Art Explosion Inside Chinese Munitions Factory

Hosted by

Eight days in Beijing. Never been in Asia before. It's my first trip to China. Always felt slightly intimidated by the huge span of its history, by the intricacy and "otherness" of its culture. But here I am, among several dozen journalists from around the world, invited for the opening of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, an ambitious and impressive undertaking, privately funded by Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens.

On the morning of the press conference, we are driven in a bus from our comfortable hotel near Tiananmen Square to the outskirts of town to a sprawling industrial complex, former ammunition factory, which during the Cold War was known only by its code number, "798." In the early 80's, the factory was decommissioned and the abandoned complex fell into shambles.

What do you think happened next? Taking a page from a familiar script for art scenes from New York to Berlin to Barcelona, Chinese artists flocked to the 798 Complex, where, during the 80's and 90's, they could rent a raw space for close to nothing. Next came tiny cafes and even a small bookstore to serve their needs. The good news traveled fast and far; art dealers took chances and started to open galleries there.

All of a sudden, the whole scene exploded; now there are more than 100 galleries, some of them rivaling the biggest and most glamorous spaces in Chelsea in New York. There are restaurants and boutiques popping up all over the place, and dozens of spaces are in the process of being renovated. Cheap rent is a thing of the past and artists who can no longer afford their spaces are being pushed out. It happened in SoHo, now it's happening in Beijing, in a place which became known as the 798 Art District.

And that's where Guy and Myriam Ullens chose to open their Center for Contemporary Art, the first private non-profit cultural institution in China. Their collection of almost 2000 works by contemporary Chinese artists is considered to be the world's largest and best. But rather than using the center as a vanity museum, they envision it as a place for temporary exhibitions, conferences and as a much-needed training ground for curators of contemporary Chinese art.

Their inaugural exhibition, "'85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art", is drawn from several private collections, including that of Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador to China, with whom I had a chance to talk in depth. We discussed the profound social changes that took place in China in the 80's and had a deep effect on the younger generation of artists. After decades of being cut off from the West and its art scene, these artists went through a "Crash course" to familiarize themselves with what they had been missing. A lot of the art created in the following decades, if not totally original, is, nevertheless, bursting with pent-up energy and political critique. Some of the artists became stars whose factory-like studios are bustling with dozens of assistants. Their works are selling for millions of dollars at auctions. I saw a lot of bad art with ubiquitous references to icons of Western culture such as Marilyn Monroe, Cindy Crawford and Michelangelo's "David." There is a lot of borrowing, if not outright stealing, from Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

During an impromptu visit to the studio of the Gao Brothers, well-known photographers and sculptors, I delighted in their hilariously subversive large-scale colorful fiberglass busts of Chairman Mao with big boobs and Pinnochio's nose. Serves Mr. Mao right. More about my Chinese art adventures next week.