

    LOL! Well put.