Talking about Contemporary Arts in Canton for A Decade (5)


This is a blog from Guangzhou, [Canton] the last of 5 – gives a view through the ‘bamboo’ curtain enjoy and if you have time –  read the first 4 in the series:


Contemporary Arts in Canton for A Decade (5)

Chapter Five (Final): Looking at the Future

And Life, a little bald and gray,

Languid, fastidious, and bland,

Waits, hat and gloves in hand,

Punctilious of tie and suit

(Somewhat impatient of delay)

  On the doorstep of the Absolute.


                  —– “Spleen”, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot


For independent artists, it is a perplexing difficulty to keep themselves away from the awash of commercialism and mainstream fashions that the public is so much indulged with. It might be said that their significance is to challenge the conventional ways of viewing the world. For those artists who are said to belong to the school of Cantonesism, they might face the same problem because their self-assigned mission is to redress the conventional way of seeing vernacular culture in Canton. These artists are not just limited by local people; instead quite a number of them are those from the rest of China who are encountered with the visual impacts in Canton and try to deliver these impacts with overstatements.




The earliest formulation of the Cantonese school of arts was in 2002 by a group of young artists who came back from France. It was their experience of French education, particularly the impressionism which emphasises colour impressions that led them to the exploration of vernacular scenes in Canton. Most of the time these artists stressed details of ordinary lives in Canton; they hailed grass-root basis in the city and opposed cultural elitism.


Actually the challenge for these artists is how to make their ideas delivered to the public. One interesting example is Chen Ben’s Gallery the “City Tattoo” in 2007. It was a series of oil-paintings that emulate the patterns on the walls of streets in Canton. The objects are easily visible on the streets, and people have long taken them for granted. “Are they really arts?” many people would ask. For many viewers, the pictures in the gallery are more eyesores than real arts, because after all these pictures demonstrate the chaotic colours on the dirty walls of the city. For Chen Ben, however, the dirty walls in Canton has already been part of the city’s image and ordinary people’s daily life that he feels obliged to reflect with authenticity; besides, he points out that there is a kind of impressionistic beauty in the patterns on the walls that is worth exploring. What makes the gallery more interesting is that Chan invited a group of dustmen, who were supposed to clean up the city, to look at the pictures of the dirty walls and try to tell their most direct feelings. Some of them provided their own imaginations of narrations as they stared at the patterns on the pictures while others were just dumbfounded. Such activity is part of Chen Ben’s experimental project to create a public stage by using common symbols and patterns for all the people in the city to exchange and interact with each other.


"City Tattoo", by Chen Ben, 2007


Indeed, the grass-root interpretations of these artists to reflect vernacular lifestyle in the city is a nuisance to the authority, because it is a backlash against the positivism that the authority has always been trying to put through in mainstream culture. But the greatest enemy for the school of Cantonesism is the general public: on one hand, the ordinary viewers are sympathetic with the artists’ intentions to promote vernacular culture as soon as these artists remain in the realm of traditionally realistic presentations; on the other hand, once these artists take on avant-garde projects to explore such vernacular elements, the public will find them “weird”, or “inscrutable”.


Therefore these artists are facing dilemma, in which their works become favourite items for niche circle while they are trying to gain wider audience. Some efforts are made to widen the gap, such as to open free galleries for the public. In China, such idea is very new and financially risky but encouraging. It is in those free galleries that I keep myself informed about the vogue in these artists’ circle; I am sure that a lot of young students who are interested in niche arts will visit those places regularly. The most important free galleries as well as sites for free art lectures in Canton nowadays are the “Fei Gallery” and the “225 Goelia Concept”. The Chinese word “Fei” indicates “bamboo door”, stressing the abstract beauty of vernacular culture. It is a place where free salons, contemporary arts galleries, exhibitions, and experimental dramas are organised for the public. It is a basin-shaped underground hall in cubic shape and white colour, at the entrance of which a sequence of bamboo door is standing as decorations. The “225 Goelia Concept” is another free gallery at the western end of the city. The building itself is a piece of flamboyant art, a refurbished old-building at the centre of the city. It might set an example of how to restore beauty and attraction to an old-style architecture in the older part of the city. Inside the building there is a huge horizontal window with panorama view to glare at the streets below; it is a place awash with cosmopolitan spirit, where exotic items and maps around the whole world are displayed on each floor.


Inside the "Concept 225" gallery: the building itself as a piece of art.


However, a caveat should be paid attention to, as that all these art galleries are sponsored by wealthy merchants. The purpose of sponsoring such free galleries is certainly to promote their own image as patrons of contemporary arts. However, fortunately, as the Internet is gaining momentum today, such dependency can be mitigated to some degree.


Bricks on the floor are nostalgic, an endearing style that is familiar to old-styled Chinese architectures.


Its cosmopolitan nature: panoramic window of the busy city and the globe.


Balcony above the city.


The whole building itself is a rehabilitated old building.




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