Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Peking

Beijing, Wilmotte, museum

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), a place to keep and display the collections of the Belgian Baron Ullens, one of the most important collectors of modern arts, was founded in the 798 Art Zone in Beijing. It is part of a vast munitions complex built by East German engineers and known as 798.

For security reasons military installations were not given names. When production ceased, 798 was gradually colonised by young artists jubilant at finding lofty studio spaces with roof lights they had previously only dreamed of. Then the Belgian food tycoon Baron Guy Ullens, who sold his superb collection of Turner watercolours for record prices at Sotheby’s in July, came on the scene. For several years Ullens has been buying avant-garde art in China.

His new gallery UCCA (known by its initials, like MoMA in New York) consists of two parallel toplit halls. Ullens’s Parisian architect, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, said the conversion had cost just ? 5 million, staggering value in Western terms but believable given the reasonable condition of the 1950s buildings and the low cost of labour. This is a very smart makeover, ice white with black trim. The clever part lies in the use of space — it appears exactly the same by night as by day. This is achieved with the help of a central raised clerestory fitted with louvres through which sunlight glows. At night this is replaced by artificial light of identical hue. An overhead lighting bridge runs the length of the gallery. It looks as if the architect forgot to build a staircase up to it, but in fact the bridge is accessed via a cherrypicker.
The total area of the UCCA is about 8,000 sq m, which used to be a workshop. Its industrial style and structure has been well preserved.
As a non-profit organization, the UCCA also plans to host a series of exhibitions of contemporary arts from both home and abroad. Other educational programs are also on schedule to bring audiences and artists closer together.

What did Beijing get? The Ullenses assembled a team of experts—with curator Fei Dawei as artistic director—and proceeded to transform a dilapidated Bauhaus-era factory building into a glimmering cathedral for contemporary art. Occupying a whopping eighty-six thousand square feet at the center of the 798 art district, the UCCA contains a library, screening rooms, a store, a café, and, of course, plenty of space for exhibitions. Manned by an international staff, the venue aims to be the most comprehensive art institution in China—and just may deserve the title. “Finally! Beijing has something that can be called a museum,” commented artist Bai Yiluo as he emerged from the opening reception.

While UCCA’s inaugural exhibition, “’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art,” wasn’t applauded by all, its backward glance helped to set the tone for the weekend. The show presents some early highlights from China’s still-young contemporary art scene and emphasizes the fervent idealism, resistance, and experimentation that formed its backbone. Simon Groom, director of modern and contemporary art for the National Galleries of Scotland, observed that UCCA couldn’t have mounted a more sobering counterpoint to the money and hype now driving Chinese contemporary art. A Sotheby’s representative from London, who himself couldn’t make sense of the astronomical prices that Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings have fetched recently, was pleasantly surprised to see the artist’s earlier, naive works. The opposite reaction came from a Western art critic, who said she couldn’t understand why the curator decided to include “so many horrible paintings.” Others thought that exhibiting something historical (read: dull) ultimately wasted a good opportunity. The Chinese art world’s reaction was generally supportive, but not without the inevitable squabbles about the accuracy of UCCA’s interpretation of this history.

Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) 4, Jiuxianqiao Lu, 798, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100015, PO BOX 8503, P.R. China, tel: 010 643-86675. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 18pm. Closed on Mondays; http://ucca.clicngo.com
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