A heavily guarded block of flats, a dank and dark air raid shelter, an unused tattoo parlor opposite a Hooters bar—three contemporary art venues in Beijing. The sites are so unorthodox that they have become safe havens for artists in the Chinese capital to create and exchange ideas freely.
The three sites are owned by a Chinese businessman Peng Xiaoyang.
In the winter of 2015, Peng opened DRC No. 12 inside a two-bedroom apartment, setting it up as an independent art space. It's located in one of Beijing's diplomatic residence compounds, which serve as something of a fortress, allowing in foreign tenants and their visitors.
Inside, large satellite dishes attest to some of the privileges denied the local populace, such as access to overseas television channels (CNN’s Beijing office is here, in the same building as Peng's art space).
Peng, a flip-flop-wearing former lawyer with a Canadian passport, originally rented the flat as an office for his Chinese antiques business.
“I wasn’t involved in contemporary art at all, but I heard that [abstract artist] Zhang Wei was looking for a place to exhibit and this place was so evocative of his early apartment exhibitions. I hosted his ‘Taxi Driver’ project here in March 2016 and that’s how DRC No. 12 started,” he says.
Inside the 'apartment art' movement
Zhang and other artists began to experiment after the country awoke from the long nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. By the early 1970s, the government still would not allow the public display of art that diverged from propaganda art.
Zhang, therefore, decided to show his landscapes and abstract paintings in the privacy of his own home, giving rise to the “apartment art” movement.
At the DRC No. 12 show of 2016, Zhang created installations from found objects that represented seemingly random, but transformative, moments of his life in China and New York, where he lived for 20 years.
Here, they can produce art without having to worry about official interference or the demands of a commercial gallery.
Few would have seen this, or subsequent exhibitions, given their limited marketing and the fact all visitors have to book in advance, and be picked up at the guardhouse by Peng or one of the art space’s two other staff.
“The important thing is to provide a truly independent space for artists, which is such a rare thing in China. Here, they can produce art without having to worry about official interference or the demands of a commercial gallery. We don’t have a lot of visitors but the art community knows about us,” says Peng.
Peng's next two venues: a WWII air-raid shelter and an unused tattoo parlor
In March last year, Peng opened his second venue—a converted WWII air-raid shelter called The Bunker. “Safe House,” an exhibition by artist Zhang Ding about surveillance and art, will open there in a couple of days.
Peng's third and newest spot though, is the only one of the three to be at street level. An unused tattoo parlor, it's in Beijing's business district, and opened eight months ago.
While it's at street level, you could easily walk past the two large glass displays thinking they are just a bit of creative window dressing.
Liu Yaohua's work "The Mist" currently occupies Peng’s Tattoo Parlour art space. Liu uses a fan and some pink and yellow metallic dust to create a thick, bright mist that transforms the two white-walled spaces that house the work.
The psychedelic colours reflect the bright lights of the nearby Sanlitun nightlife district, a “sugarcoated piece of reality,” as the artist calls it.
Peng says he is confident his operation can continue to run, provided officials do not intervene.
Each venue holds three to four exhibitions a year that are selected by a volunteer panel of curators. One member is Anthony Yung, the Asia Art Archive senior researcher who co-founded Guangzhou’s Observation Society, a similarly obscure venue for experimental art projects.
The only point of doing this is to stay independent.
Funding comes from private donors such as the Chao Hotel next door to the Tattoo Parlor, and individual art collectors.
“This is working out very well, but I will stop [the spaces] as soon as there is any form of interference,” Peng says “The only point of doing this is to stay independent.”
Adapted from an original article first posted on the South China Morning Post.