On Tuesday, December 2, Beijing-based artists Song Xi (宋兮) and Yang Xinjia (杨欣嘉) received notice that their apartment complex, Dongxindian, in Cuigezhuang village, would soon be demolished, following an edict issued in December 2013 that declared the government would initiate extensive investigations into Beijing’s many overcrowded, often illegally-populated and dilapidated apartment complexes. These complexes are generally inhabited by a large migrant population, in apartments divided into tiny living spaces rented out for a small fee per month. Because such action is illegal, the inhabitants do not register their addresses with the local police station, and the structural and social instability created by this situation has led to the recent governmental crackdown.
The imminent destruction of Dongxindian is a problem for Song Xi and Yang Xinjia, not only because it is their home, but also because for the last month and a half they have been running an artist-in-residency program there, called Apartment of Dreams Come True. Starting at the beginning of November, each week a new artist is invited to live for seven days in Dongxindian. They are asked to make art in response to their living environment and the people they meet. They document their activities and artistic progress each day, as a sort of photo-journal, which is then posted on the social networking platform WeChat for anyone to follow. Song Xi and Yang Xinjia give each artist 60 RMB (approximately $9.65) per day, China’s minimum wage, to spend however they like.
Wang Ping and participant Li Yinhua
The artists participating so far have engaged the community to varying degrees. The first resident, Wang Ping (王平), took a very direct approach: Each day he found a stranger in the community who would sleep in his bed for eight hours in exchange for his allotted 60 RMB. He interviewed each participant, asking about their individual histories and what brought them to live in this community. He took pictures of them sleeping on the bed and posted them, along with their biographical information, to WeChat.
Yesu (耶苏), the second artist, made a series of ink drawings on a long scroll in response to first-hand observations and comments he found on a community-based internet chatroom. One drawing, for example, is a rather unflattering depiction of a plump waitress, accompanied by a story he found on the internet by a restaurant guest who overheard this waitress complaining about her to another co-worker. Another is a beautiful configuration of lines, illustrating the sound waves of noisy neighbors bouncing off the walls of an unhappy local residence.
In the third week, two artists resided in the apartment: Chen Lingjie (陈凌杰) and Luo Qiang (罗蔷). Chen wrote the Christian biblical seven-day creation story in Hebrew on the walls and ceiling of the apartment using glow-in-the-dark blue and green stones, producing an other-worldly glow in the unlit apartment. In the small kitchen, Luo created a sound art piece of a couple’s quarrel with the man telling the woman that she must submit to him. The work comments on the role religion and tradition play in the continued oppression of women, thus providing an interesting foil to Chen’s overtly religious work.
The fourth artist, Yang Junling (杨俊岭), drew the floor plan of the apartment onto a map of China. Each day he carved a line along its interior, collecting debris from the carving on papers lining the floor along the wall. Through careful research, he identified 54 nationwide addresses intersected by his drawing on the China map. On the final day, he collected the debris from the floor, putting it in 54 different envelopes intended for the 54 identified addresses, chosen according to the origin of the debris within the layout of the apartment. In this way, he literally and conceptually makes connections between the Apartment of Dreams Come True and greater China.
The 5th artist, Cheng Guangfeng (程广峰), never made it to the apartment because of some legal problems. But he did manage to send some pictures of the police station where he was held, and the hospital where he underwent treatment, all posted to WeChat.
The setting of this project, a housing community primarily occupied by migrant workers, made me consider the legacy of earlier art projects in China that responded to the migrant population. In 2001, when Beijing learned it would host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the government picked up the pace on an already rapid urbanization. As new, modern high-rises were built, old, dilapidated structures were torn down. Many traditional hutong courtyard houses were razed in the name of modernization, resulting in the displacement of thousands of residents. And while the government poured resources into urbanization and modernization, it overlooked the needs of the countryside. As China moved from an agricultural to an industrial society, thousands of rural people migrated to the city to find work and make money to send back to their families. Because they lacked a Beijing registration card, they lacked governmental support; their lives and livelihoods were precarious.
Zhang Dali, Chinese Offspring, 2003–2005, Resin and fiberglass, Installation view of La Route de la Soie, Saatchi Gallery, 2010; Image vie Flickr user CalieSN
Some prominent Chinese artists began making work specifically about the problems encountered by this burgeoning population. Song Dong did a few performance pieces in which he paid migrant workers to enact a series of choreographed movements within gallery spaces; Liang Shuo made a series of life-sized sculptures realistically depicting migrant workers; Zhang Dali made plaster casts of migrant workers' bodies which he hung upside down, from rafters. The goal of all of these projects seems to be to reflect the problems faced by migrant workers in order to raise the consciousness of the art-viewing audience. In general, the “migrant worker” was represented as a static entity, one whose identity was separate from that of the artist. The problems presented—instability, marginalization, and prejudice—are those specific to the migrant worker.
Comparing Apartment of Dreams Come True to these projects reveals a marked shift in the way Chinese artists envision their subjectivity in relation to the societal problems their works address. I asked Song Xi to comment on this issue. He said:
Although we cannot remove art from the reality of society—art and the lives of people today are closely linked, but an artist’s role is not to be a social worker or reporter. Art-making is not a simple, reflexive mirroring of problems. We are just making today’s societal problems the backdrop for artistic thought, and at the same time, we’re making society the environment in which art happens, we’re seeing how today’s artists respond within this environment, how they carry out their work.
Artist Luo Qiang (center) talking with visitors
Further discussing his understanding of the difference between his project and those mentioned above, he says:
The problem of migrant workers was quite prominent in the ‘90s, many artists wanted to represent this phenomenon...Since that time, China has undergone huge changes, many policies have been initiated to solve the problems of migrant workers, for example, providing spouses with housing, giving them insurance, etc. But these suburban areas not only include the problems of migrant workers…there are a lot of different types of people there [besides migrant workers], the problems are more complicated. We do not take these problems as our artistic medium or object, and we do not simply express some lofty moral declaration or try to aimlessly reflect these problems…We chose this very complicated societal environment and inserted art into it to see what kind of relationships could be established and what kind of possibilities it carried. Modern day problems are getting more and more complicated, the problems that we are considering are not only societal, they also include today’s art system, artists’ working methods, the relationship between art and society, the identity of the artist, etc. Apartment of Dreams Come True aims to initiate action at the intersection of these many problems.
Song’s statement, the duration of the project, and the fact that both Song and Xi live in the same apartment complex as The Apartment of Dreams Come True, all indicate a different conceptualization of the art/life dichotomy that has been in constant tension throughout the history of modern and contemporary art worldwide. It reflects a more integrated model and understanding than the aforementioned works made in the late 1990s and early 21st century, which are based on a stronger subject/object dichotomy.
After all, the fate of the community is the fate of the artists and the fate of the project. This can also be seen in the project’s WeChat presence, which allows for a different relationship, closer to everyday interactions, between the artist and viewing public than that afforded by traditional gallery exhibitions. As both the news of the apartment’s impending destruction and Cheng Guangfeng’s troubles with the police prove, the project’s trajectory—much like that of an individual life—is contingent. Its main purpose is not to represent the people in the community, nor to draw the attention of the art world to their plight, nor to enrich the lives of the community through art, but rather to initiate a dialogue with the community about shared societal concerns, as part of the community. This not only complicates the definitions of an artist, art, and audience, it also initiates a re-conceptualization of the role art plays in contemporary society.
More information about the Apartment of Dreams Come True residency program, including a complete list of participants, can be found here.
(Image at top: Participant Li Yinhua sleeping during Wang Ping's residency; All images courtesy of Yang Xinjia and Song Xi)