Wednesday, May 4, 2011

After Ai Weiwei: Will Beijing´s UCCA, the Guggenheim of China, survive?

“The artists are angry, anxious, confused and scared. They are worried and in conflict between their feelings and instinct for protest and one for survival of the art scene in terms of local opportunities, foreign interest and support.
“Beijing has achieved a status as a contemporary art city all over the world; now it risks losing this.”  Beijing-based artist and lecturer, Alessandro Rolandi.

Alessandro Rolandi

Do you believe in coincidence?

Factor this:
At the same time—about 14 February—Belgian Baron Guy and Myriam Ullens cancelled Ai Weiwei´s retrospective at their Beijing gallery as “too sensitive” and declared they were leaving China, selling off their contemporary Chinese art inventory, heading to India to create a new collection.

On the same day—3 April—that police snatched Ai Weiwei from Beijing´s airport, the owners of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) dumped 105 pieces of their “Nascence of Avant-Garde China” collection at Sotheby´s in Hong Kong for $54.9 million U.S.

The auction pre-sale estimate: $16.7 million. This set world records for works of seven Chinese artists. One painting sold for $10 million.

That´s only the first auction lot from their vast collection.

The Beijing buzz: Will the UCCA survive?

Meanwhile, LinkedIn Beijing Art Movements group buzzes with insider chatter about whether UCCA will survive the current cultural crackdown in which Weiwei is soon becoming a martyr not just a master of Chinese avant-garde art.

As well, survive under new Chinese owners?

“If this ship sinks (UCCA), it´ll be a loss not just to the Beijing art community but the Chinese art community as a whole;

“It is the only space producing shows on an international standard where the works exhibited are not shown for the purposes of direct retail,” wrote Austin Powers (who says he´s “Project Coordinator for 2ZYX Rodeo China Project,” which does not exist on the web).

One artist I talked to in Beijing said the Ullens are “megalomaniacs” and not philanthropists.

Nathaniel McMahon wrote on LinkedIn: “It´s the attitude of the place (UCCA) that got me, the portraits on the wall, the self-praise introductions to everything, painfully trying to be hip, glam and new.” 

Later in the discussion, however, McMahon conceded UCCA is “pretty hip, glam and new,” and has produced some “incredible exhibitions” attracting artists like Olafur Eliasson, Surasi Kusolwong, Thukral and Tagra.

There appears insider consensus that if UCCA folds it would seriously damage commercial Chinese contemporary art and more importantly, the reputation earned during the past two decades.
"Be Have," wall art by Alessandro Rolandi

´Police cabins popping up like mushrooms´

 “Until 2012, it is going to be tense here as paranoia and control grow dramatically,” says Rolandi, who has lived and worked in Beijing since 2003.

Rolandi stressed, however, “It´s the government change in 2012 that produces most paranoia.”

On 4 May, he told me, “…slowly, slowly all over the city some small police house-cabins 2mx3m x3h  are growing like mushrooms; it must be about having picnics or chats when waiting for the green light.”

Despite the current cultural chill, the art scene is very lively but the state and the artists have to deal with the Ai Weiwei crackdown, Rolandi said. 

“It´s all or nothing, and if it´s nothing, what do you do?”

“UCCA has been enormously good for Chinese artists in the past few years, in their studios, in the cafes, and all of a sudden this all disappears?” he said.

“Chinese artists would never have such a playground again; we hope the UCCA will continue.”

It is not only the Ai Weiwei factor that affects UCCA.

Chinese versus foreign UCCA ownership

Wisely, the Ullens hired Fei Dawei as its first director. Dawei curated the 2007 opening show at UCCA.

She brought in Guo Xiao Yan as chief curator. Emerging mainland artists shared the spotlight with world-class brand names.

Apparently Dawei got bored after a year and left.

When Jéróme Sans took over as director in March 2008, the UCCA gallery´s stable of artists also soon changed.

Sans called upon his network of Paris-based Chinese artists to exhibit, according to Rolandi and others. 

Ullens have reportedly sold out to Chinese interests. They will remain on the board of directors, nominally.

As UCCA labors in limbo, the Chinese government is constructing a new modern art museum near the Olympic Stadium that Weiwei helped design.

This week we learned that a confidential, binding, three-year consulting deal puts the Lincoln Center into the thick of things as the new museum´s primary program consultant.

Clamping down on artists, intellectuals, stamping out any hint of dissent, while promoting a new glam venue for contemporary art….

Is the government playing a schizoid game?

Probably not.

As long as art and artists do not criticize the state and disturb China´s internal stability, all systems are go.

The small minority of Beijing artists pushing the limits of avant-garde through performance art, experimental theater, video and installations now shy from exhibiting.

And if they do as in Roland´s recently curated group show, “Memory Identity,” it´s a gentle one-off push to test limits, not deliberately confront.

Like Rolandi wall art: “Be Have.”

Push too far and you end up a Weiwei without his global following. 

The unknown avant-garde artist would simply get disappeared. And who would care?

From inside the Beijing avant-garde art community, there´s considerable withdrawal, projects ready to launch, now too sensitive, are mothballed for another day, according to Rolandi.

After two of Ai Weiwei´s assistants saw Beijing police raid the artist´s studio, taking all the lap tops, they went into hiding.

"Bread Tree" by Alessandro Rolandi
They and others know this is just another spastic phase by the Chinese Communist Party. Mao tightens then loosens his grip.

As long as commerce continues, people are adequately fed and famers and truckers don´t go on strike, all is well.

From inside the Beijing avant-garde art community, there´s considerable withdrawal, projects ready to launch, now too sensitive, are mothballed for another day, according to Rolandi.

Business as usual at the UCCA?

On the surface, it appears business as usual.

I called UCCA on 2 May about one of its shows, Peter Lindbergh´s “The Unknown,” which opened 1 April, a retrospective by the German fine art photography.

I asked Claudia Jiang of UCCA´s press-PR department if I could talk to Jéróme Sans.

No, she said. He´s in Tiawan.

I asked for some Lindbergh´s images. She never returned my e-mail in which I included my blog´s Url, often blocked on mainland China.

The UCCA, which has made lots of money for Chinese contemporary artists, will continue, I predict.

It never threatened the state.

“In the UCCA, I never saw subversive or provocative art. It´s a showcase for climbing the art world success stairwell and to show Chinese artists together with some very famous foreign ones,” Rolandi said.

The only rumored friction between the state and the non-indigent Ullens comes when the couple allegedly demanded a considerable sum for the UCCA from local government.

The answer came back, in so many words, “If we want it, we´ll take it. Why pay for it?”

Ullens didn´t vacate UCCA and China only over the aborted Ai Weiwei retrospective, or to roll-up Indian art into a new collection.

The Beijing buzz suggests that the Belgian food magnate failed to put together some kind of hotel deal. It soured. They soured. Perhaps.

Paradoxically, the Ullens, by selling 105 pieces of their collection, proved Chinese contemporary, non-confrontational art, is here to stay and should be commercially exploited.

The Ullens are seen smiling, sitting on a comfy Sotheby´s leather sofa after the 3 April sell-off.

Timing can be everything.

You can believe in coincidence especially when merged with money, power and ego.

Rock on and practice peace and love.
Stefan, the ArtTraveler ™

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1 comment:

  1. We now are the proud owners of a utility sink again. The best thing about the whole project was the cleanup, which I did not have to do in the downstairs bathroom sink.