Not all of the art here can be taken seriously. As you can also see nowadays in the more famous art exhibition place 798 in Beijing, the venue has become commercialised and trivialised. The mug and T-shirt sellers have moved in and the more snobbish galleries have moved out, although somehow Songzhuang is still too remote for most tourists. So it maintains its atmosphere of artist village hideout. Even the farmers have gone into the selling of some sort of art.
Art Street Market during Art Festival of Songzhuang
Spending some months surrounded by contemporary Chinese art did not exactly increase my appreciation of it. Modern art is produced in factories here and is copied just as shamelessly as pirates copy DVD’s. Any successful formula - like the Pop Art reworking of the Cultural Revolution Propaganda Style - is repeated endlessly.
Modern Red Army Art is everywhere
Still, not all of the artists in Songzhuang make bad art and most of them are kind. There are 4,000 artists here and some of them are really nice people who were very willing to help the African filmmakers. A lot of the artists here have set up their own galleries. They run their little businesses like a traditional home shop and the entire family helps out.
Omelga Mthiyane with Artist Couple in Songzhuang Galery
South African filmmaker Omelga Mthiyane went into such a family-run art shop and recognized the artist from a show in her country. She asked him and his wife to participate in her movie, and their son - who had the in China rather rare gift of speaking English - was later recruited by Congolese filmmaker Amour Sauveur.
Omelga came to China with a quite open plan (but with a plan indeed) and incorporated the special features of Songzhuang in her movie.
Production assistant Tan Mo and Omelga filming Art. Photo Inge de Leeuw
Omelga's main subject would not be art or artists, by the way, but that subject deserves its own blog episode.
The nicest and most helpful artists, Zhou Li and Wu Youming, lived right around the corner of our hotel (well, hotel, we paid 18 Euros a night, so we cannot complain too much) and they shared their contact list of cheap and reliable transport and good and famous artists with us.
Wu Youming himself is famous in China in a very special way: he started his career as a policeman.
Artist and Former Cop Wu Youming
Already as a young cop he started publishing a magazine for poetry and art and, while still a policeman, voiced his opinion about the police in an essay on the Internet. It is very uncommon in China to do such a thing and Wu Youming was soon fired from the police force. Artist Zhou Li is his wife and they share a studio. She would play a role in Xenson's movie.
Artist Zhou Li posing in her home and studio in front of her drawings.
Zhou Li and Wu Youming introduced us to a serious artist. Xenson wanted to film a performance artist and they came up with one of the best: Yang Zhiahao. Yang Zhiahao is one of those artists who changed the concept of modern art in China and remains one of the most important Chinese artists of the last decades. Indeed, of international fame.
Yang Zhiahao preparing a performance for Xensons movie
Yang Zhiahao became famous for his quite extreme performances in which he more or less tortured his own body. He had himself operated upon and had all kinds of things put in his body. The documents of these actions have become classics.
Especially for our movie he came up with a less bloody thing. He has collected many personal diaries from the time of the Cultural Revolution and in the performance he carries them around in heavy boxes and displays them on a table in his studio. The weight of history.
Xenson shooting Yang Zhiahao’s books and boxes performance
You can become very rich as an artist in China. Such artists behave and operate more like businessmen. They drive the kind of cars European soccer players like to show off in. They have houses built like museums. One day I walked into the house of one of them thinking it was a museum under construction. Some weeks ago I made a picture of a washing labourer on the doorstep (see Raiding Africa 2). I ran into the owner of the house, who turned out to be a quite young artist. His name was He Wenjue and I admit that I never had heard of him nor had seen any of his paintings. He was only mildly surprised by my intruding and proudly showed me around in his palace.
Some of these rich artists also sponsor the Li Xianting Film School, so it is not all just vanity.
He Wenjue in his new museum style house and studio