From Yuanmingyuan to Songzhuang:
The Rise and Fall of the Chinese Contemporary Art Market in 30 Years
Originally published in Chinese on a WeChat public account Sansheng
(Sansheng is a media focused on business and culture, founded by two experienced journalists who previously worked for the Chinese version of Bloomberg Businessweek.)
In this article, I suggest and argue significant connections between global economic fluctuations, Chinese national image and the rise and fall of the influential Art District Songzhuang.
In the 90s, growing interest in the third world resulted in a considerable international following for many political Chinese artists. More and more artists came to Songzhuang searching for opportunities. However, times had changed. Instead of getting the success they had hoped for, they became entrapped by a system that did not have their best interests at heart. I recorded the lives of artists and other industry professionals based in Songzhuang to get an intimate look at China’s political and economic changes.
The life of many Songzhuang artists is to constantly first rebel against the hierarchy, then submit to the hierarchy, and finally become a part of the hierarchy.
At the end of 1988, an aspiring artist named Tang Jianying, who had not yet come to Songzhuang, wrapped his painting in a sheet and met a man called Song Wei, Director of the Great Wall Art Museum and one of China’s first truly rich people, who would later travel to the United States.
“Wait a minute, that’s our big boss,” a museum employee said to Tang. Tang sat down grimly, while the staff remained standing. When Song came, he asked Tang to explain the work, Tang refused, “Mr Song, a picture is meant to be seen, not to be told.”
Song stared at Tang, taken aback by the young man’s bravado.
Suddenly, Tong grasped the teacup on the desk and tossed it into the air, soaking himself. He then forcefully removed his coat, slammed both hands on the table as he stood up, and began shaking his fists in the air dramatically.
A moment passed, and the older man closed his eyes and spoke. “Rich man, not without pain.”
“Perhaps I’ve come at a bad time, Mr Song.” Tang began to put away his paintings to leave. As Tang was escorted out courteously by Song’s staff, he is bode farewell with a playfully drawn out “See youuu!” From Song.
Tang heard, stopped, turned back and pointed at Song Wei, “In ten years, I will let you come to me!”
At age 23, Tang worked in a steel factory in Shijiazhuang. That was in 1986 when Beijing Yuanmingyuan art village had not been formed, and the Chinese art circle had just experienced its first contemporary art movement -- “85 New Wave”.
Though the work was hard manual labour, Tang, having no formal qualifications, had to make do. He began to feel the plight of the workers, the sense of powerlessness in the face of the unstoppable juggernaught of Chinese economic progress.
As he dealt with the dangers of the steelworks, he heard his peers talking about Van Gogh, Monet, Impressionism and Brutalism. After more and more sketching trips with friends, he drew his first painting. His friend said, “You should draw more. You use colours very well.”
For Tang, “I hadn’t been recognised and praised since I was a child. This was the first time someone gave me a thumb up. I was a teenager, and I had that kind of pride. It was a time of righteous ardour, thirst for knowledge and the challenging of the unknown.”
One evening, he sat looking at his room full of paintings, listening to music, drinking wine, when tears began to form in his eyes. He lamented his lack of success. “I firmly believed that one day I could conquer art.”
The dangerous working environment of the steelworks eventually took its toll on Tang; falling machinery broke multiple bones in his foot. Unable to continue his work, at the suggestion of two of his students, Tang Jianying went to the Artist village of Yuanmingyuan in Beijing.
It was during this period that he and Song had the “confrontation in the eyes” and the “10-year agreement”.
It was 1988. There was a new sight on the streets of Beijing —— food trucks. Song called his food truck “the Great Wall.” At that time, cars were prohibitively expensive for the average citizen, imported cars and private cars particularly so. Song made his wealth clear and drove a large Chevrolet into town where he would sell lamb kebabs at a considerable profit.
He said he had three food trucks, each of which sold about 1,000 kebabs a day for more than 2,000 yuan. In other words, Song Wei was a millionaire at a time when “ten thousand yuan” was the symbol of “rich” and was extremely scarce.
In the memory of art critic Liao Wen, during the Spring Festival in 1989, the National Art Museum of China was suddenly occupied by crowds of people with long hair, large boots and determined faces. They were the “avant-garde” artists attending the 1989 Modern Art Exhibition. Among them is Song, distinctive with his short square face, and sporting a black velvet collar cotton coat and a black faux-leather “cadre” bag.
