Looking Back 2017: Beijing

With the recent razing of suburban slums, tightening censorship and the sad passing of Geng Jianyi, a year of reflection in the Chinese capital

The end of 2017 will leave deep scars on many in China. This year will be remembered for the displays of political propaganda across billboards, LED screens, construction sites, subways and shopping malls in many cities, especially in Beijing. It will be remembered for increasing ideological control and the tightening of censorship – from the media to classrooms. Above all, it should be remembered for the thousands of people – including women, children and the elderly – who, since late November, have been unexpectedly thrown onto the streets as part of Beijing party chief Cai Qi’s 40-day campaign to clear the capital’s suburban slums of potential security hazards.


Communist Party Propaganda above the Gucci shop, Shanghai, 2017

Communist Party Propaganda above the Gucci shop, Shanghai, 2017

These areas are where most of Beijing’s migrant workers and low-income populations reside, as well as being the location of nearly all courier services and manufacturing businesses – including framers and exhibition builders. We in the art world have to stop pretending that this doesn’t concern us; it no longer simply suffices to show our engagement in political affairs by re-tweeting and commenting on WeChat. We may be inconvenienced by the much-delayed delivery of packages of books we have ordered for our museum libraries and the sudden absence of cleaners for our exhibition spaces – they have lost their homes. For all of us working in the arts, it is worthwhile taking a pause, perhaps, to examine what we do – and then to resume our tasks with empathy for those affected by recent events and a renewed appreciation for what we are still able to do. This brings a sense of responsibility to push ourselves harder in our professional practice. Thankfully, 2017 has also given us some admirable examples to follow.

Notably, this year saw a number of survey exhibitions by artists who were all born around the mid-1960s. As well as having demonstrated the intensity and sincerity of these artist’s practices, they have surprised us with the depth and sophistication of exciting new projects.


Zhao Bandi, Let Panda Fly, 2013, video still. Courtesy: Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing

Zhao Bandi, Let Panda Fly, 2013, video still. Courtesy: Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing

Zhao Bandi, ‘China Party’, UCCA 
5 August – 22 October 2017

Zhao Bandi emerged as part of the ‘new generation’ phenomenon in Beijing in the early 1990s – a group of academically-trained realist painters whose works depicted familiar subjects and surroundings from everyday life, breaking with the more metaphorical subject matter of their predecessors. Yet, in 1993, just as his career was taking off, Zhao quit painting entirely and adopted a conceptual approach, employing mass media as his artistic medium. This survey show provided an overview of all stages of his varied career. Zhao posed for subway billboards and calendar posters; he put on a one-man Olympic opening ceremony in Lucerne in 2008; he staged a performance during his appearance in a genuine court case; he held a fashion show of his designs of panda-themed outfits. It was a moving experience to see Zhao’s earnest commitment to emulating and reflecting on the complexity of Chinese society through its various stages of transformation over recent decades.


Ni Haifeng, ‘55 days at Peking’, Diplomatic Residence Compound, Beijing, exhibition poster

Ni Haifeng, ‘55 days at Peking’, Diplomatic Residence Compound
20 June – 14 August 2017

In 1991, as Zhao Bandi was emerging as a ‘new generation’ artist in Beijing, Ni Haifeng was part of the artist-initiated ‘Garage Show’ in Shanghai. In the exhibition, he presented a series of photographs that documented his repeated scrawling of numbers across the walls of deserted warehouses in his hometown of Zhoushan – an act of eradicating meaning, influenced by Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero (1953). Since the 1990s, Ni has resided in Amsterdam; it is only in recent years that he has begun to spend time working in Beijing. In his latest exhibition ‘55 Days at Peking’ at DRC No. 12 (an exhibition space inside the Diplomatic Residence Compound in Beijing), Ni questioned the construction of historical narratives and their endurance in the present. In this tightly structured and multi-layered exhibition, he presented two parallel 55-day timespans. The first related to the siege of the foreign legations’ compounds in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. (The 1963 Hollywood dramatization of this event, starring Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston, gives the show its title.) The other charted the timeline of the exhibition itself, set within a diplomatic compound, with the ‘freedom’ of an overseas territory


Xing Danwen, from the series ‘A Personal Diary’, 2017, colour photograph. Courtesy: Red Brick Museum, Beijing

Xing Danwen, ‘Captive of Love’, Red Brick Museum
10 September – 20 October 2017

A contemporary of Zhao Bandi, Xing Danwen was initially known for her documentation of Beijing’s art scene between 1993 and 2003. Entitled ‘A Personal Diary’, this series of photographs bear witness to a fecund period of artistic experimentation – from the painter’s village in the Summer Palace to performances in apartments and installations on the streets, all against the backdrop of Beijing’s rapid urban development. Presented for the first time in its entirety in the city, ‘A Personal Diary’ formed the core of the artist’s survey exhibition ‘Captive of Love’ at the Red Brick Museum. This show highlighted several threads in her practice, from her photographs of staged urban reality to her more recent considerations of environmental issues.


