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#ChinaGrams: 7 Highlights from China’s Art Scene in 2018

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In this week’s #ChinaGrams series, we have curated some of the highlights from China’s art scene in 2018.

Living master Xu Bing had two major shows this year in Beijing, the city where he’s spent the major part of his career (minus an 18-year stint in the US).

Thought and Method, a full-scale retrospective, opened at one of China’s oldest and most important contemporary art institutions, UCCA, where it was billed as “a summation of an artistic career that spans more than four decades, including more than sixty works, comprising prints, drawings, installation art, and films, as well as documentary footage and archival material.” The centerpiece was Xu’s most famous work, Books From the Sky (pictured), a four-volume tome that Xu made out of made-up characters, each of which was printed on hard-carved wooden blocks.

The UCCA retrospective was complemented by Language and Nature, another show of Xu’s work that opened one week prior at INK Studio in the nearby Caochangdi art district.

More work from Xu Bing here and here.

 

Note: Image courtesy Long March Project

Sitting on the theory-heavy end of the exhibition spectrum, Long March Space’s 2018 show Special Economic Zone presented “the improvisational nature of building code violations” as a lens through which to view the special “political, social, economic and cultural realities” that have taken form in China over the last several decades.

The exhibition’s title is a term applied to several test cities such as Shenzhen, which has transformed from a fishing village into a busting, high-rise-choked tech capital since China’s economic opening at the end of the 1970s. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, kickstarted economic reforms in a select few “special economic zones” with a freer set of market rules than the State-controlled economy of the first phase of Chinese Communist rule allowed for.

Works on view in the show treated themes including accelerationism, bitcoin mining, and the social/cultural byproducts of the intense accumulation of capital in 21st-century China.

Note: Image courtesy de Sarthe Gallery

Earlier this year, the Caochangdi branch of contemporary art gallery de Sarthe receive an abrupt notice that it had to clear the premises within a week. Other buildings on the same side of the street were similarly affected, in a clearance that seems to be related to construction surrounding a nearby highway and bridge.

Though they didn’t expect the sudden news, the gallery ended its initial Beijing run on a strong note with The Anything Machine, a solo show for Hong Kong artist Mak Ying Tung 2 that raised poignant questions about the detritus and transience of our digitally mediated lives.

Note: Image courtesy the artists

One of the most striking and claustrophobic shows we saw this year was The Burden of Cultures, an installation by Chinese actress/artist Huang Huan (黄幻) and Romanian architect/artist Alexandru Damboianu. The venue was an air raid bunker (called The Bunker) in central Beijing that opened in 2016, and holds a revolving program of site-specific exhibitions. The installation, open by appointment only, was comprised of a labyrinthine maze that took an already cramped space and made it psychologically treacherous to navigate, culminating in a room ripped out of a horror movie shoot and given an extra edge of paranoia with a low-frequency drone emanating throughout it.

Earlier this year, private 798 museum M WOODS took a break from its regularly scheduled programming of wild future shit and focused instead on the distant past with two shows built around the distinctive grotto art of Kizil, Xinjiang, which like its bigger and more famous cousin Dunhuang was a stopping point for Silk Road traders and an index for centuries of Buddhist iconography.

On the museum’s second floor, M WOODS curated an exhibit entitled Monks and Artists, which hinged around their recent acquisition of three fragments of Kizil mural art. In repatriating these fragments — one of which is displayed in truly grandiose fashion, spotlit at the end of a long, otherwise dark hall — M WOODS became the first private institution in China to bring Kizil art back into the country. (The majority of the mural fragments remain in the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin.)

Faurschou Foundation in 798 ended 2018 with a powerful group show entitled Entropy, whose guiding concept was to present seven artists born in the ’80s and to consider how their work reflects China’s recent decades of development and growing prosperity.

The most interesting thing about the show to us was the disparity between the artists selected. The two youngest artists in the show (both born in 1985) are emblematic of its diversity: Chen Tianzhuo, whose overblown club/video/performance project Asian Dope Boys also made a splash in LA and New York this year, and Yu Ji, whose quiet and stark installation in the Faurschou exhibit was an outgrowth of her latest work between sound, video, and installations using natural materials. Also featured in Entropy was Zhao Zhao, who caught our attention this year for his ongoing 305 project blending conceptual art, street wear, ad instant noodles.

Technically an outgrowth of work started last year, but Shanghai artist Lu Yang has continued to enrapture our synapses here at RADII. Her M WOODS solo show Encephalon Heaven closed in February 2018, and soon after that Lu uploaded a few videos in her ongoing Electromagnetic Brainology series to her Vimeo account, her main locus of interaction with the outside world. In our favorite, one Electromagnetic Brainology subject is transported/uploaded into a world that looks like a cross between Rampage and Mars Attacks. Highly recommended if you’re seeking 10 minutes of complete sensory overload (the original Electromagnetic Brainology theme song by Japanese pop producers invisible manners really adds to the overall effect; crank your speakers up). You can watch Lu Yang’s “Electromagnetic Brainology Brain Control Messenger” here.

Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.