Beijing's 798 art district

One of the best things to see in Beijing is the city's 798 art district, a fantastic area of old factories and warehouses now occupied by contemporary art galleries. I was there in February, marvelling at how contemporary art appears to be flourishing in what's supposed to be an authoritarian state. But first,  a bit of an apology, as I was not as diligent as I should have been in writing down who the works you're about to see are by.

Someone at 798 told me a story about the sculpture in the image below that provided an amusing insight into the to-and-fro negotiation of what constitutes appropriate artistic expression in China. Apparently at one stage the state requested that artists stop using Mao's head in their works. The sculpture below was a response to that, which many critics took to be a suggestion that the state was headless. Then the goverment purchased one of the works in this series for the national collection, saying it believed the headless sculpture meant the government represented all the people equally. As far as I know, the artist didn't step in to say which interpretation was correct.

One of the best galleries at 798 is the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), established by European philanthropists. The exhibition below is named 'Moon in Glass' by artist Ling Jian and features portraits printed onto coloured mirrors. As you get closer, the images of the faces appear to recede, and you see your own reflection instead. What seemed like a glossy pop-art take on modern China was also working on other intriguing levels.

Also at UCCA, a fantastic show by painter Liu Xiaodong entitled 'Hometown Boy'. Liu went to stay in his old hometown for a period of a few months and painted beautiful, gentle scenes of his parents and childhood friends there. The show was accompanied by Liu's diary of his experience there, as well as an hour-long documentary by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien that showed Liu working and interacting with his friends. The exhibition was, in part, a lament for the simpler style of life Liu believes China has lost - the state-run factory that used to employ most people in his hometown has laid off hundreds of workers, and many others have left to find work in the bigger cities. The exhibition raised questions about the price of China's recent economic progress.  

The next few images show the amazing buildings at 798 (which I think date from the 1960s), and the juxtaposition of the contemporary sculptures outside them. As you can see in one of the shots, the area is also used as a backdrop for bridal shoots.

This fantastic building below contains Pace Beijing gallery, another of 798's main attractions - not just for the architecture, but the art inside.

This industrial structure loomed across the courtyard from Pace - I'm not sure who did the sculpture on the building behind it.

And I think that's all the holiday shots I have to show you - I hope I haven't bombarded the blog with too much Beijing. I've also written a travel story about the city for Kia Ora (the Air New Zealand inflight magazine) which comes out soon. And one of the hotels I stayed at, The Opposite House (designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma) is covered in the April/May issue of HOME.

Update: It seems the tone of optimism in this post about contemporary art flourishing in an authoritarian state might be slightly misplaced: the New York Times reports that contemporary artist (and critic of the Chinese government) Ai Wei Wei has been detained. You can read the story at the link here

Our new cover

Our new cover (our April/May issue is our annual renovations special) features a photograph by Paul McCredie of a renovation designed by Max Herriot of Wellington's Herriot + Melhuish. We hope you like it.

The issue features four renovations as well as four other houses, including shoe designer Kathryn Wilson's Spanish Mission-style Auckland apartment, Adam and Gaby Ellis' Wellington home by Amelia Minty, artist Max Gimblett's New York home and studio, and Simon Carnachan's Queenstown retreat. It's on newsstands on Monday - subscribers should get their copies this weekend.

Outtakes - Martin Poppelwell

Artist Martin Poppelwell's Napier studio was designed by Wellington-based architect Ashley Cox, and features in our current issue. These are some outtakes from Paul McCredie's shoot there. It's a rare luxury for an artist to be able to have a purpose-built studio - and although Martin's studio is too economical to be anywhere near indulgent, the light, space and view to the garden feel luxurious indeed.

The studio is in the garden of the property Martin owns on Napier Hill, which is also occupied by his small cottage. You can see how the buildings relate to each other in the image below.

The studio steps down in three stages, which Martin divides into thinking, production and dispatch areas. 

Here's the artist himself, taking in some of the late-afternoon sun.

This image shows the studio's skylights poking up above the corrugated iron boundary fence.

And here's the studio at twilight, with the cottage on the left of this image.

Behind the scenes - Art feature photo shoot

Here's a behind-the-scenes view of our art photo shoot. You can see the final shoot in our new issue out on April 4. The idea of this shoot was to mix the 'old and new', pairing contemporary art and objects with older ones and vice versa.

Some of the artwork and furniture pieces waiting to be photographed...
Here's Toaki Okano shooting some of our favourite pieces - 'Ten Litre, Four Litre, Two Litre, One Litre' artworks by Elliot Collins, and side chairs designed by Garth Chester in orginal upholstery.
Our stylist Tanya taking a break in an old hairdresser's chair, auctioned at Art + Object. The artworks hanging on the wall are 'Poison' and 'Antidote' by Cornelia Parker.

Toaki and Jessica tweaking the shot to look just right. The large artwork is 'Nude Stack' by Fiona Banner, and the smaller two are from Art + Object. The Chair and Japanese pottery vase are from Bashford Antiques.

Beijing's Summer Palace

Welcome to Beijing's Summer Palace, which I (it's Jeremy here) visited a few weeks ago. It was not at all summery, but it was very beautiful. This is the pleasure palace where the Qing dynasty frittered away all their money while the country descended into chaos. When you visit, you can kind of see why - it'd be hard to pay attention to matters of state when you're surrounded by sumptuous landscaping like this (below). The lake in this image, Kunming, is said to have taken 100,000 people eight years to dig. They knew how to think big, those Qing leaders...

