September 18, 2008 — By Kye Young
Kye Young is Grants Manager for Corporate and Foundation Relations at The Asia Foundation. He is based in San Francisco, and was working in the Foundation’s Beijing office prior to and during the Olympics.
Recently, 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.
I was struck by the starkly contrasting themes at work in many of the art pieces. From oil paintings to prints, and from sculptures to stylized photography, many artists seem to reference China’s rocket-like trajectory toward modernization and have cleverly juxtaposed it against more traditional Chinese images. Charcoal drawings depict historical scenes of Guilin hills shrouded in clouds, but the ancient hills are replaced with skyscrapers, antennas, and cranes. A sculpture exhibit presents 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 exhibit incorporates gloves actually used to construct the city’s new Olympic Stadium. Other pieces presented singular images of “old” China: paintings of smiling children in rural villages, photos of Chinese students in traditional garb, and Chinese warrior sculptures.
These themes succinctly illustrate Beijing’s remarkable and startling development – with the Games of the 29th Olympiad, new hotels, malls, and skyscrapers seem to have appeared over-night. World class modern architecture has sprung up, 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 when the games end and the Olympic torch makes its way towards London, China’s trend toward modernization will continue.
Beijing is bringing these dramatic artistic images from the canvas to life in a way few will be lucky enough to witness firsthand. Beijing is rapidly morphing in appearance to resemble other bustling, dramatic urban landscapes. I feel privileged to be here during this dramatic moment in China’s history as it balances old and new in a dazzling juggling act.