A safe haven for Chinese artists, three unorthodox Beijing art spaces provide a place to create and exchange ideas freely

A businessman’s obscure contemporary art venues – DRC No. 12, The Bunker and Tattoo Parlour – in the Chinese capital aim to provide that rare and valuable thing in the country: a truly independent space for artists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 July, 2018, 2:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2018, 8:25pm

A heavily guarded block of flats, a dank and dark air raid shelter, a disused tattoo parlour 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. They are run by businessman Peng Xiaoyang.

In the winter of 2015, Peng opened the independent art space DRC No. 12 inside a two-bedroom flat in one of Beijing’s diplomatic residence compounds (DRCs). These DRCs are veritable fortresses that occupy vast areas in the city centre, relics from the US-China rapprochement that occurred at the end of the Cultural Revolution and which, nearly half a century after they were built, still only allow in foreign tenants and their visitors.

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The large satellite dishes outside these numbered, utilitarian towers attest to some of the privileges denied the local populace, such as access to overseas television channels (CNN’s Beijing office is in the same building as Peng’s art space). These are buildings that epitomise a deeply rooted “us and them” mentality.

Peng, who has 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.

The amiable, flip-flop-wearing former lawyer is no grave-faced crusader, even if the opening of an apartment art space is itself a provocative gesture in the context of Chinese art.

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 the propaganda art known as Socialist Realism style. 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 DRC No. 12, artists] can produce art without having to worry about official interference or the demands of a commercial gallery
Peng Xiaoyang

Designed to avoid detection, those underground exhibitions were not seen by many people. But written and photographic records were kept and there have been plenty of eyewitness accounts published in recent years about these events, such as the 1975 group exhibition at Zhang’s home in Beijing’s Fusuijing Building (which is also the name of Zhang’s 1975 painting in the Sigg Collection of M+, Hong Kong’s future museum of visual culture).

That exhibition led to other unofficial gatherings, including one in 1985 at the home of an American journalist living in a DRC and which American artist Robert Rauschenberg famously visited.

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. 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.

Accessibility isn’t the point here, Peng says. “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.”

Archives are kept on WeChat and each exhibition is accompanied by a small, printed catalogue. The discussions between artist and visitors in the sitting room of DRC No. 12 are also central to each project, Peng says.

When the Post went to see Liu Zhan’s site-specific project Balcony at DRC No. 12 last week, the artist was having an earnest discussion, fuelled only by water and cigarettes, with friends from the local art world.

These included Liu Yaohua, whose work The Mist currently occupies Peng’s Tattoo Parlour art space – a disused, street-level parlour in Beijing’s Chaoyang business district which he opened eight months ago. Their predecessors would undoubtedly have held similar such sessions in other apartments during the 1970s and ’80s.

Much has changed in China since, but honest debate about life, art and politics can still only be held in the private sphere – a poignant observation reflected by Liu’s project, a historical metaphor for the present.

Balcony is made with 60 functioning Tecsun R9700 DX short-wave radio sets arranged on a rotating, satellite-dish-shaped frame facing out of the front room windows (the original intention was to place it on the balcony but the compound’s management wouldn’t allow it).

Speakers around the room magnify the sounds that they pick up. There is a lot of static, but sometimes a voice comes through from the few surviving short-wave radio stations still heard in China today – usually propaganda in Mandarin from North Korea.

During the Cultural Revolution, international short-wave radio stations were the only means of getting news from outside China and were seen by the West as an important weapon to undermine the Chinese Communist regime at home. These so-called “enemy stations” were considered so toxic that someone in Guizhou province was given the death penalty after he was caught with a radio set, Liu says. Even reception within the DRCs was blocked.

This is working out very well, but I will stop [the spaces] as soon as there is any form of interference
Peng Xiaoyang

But with the rise of the internet, very few of China’s former “enemy” regimes bother to keep short-wave radio stations for the purpose of influencing Chinese hearts and minds. Even Voice of America switched its Chinese short-wave broadcast to a web-only service in 2011.

Considering China’s current restrictions on the media, including the internet, short-wave radio sets are not just a historic reference but a potent symbol of defiance.

In March last year, Peng converted a second world war air-raid shelter next to the ornate, 112-year-old former headquarters of the warlord Duan Qirui in Beijing’s Dongcheng district into an exhibition space called The Bunker. “Safe House”, an exhibition by artist Zhang Ding about surveillance and art, will open there on August 4 and you can expect to leave it feeling quite unsafe.

Liu’s work The Mist is in the most conspicuous site of the three, since the Tattoo Parlour is the only one of Peng’s spaces at street level. Still, if you didn’t know it was there, you could easily walk past the two large glass displays thinking they are just a bit of creative window dressing.

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. It is impossible for passers-by not to stop and look.

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.

Funding comes from private donors such as the Chao Hotel next door to the Tattoo Parlour, and individual art collectors.

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“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.”

Liu Zhan: Balcony is on show at DRC No. 12 until Sep 9. For details on how to visit, contact [email protected]. Liu Yaohua: The Mist can be viewed 24 hours a day at No. 4 East Road, Worker Stadium, by the east side of Chao Hotel, Chaoyang District, Beijing.