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Where Art, Art?
A haven for creative artists, Taikang Road is home to several galleries and studios, including those of popular artist Chen Yifei and photographer Deke Erh.

An artist in a huge financial center like Shanghai must feel like the only atheist at a church picnic: shunned by the congregation and puzzled by the invitation. But despite the imminent dissolution of the art colony that sprung up in warehouses along Suzhou Creek, the creative community is being resurrected in some unlikely places. Shanghai Daily reporter Wang Jie follows the turpentine vapors to discover where local painters are hanging their smocks.

The suits wending their way through the arrival terminal at Pudong International Airport aren't coming to Shanghai to discover the next Marc Chagall (1887-1985). As China's economic engine, this city is more comfortable with computer chips than acrylics.

But despite some setbacks, like the dissolution of the arts enclave in warehouses along Suzhou Creek, Shanghai's alternative art scene is still very much alive. From the austere ”Painter's Village” in Pudong, to warehouses along another section of Suzhou Creek, and the Taikang Road ”Art Street”, the city's creative community is determined to invest this hive of commerce with A haven for creative artists, Taikang Road is home to several galleries and studios, including those of popular artist Chen Yifei and photographer Deke Erh. a little soul. The abandoned early-20th century warehouses along Suzhou Creek were an ideal location for artists seeking large, inexpensive studio space, and creative types seeking an alternative to mainstream venues. Considered something of an eyesore, the warehouses took on a new life about two years ago when artists and galleries began moving in. ”The high ceilings enabled me to work on a larger scale,” comments Ding Yi, one of the first artists to adapt warehouse space along the creek into a studio. ”Somehow, being able to paint on a ladder is more inspiring. The spacious, inelegant warehouses are well suited for creative artists.” Ding's monthly rent for his 400-square meter space is about 2,500 yuan (US$301) -- eminently reasonable by Shanghai standards. Ding and his Suzhou Creek peers formed the ”Dada Group”, and made a splash with their avant-garde exhibits on the sidelines of the 2000 Shanghai Biennale. But while the warehouse-cum-studios found favor with avant-garde artists and their arty adherents, they didn't jibe with an urban renewal project currently under construction. Although the project to renovate the waterfront doesn't sustain the burgeoning artists' colony, many in the community, including local gallery owners and artists themselves, are already eying new locations. The Moganshan Road area, which also runs along the creek, is attracting attention. ”It's a pity that we have to move,” says Lorenz Helbling, owner of ShanghART gallery. ”But our new space is just a five-minute walk away, and again, it's in an old warehouse.” ShanghART, Eastlink Gallery and several artists' studios that made up the bulk of the Suzhou Creek art colony are moving to warehouses on Moganshan Road. ”The place (Moganshan Road) will become a new nexus for the art crowd and the media,” says Ding. ”I hope this is just the beginning, and that there will be even more art enclaves cropping up in Shanghai.” Another potential hothouse for artists is ”Painter's Village”, a 24-story building in Pudong. At around the same time the Suzhou Creek art scene started, the unremarkable building on a remote stretch in Pudong was being occupied by several artists. Its reputation as a breeding ground for unconventional artists spread by word of mouth, attracting painters and sculptors from across the river. ”The poor location and uninspired interior layout made it difficult to rent or sell apartments in the building,” explains Liu Gang, founder of the so-called ”Painter's Village”. The apartments rent for 300 yuan (US$36.2) to 500 yuan(US$60.3) per month -- within the budget of most struggling artists. The ”Village” is fully occupied with some 200 artists (both known and unknown) and scores more on the waiting list to get in -- some traveling from other provinces for the chance to work in proximity to other creative people. While there's nothing particularly alluring about an unknown artist scraping together rent or scrounging for a meal, the cachet of established artists is being used by a private real estate developer as a promotional device. The Peninsular Residence, for example, is using the panache of the palette to push their property facing Suzhou Creek. In August, the developer announced the opening of the Peninsular Art Center, a private-invested center for folk art located within their luxury residential complex. Covering 10,000 square meters, the two-story art center features the work of 10 well-known local artists. ”I'm aware that some may see this as commercializing art, but I don't see anything wrong with introducing art into a residential setting,” says Peninsular developer Wang Derong. ”Naturally, I want to build up the image of the Peninsular Residence. But it's not purely a question of making money; I provide free space to the artists -- space that goes for 6,000 yuan(US$723.8) per square meter.” Though some high-minded artists might disagree, art is a business, and Wang is shrewd enough to point out that. Rather than being exploitative, the center is mutually beneficial: the painters get free exposure, the commercial developer gets ”culture by association.” ”It's hard to strike a balance between art and commerce,” says Zhou Tiehai, a local artist. ”If a painting can lend some intangible value to a property, and, at the same time benefit the artist, I see nothing inherently wrong with that.” The city is also keenly aware of the value of nurturing the arts community. Once an unexceptional downtown strip, Taikang Road is blossoming into a vibrant intersection of art and culture. In its wisdom, the Luwan District Government declared it the city's first ”Art Street”, and it now boasts several intriguingly cluttered antique shops, art galleries and clubs. Chen Yifei and Deke Erh, two of the nation's most creative dynamos, have set up shops there, sending property values sky high and imbuing the street with a ”hip factor” that money can't buy. “A cosmopolitan city should have a variety of different art scenes,” says Zhou, 30, whose studio is at the Peninsular Art Center, says, ”Shanghai has the potential to rival the great art cities of the world.” Indeed, highbrows and lowbrows, those who appreciate Picasso and those who pine for punk rock are discovering interesting pockets of art and culture in this ever-changing city.

( Eastday.com October 11, 2002)

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