» Archive for 19 May 2009
Its that time of year again, when sweaty gallerists flock to art academy campuses, eager to snatch up the next big thing. Here’s a few choices from the exhibition of students from the sculpture department. Head of the department Sui Jianguo was in attendance, admiring the works while a swarm of his admirers hovered behind him. Sub-themes seemed to include creepy, horror film make-believe and the creative use of hair…
This igloo piece was hiding under a tree, it was made of spray foam used in construction, covered in a sheet, and holes were cut in the walls. It was made on location, and although it looked a little dubiously constructed, it was an anomaly as the only work deviating from figurative representations, shiny materials or nostalgic antiques and tropes. (more…)
In a CCTV documentary titled “798″, photographer Zhu Yan made the comment: “The factory workers displaced the farmers, the artists displaced the workers, and now…” but the director left out what should have followed, “… the tourists displaced the artists.”
Of course, the myth that 798 is a “cultural production zone” is perpetuated by the mainland media, and almost obsolete industrial patches across China look to the success of 798 as a model of “cultural industry”, a revival area preserving the remnants of an industrial past, but where creativity and commerce can meet to copulate and produce healthy economic offspring.
While that may be a lovely image, the fact is, there is some truth to it. The documentary is a rather sobering look at the quickly vanishing former life of “798″––Factory 718. In the 1950s it was a state of the art center of production, a place of national pride, and a household name that symbolized a better future. Workers were hand-picked for their class background, plucked from the fields and clad in blue to make radio electronics, among other classified military gear; they worked with some of the most “avant-garde” technologies of the day. Military components aside, none of this sounds unfamiliar with the tourist “cultural production zone” we know as 798.
Fifty years later, the changes are incredible. In the five-part documentary we meet laid-off former workers who are now janitorial staff, and the dwindling industrial staff (once more than 10,000, now less than 3000) tells stories of the past: homes of the newly-wed were furnished with a bed, a desk and a cabinet (many had never had their own bed), 8 hour shifts were followed by night school, and infants were picked up from an parking-lot sized nursery, while not-yet school aged children were locked in the one-room apartments while their parents “struggled” to build a strong China. “None of this was looked at as strange,” comments Ms. Gao, who still works in th ecomplex. Her last student, Ding Ding, a young worker and his very dour wife are filmed in their run-down apartment; his 700 RMB monthly salary is barely enough to feed them. I don’t think I can stomach buying a substandard 35 RMB coffee there ever again.
With nary a mention of contemporary art, the series is a historical and grimly patriotic portrait of a very different 798; it was filmed in late 2007/early 2008. The CCTV site has photos and some historical background here. I thought of an article translated last year for the Timezone8 book “Beijing 798 Now” on the former incarnation of Factory 718. It is especially interesting to read how earthquake standards in construction had to be enforced by the East German engineering team. Its a long article, but has some interesting facts. For Chinese, switch languages on upper right.
From 718 to 798
Dashanzi: Beijing’s northeast corner
This district has already experienced two drastic turns of fate. First, fifty years ago, when the 718 was constructed and made a name for itself across China, and now, as the rise of the 798 Art District has brought a “renaissance” to the district, carrying its name overseas. Factory 718 was the celebrated former incarnation, and was one just short of legendary. During China’s “First Five Year plan” era, and with the support of the German Democratic Republic and Chinese national professionals, young people from all corners of the nation converged to build this northern Chinese state-owned factory for radio electronics—it was to be the birthplace of China’s electronics industry. In the beginning, Factory 798 was merely the third stage of the larger Factory 718 compound, and it lay on the outskirts of Beijing. However, this district has already been swallowed by the city’s growth, and become Chaoyang District’s first cultural industries zone, and yet still maintains its status as a center of production for Zhongguancun Electronics.
Today, the symbolic Bauhaus architectural complex still stands, the complex has been entrusted with the industrial history of a city. The transformation from 718 to 798 documents the course of urban industrial restructuring.
The Birth of 718
In April of 1951 the second round of Sino-Soviet summit talks were held in Moscow, China’s request for Soviet aid in the building of 156 major projects was on the table for discussion. However, the Soviets felt that China’s request to help establish the foundations for a new radio electronics industry was too unexpected.