Saturday, October 22, 2005


Authoritarian regimes and freedom of expression in art don't seem to be happy bedfellows, you would think. However, tucked away on an abandoned industrial plant still smothered in fading "Long Live Chairman Mao!" slogans, in NE Beijing, lies 798 Gongchang (factory), an unexpected artistic community that appears to be doing very well for itself.

Sitting between industrial ruins and abandoned dormitories are many small independent artists' studios, design companies, film studios, and even an art college (a student of which decided to film us for the entire time we were in his school). The creations on display are drawn from many different artistic fields: pottery and clay sculpture; photography; contemporary painting; clothing; furniture and furnishings. One installation consisted of an entire room filled with artifacts hoarded by the artists' mother over the course of her lifetime - the centrepiece of which was the wooden skeleton of the house in which she had kept it.

I was pleased to find a good deal of photography on display, the majority of which was good indeed. One series of photographs in particular, by Cang Xin, left me very amused, featuring him standing next to a series of "brides" in their underwear while he was wearing their wedding dresses.
Here's one for example, though the image is quite poor in quality (sorry). Predictably, there were many photos of the Great Wall and scenic/not so scenic parts of the country. Gritty industrial landscapes sat next to formal protraits of buddhist monks and images of the XinJiang deserts.

Some of the art would not have pleased the late Chairman; comical statues of Mao, giant Mao shirts, Mao shaped punch-bowls were all present. In fact, the whole place seemed uncensored. As the media here are so tightly governed by the state, it was quite refreshing to see this. However, the freedom of expression here also explains why this place is hidden away in the middle of the industrial estate: the state knows exactly where they are and can pay a visit whenever they want.

Traditional Chinese arts were quite well represented at 798, including traditional clothing with a modern twist, embroidered silk paintings, calligraphy and even laquerware. The laquerware was particularly good, and all handmade. There are boxes, trays, vases, bowls and tableware all fashioned from tree sap built up over a wooden mould in layers of red and black. So of the designs carved into the laquerware were strikingly modern - both geometric and organic patterns- and very pleasing to the eye, and sat well with the more traditionally engraved wares beside them.

Between the studios were several small but well designed (well they would be!) bars and restaurants. Even though it is a chilly autumn day they were not short of customers.

It was great to see such a thriving and well patronised art scene here, and they're especially brave to produce some of the work they do in the face of the power they seek to attack with it.


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