For Expatriates in China, Creative Lives of Plenty
by Dan Levin. NY Times arts page, Sunday, 10th January 2010
THERE was a chill in the morning air in 2005 when dozens of artists from China, Europe and North America emerged from their red-brick studios here to find the police blocking the gates to Suojiacun, their compound on the city’s outskirts. They were told that the village of about 100 illegally built structures was to be demolished, and were given two hours to pack.
By noon bulldozers were smashing the walls of several studios, revealing ripped-apart canvases and half-glazed clay vases lying in the rubble. But then the machines ceased their pulverizing, and the police dispersed, leaving most of the buildings unscathed. It was not the first time the authorities had threatened to evict these artists, nor would it be the last. But it was still frightening.
“I had invested everything in my studio,” said Alessandro Rolandi, a sculptor and performance artist originally from Italy who had removed his belongings before the destruction commenced. “I was really worried about my work being destroyed.”
He eventually left Suojiacun, but he has remained in China. Like the artists’ colony, the country offers challenges, but expatriates here say that the rewards outweigh the hardships. Mr. Rolandi is one of many artists (five are profiled here) who have left the United States and Europe for China, seeking respite from tiny apartments, an insular art world and nagging doubts about whether it’s best to forgo art for a reliable office job. They have discovered a land of vast creative possibility, where scale is virtually limitless and costs are comically low. They can rent airy studios, hire assistants, experiment in costly mediums like bronze and fiberglass.
“Today China has become one of the most important places to create and invent,” said Jérôme Sans, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. “A lot of Western artists are coming here to live the dynamism and make especially crazy work they could never do anywhere else in the world.”
China popped onto Helen Couchman’s radar around 2000, when, she said, she “first saw gorgeous little tidbits of something far away”: glossy photos in British magazines of ice palaces in the northern city of Harbin and sweeping tales of the country’s frenetic experiment with modernization. In 2006 she stepped off the Trans-Siberian Railway and into the chaos of Beijing’s main train station, and after three days of wandering around she knew she wanted to live here.
As a photographer she found the manic pace of Olympic construction irresistible, along with the cost of living as compared with London, her home for 15 years. “A £4 tube ticket would buy my dinner here,” she said. Ms. Couchman, 36, who is British, moved to Beijing a year later, and though she sells most of her work in Europe, she said, the “shapes and designs here have completely saturated my work.”
In her most recent work, at right, she poses naked behind a large fan, a traditional Chinese accessory that serves as an emblem of the camera, behind which she is frequently shielded.
She is more than a documentarian. Her book “Workers” illustrates her personal engagement with China. In December 2007 she slipped behind the screens surrounding the construction of the Olympic park and shot portraits of 146 migrant laborers. She returned the next day with two sets of prints, giving each subject a copy to keep and having workers write their name and hometown on the other, which she compiled for the book. “Their families couldn’t afford to come to Beijing and see their role in history,” she said. “Now they have this document, like I would have a graduation or wedding photo…”
Artists also featured: Alessandro Rolandi (Italy), Alfredo Martinez (US), Rania Ho (US) and Joseph Ellis (US).