A series of interviews with graffiti artists who attended:
An interview with Andrew Smith for Loreli
Artist, Architect and Gallery Owner
Interview on April 20 at Intelligentsia Gallery, Jiaodaokou
KL: The first question is how did you get into this?
GF: I arrived here with Nathalie, my partner, in 2009 from Europe. We were already practising architecture and making some art and we were having exhibitions outside of China. We were interested to see how we could rediscover what was happening here, in a way because we noticed that was a lot of exhibitions and things happening but they were addressing art in a different way than what we expected or what we wanted it to be. There’s a lot of interest in China, I’m talking about in general with the rest of the world, and there’s always this dialectic of the East and the West, a lot of those things that we’re not really interested in. Also we noticed that even though there are some really good powerful galleries here, they really only work with Chinese artists in a way so when they bring a foreign artist it’s usually going to be Picasso or someone like that. So you have the old masters and some Chinese guy who was born in the 80s so it’s this very awkward mismatch of art. We were wondering if you could deliver some sort of intellectual argument that is not focussing on where you’re born or how you look. Just trying to find the intimacy in an art project without those kind of characteristics that are not really interesting to me. Then in 2013, we also have an architecture studio, my partner and me, and then we were one of the ten finalists to design the biggest museum of contemporary art, the Centre of Contemporary Art in Moscow, and were there and we saw there were also some alternative art spaces that were kind of interesting and there was a strange energy that we were seeing on the project. While we were designing the museum we were thinking of how you could bring a universal platform of art and how you confront people with it.
How can you build a space where you can encounter art on a daily basis but also, let’s say, how can an institution be less institutionalised in a way. Then we came back to Beijing and at the same time we were looking for studio space because we live around here in Dongzhimen and the art spaces outside the city are cheap and big but really far and it was not really very convenient for us so we started looking in this area and we found this space and it had some furniture but it had a high ceiling and white walls and we thought maybe we should make it into a gallery or something. The problem is, even though we had been doing a lot of exhibitions outside of China, we knew artists and we were already involved in some sort of circle, we didn’t really personally know many art-related people here, so wanted to test what we could do. When we opened this space it was not so common to have art in this area. There were two exhibition spaces, one being Arrow Factory, which it’s still there since 2008 and Jiali Gallery which is close to here and is a small commercial gallery. Even though there were two, there wasn’t really a permanent exhibition space of the sort we wanted to create, where you have exhibitions on a regular basis, with the type of content we wanted to develop, so we didn’t know if people were going to react in a positive way. So we asked ourselves because we don’t know anybody, we didn’t know if it’s going to work. So time was running and we went to Russia again and then came back and said, we’ve been renting this space for some months and we haven’t done anything because we’ve been too buys so we had to do something and it was January already, Chinese holidays were coming and we thought we have to open now because it was three months we have rented this space and we haven’t done anything. So we’ll open with one exhibition and we’ll open with our own work which means that, if it doesn’t work, it’s okay we haven’t wasted anybody’s time and after that we’ll make it into our studio.
We made some really weird PR, we sent some emails to some people, we had the name of the gallery already and had the website, we had the name of the gallery in English, the name of the gallery in Chinese, we had the concept of what we wanted to do. We had already started talking to some artists about the gallery but it was in this potentiality, it was nothing set in stone yet so it was difficult to get them in, they were saying, “you want to open a space but not to sell work? Do you know how difficult that is?” So there were all these questions and we also had to question ourselves in a way. We opened the first show January 2014 and it was a Chinese holiday and a lot of people came and people were reacting with interest and the works we were showing weren’t typical Beijing art fair (the type of show you most commonly see in areas like 798 at the moment), they were kind of different. Now it’s more common because some artists have developed more in that direction, or galleries have adapted their output. So we felt that it worked, people came, even people from the art scene and they seemed to like what they saw or at least their reactions were interesting. So after that we did a second show and thought, are we going to make our programme so we did group shows with international artists and also China based artists. We had a Chinese painter called Meng Zhigang, a Romanian photographer based in Madrid named Simona Rota, Matjaž Tančič, a Slovenian photographer based in Beijing, an American sculptor working with glass named James Ronner and a French artists working with multimedia and photography called Camille Ayme, and it was called Hermeneutics of a Room.
It was an interpretation of a room because this room is kind of small and we wanted to explore that idea. Then that show opened and there were like 100 people. Then we knew, this is working, so we should stick to the plan. We started reading a lot of press and media about artists around the world, in Sao Paulo, in Ghana and everywhere and we wanted to make it really international and then we’ve been doing exhibitions, for the first year, once every month – we did about ten – and then, second year we went a lot faster, we were doing two per month more or less except one month that we did 35 solo exhibitions in 35 days. That was with an independent curator we invited named Xia Yanguo (now working on the Red Brick Museum). Some of the artists were more known, some were starting but it was a really big event and it helped to put the gallery on the bigger map, in China anyway, because the media was really aware of that exhibition. We were taking care already of the image of this place internationally and this one helped a lot so after that we’ve been doing a lot of collaborations with commercial galleries, art spaces and museums and things like that. So for example this weekend we have the opening of this exhibition about form [Form is a Habit Forming Drug] and then on Sunday we have an exhibition in 798 in collaboration with The Door, we have a show about text, and language called Hypertext with 23 artists, so this previous year we’ve done already seven exhibitions here and in other spaces. So that has become the model and now we’re planning to do some publications with some of the artists and also focus on some small solo shows with some of the artists we’ve been collaborating with over the past two years.