The organising committee did not anticipate that the 1989 Modern Art Exhibition would be “the end of the decade of Chinese modern art in the 1980s”. Before the exhibition, Gao Minglu, the curator, said: “There were some irresistible political reasons for not being able to hold the exhibition, and that’s something we can’t change. But if this exhibition cannot be held due to economic reasons, I will announce my retirement from art forever.”
At a time when the average monthly salary in Beijing was 170 yuan, Song provided an astounding 50,000 yuan in sponsorship fees for the exhibition. He also told Li Xianting that he planned to spend 100,000 yuan to buy ten of the exhibition’s featured works. It was his first investment in contemporary art. In Qi Zhonghua’s documentary, Song Wei, Gao Luming said that when she notified the committee, everyone shouted, ‘Hurrah, for the self-employed!’
In the afternoon following the exhibition, featured artist Wang Guangyi mysteriously dragged his friend, the curator Li Xianting, to the corner of his office. With shaking hands, he opened up an old broken bag, and removed ten stacks of grease-stained, pockmarked ten yuan notes, one thousand yuan per stack.
Wang, irrepressibly grateful for Li’s efforts in marketing his works, said in a trembling voice, “I’ll treat you to dinner today, anywhere you want.” In the evening, li Xianting and a dozen people came to a Hunan restaurant, a total of more than 200 yuan spent.
Song officially became the first collector of Chinese contemporary art, but in the decade since, he has disappeared. According to his own record, on October 4, 1991, he went to the United States. That year, Nian Guangjiu, known as “China’s no.1 businessman,” and the owner of a valuable brand called “fool melon seeds,” was arrested and had his assets seized on suspicious grounds. This type of action by the government against the wealthy had become commonplace as a method of raising funds for the state. It was shortly after this that all of Song’s money was confiscated.
He was scared.
In the summer of 1989, when life at the Yuanmingyuan art village was at its most challenging, Tang couldn’t hold on. He went back to Shijiazhuang, “I just wanted to go home and eat a bowl of noodles with fried sauce.” It was following his first solo exhibition, Tang Jianying, in 1990, that Tang began to become known as a painter.
Fei Zheng, the vice-chairman of the Hebei Artists Association, also visited the exhibition. He spoke highly of Tang and later often advised him, “Don’t just stay in Hebei. It’s too depressing here. You should go to Germany.”
When Yuanmingyuan art village was at its most precarious in the early 1990s, Chinese artists were just beginning to make their presence felt around the world. At Australia’s 1992 “New China Art Exhibition”, an Australian paid $4,500 for several sketches by Fang Lijun, an artist from Yuanmingyuan art village. Fang was never again worried about his ability to sell paintings.
In 1993, Fang, an artist named Xu Bing and some other Chinese artists made a collective appearance at the Venice Biennale. In the midst of the west’s growing fascination with the art of the third world, Fang’s works proved particularly eye-catching among those of his Chinese peers at the exhibition, a consequence of the unique images of bald men that appeared on most of his paintings. In the same year, his painting “The second Group No.2” (“Yawn”) was used by Time magazine as the cover of an issue with China as the main content. The figures in the picture are bareheaded, with their mouths wide open, and their faces are distorted, as if they are yawning or shouting.
Art critic Li Xianting calls this style “playful realism.” In many people’s eyes, it is similar to Wang Shuo’s literary works. Almost at the same time, the “political pop” style was deconstructing political symbols and the “gaudy art” style made an appearance, criticising consumerism. At the end of the 20th century, Chinese contemporary art experienced an international explosion.
In 1993, artists without jobs were already regarded as social outcasts, and several conflicts between artists and the public security department had caused a political storm, resulting in plans to disperse the dissenting Yuanmingyuan art village.
At the end of that year, Fang Lijun and others began to discuss whether they should leave Yuanmingyuan art village. Recommended by Jin Guowang, a student of Zhang Huiping, they went to Songzhuang, the most eastern part of Beijing. In 1994, the first group of Yuanmingyuan artists began to buy houses in Songzhuang. Yuanmingyuan lost its “anchor” and was eventually dissolved in October 1995.
