Beijing, Mr. Li Xiu’an

 

We talked with Mr. Li Xiu’an who is the caretaker of the CAAW (China Art Archives & Warehouse), an art gallery at CaoChangDi, Beijing.

 

Mr. Li tells us that Ai Weiwei the owner, or one of the owners, is of this gallery. Some research shows that Ai Weiwei has founded the gallery together with the late Dutch artist Hans van Dijk in 1997. He has curated many of the exhibitions at the gallery and was running the gallery as an artistic director together with Belgian business director Frank Uytterhaegen. Mr. Uytterhaegen, a celebrated art collector and widely respected as a pioneer of China’s contemporary art scene, died recently; on December 27, 2011. We talked with Mr. Li before that, in October 2011.

 

How long have you been working here as a caretaker of the gallery?

I’ve been working here for ten years.

 

From the start of this gallery?

This gallery is older than ten years.

I used to work for a gallery around Longzhaoshu area, close to the southern 4th ring of Beijing. That gallery belonged to a Dutch artist called Hans van Dijk.

 

You’ve been working as a caretaker all the time?

Yes, I’ve always been working (part-time) as a caretaker.

 

How did you get into the art business?

At the moment I am working for a Belgian boss. He was looking for a caretaker, so I applied.

 

Is there any specific art that you like most?

Many of them!

 

Do you prefer traditional Chinese art or modern art?

To me traditional art seems to be better.

 

Do you like this art?

Yes. It is quite nice.

 

(An exhibition by artist Mao Tongqiang in which the artist designed marble tiles, carved with characters from the West Xia language, an ancient and extinct language dating back around 1000 years; created during the Western Xia Dynasty (1032-1227 AD). The text, translated by an expert on the old West Xia language, displays Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”)

 

Do you find this work traditional?

It presents the West Xia language, one of the ancient languages of our country.

 

The presentation is quite modern.

The presentation is good. I learnt from the artist that he found that in some European countries the West Xia language is still well preserved in collections.

 

Is he a famous artist?

He is quite good and he is known through the introduction by Ai Weiwei.

 

Did he carve the characters himself?

He employed someone to carve the characters.

 

How many people visit this gallery on average every day?

Usually there are more visitors during the weekends.

 

How many visitors during a week?

Around 50 to 60 people per week.

 

What kind of people come to visit?

In general they are artists and foreigners and a lot of Chinese visitors. Visitors are from all walks of life.

 

Do you have visitors coming from abroad especially to see an exhibition?

Normally they already based in Beijing. There are also artists coming from abroad to visit exhibitions.

 

What was the most successful exhibition you ever had here?

There were so many fun exhibitions that I don’t really remember a specific one in detail.

 

What’s your job when there are no visitors?

When there are no visitors I work as a housekeeper for my Belgian boss.

 

 

 

 

Beijing, Li Qiang’s Studio

 

Name: Li Qiang. “Qiang” is not the name my parents gave me. I wanted a name that is unique and I changed it when I was studying at university. I had it officially registered as my new name.  Qiāng, spoken in the 1st tone in Mandarin and in the 4th tone in my dialect, means gun and I associate the pronunciation with a strong smell of gun powder; very intense. These days the name comes in handy on the Internet; there is nobody else with this name (in Chinese characters).

 

Age:48

Chinese zodiac sign: Horse

 

Education: I graduated from the Jiangsu Academy of Education, Nanjing. I would say the general education environment in the whole country, not only in Nanjing, is not very good. In my college, for instance, and in many other colleges, the teachers point out to the students that they are trained to be qualified teachers of arts rather than splendid artists. Even in those top universities of art studies like the Central Academy of Fine Arts, students are not trained to be fine artists.

 

Profession: Independent Artist

 

 

When you are at home, what is your favorite activity? What do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy reading and thinking, discovering something meaningful, and experiencing something special.

My life is based around my studio. I am not very fond of social activities. In my studio, I spend a lot of time reading. As early as in the 1980s, I was already reading books about the most up to date thoughts on arts and culture from the West. These books include books on philosophy, religion and other areas. I have always been keeping the habit of thinking and following trends of thoughts. Currently I am reading the book “The Crowd”, written by a well-known French social psychologist (La psychologie des foules, Gustave Le Bon, 1895).

 

Name three of your daily routine activities:

Cooking, cleaning, and constantly changing the environment in my studio

 

What is your favorite food?

Seafood

 

How much money do you spend on food per day?

Around 30 RMB

 

Where is your hometown? (if not Beijing: do you miss your hometown? if so, what do you miss most?)

My hometown is Donghai county in Jiangsu Province. Yes, I do miss it. I miss my son.

There were at least several thousand of people in my village. I have four brothers and I’m the third child of the family. But none of my brothers does something that has anything to do with art. They do business or work in a court. Every year when I visited home for the Chinese New Year I found that even though I have brothers, we really had nothing to say to each other. It was the same when I was in the village. No one from the locals understood what I was doing. In 2006 a professor of anthropology from New York University came to make a documentary about me. Her name is Angela. She spent three years, from 2006 to 2008, shooting my life. She said it was really strange that I became an artist out of this village, with nobody from my family, or from where I lived, understanding me.

 

What is your most precious childhood memory?

 

To go outside to see the “ghost fire” in the evening (ghost fire is a phenomenon caused by chemical reactions, for instance on cemeteries where methane gas from decomposing bodies can create a lightning glow).

Ghost fire was actually not what we liked most to play with in childhood, but it is the most impressive thing that we remember from our childhood. We saw something glowing from afar, from some remote and desolate place, which was not necessarily ghost fire. But when we were small it was easy for us to have inexplicable fear for the glowing from the back of the house or just from darkness. The adults, especially our parents, always frightened us with stories about where in the village people died and where in the village horrible things used to happen. We kept these stories in mind, so whenever we passed by those places we felt terribly scared. You know the tassels of the corn, right? I used to be scared by those when I was small. My mom told me that when I was about two or three, I started crying at seeing those tassels because I believed those were beards.

