Where Communism and Commercialism Collide: Beijing’s 798 Art District and Shanghai’s M50, by AHA alum Helena Roy

China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.

Graffiti in the 798 Art District, Beijing

Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.

The 798 Art District in Beijing
Graffiti in M50, Shanghai

Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.

A statue in the 798 Art District

Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.

ShaghART gallery and streets in M50
Political art depicting a PLA soldier in M50, Shanghai

But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.

Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.

The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.

Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.

All photographs by Helena Roy.

Marina Abramovic at the Serpentine: 512 hours of being by AHA alum Frankie Dytor

How may art be made out of nothing?

How may space become something?

Three, almost empty rooms, turned into an extraordinary piece of performance work.

Abramovic: pioneer of performance art

As the slogans surrounding the exterior of the space pronounce, the exhibition is a “landmark”. It proposes something totally new. The audience themselves have to become a living piece of art. Their reaction is essential in transforming the rooms from an area simply populated by art lovers to one that may considered of artistic value and credibility.

 

It is difficult to describe exactly how ‘512 hours’ works.  But that it does work, as an entirely viable innovation, I was entirely convinced. The notion of energy and ‘being’ lie at the core of what Abramovic seems to be aiming for. The audience are invited to focus entirely in on themselves; it is not an experience where you ‘lose yourself’ but rather become keenly aware of the workings of your own existence. Chest heaves up and down. It must do this eternally for us to live. In our day to day lives this goes unnoticed. But here, in this space of total self-absorption – every participant is given sound blocking headphones – it is all that you are aware of.

 

Yet there is also a kind of strange bond between everyone in the rooms. Everyone moves at the same pace, even though you are never specifically directed to do so. The best comparison to this sensation is the automatic stillness and hush upon entering a church. Abramovic has turned the gallery into a type of holy space. She moves throughout the rooms as supreme creator; the sense of artist as God was potent, even though she had in material terms brought nothing. Opening my eyes and seeing her next to me was like receiving an electric shock. Although it sounds rather incredulous now, my heart beat at twice its normal rate. For a few seconds it was difficult to breathe, and my vision was horribly clouded by tears.

Present in the exhibition, the artist herself will guide you

There are moments when you fall out of the trance. Suddenly it all seems ridiculous and rather posed, a gathering of posturers who all take themselves terribly seriously. And then, with the effort of mindfulness you may fall back in. It was an all enveloping white room, charged with such intensity that by the end I couldn’t stand it any longer. I left feeling utterly drained and curiously empty, even though in the actual rooms I had perceived the experience to be an uplifting one.

 

‘512 hours’ should certainly not be missed. It really is a show like none other, and the thrill of actually being able to see the artist herself (and maybe even be touched by her) is certainly worth the small queue to get in. One word of advice – go alone, or with someone that you entirely trust and love. It is a deeply powerful experience, and one to be shared only with the very best.

The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery continues 10 am – 6 pm until Monday 25 August.

Under a Tuscan Sky: AHA alum Anna Fothergill reviews Tuscany’s lesser know treasures.

During my AHA experience, back when I was a young bright Gap Year student, drinking in the wonders of Italy (as well as the prosecco), the days we spent in Florence and Siena secured themselves a special place in my Italian Romance. And for so many others, the lure of Tuscany is undoubtedly present. This summer, I was fortunate enough to return to the land of pencil cedars, rhythmic hills and Medici fortunes. And I soon realised, that while Florence and Sienna might be the most famous gems of Tuscany, the surrounding region has ancient villages atop every hill, and endless landscapes to fill any camera.

 

View from San Gimignano - Own photo

So if you are drawn back to the heat and beauty of Tuscany, here are some places to consider visiting if you want a taste of real Italian life.

1) San Gimignano. A name which you may have heard, but know little about. I spent one gelato-meltingly hot day there, and was awestruck by the quiet beauty of it. Be warned that most of your time will be spent walking around looking skyward to the 14 remaining “power-towers”, which give San Gimignano it’s distinctive skyline. The town appeared to me like a 14th century Manhattan, with each stone skyscraper attempting to tower over its neighbour. There is a gelateria that claims to be the World Ice Cream Champion, and of course I sampled it to assure you all that it lives up to its title. If you wander into the Duomo, first being wrapped in Crete paper to protect your modesty, the church is illuminated with wall to wall frescos that for me were reminiscent of those in Giotto’s Area Chapel in their colour brilliance and animated expressions. The hellish portrayal of gluttony was particularly descriptive.

 

Sam Gimignano

 

Frescos in San Gimignano Duomo

Should you leave San Gimignano in search of new adventures, a place for a true taste of local Tuscan life is Montepulciano, a town where they have their own version of the Palio…trading the horses for barrel rolling. The town has wide, movie set streets and bars resting on sloped paved roads, any number of which will serve for apperitvi, before you head to the viewpoint to take in the sweeping countryside. A highlight of this town for me was the atmospheric Ristorante sotto L’arche, a pizzeria which seated you under a canopy of a lighted arch, the owner greets you as his own family and live music accompanied every bite of the unforgettable pizza (the real Italian stuff, not your standard Dominoes). The meal was loud with laughter and music, the manger himself as concerned with performing an aria as he was dutiful to his customers. Definitely  worth a visit.

