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Bold exhibitions, middling sales and enduring tensions over censorship marked the eighth edition of Gallery Weekend Beijing (GWBJ), which closed on Sunday (4 June). This was its first iteration since China lifted most of its Covid restrictions and re-opened fully to international visitors.

Featuring 21 Beijing galleries, five institutions and 13 visiting galleries, GWBJ fell between two of the city’s main art fairs, Beijing Contemporary Art Expo (28 April to 1 May), better known by its Mandarin name Beijing Dangdai, and JingArt (1 to 4 June), which this year partnered with the gallery weekend. The confluence of events this past six weeks has provided a marquee season for the Beijing art scene, which has been battered by three years of zero Covid measures and simmering political tensions. “The economy is bad, the mood is worse,” said one gallerist, asking to remain anonymous: A pall has set over the city following the high-profile censorship of comedian Li Haoshi last month. His management company was fined $2m after he made a joke referencing the Chinese military.

Nonetheless, many saw the gallery weekend as a much-needed chance to forge and re-establish connections after years of isolation. “After three years we are meeting friends from all over the world,” says GWBJ director Amber Yifei Wang. She surmises that the pandemic has changed people’s priorities and that the exhibitions taking place around the gallery weekend must be exciting enough to draw in crowds. That poses a big challenge, she says, requiring GWBJ to be “more proactive”.

Wang says the opening attracted over 50 collectors from outside the city, from cities like Nanjing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Qingdao, as well as Hong Kong and Singapore. Low flight availability kept institutional visitors mostly Asia-based as well, except for a few key foreigners, such as Nora Lawrence, the chief curator of New York’s Storm King Art Center.

Installation view of Qin Yifeng at Magician Space, Beijing

Standout exhibitions include a solo show by Ma Quisha at Beijing Commune, which is showing a single, not-for-sale work, No. 52 Liulichang East Street. Referencing the capital’s iconic, now defunct antiques market, the artist has packed treasures and ephemera referencing her family history and Chinese cultural exports into a replica shop window. Other standouts include Qin Yifeng series of negatives, at Magician Space, which invert the process of photography, and Chris Zhongtian Yuan’s videos, installations and sketches that muse upon mortality at the Macalline Art Centre.

In the longtime artists’ village Songzhuang, the new Sound Art Museum has opened with impressive facilities. The inaugural exhibitions include a permanent audio history of Old Beijing and early Chinese sound installations. According to the museum’s director and co-founder, the curator and artist Colin Chinnery, for Beijing “after the initial relief of restrictions ending, the realisation of a new economic reality is dawning on people”. This mood is of “cautious optimism, with an emphasis on cautious”, he adds. Of GWBJ, he says: “It was nice to see artists and projects from around the world again, with artists actually being present. It feels like we’re reconnecting to the world again. That’s absolutely essential for the art world here to be nursed back to health.”

This post-Covid economic reality is not only felt, but seen: Beijing, like the rest of China, remains pockmarked by boarded-up storefronts. This is the case in the Caochangdi neighbourhood, from where several galleries departed during the worst of Covid. Those that remain include White Space, ShanghArt and Ink Studio, all of which are back in action. Meanwhile, the emptied spaces are filling up again as studios. In the airport-adjacent Shunyi District, the free-trade zone Blanc Art now houses several galleries like Lisson and White Space, plus additional storage and short-term spaces. During the GWBJ opening week, Blanc Art hosted a pop-up exhibition cooperating with Hong Kong institution Tai Kwun Contemporary to show artists from Mythmakers—a recent show of Asian LGBTQ art.

GWBJ is run by Beijing 798 Culture Technology, which oversees the 798 Art Zone and is owned by the state-owned electronics conglomerate SevenStar Group. Last year the group removed Wang Yanling, 798’s popular director since 2011, due to allegations of misconduct, and replaced him with Teng Yanbin.

But it is broader politics, rather than management changes, that appear to be responsible for the heightened censorship concerns during GWBJ’s opening. Following Li Haoshi’s $2m fine, criticism of Yue Minjun’s longstanding series of paintings of soliders resurfaced online, with pro-government commenters claiming the artist was mocking the military. This resulted in reports of Beijing galleries subsequently censoring or self-censoring all military imagery.

“The censors were all over GWBJ,” said another gallerist, speaking anonymously. After the Li Haoshi incident, they fear civilian digital vigilantes almost as much as official censors. “The government operates on perception as much as reality. Right now, in areas of culture and entertainment, it is actively creating an environment in which everyone assumes the government is paying attention, whether this is literally true or not,” said the gallerist. “My expectation is that contemporary art would be part of this shift. The reality is that overt censorship is probably the old school way. There are probably newer methods involving decentralised crowd-sourced monitoring and reporting being used today.” Even supportive visitors may post images that then are “picked up by wumao [nationalistic reposters] who are incentivised to report events of interest.”

Censorship was “about the same as always,” countered GWBJ director Wang. “Censorship and the security guards have always been here, and the guards are here more for security and crowd management than oversight.”

“We did a self-censorship in preparing [Yang’s] exhibition,” exploring how netizens rerouted around social media censorship during last year’s harsh Shanghai lockdown, say a spokesperson for White Space gallery. “Before the opening, some worrying events did occur in the arts and cultural sector, but we still managed to realise the exhibition with a positive and flexible attitude.”

For the first time, GWBJ split foreign galleries and those from China into separate venues. A number of gallerists reported somewhat conservative sales figures throughout the weekend. “This incarnation’s most explicit difference was the lack of people,” says Mathieu Borysevicz, the founder of Shanghai gallery Bank, which has taken part in GWBJ since 2021. “Last year it was buzzing” even with Covid controls; “this year is just noticeably more quiet.” He says there is now a “conspicuous lack of foot traffic in China in general. It just feels a lower energy these days post-Covid.”

Bank brought conceptual photography from Patty Chang, who had a solo show at 798 nonprofit Macalline Art Centre last year, and sculptures by Zhang Yibei. Chang’s works were from a planned 2022 Shanghai show scuttled by censors. Sales proved brisk, if mostly to familiar collectors. “Everything was priced around 80,000 Chinese yuan and below, so that’s maybe one of the reasons we did so well. I think people these days are really conservative about spending money and maybe we came in under or within their budgets.” Bank also joined Beijing Dangdai, selling well with works priced under 60,000 RMB.

Overseas galleries that took part included Timothy Taylor, David Kordansky and Chantal Crousel. “We did great for Gallery Weekend,” says Chantal Crousel’s director of China, Wang Wan. The Paris gallery showed works by the artist Mimosa Echard, and is also holding a pop-up show of Wade Guyton in Blanc until late June, following a group show there in October 2021 when the project first opened. “We don’t really do too many fairs in China and never in Beijing, and since we don’t have any spaces in China, we need more opportunity to present exhibitions [longer] than just few days’ fairs to the local audiences,” Wan says. “We do have a lot of Asian/Chinese clients as we started working on the market quite a long time ago, and Beijing is still one of the most important cities playing an irreplaceable role in the art ecosystem currently, in the past, and in the future.”

“Beijing is certainly somewhere you have to appear,” says Borysevicz. “There are more serious collectors in Beijing than anywhere else in China, but there are also artists, the other galleries and the media industry”. Beijing and Shanghai are “like apples and oranges, they both serve different purposes”.

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