Beijing Backpacking, Day 18: Art, Freedom vs. Identity?

There are many masks put up here ... and many masks stripped off
There are many masks put up here … and many masks stripped off

YESTERDAY I EXPLORED how much music is a universal language in the bars of Guloudajie. As with music anywhere, music challenges my perceptions. But there is no perception about China that has challenged me so far as much as its art scene.

I’m referring, of course, to Beijing’s fabled art district, known colloquially as ‘798’, about 12 km northeast of the city centre. It looks like a gentrified bohemian district in many other cities in the world. But just like the music scene, it’s the subtleties that make it distinctly Chinese: the prints, and the flashes of red to break up the minimalistic white and black backdrops of the gallery.

The idea of free expression in art is something fundamentally polarised to foreign perceptions of what China is. 798 has been growing in popularity and international prominence ever since the Reform and Opening Up. Perhaps even more apt is how, much like in New York, London or Sydney, this hip, chic and trendy neighbourhood has taken over a once gritty industrial plant. But this evolution of urban planning carries a far different statement for a country with a history like China, where the rough industrial sites once upon a time were symbols of the utilitarian revolution of the working class that, in Mao’s time,sought to purge itself of such social forces. But now, it is celebrated. The Party is well aware of what happens here – and, by virtue of the public promotion of 798 as a tourist attraction and symbol of Beijing, it is also celebrating the diversity that shapes the Chinese identity. It almost makes you wonder why the West is taking so much issue with censorship. Perhaps it is summed up so aptly in its intentions – when art has developed such an international character that it risks the dilution of culture, the public authorities want to keep the identity of 798 distinctly Chinese. And, when you look through the artworks in 798, it is rightly so.

Perhaps the most strikingly Chinese cultural element I found in 798 was not an artwork, but a passage from one of the galleries’ directors, about the work ethic and conviction it takes to become an acclaimed artist. While careers in the arts are often glamorised lifestyles, just like success in any field, the stories disrespectfully gloss over the blood, sweat and tears required to reach such a point, and present this ideal to many young people that induces them to dive into the deep end. It asks us a confronting question: at the end of our lives, how will we look at our creations? What will they reflect about our own identity? How will we have provoked people to think about themselves and the world? Maybe these are questions that China is answering for itself in 798.

One more thing: you can find the passage published online here.

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