|Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 6, April 23 - 29|
He yuehua & his beijing design museum
by Inara Cedrins and Ben Davidson
He Yuehua drove a tank in the army and then worked
as a high-level official in the Ministry of Electronics. Now he runs
a private museum of design that hosts experimental art shows and rock
Mr. He is the brains and the financial patron behind the Beijing Design Museum. The venue opened on Christmas day 1997 (coincidentally Heís birthday) with the intention of both showcasing commercial graphic art and providing much needed space and funding for exhibitions and performances of non-commercial visual art. The museum started out as a place for He to exhibit and store his personal collection of more than 3,000 graphic posters, but in the last two months alone the museum has also hosted a series of cultural events of the kind that cause foreign pundits to pronounce a blooming of another "Beijing Spring." Recent activities include an art exhibition that was prevented by local authorities from opening in its original venue near Tiantan Park and moved to the Design Museum with only a dayís notice; a concert by Cui Jian, the musical darling of unofficial Mainland culture; a performance work by graffiti artist Zhang Dali and an event by Liu Xinhua in which the artist made prints on calligraphy paper with black ink, using certain seldom-printed parts of his body for a stamp.
All of these events attracted audiences of more than 200 people to the Design Museumís basement cafe where I sit on a weekend afternoon listening to He speak about the role he sees for his project. There is no event organized today but there is a small crowd of young people sitting on Frank Lloyd Wright-looking chairs, drinking tea and talking about the film set they are rigging up in the exhibition space on the ground floor. The cafeís brick walls are hung with artifacts and posters and even the lamps hanging from the ceiling are box frames for posters with little twinkly lights inside. A solitary white dove perched on one of the lamps coos soothingly.
He says his interest in art began as a child when
with the encouragement of his mother he attended painting classes at
a youth cultural palace. This did not lead to a career in the arts however.
Heís teenage years were not the best of times to be an artist: he was
22 when the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) ended. Chinaís educational
institutions were in chaos and He decided to join the PLA rather than
attempt to go to university. He was posted to the northwest province
of Shanxi, where he drove a tank for four years. Emerging from the army
he landed an enviable assignment as assistant to the head of the Ministry
of Electronics, a government branch that counts Jiang Zemin among its
former leaders. This job provided more spare time than driving a tank
and He was able to complete a degree in Fine Art by attending night
classes at the Central Academy of Arts.
He resigned from government service in 1987 and immediately
began to organize design-related events. His first big project was a
collaboration with the Goethe Institute in Beijing on a large retrospective
of photographs and artifacts chronicling 150 years of German design.
This was followed by numerous smaller scale exhibitions of international
posters. In 1991 He organized the first Mainland exhibition of design
work done on Apple Macintosh computers - the machines that revolutionized
the publishing and design industries.
He understood very early how important computers would become. "Even before the internet," he says, "I realized that the language of computers, not English or Chinese or Esperanto, is the true international language." He is still one of the few Chinese artists whose only tool is a computer. His series of vividly colored pictures entitled Soul Images (xin xiang) were created using only an Apple Mac, but the illusion of texture is so convincing that it makes you want to touch the images to check that thereís no paint there.
There are two humming computers with large monitors in Heís office on the second floor of the Design Museum. They are in continuous use for commercial design projects that help fund the museum, designing exhibition catalogues and books, updating the museumís new website (www.china100.net) and for creating Heís own art. Both computers are in use when I enter the office: two people are doing the final proofing of a catalogue for an upcoming exhibition. A constant stream of people comes into the office with questions. He answers everyone with a friendly smile and without a hint of formality. Despite six years in a government ministry, he does not seem to need a status-boosting private office or a large, intimidating desk.
The office also provides temporary storage space
for hundreds of posters from all over the world. Like the designers
whose work has been shown in the museum, the majority of the posters
are from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but Europe and America are well-represented
Some of these posters are from previous exhibitions
and competitions. These events lead to the publication of design books,
catalogues and fine art posters. He has close ties with museums in Hong
Kong, Taiwan, Macao and Germany; these special relationships have fostered
an exchange of art exhibits with America, Japan, Germany, France, Hong
Kong, Macao, Thailand and Belize. Like many Chinese intellectuals since
the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) He thinks China has a lot to learn from
other countries, but he doesnít want Chinese culture to disappear. Instead
of the ultra-nationalist terms coined by mandarins of the Qing and current
dynasties, He speaks with the vocabulary of Marshal Mcluhan: "I like
the global village, but we are in the villageís Chinese street (tangrenjie).
We canít follow foreign trends blindly because our street has some unique
things that should be encouraged to develop on their own."
He arranged the Chinese Poster Contest in 1996 at
the International Trade Center in Beijing. The 1998 Chinese Design:
100 Masterpieces show at the Design Museum traveled to Macao. The books
published from these exhibits document the development of design in
this country, and He remarks that there has been noticeable progress
in recent years.
The Design Museum exists to speed up that progress.
Although there are now local Chinese designers whose work is up to international
standard, He says ordinary Chinese people are still not aware of the
possibilities of art and design.
"There is a crisis of belief in China. Most people donít believe in religion any more, nor any of the old ideologies, so what is left but vulgar consumerism? I donít want China to become spiritually empty. I think that art - and that includes good design - can help fill the void left by the loss of the old ideas."
He doesnít see a big difference between fine art
and the applied commercial art of the design industry. The museum hosts
events of both kinds "because art and design both come from society
and affect society."
"So-called avant-garde art," he says with a grin,
"is the same as the design of an instant noodle box. Fine art influences
the ideas of a very small circle of people, but one of those people
might later design an instant noodle box that millions of other people
In addition to exhibition space, the Design Museum provides resources and financial support for artists and designers. Wang Wangwang, who designed the album covers of Cui Jianís last two records, has a studio in the museum and there are other artists and designers working there rent free. He does not charge artists and curators for exhibition space and often gives financial and technical assistance to produce catalogues, an example being the upcoming Departure from China exhibition (see end of article for more information).
I ask how He feels about spending his money on loss-making
exhibitions with no official subsidies while his former ministerial
colleagues are either in business for themselves or still within a snoutís
reach of the government trough. Drawing on his tenth Marlboro of our
interview he says:
"China has plenty of talented people but very few
people willing to take risks. Itís difficult being the first one to
eat a crab, but after you eat it other people see that itís good. I
feel that what I am doing has significance and value. If I die tomorrow,
at least I am doing something worthwhile today."