In 1994, the per capita annual income of Xiaopu village in Songzhuang was less than 1,000 yuan. Liu Wei bought two courtyards and gave one of them to Li Xianting. At that time, the price of the courtyard was 5,000 yuan, which Li called “Liu Wei’s rich friendship”. Yue Minjun, also from Yuanmingyuan, encountered a strong wind of grade 6 when he went to Xiaopu village for the first time. There was flying sand, dust and rubbish everywhere, and the buildings were mostly in ruins.
The artists had no alternative, however, and Xiaopu village became the first artist village in Songzhuang. Xiaopu is so far toward the outskirts of Beijing, that the border of the province sits at a mere 8 kilometres from its town centre.
In the description of the writer Chen Xiangpeng, “a blue street sign at a small junction marks the ‘Beijing boundary’, with the town of Yanjiao in Hebei province on one side and Beijing on the other. Yanjiao is alive with new housing development, and stands in stark contrast with the run down Beijing across the border. The neon lights lining Yanjiao’s Xinggong East Street are clearly visible from Beijing, inviting locals across its borders with the promise of better living. The artists, determined to preserve their cultural identity as a part of Beijing, preferred to stay.“
In November of 1997, a writer named Ma Yue makes the journey to Xiaopu. He is, in the spirit of Hong Kong’s return to China earlier in the year, making a return to the artist community that he used to live with in Yuanmingyuan.
It was not only artists who became rich at the end of the century. There was a carpenter who worked in a foreign-owned gallery making frames. After working for a long time, he got to know many painters. He created a business making art yearbooks. At that time, few people made art yearbooks, so he made a fortune by selling pages in the yearbooks to artists. After that, he collected many paintings by many famous artists and set up his own gallery and art website in Songzhuang.
After finishing his solo exhibition, Tang Jianying felt that his hometown of Shijiazhuang was “unable to satisfy him”, so he took his paintings to the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Several first-year sculpture students were playing table tennis when Tang approached them and said, “Would you like to look at the paintings for me?”
“Wait a minute. We’re playing ping-pong.” It was not until the students were tired and wiping their sweat away that they said, “give me your paintings; let’s have a look.”
Everything went well after that. With the help of these students, the works of Tang were circulated among the painters such as Chao Ge and Mao Yan in the Department of Oil Painting. More and more people were willing to help Tang.
After returning to Shijiazhuang, he once went to Songzhuang with a friend who ran a company in Beijing. He met some painters who got rich by selling paintings in Songzhuang and felt the huge gap between the rich and the poor. He could not wait any longer.
In 2000, At the age of 38, Tang divorced and moved to Songzhuang. The first person he visited in Songzhuang was Li Xianting, known as the “godfather of Chinese contemporary art.” Li looked at his paintings and said, “Well done.” Tang was more determined to stay in Songzhuang.
After coming to Songzhuang, he met a very familiar person at a dinner party, but the person had been avoiding his eyes. Tang asked, “Is your surname Song?” The man shook his head. Until one day, Tang saw the same man selling paintings on the street. He went over and asked, “Mr Song, please make an offer.” Song finally admitted that it was in fact him and offered 300 yuan.
Later, Tang bought a lot of clothes for Song. When Song wore them outside, he always said, “This is from Jianying!”
In 2000, there were only 70 or 80 painters in Songzhuang. There were no street lamps on the road, and there was only one restaurant in all of Xiaopu village, called Sihe Restaurant. When the impoverished artists went, they would pay separately.
When the artists first came to Songzhuang, many went through periods of collecting cabbage out of the rubbish after the morning market, “borrowing” their landlord’s noodles, and boiling and eating their catch with no seasoning at all. The younger generations were not deterred by these living conditions, finding a certain romance in the lifestyle of the struggling artist.
But Tang shook his head. “Poverty is a terrible thing.”
The first of his works after his visit to Beijing was the abstract “Tian’anmen”. There were a few red and white lines on the black canvas. Not long after that, he began the most iconic works of the Rules series and the Web series.
In the Rules series, he depicted men with wide, frightened eyes and wounds on their faces, dressed in grey prison uniforms. He wanted to show the collective unconsciousness of the little people in big times. “They all want to be well-behaved people, which is the result of being influenced and “tamed” by traditional Chinese culture.”
