Songzhuang is a town on the eastern edges of Beijing, China. In the past two decades it has become the home of a number of artists both Chinese and foreign. Songzhuang is one of many art districts in Beijing, perhaps the most notable of which is 798, formerly a military factory complex. Songzhuang is distinct in that it is less commercial, more community oriented and is still an affordable place for artists to work and live.
In the early 1990s many artists in Beijing worked at the Old Summer Palace in the northwest of the city. The government shut down the group of artists working in the Old Summer Palace and many chose to move to the far outskirts of Beijing where they could work free from economic and political pressures. According to some the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre was a catalyst for driving artists out of the city.
Many artists in Songzhuang are oil painters, but there are also sculptors, photographers, installation artists, traditional Chinese painters, calligraphy artists, woodworkers, furniture designers, and filmmakers. Some live in traditional houses with a courtyard, some in massive spaces that resemble a factory, and others in large complexes built specifically for artists.
Marc Baufrere and Tine Deturck are artists from France and Belgium, respectively, who first came to Songzhuang in 2008 after Marc was invited to a group gallery show at the Songzhuang Museum of Art. Tine notes that after first seeing Songzhuang they, “didn’t hesitate for one second,” to move to Songzhuang.
Upon first glance Songzhuang might appear very similar to any small town in China with many restaurants and scattered buildings, but one can’t help but notice the abundance of paint stores, framing shops, canvas stretchers, and the traditional calligraphy supply stores. It is home to hundreds of artists who often frequent each other’s studios where the tradition is to pour tea for a visitor. When asked why so many artists came to Songzhuang Marc says that it’s cheap. Tine disagrees noting that in Songzhuang there is, “a sense of community [like] we were somewhere else.” This is opposed to the city-center of Beijing which is slowly having much of its traditional communities uprooted in favor of rapid development. Marc adds, “it’s very convenient,” referring to all of the art stores. “If I need blue, I walk 20 meters and get blue.”
Change is bound to be a facet of almost any conversation involving the modern face of China. In Michael Meyer’s book, “The Last Days of Old Beijing” he describes the force of change as “The Hand.” Songzhuang is yet another microcosm of the restless change that envelops China and “the Hand” is never far away; moving, adding, deleting, reimagining. When asked how Songzhuang has changed since they arrived seven years ago, Marc says it used to be only artists and farmers, “no cars. You saw one car every fifteen minutes.” Tine added, “No apartments like now.” Songzhuang is still relatively quiet and dark at night, but has a constant stream of vehicles during the day that run the gamut from BMWs and Audis to large trucks transporting lumber, watermelons and sometimes a gang of migrant workers piled twenty-deep. Marc notes than when they first arrived, “the only traffic was the sheep,” and that there were, “firecrackers every day.” Tine adds that before there were, “no locks on bikes, no banks.” Tine says, now farmers, “profit from artists.” There is a constant clamor of hammers in Songzhuang either knocking down buildings or erecting new studios and restaurants, with many eager to cash in on the wave of artists and cash that continue to arrive.
When asked about the good and bad with life as foreigner in Sonzhuang, Tine declares, “I don’t feel as a foreigner, I feel as a Songzhuanger.” The most difficult part, Tine says is, “I don’t speak Chinese, it’s a handicap for me. I can’t have interesting conversations.” She adds, “I speak baby Chinese.” But in Songzhuang, “I am at ease as who I am.” Many seem enamored with the sense of community in Songzhuang and an almost spiritual sense of calm that exists in the town. Tine says, “It’s different, you feel outside [of Beijing]” and adds that it is,“an artists’ community” I feel, “more like a person.”
Tine points out that there is a, “range [of] famous to poor artists.” Perhaps one of the most talented and overlooked artists within Songzhuang goes by the name, “The Siberian Butterfly.” He creates images using a traditional paper-cutting technique that has its origins in his home province of Shaanxi and history of more than 2000 years. Although his technique is traditional, his subject matter explores homosexuality and his personal life. Life has not been easy for him, having recently lost his son and having worked numerous jobs from shoveling coal and collecting trash to working as a security guard. Thanks to attention from the LGBT center in Beijing he has been able to get international exposure.
A 30-minute video about The Siberian Butterfly is included below:
In Chinese, there is a proverb, “Tian gao, Huangdi yuan.” It translates to, heaven is high and the emperor is far away. It often refers the autonomy local areas far from Beijing are afforded due to the vast scale of China. More than two decades ago Songzhuang was a remote farming village accessible by no buses, taxis or subway. With Beijing’s rapidly expanding and developing suburbs one can only wonder how free Songzhuang will remain from “the Hand” constantly redrawing Beijing.
Kuhl and Leyton’s website
Photos by Kuhl and Leyton