Subject to be destroyed: Chai at 20% Picture House

A repackaging of transgressive street art into the art gallery context leaves unanswered questions

Gallery shows about graffiti – or ‘street art’, as it’s inevitably rebranded in this context – tend to fall into one of two equally dubious categories. In one scenario, works that may be visceral and vibrant on the street are bloodlessly reproduced, via photo, on canvas, or directly onto the gallery’s walls. In the other, canny dual citizens of the street and gallery worlds create clever installations that simultaneously mock and capitalise on their situation within the art market (see: Banksy).


(Chai), a small group show currently on view at the newly opened 20% Picture House, fits loosely into the second category, though more thoughtfully and productively than is usually seen. Perhaps Beijing’s unique warren of dilapidated alley walls is to thank, a fourth contributor alongside curator Filippo Cardella and street writers Mask and Zato.


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The latter, arguably Beijing’s most ubiquitous tag, works most persuasively with the show’s theme. (chai) is the Chinese character for ‘dismantle’, a common sight on the sides of hutong residences marked for destruction. Zato dots one corner of the gallery with signed photos of pieces he’s done for the exhibit: in one, a vaguely anthropomorphic ‘– the red base, undulating blue lines and teardrop shapes evoke blood moving through veins – is ironically thrown up on the last remnant of a recently gutted structure. In another, a mischievous Zato character is depicted throwing up – and thus, obscuring – a pre-existing chai on some doomed wall.


The most provocative piece in the exhibit is also a Zato stunt: he removes a red propaganda banner from the street, cuts out all of the words, and rehangs it in the gallery as a literally empty slogan. He unceremoniously stabs one of the cut-out characters to the adjacent wall: (yi, ‘meaning’ or ‘idea’), a loaded counterpoint to the chai characters dominating the rest of the room.


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Chai is a strong debut for 20% Picture House and a compelling first showing by this ad hoc collection of street artists and enthusiasts. For all parties Cardella, Mask and Zato, as well as gallery director Michael Marshall Chai feels like a first draft, a work in progress co-developed between artist and institution. We look forward to seeing what else might come of an alternative gallery space spotlighting and facilitating sales for media that have historically held only a tenuous connection with the commercial, white-cube gallery world. (Marshall’s planned March exhibit features comic artists).


chai 2 CREDIT Laurent Houc

Image: Laurent Hou (@people_of_beijing)


Ultimately, Chai raises interesting questions about a medium that is so integral to the aesthetic experience of inner Beijing, and yet so hard to approach critically or conceptually. All of the works in the exhibit, including Cardella’s psychedelically retouched photos of covered-over tags and Mask’s jigsaw of canvases, are for sale. This underscores the fact that they are all responsive to indeed, conversant with the circumstances of their own destruction. We’re reminded that the vibrant street art we enjoy for free is as ephemeral as the whims of Beijing’s urban planners: the natural canvases artists like Mask and Zato utilize disappear before our eyes.


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Zato tag X’d out by a rival graffiti writer


The viewer is inevitably left with the nagging burn of unanswered questions raised by Chai’s title and theme, which signify the destruction of their own subject. Its description as a ‘collective exhibition’ rather than a group show creates hope that the artists featured will feed the project’s thornier existential questions into future joint works, be they inside or outside gallery walls.


Chai is on view at 20% Picture House until Saturday 20 February. See full event details here.


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