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CHINA: As Threat of Eviction Looms, Artists Face Uncertain Future

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, May 18 2010 (IPS) - Ten years ago, Ai Weiwei, one of China’s best known artists, designers and activists, moved into a dusty village in the city’s far north-east corner, where he designed a compound for himself and friends, along with a gallery called China Art Archives and Warehouse.

Villagers at Caochangdi, home to China's prominent artists and galleries, stage a mock protest against the planned demolition of their suburb.  Credit: James Wasserman/IPS

Villagers at Caochangdi, home to China's prominent artists and galleries, stage a mock protest against the planned demolition of their suburb. Credit: James Wasserman/IPS

Back then, the village, called Caochangdi, was little more than a collection of warehouses, a few homes and restaurants, and workers’ barracks. Today, defined by the low, grey-brick galleries that honour Ai’s original designs, Caochangdi has become Beijing’s creative epicentre and a hotbed of Chinese art.

Although often overshadowed by its better-known – and increasingly commercialised – neighbour, 798 Art District, also known as Dashanzi, Caochangdi today is home to some of China’s most prominent artists and galleries, including Pékin Fine Arts, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre and Boers-Li Gallery.

But like other artist communities that have come before it, Caochangdi is in jeopardy. In mid-April, residents were given notices of eviction and told that the suburb would be demolished to make way for government projects, business development and, ironically, a ‘Cultural District’.

The notice, vague on timing and similar to one received last summer, originated from the village government office. "Following the progression of urbanisation, our village has been listed for demolition and eviction, but the time has not been specified," it read.

The threat of demolition arrives as the bohemian art zone has started coming into its own. Last month, Three Shadows spearheaded the PhotoSpring photography festival, modeled after the Arles festival in France. PhotoSpring, which involves 27 galleries and over 200 artists, drew more than 5,000 people on opening weekend and will run until June 30.

With the threat of bulldozers looming, PhotoSpring is in many ways seen as Caochangdi’s coming-out party. Last month, the ‘New York Times’ called Caochangdi "a new frontier for Chinese art," while ‘People’s Daily’ recently dubbed the area "one of the nation’s artistic hotbeds."

"It would be a real pity to lose this place," said Song Jie, owner of Fodder Café, which participated in PhotoSpring. "I love this village."

Nobody is sure when the wrecking ball will hit, and what, exactly, will be slated for demolition if it does. Some say the plan will spare some of the better known buildings and galleries, while others are convinced the whole village will be torn down.

Villagers, including many whose families have lived here for generations, are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Some villagers interviewed for this article were sceptical that the village would be demolished, while others believed it was inevitable.

"Some people say ‘no’, some people say ‘yes’," said the owner of a laundry shop, who declined to give her name.

"They have a plan, but it won’t happen this year," Sun Qi Xiang, a 60-year- old retiree, told IPS. "This will all become high-rise buildings one day. It’s inconvenient… For young people it’s okay, but for older people, we’re familiar with this place."

Artists and gallery owners have moved quickly in an attempt to save the village, but their strategies differ. Ai Weiwei has called for public protests. The artist Huang Rui, a Caochangdi resident and one of the founders of 798, has tried to raise international support by talking with foreign embassies. Three Shadows’ founders, the husband-and-wife team known as Rong Rong and Inri, drew up a petition in Chinese and English and circulated it at PhotoSpring and later online.

"We all have the same goal. Some might run, some might walk, but we all want to save the village," said the 42-year-old photographer Rong Rong, who has been forced to move from several artist communities during his career. He hopes that prominent exhibitions like PhotoSpring will demonstrate Caochangdi’s potential to authorities. "I believe there is a future here."

Complicating matters is the confusing ownership structure that, in many ways, has allowed the community to flourish. The land at Caochangdi is owned by the city government and leased to landlords. Many properties are then subletted several times over. Despite the eviction notice from village authorities, the district government is staying mum on whether the village will be torn down or not, said Stephanie Tung, Three Shadows international affairs director.

"Everybody’s very confused," Tung said.

Art zones have been spared in the past. In 2004, the Dashanzi International Art Festival, held months before 798 was slated for demolition, helped save the area, which is today recognised by the municipal government as "a creative district and cultural park."

But just a few kilometres away are indications of what could be in store for Caochangdi. In Beigao village, also a hub of artistic activity, several studios and artist homes have been turned to rubble, with others slated for demolition.

At Black Bridge International Arts Garden, a sprawling studio, artist commune and kung fu school, several dozen supporters have gathered outside to demonstrate against the pending demolition. In black robes and hard hats, carrying Styrofoam spears, axes and swords, they pose for photos behind a barbed wire fence.

Last month, Black Bridge’s water and electricity were cut, and then authorities spray-painted the character ‘chai’ – which means 'demolish' – on the walls surrounding the compound. The compound’s residents, a floating population of people ranging from their early 20s to middle age, have refused to budge.

Feng Zhong Yun, 43, an artist and kung fu master who founded the compound in 2007, has been through this before: He was forced to relocate when Beijing’s original artist village, Yuan Ming Yuan, was torn down, and again when rent at 798 became too high.

This time, though, he said he was not going anywhere: "I have to protect my rights."

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