GUANGZHOU (Reuters Life!) - It's a highly commercial, thriving metropolis in a region best known as the factory of the world, but South China's Guangzhou has also been steadily building a reputation for its vibrant contemporary art scene.
Over the past few months, the Guangzhou Triennial, a major three-yearly Chinese art event has showcased the eclectic works of 178 international and Chinese contemporary artists around the show's theme "Farewell to Post-Colonialism.
The exhibition housed in the Guangdong Museum of Art on the banks of the Pearl River, is a feast for the senses and intellect with works including Lu Jie's revolving door painted with the words "No Foreigners Beyond this Point," a large painting by Liu Xiaodong of Tibetan herders with the controversial China-Tibet railway in the distance, and an apocalyptic animation of a disintegrating metropolis by Paris-based Chinese artist Zhou Yi.
The Triennial's three curators who hail from China, Hong Kong and South Africa believe the political conditions criticized by post-colonialism haven't just "receded, but in many ways are even further entrenched under the machinery of globalization."
While the diverse multi-media works don't always meld into a coherent whole, the Triennial's theme is lent resonance by being held in Guangzhou, formerly called Canton -- a region long known for its autonomous spirit, past revolutionary activity, migrant population and for being an important portal to the West.
"Besides being the first place to establish links to the West in the 18th century, after the Cultural Revolution, it (Guangzhou) has been an experimental city for China," Gao Shiming, the Triennial's energetic young curator told Reuters.
"Guangdong has always been a Chinese cultural and political frontier, this is what I consider to be significant."
In the past 30 years since mainland China's economic liberalization, the region's giddy economic growth, rampant urbanization, commercialism and seismic social changes have proven a fertile breeding ground and refuge for experimental artists sometimes described as "urban guerrillas."
In 2003, Cantonese artists staged an acclaimed show at the Venice Bienniale called Canton Express, while a group known as the Big Tail Elephants blazed a trail in the 1990's when Chinese contemporary art was still in a nascent stage, leading the way for the region's artists to forge a distinct path and attract international attention.
Chen Tong, a longtime Guangzhou-based artist and leading cultural figure who also owns the well-known literary bookstore Libreria Borges, says the city's commercial veneer and dichotomies inspire and lure artists like himself.
"Guangzhou is a highly commercial city, just as China is a highly commercial country," said Chen who took part in the Triennial for the first time this year.
"(Yet) it has a reformist heart and ordinary life is very down to earth, not like Shanghai" said Chen who runs a creative space in a large renovated old mansion on the city's south bank.
"Even if I have a lot of money, this money is meaningless, I'd just spend it all." he said.
Zhou Yi, an upcoming young Chinese artist whose Hear, Earth, Heart video was featured at the Triennial along with a feather-light, translucent "Aerogel Heart" sculpture, agrees.
"I feel that there's a certain freedom in Guangzhou, more than cities like Shanghai and Beijing, where you feel it's more disciplined by the authorities, but there I felt there was a little bit more of a taste of life," she told Reuters.
Editing by Miral Fahmy