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Project 798: New Art in New China
It's an Art documentary as inadvertent globalization treatise. Exposing new art in New China somehow reinforces the notion that there's nothing new under the sun after all. With a narrow focus - the artists renting space in Beijing's Project 798 - interspersed with everyday shots of Chinese culture, this hour-long documentary highlights what may have been an unexpected insight; that artists are pretty much the same the world over. And for a peek into a world that many Westerners consider the most mysterious of all, it becomes clear that we're all way more similar than we'd like to think. As an introduction to contemporary Chinese artists, it's a fine look, but for those hoping to widen their artistic vistas, well, you've kind of seen this stuff already.
During the mid-1990s, Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts set up a workshop space in a defunct factory district built in the 1950s. Soon becoming a haven for political/avant-garde artists shunned by the government, the area grew in popularity during the first years of the 21st Century. Many artists set up studios, and influential galleries opened up. You might guess what came next. The place became so hip and fashionable that more and more money moved in, ruining the scene for those who just wanted a cheap place to make art in peace.
Director Lucius C. Kuert grows this logical conceit through in-studio interviews with a number of acclaimed artists, essentially starting with the most dissident among them, and moving through to more commercially minded creators. While all along we get bits of Yuanfen Gallery owner David Ben Kay, a westerner with a grating personality and far too much money, who has created a wonderland home for himself - complete with a suspended indoor swimming pool - in one of the factory spaces. While his presence is hard to take (did I just blow my chance of getting a show at Yuanfen?) Ben Kay serves as a perfect emblem of New Art in New China: it's not really new, money corrupts it, and scruffy artists become dissatisfied, moving on. Repeat.
The artists offering their thoughts and a glimpse at their work range from those who focus on trenchant sculptural images of Mao, through to those who manufacture fossilized cartoon skeletons, with stops in between for more traditional painters and those who make highly stylized pin-up art. In other words, the same types of things we see happening here in the States. Generally, Chinese artists seem way more focused on 'society' as a concept, and Chinese culture as a marker. Still, and of course, their individual opinions about such things vary wildly, and surprisingly for a group of artists originally fomented in political unrest, few seem concerned with political change any more. Mostly they just want to be free to do what they want, and hopefully make some money along the way.
The artists interviewed herein are: Chen Wenbo, Feng Zhengjie, The Gao Brothers, He Yunchang, Hong Hao, Huang Rui, Li Songsong, Liu Xiaodong, Wang Qingsong, Yan Lei, Yu Hong, Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Xiaotao and others. My hero from this grouping is the artist who mentions he has no idea what other artists are doing, since he spends most of his time in the studio. However if you're interested in what's happening in the international art world - either to get an idea of new directions or to realize we're all pretty much treading the same ground - then this glimpse into contemporary Chinese art is a fantastic place to start.
Presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, this hour long doc looks OK for DVD. The image sports rich naturalistic colors that aren't oversaturated, but there's an element of digitization that makes for an overly crisp look - not sharp and detailed in an accurate way, but a tiny bit harsh, with small evidence of aliasing here and there. It's a presentation that's on the low end of acceptable, probably owing to cameras used in filming as much as to the transfer process.
Digital Stereo audio is in Mandarin, English and Italian with English Subtitles. Consisting solely of interview audio and traditional Chinese music occasionally in the background, even stereo audio is probably more than what's needed. At any rate, there's no distortion, the mix is balanced, and you'll have no reason to complain, even when reading subtitles.
No extras come on this release.
Surprisingly for a documentary of New Art in New China, not much feels new here to those familiar with Western Art. That is beside the point, though, as director Kuert does an artful job integrating this realization into a grouping of compelling artist interviews. We'll just call it further evidence of globalization, and of the notion that if any country is ready to take over the mantle of Western homogenization for the 21st Century, it's China. On balance, this short documentary merits an overall Rent It rating, though professional artists and their ilk may find it worth a purchase.