BEIJING -- If there was any fear that municipal authorities here might bulldoze the art district known as 798 for one more batch of bland condominiums -- a distinct possibility until just a few years ago -- this month’s opening of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art suggests that the area is eminently safe.
Guy and Myriam Ullens, the Belgian benefactors behind the project, won’t say how much they have invested in it. But the amount was clearly in the millions. And it seems a safe bet that they wouldn’t have laid that out without pretty ironclad assurances that 798 is here to stay.
This mirrors a shift in the wind, driven no doubt by the huge sums of money contemporary art is commanding at auctions, as the Beijing government finally starts to realize that there may be something to the strange stuff it generally doesn’t understand and at times considers mildly subversive.
In a city ever eager to put itself on the map leading up to next summer’s Olympics, officials are also becoming aware that the contemporary art community centered at 798 -- named after the East German-inspired military electronics factory that used to occupy the factory buildings -- has the potential to one day give this city the sort of buzz other global capitals would die for.
The Ullens, who made their money in sweeteners, have placed a significant bet on the Chinese contemporary art world. In the process, they’ve given credibility to the emerging Chinese movement, upped the ante for young artists and put themselves on the ground floor at a key juncture in this emerging nation’s modern art history.
“UCCA will be the cornerstone of the Chinese contemporary art scene,” a press release proclaims breathlessly.
“We have dreams,” a more modest Guy Ullens, 72, said the other day. “But I’d love to talk to you again in six months. I don’t want to sound too pretentious, and we still have a lot of things to work out.”
White walls, clean lines
The results so far are eye-catching. The center, which opened Nov. 5, is housed in an enormous (85,000-square-foot) former factory space with 31-foot ceilings -- a scale that stands out amid the network of small galleries and modest studios that until now defined the 798 district.
French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, a specialist in museum renovations, took a different approach with the interior than most neighboring galleries with his use of modern white walls, clean lines and a computer-controlled mix of natural and artificial lighting that adjusts with the sun and obviates the need for spotlights.
“The other buildings around, they try to keep things a little destroyed, with bricks showing and the old Chinese [characters] on the walls,” Wilmotte said. “We decided on all white to capture as much light as possible and to better showcase the art.”
Once you pass through the grubby industrial exterior, the only obvious reminder that you are standing in the corpse of a factory that once braced for war with the Soviet Union is a 164-foot-tall brick chimney jutting through the ceiling of the entry hall, reminiscent of a giant oak tree with a house built around it.
The center has three exhibition areas, including a 30,000-square-foot main gallery with white arched steel supports somewhat evocative of a Washington, D.C., Metro subway station. At ground level, a series of partitions can be reconfigured depending on the size and scope of an exhibition.
Some in the art world here say that the center, because it is not out to make a profit and has more time to put exhibitions together, will showcase better-quality work than is on display at neighboring galleries, thus forcing them to up their game.
Others say they don’t welcome the changes, increased commercialism and growing respectability of 798, a trend seen in the Ullens opening.
“It’s a dangerous sign,” said artist Huang Rui, a founder of the annual Dashanzi International Art Festival known for his political themes, who lost his lease in 798 this year in a dispute with the landlord. “The center comes with huge amounts of money and buys up everything in sight. . . . I’m not sure they’re helping real artists.”
Ullens said the center still faced several challenges. It will have to find sponsors to guarantee its longer-term financial viability, solidify its relations with the government and the art establishment and ensure that Chinese viewers arrive in sufficient numbers. The admission price is $4 for adults and $1.35 for students.
“I think the price is reasonable, at least for us,” said Qiu Hanxun, 18, a first-year design student with a sketchbook under her arm. “The place is very avant-garde, and I’d tell some of my friends to come, although maybe not the more conventional ones.”
The inaugural exhibition, titled “ ’85 New Wave,” showcases 30 artists from the key mid-1980s period when Chinese art was just emerging from decades of socialist realism. Among its featured artists are Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Geng Jianyi and Huang Yongping.
Some of the works are pretty obvious copies of Picasso, Edvard Munch and Dadaism befitting a community just opening to the West, but others are original and introspective and comment pointedly on life in a Communist state.
