I distinctly recall sitting in a deserted pizza shop whose paint was fresh and heating broken, listening to an artist describe how challenges and obstacles are the greatest asset to positive change. ‘Without limitations, anything is possible,’ he said. ‘If someone builds a wall, you work harder to find a way over, through, or around it.’
Nearly ten years later, the district has evolved considerably. The twelve or so galleries have multiplied to over 200, and have been joined by design stores, restaurants, photo studios, and even a cafe serving a ‘New Zealand style flat white’ for a frustratingly artisanal $9. One or two artists’ studios still remain, but most have moved on due to rising rent. This is a classic art district paradigm—in with gentrification and out with artists. But the commercialization of the area signaled an even more interesting phase for Beijing’s art community, one which is robust, responsive and increasingly varied geographically.
In 2008, while Beijing hosted the Olympic Games and prepared to show the world its glistening new sports stadiums and meticulously engineered blue skies, artists Rania Ho and Wang Wei were adjusting to new opportunities on a smaller scale. The Arrow Factory, a glass door art space occupying 12 square meters on the site of a former vegetable shop in one of Beijing’s oldest hutongs (alleyways), was one of the first independently run project spaces outside 798. What began as a conversation among friends about the impenetrability of 798’s mass crowds and macro gallery formula has now become a mainstay of a new generation of organic, grassroots art spaces. Exhibitions at Arrow Factory are visible from the street, but ask nothing of the audience. There are no opening hours, no entrance tickets, and there is no doorway in.
In 2014 Cruz Garcia Frankowski founded Intelligentsia Space, also in the hutongs, as a way to serve an artist community chasing opportunity. Frankowski says: ‘We don’t romanticize our location because we want people to understand that what we are doing is independent of that’. Spaces like this are alternative in the sense that they offer up new approaches to what art spaces can and should be, in a place evolving as fast as it is questioning that evolution.
The contemporary art community in China is associated with resilience amidst social turmoil, political pressure and shifting urban circumstances. Yet adjusting to change is nothing new. This attitude is pervasive throughout Chinese society. Groups of elderly dancers gather in local parks to exercise to music. It’s a community activity, rigorous in its regularity. If the space they use becomes a construction site, they move to a public square, or a street corner. If it becomes a modern mall, they continue at the foot of the mall, reclaiming the space in collaboration with change.
Similarly, the traditional image of the brooding artist in a bare bones loft as a victim of change has given way to one of the artist as savvy entrepreneur, moving fluidly between the studio and the market while continually reinventing. Shanghai-based artists Jin Shan and Maya Kramer relocated by invitation from a studio near downtown, to the outskirts of the city. They tell me: ‘It was an opportunity too good to turn down—our landlord loves art. He offered us the space at no cost, in exchange for some pieces for his collection. We leapt at the opportunity’. Such aggressive commercial/residential trade-off for artworks could be construed as crude, but it is all a matter of perception. This pragmatism has come to be one of the defining qualities of artists’ response to change in China today. Jin and Kramer are now in a new mixed use complex far from any foot traffic. Yet on the day we visited, Jin was busy receiving a queue of museum and gallery representatives who had traveled to see his work.
Just up the road is Xu Zhen, an artist whose name and brand, Xu Zhen produced by MadeIn Company, are one and the same. MadeIn is a self-described artist organization which operates as, and riffs on, art-world institutional structures—the artist, the gallery, the archive, the fabricator, the agent, and the curator, among others. The name MadeIn refers to the abundance of mass produced items made in China and the psychology of China as the factory of the world. Zhen’s installation series Eternity-Winged Victory of Samothrace, Tianlongshan Grottoes Bodhisattva (2014) fused classical Greek and Buddhist marble sculptures into hybrid, top-heavy columns. The series is full of irony but speaks of a deeper reality, one which champions infinite combinations of ideas rather than the immovability of institutions.
Zheng Bo’s 2015 installation Weed Party at Leo Xu Projects in Shanghai painstakingly re-created a derelict industrial façade in the gallery - from greasy tiles, graffiti, and litter—including local weeds at the base, climbing to a grass arboretum on the top floor. Xu explains that these grasses were introduced, largely from Europe and North America, and survive extremity while continuing to flourish. They aren’t pests—they are a socio-political metaphor for adaptation and resilience.
It’s tempting to think of regeneration as a process of complete transformation or the old adage of the phoenix rising new from the ashes. In China it is rather a matter of persistence. Ai Weiwei placed fresh flowers in the basket of his bicycle every day until he received his passport back. Now enshrined in porcelain, the flowers continue to say, ‘I’m still here’.
