Painters Flock to Beijing Colony
Avante-garde artists hope to sell their work in the capital's growing foreign community and eventually go overseas to join the boom in modern Chinese art
BEIJING — ONE day, high school art teacher Liu Fengzhi got fed up and quit.
"I just walked out because I didn't want to go through the bureaucracy of resigning," he says, recounting his departure from his job in Harbin, an industrial city in northeastern China.
"I didn't have a big teaching load, and the climate was relaxed, but I couldn't stand attending all the sessions and meetings," Mr. Liu says. "I knew that by staying there, I wouldn't have any chance to get in touch with the cultural mainstream."
The artistic current brought him to China's cultural hub, Beijing, where he settled in Yuanmingyuan, an artists' colony on the capital's outskirts. The former farming village of brick huts and dirt streets has become a bustling magnet for avante-garde artists hoping to sell their work in Beijing's growing foreign community and eventually go overseas to join the boom in modern Chinese art.
In recent years, China has exported dozens of Modernists, Expressionists, Cubists, and Pop artists frustrated by Communist strictures of political correctness or the reserve of traditional Chinese art.
At last able to work and study freely, the artists produce work that blends China and the West and has been exhibited from New York and London to Hong Kong and Sydney but, poignantly, not in Beijing.
Yet the artists of Yuanmingyuan say economic reforms are beginning to change that. The 60 painters and sculptors, working and sleeping in cluttered huts, sharing meals and partying until late, live a Bohemian-style existence that a few years ago would not have been possible, they say.
Their numbers have mushroomed in the last year amid widespread publicity in the Chinese press. Many say they had the freedom to leave jobs because Chinese are no longer prevented from moving by residency registrations and food-rationing coupons. The artists renew their temporary Beijing residency certificates for a $2 monthly fee. They often draw visits from the police whom, they say, don't interfere except to lecture them on their long hair and beards.
"Some of us could have jobs, but we don't care," says Liu Yan, a physics teacher who became an artist in 1983 and has been living in the colony for four years. The walls of his two-room house are dotted with sculptures made from watches, melted telephones, burned books, and plastic toys, symbolizing modern life. His work has been displayed in Hong Kong, Australia, and the United States.
"Since the economic reforms, Chinese have more freedom in choosing what way of life they want to live," he says.
Economic change has also given Chinese modern art a boost by putting more money in people's pockets, the artists say. "It is good for artists when people become rich because then they turn their minds to painting and buy more," says Feng Jianwen, a painter in oils whose work features many Western religious and mythical themes.
But Mr. Feng, unshaven and wearing a long ponytail, says modern art is still a hard sell in China, where people still prefer traditional landscapes and portraits. To sell the average two pieces a month he needs to survive, Feng paints watercolors, although his heart is in oil painting.
"There are social and cultural restraints on artists because traditional paintings focus on landscapes. They don't understand Expressionism," he muses, sitting in his unkempt room cluttered with dirty dishes, empty bottles, books, music tapes, and tubes of oil paint.
The artists also face official resistance. So far, they have been able to hold only one exhibition, and the colony exhibit hall was temporarily closed earlier this year until tax payments were made.
Art with overtly political themes, including satirical images of Chairman Mao Zedong, are displayed only in the artists' studios.
The Chinese press has featured criticism from cultural officials discounting the artists' commitment to their work and saying that they are only interested in the money to be made from foreigners.
Feng came to the community six months ago after leaving his native Yunnan, where he taught. He began to think about leaving after one of his oils was banned as too morose for a provincial exhibition to be held on the eve of China's national day.
"I am a free thinker and I couldn't get along in the environment there," he says. "There were too many taboos at my school. The authorities didn't allow teachers to grow their hair long. We had to wear formal dress and attend political study sessions twice a week. I got fed up and quarreled with the authorities and my parents."
Liu, the artist from Harbin and an admirer of Dutch master Vincent van Gogh, says it is not always easy being a recusant in China, and he sometimes becomes "depressed, because I have the feeling of being an outcast." He lives on the $40 a month he earns doing odd jobs in the colony and has sold only one painting.
Still, Liu says he has found peace of mind. In the six months since he arrived, he's worked on a series of paintings of Tiananmen Gate, a Chinese landmark he often painted as a boy but never saw until he came to Beijing.
"When I came here, I wanted to transform Western painting into something with Chinese characteristics," he says, shying away from discussing the political overtones to his work. "Tiananmen is a very strong symbol and maybe symbolizes China."