“Form | Impression,” the Public Sector exhibition in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, China’s largest contemporary cultural district, opened on May 22 in conjunction with Gallery Weekend Beijing 2020. Curated by You Yang, this third iteration of the show (which remains on view through August 20, 2020) features sculptures and public works by 20 artists, many from inside China, and draws on the vitality of a local scene shaped by globalization and issues of contemporary culture. Visitors come away with a perceptual amalgam of images, impressions, memories, and realizations. Lingering coronavirus concerns, the challenges of social and historical conflict, the exploration of the self, and the concept of humanity, all intertwine with more sublime impressions of unforgettable landscapes, with impressions of a city and people, and with hopes of progress, emancipation, and creativity.
Toward the center of Art Zone, two unique buildings stand, partially completed and left as ruins, one tall and one short, maintained at a sufficient distance apart to allow for a long spiralling ladder to rest between them. Sky Ladder (2012) by Shen Yuan, is part sculpture and part architecture; it is also a memorial and meditative space that synthesizes physical and historical references to the artist’s earlier work Nanling History 1957—2005 and the urbanization of China.
Zheng Guogu’s The Reveal of a Plain Garden (2012), in contrast, sits close to the ground. Made from stone and engraved with Chinese texts and poems, the three-dimensional grid resembles a gigantic Chinese chess board, with the raised disk and cube pieces arranged in a solid, architectural composition. With echoes of Chinese scholars’ rocks, water, and buildings, Zheng’s sculpture is both landscape and architecture. Cai Lei’s The Remaining Yellow (2020), at the street entrance signage of 718, is similarly experiential, tantalizingly engaged with the surrounding Bauhaus-style factory buildings that currently house galleries, museums, shops, and cafes (Art Zone occupies the site of what was once an East German-built military factory complex). If you stand at the end of the luminous yellow steel sculpture, the whole configuration suggests a lighted corridor without walls or some strange architecture that belongs nowhere. Further along, Daniel Buren attempts to trigger the desires of boutique clientele at Galleria Continua Beijing. Entertaining, quirky, and technologically clever, his decorative shop window display, Confinées: trois grilles colorées translucides, travail in situ (2020), uses repeating geometric patterns and contrasting colors, interspersed by black and white stripes, to evoke the visual effects of textiles and high fashion.
When You Yang conceived of “Form | Impression,” he decided to seek works that would encourage participation. Thus Li Weiyi’s life-size sculpture invites visitors to pose next to her “things”—a bird, spheres, stars, and a book—objects that hold profound meaning for city-dwellers in China. Bingqing Dong installed a bar at UCCA Lab, staging a tongue-in-cheek transformation of the space, which is fitted with multicolored lights and sculptural ornamentation for socializing, partying, and intellectual exchanges between artists, collectors, critics, and visitors (a scene that, at least in June, seemed out of step with this moment of the pandemic).
One of the show’s strongest works is Zheng Lu’s mixed-media, composite construction Anisoptera’s Eye (2020). Glowing ethereally on its base and glinting dramatically in the dark of night, the massive globular eye of the dragonfly, itself consisting of numerous shining red eyes, is mesmerizing. In other sculptures, the single form holds its own, appearing more powerful than works consisting of many elements. Sui Jianguo’s Portrait (2012), for instance, is a towering figurehead with melted facial features that nevertheless conveys irony, mystery, ambiguity, and formal beauty. Something similar permeates the psychological dimension of Hu Qingyan’s sprawling, up-to-the-ceiling sculpture. Resembling an entangled, but profoundly beautiful mess of rusty pipes and passageways, Hu’s humorous Go in One Ear and Out The Other No. 5 (2017–18) pokes fun at social media and its numerous voices trying to compete for attention.
The former military industrial complex of 798 Art Zone is a surreal backdrop for a contemporary outdoor sculpture exhibition. The artists deserve praise for embracing the challenge of new possibilities and introducing into their work something more deeply personal and more concerned with experiences of a subtle kind. Hopefully, they will continue hammering away in the “new normal.”