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Beijing finally embraces modern British art

There is not a whiff of formaldehyde nor a glimpse of a used condom, but the work of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and other leading United Kingdom artists has finally made its way to Beijing for an event that would have been almost unimaginable 10 years ago.

Starting on Tuesday, the newly constructed Capital Museum will host the city’s biggest exhibition of contemporary British art, featuring a well-made bed, a dripping severed head, fidgeting bobbies, Royal Ascot hats and a perilously perched Stephen Hawking.

In Britain, these works have long since ceased to shock, but their display in China is the latest milestone in a cultural and economic opening that has also brought over the Rolling Stones for their first concert, Manchester United for their first friendly and Riverdance for a first performance at the Great Hall of the People. Even more than in music, sport and dance, the level of bilateral exchange in the field of contemporary art has hit an unprecedented height. A new generation of Chinese artists is storming to prominence in galleries and auction houses across the world.

Starting with a huge firework battle across the Mersey next week, Tate Liverpool will stage the most ambitious exhibition of Chinese contemporary art ever seen in the UK.

On Sunday, the British Council organised a networking party for more than 20 British curators at the Long March Space in Dashanzi, Beijing’s rapidly commercialising art district. Charles Saatchi has just launched a Chinese website. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are staging more Chinese art auctions than ever. Such frenetic activity would have been impossible in the mid-nineties. When Gilbert and George exhibited at the National Exhibition of China in 1993, British art was about to enter the international limelight, while China was still trying to emerge from the shadows of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

That brief era of Cool Britannia is gone, but China’s growing cultural power is evident in the setting of the new exhibition. The Capital Museum, which opened just over a year ago, is one of the many architectural projects that are transforming the cityscape of Beijing ahead of next year’s Olympics.

”The whole Chinese scene is on a bit of a roll,” said Richard Riley, head of the visual arts section of the British Council, which is presenting the exhibition. ”Big name Chinese artists are being seen in the West. China curators are making a name for themselves internationally.”

In such a setting, the British works look dated. Although Aftershock: Contemporary British Art 1990-2006 features many of the biggest names in the UK it is not quite a collection of their greatest hits. The Tracey Emin bed on display is the well-made one from the piece The Simple Truth rather than the unmade one surrounded by beer cans and condoms shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999.

According to the curators of the exhibition, many of today’s leading Chinese artists were just out of college in the late 1990s and looked to Britain for inspiration. Now, having searched for their own voice and subject matter, the attention is on them.

Audiences at Tate Liverpool will soon get an opportunity to find out whether the baton has been passed on or remoulded. Starting on March 30, the Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China includes several works that are anything but deferential. Ai Weiwei, probably the best known Chinese artist overseas, will make a two-tonne floating chandelier that commemorates Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International 1919. Zhou Teihai is rather cheekily commissioning three French dessert dishes for the opening dinner. Equally challenging is Xu Zhen, who recently produced a video of his ”expedition” to lop the top off Mount Everest.

While much of the work will look at the social problems of a fast changing society, Karen Smith, one of the curators, said she hoped The Real Thing would also show a lighter side of China. ”I hope this exhibition demonstrates something that is very important in China, but that rarely comes across in foreign news reports: a wonderful sense of humour.”

Making waves

Two artists compared

China’s Ai Weiwei at the Tate Liverpool

The pioneer of Chinese avant-garde art was forced to clean toilets as a child because his father, the famous poet Ai Qing, fell foul of Mao Zedong during the anti-rightist campaign of the late 1950s. During the 1970s, he was an influential member of ”the Stars” — artists who subverted communist icons and ideology with their absurdist works. After a period in the United States he returned to China and helped to formed the ”East Village” community of performance artists. Despite a life spent challenging authority, he is now the consultant for the spectacular ”Bird’s Nest” stadium that will stage the opening ceremony of next year’s Olympic Games. Under a £100 000 commission by Tate Liverpool, he is building Working Progress (Fountain of Light) 2007 — an 8m high, two-tonne chandelier that will float in Albert Dock, based on Tatlin’s designs for a Monument to the Third International in 1919

The UK’s Damien Hirst at Beijing’s Capital Museum

One of Britain’s most influential artists who rose to fame in 1988 by curating the exhibition Freeze in a Docklands warehouse. Best known for preserving animal corpses in formaldehyde, part of his exploration of the relationship between science and art. Won the Turner Prize in 1995. Recently he has begun buying back his own work and promoting new exhibition spaces. Among his pieces exhibited in Beijing’s Capital Museum are The Acquired Inability to Escape, which presents an empty office as a zoo cage, and Girls, Who Like Boys, Who Like Boys, Who Like Girls, Like Girls, Like Boys which mixes butterlies and razors on two pink and blue orbs. Educated at Goldsmith’s College, London – Guardian Unlimited Â

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