The contemporary art world is full of surprises and near the top of the list must be the rapid emergence and commercial success of Chinese artists in the early 21st century. Of course, China has a long and distinguished artistic tradition, but I’m not talking about Ming vases and scroll paintings here, but rather contemporary Chinese artists working in modern, sometimes avant-garde styles. Many of them work in Beijing’s Art District, also known as the 798 Art Zone after Factory 798, one of several decommissioned military electronics factories in the complex which is now home to a thriving artistic community.
In Project 798: New Art in New China director Lucius C. Kuert (who also directed the award-winning short Nancy: The Movie) interviews several artists and dealers about their art and more generally about the contemporary art scene in China. Some of what they have to say is specific to China—in particular, the details of government censorship—but much of it could apply to artists working in almost any country in the world. In particular, several speak of the price of commercial success, demonstrating the truth of that old proverb that you should be careful what you wish for.
In the late-‘80s, according to Rosario Scarpato of offiCina Gallery, contemporary art exhibitions in China were a brand new phenomenon and suffered from police harassment, generally being shut down by the authorities almost as soon as they opened. Under such conditions, needless to say, none of the artists were getting rich. Even in 2002 when artist Huang Rui returned to China (after living in exile for over ten years) he could only obtain a lease for three years on gallery space in the 798 District because the area was slated for demolition in 2005.
Flash forward a few years to 2007, and the Chinese art market is being described as a “gold rush” by Jonathan Watts of The Guardian with over $3.3 billion in sales at public auction houses and three of the top ten best-selling global artists of the year. As Chinese artists became major players in the art world, the Chinese government realized that there was money to be made from art and stepped in to capitalize on it. One result was that the 798 District was renovated and gentrified and is now operated by the government as tourist-friendly shopping area replete with galleries, cafes and fashionable shops.
Many of the artists interviewed feel the District has become too commercial and complain not only of increased rents but also of the decline of the artist’s community and the presence of too many tourists who disrupt their working life (complaints which will be familiar to New Yorkers who remember when lofts were once affordable spaces for artists and urban homesteaders, not high-priced condos for stockbrokers). The contrast is clear in shots which comapre contemporary views of the well-manicured 798 Zone with shots of the same area in the grittier “good old days”, when the area was industrial and rundown, but perhaps allowed the artists to work more freely and without the pressures which come from the expectation of commercial success.
Some of the interviews are more insightful than others, and there’s as much to be gained from reading between the lines as in the artists’ overt statements. For all their complaints about trendiness and commercialization of the 798 District, one can’t help but notice how many of the artists dress like Western hipsters—right down to their black leather jackets and narrow glasses. Some do go on for quite a bit in their rants,and seem unduly convinced of their own wisdom, but the director seems to have made a deliberate choice to let each artist have his or her say, which in turn allows you to draw your own conclusions about the merits contained therein.
Project 798 lets us see some of these artists’ works but most of the art is only glimpsed in passing and, to be charitable, the quality varies greatly. Many obvious questions are never addressed, including why so many of the artists interviewed work in fairly tame Western styles. Is this due to training, commercial calculation, political pressure or some other factor? Oddly enough, no one seems to have much to say about the workings of the modern commercial art world or how modern Chinese art rather abruptly became the hottest ticket in town. Without that stunning rise in commercial popularity, after all, it’s unlikely that this film would ever have been made.
There are no extras on the DVD and the whole presentation feels a bit incomplete, as if the director simply shot some footage and spliced it together then left the viewer to sort it out. This is a valid strategy, but it assumes the viewer already has a working knowledge of contemporary Chinese art.