The Rest is Yet to Be History: Gallery Weekend Beijing 2022 Roundup

 View of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Thomas Bayrle, “Tomorrow is the Question,” Gladstone Gallery, 2022, Beijing. Photo: Sixing Xu
 Weiyi Li, Li Bai , 2022. Installation view, GWBJ 2022 Public Sector Special Project “The Collective Express,” 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Gallery Weekend Beijing
 Chen Dandizi , I’m Awake Tonight , 2021, two-channel Video (color, sound), 3:19 min. Installation View, GWBJ 2022 “Crosstalk,” 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Gallery Weekend Beijing
 Ju Ting, Coral 102121 (left) and Coral 102021 (right), 2021, acrylic, cinder block, 47 × 64 × 50 cm and 45 × 50 × 50 cm. Installation View, GWBJ 2022 “Crosstalk,” 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Gallery Weekend Beijing
 Liu Zhan, Manufacture , 2022, mixed media. Installation View, GWBJ 2022 “Crosstalk,” 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Gallery Weekend Beijing
 Yang Maoyuan, Untitled (Portrait) , 2018, water-based pigment on image, 143 × 415 cm. Installation View, GWBJ 2022 “Crosstalk,” 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Gallery Weekend Beijing
 Yang Maoyuan, Implement (No.14) , 2018 (left) and Venus , 2016 (right), bronze, 40 × 18 × 25.5 cm and 77 × 44 × 36 cm ( Venus ). Installation View, GWBJ 2022 “Crosstalk,” 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Gallery Weekend Beijing
 The “Close Viewing” section of “Crosstalk.” Installation View, GWBJ 2022 “Crosstalk,” 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Gallery Weekend Beijing
 View of Wang Youshen, “Codes of Culture,” Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum, 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum
 View of “A Place for Concealment,” Galerie Urs Meile, 2022, Beijing
 Documentation from the performance of Fanny Gicquel, “now, and then,” Hua International, 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Hua International
 Documentation from the performance of Fanny Gicquel, “now, and then,” Hua International, 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Hua International
 View of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Thomas Bayrle, “Tomorrow is the Question,” Gladstone Gallery, 2022, Beijing. Courtesy: Gladstone Gallery
 Liu Ding, The Word for the World , 2021, mixed material on paper, 216 × 152.5 cm. Courtesy: Gallery Weekend Beijing

Art critic Sixing Xu found reprieve from the hellscape of “twenty-twenty too” at this year’s Gallery Weekend Beijing.

 

When Gallery Weekend Beijing announced its postponement in early May, many accepted it as just another dose of bad news – expected, almost fated. A week prior, Beijing had closed its shopping malls, dine-in services, museums, and galleries, diligently complying with the state’s defense of the zero-COVID strategy. At the time, Shanghai was already experiencing a much stricter citywide lockdown to curb its recent Omicron outbreak, which had turned the proclaimed four-day period into a full two months. Triggered by the unprecedented shutdown of China’s commercial hub, a common fear had snuck up north, haunting those of us living in the nation’s capital.

The city’s COVID measures relaxed in June, but Beijing Contemporary and JINGART – two major art fairs originally scheduled in tandem with Gallery Weekend Beijing (GWBJ) – pushed the dates back or entirely canceled their in-person editions this year. As such, the quick reopening of Gallery Weekend Beijing came as quite the surprise. Although the event managed to open, some galleries and institutions – including Shanghai’s BANK and Beijing’s White Space and Macalline Art Center – were unable to participate due to “unforeseen circumstances” like area lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Despite the shortened participants list and the scorching weather, local art lovers and art professionals graced the 798 Art District with a sense of vivacity that had been long missed. On June 24th, “The Collective Express” – a public project organized by the artist Ge Yulu – was scheduled to “dispatch” at 6 pm. Known for his works intervening public spaces, Ge built a circular railroad in the 798 Art Center Square with toy train tracks, inviting eight artists to create miniature works that could fit on remodeled toy trains. When I arrived at the dispatching ceremony, the square was already jostling with familiar faces. Everyone seemed to relish this moment of being together. While Ge introduced every work–train as it left the “station,” my friends and I jokingly “criticized” the almost make-shift quality of the work. But then the fragility of these tiny, plastic toy pieces was an apt metaphor for us: although they were easily knocked down and dismantled by outside forces, they still managed to stay together, even just for a moment.

 

Plastic toy pieces were an apt metaphor for us: although they were easily knocked down and dismantled by outside forces, they still managed to stay together, even just for a moment.