“What’s important with the exhibit is this is the first time you’ve put Chinese art history in front of a Chinese audience -- a testament to how far China has come in only 22 years,” said Karen Smith, author of “Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China.” “Everyone has seen everything that’s come since without knowing where it comes from.”
The mid-'80s, generally recognized as the birth period of Chinese contemporary art, is a fitting theme to mark the birth of the center, said chief curator Colin Chinnery. It is also when the Ullens came to China and started collecting.
“The exhibit also explores ideas of past and future,” said Chinnery, speaking in rapid-fire clips. “Artists all over the world find inspiration from history, and this is part of the debate.”
Contemporary art, however, has been the object of periodic crackdowns in this country as censors have condemned portrayals of nudity, depictions of Chinese leaders or imagery related to the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
Gao Qiang, a principal in the Gao Brothers gallery down the street from the new museum who does plastic sculptures of Mao-like figures with breasts, was not allowed to send his works to a show in Italy after officials told him his work made Chinese leaders look ugly.
“I responded, how could these be our leaders?” Gao said. “Our leaders don’t have breasts and long noses.”
Since then, Gao said, he’s been told by the 798 management company that it doesn’t want to renew his lease and would prefer to rent to someone who won’t bring trouble. Last year, 20 works of contemporary art were ordered removed from several galleries in 798 on government orders shortly before a major art festival.
Chinnery said the government had been supportive so far and that the center had faced no problems related to artistic content. It is required to give authorities a list of all proposed inclusions by Chinese and foreign artists before any exhibition, he added.
Ullens said the Chinese government’s attitude was changing as it increasingly recognized that China needs to export more than just manufactured goods.
“We were a little scared, but we’ve been accepted in a delightful way,” he said. “It’s still sensitive, but political correctness exists in Western countries as well.”
The center plans on holding many exhibitions of foreign contemporary art to help educate Chinese artists and the public about trends abroad. Those shows will include a display of several video works by New York-based conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner that will go up next month. The Ullens boasts state-of-the-art air-conditioning, security systems and lighting, Wilmotte said -- an important draw for persuading overseas museums to lend their art for exhibitions.
In an indication of its ambitions, the center also features video and multimedia installations; a library; a restaurant; a bookstore; an auditorium for classes, seminars, films and discussion groups; space for corporate soirees; and VIP rooms for special events with as-yet-unidentified arts patrons.
One art historian said the center had assembled an impressive team of international experts. But it may run into trouble if it doesn’t amass enough local clout, given the unique way China operates. Center officials have said they wanted all activities to be transparent and aboveboard.
Ideally, center officials say, they would eventually like to provide low-cost housing and gallery space for young artists who find themselves increasingly priced out of the 798 district.
“And we want to pamper artists with food and good wine,” Ullens added with a laugh. “You can’t live without that.”
Family’s links to China
Ullens, a baron, spent 40 years building up the family business based on sweeteners, including a stake in Weight Watchers, before retiring in 2000 to concentrate on philanthropy and social activities.
The family has strong links to China. His father was a Belgian diplomat here before Ullens was born, and his uncle was Belgium’s ambassador.
When he started collecting Chinese art, Ullens initially focused on classical pieces and later sought out more contemporary works while visiting China on business. He and his wife now own 2,000 Chinese pieces in various media.
This year, they sold 14 Turner watercolors at auction for $15.8 million to fund the China project.
Ullens said the Turner sale was driven by several considerations. His bank wouldn’t accept the Turner paintings as collateral, many of the paintings were delicate and risked being damaged at his chalet in Switzerland, and he wanted to set his affairs in order given his advancing age.
Chinese contemporary art, much like property and stocks, is in something of a bubble as contemporary works go for millions of dollars apiece at auction. Ullens said that most of the world’s attention was focused on a few well-known artists, however, and that the center’s goal was to showcase lesser-known creators.
Chinnery added that the current period of rampant speculation hurt young artists, who are lured away by the money before they have time to develop. Through its education activities and nonprofit focus, the center hopes to give them more time, he said.
“Galleries go straight to the art schools and snap up anyone they can find who’s minimally competent,” he said. “That’s lethal for young artists.”