Nick Hackworth

China Power Station: Part 1, Battersea Power Station

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

What a way to make an entrance. The first significant show of contemporary Chinese art lands in London in the most spectacular fashion. It’s hard to think of a more impressive backdrop than Battersea Power Station, temporarily occupied by the Serpentine Gallery’s off-site exhibition, nor one more appropriate. There’s a poignant circularity to this dis- play of new art from the world’s latest industrial power in this physical relic of our own industrial past.

In art, as in other forms of international trade, Western relations with China are inspired by the twined motives of fear and greed. Opportunistic speculation has ramped up prices of appallingly weak, pop-art style Chinese art to ridiculous levels. Meanwhile, a far stronger strand of reflective and critical art has spread through international shows and biennales. Some excellent examples of this work, much of which engages directly with the seismic changes engulfing the country, are on show here. Best known in the UK are the beautiful, oblique, black-and-white films of Yang Fudong, that recall the golden age of Chinese cinema in the Twenties and Thirties. Cao Fei used to make slick images of ultra-hip urban youth, but presents at Battersea a more mature piece, a simple video shot in the Siemens Osram Lighting factory in Guangdong, with close-ups of flames melting glass and robotic arms soldering wires following each other in staccato sequences.

Lu Chunsheng contributes the most overtly politically critical work, an amusingly edited selection of clips from old regime- approved films, so that the inanely smiling masses idiotically clap at a series of silly and nothing moments. Other works also deal with the control of history and memory in China. Wang Jian Wei presents a video in which actors prepare for a fictional martial arts fights that, as special effects kick in, becomes ever more real, until at the end the theatricality becomes once more explicit — the point being the ease with which the fiction becomes reality.

Up on the top floor you are assailed by an intensely sweet smell where Gu Dexin has built a wall formed by a wire cage containing a 100,000 slowly rotting apples. Not an original idea, perhaps, to present decay as art, but one that here strikes a keen note. It may be that Chinese industrial growth proves the final trigger that, on top of decades of Western over-consumption, pushes the world into ecological meltdown, but if it does at least they’ll be some sharp-eyed artists recording the catastrophe.

Until 5 November (020 7298 1528).