KL: So are other galleries catching up now? Is there more of an international art scene here?
GF: Yeah, there are a lot of ideas running around. Also in terms of the style of preparing the exhibitions and the content, I’ve seen that there is some kind of change in some of the more established and commercial spaces. Also there is an attempt, I think, at opening but of course it takes time. I see it more possibly happening in the near future. Even if on the global scale it’s still a very secluded attitude because of the market and other things, there’s some interest for galleries that we’ve already collaborated with are more open to collaborating with non-Chinese artists. I hope also in future people from outside won’t look here only to find Chinese art. They look for art. Whatever is being produced it will attract people to move here like any other city in the developed world like New York or London.
KL: To create a more dynamic artistic exchange?
GF: IT’s not only exchange, you go to a place because you want to live there, you see a future there. It’s not necessarily that you see China as this exotic thing because, I think it has been attracting that kind of profile of people, like academics that are interested in a very particular side of China, which is very limiting if you think about it because there is so much to offer, like any other place. You wouldn’t go to New York just because you love American culture and pizza. Here it seems to happen because of this infatuation with Chinese history is very romantic, so we are trying to challenge that idea. You’ll see in the exhibitions, you would never come to our show to see how Chinese it is or also not to see how western it is either, it’s just a matter of having concepts and trying to develop them in a free way with everybody in a free dialogue
KL: So how did you go about meeting people when you first got here?
GF: I remember one of the artists we first met said, “just do your work and things will come to you,” and that’s what we did, pretty much. We did the work and things started happening. People are interested. They hear the name and they come. In a way it’s been helping us to focus on the work. This year we even took a more extreme approach we’ve been doing less press releases and information because there is too much noise all the time, too many exhibitions and people are not really paying attention to them. If people are really interested they will figure it out and they will find the content. Actually, because content it’s the only thing we can offer, you should be looking for that when you come here. You don’t come here to see a big artist doing big things because there is no space for that. So it’s more about the approach and the concept and bringing lots of artists together and are also at different stages of their career. More developed artists who are already established and younger new artists so I think by doing that we start collaborating and discovering and that shares an interest in a way.
We have also been doing a lot of shows internationally, in Montevideo, Mexico, and Dusseldorf and took part in the Chicago Biennale so, even if they are not related, people see what you are doing and that opens a lot of possibilities. When we go to exhibitions with our own work we meet other artists and it goes in that pattern that is not contained to Beijing. Also, there’s a show coming in Shenzhen in May so there are these doors that are opening because of the project. Also, some of the artists we’ve been representing for years, we’ve been helping them to push their practise. It’s very difficult if you come here as a non-Chinese to try to do something and have some platform where you can have some sort of representation so people can find your work. It’s almost impossible to do that so in a way we can help.
KL: So when you open up here you usually do a day for each exhibition?
GF: Yeah, we do an opening and everyone comes to that. It’s usually on an afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday.
KL: What’s the logistics of that in this small space?
GF: We just open the door and people come and go. In winter we’re all in because it’s cold outside and in summer we’re out so it gets really full and if there’s a performance everybody’s sweating, it depends on the dynamics but it’s very lively. Also, for the vernissages it is open from four until eight pm so sometimes it is really full and others it’s not.
KL: Do people tend to hang around? Do they drink here?
GF: Yeah, there is always wine.
KL: How does that go down with the neighbours?
GF: The neighbours are great. They love the exhibitions and they come all the time.
KL: Tell me a little about your own work. Do you work collaboratively with your partner?
GF: Yes. We have an architectural practise named WAI Architecture Think Tank. We work with different ways to do architecture, with a lot with video and magazines and publications and collages, designing mostly culture-related buildings and rethinking ways to theorize about architecture, the city, politics, life. Then we have our art practise, named Garcia Frankowski, both of our last names. We work mostly with installations, with paintings and collages. We are interested in modes of language and their ideological, political and symbolic imperatives. The artworks and the architecture works are pretty similar in the mediums we use but the art one is aesthetically easy to identify, it’s mostly black and white, all geometric shapes because it has to do with language reduction. We’ve been doing that type of work for the recent years. This mannequin sporting a baseball cap is our work. In Shanghai we are showing something similar to this with a video and a big painting and a bag. It’s called trademark abstraction so it’s basically how you create this commentary on the idea of abstraction. Because abstraction, everyone says, is universal so everyone thinks it’s this really sublime, even spiritual thing. Everyone is talking about this transcendental thing but when you see the paintings in exhibitions it looks like somebody did them. You know a Rothko, you know a Pierre Soulages, it’s almost like a trademark so we were playing with that idea. So the show in Shanghai is called Daily Formalism with Ai Wei Wei, Haegue Yang and several artists working with form in a cynical or provocative way - your commentary on geometric form so that’s our take on it. Sometimes we work with large scale installation in a space. It has a lot to do with the space and with the audience – how they read the work and what do they get from it – because it’s always these simple forms and also with mixed-media: video, bookmaking, painting, poetry and how they become pure forms and structures too. We did an installation in Shenyang with children for four or five days where they were building with Styrofoam blocks.
