Monday, July 27, 2009

Raze the Red Lanterns

A large hutong neighborhood near to my home has been demolished. I was not so shocked that it happened, but was shocked at how quickly it all transpired. The neighborhood is between my home and the Caochangdi gallery district, which I travel to regularly. It couldn't have been more than two or three weeks since I had last passed by.

And, Poof. It's gone.

The red area in the first picture is the now-demolished neighborhood, and the yellow arrow shows the spot from which I took the picture. The third picture shows a part of the empty plot. You can see quite easily in the second picture that the area was dense with housing.

Since this area is on the edge of Beijing's urbanity, I was sort of surprised that it went down with such haste. There are many hutongs in the center of the city, some of them being preserved as cultural heritage, but some are still marked for demolition. The infamous character chāi (拆) is painted on structures that have been been given a death sentence. It's a fairly common site around Beijing, and it's also a recurrent motif in films and other visual works surrounding the Three Gorges Dam project, such as Jia Zhang Ke's "Still Life". Here's one example from a neighborhood south of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Most likely, some cookie-cutter, luxury apartments will drop down on this plot, giving shelter to the growing middle-class. The former inhabitants were probably dealt the fate of so many before them: a minimal compensation package and a lack-luster apartment even further away from the center.

As an end note, I was with a young Chinese couple last weekend, and while walking to a restaurant we started talking about housing in Beijing. The district we were in had a mixed-bag of quite new apartments and buildings dating back to the 60's (that's ancient by Chinese standards). In turn, we each pointed out the buildings we liked as we progressed down the streets. Invariably, all of my choices were at least ten years old and all of their choices were less than ten years old. This did not come as a surprise. However, when the conversations turned to "sìhéyuàn", the courtyard houses that are the building blocks of old hutong neighborhoods, we all agreed that it would be pretty awesome to live in one. Indeed, it would.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Radsport in Peking? Wirklich?

Natooke is a fixed gear/juggling supplies shop in a burgeoning hutong street near Beijing's Lama Temple. It's certainly the only shop of it's kind in Beijing, and perhaps the world. While I can juggle, and sometimes do it as a crowd-pleaser in my kindergarten, I wouldn't call myself an enthusiast of the art. I do, however, consider fixed-gear bikes as a passion. On a recent visit to the shop, I talked with Ines, who, along with a friend, runs this kooky, little place.

Ines is German and is the bike side of the shop. She is a kunstradfahrerin (I use the German, not out of pretension, but because I'm not sure if there is a proper word for it in the English speaking world. Check this link). It's like bike dancing, I guess. It seems to exist mainly in Europe and, as far as I can tell, predominately in the German speaking parts. Kunstrad bikes are essentially like fixed gears, but have many crucial differences, namely a 1-to-1 gear ratio. They also have strange handle-bars and a very steep head-tube angle, but I don't want to get too technical. I first encountered kunstrad on the internet, while living in Germany, but it has taken coming to China to get a closer, hands-on look. Hopefully, I can check out on of Ines' shows sometime soon.

Going back to fixed gears, I've learned from Ines that there is a community of riders in Beijing. They are relatively small (about 30 in a city of around 17 million), but they are growing. Perhaps I'll be the next member of the club. My eyes are peeled for an appropriate frame.

Kickin' It

Feiyue shoes are classic, and I love them. They are simply beautiful. My friend Doug broke his leg in the Czech Republic while wearing a pair (he might blame it on the shoes, but the Chinese would say, "Shoes are good. Eat more meat. It makes you strong."), which added a memorable ending to an already memorable road trip. They are all over Europe, but only occasionally do you see a Chinese person wearing them, and usually they are old enough to have seen the founding of the PRC. Furthermore, if you go out looking for some in China, you inevitably have to sort through endless pairs of knock-off Nikes, Vans, Adidas, etc., before you'll find a pair. It might be a sign of their inevitable death, so let's enjoy them while we can.

They're so great, someone has even made a blog about them.

Today, after playing basketball in a pair of borrowed, two-sizes-too-small shoes, I set off in search of some aesthetically pleasing and somewhat sporty shoes. Unfortunately, Feiyues are difficult to find in my size, so I had to settle for some "Double Stars." Timeless design with some nice Chinese touches.