These works were not “playful”, “pop” or “gaudy”, that is to say, they were different from the typical styles of Songzhuang at the time. Tang would compare himself to a famous TV character of the time, Zhou “Old Urchin” Botong, a man who hid his incredible ability in martial arts behind the mask of a madman and, like Tang, felt no need to flex his abilities in the way that would bring him the most praise and attention.
In Songzhuang, the first person to buy one of Tang’s works was Gao Huijun, an excellent painter from Yuanmingyuan. When Gao inquired about the price at an exhibition, Tang requested $100, assuming it was a purchase for a foreign buyer, and asked whom he was buying it for. Gao Huijun said, “To tell you the truth, I’m buying it for myself.” “If it’s really you, give me ¥500,” Tang said, ¥500 being a sharp discount under $100, “But you are such a great artist, why would you want a work of mine?” Gao simply said he wanted something different.
The art village of Songzhuang grew with every passing year, and by 2005, demand for Chinese art was on the rise, and more and more of the demand was local, generated by Chinese rather than foreign collectors and dealers. Love of China’s art was returning home.
It was one day, in the wake of this growing opportunity, that Tang found himself in his studio on the receiving end of a ¥400,000 offer for several of his works. At approximately $6000, this was an unprecedented sum for Tang.
The offer so dumbfounded Tang that all ability to think and react momentarily escaped him. “Give me a moment,” he said, rallying his senses and doing his best to feign nonchalance “One of these pieces is very important to me. I need a little time to think about it.”
Occurring right on the upswing of the 2005 Chinese art revival, the first Songzhuang Art Festival was a watershed moment, with scores of works sold. The most popular pieces among buyers continued to be those under the “playful realism”, “political pop” and “gaudy art” umbrella. The 2000s were looking to be an excellent time for the artists of China, even more so than the 90s, which were prosperous in their own right.
As seemed appropriate for the Songzhuang art festival, a design for the logo was sought locally. After 300 submissions, the search was expanded to professionals across the country, but in the end the designer was found back at home. One of the organisers, Li Xianting, selected the work of Songzhuang artist Yang Tao.
There were contradictory reports on how the logo came to be. For example, one mistakenly claimed that rather than just one, a group of Songzhuang artists were responsible for the logo.
During the design process, Yang changed the last right-falling stroke (the term used to refer to, within a Chinese character, a diagonal stroke that is high on the left) of the “Song” into a horizontal stroke, a tribute to the Chinese artist Xu Bing’s work “A Book from the Sky”. The new word he created included the characters “Song”, “Zhuang”, “Cai” (taken from the word “rencai” meaning “talents”), and “Zhu” (taken from the word “zhuren” meaning “owner”). After the design was completed, it was bought by the government, earning 15,000 yuan for Yang.
A reporter from the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s biggest and most popular news publication, asked Yang, “Why were you paid so much just to make the simple change of a right-falling stroke into a horizontal stroke?” Yang was a little offended, “Why don’t you try to change it? This change was the result of an accumulation of many years of aesthetic judgment, there’s a lot to it.” Yang further expressed his frustration over this question in our conversation, “The easier something is, the harder it is. Those people can’t understand.”
What is commonly known as the “Big Archway”, which is still standing at the southern end of Xusong Road, the main street of Xiaobao Village, was also designed by Yang especially for the festival.
Yang named this work “The Window of Songzhuang” and signed it with his name. However, over the course of 2011 and 2012, the arch was completely covered with posters featuring government slogans and the latest political campaigns. Its original ornamentation is now, sadly, not visible on any part of the sculpture.
On the opposite side of the archway is a very large billboard sporting the government's political slogans: “Adhere to the world vision, international standards, Chinese characteristics and high position, in order to make history and pursue the artistic spirit, and build the sub-centre of Beijing“.
Many of Yang Tao’s artworks were also bought by art curator Cheng Xindong in the art festival in 2005. Cheng Xindong was the first person to bring Chinese contemporary art to France. As early as 1996, he curated The Four Points Meeting: Exhibition of Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Gu Dexin and Zhang Peili at a French gallery.
