Beijing’s evolving art scene

By Chen Ximeng Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-21 19:23:01

Foreigners travel to the capital in search of new ways to express their craft, tap into the rising industry

When Nancy Kozikowski, 72, a tapestry artist and painter from America, arrived in China to participate in an exhibition in 2000, she did not expect to fall in love with the rich culture and artistic expression that the Middle Kingdom offers, nor did she expect to make China her home.

"There is a real familiarity artistically to the designs I saw when I first came to China from my hometown New Mexico. When you see a 5,000-year-old piece of pottery in China, you will find that this pattern is still done by the Indian in New Mexico today. So I have a feeling of being at home, and it is such a big appeal to me," said Kozikowski.

Earlier this year, Kozikowski got the idea to hold a solo exhibition at the Songzhuang Art Museum. In the end, it turned out to be a group exhibition Life in Songzhuang that showcased various works from 20 foreign artists.

"We want to show a general picture of foreign artists coming to Beijing through it, to explore why they come here and what they have gained or will get from being here," said Fang Lei, curator of the exhibition and president of the museum.

More and more foreign artists have been coming to Beijing in recent years. Fang said that in 2010, there were fewer than 10 foreign artists in the Songzhuang Art Zone, but up to this year, the number has increased to more than 40. Some of them are attracted by the Chinese culture like Kozikowski, some are searching for a way to improve their craft and others are just looking to cash in on China's booming art industry.

Johannes Nielsen, a Swedish sculptor and installation artist at the Songzhuang Art Zone, puts the finishing touches on one of his pieces on display at the Life in Songzhuang exhibition. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Attracted by Chinese culture  

Deciding to leave your friends and family to seek your fortunes elsewhere is never an easy choice, and it becomes even more challenging when you are traveling to a country whose culture and language is totally foreign to you. But Kozikowski and her husband John Cacciatore, a curator, were not deterred. The two moved to Beijing in 2004 and remain quite pleased with their choice.

"To me, this place is a heaven. The art village here in Beijing is quite like where I live in the US, which is the second largest art center in the country. There are many artists. The place is also very self-sufficient and self-sustained. Our suppliers, framers, photographers and printers are all here. It is really a place to focus on your work," she said.

Kozikowski likes to study ancient Chinese art and absorb some of the patterns to create an integrated weaving style depicting elements of both Chinese and New Mexico Indian culture.

"Contemporary art is mostly influenced by the past 100 years. I am influenced by the last 5,000 years," Kozikowski said.

She once created a tapestry, "Dragon and Phoenix," that was inspired by the patterns on a coffin found in a tomb in Hubei Province that can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220).

"Even though it is from China, and I cannot understand what it actually means, I think that these patterns might be a kind of language. The persons who are buried or who buried people are trying to use these designs to communicate with us through subconsciousness," said Kozikowski.

Foreign artists (standing from left) Johannes Nielson, Nick Perret, John Cacciatore, and Nancy Kozikowski (seated center) in front of their work with Songzhuang Art Museum curator Feng Lei (right) and Kozikowski's assistant Lulu (seated left) during the Life in Songzhuang exhibition recently. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Finding a new creative expression

A sculptor and installation artist, 36-year-old Swede Johannes Nielsen also took part in the exhibition with a series of installations depicting flying birds made of bamboo brooms. He came to Beijing just before the Olympics in 2007 and has been gradually fine tuning his craft.

"It is yuanfen (the fate that brings people together) that I could be in Beijing to develop my art," said Nielsen. A lover of Taoism, Nielson first came to Beijing out of curiosity. It was the rise of China that sparked his curiosity but it was its "dynamic art atmosphere" that made him stay.

He said he likes that new things can happen at any time, and he finds inspiration everywhere, including the life of the local dama (middle-aged women) and dashu (middle-aged men). His latest work, a series of birds sculptures, was inspired by a scene he saw in the village.

He said he saw a dama riding home from work with a broom tied to her bicycle and had an "it" moment.

"Sometimes I have an idea, but do not know what kind of material I should use. When I find the material and the advantage of the material connects with my idea, then something like this [birds made with the bamboo from a broom] happens," said Nielsen, who married a Chinese woman in 2013.

Alena Olasyuk, 27, a Ukrainian painter, started to do bigger oil paintings and later completely turned to ink painting after she came to Beijing in 2009.

"Beijing is one of the fastest-developing cities with a feeling of globalism. There are big streets, big buildings, and everything is big, which inspired me to do so [bigger oil paintings]," said Olasyuk.

Brendan Linane, a photographer from the UK who grew up in the 1960s, came to Beijing in 2011. He said he felt that it was not enough to stay in the UK where art is bound by rigid conventions.

"The art scene in Beijing is energetic and is always very vibrant and interesting. It is artistically alive," he said.

"I always feel that China, and more specifically Beijing, is like an older person with a young mind. Just as I am. The city is changing rapidly, and there is a certain openness to new ideas in modern art in contrast to the slow and tired conventions of Europe."

Major challenges

Despite their obvious attachment to Beijing and China, the artists' lives are not without challenges. The over commercialization of artists and artwork, lack of professionalism and a limited or skewed knowledge of art are three such challenges.

For Olasyuk, the biggest challenge is the lack of professional curators and the lack of culture education [art knowledge] among Chinese. She said that it is sometimes difficult to find professional curators and galleries to work with as the expansion of the art scene has seen a surge in the number of galleries, but the majority of them are in it for the money not for the art.

She said that Chinese aesthetes have more trust in Chinese art as they can more understand it. Fewer Chinese will go to the exhibitions of foreign artists, unless they are well-known.

"But it is already happening less in contemporary art as more foreign artists are coming to Beijing with a lot of exhibitions," she said. 

Some foreign artists are more like the gold rush prospectors, said Fang.

She said one of the challenges facing the industry is the influx of sub-par artists who try to capitalize on the limited art knowledge of buyers and negatively affect the relationships and livelihood of other professional artists who are invested in building the industry.

She recalled two French painters who visited Shanghai and Beijing and were welcomed by some curators just because they were French artists.

"In a professional sense, their works were not very good, but by the third day after they arrived in Shanghai, they were invited to join in an exhibition," she said, adding that many Chinese have a "low discerning power" and think "artists from Western countries are masters."

"The motives of some of the foreign artists like Nielson are more pure. They are used to the Western art forms and patterns, so they want a change and to absorb more inspiration from Eastern culture," said Fang.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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