The marble boat in the image below is the most notorious symbol of the excesses of the Empress Dowager, Cixi - partly because the navy was being starved of funds around the same time it was being constructed.  

The formal rooms of the palace are all up the hill (created from the soil dug from the lake), but I'd seen them before so I stuck to the areas around the lake, which still include some impressive structures:

Here's the 17-arch bridge, leading to a small island in the middle of the lake from which a woman was singing Chinese opera across the ice: 

The monochromatic tones of the frozen lake and accompanying hazy sky were lovely, once I became accustomed to the cold (the temperature was a little below zero). 

The grounds of the palace are open to the public. These guys were giving their kites an early-morning flight on the 17-arch bridge. I was amazed they flew at all, given there seemed to be hardly a breath of wind.  

The next Beijing area we'll visit is the city's exciting 798 contemporary art district. That'll probably be later in the week.

We like: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed

Our copy of 'CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed' just arrived from Amazon, and we're agog. Photographer Frederic Chaubin spent seven years photographing extraordinary buildings that were designed and erected in the last 15 years of the existence of the USSR.

The old cliche is of Soviet architecture being a reflection of the state that created it: monolithic, overbearing and uniform. Chaubin's book shows the exceptions to this rule, an incredible flowering of creativity in the late-Soviet period that resulted in some of the most breathtaking and nutcase buildings you'll ever see.


Chaubin calls these buildings "aesthetic outsiders in an ocean of grey", and suggests they were able to be built because the "Soviet net grew slack... the intertia of the Soviet machine, too busy putting off its own demise, let the work it commissioned on its margins float free of its control". Most of these buildings are in the former Soviet Union's fringes: the Polish border, the Caucasus, or the Black Sea.  But then he also wonders if the USSR under Andropov (who followed Kruschev's almost two decades in power) grew bolder.

Another good quote from Chaubin's very good opening essay: "The fact is that in Russia the most Neanderthal conformism always coexists with the boldest avant-gardes". (He's a pretty good writer as well as photographer).

There's always something enticing about faded utopian dreams, and this book is one of the best examples of that. So yes, it's highly recommended.

We like: Selby

One of our favourite houses in our February/March issue is Selby, the 1973 gem just outside Havelock North designed by Miles Warren. It's pure class, from its park-like setting shown above right down to its signature foundation stone and exterior lights:
These are some more of the outtakes from Paul McCredie's excellent shoot, images that we couldn't fit into the magazine. Here's the entry court, which shows the drama of those sawn-off gabled forms.

This particular diagonal line (in the shot below) points to the main entrance.

Just inside the front door, a window reveals a smaller sitting room, set a few steps down from the home's main pavilion.

The main living room is a much more baronial affair, with lofty heart rimu ceilings supported by dramatic diagonal beams.

This shot (below) shows the swimming pool, as well as the pool house and garden tower. Both the latter structures were built some years after the home was completed - the tower, for example, was finished in 1993.

Selby's owners, John and Helen Foster, gave the house the garden is deserved, a beautiful, formal blend of manicured plants overlooking the tree-lined sheep paddock.

Here we are in the entry court again, with a shot that reveals how fully resolved every detail in the house is.

Incidentally, Selby is for sale (you can view the listing at the Bayleys website here). We normally avoid featuring properties for sale in our pages, for fear of becoming a real estate publication, but in Selby's case we made an exception because the house is so exceptional.

Christchurch damage

Our friends at the blog Christchurch Modern are compiling a list of classic Warren & Mahoney buildings that have been damaged in the earthquake there. Sad reading. These houses are an important part of Christchurch's (and New Zealand's) architectural history, so we hope at least some of them can be added to the preservation list.

Obamao in Beijing

Some tourist tat from Beijing: 'Obamao' T-shirts were doing a brisk trade, but our favourite item from this line was the mouse pad below. The bottom line on it reads 'You don't bird me, I don't bird you.' No, we don't know what that means either, but we kinda like it! We only hope the Republican Tea Party doesn't get hold of this memorabilia.

Beijing's Forbidden City

Those of you who detest other people's holiday snaps, turn away! Because I'm about to inflict another Beijing experience on you. This time it's the Forbidden City. If you haven't already been there, you will almost certainly have seen images of it (hopefully in the Bertolucci film The Last Emperor, which is fantastic). The day I visited wasn't conventionally photogenic, as there was a pea-soup haze. But the monochromatic effect this produced made the frozen moat look even chillier:

The Forbidden City is literally the centre of Beijing - just across Chang'an Avenue from Tiananmen Square, and right on the city's great north-south axis (which culminates in the Olympic Village, 16km north). Inside, it's all fantastically rigid formality and symmetry, with a series of pavilions and grand, empty squares unfolding one after the other:

All this austerity makes the arrival at the residential part of the Forbidden City even more delightful because of its contrast to the civic areas of the complex. Here, the courtyards are smaller and more intimate, and filled with trees:

There are also smaller, whimsical structures in the residential area, such as this pavilion:

So that's your very brief Forbidden City tour. Later this week we'll visit a hutong district and the fabled Summer Palace (albeit in winter).
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