Beijing’s 798 Art District was a massive amalgam of Chinese contemporary art, secluded off the busy main roads of the metropolis. It was, in a sense, overwhelming because of the sheer volume of art there was to see: each building had one or multiple galleries that each showcased dozens of pieces by contemporary artists drawing on vastly different aesthetics and ethos. Three galleries, in particular, were striking to me.
The first was a gallery located entirely underground, a maze of white walls and fluorescent lights. The art here was diverse and abstract. There seemed to be no theme or commonality to the art as one passed from room to room, and the title of the show: “Art Exhibit: Big Popular Elegance” did little to illuminate the obtuse linkage between the art.
A nearby gallery featured work by Chen Laotie, whose work can be characterized by his expressionistic brushstroke and disturbing imagery. Chen’s impasto application of paint gave the works a tactile, vibrant quality that resonated in the austere gallery space. The show itself was, if nothing else, an example of poor art handling and conservation, as raw canvas lay unpadded and unprotected against the dirty and dusty hardwood floor, and the open door to the gallery allowed the cool, dry air of early autumn to create an unstable environment within the space. Nonetheless, the work was resonant in its loud expressionism.
Finally, the Yan Arts Club Centre, near the center of the 798 District, provided what was an ideal gallery space for a nihilist contemporary aesthetic. The work within the gallery featured sharp, contrasted blocks of blacks, whites and grays, without a semblance of half-tones or perspective to any of the pieces. In the artist statement, the work was described as being a pessimistic view of modernity articulated through morbid imagery. In a space that was industrial and Spartan, the gallery functioned as a cohesive unit beautifully.