Yang Tao’s works combine the revolutionary opera The White-haired Girl with sports activities. In his opinion, the Cultural Revolution and sports were both campaigns (in Chinese, sport, movement and campaign are the same words), but they were totally different in nature. He wanted to make a kind of irony in this way.
A series of achievements enabled Yang to win the 2009 Songzhuang Academic Contribution Award for the cultural and creative industry. Only four people won the award, and Li Xianting was also one of them. However, in the end, Yang did not use any mythic rhetoric to sum up the vast changes that China's art scene had undergone in the past ten years, saying instead, “I did not follow the rhythm well.”
“Do you mean that your work hadn’t kept up with the time?”
“No, I mean socially. My works were special, but I was not good at communicating, so I was a step behind others.”
More artists started to buy houses, but Tang Jianying didn’t catch up. He met with a farmer to discuss the purchase of his 250,000 dollar house, treating to a meal to help ease negotiations. He gave the farmer a box of panda cigarettes (one of the most expensive brands in China at the time). The farmer looked at this generous gift and simply said, in clearly unimpressed tones, “Thanks.”
Despite his best efforts, Tang Jianying soon heard that all the properties in Xiaopu had been sold, leaving him without one of his own. Eager for an explanation as to how this happened, Tang Jianying spoke to a friend of his, “You just invited the farmer to a dinner? We all gave them red envelopes, with 20 or 30 thousand yuan inside. Did you think farmers can't afford to eat?”
Studio rents were also soaring. Tang Rented a studio near Songzhuang Road, covering 400 square meters and costing 30,000 yuan a year. After three years, the landlord asked him to move out for some days until he could renovate the house. The purpose of the renovation is to divide a large studio into three small rooms, each of which rents for 30,000 yuan a year.
In 2004, the annual rent of a small farmhouse was 5,000 or 6,000 yuan, while in 2008, the price was 15,000 or 16,000 yuan. By the end of 2007, Xiaopu village’s total output value was 600 million yuan, and it paid more than 20 million yuan in profits and taxes to the state. In the western part of Songzhuang, the price of high-end residential property is close to 10,000 yuan per square meter. In Yanjiao town in Hebei province, which is adjacent to Songzhuang, the price per square meter increased from 2,000 yuan to 5,000 or 6,000 yuan.
On the eve of the 2005 Arts Festival, When Xiaopu village announced that it was taking out 400 mu of land in the north of the village to build an art district (mu is a unit of area in China. One mu is equal to 666.6667 square meters.), the price of land for artists to build studios was 100,000 yuan per mu, which tripled four years later.
Hu Jiebao, the Party Secretary of Songzhuang town at the time, drew an even grander blueprint: some 40,000 mu of land would be set aside for collective construction between 2006 and 2020. At the price of 100,000 yuan per mu, this would result in a revenue of 4 billion yuan. At the price that local artists usually rent out to build their studios, it would bring in 12 billion yuan per year. Songzhuang had a total agricultural population of 56,000. Each individual villager was taking an average of 70,000-300,000 yuan in rent from resident artists.
In 2008, however, all these plans came to a screeching halt. An order made for one of Tang Jianying’s paintings, valued at 310,000 yuan, was suddenly canceled, and he didn’t know what that meant. People said the financial crisis was coming, but he thought, “What are you afraid of? There was a financial crisis happening back when I moved here.”
At that time, Tang Jianying’s Tibetan mastiff Heizi was only one year old. In the 11 years that followed, in order to take care of Heizi, Tang never left Songzhuang for more than a week. Just as the wave of the art market is always changing, the price of The Tibetan mastiff also fell suddenly after reaching a high point, from tens of thousands of yuan to tens of yuan.
In 2009, the original industrial-looking sculpture on Xiaopu Roundabout was removed, and Fang Lijun, one of the most famous artists in Songzhuang, was invited to design a new one. The new one, a toweringly large piece shaped like an upside-down trumpet, used seven materials from base to top: earth, brick, porcelain, iron, copper, silver and gold.
People called it "big trumpet", "big awl", "pyramid", "seven-color ring", or directly called it "sculpture", “roundabout”. A small sign marked its real name, “Earth Generating Metal.” Fang Lijun explained on it the “hierarchy” the sculpture implied: the top-down ordering of materials is what people are used to. Although the material chosen for the sculpture is from nature, people still enjoy classifying it as superior or inferior.
