Beijing Report

Following up on the previous post, I think I should justify in some way my comments about the work I saw while in Beijing. By “justify” I mean present some kind of record and evidence for my reactions. To recap, some of the architecture, photography and sculpture appealed to me, but by and large much of this was by foreign practitioners.


It seems to be common knowledge that Beijing is becoming something of an architect’s playground, which is only exacerbated by the wholesale development going on in preparation for the Olympics next year. I think it’s probably a cliché by now to characterise the buildings in the city as falling into one of two states: either in the process of being built or of being pulled down.

Old appartment blocks in Beijing New appartment blocks in Beijing

Appartment blocks in Beijing left “old”. right “new”.

Even the ancient temples are deceptive in that many have been rebuilt many times in their lives – some quite recently, thus throwing into question an understanding of an authentically “old” or “original” building (and I know how problematic that statement is: how does one define this “oldness” or “originality”? How much restoration does it take before a building tips over from “old” to “new”?). There seems to be built in entropy with the tower blocks. As soon as they are finished (and the idea of “finished” is in itself a vague and unspecific feature of these blocks) they look old and worn out. There is little consideration for the renovation or restoration of these blocks – there is no value placed on them for the future, they seem expendable, it’s easier to knock them down and start again. Maybe this is a result of their not being particularly interesting buildings, they were perhaps the first wave of the building boom in Beijing, where it was a matter of getting these blocks up quickly to fulfil pressing requirements. Perhaps now the city has a longer term view of it’s structures and seeks to replace these old blocks with better ones as soon as possible?

OMA's CCTV Building under construction

Of the new buildings, OMA’s CCTV Building stands out, even at this half-built stage. It’s a very brave building, I think, for all concerned, and very unsettling to look at it from street level. There is also the “egg” near Tiananmen Square for the National Theatre and of course Herzog and de Meuron’s Olympic Stadium (the former I only saw in the distance and the latter I wasn’t able to visit).

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Some other recent building in Beijing.


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Irony? left A studio in the Jiuchang Art Complex. right A gallery in Dashanzi Art District.

Aside from some pseudo-social-realist efforts (some examples above), which held a certain ironic attraction for me (although they just made me feel like a tourist, attracted by the mythology of the imagery without really understanding them in any great depth), the show which most interested me was “What is Mono-ha?” at BTAP.

BTAP - Beijing Tokyo Art Projects Mono-ha exhibition at BTAP

Mono-ha at BTAP left The gallery exterior. right background: LEE Ufan, System, changed title: Relatum, 1969. foreground: unknown.

Mono-ha were an informal group of Japanese artists from the ’60’s and ’70’s, and this show at Beijing-Tokyo Art Projects in the Dashanzi Art District, brings together a selection of their works with a parallel show presenting a set of responses by contemporary artists. The Mono-ha pieces immediately attracted me by their relationship with materials, the overall aesthetic having parallels with the Arte Povera movement in Italy. The works had such a physicality about them that you couldn’t help but be almost absorbed by their presence.

Although there is this resemblance to Arte Povera the works are distinguished from them by their relationship to rationalism:

In terms of restructuring the relationship between humans and matter at the level of manual labour, I think Mono-ha and Arte Povera share something in common. However, one must not overlook the differences. Ultimately it is a question of whether or not one considers matter to be something that one can understand rationally. This is irrespective of whether you are looking at it from an Eastern point of view or a Western one. I found Mono-ha’s non-rationalized perception of matter to be remarkable. In there was one of the basic tenets of Lee Ufan’s criticism of European rational thought. However, in using materials, artists ought to be fundamentally aware of the irrationality of those materials. (Nakahara, 2007)

When it comes down to the artworks themselves, I’m not quite sure what that means, but it’s a fascinating thought. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the show of contemporary artists, but I’m trying to get hold of the catalogue as I’m interested to see how Chinese artists have reacted to these works.


So, that’s pretty much everything that caught my attention while I was in Beijing. I really didn’t have a lot of time to look at galleries and art as there was other business to attend to while in China, but this was a good introduction for me. I hope to be back very soon, when I should be able to spend more time looking around. I’m also learning Chinese which will help me to be more autonomous and not have to make such demands on my partner for help getting around.

At this point I’d like to thank my fiancée, Shi for taking so much time to help me see all this. Without her it would have been impossible for me to see as much as I did, or to understand as much – thank you darling!

NAKAHARA, Yusuke (2007). extract from What is Mono-ha? exhibition brochure. Beijing: Tokyo Gallery + BTAP.

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Beijing Report by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

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