Art and Money: Selling Out in Xiaozhou
By staff reporter ZHANG MAN
XIAOZHOU Village on the southern outskirts of Guangzhou is a place of boundless opportunity – at least for Liu Jiusheng and Xie Guozheng. Liu opened his guqin (ancient zither) workshop in the village in 2007. He loves the guqin and is a skilled player. Once he bought an old one and disassembled it, finding its construction not as complicated as he had imagined. At that moment, he was struck by the impulse to make his own zithers of superb quality, and hired 26-year-old carpenter Xie to help him realize the dream.
Their workshop is set up in a two-storey house tucked in among age-old, primitive-looking residences in the zigzagging lanes of the village, and mingles with the tranquil and pastoral life of the villagers. Its windows are open to views of lush banyans, streams and bridges. The pair have by now finished several zithers, but their sound quality is wanting. There are many other art studios and workshops just like Liu's tucked away in the ancient village. Xiaozhou has embraced the first wave of art adventurers with kindness and generosity.
Artistic Purity: the Garden of Eden
The village is one of the few waterside paradises that are left in suburban Guangzhou. It is known as the "Southern Lung of Guangzhou," and another "Zhouzhuang" (the famous water town in Jiangsu). Built around the late Yuan (1271-1368) and early Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, the village presents itself as a folklore trove, with its reticulate waterways spanned by stone bridges, tile-roofed gray houses, old banyans, awesome ancestral temples and trodden slab stone paths. It was among the first group of 14 historic and cultural reserve sites in Guangzhou designated for provincial protection.
The village prior to the arrival of the artists was a quiet, picturesque enclave far removed from the luxury and noise of modernity. Villagers eked out a living by growing fruits, and the blooming and harvesting of their orchards were a way and means of life. But to the artistically bent, the serene and pristine scenery and unspoiled authenticity of village life provided the very environment they needed for creative activities. In 2002, Tan Tian, an art professor from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, set up the village's first studio in a 200-sq-m ancestral temple, and rented an additional two-storied brick house as a residence; the rent for the two sites amounted to merely RMB 1,000 per month.
By that time, the Guangzhou Municipal Planning Bureau had announced its plan for the development of the Guangzhou University Town on Xiaoguwei Island, which rests across the river just opposite Xiaozhou Village. Its implementation required the island's art community, the first in Guangzhou, to be leveled. By 2004, all traces of the art community were gone and where it stood University Town bustles. This includes the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Following Professor Tan Tian, more than 100 accomplished artists are settled in at Xiaozhou Village. There are also new graduates from the University Town who try to establish themselves as independent artists.
So Liu Jiusheng was not an early bird by the time he arrived. The village was known for its settlements of the creatively inclined, and fancied in art circles. Now, every corner of the village seems wrapped in artistic significance: when you focus on an old lady cleaning vegetables by the entranceway of her house it's the wall of art posters behind her that you'll notice. Commercial galleries, not-for-profit art spaces and private studios and workshops are found in every corner of erstwhile residences; cafes, bars and boutiques stay persistently in view. Xie Guozheng took this reporter to a wood carving studio run by his artisan friends. They were bending over some simple designs that would be sent over to satisfy the tourist trade at a sculpture hall that was once an ancestral temple. Today the village hosts more than 500 artists and over 20 art spaces.
Community and Commercialism
Originally, artists were attracted by the village's natural environment, sure to provide much inspiration; now they cherish its bracing artistic ambience even more. Over the years, individual creative ambitions have expanded to include various collective endeavors, including artistic exchanges, exhibitions and salons. The village's non-profit art spaces have provided platforms for budding artists to exhibit their work and get it out to the public. Tengnuo Art Space operated by Liu Ke and Fan Zhe, for instance, gives emerging talent exhibit space free of charge and provides certain support services gratis, such as printing promotional posters, hosting public salons and loaning photographic equipment. Meanwhile, it stays clear of any trade of its exhibits. Another promoter, Public Art Space, opens its two-and-half-storey building every afternoon to artists in the village and surrounds. Besides the free venue, it also provides free tea over which participants share their art experiences.
Apart from the daily exhibitions and salons, the village has successfully mounted the Xiaozhou Art Festival for two years running, which is lifting the art community out of its rarefied circles and into public notice. The festival was initiated and sponsored by Chen Qian and Que Zhenggang, both graduates from the oil department of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Que recalled with a laugh their struggle back in 2008 when they prepared for the first year of the Art Festival, "I borrowed money from every friend that I could – until I could no longer think of who was left to ask for a loan. Finally, the mother of a friend of mine sympathized and "bought" one of my oils at RMB 1,000." The first festival displayed and promoted Xiaozhou artists and art organizations. By the second festival in 2009, the event had become a municipal folk art carnival, attracting people from around the city. The growing dynamism of the art village has had an impact on villagers and artisans like Xie Guozheng. They frequent various salons and exhibitions, feeling the power of art to change life's possibilities and realities.
Artists weren't the only group to notice the potential of the village.
In August 2009 the Guangzhou Planning Commission adopted the Xiaozhou Village Historic and Culture Reserve Protection Plan by which the village would be developed into a tourist resort. The planners agreed that the plan should highlight the village's water scenery and create a tourist brand on par with that of Zhouzhuang. The blueprint covers 71.3 hectares, incorporating the ancient village with its age-old residences and ancestral temples, its surrounding orchards, and the reticulate waterways.
Bulldozers and cranes rolled in, putting an end to the tranquility of the village. The trickle of tourists has also reached a sizable flow, particularly during weekends. Xie Guozheng says that he often took a leisurely stroll around the village in the past, but now with so many people roaming about he seldom does so.
On the bright side, change has brought choice and new possibilities for the locals. New houses are mushrooming, and rent is rocketing. As wealth moves in, the vision of the village as a low-cost artistic lab dims.
As the implementation of the tourism development plan roll out, some businessmen have started a "Xiaozhou Art District" under the flyover to the east of the Xiaozhou Yingzhou Ecological Park, promoting it as a year-round art fair, a bridge to more sophisticated markets and another avenue for artistic recognition. Some people predict that the district will follow in the footsteps of commercial art zones like Beijing's 798, and become another playground for capital games. Sharing the worries of the art community with its reading public is Xiaozhou Village, an electronic magazine run by Chen Qian and Que Zhenggang. They wonder, given its direction, what the once utopian village will become. "I hope it will return to what we knew it as before – back to its erstwhile solitude, so that pilgrims in search of the peaceful antiquity won't be disappointed," says artist Zhang Guangxian. But now, of course, the deal is done, the price paid.
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