‘There was this explosion of art there, just as I was getting into it,’ Hetal Pawani explains. ‘I got this sudden fascination with the culture, how it correlates with the history of the country. It raised so many questions in me about that, and about the [Cultural] Revolution’.
Pawani has a contagious passion for new Chinese art. Owner of The Jam Jar and a buyer on Beijing’s now world-famous art circuit, she’s bringing works by those at the forefront of this ever lucrative scene straight back to her Al Quoz gallery.
But looking over the artists currently being represented in the space , it’s difficult to find a common link between the three. Time Out came to her wanting to know why she brought these artists together but also, and perhaps more directly, why China now?
‘Just after the downfall of Mao there was a group of artists that emerged suddenly,’ she explains. ‘They were all born from around 1958 to 62 so they were in their teens soon after Mao went down and went into art school in the years following that’. Pawani believes that the key figures in the Chinese avant-garde, including some of the artists represented here, belong to this specific era.
This group was responding to two clear factors – the obvious influence of life during and after the revolution, but also to a legacy of strict, intensive and highly portrait-driven teaching offered in the art colleges of the Mao era. During the Revolution (the decade-long campaign led by Mao Zedong to ‘purify’ the Communist party and remove so-called bourgeois influences), an art school education tended to focus on perfecting portraits of the many faces of the establishment.
‘Artists during the Revolution had to do it,’ explains Pawani. ‘It was the only work they were allowed to do legally. A lot of artists left the self-expression thing behind, they did what they were commissioned to do.’ While those she identifies as the new avant-garde were educated mainly in the aftermath of Mao, the legacy of this intensive education remained and, she says, spawned a crystalline conception of form: ‘It’s the solidness that I like. They are realist works, but adapted into a very modern style.’ The portraiture and intense formal realism is what keeps many of these works so striking. The boundaries of classical training have a unique resonance when stretched into the horizon of contemporary art. Stand in front of any of the canvases in Jam Jar, and the commitment to form is overwhelming.
With Mao gone, the outlook of China broadened in the mid-80s; it was only natural that this formalism would mobilise as artists engaged with modernism. ‘During and shortly after the Mao era there were artists creating installations on the side of the street who would wait for the cops to come and clean things up,’ Pawani explains. This spirit fed into the scene. An avantgarde emerged that engaged with contemporary practice, while at the same time situating itself within the immediate Chinese experience.
Taking Beijing as the epicentre of the movement, a number of these artists continue to wrestle with the urban space in their work. Looking at the works currently on display in the Jam Jar, the influence of the city is unmistakable. Huang He’s aggressive style of thrashing colour on to the canvas hums and sparks with an industrial atmosphere. Weng Fen’s iconic photographs of Beijing from a rooftop featured in Jam Jar earlier this year and this engagement with modernisation continues into his thermal photography-like paintings on display now. ‘This sort of urbaness, I feel, is unique to the guys on show here’, Pawani insists, ‘but the message among many contemporary artists in China is the same. It’s about the world post-Revolution and how to face that world. Weng Fen’s photographs of the two girls back to back looking across the skyline, for instance, are about how they are coping with modernisation.’
Beijing also has a dramatic role at the centre of the movement. The Dashanzi art district was formed (in near enough Al-Quoz style) among the cheap rent spaces of decommissioned factories built to produce military supplies. The imposing communist architecture (some of which still bear quotes from Mao on the ceilings) lends something to the post-revolution drama of the scene and four years ago this was a centre for China’s young creatives. But it’s an area that has quickly been transformed by gentrification. Already, the fancy cafés and international galleries have moved in and rising rent is forcing the artists out. But talking to Pawani, change is a complex catalyst for these artists. For better or for worse, commercialism, change and opening the financial doors to the West is a force driving Chinese modern art forward. ‘I think the artists are riding the tide, embracing advancement’ she says. ‘It’s a very good time for them right now. They are some of the richest artists in the world.’
So, back to basics, and the question of how to understand the choice of artists featured in the gallery. Do Yang Qian’s figures behind steamed glass hide from something about this modernism, as Pawani suggests to us? Do Huang He’s characters confront the industrial, mechanised modernity with an aggressive urban stance, and is Weng Fen, like his rooftop figures, looking out to the uncertainty of a globalised future? Are these expressions of China within, without and beyond? Or would such definitions all be far too simple?
The Jam Jar, until August 31