Photo Essays

Chinese Art Activist Returns to Ruins of Bulldozed Arts District

by An Xiao on August 11, 2011

Wu Yuren (image from newyorker.com)

BEIJING — Photographer and installation artist Wu Yuren (吴玉仁), who Hyperallergic profiled last year for his activist work, has returned after a year to visit the 008 and Zhengyang arts districts, both the sites of a heated battle between the arts community and local developers and police officials.

Evan Osnos at the New Yorker wrote this last year about the artist’s struggles:

In recent months, Wu found himself in a growing confrontation with developers and police over the future of the art district known as 008. In February, he was among a small group of artists who were beaten up by what they later described as a hundred masked men swinging iron rods, who had been sent, they assumed, by developers seeking to clear the area for a large-scale residential project. (This image, bizarre as it sounds, is not unheard of.) When the artists failed to get police to respond, Wu and the artists took the unusual step of staging a small protest down Chang’an Avenue, in the politically sacred heart of the capital.

One need only witness the history of arts neighborhoods in New York, like SoHo, DUMBO and Williamsburg, to know that artists always struggle against urban development, regardless of the country. But the thuggery alleged above was just the beginning of the troubles for Wu, known affectionately as “Da Wu” amongst his circle (it means “Great Wu” or “Big Wu”).

Last summer, some time after staging the protest on Chang An Blvd., he was arrested, beaten and jailed. After much campaigning by his wife, Canadian Karen Patterson, and an outpouring of international support, he was eventually released on parole on April 3, 2011.

Da Wu yesterday visited the area, first stopping by 008 Arts District and then going through Zhengyang Arts District. This was his first visit back after his release on April 3, and he posted pictures on Weibo. When I asked him about the trip, he told me in Chinese:

I smoked half a pack of cigarettes by myself on the ruins. This was once a place of life, creativity and struggle. It still sheds blood. I am saddened.

He posted 21 images, but I’ve selected about half of them here and translated his commentary, with his permission:

路过原008艺术区,进去看看 — Passing through the former 008 Arts District. Going in to take a look.

/ wyr

路边一老马 — An old horse on the side of the road.

/ wyr

008艺术区成了废墟 — 008 Arts District has become [a field of] ruins.

/ wyr

局部尚未拆的空院 — A local courtyard that hasn’t been taken down yet. ——— Note: The Chinese graffiti reads jianshang (奸商: sharks).

/ wyr

繁华的路口已不复往日光景,这废墟上每一块砖都铭记着09年那个残酷的冬天的抗争。— The flourishing intersection has not returned to its former circumstances. Every brick on these ruins carries the memories of the cruel winter resistance of ’09.

/ wyr

看来黑桥艺术区斗争也很激烈 — Appears that the struggle at Black Bridge Arts District was also intense.

/ wyr

黑桥艺术区抗争遗址 — Black Bridge Arts District resistance ruins. ——— Note: The Chinese reads: Did you tear down [anything] today? Were you torn down today?

/ wyr

抗争遗址 — Resistance ruins. ——— Note: The Chinese reads: “Cut off the sunshine too” and “Cut off the air!!!!”, referring to the practice of cutting off the water and electricity while the residents were still present. The word “no” is also scrawled over the word for “demolition”.

/ wyr

抗争遗址 — Resistance ruins.

/ wyr

抗争遗址 — Resistance ruins. ——— Chinese: Cut the water. Cut the power. Illegal!!!!

/ wyr

抗争遗址 — Resistance ruins.

/ wyr

政府换届的标语,给谁看呢? — A government re-election banner. Who’s going to see it? ——— The Chinese banner refers to anti-corruption practices in local governance, including ordinances against bribery, buying seats, etc. At the village level, many governments are nominally elected (read more on that subject here). I asked one artist friend who used to frequent the area what the elections were like, and I was told it was like “pushing the boat as the water goes” (顺水推舟).

/ wyr

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  • http://www.meadmclean.com Mead McLean

    Living a cushy American lifestyle seems to put the “it won’t happen here” category of thoughts into my head, but it takes so little for authorities to do stuff like this. Two phone calls and the utilities are gone, one more phone call and there is a demolition crew on the way. It’s sad to see stuff like this happen. If there were at least some signs of development, that’s one thing, but to turn a place to ruins and leave it there, that’s aggravating.

    • http://twitter.com/anxiaostudio an xiao 4.5

      And it’s also important to remember that it *did* happen in the US, particularly in the mid 20th century and during the development of the Interstate Highway System.  This is one example of a neighborhood forced to relocate:
      http://www2.journalnow.com/news/2011/may/15/wsmet04-scorched-earth-razing-of-belews-street-com-ar-1034333/

      This is a good summary of incompleted construction projects across the United States:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeway_and_expressway_revolts
       
      You’re right, it doesn’t take a lot to cross that line–just a few phone calls, really–, and it’s important to be aware of governments’ power over neighborhoods, regardless of the country.

      • http://www.meadmclean.com Mead McLean

        I think now, in the US, it happens through zoning and taxation. The process is a bit slower that way, but no less effective. I know of a few people from Miami whose houses went up in value to the point where they couldn’t afford the property taxes any more and had to move. In my hometown, the city zoned out poor people living on the west end of Main St., made efforts to gentrify, and made an enjoyable setting for relaxation. There were a few artists working there as well, and the studios didn’t really survive.

    • http://www.facebook.com/claire.n.sexton Claire Sexton

      Agree that it’s especially crappy that they’re not even developing the area after all that

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mimi-Caou/100002370611982 Mimi Caou

    Any country should always respect the ideology aesthetic (creativity) of artists…I would like to think that museums and associations of artists are the first supporter….   

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