< March 2011 - Artspace China
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March 2011

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Shen Shaomin, Image by Pedro de Almeida

Shen Shaomin first came to acclaim in the 1900s with his Unknown Creatures and Experimental Fields series - sculptures of mythical creatures and bizarre biological scenarios made of bones. Since then, he has produced a diverse and large body of work, expressing both horror and fascination at the perversities of science, the brutality of humans against nature and the unsustainability of human civilisation.

Shen Shaomin migrated to Australia following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Like many of his Chinese-Australian peers, however, he relocated to China a few years ago to take advantage of cheaper materials and studio space, and the dynamism of China’s international art scene. Shen maintains a connection with Australia, and is increasingly represented in Australian exhibitions. I spoke to him during a recent visit for the 17th Biennale of Sydney - images and interview below.

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"The club space is long and narrow, with the bar on the right and the stage at the far end as you walk in. There is a balcony that runs from behind the stage right up to the front of the club. The walls of the club are painted a muddy red typical of old Beijing, and all along the balcony we have hung up the Matt Niederhauser posters of the best bands and musicians that have come out of the club.

On big nights when the club is full – it can take about 300-350 people – the bands are surrounded by the audience, above, below, in front and around one side. That generally gets them pretty juiced up. In the audience we typically get a lot of repeat customers – mainly lost wild kids, musicians, and people involved in the music scene. I suspect that they like to come often because we never charge them for admission or drinks and it’s the only time and place in which they are treated like stars. Maybe because of that repeat crowd we sometimes get accused of being cliquish, but I am not sure that there’s much we can do about that, and it’s easy to become part of the clique – just show up often and talk to the musicians. Everyone is pretty friendly."

Michael Pettis is the guy behind D-22, and the record label, Maybe Mars, which runs as a side-project to the club. An ex-merchant banker, equities trader and professor of finance, he also has a love of music – specifically finding new bands and being at the generative core of new scenes. Pettis has played a huge role in the flourishing of Beijing indie rock, providing the venue, the label and a profile for the music overseas. He speaks passionately about the club, the personalities involved, and what might well be a history in the making. Read on ...

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Hedgehog, Image by Matthew Niederhauser

At a small bar in Beijing, called D-22, sixty years of rock history are currently being mashed up in one thrillingly experimental moment. It’s almost like the entire canon of pop music has fallen out of the sky – punk, folk, reggae, rock, noise, rockabilly – and young Chinese musicians and their audiences are making of it what they will, taking a bit of Johnny Cash with a bit of Radiohead, Bjork and Joy Division and jamming it into something of their very own.

For the past four years, New York photographer, Matthew Niederhauser has been documenting this musical scene, posing his subjects against a red wall in the back room of the club or capturing them in action on stage. Joyside, P.K.14, AV Okubo, Carsick Cars, Hanggai and countless other Chinese bands have passed beneath his lens, mythologised by his consistent style and focus on D-22.

A selection of these photographs have recently been published in a book, Sound Kapital, which conveys the colour and dynamism of this scene. Click ‘Read More’ below to see some of these pictures, and to read Niederhauser describing what he calls the ‘creative orgy’ currently taking place in Beijing.

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20081213_white005.jpg Shou Wang and Shen Jing from White. Photo by Matthew Niederhauser

The other night I met Shaun Hemsley, founder of the Australasian indie rock music label, tenzenmen. Shaun first went to China in 2001 and, after developing an interest in Beijing’s underground music scene, began helping tour bands travelling within and outside of China. Before he knew it he was one of a tiny number of non-Chinese people who knew about independent Chinese rock, and so he began tenzenmen in an effort to get its music out to a broader audience.

Tenzenmen now works closely with the Beijing-based label, Maybe Mars, an American run company attached to the venue D-22 where most of the Beijing rock and punk bands play. P.K.14, Xiao He, Carsick Cars, White and Joyside are some of their bigger acts, and you might recognise some of these names from recent tours overseas (P.K.14 played Melbourne Festival last year).

Stay tuned for more on Maybe Mars, the club, and the bands over the next few weeks. In the meantime, check out tenzenmen’s website, and have a listen to some of the music. A few tracks are also available to sample here.

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