Monday, September 26, 2005

Sat. Sept 24

Took a 15 minute taxi ride this morning to "Qi Jiu Ba," in Da Shan Zi. The industrial factory neighborhood in northeast Beijing, named for Factory 798, is now a collection of artist studios and galleries. You can find good art bookshops here, a few trendy cafes and the occasional tour bus of giggling, young Korean women. My Chinese is not yet good enough to ask what the factory used to make. Some of the artists are still struggling, others have struck it rich. Western curators and embassy officials have left business cards at some studios. Da Shan Zi is not listed in either of my guidebooks, which is a good thing.

At the 798 Photo Gallery, black and white photographs showed a spectator trying to get a better view by balancing on the rear platform of his bike; a rural performer holding a bicycle aloft - in his teeth; and the front tire of an early morning commuter emerging in an otherwise empty hutong alley. The bicycle is a member of the Chinese family, the photographer, Wang Wenlan, wrote. At rush hour, cyclists in China are like a mobile Great Wall, he added, and "when you are in the midst of it, you feel like you are the blood in the veins of society, lively and vigorous, sensing endless potential."

Playing in the background was a continuous loop of a Leonard Cohen song: "I'm turning tricks. I'm getting fixed. I'm back on Boogie Street. You lose your grip, and then you slip ... you ditch it all to stay alive, a thousand kisses deep." I could have been in west Chelsea in Manhattan.

Some say this is where young people today have the most freedom in China. A book I saw described the photographs of Song Yongping's parents in old age, ill health and death, juxtaposed with pictures of his parents as young party loyalists. Song's point was reportedly to show a modern revolutionary couple "whose youthful strength and ardour were spent serving a cause that gave them no support or comfrort in their last days."

At the Marella Gallery, photos of the artist Li Wei with his head buried in the ground were supposed to partly reflect typical Chinese behavior. Losing face is a terrible thing, so nothing is expressed directly and everything is oblique and only hinted at. A published description of his art said Li was hiding from international terrorism as well as from China's rapid economic change and globalization, which was "driving humanity toward serious international conflict" which in turn was often reflected in personal, domestic conflict.

Mao as pop art remains a popular theme here. At the Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art, there's a painting of him with Marilyn Monroe and several elaborately decorated porcelain figures of Mao that evoke Elvis or Liberace.

One of the more personal exhibits was by the artist Song Dong, whose mother was born into a prosperous family but then became impoverished. Her KMT officer father was imprisoned for seven years. After his release, her mother died. Other hardships followed.

The Chinese saying "Wu Jin Qi Yong" refers to the traditional Chinese virtue of frugality and translates as "waste not." Song's mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, saved everything that might have a possible future use: plastic wash basins, scraps of cloth, old TV sets and phonograph players, clay pots, shopping bags, clips and pens. When her husband died in 2002, her collecting worsened as she tried to fill the void and hang onto the past.

Her son's art was a big room full of Zhao's household goods, arranged by her in neat piles against a wood frame house that represented her modest home.

"Today's young people can hardly understand the joy and sorrow involved in this type of collecting," the curator at Beijing Tokyo Art Projects wrote. "How could such messy, suffocating stuff make up an intimate environment, generating illusions of safety and even evoking secret memories?"

Song wrote that the project had helped his mother emerge from her grief. He had found a way to help clean out her house without angering her. And he had proved her right: all those things finally did serve some purpose.