Dispatches: Beijing

Following government plans for a greener less-crowded capital, artists are finding themselves squeezed out 

On a recent visit to Arrow Factory, a compact non-profit art space nestled in a central Beijing hutong alleyway, I noticed a striking difference to its façade. Whereas previously you could look into the exhibition space through its storefront patio doors, this has since been reduced to a mere window. The change was the result of Arrow Factory’s summer project, Fences (2017) by Shanghai-based artist Yang Zhenzhong, who sealed up the exterior leaving only a barred window with mirrored glass, behind which was hidden a video camera that recorded visitors’ interactions with their reflections. The video feed was displayed on a monitor in Wu Jin – a small bar run by the curators – just a few doors away. Yang’s work ended up being more prescient than he intended. Just a few weeks after his show’s opening, storefronts up and down the hutong and all around the neighbourhood were bricked up by the authorities, leaving only a window for their businesses to operate, eventually forcing most of them, including Wu Jin, to close.

adiaodui_front.jpg

A Diao Dui Collective, Arrow Factory Grotto, 2012, installation view, Arrow Factory, Beijing. Courtesy: Arrow Factory, Beijing

For the foreseeable future, all subsequent projects at Arrow Factory will have no choice but to operate like their neighbours, through a window. A notice issued by a collective of six different government bodies explains the sudden change as an enforcement of eight separate laws and regulations overseeing everything from health and safety to architectural integrity in order to: ‘protect residents’ legal rights, preserve the dignity of the capital, eliminate safety concerns, administer environmental order, and create a pleasant living environment.’ Near to Arrow Factory, a poster features a rendering of hutong facades after this ‘environmental renovation’ has been completed, with the idea of restoring the hutongs to their original state.

noahsheldon_dsc5502.jpg

Noah Sheldon, Perpetual Chimes, 2017, installation view, the Arrow Factory, Beijing. Courtesy: the Arrow Factory, Beijing

Government regulations regarding population control in the capital reveals another layer behind this drive. In April, Beijing’s municipal government announced it would cap the population at 23 million by 2020, which can only be achieved by driving out many of its migrant residents. Migrants from other parts of China run a significant proportion of the capital’s small businesses. According to a report in the Financial Times, 30 million square metres of small shops, restaurants, and fruit stands deemed to be ‘illegal construction’ were torn down last year, with a further 40 million square metres marked for demolition this year. These are not in the picturesque city-centre hutongs mentioned above, but rather in the so-called ‘rural-urban fringe’ areas where migrants find cheap housing and business premises on the outskirts of Beijing.

yangzhenzhong_yzz007.jpg

Yang Zhenzhong, Fences, 2017, installation view, Arrow Factory, Beijing. Courtesy: Arrow Factory, Beijing

It is precisely in these peripheral zones that artists have built many of their studio complexes – the best-known districts include Huantie, Feijiacun, Yihaodi and Caochangdi – where land has been available and relatively affordable, and where there are plenty of workshops for art-related production facilities. However, as none of buildings in these areas are legal, the very nature of such places is temporary. Warehouses and artist studios are built without permits, and their cheap prices and relative proximity to the city compensates for a lack of stability. Landlords still draw up rental contracts to give artists the appearance of some assurance. But while these might deter the landlord or artist abusing each other’s trust, they cannot confer any legal status to the actual studios. When local authorities need the land for any other purpose, they can move in without any legal obstacle.

iowa-instagram-ley-zhang.jpg

The Iowa Co-op studio, Caochangdi, Beijing, before it was dismantled earlier this year.  Courtesy: Iowa Co-op

There have been several instances of forced evictions of artists in the recent past, resulting in varying degrees of protest. One extreme example came in February 2010, when the art districts Zheng Yang and 008 to the north of the city were swarmed by armed thugs beating artists into submission while demolition teams waited to move in – it made international news. The thugs dispersed as soon as the police arrived on the scene, but not in time to save the artists’ studios. Most violent evictions come at the instigation of private developers taking over land occupied by artists for real estate projects, although it is unclear who was behind an incident this year in Caochangdi, where members of the curiously named Iowa Co-op were forcibly evicted and their studios destroyed. More recent clearances have been government projects where there have generally been lengthy periods of notice for people to move out, including the demolition in April of Hei Qiao (Black Bridge), a village in which many prominent artists such as Zhao Gang, Sun Xun, and Liang Yuanwei had their studios.

wanggongxin04.jpg

Wang Gongxin, It's Not About the Neighbors, 2009, installation view, Arrow Factory, Beijing. Courtesy: Arrow Factory, Beijing

The broader picture behind these events can be glimpsed in a major new plan to restructure the city, published by the government on 29 September, parts of which relate to city’s ambitious anti-pollution drive and population cap. The plan also aims to reduce the amount of land for construction and increase green land quite substantially, meaning that many of those areas skirting the city such as Black Bridge village are to be transformed into the city’s green belt. Hand in hand with such policies, the plan aims to ‘remove non-capital functions’ such as manufacturing and industry from the city.

The severe new anti-pollution regulations have the effect of amplifying these limits on ‘industry’, meaning that everything from welding to spray painting has largely been banned in Beijing altogether. This has exacerbated troubles for some artists who have already been forced to move their studios much farther from the city, because much of their work involves such techniques. While the new plan for Beijing looks impressive on paper, its brutal implementation leaves much room for improvement. Perhaps there’s a note of irony then, in the plan’s stated ambition for the capital to be reserved as ‘a national centre for culture.’

Main image: A hutong in Beijing. Courtesy: wsquared Flickr

Colin Siyuan Chinnery is an artist and curator based in Beijing, China. He is a contributing editor of frieze.

Most Read

In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
The US writer, who died last week, brought a quality of inestimable importance to the modern novel: a mind that was...
The $21M painting was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living African American artist at auction
Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018