Avant-garde artists emerge from hiding with blessing from Beijing

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The Independent Online

Underground art is spiritual pollution; dissident art is counter-revolutionary agitation; gaudy art is pornography and post-Mao pop art is reactionary trash.

Underground art is spiritual pollution; dissident art is counter-revolutionary agitation; gaudy art is pornography and post-Mao pop art is reactionary trash.

Times change, though. Artists who were busy avoiding arrest a year or two ago are now being sought by the Ministry of Culture to represent their country at this year's Venice Biennale. In the new postmodern, post-industrial Beijing, unofficial art is about to become official art. Back in 1999, 19 Chinese artists turned up in Venice, more than from any other country, and took the art festival by storm.

The next year, China's supreme leader, Jiang Zemin, gave the thumbs up to a controversial and foreign design for Beijing's Grand Theatre, the giant turtle's egg being built opposite the Forbidden City. This was the ultimate blessing for the avant-garde school, symbolising the Communist Party's wish to promote the idea that China is the oldest and the newest civilisation at the same time.

At this Venice exhibition, starting on 14 June, at least 30 Chinese artists are going to be exhibiting, although the official representation of six artists led by the ministry's cultural commissars has cancelled because of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

Most are being curated by Hou Hanru under the rubric of "Zone of Urgency", a melange of new media installation and video art intended to illustrate his notions on the chaos of Asia's new cities, where urban development is so fast it has entered what he calls the "post-planning phase".

Chinese leaders who pride themselves on being the world's greatest planners may not like that or Mr Hou's past assertions that "there can be no such thing as Chinese art", only notions propagated throughout history by those in power.

Beijing itself embodies the changes in art and planning that the artists are trying to explain. Take Factory 798, where tens of thousands of workers once toiled in the heart of China's sprawling and secretive military industrial complex. Even now, nobody here is willing to say what exactly they made in the workshops designed by East Germans in the 1950s but the walls still carry slogans exhorting the proletariat to keep Mao as the "red sun in their hearts".

The factory, which resembles thousands of others in the capital, has been relocated and, in the liberated spaces, dozens of artists, sculptors, designers and architects have moved in, turning the place into a New York-style SoHo artists' colony complete with galleries, bars and night clubs.

"It's strange, but it just happened," says Robert Bernell, an American from Texas, who was the first to move in and rent an old engine workshop.

Soon everyone else followed and it formally opened in the spring, attracting initiatives such as the Long March Foundation, based in New York, which now runs a "Cultural Transmission Centre".

"The painters are here now becoming part of a network of artists in global cities," says Mr Bernell, who worked for Motorola before setting up "Timezone8" to publish books of Chinese contemporary art. "It is no longer shrugged off as a fad like post-Soviet art but is here to stay," he says. "Most of them are trying to deconstruct Chineseness, mocking the official images of China - pandas, Mao, the Forbidden City - that sort of thing."

Beijing was always a centre for Chinese contemporary art, despite being under the tightest political control. People flocked there from all over the country, partly because in the 1980s the only places they dared exhibit were in the homes of diplomats and foreign journalists. Without this foreign patronage, the tiny community might have been snuffed out.

By 1989, in the thaw before the Tiananmen Square massacre, the first official exhibition was held, but it was shut by a squad of armed police after a performance artist shot at her image in a mirror. Hundreds of artists settled in a collection of villages near the old Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing. They were regularly raided by the police, sometimes expelled, fined or imprisoned. The colony was evicted four years ago and Da Zhang, one artist, went back to his home in Datong and killed himself because of depression.

By the late 1990s, the exhibitions were often staged in galleries masquerading as restaurants, including The Courtyard or The Loft, to escape the attention of the authorities. The Loft is another former military research factory run by Lin Tianfang and her brother, who once studied new media art in New York.

Those who have made it and whose works have sold to American or European collectors are so rich they own villas and sports cars and have even begun investing in restaurants and bars, especially those that have sprung up around Houhai Lake, north of the Forbidden City. Zhang Dali runs the No Name Bar, and Fang Lijun, who mocks his compatriots with grotesque realism, runs a Yunnanese restaurant. They are graffiti artists.

Hundreds of other less famous artists have reassembled in a congregation in Tongxian county, eastern Beijing, renting peasant houses for studios. This time the police are largely ignoring them. There are now so many Bohemians, they have started calling themselves by a name - the Boho tribe.