The Fusion on the Menu Is Art and Food
By JULIA CHAPLIN
Published: August 19, 2007
IT was a familiar art-world ritual. Mint BMWs and Audis snaked down a
dark alley off the Second Ring Road in Beijing and pulled up to a gray
industrial bunker. Samuel Keller, the director of Art Basel Miami
Beach, had just jetted in from Switzerland. The local hotshot painters
Liu Ding and Liu Wei were huddled with the Svengali-esque curator Pi
Li, and in one corner would-be collectors were chatting with one of
China's most renowned contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei.
Insiders could be forgiven for mistaking this as yet another gallery
opening in art-crazed Beijing, with free-flowing Yen Jing beers, an
international crowd and a minimalist interior of stark white walls and
bare concrete floors. But then the kitchen doors swung open, and a
banquet of Zhejiang province dishes like steam-dried yellow croaker and
a wild-mushroom casserole in a fragrant broth poured forth.
The place was Qu Nar, a restaurant owned and designed by Mr. Ai as a
kind of dining club for his creative circle. "The restaurant actually
loses money because we don't promote it," said Mr. Ai, who opened Qu
Nar (16 Dongsanhuan Bei Road, Chaoyang; 86-10-6508-1597) in 2005 with
several bohemian friends. "But it's worth it because now we have a
place to hang out."
Mr. Ai is among a growing number of Beijing artists who are stepping
outside their studios and into the kitchen to open some of the most
talked-about restaurants in the city. These
artists-turned-restaurateurs are introducing cuisine from their
ancestral provinces — albeit with a nouvelle twist — to a city where
local Mandarin cooking has had a lock on upscale dining.
The current market for Chinese art has turned a handful of struggling
artists into overnight multimillionaires, with their works commanding
as much as $2.3 million at auction houses like Christie's. Along with
their newfound fame, some of these Beijing artists are now rolling in
the materialist trappings of a rap star, with their Range Rovers,
Ferragamo suits and, now, their own cult-of-personality restaurants.
That's not to say these places don't serve a more communal function. As
new art districts pop up along the industrial outskirts and dirt-road
villages off the Fifth Ring Road — often with no discernible center —
the restaurants have also emerged as a kind of ad hoc salon.
At the Dashanzi arts complex, housed in a defunct military factory near
the airport, artists and dealers can be found during lunch at Tian Xia
Yan (4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, 798 Factory District, Dashanzi;
86-10-6432-3577), a casual Sichuan cafe opened five years ago by the
photographer Cang Xin, known for his provocative self-portraits. Tucked
in a back alley behind a maze of galleries, boutiques and coffee shops,
the homey cafe has a red, Cultural Revolution-style décor and serves
Sichuan standards like spicy tea-mushroom pork pot and red-hot sesame
By far the most entrepreneurial of the new artist-cum-restaurateurs is
Fang Lijun, a cynical-realist painter known for his canvases of eerie
bald men floating in space. Mr. Fang opened six upscale restaurants
around the city, each displaying important artworks that Mr. Fang and
his curator friends pick.
"It's a business, but it's also a place for the art world to meet and
gather," said Mr. Fang, who can often be seen holding court at Yuelu
Montain's Qian Hai Branch (10 Lotus Lane, 51-10 Dianmen Xidajie,
Xicheng District; 86-10-6617-2696).
Mr. Fang's flagship — South Silk Road in Soho New Town (3/F, Building
D, 88 Jianguolu Road; 86-10-8580-4286) — is the Beijing art world
equivalent to the Ivy in Los Angeles, where power curators and
collectors from Hong Kong, Seoul and the West wine and dine with the
art elite. Set on an upper floor of an office tower, the room is a
soaring loftlike space with black lacquered furniture and chic
waitresses in brightly colored folk outfits.
On one wall, behind a banquet table for 18 people, is a
floor-to-ceiling painting by the leading artist Wang Guangyi that
depicts, in pop yellow and red, retro-Communist workers with the word
"art" stamped in the corner like a corporate logo.
Viewing the painting on a winter afternoon was Meg Maggio, the director
of the Pekin Fine Arts gallery and a consultant for the Gagosian
galleries. "China is a country where relationships are best built over
a good meal," Ms. Maggio said, as she entertained a museum group over
glasses of rice wine and dishes like caterpillar fungus chicken soup in
steam pot, made with four varieties of Yunnan mushrooms.
Three years ago, an artist collective from Guizhou — a poor province in
south central China — arrived in Beijing to sell their paintings. To
pay the bills and to keep from getting homesick, they opened a 24-hour
restaurant named after themselves, Three Guizhou Men (1-2/F, Building
7, Jianwai SOHO, 39 Dongsanhuan; 86-10-5869-0598). The sleek gray
dining room served nouvelle Guizhou specialties like sour fish soup,
lavender tea with milk, and mango and ice purée.
Their art careers never took off, but their restaurant now has five
branches. And they are always packed