I think in general it’s an interesting question: what is alternative? It’s obviously completely relative to the established situation. I think the way things are at the moment in Beijing, that means working around the profound commercialisation of the majority of presentations that are currently taking place.
So, if I was asked to point someone in the direction of ‘alternative’ spaces in Beijing, where would I send them?
My first thought would be the Arrow Factory, a project space located in an old hutong shop front. And why do I think of this as alternative? Because it’s one of the few spaces which leaves behind the established art zones (798, Dashanzi, the Liquor Factory), and is also determinedly non-commercial.
I think project work in general and specifically the kind of things Arrow Factory are presenting, are some of the most interesting thing happening in the visual arts in Beijing at the moment. By ‘project’ I mean to go beyond producing just a set of products which fit nicely into the ultra-commercialised environment we have here at the moment. The gallery I look after also concentrates on projects, with an internal definition of working with the artists to make the most of their ideas, supporting them however we can, allowing them to develop their ideas in new presentations that may be within or outside the space itself. Other spaces like Long March, Arario and Joy Art (wow, they don’t have a website) also have this kind of vision, I think.
Another interesting space, although technically from Guangzhou, is Vitamin Creative Space. They are currently showing their ‘SHOP’ project here in Beijing after its debut at London’s Frieze Art Fair. Now this piece seems to throw the commercialism back in your face – it is a shop after all, positively revelling in the commercial status of the works on display, but by doing so you feel that there is an implicit critique going on of that structure from which the ‘SHOP’ gains it’s everyday meaning and rôle.
But I don’t think I’m being naïve or overly idealistic, even given the situation we are in at the moment. We all have to make money somehow, not least the artists, so I’m not talking about rejecting saleability altogether (unless that is your particular schtick). I’m just trying to make a case for seeing other meanings for artworks than an immediate call to their capital value, which in my experience has tended to lead to lack of innovation and staleness in recent Chinese contemporary art, as it has done elsewhere in the world at different moments.
With project work you have a kind of commitment to the artwork which seems to be one way to define ‘alternative’ at this moment in Beijing, as it’s not that common yet, or perhaps it’s just that good results are rare to find.
As an afternote, it will be interesting to see how things develop with the global financial downturn, and what this means for ‘alternatives’.