Police and wrecking crew raided conceptual artist Yuan Gong’s Shanghai studio last September in order to make way for new urban infrastructure. Courtesy the artist.

The artist engaged in a scuffle with the demolition crew. Courtesy the artist.

Apr 25 2014

Beneath the Wrecking Ball: Yuan Gong’s Resilient Practice

by Michael Young

In early September 2013, the local government attempted to demolish artist Yuan Gong’s eponymous studio compound in Shanghai’s Changning District. One hundred black-shirted men, protected by a phalanx of police, arrived unannounced at dawn and quickly razed the upper floors and balconies to a pile of smashed concrete, shards of glass and twisted metal before Yuan and friends managed to stop them amid much pushing and shoving.

Yuan bought the compound, which houses his own studio space, restaurants, film production company and design firms, in 2003 at a time when the Changning District was not a desirable area. Over the years it has become favored by wealthy ex-pats and developers and now a major infrastructure project is threatening to bulldoze its way through Yuan’s 4,000-square-meter site.

Though Yuan is not anti-road, he has refused the limited compensation he has been offered. He also suspects  that the local authority plans to sell off the seized land to private developers. Just a short walk from the studio is the recently opened L’Avenue development, a mall of luxury shops that sits beneath a trophy building. The development is financed in part by Hong Kong-Macau billionaire, Stanley Ho, along with the French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH.  Shortly after L’Avenue’s opening last July, Yuan was informed of further development plans that would threaten his own space. Having been invited to take part in the 2013 Venice Biennale, the artist decided  to depart early, making a detour through Germany, Holland and Paris at Easter. Speaking allusively to AAP, Yuan indicated that he has already received offers to move overseas and he even confesses to having bought property in Spain last October.

But despite the destruction, life goes on. Inside the studio, what was once a shrine to conceptual art is now more akin to a storage facility. Among several works in progress is Cadres (2013), a sculpture of two small dogs made from bronze and copper, their tongues lolling from open mouths. Significantly, each dog has one gold tooth and the work is, according to Yuan, a “commentary on the corruption of the state.”

In what is perhaps a defiant and provocative gesture, Yuan has also begun incorporating some of the demolition detritus into his recent works. In several pieces aptly named “Losing Control” (2013), exhibited at Shanghai’s Zendai Contemporary Art Space last year, scaffolding poles formed grids against walls while puffs of smoke emanated from rigidly cubed piles of compound rubble. A new performance piece will debut in Hamburg in November relating to the demolition but Yuan declines to give further detail.

One of the China’s most prolific artists, whose work roams freely across installation, painting, sculpture and performance, Yuan is in high demand. There are ten shows slated for this year—in China and overseas—and at the Armory in New York in March, all of his exhibited work sold. Back home, however, the artist is caught in the crosshairs of a city attempting a assert its global emminence. The intersection between the needs of an artist and ongoing commercial land expropriation makes for an uncomfortable and toxic mix. It is perhaps this tenuous nature that makes Yuan’s works resilient.

Michael Young is contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.