China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.
Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.
Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.
Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.
But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.
Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.
The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.
Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.
All photographs by Helena Roy.