 

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The first floor of the 798 Art Center building was dedicated to the Main Sector special exhibition “Crosstalk,” whose title as well as curatorial methodology was inspired by the musical style of Recitativo. Two pairs of emerging curators from UCCA and Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum (Wenlong Huang, Neil Zhang, Yichuan Zhang, and Jiashu Zou) orchestrated the exhibition into two independent chapters. The section “Towards Darkness” was installed in a dimly lit gallery. Three passages taken from Lu Xun’s prose poetry collection Wild Grass (1927) were vinyled on the floor. Shrouded in literal and metaphorical shadows, these century-old, poetic ruminations on the predicaments of life remain valid descriptions of our present. When uncertainty has once again suspended hope and our proper grip on reality, lines such as “This was dead fire. It had a fiery form, but was absolutely still, completely congealed, like branches of coral” became clues for finding new solutions. The curators responded to the problem of meaning-making in a disintegrating world with works by ten artists of different nationalities and generations. Yang Maoyuan’s Untitled (Portrait) from 2018 guarded the wall next to the entrance: tiles of pigmented paper overlaid with identical found portraits of a dark-skinned boy. The faces of the unknown boy, however, were erased, each covered with a layer of different hand-painted pattern. Iconographies abounded in these patterns: even without in-depth research, one could spot motifs reminiscent of those seen on indigenous masks, or decorative elements on ancient pottery, which span across cultures far-and-near and are often interlaced with the artist’s biography. As the colored papers in the background in fact re-present the myriad colors of walls the artist had encountered during his trips around the world, the work conjures up a dialogue between itself, the artist, and the viewers. If our time has tricked us into believing that the world is a dark abyss that engulfs the emergence of meanings across cultures, patterns remain a form of visual language that communicates and bridges meanings by way of personal, artistic gestures.

 

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In the adjacent “Close Viewing” section, two bronze sculptures by Yang offered a three-dimensional take on cultural imageries. In Implement (No.14), an elongated blob grew out of the face of a classically modeled cast bronze head, polished to such a degree that the material surface virtually becomes a mirror. The act of “polishing” sanded off the facial features as well as the loaded cultural histories of bronze, which are then literally replaced by our reflections. Together with the artist’s solo presentation of his newest paintings and sculptures at the HdM Gallery, viewers could then grasp the key motifs in Yang’s oeuvre. As “Close Viewing” dedicated its focus to those artists living and working in Beijing and highlighted works that bear deep connections with personal experiences and geographies, the section also provided rare chances to glimpse the lesser-known stages in these artists’ careers. Another artist featured in this section was Wang Tuo. Most recognizable for his films engaging the histories of China’s Northeast region, Wang presented two painting-video pairs from 2017, which gave a glimpse into how the artist moved away from his early training in painting and arrived at his current practice of video.

 

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For this iteration of GWBJ, many staged shows that salvaged hidden aspects and figures of Chinese modern and contemporary art. CLC Gallery Venture’s presentation of recent abstract expressionist paintings by Zhao Dajun, born in 1937,  introduced “this pioneer of modern Chinese art” to a younger generation. Reflecting the artist’s life-long pursuit and love for abstraction, Tang Contemporary Art filled its two exhibition spaces with over 200 works by Luo Zhongli, another painter from the previous generation. One of the most famous artists in China, Luo is known to the public because of a singular masterpiece: his realistic painting Father (1980), a decade-long staple in Chinese textbooks. Showcasing paintings, sketches, and illustration works from a half-century-long practice, the refreshing retrospective expanded the viewers’ impression of the artist, while revealing the curious influence that European masters like Picasso and Millet had on him. 

On the other end of the city, Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum presented “Wang Youshen: Codes of Culture,” a major survey of the prolific artist born in the 1960s. A contemporary of the more renowned 1985 New Wave generation, Wang has been active on both local and global stages for decades, participating in the 1989 exhibition in Beijing and frequenting international biennials, but has remained unfamiliar to most. His flying-under-the-radar status probably has to do with his other occupation: an art editor at Beijing Youth Daily, a state-owned newspaper. The two-decade-long commitment to this job has bestowed him with a keen sensibility toward the print media. A small section of the exhibition collects facsimiles of the official newspaper’s previous issues, whose column spaces Wang had turned into a curated exhibition featuring artist’s proposals and sketches. 

