Notes from the Field

From China: Juggling One World with One Dream

July 30, 2008

On a recent weekend, I visited the center of Beijing’s international art scene: the 798 Art District. This area, once a site of numerous electronics factories, has been transformed into a vibrant community of art galleries, shops, cafes, and restaurants. Each time I come to 798, I notice something different. Whether it’s a new modern gallery space, or a quaint teahouse, the district’s continuous evolution has made it a requisite stop on every trip I make to China’s capital city.

During this most recent visit, I was struck by the starkly contrasting themes at work in many of the pieces of art. From oil paintings to prints, and from sculptures to stylized photography, many artists seem to reference China’s rocket-like trajectory towards modernization and to cleverly juxtapose it against more traditional Chinese images. There were charcoal drawings depicting historical Chinese scenes of Guilin hills shrouded in clouds, but the ancient hills were replaced with skyscrapers, antennas, and cranes. Another included a sculpture exhibit that presented photos of present-day migrant laborers embossed on bricks and arranged in a formation reminiscent of the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an. A third, stirring example incorporated gloves actually used to construct the city’s new Olympic Stadium.

I noticed many pieces presenting singular images of “old” China: paintings of smiling children in rural villages, photos of Chinese students in traditional garb, and Chinese warrior sculptures. I wondered whether these artists were seeking to preserve China’s traditions, which are fading fast from the local consciousness, or perhaps, they were making ironic commentary on a time long passed. While my formal knowledge of art is limited, it made me reflect on the role art might play in any society trying to navigate the crosshairs between cultural traditions and the glittering future.

Maybe these themes were present in the art on my other visits, but they struck a dramatic chord this time, perhaps because they seemed so succinctly to illuminate Beijing’s remarkable and startling development. For obvious reasons related to the Games of the 29th Olympiad, new hotels, malls, and skyscrapers seem to have appeared overnight. World class modern architecture has sprung up, including a new air terminal, National Theater, Herzog & de Meuron’s National Stadium, the National Aquatics Center, and Rem Koolhaas’s headquarters for the CCTV television authority. Street peddlers have vanished, many street signs are in English, and new subway lines have been established. On its surface, Beijing appears confident and ready to welcome the world to the Olympic Games. Perhaps even more interesting will be observing Beijing after the Olympics are over. Sitting here in Beijing at this moment, it is easy to imagine that when the games end and the Olympic torch makes its way towards London, China’s trend towards modernization will continue.

But I wonder whether local sentiment will continue on this same modernization trajectory: do the artists present a minority perspective or do they speak for the masses? I don’t know, but I would posit that Beijing is bringing these dramatic artistic images from the canvas to life in a way few will be lucky enough to witness first-hand. Beijing is rapidly morphing in appearance to resemble other bustling, dramatic urban landscapes. I feel privileged to be here during this dramatic moment in the most ancient of civilizations as it balances old and new in a dazzling juggling act.

Kye Young is the Grants Manager for Corporate and Foundation relations at The Asia Foundation. He is based in San Francisco, but is currently working in the Foundation’s Beijing office.

View all posts by Kye Young

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