Chinese art collector Zai Huang has a romantic attachment to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in south west China. She grew up there and over recent years has witnessed the city transform into a tourist mecca. It has 3,000 karaoke bars and 4,000 tea houses and its population of 14 million enjoy a laid-back life-style that is the envy of many other Chinese cities. It is also home to the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, founded in 1987. Through its conservation and breeding programme the panda centre has given the city an international profile. Three and a half million visitors flock to the centre annually to watch these adorable creatures lazing around in landscaped enclosures, chomping on bamboo.
Chengdu is known for its tea-house and mahjong culture and ancient temples and parks which dot the city. It is also a city that has capitalised on its status as a gateway to some staggeringly beautiful locations. For example the UNESCO World Heritage listed Jiuzhaiguo National Park on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, is an unsurpassed landscape of mountains and valleys with aquamarine lakes, waterfalls and colourful Tibetan villages. Jiuzhaiguo is 330 kilometres north of the city and is just a 45-minute flight to Huanglong. followed by a 90-minute bus ride. In the opposite direction, 137 kilometres south of Chengdu, is the world’s largest stone sculpture of Buddha at Leshan, just one hour by high speed train. Carved over 1000 years ago into a 71-metre high cliff face the Buddha has watched over the turbulent confluence of the Min and Dadu River’s, ever since. For tourists who do not mind travelling by bullet train at speeds up to 350 kilometre an hour, Xian’s terracotta warriors are only 4 hours, northeast.
Chengdu is also home to the New Century Global Centre, the world’s largest building, in terms of floor area. Opened in 2013, it has a footprint several times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains approximately 400,000 square metres devoted to shopping malls, plus a convention centre, a university campus, a skating rink, a multi-storey, 1,000-room Intercontinental hotel and an indoor, water park set within a faux, sub-tropical forest. The list goes on. Even by Chinese standards the New Century Global Centre is a commercial behemoth.
But for Zai Chengdu is something more than all this. It is, she believes, on the cusp of becoming a major contemporary art centre. ‘People from all over the world, all over Asia, all over China, who love art will come to this beautiful city … to discover the possibilities of the latest art,’ she recently told Asian Art Newspaper. She is nothing if not, optimistic.
Zai has a vested interest in holding such views. She and a friend, ex-champion bodybuilder and model Yu Huang (no relation) last year launched Art Chengdu International Contemporary Art Fair, the city’s first annual art fair. The inaugural edition was held in a tent in the city centre and with only 30 galleries attracted a crowd of 20,000 visitors with a hunger for contemporary art. This year’s edition, in April/May, was something very different. Having grown to 46 galleries, including such blue-chip galleries as Pace, Chambers Fine Art, and ShanghArt, it had expanded into an 8,000-square-metre space in the city’s new International Convention and Exhibition Centre, not that far from Global Centre. ‘We had 58,000 visitors over the 5 days of the fair and took over 90 million yuan (US$12 million) in sales,’ Zai added. Not bad for a fledging art fair.
Even with only a handful of commercial art galleries in Chengdu, artists have still begun to find the city an attractive place to live and work, free of the commercial imperatives of Shanghai and Beijing. However, any talk of an art eco-system is still in its infancy. Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso, who had previously lived in Beijing, New York, and London, moved to Chengdu from New York three years ago.
Known internationally for his delicate paintings inspired by Buddhist iconography and Western symbolism he found that the Chengdu life-style suited him. He has a large modern purpose built studio in an artist compound about 20 minutes east of the city in an area of lakes that in summer, he said, are filled with lotus flowers. Internationally he is represented by leading Hong Kong/Shanghai Pearl Lam Gallery and the contrast between Chengdu galleries and those in Shanghai and Beijing, is acute. ‘There are few commercial galleries in Chengdu and those are pretty quiet and not interesting,’ he commented.
But if the commercial gallery scene in Chengdu is lacking, the art museum one is not. Luxelakes A4 Art Museum, located on the outskirts of Chengdu, and the Zhi Art Museum are two privately funded art museums that are hoping to transform the city into an arts hub. Both have ambitious programmes. A4 is currently showing commissioned work by Japanese artist Kohei Nawa and international acclaimed Chinese animation artist Sun Xun and in addition, prides itself on a highly professional, annual international residency programme that it runs.
Zhi Art Museum opened its door in 2018 in a stunning building designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, 40 kilometres from Chengdu. Valerie Wang-Conghui, Zhi’s director confessed ‘that it was still early days for (Chengdu) to call itself the art centre of the west’.
But she remains positive. Zhi is located at the foot of Chengdu’s Taoism Laojun Mountain which, ‘brings to life the beauty and tranquillity of Zen, and embodies the Eastern philosophy of “learning from nature”,’ Wang-Conghui said. Zhi’s art mission is uncomplicated. It plans to build a contemporary art collection from the ground up alongside an unparalleled exhibition programme. Its opening exhibition included work by Zhang Peili and Wang Gongxin, two internationally recognised pioneers of video art in China. ‘Zhi is far from the city centre which means you have to come on purpose to experience the museum and the art,’ Wang explained. So far 20,000, mainly young people, have done just that.