Primi Piatti - Own photo

For those who wish for rest and relaxation, an escape from the endless supply of cultural wonders, it can be found at the villas of La Foce. The massive estate has a fascinating history as well as breathtaking views. Built on the volcanic lands of Val del’Orcia, it has served as a farming estate, was taken over by Nazis, secretly fed artisans during WW2, and today one can tour the gardens, relax by the pool and even attend olive oil tastings – the golden syrup is grown right beside your villa. The whole complex radiates with the smell of cedars, lavender and olives. the coolness and calm of La Foce is an oasis in the dry Tuscan heat.

La Foce

Sunset over La Foce -own photo

These are just a few of the things I was fortunate enough to discover in only a week. This is what amazed me about Tuscany. How there can be so much to do if you desire to do things, yet such an emphasis on Italian lifestyle. On enjoying eating and drinking, taking hours over meals, feeling no pressure to go to any 14th century town today because it will still be there tomorrow. If you are in Tuscany in the next year, know that you can see as much or as little as you want, and it will still be a wonderful Italian holiday. Of course, there is always Florence.

Firenze -own photograph

 

HERE’S TO GAP YEARS: singer songwriter and Courtauld student Marie Naffah talks about her year out

 

A level results.  Less than a handful of letters that can make you go:

O

M

G*

 

(*These weren’t my grades, I promise.)

 

You may have bagged your chosen grades and packed your bags- ready to roll straight out of school, on into university. Sorted. You may be staring at some unwanted, isolated letters, having loaded your school portal three hundred times on a dodgy Wi-Fi server, only to find out that the future you thought was yours, well, isn’t.

BUT DO NOT FRET. Here is why a gap year was one of the best decisions of my life:

GETTING AN INTERNSHIP/WORK EXPERIENCE

With an entire year, I was able to research internships that really interested me. I contacted several companies, and landed a 3-month placement at Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence. Not only did it fill some space on the old CV, but it also allowed me to experience the business world of curating and marketing, giving me a clearer idea of things I’d perhaps like to do after university.

ABILITY TO SEE THE WORLD

Travelling is arguably one of the most significant reasons why one should consider taking a gap year. It’s a perfect time to see and do things you have never done before, and perhaps may never have the time to do again. I did the Art History Abroad Summer Course of 6 weeks. I joined the course not knowing anybody, but from day one I was fully immersed with the 19 other like- minded students and the fantastic tutors. Starting in Rome and ending in Venice, passing through places including Naples, Siena, Florence and Verona, we were able to skip queues of the Academia, eat where only locals would eat and continuously develop such an enthusiasm and appreciation for the profuse amount of art that Italy has to offer. And that’s only 6 weeks. As a musician, I toured around the UK and travelled to Paris, playing shows and building the foundations of an international fan-base. I was recently named MTV’s Unsigned Artist of 2014, and I look back on my gap year as a crucial turning point for my career.

PREP YOURSELF FOR UNIVERSITY

You can take your well earned break from exams and really research the course you want to do.

YES TO EVERYTHING

From climbing mount Vesuvius in Naples to playing one of the most magical shows of my life in Montmartre, Paris, one thing I learned was, on a gap year, you can say yes to everything.

EARN SOME MONEY

I got a job in a café, I ran my own music night – do what you want but you’ll be thankful for some dosh!

ASK YOURSELF WHAT YOU WANT TO DO

For the first time in your life you can be totally selfish. I made a list of everything I wanted to achieve and just went and did them.

REVIVE YOURSELF

Forgive me for ending on a very cheesy one, as I try to avoid the ‘I found myself on my gap year’ cliché. But whatever you choose to do, your Gap Year can teach you a lot about yourself. You roll your eyes , but trust me, it’ll stand you in really good stead for the future years.

 

 

Art, Religion and the Smartphone: The Selfie by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

When people take pictures of famous paintings in galleries, these pictures are often selfies: ‘this is me in the Louvre, pointing at and smiling next to the Mona Lisa’. It is the ‘me’ and the ‘next to’ that the selfie really cares about; people want to watermark their own original version of the painting with that thing that is indisputably their own: their face.

Someone taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa

 

What we are now able to do with Smartphones is put ourselves in the same picture as the Mona Lisa. We can enter the same frame as her. We can place our face into the same visual context as the most iconic face in existence. We can change ourselves slightly. We can get something new about ourselves to take back across that mysterious threshold between art and life.

For the cultured ‘art-lover’ there is nothing more embarrassing than the selfie. There are those that take selfies in front of Leonardos and there are those art-lovers that look on in despair.

Why is this?