 

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China’s art scene is full of curatorial experiments, led by artists and curators alike. Back in 798, the group exhibition “A Place for Concealment” at Galerie Urs Meile proposed an alternative way to look at art for GWBJ visitors. Curated by independent curator Yang Zi, the exhibition adopted painting racks as its form of presentation and conceptual framework, as indicated by the Chinese title, which literally means “storage.” Paintings, photographs, and videos were no longer viewed with a decently maintained white space around them but were intentionally concealed behind racks and other works, visible through a field of gridded viewports. The exhibition was an homage to a 2019 project by artist Wang Guangle, where he transformed an art fair booth into a storage rack. There, the visitors were invited to pull each tier and see works by over 30 artists. But unlike Wang’s original configuration where the viewers could directly activate and make the show, the public was not allowed to move the racks at Galerie Urs Meile. While concerns about artworks’ safety are valid, it diminished the experimental potential of the exhibition. As such, an exhibition is at risk of becoming just a plain game in curation, which entertains the play of formal languages over the attention to observing genuine relationships between works. 

 

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Crossing the street and arriving at Hua International, I was just in time to catch the performance at “now, and then,” French artist Fanny Gicquel’s first solo exhibition in China. Adeptly weaving the movements of the bodies with sculptural objects, Gicquel collaborated with choreographer Wang Mengfan in presenting a three-day performance event. Three glass pieces were hung from the ceiling, mimicking the structures of ribs, veins, and a spine. The uneven outlines of the glasses made it clear that they were all hand-blown by Gicquel. This gave the objects a poetic sense of intimacy, from whose surfaces one could discern the artist’s labor, gently touched by the performers. The objects’ tie to the human body was further magnified, as the performers activated the glass vessels with their breath. This body of works reflects the artist’s acute grasp of materiality and its simultaneously malleable and enduring nature. Incorporating paraffin, soap, cling wrap, and thermosensitive paint, all these materials have a “mutable” nature, and there were tiny wax balls scattered across the floor, forming micro-universes with the dried flowers and cigarette butts sealed inside. These picked up more dirt and fallen hair as the performers were in intimate contact with them.

 

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Several galleries delivered young and established artists across the globe to the Beijing audience, including two solo shows featuring German artists (Werner Büttner at Triumph Gallery and Tobias Rehberger at Galleria Continua). Having opened its London space last year, Tabula Rasa Gallery brought together works by eight emerging female painters active in Europe in its Beijing gallery. Inside two historical buildings in 798, the “Visiting Sector” hosts special projects by galleries with spaces outside Beijing. Rirkrit Tiravanija, who participated in the 2021 edition of GWBJ with Pilar Corrias, returned this year with a new project alongside German artist Thomas Bayrle. The two friends and collaborators transformed Gladstone Gallery’s temporary space into a table tennis court. 

 

Critiques seem irrelevant when one can enjoy a friendly match with a stranger, savor a Rirkrit-special steamed bun stuffed with fennels or green beans, and discover art to be something that can go beyond itself and arrive at moments of happiness.

 

“Tomorrow is the Question,” the title of the project, was written on each table in English, Chinese, and pinyin by Tiravanija, while Bayrle’s colorful wallpapers adorned the spacious room showered in natural light. A series of additional prints reimagining an iconic portrait of Teresa Teng was installed on top of the repeated imagery of two blonde dancers. One of China and Asia’s most beloved pop singers, Teng’s cosmopolitan life has become a metaphor for China’s shifting role in the global arena, of which table tennis is a no-less-poignant symbol. While the 1970s “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” has retreated into the corners of history, the sport remains a powerful activator that truly makes an exhibition a gathering. Walking up the stairs in the A07 building, I could hear balls bouncing and kids laughing, before being flooded by a long-absent sense of joy. Critiques seem irrelevant when one can enjoy a friendly match with a stranger, savor a Rirkrit-special steamed bun stuffed with fennels or green beans, and discover art to be something that can go beyond itself and arrive at moments of happiness.

In the nearby A08 building, Pilar Corrias installed two other works by Tiravanija on the wall: two light bulb sculptures, one in the shape of a question mark, the other an exclamation point, bracketed by two quotation marks. You had to step back a little to realize it was a blank sentence. Is Tomorrow the question? And is Yesterday the answer? Is it a fully resolved response ending with an exclamation point? For those of us in China, the past six months have not been fully processed yet, and they’re certainly not some an answer, some terminus. If the first half of “twenty-twenty too” (as the meme has it) has let us numbingly accept the dangerous thought that the post-pandemic world is but an endless repetition of itself, art, intentionally or not, can at least keep us awake, asking us to digest what has already happened, and imagine the rest that is yet to come.  Just as the term “post-pandemic” was coined too early, no conclusion should arrive too soon. Maybe that blank space, in the sculpture and in our minds, needs to be left as is, for now, or forever. 

 

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SIXING XU is a writer and artist based in Beijing