Time running out for Shanghai artists’ colony

The occupants of Weihai Road 696 face the end of their leases and their cheap rents

Shutting down: Weihai Road 696

SHANGHAI. Following the demolition of Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio in the city’s outskirts, other artists in the city are also facing the loss of their spaces. An old factory in downtown Shanghai, which has survived for more than four years as a dissident artist colony, and is only a few hundred meters from Shanghai’s main luxury fashion street Nanjing Road, which hosts the Louis Vuitton China flagship store, Prada and numerous other big-name brands, now faces its final shutdown as the local government has moved in to evict the tenants of its 72 sub-divisions.

The colony, known by its address “Weihai Road 696” has become a cornerstone of the less commercial, avant garde art scene in Shanghai. The space has an ever evolving blend of tenants, a mix of numerous professions from the more traditional painters, sculptors, photographers and print makers, to fashion designers, animators, documentary makers, performance artists, theatre practitioners, and even a Chinese cooking school. There are also a handful of experimental galleries, such as AroundSpace, Stageback and Dohjida from Kyoto, Japan.

Despite some local and foreign media coverage of the expected evictions, there has been no discernible effect on local government officials. A Chinese artist, a long term resident in Shanghai’s other noted art zone, M50, said that that area also faced demolition in its early days: “All the artists used their connections. We even found the retired teachers of all those government officials, the reform and development office and so on, and [we] called them up and shouted at them, that was how we survived.” However, as Weihai Road 696 is mostly occupied by artists from outside Shanghai, they do not have the local connections to mount such a campaign.

There are many rumours as to what the authorities plan for the space, and the adjoining block of old, red-brick lanes. It may be that the area will be redeveloped into a gentrified tourist spot, like Xintiandi, or will be turned into expensive architect studios, or simply become office space, similar to Shanghai’s other “creative zones”.

“There are 31 creative zones in Shanghai and not a single one suits me,” resident artist Ma Liang said. His Weihai Road studio was recreated in the Shanghai Art Museum for the recent Shanghai Biennale. Rents in the creative zones, usually in outlying areas, are around 1$ per meter per day, compared to 20 cents per meter per day at the Weihai road site.

In the adjoining lanes, local officials send in security squads and officials to silently stare at tenants and visitors. The owner of a small coffee shop in the lanes said Chen Guan (“City officer”, a lower-ranking member of the security police) were regularly coming into his shop to stare at his customers “until they become uncomfortable and leave”.

There are concerns that once the tenant leases expire in March there will be trouble. “There are three groups,” one artist, a printmaker, explained. “Those who will die before they leave, those who don’t know what to do, and those who are already leaving.”

German artist Rolf Kluenter added: “Shanghai will lose its heart when this place closes, doesn’t Shanghai want a heart?”

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