The bulldozers that came to destroy Ai Weiwei’s Beijing studio are believed not to be agents of the Chinese government aimed at censoring the dissident artist, but rather symbols of a rapidly moving wave of gentrification that has transformed the arts districts of the capital into redevelopment zones.
Ga Rang, the artist’s studio manager for 10 years, recounted the weekend’s drama to Agence France Presse (AFP), “The authorities say they want to develop things here, build malls and commercial buildings. But it’s a shame — you won’t ever find a place in Beijing like this again,” he said.
Ai was reportedly less angry about the demolition than he was disappointed. The rental contract of the space had expired last autumn, according to Ga, but the studio simply hadn’t had enough time to move out of the space given Ai’s vast collection of materials and works. Excavators came to the building unannounced at 2:00pm local time on Friday, shattering the studio’s windows as the studio’s workers frantically packed large wooden crates with Ai’s artworks. Still, the artist told NPR that some of his works were damaged.
“They came and started knocking down the windows today without telling us beforehand,” Ga despaired. “There’s still so much stuff inside.”
There is much uncertainty for Ai’s studio about where to establish its base of operations next in Beijing given the rising cost of real estate. Most of the art may go into storage, instead.
Located far outside the city’s center, Ai’s Zouyou studio (translated “Left-right”) stood over a former industrial park now festooned with tractors and broken auto parts. A nearby resident told AFP that demolition in the area began three months ago. In its heyday, the complex housing Zouyou was once home to 1,000 residents, but that number dwindled during the reform years of the 1980s when China’s economy transitioned from a rigid state-led development plan to one with marginally freer enterprise.
“Farewell,” Ai wrote on Instagram. “Today, they started to demolish my studio ‘Zuo You’ in Beijing with no precaution. Which I have as my main studio since 2006. It is a[n] East German style socialist factory building.”
Ai’s Fake Studio in Caochangdi is reportedly unaffected by the demolition.
In 2011, Chinese authorities ordered the destruction of Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio shortly before the artist’s 81-day detention and another four years of de-facto house arrest. After helping to design the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics, which was led by Herzog & de Meuron, the dissident artist quickly fell out of favor with government officials for his frequent criticism against its authoritarian style of rulership, particularly following his activism on behalf of victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed over 69,000 people. More recently, the artist has become a staunch advocate for refugees and migrant workers.