It seems a long time since Australia's Asialink sent Lindy Lee to be it's first artist-in-residence in the early nineties at the Beijing Art Academy – a non-teaching facility for some of China's leading official artists. Then, it was a tiny studio on the 3rd floor of a, very often, lonely building. There was not much interaction with the other residents, partly because of language barriers, but mainly because the other artists were doing very conservative work compared to the young avant-garde being shipped over from Australia. The common ground was not forthcoming. Accommodation was at the nearby Central Academy of Art and Design (a tertiary level arts school). This was fine for a while, but three or four months in a small 'suite' off limits to the students and with an evening curfew did not lend itself to the interaction and exchange expected by the residents. Jayne Dyer went through this, but later the residents were able to rent simple one-bedroom apartme nts for their time here. This presented another set of problems to the non-Chinese speaking newcomer such as locating and setting up each place, dealing with landlords, the local police and neighbourhood committees, settling in, and then the neighbours – once everything was sorted out their time was almost up!
This situation reflected the times and the restraints on foreigners living in the local community. I became involved with the Asialink visitors in a de facto way as the resident Australian with a gallery based in Beijing. The embassy also provided help with settling the person in, but still the residents were pretty much left to their own resources. Though it was not the best situation, a lot work was produced, projects completed and exhibitions held, and for most, it was a very rewarding experience – something that carries on to this day.
I started thinking "why is there only one Australian artist coming once a year". There were other international artists around but they were mainly here for a very short time or attached to the major art schools as under-grads or post-graduate researchers. To improve on this situation, we decided to address the problem of accommodation by renting an apartment on a long-term basis and then offering it to other individuals or institutions sponsoring artists like Asialink – though not just Australians. By doing this the settling in process was largely simplified and then Red Gate was there to help the artist start work, meet all the people they wanted to, as well as keeping the apartment in working order. Residents are invited to all the openings, dinners and talks that are on and given a lot of information about the art scene in Beijing. It was a more active and social arrangement and it offered the artist more independence by having their own place - one that was very much in the local housing of Beijing.
The next problem to tackle was the somewhat inadequate 15 sq. m studio at the austere Beijing Art Academy. Although well situated, it was not the environment people were expecting and so we looked for something more suitable. We found a large room which was part of an alternative arts space – a new animal on the Beijing art scene. When the arts space folded, which often happened, we lost that studio.
But with one problem came another opportunity in the form of the Shangri-La Arts Centre on the north side of Beijing when Li Gang, one of Red Gate's artists, showed me his foundry in a rehabilitated pickles factory. Other artists who were renting and living there included Norwegian, French and other Chinese. There was one space left and we took it immediately. It was a shell that could easily be renovated into a split-level studio/loft offering both roomy living and a good work space in a community of other young artists.
This space was inaugurated in 2001 and Michael Lyons from England was the first resident. We have had many other artists stay since and have recently taken a second space on the same compound to accommodate the growing interest in working in Beijing. As the program expanded we have also set aside another Beijing space for Chinese artists living outside of Beijing to competitively apply for one of six two-month residencies offered each year by Red Gate.
Our programs are open to everybody and we have had a large range of people with diverse projects in mind. Residents are highly focused on what they want to achieve and make every effort to reach their objectives rather than slacking off and just enjoying the fun place that Beijing is. Surprising to most people is the fact that lack of Mandarin is a minor problem as there are plenty of people around to help out when needed. Artists, being artists, have their communication skills highly honed and even a Beijing taxi driver can get the message.
The common outcome for the residents, whether foreign or Chinese, is the chance to interact with others of a like mind (and sometimes very different minds) in a very active and inclusive community which includes studios, exhibition spaces and specialist facilities such as foundries, print shops and ceramic studios. Although we do not offer an exhibition at Red Gate, we do support studio shows and introduce the artists to directors of exhibition spaces such as the Pickled Art Centre if a more formal setting is required.
Like the gallery scene in Beijing these alternative spaces are growing. In the immediate vicinity of our studios, over two hundred other new studios ranging in size from 80 sq m to 260 sq m are occupied (there are some egos at play here). Coupled with the closeness to the new campus of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the 798 art district, it is certainly one of the liveliest locations to be in. Some artists though find that the area is a bit too far from downtown Beijing or that they don't need a studio. We have covered this requirement with a number of self-contained one and two-bedroom apartments located near the San Li Tun embassy area – very handy to everything and easy to find your way home to. Apart from artists, writers and researchers find these downtown places quite appealing.
More recently we have opened a new 100 sq m studio space and two-bedroom apartment in Chengdu in Sichuan Province and think that this may appeal to artists from HK, Singapore and Taiwan because of the proximity and direct flights and many artists may have Mandarin to make it easier to settle in. For other artists Chengdu offers itself as the staging post to Tibet and many of the minority areas in southern China. Our studio in the Blue Ceiling complex is part of 30 other studios in the area boasting some of the big names in contemporary Chinese art.
The program grows in a number of ways such as by linking with the formal residency initiatives of funding institutions such as Asialink, the Australia-China Council and Creative New Zealand which sponsor a steady stream of artists. The Australia-China Council maintains a permanent residence in Beijing, Shanghai, HK and Taipei with hosts like Red Gate in each place managing the facility on its behalf. Many artists find funding from organisations in their own country such as the British Council or manage to become involved in cultural programs between China and their country such as the recent Irish Arts Festival held in 2004. Others may cover costs themselves but we find many are able to seek support from employers or local arts organisations – any contribution helps. As for our program, there is no support from Chinese institutions so we continue to enlist the support of funding organizations in various countries whether they are independent bodies, education al institutions or departments within ministries of culture or foreign affairs.
Having been involved in this for a few years now we have become aware of the many other programs around the world operating in many different ways. As well, there are umbrella organizations like Res Artis and Trans Artists, both based in Amsterdam. Recently Art Space in Sydney and Gertrude St in Melbourne co-hosted Res Artis' bi-annual conference on residency programs and their development with a focus on Asia. Participating in this conference was an eye opener to me as it showed the diversity and commitment of the many people providing numerous artists with the organizational support to develop their art practice and give them the chance to explore and exchange.
The residency program has evolved in a very positive way because it is a very rewarding experience for all involved and offers so many artists the chance to work in China. The local artists also like the opportunity to meet and exchange with some very interesting people on their own turf. One of the unexpected outcomes is that many artists go home starting to plot their next trip to China whilst others set up studios in Beijing. Four of the first five Chinese artists have re-located to Beijing and ConJunction Arts from NY has set up its own residency program, Simon Kaan from NZ and Gabriella Bertiller from Argentina have established permanent studios here.
In September we are looking forward to hosting Lindy Lee.
- Sat, 1 Jan 2005