I think this opposition between different kinds of gallery-goers has a lot to do with the theological oppositions between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Let me make a crude summary:

One of the things that particularly annoyed the new modes of protestant faith that developed during the Reformation was the worship of holy objects, relics. The worship of relics involves a very bodily orientated kind of faith: it is all about your physical proximity to the holy object. This catholic mode of worship is an externalised kind of religious being that is based upon the arrangement of people and things within space. In some cases, religious objects are even touched, a ritual act I’ve always found exquisitely dramatic.

 

A nail from the 'True Cross'

Protestantism, on the other hand, is much more internalised. It requires the individual to contemplate, in the solitude of prayer, their own fallen existence: faith and faith alone. One should not need the bones of the saints or a bit of the true cross to help absolve sins, only your own intense relationship with the word of God.

But, what has this got to do with selfies?

The tourist that sidles up alongside a Caravaggio to take a selfie is really interested in this Catholic belief in proximity. The tourist is not ‘learning to look’ as the exasperated art history tutors that surround them would like. What’s really important is that they were there, here, near, right next to the divine presence of the ‘original work of art’. In the world of art experience this pertains to a very Catholic set of values. ‘I was physically there. Next to this! The actual one!’

The desire to affirm physical presence in relation to the original artwork with a selfie is, I think, related to that mysterious, much more ancient impulse to physically touch works of art or religious objects.

Some artists have noticed this desire, creating works that ask you to break the rules. Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Objet’, for instance, cries out to be touched.

Meret Oppenheim, Objet, 1936, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

On the other end of the spectrum of gallery-goers is the good student who keeps their Smartphone switched off in their bag, listens attentively to the tutor and looks carefully in the hope that they might one day ‘learn how to look’ properly at art. For the good student, the whole affair is much more internalised. For them, proximity to the original is part of an individualised learning process through which they might gain a private aesthetic sensibility. With regards to their experience of art, they are acting like a Protestant might.

A sign in a gallery

 

Max Weber’s ‘protestant work ethic’ perhaps applies here: does one have to work to understand Caravaggio? Or is being there, having made the journey, the pilgrimage, enough?

I do not want to say something boring about which kind of gallery-goer is more or less superior. Instead, I think we can learn something about our historical position by observing this opposition. This is: however much we think society has become secularised, our ‘secular’ activities are structured by impulses that have their origins in religious ritual or dogma.

 

 

 

What to watch: Picks for Summer 2014 by AHA alum. Catriona Grant

Art Everywhere

Art Everywhere has launched again after its huge success last year. Billboards across the country are being filled with posters of artworks from our national collections. Over 38,000 public votes produced the shortlist of 25 works which will be found across 30,000 poster sites in cities, towns and villages throughout the UK.

Enjoy #arteverywhere for the next 6 weeks – the largest outdoor exhibition in the world! You can donate to the project via its website (http://arteverywhere.org.uk) and receive rewards in the shape of limited edition prints, posters and postcards.

 

Summer Exhibition 2014

The ever-popular Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy is in its final few weeks. For almost 250 years the same concept has directed the exhibition – submission is open to all, and is judged by a panel of leading contemporary artists. The result is a plethora of artworks of wide-ranging styles, with amateurs hung on equal terms alongside Royal Academicians. Sometimes you stumble upon new works by much loved artists, and always you leave feeling inspired at the range and quality of previously unknown artists.

This is a particularly great opportunity for busy art lovers to stay up to date with developments in contemporary art and practicing artists, and according to the curating team ‘everything you’ll see at the Summer Exhibition represents what is happening in the art world right now.’

 

Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House

This year marks the tenth year of the open air cinema screenings at Somerset House – the ‘cinema under the stars’. For 2 weeks (7th-20th August) a variety of films are projected in the Neoclassical surroundings of one of central London’s most iconic buildings.

From new releases such as French drama ‘Two Days, One Night’, to well known classics like ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, ‘E.T’, and ‘Annie Hall’, there is something to suit everyone’s taste.

 

House of Illustration

The House of Illustration opened this summer in King’s Cross, London, as the first permanent exhibition space for international illustrators, with an extensive education space at its core.

Its collection contains illustration ‘in all its forms, from adverts to animation, picture books to political cartoons and scientific drawings to fashion design’. Its initial exhibition is Quentin Blake: Inside Stories, and runs til November this year.

 

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival

Throughout the summer, Shakespeare’s timeless plays entertain audiences in the beautiful gardens of the ancient collegiate university. Try swapping the Globe for a genteel picnic and performance of Twelfth Night in St John’s College Gardens, Othello in Trinity, The Taming of the Shrew at Homerton, or The Merchant of Venice in the grounds of Robinson.

American Impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Until October there is a chance to throw the spotlight onto the American contribution to the Impressionist movement. Whilst the likes of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro may have dominated the canon of Impressionist art, many well travelled American artists engaged with the style and spread its influence back to the United States. The exhibition features the work of artists such as Theodore Robinson, Frank W. Benson, and Mary Cassatt.

News from the field! A mini photo blog from AHA Northern II course student Kyle Canter