June 03, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] Beijing's Dashanzi festival

South China Morning Post, May 14, 2006
Mainland mainstream
Beijing's Dashanzi festival hopes for its best year yet. But, writes
Benjamin Robertson, critics fear that it has already gone soft

A HALF-NAKED WOMAN called Viola sitting under a tree, assorted Mao
Zedongs, urban landscapes, raids by the censors, explorations of the
human personality ... this year's Dashanzi International Art Festival
shows that there's more to the mainland arts scene than what's on offer
at the auction houses.

Now in its third year, the annual Beijing festival is earning a
reputation as one of the leading cultural events in East Asia. With
growing numbers of artists and collectors from overseas, Dashanzi hopes
this year to attract a record 500,000 visitors before it closes next

"The first year, we explored light and sound," says festival co-director
Berenice Angremy. "It was very visual. Last year, the theme was the
language of fables. This year, we're focusing on real issues - certainly
ones more intense than fables."

Angremy's co-director is artist Huang Rui, who, as a member of the Stars
group in the late 1970s, helped launch the contemporary art movement on
the mainland. The pair have chosen to focus this year's festival on
Beijing's development in the countdown to the 2008 Olympic Games.

Angremy says he hopes the festival will start "a three year dialogue on
what is Beijing". It will focus on the city's ongoing redevelopment,
which has often appeared to be uncoordinated and resulted in the
destruction of many imperial-era buildings. The festival organisers want
people to consider the capital's place in history.

"As the city becomes a new metropolis and an object of world attention,
we want to explore how Beijing in 2008 will relate to its past and its
future," says Angremy.

One exhibit exploring this theme is Metropolis Rise, a compilation of 60
photos and installations from London that examines a city's role as a
cultural hub. A parallel exhibition, Beijing 1966, shows works by French
photographer Solange Brand, who spent part of the Cultural Revolution in
Beijing recording the architecture and inhabitants.

The festival programme includes about 40 exhibitions, film screenings
and performances, most of which will be held in the Dashanzi art
district, in the city's north-east, and particularly the 798 Factory area.

Among artists whose work is on show at 798 Space Gallery is
Chengdu-based painter Yang Mian, who explores the media's obsession with
beauty. His series of famous Chinese beauties, Standards, is instantly
recognisable by the line of monochromatic red that runs across each one.

As well as exhibitions, there will be impromptu performances by the
likes of Viola. For one recent show, she reclined against a tree, her
body partially swathed in white cloth. It wasn't immediately clear what
her statement was.

The ad hoc development of the 798 Factory area (formerly a military
components assembly plant) into a centre of galleries, restaurants,
bookshops and design studios met with initial disapproval from local
authorities - but they have since come around. "798 is now a platform
for contemporary art, and this gives government officials some direction
to understand and develop art," says Huang.

The area is now listed as one of six special cultural and creative
centres by the city government, and is no longer under threat of
demolition. But despite its role as a centre of city culture, it hasn't
been given complete carte blanche. As many as 20 paintings were removed
by the authorities before the festival - many of them dealing with Mao,
who died 30 years ago. One of the works removed was by Sheng Qi and
showed blood red tanks driving along the northern end of Tiananmen Square.

Despite the growing number of visitors and the increasing prestige of
the festival, some critics says it now lacks originality.

"Dashanzi has become a tourist trap - a place for artistic tourists,"
says Fabrizio Zambuto, a part-time artist and photographer. "There's
nothing interesting to see any more. The destruction and reconstruction
of Beijing as an art subject is redundant. It has been discussed through
art for the past two years already."

Zambuto says Chinese art is riding a wave of hype that allows even
mediocre artists to inflate their reputation and prices. During the past
year, the prices of Chinese art at auction have hit new highs. At
Sotherby's New York in March, a portrait piece by Zhang Xiaogang sold
for about $8 million - a record for a living Chinese painter. Zambuto
says Chinese contemporary art will be "a short-term fashion".

A major concern is that there's not enough creativity with too much
repetition of themes such as the Cultural Revolution.

"I think we're seeing the golden age of Dashanzi," says Jonathan Watts,
a British journalist whose office is near several 798 Factory galleries.
"It's in between the 'are we going to survive?' stage and about to enter
the more corporate, more touristy phase."

Dashanzi International Arts Festival, go to www.diaf.org.



with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)



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