Guy and Myriam Ullens at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing
A long wall painted with officially sanctioned graffiti glides by as you approach Beijing’s 798 Art District – ‘No. 4. IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING’ one section crows. In English. The largest of several Art Zones to have budded in the city over the last few years, 798 is gated, and security was hovering in the form of twenty-somethings in short-sleeved white shirts. This is China and now with the Olympics the world’s hugest nation is on tippy-toed alert.
UCCA was close to the gate, its own entry point signalled by fibreglass models of T Rex, the colour of arterial blood. UCCA is the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art which opened last November. It’s an eight thousand square metre space in an old munitions factory, financed by Baron Guy Ullens, a Belgian businessman, who has been collecting Chinese Contemporary art with his wife Myriam for 21 years. Indeed, the Ullens and Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China and Mongolia, have inarguably been the godparents of today’s boom in Chinese Contemporary art.
UCCA is an attempt to supply a context to what has been a collector-driven tsunami, with few objective critical or institutional controls. It isn’t Beijing’s only private museum but it’s the only one with a proper curator, in the flamboyant shape of Jerome Sans. A Frenchman, Sans co-founded the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, then moved to the UK as programme director of Gateshead’s Baltic Contemporary Art Centre. He has put on several shows at UCCA but the opening we were here for is the first show to make the Ullens’ own collection the main event.
There were two smaller T Rexes on the ticketing desk, the work of Sui Jian Guo, with MADE IN CHINA in raised letters on each and a huge black wheel upholstered in soft bondagey fragments dominates the lobby. It’s an appropriately theatrical welcome to an exhibition that showcased such auction wonders as Zheng Fanzhi, Yue Minjun, he of the replicated laughing self-portraits, and Zhang Xiaogang, one of whose somewhat Marie Laurencinesque canvases recently established a Chinese sales record of $6 million in Hong Kong.
These were reinforced by artists whose reputations have been settling somewhat longer in the overseas eye, such as Ai Weiwei, who has a ten-tiered chandelier descending in UCCA’s central space, Cai Guo-Qiang, who recently occupied the New York Guggenheim, and whose gunpowder drawings have fetched just under a million (Okay, Ed Ruscha draws with gunpowder, but Cai explodes his) and the late Chen Zhen, who showed with Jeffrey Deitch in 1996, who died at 40, and who is represented here by a huge, chunky pool table, a skeletal piece of Constructivism and a black motorcar to which are affixed numerous toy cars, likewise black. Also Wang Du, who works with media, Ji Zhou, who has an installation of disturbing photographs, and many, many more.
We took a breather to explore 798. This is China’s third most popular attraction after the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, and several times the size of New York’s Chelsea. At its center is a huge and hugely evocative chunk of industrial archaeology, with factory chimneys, rusty boilers, silos, and a locomotive on tracks, alongside an undulant slag landscape, tethered to the ground by black Christoid wrappings, and all reeking of soot and tar and oil in the sweltering heat.
And all around is … well, it’s as if some edgy experimental arts colony had doggedly settled the raw abandoned spaces, had somehow matured into a major arts marketplace and then had sprouted a boutique afterlife, not in the years the process used to take in the West but in one fell swoop. More succinctly, fine project spaces and galleries – Long March, Continua – co-exist with more commercial enterprises, and with high-end design outlets, and with the vendors of T-shirts and soft toys.
There is plenty of muttering about a China Bubble these days, not just around the West, but around 798 itself. And there are counter-revolutionary tendencies, as one would expect. The Wei Fang Topography of Tomorrow’s Beijing, a piece actually within the UCCA Gift Shop, is accompanied by a text that looks forward to the day when property developers stop imitating the West. It ends with a trenchant quote by Master Bashi: Who learns with me shall live, who tries to copy me shall die.
The UCCA opening was that evening. Guy Ullens wore a grey suit, an open white shirt, a flop of 1930s Isherwoodish hair. Myriam was cat-eyed, in white, her hair just above her shoulders. They were engaging, and low-key.
There was a kind of a rhomboid shape in plaid plastic in the central space. We knew that there was to be a performance so there was a gradual build-up around it. Some plaid plastic was snipped away. There was a white net bag filled with baby tortoises – turtles? – on the slippery floor. Hello, PETA. The rest of the plastic was cut away. We are looking at a space ship caught up in celestial cobweb. A man/reptile was hanging at a slant, also in webbing. A toothed battle-axe hung out of his reach. The style co-ordinates here were Astounding Stories, manga, Heavy Metal. An earthling was spraying the fallen hero’s underside with paint from a spraycan. Something was clearly going to happen.
The baby tortoises understandably tried to scuttle away from the scenario, but failed. Each was secured to the mass by a white thread. HELLO PETA. The slanted figure showed signs of life, flexing its six toes,
splayed its fingers. Something was clearly about to happen. Right?
“I hope this isn’t just going to be a shaggy frog story,” said somebody. Okay, me. Nobody got it, not one chuckle. Is anything going to happen, I asked Sans? “Everything will ‘appen,” he promised. I instantly disbelieved him. “Now he’s lost all feeling in his body,” I was told as I left. The performance artist’s name is He Yungchang. “He walked around the perimeter of England carrying a stone,” I was told. Okay, he has been preceded in endurance performances by the likes of Chris Burden and Stelarc but I never saw them. He I saw. Or I saw He.
The following day there was a symposium: COLLECTING CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART – The Future of Contemporary Culture. Ullens sat facing the audience in the middle of a table at which also sat three collectors and Jerome Sans The collectors, all in early middle age, described how the collecting virus attacked. And what it felt like to ride the boom.
‘When I began as a collector, there were only a dozen,” said one. “Now they are running behind our back. They are invisible!” A woman got up. She said she represented 3,000 artists and was putting together an auction. She was (I think) complaining about the star system. Guy Ullens said she had made a very shrewd point and that they were always ready to look at new work. The future of collecting Chinese Contemporary art was not discussed. Or, if it was, my audio translator failed me.
A couple of evenings after the UCCA opening I went to another gallery on 798, Smas, where there was an exhibition of eleven US-based artists of Chinese origins, called Cross-References. A wall statement by the curator, Ma Kelu, read: The artists displayed here offer an alternative vision and field of vision to the “cynical,” “gaudy” or violent contemporary art that is now assumed to be native to China.
Which is all as it should be. In my judgment, certain of the current auction superstars will be gone in three years, with only their winnings to console them. But is Chinese Contemporary art a bubble? Not at all. I saw some excellent art by Chinese artists, at UCCA, and elsewhere. And there will be more. China has a long art history. And powerful countries make powerful art.