Letter from Beijing

Jia Li on art and expulsion in China’s capital

A building marked for demolition.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, MY WECHAT FEED was flooded by the same message: Pace is closing its Beijing outpost. In an interview with Artnews, the gallery’s founder, Arne Glimcher, observed, “It’s impossible to do business in mainland China right now and it has been for a while.” Glimcher attributed this stagnation of business, on the one hand, to the recent rise in trade tariffs and, on the other, to China’s economic slowdown. As a former associate director of Pace Beijing, I cannot help but reminisce about that summer evening eleven years ago—a week before the start of the Beijing Olympics—at the opening of Pace Beijing’s inaugural exhibition. A shared sense of excitement and anticipation for the future seemed to sparkle in the air, like the bubbles that rose from the free-flowing champagne at the star-packed opening, where luminaries like Takashi Murakami and Tony Blair mingled. Looking back through my pile of snapshots from that night, I’m struck by how the partygoers look like they’re celebrating a wedding: the union of the Eastern and Western markets, with the promise of seemingly limitless opportunity for both partners.

Luckily, money is not the whole story. In Beijing, Pace was not merely an index for the prosperity of the art market; it also represented the local art community’s hope that the contemporary art being made here would become more widely acknowledged. Compared to other Western galleries operating spaces in China, such as Gagosian and David Zwirner in Hong Kong and Lisson Gallery in Shanghai, Pace’s support for Chinese artists was unrivaled. The closing of its Beijing space seemed to send a remarkably discouraging message: that the vitality of the city’s art scene, compared to a decade earlier, has waned.

As the news of Pace Beijing’s “spatial adjustment” seized public attention, two other art-related sites—much larger in scale and affecting far more people—were being forcefully demolished. On July 10, Beijing police oversaw the demolition of the 215,000-square-foot Roma Lake art district, its buildings deemed “unauthorized illegal structures.” Since 2014, artists had rented the area’s properties as studio and storage spaces. They had been reassured by the developer over the last five years that the construction was legally approved, and that their contracts would not expire until the year 2032.

Arrow Factory.

We can trace the evolution of Beijing’s entire contemporary art scene from the vantage point of spatial conflict—keeping in mind that one party holds unbounded authority and the other is virtually powerless to negotiate. While most galleries and art districts are located in the periphery of the Chinese capital, this one-sided spatial battle has recently begun to take over the city’s central districts in full force. A few months before Pace Beijing called 798 Art District home, Arrow Factory—an alternative space cofounded by critic Pauline J. Yao and artists Wei Weng, Rania Ho, and Wang Wei—quietly opened to the public in the tiny Guozijian hutong inside Beijing’s Second Ring Road, the highway girdling the center of Beijing. Arrow Factory used its storefront to exhibit site-specific works by artists in order to provoke an interaction between the (then notably self-enclosed) art system and its surrounding environment. The venue represented a new possibility: Its small-scale, low-budget model of operation and distance from the major art districts allowed the space to insulate itself from the pressures of the art market and institutional discourse. Free to develop on its own terms, it became a prime example of DIY self-organization, encouraging young practitioners and those dissatisfied with the existing order to create nontraditional spaces where they could realize exhibitions, talks, and performances that wouldn’t otherwise be accepted by local galleries or museums.

But if the decade-long history of Arrow Factory is a case study for the rise of alternative spaces across Beijing, it may also prove a case study for their fall. Since 2017, an urban planning campaign aimed at “removing Beijing’s non-capital functions and features” has been vigorously implemented across every inch of land, from suburban counties and urban-rural fringe areas to the city center. Under the state policy generally known as the “cleanup of ‘Holes in the Wall,’” most storefronts that had been opened inside downtown Beijing’s traditional courtyard by cutting new entrances in walls were ordered to be bricked up. At the peak of this comprehensive campaign, some businesses had to resort to selling merchandise via baskets hooked to bamboo sticks to avoid being fined or shut down. Like tens of thousands of other roadside shops, Arrow Factory was forced to shape-shift into a bizarre setup, turning its window display into a peephole.

Installation view of Mak Ying Yung 2’s “The Anything Machine” (2018), the last exhibition at de Sarthe gallery’s Beijing outpost before it was ordered to close last summer.

Other small spaces suffered even more damage. At the beginning of 2017, public houses within the Second Ring Road began vacating tenants without a Beijing hukou, or residence permit. With requests to renew contracts turned down by their landlords, alternative spaces like the Institute for Provocation were driven to temporary closure before they could find new homes. Last summer, residences along a road in Caochangdi—the arts district architected in part by Ai Weiwei—were branded with an ominous “拆” (to be demolished). X Gallery and de Sarthe Gallery’s Beijing branch had to shutter with only two weeks’ notice. But even these expulsions seem trivial when compared to the tens of thousands of members of the “low-end population” who have lost their homes, jobs, and educational opportunities due to this draconian urban purge. It’s no secret the government is kicking out migrant workers, vendors, and low-wage laborers through the violent means of timed relocation, utilities cancelation, forced eviction, arrest, and detention. Statistics from the Municipal Beijing Bureau of Statistics show that, at the end of 2017, over 22,000 residents moved out of the city, resulting in the first instance of negative population growth since 1997. According to a Xinhua News Agency report, the campaign to demolish the city’s “illegal structures” had cleared out 5,985 hectares of land that very year. Many artists’ studios near Chaoyang were among the renovated areas, and 2017 witnessed the disappearance of Heiqiao art district. In Beijing, the relationship between art, the city, and the unchecked power of the state has become increasingly untenable. It has blatantly ripped urban space and civic life apart, and pushed the city’s contemporary art into a humiliating corner.

Translated from Chinese by Alvin Li. 

Jia Li is a curator and author based in Beijing. She was an associate director of Pace Beijing from 2012 to 2015 and currently works as a senior curator at Taikang Space.