Art and Industry: A Different Kind of Exhibition

Art Fair

How does it feel to visit a big art gallery in China? Well, it might not always revolve around art. Charlotte Wilson witnessed a completely different setting in a different kind of exhibition.

I never cease to marvel at the capacity of the Chinese to dress up both themselves and some unlikely surroundings in order to deliver a world class exhibition of some skill or art. Not only that, they do it with good grace and good humor — cliche and kitch grinning over everyone’s shoulders but never quite getting the invitation to join.

Case in point, an unexpected visit I made a few months ago to the 7th China (Shenzhen) International Cultural Industries Fair held at the Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center, the headquarters surely, of the merely commercial. And yes, had it not been for the serene enthusiasm of my host, a genuine culture buff, I would not merely have been surpressing groans on the way in, I would not have been there and would have missed something truly memorable.

The fair was spread over a number of the huge exhibition halls — it seemed to be lightly organized by geography and speciality, but this was not obvious from the floor. It was a typical trade show layout, with the same kind of temporary booths as your average builders’ convention or, for that matter, high end art fair. But what struck the visitor immediately was the “renao” or “din and bustle” that is the hallmark of any serious commercial gathering in this country. And it wasn’t just the competing music and loudspeaker announcements, it was the buzz of a crowd seriously engaged.

When I walked in, I think I was expecting something along the lines of a few calligraphy shops and row upon row of different artists’ supply shops. There were, indeed, a few of these, and there was a fair amount of calligraphy and fine art: But there were also more eclectic offerings: a booth crammed with the fabulous Laran Bu (blue and white batik cloth); some very handsome animal sculptures that had something to do with a shoe company and France. (I have yet to decipher the brochure which presumably may shed light on this), a Taipei museum shop with amazingly well-designed objects in silicone.

Towns throughout China had sent representatives and examples from their calligraphy and painting organizations. Fan makers displayed ribs and leaves and took orders from grave-looking customers. The Tibetans had brought a master of Thanka painting and offered tea and music to admirers. Porcelain manufacturers displayed glazes and shapes and a blithe disregard of breakage.

And then there were toys. Taiwanese toys, being inspected by every child in the place. Two boys were tirelessly testing the glidepaths of a sample boomerang plane, watched enviously by adults and children alike.

Provinces had booths manned cheerfully by young men and women in traditional dress. There were performances: Sichuan jugglers, another province’s singers, yet another’s dancers. And this being China, there was, of course, food. Packaged, in this case, and being promoted by the invited Malayan booth, amongst a riot of brightly-dressed Malay dancers.

Tea and other tables had their own section. They were hewn from single trunks and impressively massive. Mothers and fathers laid babies down on their tops and sat on the tea stools to rest. Families inspected the wood contours and conferred over price. There was free wine at one door, for a while anyway.

As I left, dazed and delighted, I realized that what we had just attended was actually very much a Temple Fair. That wonderul mix of art and artifice, craft and commerce, theater and celebration that draws the New Year’s crowd and in which the crowd wholeheartedly participates. So, it seems, Cultural Industries, as a name, pretty much encompasses all that.

Some pictures from the fair:

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About the Author

After 25 years in Modern and Contemporary art collection development in the US and Europe, Charlotte has spent weekdays the past 3 years studying Chinese language and culture in Beijing. On weekends she heads out to absorb the energy of the Beijing art scene -- and to practice Mandarin, of course.