The enclave contains a private orchard of pear, peach and clementine trees as well as extensive living quarters that until recently were home to a dozen or more workers. There is more than enough wall space on which the artist can permanently hang his massive multipanel paintings featuring his signature motifs of maps, oceans, sea creatures and small figures. At one end is a smaller, more intimate walled-off room that can be heated in winter. The two studios are incredibly clean and tidy, furniture is functional, and every inch of desk space is covered with reference books and documents stacked in neat piles.
While this is an artistic idyll of sorts, in China there is never any certainty when it comes to leasing property. Just over a year ago, Guan took out a long-term lease on a studio within a complex housing some 100 other artists at Chaoyang, 20 kilometers outside of Beijing, but it was unexpectedly slated for demolition and redevelopment. Guan was given only a month’s notice to vacate the premises, with no compensation. For now, however, he has landed on his feet, having signed a nine-year contract on the present property. “It’s meaningless really,” he says. “Things can change so quickly.”
Guan is one of the many artists who left China in the years after the Tiananmen Square crackdown only to return in recent years. This year, he has been in the limelight with a string of exhibitions: a survey show covering 30 years of his practice at Shuimu Art Space in Beijing opened in January; “Conjuring,” a large solo installation at OCAT Shenzhen appeared in April through June; and “Spellbound,” a solo show at Sydney’s Martin Browne Gallery in October, where he will display recent paintings and his “Cloud” series (2009) of life-size white-painted bronze sculptures of figures carrying lumpy, cloud-like forms on their backs.
Guan is a dedicated family man. Liu Pin, his wife of 27 years, and their daughter Mimi live in an apartment in Beijing while Guan spends his weekdays at the studio. The arrangement works well, Luipin says, provided her husband is productive and can show her evidence that he has not been idle during his time away. This proof is usually found in the meticulous Derwent A4 sketchbooks that he uses, each one identical, sequentially numbered and packed with ideas.
These books offer an incredible insight into Guan’s creative psyche. Each page is covered with neatly boxed-off drawings, which reveal the evolution of complex ideas much in the way plotlines develop in the pages of a graphic novel. Flipping through the books, one sees how earlier pencil drawings have given way to pen-and-ink renderings. From his sketchbook designs, Guan builds his ideas into small acrylic paintings that are as delicate as watercolors.
Guan sees himself as a director, storyboarding the ideas that will become monumental paintings and installations. The actual work is carried out by a bevy of assistants, much like in the atelier studios of old. For “Conjuring,” which will feature all of Guan’s signature imagery—oceans, islands, animals and plants—ten assistants will work with him for one month. “Some are good at painting faces,” he says, “while some are better for landscapes, others for backgrounds, others for boats. Only I can paint the figures.” He explains that the show at OCAT consisted of acrylic murals, a format he is increasingly using—and which he used to great effect in 2007 at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum installation, Other Histories, where ceilings and walls were covered with murals depicting the journeys and possible discovery of Australia in 1421 by the Chinese explorer Zheng He. Additionally, Guan appreciates that the work is obliterated at the end of the exhibition, as the walls are painted over; he says this appeals to his sense of where he is in the world.
The order and calm of Guan’s studio make it seem like a permanent fixture, even if the specter of impermanence lurks ever close at hand in China. Hearing the sound of a plane flying overhead, Guan looks out the window. For the artist, this is oddly fortuitous. “This studio may be a little more permanent than the previous one,” he muses. “It is less likely to be redeveloped because Beijingers don’t want to live near a flight path.”
From the editors: In late May, after this article was written, the Beijing authorities gave Guan three days to vacate the studio, which they demolished due to the “fire hazard” it allegedly presented