 

What are the three most important things in life for you?

Love, Faith, and “to be alive”

Love means my love for my family, for my friends, for my life, for myself, and for life itself. I think love is the most basic. Faith is also very crucial in one’s life. Here I’m not referring to religious beliefs, not the God nor the Buddha. Instead I am referring to an ideal, something that is loftier than life, a pursuit of higher values including the invisible values. The third one is “to live”. Actually it should be placed at the top. Life is the most important, everything else – states, democracy, all kinds of “–isms”, fame as well as money – becomes valuable only on the basis of life, or else it is all empty.

 

What are, according to you, the values that one needs to live up to in life?

The biggest power that God endows us is the power to become ourselves.

 

Would you say you are a) happy b) somewhat happy c) somewhat unhappy d) unhappy

Somewhat happy

 

What do you expect will the future bring for you?

I feel that I am in a very comfortable position at the moment, so I hope my future would be an extension of my current status. I believe my art creation in the coming four or five years would be more unrestrained. I will try to break through all the boundaries that I created for myself before – like I can do this or I cannot do that. I will try to make something bette r, something which is closer to my inner world

For me, my art creation has to come from my inner world. It is only in this way that I can make my work my own and distinguish it from artworks of other artists. My works are not limited; I do everything – performing art, print, sculpture and documentary. I can’t say what else I will be doing in the future; it’s hard to predict.

 

What is your religion?

I don’t have religious beliefs. I believe in freedom.

 

 

 

Video of the 360 degree panoramic photo
(click full screen icon for best view)
the below video is on Vimeo; banned in China

 

Beijing, Mr. Zhang Wei’s Atelier

 

Name: Zhang Wei

Age: 52

Chinese zodiac sign: Dog

Education: I graduated from high school and then began my work as an artist.

 

Profession: I make and paint traditional Chinese sculptures, like tiger baby dolls (Hutou Wawa) and the Rabbit God (Tu’er Ye). I also like Peking opera and painting facial masks. I started doing this in the 1980s. Before that I made pseudo-antique porcelain. I like making things with my hands and produce art since I was a child, especially making the traditional craftworks.

These days I sell part of my work through the Gift of Hope organization; a company that is founded and managed by disabled artists and that sells the work of disabled artist to foreign clients.

 

When you are at home, what is your favorite activity? What do you enjoy the most?

Nothing special, I just like reading books. Actually, making painted sculptures is my biggest hobby. I can sit here for a whole day and keep working. Usually, I get up and sit on this chair until midnight. I haven’t been downstairs for a week.

I can paint around 30 tiger baby dolls a day by myself and together with my wife we can paint 50 to 60 dolls. However, painting is just one step of my work. Before that, I have to make models of clay, which takes a lot of time.

I sell finished painted sculptures to middlemen at a wholesale price of 7 or 8 RMB. But the retail price depends on where the shop is and what kind of shop it is. I won’t sell them at a very high price. The middlemen and retailers will mark up the prices and sell for at least 5 times higher than the wholesale price.

These days I sell part of my work through the Gift of Hope organization. They give me a price that is up to 5 times higher than the normal wholesale price.

I also like reading news. Historical and traditional things can interest me, because my work has something to do with that.

 

Name three of your daily routine activities:

I make painted sculptures, read news on the internet and sometimes pay attention to the stock market. Making painted sculptures is the only thing my wife and I do, nothing else.

 

What is your favorite food?

Anything will do. Fried food, if I have to name one.

 

How much money does your family spend on food per day?

I’m not sure of the expense per day, but we spend around 2,000 RMB on food per month.

 

Where is your hometown? (if not Beijing: do you miss your hometown? if so, what do you miss most?)

I’m an authentic Beijinger. In 1971, I moved to this building from a bungalow not far away from here. When I was a child, there was a city wall standing around this area. But it was torn down during the Cultural Revolution.

This apartment was given to us as a compensation for the demolished bungalow. In those days, the compensation was in the form of a house, they did not give money. In the beginning more than ten people lived in this house, including my aunts and uncles. Now, only my wife, my son and I live here.

 

What is your most precious childhood memory?

There’s nothing special in my childhood memory. As children we just played around.

 

What are the three most important things in life for you?

Family is most important to me. It makes no difference to me what kind of food to eat. We can buy almost any food we want nowadays. A harmonious family relationship is the most valuable.

My son is 17 and studies in the Guangqumen High School. He’ll take the college entrance examinations next year. He doesn’t have special ideas for the future now. My son is self-conscious and independent. He studies well and is one of the class leaders. We parents don’t always tell him what to do, because we want him to be independent both in study and in life.

 

What are, according to you, the values that one needs to live up to in life?

Nothing special. I just think that people shouldn’t complain too much and put all faults on others. We have to adapt to the society and the environment. Complaining is of no use and won’t benefit you at all. Living happily in the world is good enough.

 

Would you say you are a) happy b) somewhat happy c) somewhat unhappy d) unhappy

I think I’m happy. There’s some inconvenience because of my physical condition, but I cannot do anything about that. However, my family is quite harmonious. That’s enough and that’s all I ask for.

 

What do you expect will the future bring for you?

Just to live. Leading a normal life is good enough for me. If I have some spare time, or when I retire, I want to make my own work. Not painting for work’s sake but just following my own interests. But currently I’m too busy with work and I don’t have time and energy to do other things.

 

What is your religion?

No religion.

 

 

 

 

Video of the 360 degree panoramic photo
(click full screen icon for best view)
the below video is on Vimeo; banned in China

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