Beyond the Numbers

The arts scene that Beijing presents to the world, and to itself, is that which you'll encounter in the streets of 798, an old munitions factory complex turned gallery quarter in the northeast corner of the city. Beginning in the late 90's, 798 attracted the artistically minded with its expansive east-German designed factory halls and cheap rents. Over a relatively brief span of time, various high-profile artists and galleries endorsed the area with their names and effectively turned it into the headquarters of Chinese contemporary art. And it grew. And it grew.

At present, 798 remains the most frequented art district in Beijing, although it is often denigrated as little more than a fashion strip with some pictures hanging on the walls. To be sure, it has, over the last several years, become more of a see-and-be-seen locale, and a striking number of galleries are bush league, at best. However, with galleries like the Ullens Contemporary, Paris-Beijing Photography, Continua and a few others, 798 maintains at least a base level of art scene integrity.

Just down the road from 798, about 1km, is Caochangdi. Formerly a village community outside of the Beijing urbanity, Caochangdi is, today, effectively within the city's sprawling arms (here is a good NY Times article on the district). The venerable and very visible Ai Wei Wei, one of China's most vocal contemporary artists, made a flagrant move to this area in the early-2000's. His move, at first deemed crazy, gradually precipitated into a small collection of galleries and working artists, and soon enough, a broader community developed. At present, Caochangdi hosts more than 20 galleries and numerous artists' studios. Pekin Fine Arts, Three Shadows Photography, Urs-Meile, and Platform China are a few of the better spaces. Undoubtedly, the area is starting to fill with imitators, however, at present, Caochangdi maintains a very local, quiet atmosphere that its older sibling, 798, will never re-gain.

But really, this post is not about 798 or Caochangdi. If you want more, there is plenty of info to be found, in English, in a simple search.

One of my broader aspirations, during my time in China, is to gain an understanding of Chinese contemporary artists and environment in which they operate. And while 798 and Caochangdi house the exhibition spaces for many contemporary artists, they don't serve as working spaces for the majority. As with other art spaces around the world, economics is a driving force. Artists tend to infest areas, bring attention to them, start a process of gentrification, then move out when prices start to rise and the area loses its "authenticity.". In Beijing, this pattern has given rise to a number of periphery art communities, mainly in the northeast of the city, which are able to provide working spaces to both domestic and international artists at reasonable prices. These areas are, for lack of better terminology, "artist ghettos." The communities are gated and each studio is distinctly segregated from the next. The first thoughts that popped into my head when thinking about these communities centered on isolation, control and censorship. I think that these are logical ideas to entertain in a country like China, however, upon further consideration, I have discarded my Big Brother conspiracy theories.

While China, as well as the Western world, has a long tradition of artists seeking refuge outside of urbanity and living reclusively in nature, this doesn't seem to fit as the impetus for the contemporary situation in Beijing. Certainly, many artists do consider the quieter atmosphere a significant perk, but, in the end, it boils down to economics. Beijing's East Village of the early 90's (this article contains some info), a home to a number of artists who are now in China's contemporary canon, was, in-part, a product of the high rents in the more central areas. Beijing is laid out in a system of rings, with the old imperial palace, the Forbidden City, standing as the center of the city. With this concentric system, the heart has always held a special value, and value has been, and still is, given in accordance with proximity to this heart. It is not an infallible indicator of wealth, and there are many exceptions, but it does provide a rule of thumb.

Studios existing on the fringes of the city offer not only lower prices, but also, since they aren't elements of a multi-story building, they allow for a greater amount of natural light through larger windows and translucent ceilings. The studios vary in size and price, but a ballpark figure would put a 100 square meter space at 1800 CNY per month (180 Euros). However, most, if not all, spaces are unfinished and require renovation. Putting in walls and fitting the space with the necessities would cost an estimated 40,000 CNY (4,000 Euros). That's a formidable cost for even the wealthier of aspiring artists. It makes me wonder about the economics of being an artist in present-day China. It is common to see expensive cars and SUVs in these artist communites, so perhaps they are mainly used as work-spaces for the wealthy. If so, my economic theory needs a little re-thinking.

In any case, one recent voyage into the outskirts brought me to the Beijing International Art Camp. It seems to be fairly representative of the qualities I've seen in other arts communities, so I will post some pictures here as an example.

Questions to be answered:

Are there artists working, in communities or alone, outside of these "ghetto" areas?

How many of the artists living/working in these areas are commercially successful?

Is wealth a pre-requisite for becoming an artist in China?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

That's Sick, Brah!

Swine flu. It's in me. I can feel it in my head, I can feel it in my toes. This weeks playlist goes out to you, you viral superstar.