Sophie McKinnon has worked with the Red Gate Gallery, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, and as a programme developer for Arts Can Do, an art based education project for disadvantaged children in urban and rural China. She coordinated the 2014 China-based Festival of New Zealand Filmmaking and runs China Contemporary Art & Architecture Tours with co-founder John O’Loghlen.
Reopening, Redesigning and Returning
When I wrote my foreword for B.182, we were edging closer and closer to reopening; still anticipating this major milestone after almost five years. Having made the vaguely reckless decision to open our doors, come what may, at 10am on 19 December 2015 – a mere week after project completion – we stuck to that deadline.
The hungry gap
We invited artists, academics, city makers, curators, health specialists and gallerists to comment on the challenges and opportunities for the arts in our city and what art can contribute to the future of Christchurch.
Aaron Kreisler is Head of the School of Fine Art at the University of Canterbury. He talked to Bulletin about challenges and opportunities for the arts in our city and what art can contribute to the future of Christchurch.
Everything is going to be alright
The cover of Bulletin 181 in September 2015 featured a miscellany of crates in storage, several marked fragile, one weighing 156kg, some with arrows indicating which way up they should be, others instructing the reopener to lay it flat first. Some bear an image of what’s inside. Ralph Hotere’s Malady Panels and Julia Morison’s Tootoo are there, one with a label, the other with an image of the installed piece. As I write this our collections remain in storage. A few new works and some which have been on loan are awaiting return from storage within other institutions.
Regional revitalization with art
Rei Maeda, coordinator of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, writes on art’s contribution to the regeneration of a remote rural area of Japan.
Martin Trusttum, project manager for Ōtākaro Art by the River, and founder of temporary gallery space ArtBox, writes on the role of art in Christchurch.
Since late 2006 when I started as director of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, I’ve written several times about our art collections in Bulletin forewords. Given their centrality to our daily work and our reason for being, this is unsurprising. So it’s good news that we’re focusing on collections in this edition of our quarterly journal.
Stakes in the ground
Last, Loneliest, Loveliest is New Zealand's first official presence at the International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, and takes its alliterative title from Rudyard Kipling's poem, 'The Song of the Cities', which gives four lines each to various cities from the British Empire, including Auckland:
Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart–
On us, on us the unswerving season smiles,
Who wonder 'mid our fern why men depart
To seek the Happy Isles!
Curator Ken Hall writes about his experience of working with artists Chris Heaphy and Sara Hughes, as part of a small team with other city council staff and Ngāi Tahu arts advisors, on the Transitional Cathedral Square artist project.
Street urchins, blue moons and rare visions
Even in a city where surreal scenes have become somewhat routine, the sight of the Isaac Theatre Royal's eight-tonne dome, suspended like a great alien craft, had the power to turn heads and drop jaws. Preserved inside a strange white shroud while the theatre was slowly deconstructed around it was a jewel of Christchurch's decorative arts heritage – a 105 year-old Italianate plaster ceiling featuring a circular painted reverie on the theme of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The dome, along with the rest of the theatre, is currently being restored as part of an ambitious rebuild that is expected to be completed in 2015 at a cost of over $30 million.
The fault is ours: Joseph Becker on Lebbeus Woods
There was a packed auditorium at CPIT in Christchurch this August when visiting San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator Joseph Becker delivered a lecture on architect Lebbeus Woods. And it wasn't hard to guess why. In addition to many other achievements, Woods is renowned for his highly speculative project, Inhabiting the Quake. Senior curator Justin Paton spoke to Becker about Lebbeus Woods, and what Christchurch might learn from him.
Christchurch Art Gallery is ten: highs and lows
In recognition of the anniversary of the move of Christchurch's public art gallery from its former existence as the Robert McDougall in the Botanic Gardens to its new more central city location (now eerily empty), I've been asked by Bulletin's editor to recall some highs and lows of the last ten years. So here goes — and stay with me during this reflection, which takes the place of my usual foreword.
A Dark and Empty Interior
In B.167 senior curator Justin Paton documented his walk around the perimeter of Christchurch's red zone, and we featured the empty Rolleston plinth outside Canterbury Museum at the end of Worcester Boulevard. In this edition, director Jenny Harper interviews English sculptor Antony Gormley, who successfully animated another vacant central-city plinth—the so-called Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London. Gormley filled the plinth with 2,400 people, who occupied it for one hour each, night and day, for 100 days. Here, Jenny asks him about his practice, the value of the figurative tradition and whether he has any advice for Christchurch.
Laying out Foundations
Looking broadly at the topic of local architectural heritage, Reconstruction: conversations on a city had been scheduled to open at the Gallery but will now instead show on outdoor exhibition panels along Worcester Boulevard from 23 June. Supplementing works from the collection with digital images from other collections, curator Ken Hall brings together an arresting art historical tour of the city and its environs.