Header Image: Artist Performance at 2020 Beijing Gallery WeekendTheme Exhibition, 798 Art Center.
1 The WeChat Official Account is “a China-based marketing platform that acts as a complete brand hub to gather followers, send them targeted content marketing and service notifications, and redirect them to a website/e-commerce.” Link
The Virtual Survival
On the morning of 22 May 2020, four months after China announced the lockdown of Wuhan, I arrived in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone in a Maserati. The car was sent to pick me up from the South Railway Station by the organisers of Gallery Weekend Beijing, the first major art event to reopen after the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition to featured exhibitions, gallery tours, and various other events, there were also two indoor artist performances during the opening ceremony, which attracted more audience than the visitor restrictions allowed and brought renewed confidence and vitality to an industry that had been on hiatus for four months. Later that day, I went to a conference at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art titled Perspective from the International Art Community: Challenges and Possibilities in a Time of Global Crisis. As a result of travel restrictions, no speakers were physically present. What the attendees saw instead was a zoom conference pre-recorded by the organisers of the event. This kind of interaction between online and offline events hinted at the emergence of a new era where the survival of contemporary art would depend not only on its physical presence but also on its virtual presence.
The first quarter of 2020 was especially challenging for the art industry in China. Art Basel Hong Kong was cancelled and replaced by an online viewing room, major art museums started offering virtual tours, private art institutions conducted remote discussions and conferences, and many galleries launched online auctions and virtual exhibition platforms. After an initial period of crisis and confusion, the Chinese art industry gradually started to find and create opportunities for itself despite the hardships. Starting from the initiatives taken by different types of art institutions in China in the past few months, this article will look at how the Chinese art industry has utilised the internet to create and expand possibilities for exhibitions and other art practices, and try to analyse the motivations behind these practices as well as their lasting influences.
On 23 January, two days before Chinese New Year, the Chinese government issued the lockdown of the city Wuhan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hong Kong stopped issuing travel permits to mainland visitors on 28 January, and the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global public health emergency on 30 January. Meanwhile, most major cities in China had started imposing travel restrictions and different levels of lockdown. On February 7, the 8th edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, which was originally scheduled to open in March, was cancelled after several weeks of waiting and debate. As the most important art fair in Asia, Art Basel HK had been held successfully for seven consecutive years prior to the pandemic and would normally signal the reopening of the art market after Chinese New Year. Needless to say, the cancelling of the show in Hong Kong shook the entire gallery industry in China and abroad.
The shaky start of the year and the uncertain development of the pandemic cast a shadow over the global art market, which couldn’t be lifted entirely even after Art Basel HK announced the creation of an online viewing room in place of the physical fair. The Viewing Room was launched on 18 March, but the VIP-only preview website and the Art Basel app crashed 20 minutes after they went online due to technical issues. Although the problem was fixed quickly, the overall user experience was less than satisfying and sparked some criticism.
That said, there’s no doubt that the creation of virtual viewing rooms had given rise to new ideas and experiments in an industry that had been shut down in the offline world. Although virtual exhibitions have already been adopted by major art museums in China in recent years, they had failed to reach the general public until the COVID outbreak due to the limits of technology, unsatisfying user experience, and other issues. During the pandemic, most institutions were forced to shut down, and many used the lengthy hiatus to re-organise their archives and update their online platforms. The public can now access the CAA Art Museum’s panoramic VR viewing rooms through the museum’s official Wechat account.1
Similarly, the CAFA Art Museum allows the audience to view past exhibitions through an online platform called CAFA Cloud, which also contains information about curatorial planning, artwork descriptions, as well as commentaries and essays related to the exhibitions. Meanwhile, the Guangdong Times Museum, a well-known private organisation, launched a brand- new website in mid-May; a team of developers scattered across the globe (with members based in Guangzhou, New York, and Berlin) had been working since January to create a website that would become “a database for archives and current dialogues, a network for the participants of these dialogues and their collaborators, and a platform for future research and reflections.”
The gallery industry, which was hit hardest by the pandemic, has also been putting out online exhibitions since February. As one of the art spaces that started exploring virtual exhibitions long before the outbreak, Slime Engine has been dedicated to developing unprecedented forms of art creation, exhibition planning and viewing since its founding in 2017. The gallery became a pioneer of mid-pandemic virtual exhibitions when it launched Territory, a group exhibition based on the turbulence and uncertainty at the beginning of the year 2020 that attempts to reconstruct international metropolises with fragments by injecting art into a virtual world. Landmarks from several major cities around the world, including Shanghai, London, Paris, and New York are included and the audience can access the images and artworks from these virtual cities through the gallery’s website or its Wechat account. White Space Beijing, a gallery located in the Caochangdi Art Zone, has also launched a virtual exhibition for one of its artists. Although the gallery has been open since March, it remains inaccessible to the general public due to local visitor restrictions. In response, the gallery launched Standing at the Crossroad, a virtual solo exhibition of artist Wang Tuo, at 8:00pm on April 30. The exhibition includes five works of single-channel videos, multi-channel videos and video installations the artist has completed over the last two years. For the first time, Wang’s work is screened outside the walls of galleries and museums, breaking the barriers that have long existed between art and the general public.
Aside from exhibitions, art exchanges and public outreach programmes are also the focus of art institutions. The travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic have rendered offline conferences, meetings and discussions impossible, but the crisis has also seen the birth of a new era where contemporary art would be disseminated and promoted digitally. Before COVID-19, museums and other art institutions in China would sometimes livestream their openings and conferences on a few specialised platforms, such as ZaiArt and Bazhuayu, which were mostly used by professionals and art enthusiasts; the wider public was generally unaware of these events, and the average number of views per event fell between 6,000 and 10,000. As a result of the pandemic, however, a lot of art institutions have started collaborating with more popular video- sharing and podcast hosting platforms, which has caused a surge in the scope and diversity of the audience reached. On 20 February, the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art launched Sonic Cure, an online concert, in collaboration with the video-sharing app Kuaishou. Nine musicians, including the renowned Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, participated in the concert from five different cities around the world: Beijing, Shanghai, Hefei, Boston, and New York. The four-hour concert generated more than 3 million views. On 6 May, I participated in an online discussion on Le Corbusier’s Le Poème de l'Angle Droit; the meeting was livestreamed and watched by 1.097 million people, more than 100,000 of which were online at the same time. On the other hand, video conferencing apps such as Zoom, Tencent Meeting, and Zhumu have become the main venue for discussions hosted by Chinese art institutions, providing new possibilities for broader communications in the art community.
Thanks to the radical measures taken, the pandemic has been more or less contained in mainland China by the time this article is written, and businesses have been reopening since March, though the material loss and spiritual traumas caused by the pandemic are still affecting people’s lives in many ways. Through virtual exhibitions, livestreaming, social media, and other online activities, the Chinese art industry has been trying to create more opportunities for the exhibition, dissemination and exchange of art, and to explore how museums, galleries, and other art institutions have been (and can be) reshaped. The museums mentioned in this article have used the lockdown to re-organise their database and re- examine the function and responsibility of contemporary art institutions, as platforms for knowledge production and storage, by updating their websites and apps. The success of these efforts is not only a result of the popularity of social media in China and the technological efficiency of the apps, but also the product of the collaboration and mutual support of art institutions and professionals in the field. Nonetheless, there are still a lot of questions that remain to be answered. For example, where’s the boundary between online and offline exhibitions? How should art institutions shift their focus after the pandemic without altering human resources? How should the value of one’s work in the online art industry be determined? And how should privacy and free expression be protected and overseen during livestreamed events? ... These are all questions we need to think about.