~ Posted by Simon Willis, September 11th 2012
Looking south from the top of the Drum Tower in central Beijing, you can see the pollution haze clinging to the trees like a dense spiderweb. On the right there are old low-rise lanes, known as hutongs, and on the left a huge building site, with orange Hitachi earth-movers scraping the bottom of a hole sunk ten metres into the ground. It's the most modest of three construction projects within about 500 metres of my hotel, the largest of which runs the entire length of Jiugulou Lu, the road abutting the hutong where—a first-time visitor to Beijing—I'm staying.
On Sunday, I went to an exhibition by an artist called Liu Wei in the 798 art district, a quiet, leafy enclave of galleries and studios just off a six-lane highway. Liu Wei often uses the debris from Beijing's construction industry to make art out of the flux. There are no names, just numbers. One is "420cm x 210cm x 35cm x 4 pieces". It's a series of structures, made of scaffolding and clad in coarse, dark-green canvas. Another is called "180cm x 300cm x 3 pieces", three painted canvases, covered in vertical lines in grey and black, with horizontal bands running across the top, middle and bottom—a kind of urban tartan suggesting a skyline or packed piping.
The first time I looked at it, I saw not three canvases but one; only after a few moments could I make out where one finished and a second began. In the middle of the room, there's a stairway going up and then down again made of steel tubes. You can climb it to overlook an architectural sculpture made of wood, or you can look at it on its own—two things next to one another that both do and do not go together.
These sculptures and paintings could be about both construction and destruction, and they're probably about both. Objects lean against walls, or sit on the gallery floor, looking purposeful but not specifically so, like the cart of rusting pipes I saw on the street a couple of days ago as I came out of 7-Eleven. In many places, Liu Wei's art would look abstract. Not here.