In the heydays of the art market there was a massive influx of Chinese art into the western hemisphere to a good part driven by commercial greed and speculation. The really interesting early beginnings of contemporary Chinese art with performances by ? were long gone and new communist style market embracing strategies had taken over the art world. Many consultants and dealers went east to spot the newest talents and check out the then vibrant and fastest developing art scene in Beijing and Shanghai.
Most Western artists though stayed put. Partly because there were many practical obstacles to settling in China, most residencies were highly censored. In most cases however the reason was phlegma and lack of challenge to leave the comfort zone of established Western art communities.
Varvara did exactly the opposite. And if your art is about social and global issues that is exactly what an artist should do. That’s what I have always liked about Varvara’s approach to art. She throws herself right in the middle of it, seeks to experience and experiment, to get to know people, systems and dynamics and then create powerful art works from that experience. Varvara does not come up with empty theories or overconceptualises her projects, her artistic endeavours are truthful and always have human scale. Her projects are hitting the wounds of social and global change, yet at they same time they are down to earth and hands-on.
Varvara travelled to the far realms of the Chinese-Russian frontier for her “Borders” project in search for her roots and the relationship between a fading and an emerging superpower and its ethnic particularities. For “Landscape Fossilised” she wandered the fields of the Irish excavation sites in ? to reveal the similarities in layering and research between archeaology and art, in particular drawing processes.
Both projects I have shown as project presentations, one in Frankfurt the other in Berlin, both physically too large scale for a start up London gallery, both poignant and exciting.
When I visited Varavra in Beijing in 2006 she was living in a traditional style courtyard house unlike most foreigners at that time. The week I spent there one could get a feel of what the communal living in these houses would be like, the courtyard being the epicentre of family life. Like an expanding and contracting ecosystem family members and visitors would disappear to their respective wing and privacy of the hutong house to then meet again in the centre for meals, chats or drunken nights.
Right from the start in Bejing Varvara was fascinated by the traditional Hutong neighbourhoods and their secret and silent vanishing. Weekly she went to visit, at that time the hutong closest to Tianmen Square, and documented the demolition of a whole quarter over the time of ? years. She met many of its inhabitants and saw them disappear without trace or under much pain and tears. When we went there together a long row of houses that had been there the week before was gone, its families with it, their destiny unknown and not taken care of.
Varvara spoke almost fluent mandarin after not even a year in Beijing and was chatting away as if she had become a part of it. She was one of the few if not the only artist to have a studio not far from 796. Her ability to dive in, understand and adapt is miraculous, the art that emerges as a result consequently aims to the human core of the subject.
It is with much pleasure therefore that the first domestic scale gallery exhibition will be about the Hutong neighbourhoods in Beijing. The “Windows on the Hutong” are photographs of delicate beauty and intimacy revealing a glimpse of a traditional world that is about to be eliminated in Modern day Beijing. They are accompanied by the sounds of the Hutong Varvara and her family lived in and I remember so well. Bustling, lively and very very alien to our ears.
After Varvara and I have been sharing weird apple cider with funny fatless cumin covered cheese in Frankfurt, in Beijing we shared a Mongolian meal of very spicy salads, lamb chunks and lots of Chinese beer in her hutong corner café, to then move on to cut up sausage drenched in curry powder and ketchup in Berlin.
I am almost glad that the next drink we might share will be a pint down the road.
But then with Varvara you never know.