This winter, northern China has seen record low temperatures and heavy snowfall, but for the artists of Beijing’s Zhengyang Creative Art Zone, it has been a particularly cold, hard season. On November 26, residents of the Zhengyang Creative Art Zone in Jinzhan village, in Chaoyang district, northeast of the capital, were served eviction notices by the art zone’s developer, Haohai Yizhou Company.
The developer asked the artist-residents to leave by December 4 and offered no compensation for broken leases or the return of already-paid rent, which artists allege amounts to a total of 310,000 RMB (USD 45,000). In 2007, when the Zhengyang Creative Art Zone was opened, more than 50 artists signed five-year leases on studio spaces. Other artists had signed new leases as recently as October 2009. Given less than ten days to remove their artworks, families and furnishings, many artists refused to move out of their buildings, setting off more than six weeks of confrontations.
On November 28, demolition crews arrived and began knocking down houses. Electricty was cut off December 5, the date Zhengyang residents were expected to vacate the compound, a day on which it was –9º C (16º F). Water was turned off on December 13. On December 19, men hired by the developers removed electrical generators rented by tenants who remained.
In response, artist Xiao Ge mobilized 20 art zones, including the well-known 798 Art District and Caochangdi, into a series of collective actions and exhibitions, “Warm Winter,” to call attention to the issue. On December 29, the first of these exhibitions took place at Zhengyang. Huang Rui, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and one of the first artists to move his studio into the 798 Art District in 2002, staged a performance, donning a black-and-white costume printed with the English word “China” and the Chinese characters chai na (to demolish and remove), noting their homophonic similarities. In another performance, Wu Yiqiang from Dongying Art District, another threatened community, huddled naked against the ruins of cold buildings in sub-zero temperatures.
The local government wants to develop suburban villages outside Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road to accommodate the capital city’s growing urban sprawl. Artists, including sculptor Yu Gao, said they did not object to the urbanization plan, but insisted that they needed more time to find new homes and money to compensate for moving expenses. The artists took their case to court, but the developer’s finance officer reported that the company has no money and reportedly owes its employees several months’ wages.
On the night of January 6, four men were seen smashing windows in the homes and cars of artists who had remained in Zhengyang. In mid-January, 42 families, comprising 120 people, including infants and the elderly, were still living there.