Visual Wanderlust

Altanbulag Portraits {Tov Province, Mongolia}

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798 Art Zone {Beijing, China}


The 798 Art District

The 798 Art District is located at 8503, Dashanzi 798 No. 4 JiuXianQiao Road in Beijing’s Chaoyang District. In the hot, humid air of a Chinese summer, it’s a slow walk from the windowless room of my boutique hotel, past the “comfort” shops (their open doors withdrawn for the day), past the small window where I buy morning crepes from the lady who I never fail to amuse with my stuttering mixture of Mandarin and English, and past the Muslim restaurant that I seek out when I crave the taste of paprika, cumin, and kebabs that remind me of my time in Xinjiang. After I finally manage yet another dicey crossing of the wide boulevard, cantankerous with traffic, all I have to do is follow the ten foot high wall covered in street art to the steel gate with large red numerals “798” framed by welded “I” beams, and I know, with my shirt already matted to my back, I’ve made it.

Before the push for redevelopment, a number of struggling and talented artists converged on the Chaoyang District. Much like Montmartre of 1920s Paris, Chaoyang was modest, unassuming, and cheap. The 798 is the tangible consequence of this concentration of creativity and imagination. Formerly an industrial quarter, it’s still full of empty warehouses, endless lengths of iron piping, and abandoned buildings with shattered, jagged-edged windows. You are just as likely to stumble across a heap of railroad ties or huge wooden spools, as you are an art installation. The place brims with galleries and boutique cafes; the space is shared between the abandoned, the re-discovered, and the re-imagined – it is a re-purposed masterpiece.

Unlike museums that specialize in “high-brow” art, 798 seems immediately accessible without losing depth – even the alleyways and the shadows in the tight spaces between buildings seem to extend an invitation – “come see what ______ has drawn on my wall.” It’s tranquil with an underlying current of generative charge. Taking it all in, peering at the installations, is like the paradox of deep sleep dreaming –  a state where everything appears vivid and real, where you spend most of your energy trying to tease out meaning from the visual metaphors – but, you wake exhausted, despite having lain still for hours.

Yan Club Arts Center

I found myself at the Yan Club Arts Center because, quite frankly, it was the first gallery I came across. The space that houses art installations is as much a part of the experience as the art itself. This particular gallery is spacious and spare on the inside, with concrete columns, whitewashed walls, and scuffed hardwood floors the color of roasted coffee beans. I am lucky today that the gallery is mostly empty, and I can stare, or look bewildered, or look confused (as I often do when I’m looking at art) without inhibition at the solo exhibition, titled “Wing’s Voice” by the artist Xin Luoting.

The pieces, oil on canvas or acrylic on canvas, are recent works, nothing earlier than 2009. The colors in the paintings – portraits of cartoon-like, often somber looking children with large, round heads, and widely spaced eyes – remind me of the colors in the mood rings kids used to buy from supermarket quarter machines back in the eighties, or the color of the wafer candies that came in rolls from the same time period. I almost feel as though if I were to press my tongue to the canvas, it would taste like purple grape candy, or banana yellow, or tart pink. The characters seem winsome, or contemplative; seem to ask or want me to ask, “What are you thinking about?” I can almost dip into their mood, and they into mine – indeed, one painting with a blue-haired girl holding a translucent poppy to her face, is titled, “I’m in Your World.” The eponymously named piece, “Wing’s Voice” is the focal point of the room, and hangs above a rectangular stage. Words that look like they’ve been handwritten in chalk traverse unevenly across the blue-green background; the girl in the painting is looking up at one corner of the frame, as if to give the viewer a chance to read her thoughts, the artist’s thoughts, in private. I don’t remember the words, I tried to write them down, but I’ve since lost the scrap of paper they were hastily scribbled on. It’s fitting, I suppose, such is the fate of most pondering.

Xin Luoting’s exhibition gives me impression that the artist has rendered from her imagination, a childhood anchored by the gravity of adulthood.





One thought on “Visual Wanderlust

  1. Incredibly beautiful photos, Ash! You seem to have captured the very essence of their daily living in these photos!

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