Art districts and River Crab

Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming, Project, Xi'an

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picture Corneliu Cazacu

A lot of the cities we visit have a so called ‘art district’. These places basically consist of abandoned factories where artists have created their studio’s. Chinese cities are stimulating these kind of places as an attempt to create ‘creative cities’, cities where the arts flourish and contribute to the GDP.
Typically is that the attitude from the Chinese government towards art has changed overtime from ignorant in the early ’80’s to supportive since around 2005. The reason for this change is as predictable as simple: money. Chinese artists and the products they make have gained worldwide attention, not in the least in auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s where Chinese art prices go through the roof since the start of the new millennium. And they’re still going strong.


The Ai Weiwei studio in Jiading district – picture Corneliu Cazacu

798 in Beijing,  is the most well known example. The area, only ten years ago a place with abandoned factories, is now a bustling zone with shops and galleries, managed by State Owned Enterprise 7 Stars Group. After artists moved in the factories and transformed the space to a vibrant area, a process of gentrification started.

Other cities have their own versions of 798. Kunming has an art zone in the western part of the city, Chengdu has the Blue Roof, Xi’An the Textile Factory and Chongqing has a huge cultural zone next to its Art Academy.

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Blue Roof, Chengdu








Shanghai has its own version of the art zone: M50, along the Suzhou Creek. But apparently, this was not enough for the city. The district of Jiading wanted to initiate a new zone and asked the well-known artist Ai Weiwei to build a new studio as a starter for a new art district in their part of the city. Ai is one of the most well known Chinese artists. He studied and lived in New York from the early 80’s till 1993, when he returned to China. In 2000 he organized the exhibition ‘Fuck off’, which gained him much attention. Last month, Ai opened a show in the London Tate Modern, where he put ‘roughly 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds covering a vast expanse of the floor of the central hall to the depth of about ten centimeters. Visitors were invited to wade right in.
Construction of the Shanghai studio started early 2010, and the 1 million dollar studio was finished in the summer of this year. But then, two months ago, the Shanghai government told Ai that his studio would be demolished. Why? Because the studio was built ‘without the necessary permits.’
That’s weird. A studio that is being created without the necessary permits, although its being build on instigation of the local government. What happened?

Ai believes ‘it is a response to his political and cultural troublemaking’. Ai, who was active in an investigation on the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake, had several encounters with Chinese officials in the last years. Last year, policemen in Chengdu beat him up so severely, that he even needed to have a brain surgery.

“It’s all very strange,” Ai told The Daily Telegraph. “This guy [the mayor] flew to Beijing twice to personally invite me to build the studio and have one or two artists based there so they could build up the new art district. Now they say they want to knock it down. The local officials say the word has come from above and they’re ‘sorry, but they can’t do anything about it – you have to destroy it’, and no further explanation.” An official notice said the demolition had been ordered for failing to apply in advance to the local district office for a “project planning licence”

The artist decided to announce a fairwell party in his Shanghai studio. The Times reported: ‘In lieu of chips and dip, Mr. Ai planned to serve river crabs — a sly reference to the Mandarin word hexie, which means both river crab and harmonious. Among critics of China’s censorship regime, hexie has become a buzzword for opposition to the government’s call to create a harmonious society, free from dissent.’

The party was planned for Sunday November 7th.

After announcing the party on the internet, some people got nervous. The Beijing police prohibited the artist on Friday to go from his residency in Beijing to Shanghai. The Straits Times: ‘Mr Ai said state security officials in Beijing told him he would not be able to leave his home until after midnight on Sunday. ‘Ai Weiwei shall be put under house arrest immediately until 2400 on the 7th and must not leave his residence,’ the artist wrote on Twitter, citing the order.

When one supporter asked if the event would go ahead – adding he was already on a train to Shanghai – Mr Ai responded: ‘Can the train turn around?’


Dishes for the feast – picture Corneliu Cazacu


– picture Corneliu Cazacu

The ironical thing is of course that the whole conflict started with anxious officials not wanting to lose face. Ai Weiwei ‘..they created a piece of performance art that called more attention to the embarrassment they were seeking to suppress.’
On Sunday, more than 500 people from all over China showed up at the party. The studio provided beds for people who could not travel back on the same day. This photo-essay of Corneliu Cazacu shows some impressions of the beautiful event.

Finally, on Monday, Ai was released from his house arrest.

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