Space and Public: Site Specificity in Beijing

Article excerpt

In the past ten years, the urban fabric of the city of Beijing has been transformed on a massive scale, and artists have begun to respond to these changes by producing site-specific work. To explore this issue, Art Journal invited the art historian Francesca Dal Lago to discuss space, place, and site-specificity in Beijing with four artists: Song Dong, Zhang Dali, Zhan Wang, and Wang Jianwei. This is the third in a series of conversations on aspects of contemporary Chinese art that the journal has published. See also Qian Zhijian, "Performing Bodies: Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, and Performance Art in China" (Summer 1999) and Simon Leung with Janet A. Kaplan, "Pseudo-Languages: A Conversation with Wenda Gu, Xu Bing, and Jonathan Hay" (Fall 1999). Song Dong (b. [966, Beijing) is a conceptual artist whose work reflects on the changes in the urban fabric of the city of Beijing; he often employs urban space as the stage or the immediate target of his performances and installations. Zhang Dali (b. 1963, Harbin) has transformed urban space into a canvas for his painterly actions, which mainly consist of small alterations created by scrawling on all types of surfaces a now ubiquitous logo, the sprayed silhouette of his own bald head. Zhan Wang (b. 1962, Beijing ) is a sculptor at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts whose works create direct visual connections between past and present concepts concerning the relation between human beings and their living environments. Wang Jianwei (b. X958, Mianyang, Sichuan) is a videomaker whose work investigates concepts of space both in the city and in the countryside and the ways in which this is constructed, assessed, and experienced by its inhabitants and administrators.

Dal Lago: I don't think in Chinese there is a term to describe the type of art that is the subject of our discussion today, which in the West is called "site-specific." This term defines a type of art that uses the environment as an element in the production of the artwork. The environment is included both formally, as the space woven into the fabric of the work, and conceptually, as its content. Site-specific art emerged in the West in part out of artists' efforts to remove their work from traditional exhibition spaces as a way of escaping the ideological connotations inherently conveyed from the institution to the work. This type of intervention often uncovers the historical or political characteristics of the site and exposes them through the work. I would like to discuss two sets of issues with you today. One pertains to the formal language of site specificity and how a work establishes a strong physical connection to its environment. The other relates to your own experiences living in a particular place-in this case, Beijing in the c99os-and your direct observation of the radical changes that the city has physically undergone in the past few years. Zhang Dali, why do you choose to make site-specific work?

Zhang Dali: Because there were no available spaces-no galleries, no museums-in which I could exhibit my work, I thought, "Let's forget about a formal space; let's do something which is directly related to and takes place in the environment." I consequently started painting my logo, a stylized self-portrait based on the shape of my own skull. This logo by itself is not the work; it only becomes a work after it is placed in a specific context, and it changes its meaning as the context changes.

Song Dong: I don't think that the only reason for pursuing site specificity is the lack of exhibition spaces. Although this was one of the original motivations, we have also begun to realize how the site can become an intrinsic part of one's artistic language.

Dal Lago: Zhan Wang, let's talk about your series, Artificial Mountain Rocks. Is this your reflection on the architectural context of the new Beijing?

Zhan Wang: During my school years, I studied traditional Chinese culture, and I spent quite a lot of time considering the relation between the individual and his environment in traditional cultural terms. …