Interior view of Institute for Provocation (IFP) in Beijing. Courtesy IFP

In Close Quarters

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

If you are in the center of Beijing and find yourself in an inconveniently narrow alleyway, flanked by low, gray-colored, traditional-style buildings, then you are in a hutong. These special alleyways are a uniquely Beijing phenomenon, and so then are the art spaces within them. On talking to those behind some of these art spaces I discovered that there is no overriding reason for deciding on a hutong location and that while there are benefits, there are also, usually, disadvantages. One certainty, however, is that the life of a hutong art space is markedly different to that of other galleries, museums and art spaces in Beijing and beyond.

First, it is useful to understand the history and current sociocultural resonances of Beijing’s hutongs. As far back as the time of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), Marco Polo, in awe of the linear precision of Beijing’s hutongs, wrote that the city was structured “like a chessboard.” The gangway-like hutongs were formed by multiple clusters of siheyuan, which are quadrangles enclosed by low houses, save for a central gate that opens onto the alleyway. The siheyuan are the archetypal Chinese housing structure, dating back several thousands of years. In China’s earliest ancient dynasties, it was common for large extended families to occupy a single siheyuan. With the arrival of socialism in the 1950s and ’60s these siheyuan were parceled out to dozens of families at a time. Brick partitions and ancillary structures were then added to these compounds, resulting in intensely cramped conditions. One by-product of this was the formation of tight communities, within which the line between public and private life often blurred. This aspect of daily life, spilling out into the hutongs, is still visible today.

Beijing has lost many of its hutongs in recent times, whether through natural events such as the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, or, more commonly, government-led regeneration schemes, most famously in the time leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which more than 1.5 million people in inner Beijing were required to leave their homes. In 1949, there were 6,074 hutongs; in 2004 there were 1,200. In 2017, though there is no official number, this downward trend has continued. Now the hutongs and siheyuan exist as multiple liminal possibilities: fetishized tourist novelty; cramped and often dilapidated homes for communities of Beijing families; or as romanticized and renovated digs for foreigners, who like to stay within walking distance of their favorite hutong bar or restaurant. It is in this conflicting context that some of Beijing’s most avant-garde art can be found. The intimate environments are especially suited for community-driven artistic practices, and have birthed a variety of spaces.

However, just as many of the hutongs have disappeared, so a number of its art spaces have also come and gone. HomeShop and Jiali Gallery are two notable, now extinct ventures. Both represented a type of art space that embraced the innate communality of hutong life. HomeShop, which opened in 2008, was a trailblazer for independent nonprofits in the hutongs. In name and in ethos, HomeShop aimed to investigate and merge domestic and public areas. In this sense, its hutong location was perfect. The converted glass shop-front was intended to confuse as to what the space was, enticing people who would not normally find themselves within a conventional white cube.

Jiali Gallery, which opened in 2012, took a different approach, but one that remained rooted to the hutongs’ intersectional position between public and private, with founder Daphné Mallet opening an art space in her home. Jiali Gallery was an oddity in that it was a commercially focused hutong gallery. This model remains a rarity, and Mallet once quipped, “It’s difficult to attract collectors to the hutong, as they can’t park their cars!” Mallet emphasized how difficult it was for Jiali Gallery to remain financially viable and she returned to France in 2016. HomeShop also faced financial issues; rapidly rising rental costs caused their closure in 2013.

Yet, despite this disheartening aspect of real estate, a slew of spaces continue to offer art in the hutongs. I: project space, an independent nonprofit, was opened in 2014 by Anna-Viktoria Eschbach and Antonie Angerer. This year they expanded into a second hutong location, allowing them to double the capacity of their residency program. In many ways they picked up from where HomeShop left off. They recently acquired some propaganda boards (xuanchuanlan) within a hutong in Dongsi, an area of central Beijing, and plan to exhibit artworks within and to the local community. In fact, they were given these boards on the condition that they would instigate community-based activities with the adjacent neighborhood center.

