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Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007

CONTEMPORARY ART IN CHINA

Ullens gets the private party started in Beijing


"Rarely has there been such an extravagant press tour," commented one of the 40-plus foreign journalists invited earlier this month to witness the opening of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing's newest and, for the moment, most important contemporary-art venue.

Interior of the newly opened Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing
Interior of the newly opened Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS

There were gigantic press packs at the press conference, presents at the parties, rows of welcoming guys and girls in traditional dress at the dinners, and informative tours of the local art scene. And as for the UCCA itself? Well, it was every bit as professional and rewarding as the hoopla surrounding it.

Housed in 8,000 sq. meters of converted Bauhaus-era warehouses in Beijing's premier art district, 798, the UCCA has been created by the Belgian couple Guy and Myriam Ullens to show contemporary art, much of it Chinese, and much of it their own.

That doesn't mean the center houses the famed Ullens Collection of Chinese contemporary art, which Guy has built since the mid 1980s. That is the job of the Swiss-based Ullens Foundation. The separation, one assumes, is part of the Ullens' desire to stress the curatorial independence of their new center, for which they have also appointed an impressive staff: Chinese curator and critic and longtime France-resident Fei Dawei is the artistic director; Colin Chinnery, formerly of the British Council in Beijing, is the deputy director; and former Tate collections director Jan Debbaut is the senior artistic adviser.

For their first show, the team has staged an informative exhibition titled " '85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art." First-time visitors to China, struggling to tell their Zhang Xiaogang's from their Wang Guangyi's — both of whose paintings, incidentally, now sell for over a $1 million at auction overseas — will benefit greatly from the historical context the exhibition provides, detailing the often dark-paletted Chinese Expressionism of the late 1980s, out of which the political Pop Art of the '90s, and the decidedly apolitical Pop of today, both grew.

Unfortunately, those keen to actually see some of China's famed Pop Art — including that by the other members of the million-dollar club, such as smiley-head painter Yue Minjun and pudgy-baby painter Fang Lijun — will be disappointed.

The UCCA's program will expand to include international shows, and — judging from its upcoming roster, which includes a Huang Yongping retrospective and a group show with the likes of Matt Bryans and Robin Rhode — it seems the curators do have genuine independence.

That independence, however, extends about as far as curation. Financially the UCCA is dependent on its founders, and their outlay to date, along with their expected future outlay, remains tightly under wraps.

"We are going to be a completely transparent, nonprofit organization in the future," Ullens said.

If he can succeed in achieving the nonprofit part of that goal, then the contribution to the Chinese art scene will be significant indeed. Such a legal category does not currently exist in China, and Ullens is keen to "encourage the government to create it." Many other budding art spaces stand to benefit from the move.

The other contribution UCCA is expected to make is in spurring Chinese entrepreneurs to imitation. One commentator noted that the Chinese do not like to be outdone by foreign guests. He predicted that within a year similar, homegrown private venues would appear.

Perhaps it is at that time that UCCA will face its first real test. At the moment, it is Beijing's biggest private institution devoted to showing contemporary art. Whether it can maintain its relevance when rivals appear will depend on one thing and one thing only: whether the Ullens are able to continue laying on the parties, or, to be more precise, keep bankrolling good exhibitions.



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