Impeccably dressed VIPs strut the freshly paved streets of Beijing’s 798 Art District as it gears up for its third annual Gallery Weekend. International outposts including Pace and Galleria Continua announce their new exhibitions alongside beacons of contemporary Chinese art like Long March Space and UCCA with adhesive red carpets snaking out from bauhaus-style buildings like hollywood tongues. Dazzling human-sized bouquets, boutique concept stores, and even a vaporwave-themed photo booth line the lobbies of these governmentally-sanctified cultural meccas.
Just sixty years ago, this 148-acre concrete jungle was empty farmland. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) worked with Germany to produce a communist factory complex by 1954. It boasted such extracurricular activities for its workers as dancing classes, literary clubs, motorcycle races and a second-to-none athletics facility. But the good life was short-lived: governmental reform in the eighties drove the factories into obsoletion. Artists began to occupy the factories, flooding in from the outskirts of the city.
Over the past decade, while actively destroying artist studios and communities around Beijing, the government has proceeded with a luxe de-clawing of the district, adopting the global art aesthetic of cafés serving flat whites, and industrial-chic galleries. While it’s true that much has been done to lacerate any critical bite this area once wielded, there are moments of defiance: this year, it comes from the exhibition Hic Sunt Leones, curated by Lu Mingjun for Gallery Weekend Beijing’s Up&Coming sector at the 798 Art Center (22 March to 18 April). “I may have played a small trick on them,” Mingjun grins impishly, when we meet.
Hic Sunt Leones, Latin for “here be lions”, was used in ancient times to denote unexplored territory on maps of the earth; though largely defunct today, the term still carries a sense of intoxicating suspense, promising both danger and unimaginable riches.
A similar voyage is made by the thirty-one young Chinese artists in the show — almost exclusively born in the eighties and nineties, and a third of whom lived and studied abroad — which reveals the raw and complex relationship they feel towards their government, home country and identity. Split into four categories that bleed together both spatially and thematically, the exhibition picks apart ideas of censorship, corruption, political intimidation and the psychological pressures of state control, with moving image being the clear medium of choice.
A cacophonous chanting fills the halls of the Art Center. Mao Haonan’s Echo (2016) comprises 190 national anthems, all mashed up and ricocheting off each other with occasional miraculous synchrony; the effect is like cosmic noise picked up by satellites. 190 Journal Moving into the gallery, Liu Yefu’s trippy York News (Monologue) (2014) makes a bold first impression with two massive screens, spread like an open book to become a sculptural and sonic installation. Follow a green-haired hooker around seedy Manhattan as you’re periodically bombarded with fake news and advertisements.
Adjacent is Yim Sui-Fong’s spectacular Fall Down (2017), a filmed performance in which a dozen actors fall in slow motion, Hong Kong’s skyline watching on in the background. A tribute to when Margaret Thatcher fell down on a staircase in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 1982, it’s also about failure, self-control and the awkward tension of communicating with history.
Towards the back of the room is Ge Yulu’s Eye Contact (2016), a three-channel video that tackles surveillance and corruption through dark humour. Clambering up on found scaffolding in the city, the artist gets up close and personal with the myriad surveillance cameras positioned around Beijing. Sandwiched between the two videos documenting his actions is the actual surveillance tape that the artist acquired through a bribe. Combining humour, corruption and boredom, this piece captures a general mood of teen angst that oozes throughout the show.
The mood reaches an all-time high in the dark ambiance of Hyundai (2018) by Fang Di. Retracing the dramatic saga of a young girl who has her car stolen by a guy who phished her, it culminates in a euphoric feat of justice, complete with a neon- and nostalgia- drenched rollerblading derby. While these stories may be fantastical and these sets romanticized, is the desire conveyed within really any less authentic than the stark reality of the present? Hic Sunt Leones may be less about facing today’s challenges head-on than living up the escapist fantasies we all project. Next door, the politics of physical labour and the body are checked in Hu Wei’s moving work, The World of the Hard and the Soft (2016), which tackles the socioeconomic conditions that have led to our relentless pursuit of perfection.
Su Yu-Xin’s X-ray scan of an iPhone, titled Emotional Labour (2018) seems to suggest that technology has something to do with it, and Wang Tuo’s Spiral (2018) backs up her idea through the lens of a troubled architect. “To appreciate the architecture, you may even need to commit a murder,” the French architect Bernard Tschumi once said, and in the homicidal vibes of Spiral, you get the distinct sense that might just be true.
Gallery Weekend Beijing is a fledgling art Exhibition Review event, with its first two editions headlined by big-shot Western artists; Hic Sunt Leones, by contrast, reveals the psychological impact of the country’s closed-door politics on its emerging artists, whose work is far more outspoken than previous generations. “I felt that it was my responsibility to represent these young artists and give them an opportunity to have their work seen by collectors in an exhibition that would be impossible to put on in either a commercial gallery or public institution,” shares Lu Mingjun. Hic Sunt Leones is Chinese new media unadulterated.
In this existentially fraught space, it becomes apparent that many of the youth of China’s concerns are in fact global concerns. These artists embody the new emotionalism of contemporary art practice: a post-critical realism that’s fully infused with parafiction, because our relationship to reality — or what we perceive as such — has fundamentally changed. These are the artists who grew up under a regime of overt censorship — who were unborn or mere toddlers during the Tiananmen Square massacre, which the government refuses to memorialize, let alone acknowledge, and which, given the rise of neo-fascist belief systems in the West, begins to look like the new normal going forward.
“Truth is no longer relevant,” explains Mingjun, and here, in the cacophony of twenty video screens, you witness a world of drastic highs and lows, a place where failed logic takes the back seat to feeling. These artists locate their practice amid the company of others, and acknowledge the wreckage of the present but refuse to fetishize it. Here you’ll find artists who focus on carving out a better future, even amongst darkness — because they are going to be the ones living it.