In a discussion of the significance of the independent and nonprofit organizations found in the hutongs, Eschbach and Angerer extolled “the necessity of having spaces outside of Beijing’s art centers at Caochangdi and 798, which are almost completely full of museums and commercial galleries,” going on to say, “we independent spaces are often portrayed as aiming to tear down the system, but it is not so much about being against big institutions; it is more about creating alternatives and spaces where another kind of art-making, curating and working with artists is possible, another way of talking about art.”

The Institute for Provocation (IFP) also hosts a hutong residency program, but takes a different approach to its art projects. The three directors, Hu Wei, Dai Xiyun and Song Yi, told me that the IFP is intentionally insular in its practice, choosing to bypass the inherent communality of hutong life to focus on academic-style research projects. Although the subject of their forthcoming project is not yet set in stone, they were able to say that it will hone in on economic and social transformations that have taken place in particular Chinese cities. 

IFP’s research-driven practice is similar to that of the recently opened Salt Projects, a tiny space (even by hutong standards), with an explicit focus on performance art. My first question on meeting co-founder Yuan Fuca was if the choice of a hutong was guided by the trend of gentrification. “No,” in short, was her answer. Instead, like I: project space, they want to establish physical and ideological distance from Beijing’s commercially dominated art zones. Plus, their space is difficult to find, an aspect of hutongs that Yuan values, “since it can act as a kind of filter of the audience, meaning that those who find it have done their research.” Space, or lack thereof, is a defining feature of this gallery and others like it. One of Yuan’s ideas for dealing with this is a revolving “curated bookshelf of pretentious, intellectual books,” allowing for a compact exhibition platform; also, performances often take place inside, while the audience stands outside watching through the glass, in a fashion not at all dissimilar to Arrow Factory.

Arrow Factory, which opened in 2008 in a former storefront space, has found an ingenious way to deal with the lack of space in the hutongs. Their exhibitions are presented through a glass window visible from the street 24 hours a day, and aim to, in the words of one of the co-founders, Pauline J. Yao, “offer restrained interventions into the everyday context of the hutong.” Projects often involve the participation of local shopkeepers, garbage collectors and restaurant owners. Yao says: “Given the ubiquitous presence of ‘white box’ spaces, which insist on prescribed encounters with contemporary art, we find that Arrow Factory can offer a much-needed platform for artists to engage directly with the social relations of a specific site.” With its tiny space, constant public visibility and its ostensibly community-based artistic practices, Arrow Factory is the archetypal community hutong art space. 

YU BOGONGYu Bogong Vodka, 2014, mixed media, 50 × 180 cm. Installation view of “Yu Bogong Vodka Art Project” at I: project space, Beijing, 2014. Courtesy the artist and I: project space. 

In contrast to this is AOTU Studio, a new type of space of which there are likely to be more in the future. On its lower floor is an exhibition space and bar, a boutique hair salon occupies the middle floor, and on the top floor is a roof garden. This hybrid space unashamedly draws on the hype of the relatively recent hipster-led gentrification of the hutongs, attaching itself to a “cool” label that has been slapped onto tight streets densely filled with bars, restaurants and foreigners. 

There are also many more spaces—Intelligentsia Gallery, Lab 47, Micro Yuan’er, Yipai Hutong Space, Penghao, Shijia Courtyard Museum—that make up the hutong art constellation in Beijing. The narrow backstreets are perfect plots for community and participatory focused art, but their associated traditional values do not always direct the ethos of its art spaces. As a genuinely interesting alternative to the developed art districts, Beijing’s hutongs are well suited to play host to a melange of the capital’s best art spaces. Sadly, they are increasingly being destroyed, fetishized and stripped of their traditional resonances. Here’s to hoping that the interesting variety of hutong art spaces can thrive, and more importantly, that hutong life itself can survive.

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