PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'Project 798: New Art in New China' Conducts Interviews From the Heart of Beijing's Art District

Photo (partial) of fist sculpture by Liu Bolin found on China Study Group.net

Lucius Kuert gives us an insider's view of China's burgeoning art scene through the eyes of artists and dealers from the 798 Art Zone


Project 798: New Art in New China

Director: Lucius C. Kuert
Cast: Chen Wenbo, Feng Zhengjie, He Yunchang
Distributor: Microcinema
Studio: Microcinema International
Release Date: 2010-05-10

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.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.