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Song Zhuang is basically a dusty main road. The village’s one bus stop straddles the big street with a rusty orange awning on either side; one sides goes back to the city, the other runs still farther out to smaller villages. On either side of the road stretch art galleries, studio complexes and art supply stores, complete with figures stretching enormous canvases outside on the sidewalk, ready for sale inside. If you thought Chelsea was something along the lines of an art mass production machine, think again.

The first time I arrived at Song Zhuang’s incoming bus stop, Ma Yida was waiting for me on an electric bike that was the same rust color as the bus station. Ma is a photorealist painter who moved to Song Zhuang in 2006; he rents out one of the shabbier studios in the village for around $150 per month.

Song Zhuang’s distance (at right) from central Beijing.

Ma’s studio is a rundown version of a traditional Beijing courtyard house, a rectangular dwelling at the rear of a large open yard space, surrounded by a high wall. The space inside is cluttered and confused, filled with old still life subjects, pots of drying paint, and a bed thrown into a corner. A bunch of puppies chase around their mother on the floor. The dog is a tiny Pomeranian-looking thing and Ma points out that her bark is loud. All the artists in Song Zhuang raise dogs to protect their studios from would-be art thieves, a phenomenon particular to the village.

Where Ma Yida raises Pomeranians, painter Tang Jianying employs an enormous Tibetan Mastiff to guard his studio. Any visitor to Tang’s place is greeted first by the rattling of the barred door outside and the vicious barks of the Mastiff. Tang says the dog’s friendly once you get to know him, but I wasn’t too inclined to find out. The studio is a bigger space, a warehouse closer to “downtown” Song Zhuang complete with high ceilings, floodlights, and a pool table.

A characteristic work by Yue Minjun (via colectiva.tv)

I was told that Old Tang is a “gatekeeper” for some of the most famous artists living in Song Zhuang, such international art stars as Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, known for his manically grinning absurdist characters. If Tang approves of a guest he passes them on to the big boys. I didn’t get lucky in that regard, but Tang was enough of a story by himself. In 2002, he left his wife and family in western China to come to Song Zhuang and live as a painter. He now sells his pictures of brushy human faces trapped behind bars through galleries in the United States and England, as well as in China. He certainly does alright.

Lu Lin’s place is even nicer than Old Tang’s, the warehouse ceilings perforated by skylights, a personal assistant on call, cigarettes from Shandong, and green tea in glass teacups at the table. He paints towering canvases that move between traditional Chinese painting and modernist abstraction, swooping dashes of bright color over quiet passages of watercolor washes. He sells them himself, preferring to work outside of the mainstream Beijing art world of the 798 District and commercial galleries.

Song Zhuang looks like a ghost town on the outside but a half-mythical utopian community from the inside. Young artists trying to make it in China’s burgeoning art market camp out in tents pitched in friend’s studios. A few scattered Europeans down mugs of beer outside the restaurants on the main drag. Everyone is working, everyone is talking, and everyone is sleeping with each other. Imagine New York’s mythic Cedar Tavern expanded to a whole town of dreamers.

The photo essay was shot in Summer 2009 during a three-week trip to Beijing.

Riding just off the main road of Song Zhuang with Ma Yida.

Ma Yida standing with a completed portrait outside his mother’s home in Song Zhuang.

Ma Yida with his dog, crouching in the cluttered space of his studio.

Painter Lu Lin’s studio, complete with office suite and personal assistant.

A new gallery and studio complex under construction in Song Zhuang’s outskirts.

A wall covered in completed paintings in Tang Jianying’s Song Zhuang studio.

Standing in the courtyard of Ma Yida’s studio, strewn with scrap and art detritus.

A gate leading to Song Zhuang’s main road, home to the village’s restaurants and stores.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

8 replies on “Painters & Dreamers: Photos From Song Zhuang”

  1. Kyle, you have painted such a vivid picture of the Song Zhuang. So much of the talk about art in china gets cluttered with vague abstractions and clunky concepts. I like how you steered clear of these pitfalls and went straight to the heart – they way people live and work in another place.

    If you have time to respond this this question than I am thrilled, what do you think is the biggest misconception that outsiders have about art in china(s) – i realize that there is more than one context in such a vast place.

  2. Hey Daniel,

    Personally what I see as the biggest misconception about the Chinese contemporary art world (and China is general) is that it’s monolithic. Even though that’s all you see in the Christie’s catalogues, not all Chinese painters are referencing Mao and the cultural revolution. There are brilliant sculptors, cool photographers and multi-media artists that manage to be interesting despite their lack of giant smiling communists.

    The Beijing art world is a lot like New York- there are tons of younger artists waiting to move up the ranks, artists finding work in the commercial sector, and famous 23 year olds that just got their first gallery show. It’s not a government-overseen ‘cultural production sector’ or something like that, it’s pretty organic, and the spirit of the avant garde is certainly there.

    1. For someone like myself who is committed to democracy, I think the bigger question is that if the artists are contributing their voices to democratize China or if they are contributing to the creation of a facade on the autocratic regime that functions as a form of PR to the rest of the world.

      1. @Hrag Not allowing art to function as a kind of PR facade is certainly a huge concern and I think the biggest problem facing the art world in China is how to allow it to speak freely. Chinese literati and artistic culture has a long history of political critique and debate and though it might not seem like it exists as much today with the advent of superficially ‘political’, pandering work, that culture is certainly still around in places like Song Zhuang.

        On the whole, the institutions that have the most credibility, respect, and power in the Chinese art world are the ones that evade government interference rather than mediate it. The Long March Space, for example, certainly backs that up.

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