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Art in China

Tuesday April 5th, 2011

The arts community of China has been in the news the past few days, because of the detention of artist Ai Weiwei. This kind of government repression receives a lot of attention and appropriate condemnation, but I was interested in learning more about the creative community there. Are there other obstacles to creative work, which aren’t related to the obvious censorship? And what have people managed to produce in spite of these obstacles?

Our own photographer Chad Ingraham, has been documenting a microcosm of these issues in Shanghai. Chad has been photographing the artists of 696 Weihai Road, one of Shanghai’s most prominent creative hubs, which is slated to be demolished in April to make way for a new shopping plaza. This turn-of-the-century mansion was originally an opium den, then a family home, then a car factory, and has most recently been functioning as artist studios. However, Chad explains, “the building has recently been sold to make way for a commercial development… Most of the artists are looking for new spaces, but there are fewer and fewer areas with low rents available.”

Ma Liang, photographer at 696 Weihai road. (Photo by Chad Ingraham)

Chad elaborated further on this dynamic of business development:

I think that the government control over properties is understandable in the sense that it’s quite a valuable piece of land that will probably make developers more money as a commercial centre rather than a home for artists, but at the same time it’s sad to see that there is no perceived value in what the artists are creating there. Most businesses, or really anyone in China, can be affected by the government’s choices to “develop” an area. As we’ve seen from the Three Gorges Dam project, the Olympic building frenzy, and the World Expo 2010, the government doesn’t really have a problem displacing people in the name of progress no matter who, or how many, you are. I think the biggest effect is the feeling of security. You never know when everything you’ve worked for might be taken away.

Strangely, the picture in Shanghai seems to resemble the evolution of, say, New York City, with its evolving processes of urbanization and gentrification, planned and executed with highways and suburbs, artists bouncing from neighborhood to neighborhood. It also resembles much of the rest of the Third World, where displacement in the name of development is administrated by global finance—perhaps China is not so distant from the rest of us.

Ironically, it is this rapid pace of development that first brought Chad to China in 2004. “I moved to China when I was 20,” Chad told me, “because I read an ad in our local newspaper that was advertising an English teaching position in Handan, Hebei. I responded and got the job. They paid for my ticket and gave me enough to live off of every month, so after teaching I would hit the streets with my camera and photograph whatever happened in front of me.

It was a similar story for Sanjay Kothari, whose path can in fact be traced back to that classic example of gentrification. “I was working in New York City since 1995 and left in 2009. Work had slowed down in New York, so I got myself an agent in China who started to get me work, so I made a quick decision to move,” Sanjay explained. “The cost of living in New York is very high when you aren’t making money.”

Photo by Sanjay Kothari, in Vogue China.

Sanjay was recently interviewed in Vogue China, along with some images that demonstrate the emerging fine art standards for commercial photography. He says that “China is in a phase where it is absorbing Western culture and making it its own,” and that China “is essentially a country with a modern philosophy based on practicality and progress.” For Sanjay, however, this is different from the West’s version of progress, which tried to universalize itself by way of the “civilizing missions” of the 19th century. “China I don’t think is interested in promoting its values to the world,” he says.

However, in terms of its own development, Sanjay is optimistic about the direction of China’s cultural world:

It is changing very quickly. A lot of European and American photographers are already represented here, and it is becoming very competitive. It is, however, a very good place for artists. The cost of living and creating art in China is low. The art produced here is very good and in keeping with the art trends of the West. This could be the next Williamsburg…

-Asad

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