A polluted landscape of dreams betrayed — Waldemar Januszczak on the ideal setting for China’s art
I cannot understand why we’re all so fond of it. Looks-wise, it’s a dead dog lying by the side of the road with its legs in the air. And symbolically it is a relic of a dark, belching, polluted past we should be trying to forget. But instead of clamouring to have it pulled down, we insist on the opposite. Developer after developer has had a go at doing something useful with the useless lump, and failed. Until now.
Now someone has come up with a perfect role for the unwanted corpse. They have turned it into a makeshift gallery and filled it with new Chinese art. What an inspired move. Chinese art is usually about destruction, exploitation, loss of humanity and dreams betrayed; so is Battersea. Chinese art is soaked to the bones with dripping black pessimism; so is Battersea. In Chinese art, regeneration is a euphemism for shoving people into factories, paying them a pittance and stealing their lives; at Battersea, you sense, the same thing went on.
Twenty-two Chinese artists have been let loose on the site. And it’s unarguably a thrill to get inside there with them. Because it’s so big — and this is a nice touch — you are given a bicycle on which to peddle round the ratscape. It feels like Mad Max’s post-nuclear outback. On a tarmac expanse the size of Trafalgar Square, Ma Qingyun has marked out a delicate pattern of roads and parking spaces, in a desperate attempt to voodoo up some helpful urban planning. Liu Ding projects things onto the cliffs of brick. There’s a shop, too, selling artistic bits and pieces: made in China, of course. But none of it manages to cheer up Battersea or dispel the stink of terminal urban decay.
Chinese modern art turns out to be chiefly in the business of contradicting the official government line on China’s development. While the government thinks it is necessary to knock down the old China at breakneck speed and force-build a flashy new one in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, these artists do not.
A couple of startling animations by Qiu Anxiong and Chen Shaoxiong make the point particularly vividly. The violent pace of Chinese transformation is precisely what animation is so well suited to conveying. One moment we’re in a nation of trees, rivers and mountains; the next we’ve arrived at a mini New York of thrusting skyscrapers and upwardly mobile glass shards. Here are some trees. There is the bulldozer.
At the heart of the show is a set of dripping video malls strung out across three broken levels of turbine hall B. Video seems to increase in intensity when viewed against a twilit background of twisted girders and crumbling walls. The combination of high-tech detail and decrepit setting is a winner. In this instance, the distressing ruination of the power station seems to match the scale and texture of the gigantic Chinese pessimism we are witnessing.
In the most moving piece in the show, Cao Fei’s film takes us inside an Osram factory in Guangdong, where thousands of workers beaver away in nocturnal cycles to bring us light. At the climax, each of the faceless drones is picked out and given a moment of tender musical portraiture. The message — every human life on the Osram conveyor belt is precious and distinct — is beautifully made. And the fact that we’re in a light-bulb factory, a ready-made symbol of enlightenment, doubles the wattage of the accusation.
In a rare moment of unmissable sarcasm, Zhang Pei Li takes a pop at the propaganda films of old by cutting together fragments of official Communist speech with bursts of hysterical applause. Just as our sitcoms use canned laughter to hide their unfunniness, so these films used canned keenness. Jia Zhang-Ke gives us sad scenes in a railway station, where two men are waiting for a train. They wait and wait. But the train never stops. So there’s plenty of time to notice how grubby and squalid the waiting room is. It looks just like a corner of Battersea Power Station.
Everybody here seems to miss the old rhythms, the old nature. There is an installation by Gu Dexin, which uses 100,000 apples to create a new wall. They fill the broken factory with fruity smells and a lovely set of autumnal colours. It’s a sentimental message. But the real China, on this evidence, has serious losses to get sentimental about.
Elsewhere in London, it’s been a week of undiluted artistic frenzy. The Frieze Art Fair has been taking place in Regent’s Park, and to entertain the thousands of rabid international collectors who have come to town with their cheque books flapping, the art world has gone into amphetamine overdrive. I’ve been keeping an eye on the ensuing madness for you, and here’s my quick appraisal of the best contributions.
Down the road from Battersea Power Station, at Albion, the eye-catching Mariko Mori is exposing us to a very different range of oriental realities: a space-age Japanese range. Adopting again her familiar art persona as the Japanese Barbarella, done up to the nines in a selection of elegant multicoloured catsuits, Mori has travelled around the world with a portable space capsule and had herself photographed in front of a range of famous ancient sights: the Pyramids, Angkor Wat, the ziggurats of Teotihuacan. The idea is to imply an invasion of the mysterious past by an even more mysterious future. Or Doctor Who meets Vogue. I’m not sure about the actual thinking behind these dreamy invasions, but the images are enticing and wondrous.
For free fun and games, there is nothing in town to beat Carsten Höller’s set of giant slides in the turbine hall at Tate Modern.
Plummeting down to the basement from the fifth floor turns out to be astonishingly exciting. And quite why anyone should be asking now if this really is art, rather than the sort of ride you get at a funfair, puzzles me. Surely it’s been absolutely clear from the moment Tate Modern opened that one of the chief aims of the place was to blur the divide between a gallery and an amusement park. Does anyone imagine that the queues waiting to get inside would be anything like as long if the audience were looking for enlightenment? Höller’s fabulous helter-skelter is merely the most obvious example yet of the takeover of art by the entertainment industry.
Over at Tate Britain, this year’s contenders for the Turner Prize have managed, against the odds, to come up with a stimulating show. If the prize were awarded for the most beautiful work, the winner would be Tomma Abts, whose softly spoken abstract paintings seem to be lost in private thought, like the intimate interiors of Bonnard or Vuillard. It’s a brand-new variety of abstraction, yet it manages to feel deliciously nostalgic.
However, the Turner is generally awarded not for beauty but for confusion, so the obvious front-runner is Phil Collins, who has constructed a fully functional TV production office inside the Tate, from which he will be making a set of films about people who have been on reality-TV shows. Collins has done this before: a film he made about Turkish reality-show winners is already playing in the gallery. I found it riveting. And if someone can think of a more relevant topic in Britain today than our shaky grasp of reality, I’d love to hear from them.
For a quick dose of fun, pop outside Tate Britain to Chelsea College of Art, where you will see a 12-tonne steamroller painted bright yellow take to the air.
Trust me: Chris Burden’s Flying Steamroller is quite a sight.