Sufi Stories

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Discovering Fascinating Art in China

Many years back someone asked me a question – “What drives the trends in the fashion world? What makes some designs and colors to seem so desirable in a particular season that we suddenly find ourselves hunting in the malls for those designs?”

The answer we had agreed upon was – The fashion designers! They capture our imagination through their new designs and get celebrities to wear those clothes. And then we want them too.

Recently on the verge of my trip to Beijing, my friend Patricia Wong who is an artist based in Shanghai wrote to me a mail with a very very provocative perspective.

“I think that our tastes in art to some extent are influenced by our culture and current trends. Who creates these trends? The top two auction houses – Southeby’s and Christie’s have been the most important influences in our contemporary art world. The multi billion dollar industry in these auction houses determines which painting styles are favored and advertised and who are the artists to be promoted. Their influence drips down to us and reaches our subconscious mind as all advertisements have the power to do so. We then develop a craving for those styles and want to paint in that form and genre.”

I am not sure that I agree with her viewpoint. If it were so, we wouldn’t have artists of so many different genres and styles fiercely proud of their own way of painting.

However, Patricia’s mail piqued my curiosity and during my stay in Beijing I resolved to search for the ‘current art influences in China”.

To my surprise I discovered that I was in midst of an upheaval. An upheaval that promises to shake up the entire art world, not just the Chinese art market.

China’s Poly Culture auction house based in Beijing is coming up this year as a major art auction house – and may overtake both Southby’s and Christie in the next few years. The new auction house currently focuses on Chinese antiquities, calligraphy, scrolls and Chinese art.

Despite the inherent problems in China, with a market capital close to half a billion dollars, Poly Culture auction house can definitely move the needle.

The Poly Culture Auction House plans an auction of Chinese art in the first week of April 2014 in Hong Kong. I didn’t have time to stay on for the auction itself, but I thought why not make the most of my stay in China and explore the Poly Museum in Beijing.

The next morning, in the Double Tree Hotel, I first fortified myself with a big bowl of absolutely delicious Baozi noodles with steamed Youtiao buns on the side, all washed down with sweet chrysanthemum tea. I then set out to explore the Chinese art district called Dongcheng, where Poly Museum is located.

I reached Poly Museum in the gleaming all-glass “New Poly Plaza” tower and took the elevator to the ninth floor where this gem of ancient Chinese art is tucked away in the middle of corporate offices. The benefit of this hidden location was that I had the dimly lit museum all to myself.

Though small, I found to my surprise that the museum is packed with treasures. I was specially fascinated by the Buddhist scriptures carving dating back to 1300 AD which reminded me of the monks in priories in England during the same period laboring over their scrolls and religious books.

The other exquisite artifacts date from the times of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and bring to life the arts and folk customs of those times. The museum allows you to get very close to the displays and enjoy them fully. Looking at these artifacts I felt that we really need to preserve human nation’s heritage wherever it is in the world.

I remembered then the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei who is mentioned as the “most powerful artist in the world today” by ArtReview magazine. Ai WeiWei paints over ancient Chinese sculptures to deliver his message. One of his recent “works” is a sculpture called Template, made up from doors and windows from ruined Ming and Qing dynasty houses.

I rounded up my visit to the museum with a view of the bronze animal heads that were once located in the Old Summer Palace of the Chinese Royal Family. Having survived the barbaric burning and looting during the wars, these animal heads from the “Gardens of Perfect Brightness” as the Summer Palace is called, occupy the pride of place in the museum.

The museum was small and it took me less than an hour to see all that it had on display.

I took the down elevator to the food court and filled up myself with a lot of yummy Zongzi. Zongzi is a pyramid-shaped dish made of sticky rice wrapped in reed leaves. The sweet bean paste stuffing inside the Zongi was absolutely heavenly.

One good thing I liked about China was that all food was hot and cooked. No cold salads and sandwiches for me please.

The visit cost me about Y20 (about 5 US dollars), plus taxi, and I am happy I went.

I had to rush back to my hotel to prepare for my departure flight to Chicago, but I stopped for a peek in the nearby China National Film Museum. Like the Poly Museum, this one also is tucked away in an obscure corner of a locality known as Caochangdi.

Unlike the Poly museum, this one is gigantic. It is considered the largest professional film museum in the world!

With 20 permanent exhibition halls full of antique cameras, special effects areas, dioramas showing history of Chinese film and featuring sets you need several days to enjoy the film museum fully. I only had 20 minutes and much to my sadness I could not stay on for a screening in one of the the museum’s 5 cinemas.

Chinese art is fascinating and rich. It is more than simply scrolls and brush painting. Modern institutions like the Poly Auction House are now bringing to the front Chinese art which had hitherto been tucked away in obscurity in small museums in nondescript places.

There is definitely a new force emerging. Not merely in the business sense that my friend Patricia meant. Nor in sense of the huge Chinese art market related to forgeries. But in the true sense of art which becomes richer with diversity.