As the art world geared up for this week’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, a number of international visitors and hundreds of locals made their way to Beijing’s 798 and Caochangdi art districts for the inaugural Gallery Weekend Beijing.
Launched by German artist and writer Thomas Eller, the weekend takes cues (and a strikingly similar typeface) from the gallery weekend in his former hometown, Berlin. In total, 14 of the city’s galleries and four of its museums took part in the weekend, which also involved a number of talks and performances.
The gallery weekend model makes sense for Beijing much in the same way that it does for Berlin. Market attention on the mainland has, particularly recently, focused on the more internationally oriented Shanghai. Beijing does not have a major art fair or another major event to draw the art world’s attention. But it has long been home to a wealth of the country’s most prominent artists, and serves as the conceptual core of Mainland China’s art community.
An event that brings in international attention, but places its focus on exhibitions, artists, and art practice rather than on commerce, is what the city needed, according to Long March Space founder Lu Jie. During a panel on China’s internationalization, Lu said that while the country’s art market has become strikingly global over the past decade, he thinks that it has actually reached a low point in terms of intellectual dialogue.
“This is the kind of international exchange that we lack today,” he said.
Such was Eller’s aim in initiating the weekend. After moving to Beijing three years ago, Eller said he began to think about ways to better position the city’s art scene. That started with “Die 8 Der Wege,” a survey show of Chinese contemporary art that he co-curated with Guo Xiaoyan and Andreas Schmid for Berlin’s Uferhallen. He then, however, set his sights on trying to bring together Beijing’s galleries and a growing number of museums. He said that, as in all major art hubs, politics within the art world here meant that he could have an impact that someone coming from the inside might not.
“It maybe needed an outsider to come in and tie these things together,” Eller said.
The entire gallery weekend came together in just three months. “We had to show momentum,” he said, in order to gain support of key players within Beijing’s art community. Even before the weekend’s events had come to a close, Eller had his eyes set on an expanded edition next year.
Gallery Weekend Beijing kicked off with a performance by Cheng Ran in 798, at a still-under-construction location for Galerie Urs Meile, whose main gallery compound is about one mile to the north. The performance, Neoclassical, saw a series of Cheng’s earlier films cut together with found, archival footage and displayed on a giant LED screen as experimental musicians Li Jianhong, Wang Ziheng, and Soviet Pop from Beijing’s underground scene played instruments ranging from electric guitar and trumpet to bubble wrap.
While galleries were the ostensive focus of the weekend, its crown jewel was the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art’s (UCCA) massive survey of art in China today “The New Normal,” curated by Guo Xi, Yang Zi, Alvin Li, and Wenfei Wang. The show is the latest in an iterative series of surveys of Chinese contemporary art by an institution that remains at the very heart of 798 despite ongoing questions about its future. (The museum’s founder Guy Ullens announced in July that he intends to sell the museum and has publicly released little information since.)
“The New Normal” features standout works by Chinese rising stars like Cui Jie, Guo Xi, and Miao Ying (her installation Chinternet+ is the show’s highlight). But it also reflects China’s internationalization, with recent BMW Art Journey winner Max Hooper Schneider presenting a monumental sculpture that encases snakes, bullets, and innumerable knickknacks in acrylic resin, and a Sophia Al-Maria film that positions the shopping mall as the cathedral of the 21st century.