Lin Yilin, ‘The Departure from Her Feet’, 2017, installation view, Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing. Courtesy: Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing

Lin Yilin, ‘The Departure from Her Feet’, Boers-Li Gallery
2 December 2017 –13 January 2018

Lin Yilin spent his formative years as an artist in Guangzhou, a metropolis in South China that was at the forefront of economic reform and rapid urbanization in the 1980s and ’90s. Trained in sculpture at Guangzhou’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts, since the 1990s, Lin has instead embraced performances and installations, with an emphasis on the relationship – and tension – between an individual and the environment. Often this was done within the framework of the Big Tail Elephant Group, known for their site-specific interventions in public spaces, of which he was a founding member. His first collaboration with Boers-Li Gallery brought together four projects – videos and photographic documentation of performances that took place from 2011 to 2015. For her three-day performance, The Departure from Her Feet, as part of the 12th Swiss Sculpture Biennale in 2014, Lin rolled down the street like an car wheel, departing from the Statue of Justice via three varied routes towards the City Hall in Biel, symbolically charging the public sites of streets, institutions and government with his body as an agent.


Wang Bing, Mrs Fang, 2017, digital video, installation view, Magician Space, Beijing. Courtesy: the artist and Magician Space, Beijing

Wang Bing, Mrs Fang, 2017, digital video, installation view, Magician Space, Beijing. Courtesy: the artist and Magician Space, Beijing

Wang Bing, ‘Experience and Poverty’, Magician Space
18 November 2017 – 31 January 2018

Beijing-based filmmaker Wang Bing has long been an inspiration to the art world for his commitment to documenting some of the most remote, harshest and darkest conditions of contemporary Chinese reality, and portraying them with enormous patience and generosity. In his current show ‘Experience and Poverty’, which opened in November at Magician Space, we are introduced to two new works – Mrs. Fang and 15 Hours, both commissioned by documenta 14. 15 Hours records a day’s shift for a group of people working in a garment factory in the city of Huzhou, Zhejiang province. Wang films in one continuous take, following the movements of the migrant workers operating within the confined space of the factory floor. Screened in its entirety over two days of the exhibition’s run, the film communicates something of the endurance required for this kind of labour. The routines of filmmaker and factory worker temporarily mimic one another together, bridging the gap between viewer and the object of the camera’s gaze. Mrs Fang is a more intimate portrait of dealing with a woman nearing death, which follows the relatives and neighbours who care for her in her remote village.

Wang’s films, often unedited, require long viewing periods – sometimes 24 hours, sometimes two days. They constantly remind us that to make films – as with all art – takes time as well as empathy and humanity: we should approach reality likewise.


Geng Jianyi, The Second State, 1987, oil on canvas, 130 x 196 cm. Courtesy: ShangART, Beijing/Shanghai  

Geng Jianyi, The Second State, 1987, oil on canvas, 130 x 196 cm. Courtesy: ShangART, Beijing/Shanghai  

At the point of finalizing this roundup, I learned about the passing of Geng Jianyi, a contemporary of the above-mentioned artists. Born in 1962, Geng Jianyi was one of the leading conceptual artists in China, emerging with the famous ‘85 New Wave’ movement and participating in the ‘Garage Show’ with Ni Haifeng in 1991. In 1988, he wrote a text published on the front page of Zhongguo meishubao (Fine Arts in China) entitled ‘Artworks and Audience’, which was a witty response to the heated debate on the issue of language in art at that time. He started with a joke: A man who is about to sneeze raises his head and looks up; many around him do likewise. The man sneezes and walks away, leaving the crowd still searching the sky. For Geng, the question of an artist’s style or formal language was like the man in the joke who raises his head: looking up was not the ultimate intention, he just needed to sneeze. Geng thus questioned the idea of projecting too much meaning onto the formal aspects of art and expressed his own relief at not being bound by such superficial concerns. Geng’s prolific practice was a relentless quest into what art is or can be; now he is like the man who sneezed and walked away, leaving many to continue searching the sky.

Main image: Xing Danwen, detail from the series ‘A Personal Diary’, 2017. Courtesy: Red Brick Museum, Beijing

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University and director of Beijing’s Inside-out Art Museum.

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018