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The Beijing Art Scene

The scene wouldn't have been unfamiliar to many of Beijing's more established artists, like Wang Qingsong, who lived in Songzhuang, Beijing's oldest surviving artists' village, in the mid 1990's. Because artists weren't allowed in the area at the time, he was constantly hiding from the police: "I moved five times in one year," he told me, when I visited him and his family at their home. Wang, whose strikingly beautiful large-format photographs at once criticize and celebrate the "global" commercial culture of today's Chinese cities (his work often includes a Coke bottle or McDonald's golden arches), now lives with his wife, Zhang Fang, their son, and Zhang's parents in a spacious but casual apartment in the eastern district of Tongxian, a neighborhood known for the number of artists living there. (The noted performance artist He Yunchang has an apartment downstairs.) A Donald Duck bicycle was parked underneath one of Wang's most famous pieces, China Mansion, a scroll-like photograph in which naked female models play out famous scenes from art history against a background of banquets and orgies. The work refers simultaneously to contemporary decadence and the excesses of imperial China. The only decoration aside from Wang's art was a drawing scribbled in pink and green crayon directly onto the wall. Its creator, the couple's four-year-old son, Ruyang, practiced writing characters while we talked. "His non-Chinese name is Michelangelo," his mother said, looking approvingly at her son's work. "I like the sound of that Italian name a lot."

When I met them, Wang and Zhang had just returned from a show in Guangzhou; although his photographs have been shown all over the world, this was the first time they had been officially exhibited at a major museum in China. For the show he chose relatively conservative work (the nude girls were left at home), including Follow Me, a three-by-nine-foot photograph of the artist as a teacher, in front of an enormous chalkboard scrawled with error-riddled English and Chinese slogans: "Let the world learns about China!" and "Is it possible for me to exchange some British pounds for the U.S. dollars?" The piece was inspired by an English course that aired on Chinese television in the eighties, after Deng Xiaoping's reforms took effect. Wang remembers trying and failing the course, gathered with his neighbors around the rare television set, while the news reported the program's success stories—an ordinary soldier who graduated from the course and became an English professor, for example. "I was suspicious of this teaching method," Wang said drily. "Either those reports were false, or I was stupid."

In spite of Wang's caution, when Follow Me was exhibited in Guangzhou, a documentary film professor from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts spoke out against the work.

"She was very critical, very passionate," Zhang said. "She said this work looked with 'a wicked eye'—that it saw only the negative things in Chinese society." Toward the end of the lecture a young girl—a student in the Academy—stood up. "Maybe you don't understand this work," she said. "Maybe this work is using a strategy to criticize commercial culture." Like any good teacher's, Wang's criticism is inspired by love. "I miss the bygone days," Wang told me. "But I also appreciate the present. Now, whenever I go outside, I find inspiration to make my work."

On one of my last evenings in Beijing, I visited Rong Rong and his wife, the Japanese artist Inri, at their apartment just outside the Fifth Ring Road. The Beijing-based Canadian photographer Karen Patterson had agreed to translate for us. The first thing a visitor sees upon entering the double-height living area is a large photograph of the couple, naked and holding hands. It was taken at 798, when the complex was still a derelict industrial space. Even with the skyrocketing rents, the famous photographers could have their studios at 798 if they chose; a series of 16 of their prints recently sold in the United States for $100,000. But like many Beijing artists, the couple doesn't feel that Dashanzi is a good place to create art. "Too many people," Inri told me, making a face. Rong Rong added: "This is our life. This is our work. Over there, it's almost as if the artist's studio becomes a public place."

Rong Rong and Inri's home is a kind of temple to photography, where the tools of their craft dominate the space. The artists showed me a 10-foot-high, army-green enlarger the way a collector might show off a new treasure, and their work was everywhere on the walls, giving the austere new building a feeling of personal history. Maybe the most striking work was their recent Mount Fuji series, made on their honeymoon in Japan in 2001. While Inri served tea from a glass pot, the couple described the trip, completing each other's sentences. On their way to the hot springs at Ido, they happened to pass the sacred mountain when it was covered with snow—and ended up staying there for three days. Because the hotels were too expensive, they slept in their car. "We were freezing!" Inri exclaimed. "If the car had run out of gas, we would've died," Rong Rong added calmly.

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