The metal on top of the sculpture reflects sunlight and is often noticed. The lowest layer of earth, which is frequently eroded by rain, is also the least noticed.
This is the reality. Man is a social animal, and one of its important characteristics is the concept of hierarchy.
During the ebb and flow of the Chinese art scene in 2005-2008, Song Wei once again faded from public consciousness. This time it was not that he had left, but that he had simply been forgotten. Song Wei rarely appeared in the records of Chinese contemporary art history in the following years, because whilst collectors were bolstering the art market with cold hard cash, Song instead took to the peculiar practice of writing sums of money on pieces of paper, accompanied by a little note, and giving that to artists, in an attempt, it seems, to simply will the money into existence.
One of his first instances of this behaviour occurred in 1997. At a gathering at Li Xianting’s house, Song overheard talk of lack of money for an exhibition. Song Wei cut in: “You still don’t have the money for the exhibition? I’ll write you a note.” So taking a pen and paper, he wrote: “Please give Li Xianting exhibition funds of one hundred million yuan! Song Wei.” Li and his wife Liao Wen questioned the man's sanity.
Over the next decade, Song Wei wrote notes to his favourite artists many times, sometimes for five thousand yuan, sometimes ten thousand, sometimes one million. Tellingly, Song has since been diagnosed with mania, schizophrenia, and has been a patient at Hebei Third Psychiatric Hospital, Beijing Tongzhou Psychiatric Hospital, Huilongguan Psychiatric Hospital, Songzhuang Nursing Home, Shunyi Psychiatric Hospital and others.
He never admitted he had a mental illness, and as for the “notes” he wrote, “it was spiritual encouragement, it was… was… It was equivalent to the gold given by the emperor before liberation.”
Song Wei’s wife divorced him, and then a female artist came to live with him. During this period, Song Wei gradually sold off his early collection of paintings. When the paintings were all sold, the female artists also left.
In 2013, a photo of a dark-skinned man with a bald head sitting on the side of the road, shirtless and bearing wounds on his body began to be posted online. It was Song. Song Wei, China’s first contemporary art collector, began his wanderings in Songzhuang.
The faltering popularity of Chinese art was hard on Songzhuang, and without its art festivals and exhibitions, it took on the look of any other rural town (excepting its distinctively dressed populace).
Xiang Shuai, an artist born in 1993, came to Songzhuang in 2013 and lived with his teacher in the village. “My male teacher, a male dog, and I, work and draw in a two mu yard every day. Every morning I go out to buy some food, the old ladies are gathering and chatting in the village. Once I saw an old man in his 70s or 80s on my street riding a tricycle incredibly slowly. When I came back from the market, he had barely moved. The youngest person I ever met in Songzhuang was a 40-year-old aunt selling soybean milk at the entrance to the village. This is life here; the rhythm is very, very slow.”
Mushi, born in 1992, came to Songzhuang in 2017. It took a year for him to meet his first post-90s friend in Songzhuang. Surprised, the friend asked him, “It’s true that there are not many young people here, but how am I the first one you've met so far?” Mushi explained that he did not study art in any university of fine arts and that he didn’t have classmates, so it was particularly exaggerated for him.
Although his work resembled traditional Chinese paintings in style, Mushi preferred not to have his style labeled as such. He used a brush and rice paper because they were the tools and materials he was most familiar with, but what he really wanted to create was more avant-garde contemporary art. He described his hometown, Guangzong County in Xingtai City, Hebei Province, as “a place untouched by the May Fourth Movement.” Many people in this small county can paint, but rarely venture to paint anything other than flowers, with no deeper meaning to their work.
Whether in regard to its people or its art, Mushi found that his hometown could not tolerate individuality.
Around the time of his arrival in Songzhuang, however, the art village's own spirit of individuality and creativity was waning. The phenomenon had been apparent since 2012. That year, the president of the National Academy of Painting came to Songzhuang and had dinner with Li Xianting. While eating, the president said, “We will plant the flag of the National Academy in Songzhuang.”
Li Xianting’s heart suddenly became cold. It seemed that the authentic, grassroots bubble of Songzhuang was finally being invaded by mainstream interests.
