View through a spy hole to artist DING YI’s studio, located next door to Qiao Space, Shanghai. All photos by Andrew Stooke for ArtAsiaPacific


Qiao Space

Since the creation of Hans Namuth’s defining images of American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock laboring in his studio, the artist’s place of work has been fetishized as a platform where the primary creative act is laid bare. In Namuth’s lens, the energized silhouette of Pollock, his movements suggested by a blur, is alone in a world circumscribed by his paintings covering the walls and floor. In this scenario, the image of the studio gives unprecedented access to artists’ deliberations, their raw creative acts undiluted by curatorial or critical perversions.

Contemporary art practice may draw artists into public spaces and social engagements. Alternatively, for artists with a light-industrial mindset, their space may be populated with associates and technicians. In the spirit of Namuth’s documentary approach, Qiao Space, a newly opened private exhibition venue in Shanghai, is staging the practices of 12 prominent Chinese contemporary artists in their studios. Chinese collector and Qiao Space owner Qiao Zhibing comments in the exhibition’s press release that the studio is “somewhere you can really get a comprehensive understanding of an artist, [a place where] we get a glimpse into an artist’s pursuits and creativity.” However, the studios that emerge in the show, rather than excavating the creative impulse of the artists, are sets on which unfathomable dramas are played out. This is probably most succinctly expressed in Ding Yi’s contribution, in the form of an oblique spy hole drilled through the wall of the gallery, offering a nondescript glimpse of his studio, which happens to be on the other side of the wall. Din offers unfettered visibility, yet tells nothing. The experience is reminiscent of Bruce Nauman’s extended video footage of his studio at night in Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001), where, over a six-hour duration, occasional activity by cats and mice is all to be seen in a 360-degree view projected onto seven screens.

Installation view of the exhibition “Studio” at Qiao Space, Shanghai, 2016. (Left) LIU JIANHUA, Blank Paper, 2012–16. (Center) XU ZHEN, Summery of Problems Frequently Encountered During the Production of “Under Heaven” series, 2016. (Right) DING YI, Daily, 2016.

Installation view of the exhibition “Studio” at Qiao Space, Shanghai, 2016. (Right) Atelier Eiffel, Dijon, 2007, an enlarged inkjet on paper print of a photo of YAN PEI-MING’s studio taken by André Morin. 

Meanwhile, Xu Zhen and Liu Jianhua document their studio activity by exploring with exhaustive detail the technical difficulties of creating works with a semblance of purity, lightness and ease. Both artists reveal the collective nature of the elaborate processes that yield apparently gentle works, which includes Liu’s porcelain smooth sculptures of paper sheets and Xu’s filigree paintings made with cake-icing nozzles, collectively entitled “Under Heaven” (2011–16). The presentations tell of the attention to detail required to achieve a consistent finish in one’s work. The displays are like recipes, step-by-step guides on how to make one’s own copy of Xu’s work. The procedures connect artisanal traditions with a production line’s division of labor, but dodge any question of the essence or purpose of the workers’ endeavors.  

ZHANG XIAOGANG, details from Memory Box, studio shots taken between 1982 and 2016.

By contrast, Jia Aili, Yan Pei-Ming, Zhang Xiaogang and Mao Yan hide their practices and focus on the charged ambience of the room. Their individual studio spaces are depicted in very different scales. A photograph of Yan’s studio is near life-size, while Zhang presents multiple tiny glimpses that vindicate his description of his space: “This is a testing ground, where suffering takes pause and we are often pleasantly surprised.” Jia’s statement, “Creating an artwork feels almost like a shaman wandering alone in the wilderness,” is contrasted with images of a rich collection of reference materials, laid out flat and photographed from above with forensic detachment. While the artists’ comments, each posted beside their various assemblies, suggest their works convey poetic ambience, the promise to lay bare their creative process is literal and, therefore, subverted. The artists, seeking to reveal all, compose their spaces as they compose their works. The exhibition is not only like an open studios that the public can explore, but also comprises constructed images.

ZHANG ENLISpace Painting, 2016, applied directly to the upper walls of the gallery.

Zhang Enli transcends the mystery of the studio as a private inner space by bringing performance, rather than evidence, into the gallery. Joining what he calls “the artist’s space and the viewer’s area,” Zhang has smeared an exuberant painting, Space Painting (2016), high on the gallery wall. He has created a messy sense of activity that has no need of documentary photos. Spectators feel the connection of place and act in the gesture and position of this work. Zhang associates the studio with a nest. It is a good metaphor in this exhibition, where the “studio” is an obscure place. It is where artists are found; it is where they are hidden. It is not a place they visit, but a place they create.

“Studio” is currently on view at Qiao Space, Shanghai, until October 21, 2016.