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.

A Cultural Spring: the rise of Poland’s art and art market – by Helena Roy

There is hardly an abundance of Polish art on display in Britain. The vast majority of the population will never have seen Polish art at all. But interest is growing, in correlation with a cultural spring taking place in the Polish art world.

Poland is by no means lacking in renowned cultural figures – it has produced Joseph Conrad, Frederic Chopin, and has won four Nobel Prizes for Literature in the past 110 years. Henryk Stażewski (1894-1988) was a pioneer of the classical avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s and co-creator of the Geometric Abstract movement. But between the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, there was somewhat of a cultural freeze.

Henryk Stażewski 'Kompozycja fakturowa' (1930-1931)

The suppression of culture that went hand-in-hand with Communism stifled art in Central Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. Destruction of historical culture was perpetrated by all sides during the Second World War, and continued long afterwards with totalitarian regimes. This is now provoking an embrace of modernity in the Central Eastern European art world – perhaps to be considered a search for, or rebuilding of, an attention-grabbing artistic identity.

Andrzej Jackowski 'Sanatorium' (2006-7)

At the Venice Biennale this year, Polish artist Pawel Althamer displayed in the Arsenale. His installation Venetians was met with critical acclaim. The 90 ghoulish figures were composed of plaster casts (of the faces and hands of locals) and strips of plastic – draped over rough scaffolding supports to create a sinuous, muscle-like effect. Such work from a little-known artist exposed the dark imagination thriving beneath the surface of the glossy modern art world, often saturated with celebrity. Wojciech Fangor, Szymon Urbanski, Andrzej Cisowski and Andrzej Jackowski are other talented individuals.

Pawel Althamer’s 'Venetians' at the Venice Biennale 2013

Pawel Althamer with preview work
A couple in Pawel Althamer’s 'Venetians', at the Venice Biennale 2013

Wilhelm Sasnal’s work typically sells for several hundred thousand dollars, after being discovered by Saatchi. His work reflects Poland’s Communist history in a hazy memory. His piece Soldiers is mimics modern pop culture more than conflict. The Saatchi Gallery describes them as ‘reduced to a kitsch logo: war, oppression, and authority are reconstituted as youth culture communismo-chic.’ His work Factory is painted from a famous propaganda image, but swaps glorified labour for a hardened, grey, uniform reality.

Wilhelm Sasnal's 'Soldiers' (2000)
Wilhelm Sasnal’s 'Factory' (2000)
Wilhelm Sasnal’s 'Untitled (a)' (2004), displayed at the Tate Modern

One reason for the flourishing culture is a revival of the Polish art market. Acclaimed artist Anna Szprynger commented: ‘the trouble is after so many years of dictatorship that there is no tradition of an art market in Poland. People respect you if you’re an artist, but they expect you to lead the existence of a starving pauper and they don’t tend to buy the art.’ The modern art scene has been free from Communism for nearly 25 years, but it is restricted by poor financial support. Mentalities are changing, however. Disposable income is rising rapidly, and consequently the art market is now growing at around 20-30% a year. Skate’s, a New-York-based arts market research company, recently estimated the country’s “innovative and quickly growing art market” at an annual worth of £66m.

Recently there was a speedy 4-day exhibition called ‘Polish Art Now’ at the Saatchi Gallery – a mélange of highlights from the past 50 years and up-and-coming names. The force behind this project was Abbey House. Based in Warsaw, the auction house has devised a scheme whereby unknown artists are contracted for a 5-year period and given a permanent wage, in return for the auction house having exclusive rights to sell their work: amalgamating financial security with publicity and growth.

Szymon Urbanski’s 'Simon Paints' (2005)

Many have denounced Abbey House’s work: they argue it hikes the price of the artists’ work to extremes, distorting the market. But is this too large a cost, when the house gives many new artists an environment in which to improve and create? The prices may be marginally artificial, but they facilitate thriving culture. They allow artists to become self-sufficient, and in turn encourage more to take up the profession.

Government funding for the arts is increasingly scarce and insecure. This may encourage the treatment of art as a commodity – something to be priced, and a market to be manipulated – but if this allows art to grow when public subsidy is dwindling, is it detrimental to the nature of the product?

Andrzej Jackowski 'Hearing Voices III' (1993)

The prosperous trajectory of Polish art is worth this cost. Hopefully, the nationality will ultimately drop from the label entirely. Art should be appreciated regardless of its origin, and technique and meaning should be the focuses. With Warsaw overtaking Berlin as Europe’s artistic hub, however, an influx of Polish art is on the horizon.

With thanks to the Daily Telegraph, the Muzeum Sztuki, Deutsche + Guggenheim, theartnewspaper.com, it.phaidon.com, the Tate Modern and the Saatchi Gallery for photos.