Eight wonders of art world stand tall

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am

Many painters and sculptors can only dream of having a museum dedicated to their work. But on December 1, eight of the mainland's most famous modern artists will receive such an honour when the Institutions of Chinart opens in Wangpoyan, western Sichuan.

Set in the lush green forests and near-vertical slopes of Mount Qingcheng outside historic Dujiangyan city, an hour's drive west of Chengdu, the project marks the first time a government body has funded contemporary art. The 100 million yuan (HK$111 million) cluster of museums is the brainchild of Liu Junlin, the art-loving Communist Party secretary of Dujiangyan, and will be financed by the city government and local developer Guangju Minsheng.

Critics have hailed the project as perhaps the most significant development in mainland contemporary art since an avant-garde exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing was closed after an artist fired a gun at her installation in the heady weeks before the June 4, 1989 crackdown.

The project also represents a personal triumph for the eight chosen artists - Zhou Chunya, Zhang Xiaogang, He Duoling, Zhang Peili, Wu Shanzhuan, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun - several of whom were once identified with student dissent and labelled subversive by authorities.

'People used to complain about contemporary art and criticise it but this shows it's valuable,' says Lu Peng, a professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, who selected the eight artists. 'This project shows that contemporary art has finally been accepted by the government and by the people.'

Each artist is being represented by a museum of 960 square metres; in addition there will be a 5,000 square metre general museum and a research institute dedicated to contemporary art. Lu says his choice of the eight, who are in their 40s to 60s, was a personal decision based on their significance in the canon of mainland art since the country opened to the outside world in 1978.

'Each of them has been significant in different phases of the past 30 years,' he says. 'This project shows what direction things are taking in China. Without the opening up of the last 30 years, none of this would have been possible.'

The project also shows mainland authorities no longer regard contemporary artists as dangerous, experts say, particularly as prices for their work continue to rise at international auctions. Last November artist Cai Guoqiang sold a set of 14 gunpowder drawings in Hong Kong for HK$74.2 million, a new record for a modern artist.

Some displays may test official tolerance. The government exercises strict censorship and works such as Wu's nude performance art may raise eyebrows.

But like all the chosen artists, Zhou welcomes the museum complex. 'This is a start,' says the Sichuan painter who is best known for his figures of slavering green dogs, and images of violence and beauty. 'There's a lack of museums of all kinds in China today, and that makes it hard for people to learn about art. If I'm a good artist, then what I hope to achieve with this is to help people get closer to art, to learn about it, to educate.'

Construction work on the project is due to begin this week and is expected to take about eight months.

The museums, to be made of local grey stone and surrounded by water features, were designed by prominent mainland architects. Liu Jiakun, who was behind China's biggest private museum, the Jianchuan Museum in Anren, designed the main museum and the hall dedicated to Zhang Xiaogang. Other architects include Xu Tiantian of DnA and Luo Ruiyang, a professor at the Chongqing Architecture and Engineering Institute and winner of the Shenzhen 2000 Buildings Prize.

Project organiser Lan Qingwei says the architects had a free hand in their designs after input from the artists. 'An artist might have said, 'I want a big central space', or 'I want natural materials', or something like that,' says Lan. 'But mostly they let the architects get on with it.'

Liu declined to talk about progress on the project for this article, but Xinhua last year quoted him as saying that authorities in Dujiangyan hoped the project would boost tourism in the area. The party secretary was vague about whether the government would censor controversial pieces, saying only it planned to 'strengthen administration'.

Some critics have questioned the venture, citing its distance from the main art hubs of Beijing and Shanghai. But proponents say Chengdu is traditionally an arts centre for China, with dozens of museums and galleries and more springing up almost by the day.

For Lu, the project is just a beginning: 'Every city in China needs a museum complex like this.'