Wednesday, November 12, 2008

2 AM Tea and Photographs

I spent the last week in Beijing on vacation, and I was able to take in a new art exhibition or showing almost every day. In most cases, I sought out the art that I saw. The National Art Museum, for example, had a surprisingly well-curated travelling show highlighting trends in women's coats fashion over the last 50 years. When I revisited the 798 Art District (I had visited it before on my trip to Beijing in late September), I was lucky enough not only to explore many of the more tucked-away galleries, but also stumbled upon the opening of Ke Liang's show in the district. Ke Liang, as described by the catalogue available to all the visitors, is a leading force in the Chinese school of Abstract Implicationism, and true to their school's name, the works featured at the opening featured abstract renderings of oil and canvas, completely devoid of discernable subject matter. The show seemed to be the place to be that day: the opening featured a string quartet playing what seemed to be a Mozart greatest hits collection, and a free buffet featuring caviar and salmon was available to visitors. Quite an impressive opening.

But perhaps the most intriguing art I found in Beijing was when I wasn't looking for art at all. One weekend night, I went up to the Huaihai district near Peking University to listen to an open mic night at a local ex-pat bar. As I sat down, I recognized a friend of mine from college back in the States who was a senior when I was a freshman, so I had not seen him since he graduated two years ago. I went over and said hello, and saw that he was enjoying a drink with another friend of ours from college who was the same year as him, and that they were spending a few years over in China teaching English and acting. When I found out their house was not far from my hotel in Dongcheng, they offered to split a cab back.
When we got back to Dongcheng, they decided to show me a local bar area. We were walking up this street, and it was relatively deserted as it was already around 12:30 at night, when one of my friends recognized a man walking down the street and suggested that we go to this man's tea house.

"I don't know his name," my friend said, "but he owns this tea house and is actually an amazing artist. His photographs are on the wall in this place, it's some of the best art I've seen in Beijing."

This man's name, as I would discover when we entered his tea house, was Chen Nong. Chen is a photographer and painter: he sets up staged photographs that read very much like academic history painting, and then uses Chinese paints to enliven the print. The result is a highly dynamic art, one that appears distinctly three-dimensional with odd, surreal juxtapositions.

Chen boiled us a pot of ginger tea, and we took in his art. Chen's art is showing at a gallery called the Wall in 798, and from that gallery, I was able to look at a brief biography. He began his artistic career in the 90s, while he was in his 30s, as a sculptor, and did not move to photographs until the late 90s and early 2000s. From what I have read, it appears he did not have any formal kind of artistic training.

What was amazing about Chen's work, aside from it's aesthetic power and beauty, was his humble lifestyle and disposition. When asked about his art, he casually describes it as something he does when he has free time from the tea house, and he only briefly mentioned that his work is featured in a gallery in 798.

It is gripping, powerful work. The figures are beautifully and dynamically posed, the landscapes are haunting and evokative, the colors are lush and intrisically vibrant. In the image I have included in this post, one can see on the right print a chaotic, image that seems to evoke carnage or war, with the interesting inclusion of a giant toy dinosaur, surreally captivating the viewer. Truly wonderful.

Finding Chen Nong's tea house (or perhaps crude art gallery?) was truly a pleasant discovery. I felt a real connection and power to the art that I very seldom felt as I walked around 798 or the National Art Museum.

Not only is Chen a gifted artist, he clearly knows his tea. The ginger tea we all shared was to die for.

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