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Beijing Design Week
Beatrice Leanza tells Domus how “her” Beijing Design Week aims to attract enthusiasts and insiders worldwide to the Chinese capital.
Opening on 26 September, the Beijing Design Festival returns with a new director, the very capable Italian Beatrice Leanza who replaced Aric Chen – now curator of M+ in Hong Kong – at the head of an event that will draw enthusiasts and insiders worldwide to the Chinese capital.
In 2012, Leanza celebrated her tenth year in China. After completing her studies first at Ca’ Foscari in Venice, from which she gained a degree in the History of Asian Art, and then in London and Heidelberg, she arrived in Asia to research a subject – at the time as unpopular as it was new to the sinological academic world – that resulted in her encounter with the leading lights of the so-called Chinese art avant-garde. “I started out in the frugal community of artists who, whether out of virtue or necessity, hung out on the outskirts of the capital, in the few places open to them. There I worked for more than three years as curator of the China Art Archives and Warehouse (CAAW) with Ai Weiwei, in the urban village of Caochangdi, better known as the alter ego of the now “Disneyfied” 798 art district. Part of an unsanctioned exegesis, it was founded in the late 1990s by Ai Weiwei, just back from the United States, Frank Uyterrhagen and Hans Van Dyk. It is a virtuosism dedicated to contemporary Chinese art, a porous and gregarious place of creation and an ante-chamber for foreign curators and consultants in search of the growing number of new exoticisms in those years.”
Running the Beijing Festival, which showcases design, is a remarkable adventure for a foreigner. How did it all begin? “After my time at CAAW, in 2006 I founded the BAO Atelier, an action and research workshop operating as a means of drawing together critical pluridisciplinary positions; BAO responded to the rise of young creative communities as well as those strictly linked to the visual arts, until then more numerous, and alternative disclosers of an intellectual and cultural trasformismo unresponsive to the systemic complacency with the Chinese ‘creative miracle’ produced for export. These dynamic groups, connected outside the official institutional networks, created an archipelago of practice and reflection at the intersection of several fields and experiences – linked to architecture, design, film, digital production, music and sound art, among others”.
“The completed projects embraced practices within these different disciplines with exhibitions, publications and events that did not, at that time, have a specific context or an acclaimed discursive sphere. Within the historicism of a so-called Chinese ‘global decade’ (post 2001, i.e. after it joined the WTO), underneath the complexities linked to its economic upsurge and the unbridled urbanisation there had to be social tremors of equal measure – not just in the formation of new class fronts but in a generational shift heralding a new vision and experience of the world that did not identify with the mono-dimensional perspective dictated by rampant economic opportunism. David Harvey has described China’s global rise as an accidental conjecture of worldwide significance, and coinciding with the ascent of neoliberal trends in the West. In actual fact, the tensions faced by the Chinese political and cultural institutions today have precedents from the beginning of the last century and are linked to an incompatibility with the structures of Western modernist thought. The Chinese experience consists in this perpetual process of attempted synthesis and going beyond it, as does the path of my work and research. The ‘Chinese model’, if one exists, involves the future of the 21st-century city, and we have here one of its most engrossing study and application workshops.”
In some way, leading Beijing Design Week has also – to use Leanza’s own words – become a “natural conjecture” within her own personal path: having chosen Beijing as her centre of gravity, considered the quintessence of this productive disregard for formal synthesis, she still smiles and is unable to explain how the last ten years could have flown by so far away from Europe. “Beijing has a dimension formulated in the present but it is a city based on what it will become, eponymous of an unresolved, hyper-connected and perennial contemporaneity. In practice, I had worked at length with the organisations and institutions that are now part of and support Beijing Design Week, particularly in terms of curating exhibitions and editing publications during the Milan Furniture Fair.”
This year, the festival has abandoned the single theme structure adopted in previous years and aims to reflect on the renewed Chinese desire to position itself as a prominent stage not only for Asia but internationally: “We always work with the same structure divided into sections covering the design award for local innovators, an official forum (in cooperation with CCTV and The New York Times) and a theme exhibition which, as in previous years, is produced and presented by the China Museum of Digital Arts in “Smart Cities” and will feature Beijing as a “case study” and Amsterdam as host city 2013. Furthermore, a meatier part of the programming called Design HOP unfolds in zones of the city that are representative of its ‘polycentric’ nature.” What are the projects? From planning an entire city or district to engineering a textile product or an industrial polymer, the interface of a road navigation system, the design of public toilets in a rundown district a stone’s throw from the Forbidden City and so on to a rediscovery of how the past – a fascinating and variegated centuries-old craft heritage – can live in the present. In short, design invades the city.