Playing with Noise: A Weekend of Art and Rock in Beijing

Atom, the diminutive drummer of Hedgehog, takes center stage at the Strawberry Music Festival in Tongzhou, May 1 2011

Beijing is the capital of the PRC.  Most folks know the city as the political center of the Chinese world.  And of course the seat of the 2008 Olympics.  Fewer people living abroad are aware that Beijing is also a leading center of a growing arts and live music culture that is also global in its orientation and scope.  This weekend while on a trip to reconnect with bands and other people who appear in my film Down:  Indie Rock in the PRC, I also reconnected with the amazing world of art that this city offers.  

This is how people dry their socks in China's capital

The trip began with a visit to the office Maybe Mars, a record company run by Michael Pettis and Charles Saliba who also manage the club D22, one of the most progressive rock clubs in China.  Michael and D22 appear in my film, so I wanted to show him the latest version of it.  Later in the trip I also visited D22, where I caught a couple of live acts featured in their 5th anniversary celebration.  As usual the club had a low-key and underground feel to it.  Nothing much has changed in the past four years, except the rise to stardom of some of the bands nurtured in this club.

One such band is Hedgehog.  Dubbed one of the cutest acts in China's indie rock scene, they are also one of the most progressive of their genre in terms of their experimentation with sound.  If "playing with noise" is the theme of this blog, Hedgehog definitely fit the bill.  They could have cultivated the cute, poppish sound they came up with four or five years ago, and they have built a following out of those songs, but they've maintained an ironic distance from their fans (much as Bob Dylan did in the concert I blogged a few weeks ago).  

On Sunday I attended the Strawberry Music Festival in Tongzhou, about an hour east of Beijing.  The festival is organized by Modern Sky, the label that handles Hedgehog and many other great bands in the current indie scene here in China.  They did an excellent job with the festival--beautiful location, great performance space (at least the main stage).  Hedgehog stole the show that afternoon with a 90 minute show that showcased their "hit" tunes as well as a lot of more experimental stuff.  They had a solid fan base front and center, arms raised and dancing and singing to all their tunes.  But I was also amazed at the size of their audience--there must have been several thousand people sitting on the hills around the stage, and they all stuck around for the entire show.  So Hedgehog have definitely built a sizeable following in the past four years, which is nice to see.  After the show a bunch of fans stuck around the fenced in periphery around the stage waiting for a photo and autograph opportunity with the band members.  I took the opportunity to slip them a copy of the latest version of the film.  

Hedgehog's Atom takes up the guitar and rocks the show at Strawberry Music Fest

Naturally I also had to see the SUBS while in Beijing.  I got my chance at the MIDI Festival, a long-running music festival in Beijing, this time held in the western outskirts of the city near the town of Mentougou.  Getting there was surreal, and reminded me that China has a long long way to go before the thin facade of modernization in the big cities becomes a reality in the surrounding hinterlands.  But the festival site was even more surreal.  A howling wind blew dust and dirt around the festival area as some heavy metal bands hit the two big stages.  Finally SUBS came on at the end of the evening, and they put on a fantastic show.  Kang Mao was in her best form, braving the wind and dust and kicking up swirling vortices of pure energy.  

After the show I met with them briefly back stage and said hello.  

In between festivals and catching up with band members and managers of the indie rock scene, as well as an old friend or two, I tried to catch up on the Beijing art scene.  Naturally I hit the 798 Arts District, which is still going strong.  One of the highlights as always was the Galleria Continua, considered by some to be the best gallery in the district.   This time the gallery featured the South African artist Kendell Geers.  In the main hall he had some giant African fertility statues juxtaposed with his own images of pornographic violence to women--an interesting connection between the ancient and the modern.  

Upstairs were posters he had made by playing with the iconography and characters associated with revolution in China.  He used the Chinese term geming 革命 in some very interesting visual ways.

But my favorite poster was his "Enter Taint Hem Asses", a play on "Entertain the Masses".  

I also caught the exhibition by Wang Jianwei at the UCCA (Ullens Center).  I wrote a blog about this center after attending its opening in 2007.  The Wang Jianwei exhibit featured a film showing Chinese people in various scenarios including a ping pong room, a court scene, a factory scene and a hospital scene where naked men were being weighed.  It was very surreal and, well (the word has to be used) Orwellian.

Speaking of Orwellian, everywhere I went the name of one artist was on people's minds.  You can guess who that is.  Who is the linch pin of the arts world and the current martyr of "freedom of expression" in the FRC? Yes, you guessed it.  I visited several arts communities including Cao Changdi (started by him), Hei Qiao, and Song Zhuang.  Old Ai was very much in the hearts and minds of the community there.  Well, here's hoping for better times tomorrow.  Unfortunately his own gallery was closed for the day, but I did catch the photography exhibition organized by my friend Juliet Yuan at the neighboring Three Shadows gallery.  The venue was as cool as the show.

All in all the trip definitely revived my enthusiasm for the nation's capital.  On the other hand, the sheer desiccation of the region and the amount of dust and dirt blowing around was another reminder of why I don't live there permanently.  It is hard to imagine how the city will sustain itself for another century as it succumbs to the desertification of the entire northern region.  But if LA can survive, then maybe Beijing can as well.