In 2013, Fang Lijun was hired as the director of the contemporary department of the National Academy of Painting. Then the shop owners at the intersection of Songzhuang Road and Xusong Road found that in the seven years he had been in Songzhuang, although the overall situation was becoming increasingly depressed, there were more and more seal shops, increasing from one to 20 or 30 (a 'seal' being in effect a unique stamp used in place of a signature on the work of traditional Chinese artists.)
The first time Mushi came to Songzhuang, he went to find Chen Zhensheng, an artist from his own hometown. “If you plan to come to Songzhuang, don’t stay for just a year or two like many people,” Chen advised him. “It’s hard to make a lot of money from painting in the short term, you need to be prepared for that.” Mushi decided to make the move. Like most Songzhuang artists, the money from selling paintings was not his only income. With his previous experience of running a bookstore, he could at least make a living through selling books online.
Soon he found the real difficulty. Traditional artists like to boast about their tutors, while contemporary artists need to conform to a specific trend of a certain period. He sometimes studied the styles of traditional Chinese painters he liked, and sometimes communicated with contemporary artists, but it was hard to say which genre he belonged to.
Facing fierce competition, he could hardly imagine his future. He said, “I came out of the traditional hierarchy when I decided to do art, but now I’m in another hierarchy. But I didn’t really fit into any hierarchy, I was very marginalised in Songzhuang.”
Six months after Mushi arrived in Songzhuang, he passed “Earth Generating Metal” and noticed an entrance in its north side. It looked dirty and neglected, he hesitated but went in. The staircase had three loops, leading all the way to the very top of the huge sculpture, and was topped by a small platform surrounded by several triangular windows.
It was the highest point in Xiaopu Village, and at the intersection of the Xusong Road and Luyuan North Street, two of the broadest roads in Xiaopu village. There were many landmark buildings visible around him, but when looking out of the small windows of “Earth Generating Metal”, he could not tell what direction he was facing. He found it reflected well how he felt in his life at that moment, quite lost and unsure.
There was a friend who advised Mushi to focus on traditional art, but when they met again a year later, the friend had changed his mind, “It’s good that you’re where you are. I was harmed three years ago by a famous traditional Chinese artist who said, ‘You can be famous, you are good enough.’ Then I insisted on traditional art for three years, but nothing changed. There was no hope.”
In recent years, Tang Jianying has also known some young artists who often invite him to see their paintings and give advice. He could not help but be saddened by some of his visits, as it was clear that not all of them had the talent to be professionals.
Once, when he was at a young couple’s home, he was unable to say anything other than to ask them where they had bought the sofa. The young couple said the sofa was not bought but picked up by the roadside. ‘That’s right,’ Tang said, ‘Don’t buy, don’t waste money… Poverty is a terrible thing.”
Given that China’s contemporary art market tends to boom once every ten years or so, the next explosion was just around the corner.
No one wanted to miss this one. They waited and waited, without any sign of a thriving art market incoming, and by winter of 2017, it seemed that the opposite was happening -- Tongzhou district had been designated as the site of Beijing’s urban sub-centre. The sub-center administrative office building was now under construction 8 km south of Xiaopu Commercial Square. This was bad news for Chinese art.
It was the local farmers who caught wind of the change ahead of the artist, as they were the first to hear about the demolition that was making way for the building. On April 28, a house that artist Zhang Haitao bought for 35,000 yuan in 2001 was forcibly broken into by the previous owner, a farmer, in an effort to forcibly take the property back. He had read from WeChat that the state would “confirm the ownership” of rural land, and thought this most likely meant that the land would be taken by the government and its owners handsomely reimbursed. He made a confusing explanation of his actions to news media: “If the country doesn’t have this policy, I won’t want it. It is the state’s business to ‘confirm the ownership’, and I have nothing to do with it.”
Conflicts over property rights have always existed around Beijing, but the issue has become particularly pervasive in Songzhuang in recent years. If this wave of demolition continues to spread, it will affect not only the local artists and landlords, but also the many more young artists who have not yet established themselves, migrant workers who have left their hometowns, local painters who have changed careers because they cannot sell their paintings, and anyone who wants to borrow Songzhuang’s name to develop the cultural industry.
