Painters & Dreamers: Photos From Song Zhuang

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

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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