For a couple of years during college, I had an avid fixation with little, girls' bikes with banana seats. The picture above says it all. It was a phase, yes, but I don't look back and feel embarrassed. Those were good times. Carefree, happy times. One day, my brother threw this song in my face; a catchy and light, post-rock jam that could have served as my theme song. I haven't listened to this song in years, but since I currently ride a girl's bike, well, a lady's bike actually, it still fits just fine. This one goes out to all you boys who, if you so chose, could comfortably ride with a skirt on.

The Aluminum Group - "Girl's Bike".


Moving on, here are a few hits from The Box, a TV show theme song covers compilation put out by Peppermill Records at the end of last year. The whole album is great and can be downloaded from many not-so-secret locations. Note: The song names are cryptic, so you'll have to figure out the original on your own.

The Chap - "Come Off It Sharon"

Volumina - "Abuelito"

Cocoawildboars - "CWB Team"


Continuing with covers, Spin Magazine recently released Purplish Rain, bringing a disparate crowd together in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. Chairlift doing "Darling Nikki" is good, but it's Of Montreal who rain the hardest, bringing to the table a well-digested version of "Computer Blue".


Please, mothers, don't let your children out after dark. They're back.

Heartbreak - "We're Back"


And, last but not least, !!! à la DJ Kaos.

Heart of Hearts (DJ Kaos HoH Extend)


Thursday, July 9, 2009

There's Something in the Air

I mean that literally, as well. With sliceable humidity levels and air quality on par with a fumigated apartment, there really has been something in the air. You can feel it on your skin and, after a bike ride, at the bottom of your lungs, too.

Speaking of Beijing respiratory health, it's been brought to my attention that the US embassy has started a twitter feed from their personal monitoring apparatus. If you're curious, take a gander here. And if you want to correlate the numbers with some fun guidelines, click here. Paint yourself a pretty picture.

On the metaphorical side, there's been a tangible aggression sweeping across the busy boulevards and dusty streets. The picture below, taken on Wednesday, is a microcosm of the ill mood taking over the city. There's something in the air.

And, given the unrest in Urumqi, it's just a small stretch to see this momentary irritability as a pan-Chinese phenomenon. A fire has been started and there just happens to be a lot of loose tinder in the heart of Xinjiang province. And while the official story is soap-operatic, with rumors and rape and revenge leading up to an ethnic clash in the streets, let's not discount the forces we don't fully understand, e.g. an imminent solar eclipse of massive proportions. And some people are informing me that "China's going to hell in a handbasket," but I must say I think that these rumors are exaggerated. Moreover, the Happy Sheep Fun Time News Channel tells me that everything is fine. And I feel fine. Alles ist in Ordnung. Gong bao ji ding, please.

But finally, we must consider this. Adding to the system of signs, yet another remarkable crazy lamp has reared its head in a nearby park. Let's hope it's a harbinger of softer days to come. I'm escaping from the city over the weekend, but before I leave I'll be sure to deposit an offering of baijiu and sunflower seeds at the foot of the multi-colored beast. And I'm off.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Eventual Signage

Due to the imperious nature of the great firewall of China, I've been forced to delve into the world of html to breathe some life into this blog. Once my html skills improve, or I find a better circumvention, this will be the header. Until then, harness your imagination.

5 Tracks b4 the 4th

Girls' wistful summer-song, Lust for Life, is all last year and everything, but with their first EP on the horizon and the July heat bearing down on us northern hemisphereans, it's worth reiterating this little gem. Additionally, I must give a big-up to my collegiate contemporaries at True Panther Records. Have a listen here.


This week's morning bike rides to the metro station have consistently seen an iPod shuffle dance til I get to this Phaseone remix of Animal Collective's Daily Routine. Guten appetit.


And this spirited B-52s edit by Mike Simionetti. Mess-of-a-tanian.


And an even shorter, emptier introduction. Norse Horse - Swamp Trotter.


This epic track has carried me through many long-winded journeys around Beijing. Gargling ghosts peering down from ancient, stone architraves replace gawking migrant workers in front of concrete high-rises. IV - Alaska (The Place Where We Were Hidden).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

cRaZy Lamps

And they arose like agarics on a well-fertilized lawn, full of unpredictability and ostentation, across a barren, martian landscape. We applauded them for their courageous victory against gravity, and as they sprouted wings, we dove into questions of beauty. Over time they multiplied and intermingled and evolved, reaching ever greater heights and pushing the boundaries of formal possibility. Crazy Lamps.