It is 5 or 6 am on May 1st, 2018, and two or three hundred people gather at the entrance to a village in Songzhuang (the “art village” of Songzhuang being, in fact, a town composed of a number of villages). They are here for the labour market, a spot where people come to be hired out for the day to work on various tasks, usually hard manual labour, usually for incredibly low wages. This is an illegal labour market, where men earn 230-280 yuan a day, and women about 150 yuan. To be refused pay by your foreman at the end of the day for no reason at all is not an uncommon occurrence.
Every day when they come back from a 10-hour shift of hard physical labour, they don’t know where the next day’s work will be or how much they may earn. May 1st is International Worker’s Day, making it a legal requirement for employers to make the day a day off for their employees. These are the labour market's busiest days, and the foremen's wages fall further in response to demand.
In the face of waves of media, they have already had preparation. When they see me, their first reaction is, “Can you take a picture of me?” And then they ask, “The police won't kick us out if you do, will they?” It’s hard to say if any of these workers are former artists.
There are more than 10,000 artists in Songzhuang, and an untold number of artistically related practitioners, many of whom live their lives in ways that are difficult to detect.
Some painters open small restaurants and decorate with their own artworks that they could not sell. As well as supporting themselves, they often take in artists who cannot afford to eat. Some painters make a living by delivering food and become strangely intimate with Songzhuang's on and off-seasons. March to June and September to January are the off-seasons. They will work from 10 am to 12 pm during off-seasons and only receive about 20 orders a day, most of which are sent to Jiahua College of Beijing Technology and Business University. Summer and winter vacations are peak-seasons because many students come to attend intensive training in different studios. The delivery man seldom sees an artist order takeout, either in low or high season.
Wu Youming, a curator who has been at Songzhuang for 11 years, said that asking an artist “Why didn’t you succeed?” is like asking a person “Why didn’t you live to be 100?” The proportion of Songzhuang’s successful artists (in economic terms only) has already far exceeded that of other art districts, and in fact reached a level never before seen in China.
Songzhuang was constantly divided into different classes and groups and no one could serve as the person who “knew Songzhuang best”. But just when I thought Songzhuang’s collective memory was fading and the younger generation was forgetting those who had once been influential, Yang Tao reminded me of a quote from the legendary Cui Jian. Cui Jian was the first and most famous of the rock and roll stars, father of Chinese rock, and effectively the Elvis of the east. He said, “As long as there is still that portrait of Mao on Tiananmen, we are the same generation.”
It is this generation that interprets Nietzsche's Dionysian spirit in its own way. In Nietzsche’s so-called Dionysian state, through narcotic drugs like alcohol or other intoxicating substances, people can temporarily forget themselves and reach a state of self-abandonment, becoming at one with the universe and gaining an experiential understanding of the true meaning of eternal reincarnation of life. The Dionysian state causes people’s innate vitality to the surface and brings on the enthusiastic release of one's instinctual energy.
Tang Jianying was drunk and sat in a small restaurant with only nine tables for four. The look in his eyes when he confronted Song Wei 30 years ago seems to have returned. He leaned forward a little and said, “I will whisper to you a poem by Nietzsche. 'Life is a mirror, and the first thing we strive to do is to recognize ourselves from it.’” He then added his own line to the poem, “Even if I will die later.”
Mushi got drunk and went south along Xu Song Road from Xiaobao Commercial Square. “Who said that I haven’t succeeded? I did it. I did it! I am no longer a temporary worker in a small town with 600 yuan salary a month. My former work unit was at the end of a small alley, hundreds of meters long, and only two meters wide. Walking down that long alley was a perfect metaphor for living the prescribed life, the path it took and where it would lead was all to clear. I get most of my income selling books online, but I also support myself by doing what I love and selling my work, and I want my family to know that I’m doing well. But I hate to think that I sold other people’s books more than my own paintings.”
In the deep night of Songzhuang, the silence was broken only by the gentle rasp of the main street's many sprinklers. “When I first came here, I always wanted to get ahead and become the next Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun. Impossible, it’s impossible!” He said as he walked out of a large archway marked” SONGZHUANG CHINA.”
A few letters were missing from the archway, and had been for a long time. It has yet to be repaired.