Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Beijing: Artist protest broken up by police

Police in Beijing broke up a protest by a group of artists on Monday as they attempted to march along Chang'an Avenue in the centre of the city shouting slogans such as "Capital Beijing, brutal demolition!". Amongst the protesters was Ai Weiwei, a leading Chinese artist, curator, architectural designer, cultural and social commentator and activist. Ai was a design adviser to the architects of Beijing’s Olympics Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest. He also traced and published the names of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake on his blog which he says has been repeatedly closed down by Chinese authorities. The demonstration was an attempt to raise attention over the demolition of an art zone in the east of the capital.

The demonstration was short lived however. Gathering at around 15:00 on Monday afternoon the small group of artists marched along Chang’an Avenue, the main road through Beijing that crosses Tiananmen Square. But within minutes they were stopped by at least a dozen police officers about two kilometres from Tiananmen. It was not known if anyone was arrested or detained though reports say their banners calling for civil rights were confiscated. Photographs posted by Chinese activists on Twitter and Flickr showed police manhandling demonstrators and checking credentials of photographers. 

Such protests gain little attention in the media, either in China nor in international media. However a short pieces have appeared following this latest event. Xinhua posted a brief English language report though there has not been widespread coverage [Business Week / Global Times].

Monday's demonstration was only the latest of a series of protests. There was a large protest in January which saw a gathering of around 300 people in one of Beijing's well known art districts. Partly organised through the Internet and by word of mouth it was described by some of those who took part as an art activist event. The "anti-government protest" was an attempt to stop the demolishing of artists' studios in the Heiqiao district of Beijing. But just as seen in this week's demonstration, police quickly moved in to break up the protest though little was reported other than through social media websites like Twitter. 

The area is home to foreign and Chinese artists but with Beijing's rapid expansion the district has been targeted for destruction. Heiqiao [黑桥 or Black Bridge] is an area located east of Beijing, near Nángao [南杲] and Béigao [北杲] which, together with Caochangdi [草场地] represent an important enclave for communities of artists who maintain studios there.

Unlike the more self-contained, sanitized, and tourist-friendly 798 Art District, located in a former factory site, Caochangdi is a loose sprawl of unnamed and sometimes unpaved roads, criss-crossed by clothes-lines and studded with mounds of gravel and dirt that accompany the area’s many construction sites. Rumours as to its demise were already being discussed on the Internet in November [ArtInfo]. Despite its local prominence and international visibility, rumours have been circulating that much of Caochangdi, as well as neighbouringartist villages and studio compounds, were being considered for demolition in order to make way for new government projects and business development. 

Next to the Heiqiao area, a little further northeast in the 008 International Art Studio compounds, Taiwanese artist Peng Hung-Chih recently finished construction on his new 500 square metre live-work space, only to learn that he may not get to use it for long. “There are still a lot of rumors,” a troubled Peng said in November. “I heard that the farmers basically want reasonable compensation. If they get that, the destruction will go on. I think my problem is not over yet.”

The Heiqiao district is just one of several areas towards which artists have gravitated [NYT]. Some have already been torn down to make way for skyscrapers and modern building projects. The Dashanzi Art District, in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, houses a thriving artist community. It is a sprawl of old decommissioned military factory buildings considered by some to be of unique architectural design. It, and others like it, have often been compared with New York's Greenwich Village or SoHo, but they all face an uncertain future as Beijing pushes its modernisation plans forward.

The 008 Art Zone is divided into A, B, C, and D districts, and originally home to more than 150 artists. On 19th November developers ordered all artists to “move out” and on the 6th December the water supply was cut off. According to a press release issued by the community, electricity and heating in district A was also cut off on 17th December. Soon after "demolition squads began to pull down houses by force", the release says.

"History is being made today at the 008 Art District of Bejing," @KPinChina declared on Twitter in January, "Artists are not criminals." Maybe not, but for the city developers they are a nuisance and in the way. As is often the case, culture is often swept away in the name of progress. The news of such events are also swept away too. Authorities quickly stifle any dissent in a country like China and despite such protests being unusual foreign media often ignores such incidents.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

No comments: