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798 artists' district

China is all about energy. The need for it, the consumption of it and the production of it. It’s also about brain power, the thirst for it and its desire for an outlet, whether practical or creative.

I visited the 798 Artist District on Sunday. Galleries, cafes and studios have taken over the buildings of 798, once an industrial complex that was the pride of the PRC. Here, the fervent talent of Chinese artists is on display, their energies splashed across canvases, molded into sculptures and installations, captured in photographs.

I’m no art major (I cheated in an art history test in high school) nor am I an art connoisseur. I usually go to museums and tune out, doing the obligatory walk around the galleries to make the admission worthwhile. Avant-garde impressionism, realism, abstraction — those words mean very little to an art ignoramus like myself. So take any analysis with a grain — no, shaker — of salt.

When I was walking from gallery to gallery (no admission fees), I was struck by how dramatic, raw and uncensored the paintings were. If there are censors in China, they aren’t whitening out the brush strokes of artists in 798. A naked woman with discarded cigarette butts on her body. Burning wax dripping on a weeping girl. A women in a video installation seeking a sperm donor. Young children as Party officials speaking at the dais. Art of Red Guards and Mao Zedong that seem to celebrate and mock at the same time.

It was all a little unsettling, but also revealing. Revealing in that I felt a mood of dissidence in the artwork. A mood of dissidence that would be squashed if it materialized on the street or banned if it appeared in a book. Perhaps I was interpreting the works all wrong, seeing what I wanted to see through the prism of my own background. Of perhaps I’m right, since officials have threatened to bulldoze the area to allow more development.

I didn’t take many photos in the galleries, since I was respecting the “No Photo” signs which every one else seemed to ignore (the photo above was taken at a gallery that had no sign). Here are two I went to that have a few photos of their exhibitions on their sites: Red Star Gallery and Loft3 Art Gallery.

The sprawling 798 area, with galleries tucked in corners and alleyways, is worth another visit. Perhaps I’ll try to go with an art major, or at least some one who didn’t try to cheat in Art History 101.

Sports Illustrated’s Sign Of The Apocalypse (SOA) is supposed to be fun, a bit facetious, and a little zany. You’re supposed to chuckle over your morning coffee after reading one. You’re supposed to shake your head at the insanity and idiocy of the sports world. You know, laugh at those people who just don’t get it, those people who are precipitating the end of the world as we know it.

I bring this up because I came across this week’s SOA (the issue with Tiger):

More than 4,000 baby boys and girls in China have been named Aoyun, the Chinese word for Olympic Games.

This one, however, didn’t make me guffaw. This week’s SOA shows just how different — and misunderstood — the Chinese culture is with the so-called West. Aoyun is a perfectly fine name in Chinese culture; no one will look down on some one who’s name is Aoyun (although it would be a conversation starter). Yet, in SI, it’s a Sign Of The Apocalypse.

Parents in China — and other Asian countries — go about naming their children differently than Western countries. They name the children after mountains or rivers or revolutions or current events or whatever. A kid could be named Strong Donkey after some beloved ass that belonged to the family. Who knows. The point is that the naming customs are vastly different than the ones in the United States or Europe.

The thing that many people get hung up on are the literal translations back to English. Aoyun sounds comical to them. Who would call their child Olympics? Oh, those silly Chinese. (Olympia Dukakis is probably fine with Aoyun, methinks) What they don’t know is that the child could have been given a Westernized name. Something like Michael or Michelle.

Here’s my own example: My Chinese name, Wu Jia Le, literally means Excellent Happiness. If my parents hadn’t given me a Westernized name, people would call me Jia Le, never really knowing what the words, or characters, meant. I probably wouldn’t have gone with Excellent Happiness Wu, even though it has a nice ring to it. And if they hadn’t named me Sunny, I most likely would have chosen for myself a Westernized name, which many, many Chinese people do.

I don’t want to make this a big deal (because I don’t think it is),  but it’s these nuanced misunderstandings in coverage that pop up from time to time that show there’s still a cultural gap that needs to be bridged.

Staircase at Wing Luke

I stopped by the newly opened Wing Luke Asian Museum on Wednesday. It was so new the smell of the recently applied paint caused me to have a headache. No, it was not a tumor. 

The musem still have some issues to iron out. I arrived just in time to witness an Asian lady unbraid some poor volunteer for the museum not having signs for the bathroom. Take a chill pill, lady. This was the same lady who seemed to boast that she had given the museum a $20 check for her and her companion. Admission was $8, so she gave the museum four extra George Washingtons to make her feel special. She had more important things to do though, because she left after 10 minutes.

Not that there was that much to see anyway. The museum most likely opened a few weeks too early. There were only two main galleries open. The Community Portrait Galleries, which sounded interesting in the program, were empty.

There weren’t that many exhibits, especially for the $8 admission price — $9.50 if you wanted the Immersion tour, which I paid for (more on that later).

The George Tsutakawa Art Gallery was nice. That’s all I can really say about it. Nice. If you’ve ever been to the Seattle Public Library, you may recognize his work, the water fountain, “Fountain of Wisdom,” at the 4th avenue entrance. Perhaps it was the headache or the mild sweat that I was experiencing, but I just didn’t connect with the exhibit. One interesting nugget, however. His son, Gerry, sculpted the baseball mitt outside Safeco Field.

The other gallery, “Honoring Our Journey”, was a hodgepodge of pieces. It was like Asian-American studies 101 packed into 1,200 square feet. It lacked cohesion, in my humble and uncultured opinion. Again, it could’ve been the fumes.

So I went on the one-hour Immersion tour, led by Vi Mar, a wonderfully earnest woman. She led us to a section of the museum that was closed to the general public. It was preserved to look like the hotel that housed immigrants from China, Japan and the Philippines (the picture above is of the “old” hotel). Overall, the tour was underwhelming. I didn’t feel like I was immersed in much. I assume the five other people who went on the tour felt the same way.

Yet, I’m happy to see this museum in the heart of Chinatown. I remember going to the old Wing Luke, it was dark, tucked away, cramped. This museum is impressive, especially the entryway and main staircases. But I think the museum’s exhibits will never be its strength. The museum will flourish if it opens up its public spaces — the meetings rooms, the reflection areas, the library, the theater — to the community. And perhaps cut the admission by a couple bucks.

Here’s a link to a few photos of my trip.