Thirty-nine kilometres west of Chengdu is the ancient Sichuan town of Anren, with a history dating back to 620. Anren is a culturally diverse town where preservation of historic mansions – currently 27 in total – from the Ming and Qing dynasties, has been a priority. In 2016, the state owned enterprise Overseas Chinese Town (OCT), with a main commercial interest in tourism, announced plans to invest US$1.4 billion in turning Anren into a renowned historical town with relics and museums. Two years ago, OCT launched the Anren Biennale, the second edition of which is currently on show until February 2020. Among the participating Chinese artists are Xu Bing, Sun Xun, Liu Jinhua, Qiu Zhijie, and local artists He Gong and Yongzheng. Gong divides his time between Chengdu and Los Angeles, where he teaches and his Chengdu studio is a rambling creative mess of a place with dogs and various works in progress spread about several rooms and across the floors. His installation at Anren was an ornate antique Qing-dynasty wedding bed into which he had incorporated Chinese and Western miniature figures. It signified, he said, the opening up of China to the West. This year is Hong’s second in the biennale and he is positive about its future. ‘Judging by the interesting artists and curators involved, it has a good future,’ he smiled.
Chengdu is rapidly changing as it hurtles into the 21st century, spurred on by the government’s ‘go west’ policy that encourages development in interior cities. New hi-tech industries are moving in giving rise to a new young elite who have money to spend and a thirst for contemporary art. It is a group that Zai had early identified. ‘The main consumer groups and collectors are young people born after 1980 and 1990. For them, buying art is an alternative to buying jewellery and a new lifestyle,’ Zai Huang commented.
But Chengdu’s real charm, apart from its reputation as a laid-back city, and its pandas, lies in its unique 3,000-year plus history that has evolved on land where the ancient Shu capital of Jinsha once stood. The archaeological remains of the bronze-age settlement was discovered in February 2001 by workmen excavating a construction site. The site is now preserved under a spectacular museum building that protects the excavated tombs, houses and palaces while allowing ongoing excavations. Thousands of ancient jade, bronze and stone artefacts excavated from the site are displayed in an adjacent museum. The two most astonishing finds to date are a small fragile filigree gold foil disc known as The Golden Sun Bird and a ferocious gold mask that possesses a cautionary tale for those who are superstitious. Photograph it at your peril, the story goes.
Many of Chengdu’s old alleyways and courtyard houses have been razed, but some have survived and those have been meticulously restored. KuanZhai Alley not that far from the centre of town is a network of court-yard houses that were occupied as recently as 2003 and which are now mainly restaurants. Jinli Street in Chengdu’s Tibetan quarter, in the city’s east, known as the ‘First Street of the Shu Kingdom’ it is a restored tourist hotspot, effervescent with colour and shops selling traditional embroidered handicrafts and regional food. But its popularity can leads to crowds
An exemplary lesson in crowd control is evident at Jiuzhaiguo, where annual visitation numbers exceed
5 million. Board-walks and footpaths are wide and onsite tourist buses wind through the mountain valleys on a more-or-less predetermined route allowing visitors to board and exit at will at various locations. In contrast, access to the Giant Buddha at Leshan is, of necessity, more complex, where narrow precipitous stairs lead down the cliff face to the Buddha’s giant feet. However, some of the best views of the Buddha can be had from the far side of the confluence where there is a small sand island which faces the cliff. Small boats ferry visitors, to and fro.
Parks and gardens are sprouting everywhere in Chengdu and old parks, such as Huanhuaxi in the city centre, sprawls over many acres. At weekends and evenings the park is alive with strolling families, joggers and fashionable, young women, simply enjoying themselves. Chinese music drifts on the air among the trees and dozens of women dance together with balletic perfection. Tai chi and martial arts are performed by devotees dressed in flowing outfits of blue, yellow and red silk, waving swords like extras in a Zhang Yimou film.
On the far side of the park is the revered Chinese poet Du Fu’s (712-770) thatched cottage, set within 18 acres of manicured bamboo forest. He lived on the site between 759-762 and it is said he composed 140 of his best poems while under its thatched roof. The current cottage is a 19th-century recreation, even so its charm is tantamount and it attracts local tourists in their hundreds.
Chengdu is also the birthplace of Taoism, that interweaving of philosophy and belief that seeks to align humans with the natural order. Taoism has been around for over 2,000 years and in many ways, along with Buddhism, defines China. Both are still very much alive in this secular society. Wenshu Monastery is the largest and best preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu. Originally built in 618, fires and natural disasters have taken their toll and Wenshu has been rebuilt several times, with the main buildings now dating from 1706.
That Chengdu is firmly established as a tourist hub is self-evident. But the nascent art eco-system is still some way off. Even so art entrepreneurs such as Zai are more than enthusiastic about putting up early markers for Chengdu to be considered the new incipient contemporary art centre of south west China. Whether it is too early to make such a bold claim or not, only time will tell. She and her team are already enthusiastically planning the 2020 edition of Art Chengdu. Over at Zhi Art Museum Wang-Conghui seems more cautionary and perhaps, more pragmatic. ‘Chengdu has its unique ancient history that Shanghai and Beijing cannot match. It is strongly mysterious, charming, and full of imagination and we are trying our very best to be part of the engine and energy to make things happen faster,’ she explained.
BY MICHAEL YOUNG