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Is the Writing on the Wall for Beijing’s Caochangdi Art District?

A number of galleries have recently been marked for demolition, and a number more fear for their long-term survival

Last week the ominous graffiti marking 拆 – pronounced chāi and translated as demolish – appeared on several buildings, including X Gallery and de Sarthe, in Caochangdi, a quasi-art district that sits roughly 20km northeast from the centre of Beijing and is the capital’s second most important locus of galleries after the 798 art district. The crudely written Chinese character is commonly painted onto the outside of buildings to designate impending and – practically always – unstoppable demolition. The marked galleries were informed that they would have to pack up and leave several days before the spray-painted character and typed notice arrived.

The best-known of these, de Sarthe, has said that their landlord was forced to give them until the end of July to leave, with the property’s owner unclear as to the exact reason for the government-led directive, although one theory about a new high-speed train track is circulating. ‘We are now looking for a warehouse space to store our artworks and then for a new gallery space in Beijing, perhaps in 798 or maybe somewhere else such as the centre of the city,’ said Nessa Cui, the Director of de Sarthe’s Beijing outpost. The handful of sites to have been notified that they will be torn down all abut a train track, something a more centrally-located gallery owner told me has always made these particular Caochangdi sites somewhat compromised.

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De Sarthe Gallery, Caochangdi, Beijing. Courtesy: De Sarthe Gallery

de Sarthe Gallery, Caochangdi, Beijing. Courtesy: de Sarthe Gallery, Beijing / Hong Kong

News of the planned demolition spread quickly through Beijing’s art community, especially since it has not been unusual for building clearance in Beijing to begin seemingly innocuously before expanding rapidly. The worry among Caochangdi’s 20 or so galleries as well as the tenants of a number of artist’s studios and other creative enterprises is just how widespread the currently small-scale demolitions may become. A number of stoical long-term residents told me that rumours of impending destruction have been circulating pretty much since Ai Weiwei chose Caochangdi as the site for his studio in 1999 and a subsequent grouping of red brick buildings currently home to galleries such as Chambers Fine Art, Ink Studio and Taikang Space, put the district on the Beijing art map.

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Previous site of Galerie Urs Meile, Caochangdi, Beijing. Courtesy: Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing / Lucerne

Previous site of Galerie Urs Meile, Caochangdi, Beijing. Courtesy: Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing / Lucerne

Whether a conscious effort on the part of local government or not, spaces for galleries and artists in Beijing have dwindled in recent years. Both Heiqiao, an artist studio-filled village nearby, and the Iowa Co-Op complex of artist’s studio located minutes from Caochangdi were both levelled last year. In the proximate Huantie area, much has been reported on the planned and still yet to be completed destruction of artist Huang Rui’s studio which was announced in September last year. Just this year Galerie Urs Meile, a stalwart of Caochangdi, moved to 798 due to problems with their Caochangdi property, which does however remain standing. With these recent events in mind, as well as a longer history of parts of Beijing being razed, most of the galleries and sites that offered comments, whether currently marked out for destruction or not, have a fatalistic outlook on the demolitions and the rumours of more to come: in Beijing pragmatic gallerists know that they could receive the 拆 graffiti at any moment.

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Studio O, Caochangdi, Beijing. Courtesy: Studio O; photograph: Elisa Cucinelli

Studio O, Caochangdi, Beijing. Courtesy: Studio O; photograph: Elisa Cucinelli

Effi Meridor is an architect whose company, Studio O, has been based in Caochangdi for the last five years. While acknowledging the relatively privileged position that a well-financed architectural firm has compared to local shops and restaurants, he suggests a reframing of the often doom-filled prophecies of Beijing and Caochangdi’s destruction: ‘The destruction can also be seen as an opportunity, it’s important to acknowledge that there are creative possibilities in destruction.’ He does however recognize that more often than not the speed and harshness of Beijing’s demolitions leave little space for creative thinking, something he hoped he might be able to influence when he recently approached those in charge of Caochangdi to offer to work together to discuss possible plans. Ultimately, he tells me, like any rapidly developing metropolis, Beijing will grow outwards – as the tall glass office and apartment buildings of nearby Wangjing which creep ever closer to Caochangdi attest.

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Ai Weiwei's studio complex, Caochangdi, Beijing. Courtesy: Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's studio complex, Caochangdi, Beijing. Courtesy: Ai Weiwei

Demolitions in China get much media attention and international media outlets are quick to report on the ferocious pace and scarce humanitarian provisioning of some of these programmes of destruction. Artists seeking the larger spaces and cheaper rents that only the further reaches of the city can now provide are regularly the ones caught in the front line. While the arts media is often quick to shine a light on the plight of these artists, reporting often fits too easily into the dominant yet underdeveloped narrative of Chinese artists versus the government. Forced eviction and demolition is nonetheless an undeniable reality of contemporary Beijing. As China’s development continues apace, and Beijing’s seemingly inevitable destruction and rebuilding follows, the words spoken to me by the director of XC. HuA Gallery, which opened in Caochangdi just last year, ring loud: ‘How to balance and weigh individual rights versus the overall speed of development is the urgent question facing China today.’

Main image: 拆 ‘to be demolished’ graffiti in Caochangdi, Beijing, 2018. Courtesy: Josh Feola

Tom Mouna is a writer based in Beijing.

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