Memoir

Postcard from Beijing

I'M LIVING AT Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, in an extraordinary brick building designed by the artist Ai Weiwei, who lives down the road. The centre was founded by the artists RongRong and Inri, well-known for their individual and collaborative photography. This art space is dedicated to contemporary photography and video art – one of the first of its kind in China; and I'm here as a recipient of an Asia New Zealand Foundation artist residency.

Caochangdi, where I am, forty minutes from central Beijing, is a vibrant mix of village life and art elite creating an eclectic mix of buildings, art galleries and happenings.

One recent morning I woke to what sounded like gunshots outside. Looking through my narrow bathroom window I saw plumes of mysterious pastel pink smoke rising from the street. Later, on a walk, I spied a giant pink blow up archway covered in images of hearts and cupids and leftover pink streamers covered the ground – I assume the morning fireworks were part of a wedding.

This side of Caochangdi where Three Shadows is based has tree-lined roads. At night everyone comes out to eat together and gossip. The narrow lanes become full of happy gangs of miniature dogs. 

At the moment driving toddlers around the streets in large remote-controlled vehicles seems to be a fad. The first one I saw was a small baby being driven in a plastic red convertible down the road, via remote, by its father. Last night I saw another small child being remote-driven in a replica police jeep.

I’ve been to a few other artist villages in the past week. One visit was to return artwork from a friend to a local artist. I was awarded, for my journey, with an hour-long tea ceremony. This involved Lao Xiang soaking the beautiful clay teapots and cups in tea – the tea was eventually poured into tiny, low circular vessels. Xiang trained as a sculptor but now works primarily as a photographer and assists Western artists, on residencies, to create large-scale sculptural works. We are close in age; and note that much is similar, such as our generation of artists training in one art form but working in another.

Although since the 1990s the contemporary art scene in China has moved away from the collective, to individual exploration of ideas, artists seem to still band together in terms of how art is shown. Some groups of artists have tried to normalise avant-garde art so that it is not politically interfered with. There still seems to be some invisible rules about what is okay to exhibit in public. New types of exhibition spaces help the cause and so do independent curators who are often themselves artists. This is where the villages really come in to play – a singular place where the artist lives and exhibits too. Many villages have galleries amongst their houses and studios, providing space for artists to experiment – sometimes with no commercial or political agenda.  

CLOSER TO HOME, near the outskirts of Caochangdi, I came across a small sign announcing the ‘Juangita art complex’. Led by curiosity I walked down a dirt road until I came to a clump of half-finished buildings. Greek in style, and so incongruous of their surroundings they seemed surreal. Hidden behind them was the artist village.  Hardly any galleries were open, but still, its utopian structures were impressive; a huge cubist form of rusted metal and an immense hulk of grey minimalist brick formed another gallery, with a peep hole for a window.

A giant spider sculpture swung eerily from the power lines, a left over from the village’s more active past. Residents still live there and the experimental architecture of their homes is fascinating.

So many things in China are built on a monumental scale. It’s rumoured that a new art gallery is to be built with the sole aim of making it bigger than any other gallery in the world. Still, I wonder why so much of the art is built on such a large scale. Is it paralleling the impressive historical and architectural history of Beijing? I bought a book on Wang Qingsong’s work the other day, after a visit to his studio and immense constructed photographs. The writer, a Western curator Jeremie Thircuir, was asking similar questions in the book about the scale of Qingsong’s pieces. He compares their size to Chinese scrolls, ‘bigger than what the mind can capture in one glance’.

I travelled in China ten years ago but hardly recognise Beijing this time around. Cranes loom everywhere. The sheer amount of construction is incredible. Demolition takes place in view of many blocks of new foundations and real estate hoardings. 

On my way back in to Beijing via an outer subway line I noticed new communities of identical, souped-up, stone mansions being built amongst the dusty mist of rural land. I couldn’t document them from the subway and there were no formal roads to come back along. The infrastructure had still to be built, and so the mansions were, for the time-being, husks of stone within rural fields.

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