China’s great wall of doubt

Considering that their nation is preparing so stealthily to dominate the future, China’s artists seem strangely anxious about what that future may bring. But that is as it should be. We search in vain for signs of nervousness among politicians and business leaders. Tentativeness is not in their vocabulary; not if they want to be successful. Artists, however, are obliged to question everything. And that everything, in China’s case, includes the prospect of leading a tremulous world deep into the torrid unknowns of the 21st century.

In The Future Will Be ... China, a small book edited by ubiquitous art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, leading Chinese artists have been asked to give epigrammatic prognostications. Their responses are predictably varied, with glimpses of wit, cleverness and good old-fashioned cosmic pessimism. The world’s art collectors and critics may be looking to China’s young artists to refresh a jaded western cultural scene but the subjects of their attentions are not necessarily infused with the required hopefulness.

“The Future is ... Aesthetic Fatigue”, says the Guangzhou painter Duan Jianyu with doom-laden brevity. “I wish that the China of the future will no longer worry about the future of China”, says the Beijing professor Chi Huisheng, more than a touch wearily. “The Future is a Minefield of Major Decisions” is the verdict of publisher Hung Huang, which doesn’t take us very far at all.

The book is a joint initiative between Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and Turin’s Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, a pleasing combination of contemporary and traditional world views. The UCCA remains the jewel in the crown of the Chinese capital’s 798 district, its galleries clustered around the Bauhaus former munitions factory that is trying hard to strike the correct balance between organic art space and kitsch tourist trap. The Pinacoteca is based around the small and classy art collection assembled by the legendary Italian industrialist.

The UCCA was founded in 2007 by Belgian businessman Baron Guy Ullens and his wife, Myriam, originally to showcase the couple’s extensive collection of Chinese contemporary art. Ullens sold a more than creditable collection of Turner watercolours five years ago to help finance the project. He did it with a heavy heart, he told me at the time. “It is horrible, of course. But that is the life of a collector.”

So it should not have come as a great surprise when much of his Chinese art collection, in turn, was put up for sale at auction last year. Ullens began to disengage with the day-to-day management of the centre, preferring to concentrate on charity work. It was a turbulent time, with the cancellation of an Ai Weiwei exhibition prompting accusations of political censorship. Now the responsibility of running the centre has fallen on the young shoulders of Philip Tinari, an American with an extensive academic background in Chinese studies and a determination to make the UCCA a leading player on the world’s art scene.

He says his brief is to balance attracting art world insiders and appealing to a broader audience. “You don’t have embedded here the culture of, ‘It’s Saturday afternoon, let’s go to a museum’,” he says. “You have to work to deliver an audience.” The clichés of western cultural lifestyles – cappuccinos, designer stores, children’s activities – are still novel to China. “You forget how few people understand the art world.”

Tinari is fast-talking, and likes to use the fashionable adjective “super” to describe cultural life in a city that is, well, super-interesting. He defends a recent show of celebrity photographs from the New Yorker magazine that was the kind of thing that often draws scathing reviews from critics. “It absolutely belonged here, because that brings people in at a certain level,” he says. Alongside the show, by contrast, was an impressive retrospective of the conceptualist artist Gu Dexin, which was full of oblique political reflections. For next year, Tinari plans an exhibition focusing on artists born in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “There are a lot of Chinese artists who deserve a really serious retrospective,” he says. Expect more political fireworks.

Can the UCCA, and the 798 district itself, retain an air of intellectual integrity while coach loads of tourists spill into its hipster cafés? Tinari accepts the retail imperatives of contemporary culture but also warns that institutions need to distance themselves from the “dirty waters of tit-for-tat commerce. If we want to be an internationally respected institution, it will be down to putting on high-quality exhibitions that have a life outside this world.”

The book project on China’s future, he says, is the kind of thing that can make a meaningful contribution to the debate over Chinese art. “It is a complex theme but conceptually very simple in form.” At the book’s launch event, Tinari assured western observers that the so-called Chinese threat to their way of life was not in evidence amid the country’s artists. “There is no one in here saying that the future will belong to China and that we will be exporting our values to the rest of the world.”

He points to Ai Wei Wei’s contribution to the book: “The Future is the Part that is Uncertain, Unknown, and Unpredictable to us.” It is a scary truism, unless you are an artist, in which case it makes Beijing just about the most exciting city on earth right now.

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