KL: You definitely have a very distinctive style.
GF: Yeah people sometimes recognise when we do something.
KL: I’ve noticed that there a lot of really small, almost window spaces opening up in the Gulou area now. Do you think that being in Gulou gives you some separation or difference from the 798 scene?
GF: It’s different because you’re in the city which is already something. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I cannot say that it’s better because in a way 798 is good. The factories are really beautiful and they are great spaces to show in. Paradoxically, they have a scale that is problematic because artists are often forced to produce big works in a way because the spaces are too big. If you don’t know how to handle this space it’s very difficult to deal with but I think they offer different possibilities. Also there a different scaled places. In Caochangdi there are some small places and then there is Pace or UCCA but I think it’s more about having possibilities. So you have different types of possibilities and I’m more interested in the programme than in the place actually. That is why if you go to our website you never can see that this is in a hutong, some people would like to exploit that idea because it’s very romantic to think about it, especially for people not from Beijing. Even Chinese people who are not from Beijing they find this very exotic in a way. We try to resist that because it should be about the art works, their content, so if the work is not about the hutong then the hutong is there but I’m concentrating on what the artist is showing and what the content is of the exhibition. It’s a neutral white box. It could be in an apartment for what it matters. It’s something where we are aware but we try to take a position on it that is very rigorous on the way we present the exhibitions. Also, it’s too strong in a way. There is no way to defeat the hutong in terms of visual impact. Everyone, especially they get lost in here the first time and they’ve never been in a hutong so they’re like, “It’s so beautiful!”
KL: Do you think because there is such a huge contrast between outside and inside that it actually adds to your work?
GF: Yeah, especially in the evening. At night it’s really dark outside so you will go through the hutong and just see this white space. It’s really white in the evening because the contrast of the light is really strong. I prefer the evening for sure but the openings are usually in the afternoon. I think it helps but then again we’ve done a lot of shows outside of this gallery so I’m confident that the strongest part of the project is the content. That can be translated wherever you are.
KL: Do you think your ethos of being non-commercial will ever have to change due to financial pressures or…?
GF: Some say: you can’t be avant garde forever? Yeah, I know that. I’m looking forward to that moment when I don’t have to think about that. I was thinking the other day about this quote by Andy Warhol, he said, “I never wanted to be underground,” you know, you’re waiting for people to discover you so in a way it’s happened like that. There are certain things that we don’t agree with that we are really strongly against and maybe that’s what puts you in that spot of seclusion but it’s not like people don’t know us because people know what we’re doing. It happens more often now that I’ll be walking and someone comes up that I’ve never seen in my life and says, “you’re from Intelligentsia,” or something like that, a Chinese artist, an international gallerist or whoever. So it has gotten to that point so it’s not that crazy but at the same time we’re still thinking about the work and we’re still thinking about for the two years we’ve been open, we’ve always been trying to push what the discourse is and what can we do with it. We haven’t just laid back and done the same thing one after the other. If you look at what we’ve been doing there is some development and some sort of challenging of the status quo in a way with the projects. That’s something we’re very eager to do with everything we do, with writing or publishing or architecture and with the art projects and I think that in a way pays off because people notice you because of that. And not only do that notice you, when/if a person wants to collaborate with you, it’s because of that. It’s all about the work so last year we did six or seven lectures in Europe at universities because we were getting invited and we were sure it was because of the work because they didn’t even know who we were, or where did we live in a way. It was this very interesting dynamic because in the beginning we were always interested in these people who have been making this amount of work for thirty years or forty years and they sort of make it, not make it but people acknowledge what they’ve been doing, and in a way that are past their prime but that’s the kind of role model we have. In Beijing everything happens a little bit quicker, you’re still struggling but it’s not new struggle, the struggle has always been there so as long as you want to challenge the status quo you’re going to have a hard time. That’s for sure.
KL: Obviously your work is recognised across Europe and other places so… why Beijing?
GF: Actually I came to Beijing running away from Europe because it was terrible when I was there. I had a really bad experience. My wife is French so she is more familiar with it but when I was there it was not a good time to be there. It was a very cynical environment which I didn’t like. I got tired of it and said, “let’s try Beijing,” partly because we didn’t know. None of us knew. We were not familiar with it at all we didn’t have any type of link to it. Also, no particular interest in it either. Ales, when I went to Europe I didn’t have any particular interest except I wanted to make architecture and I thought it was a good step for me to get some experience of Europe because there is some sort of different understanding of architecture than, in America for example, but then it proved that there is a different understanding but also a lot of things that I didn’t really like happening. Then we tried here and we’ve been discovering Beijing in a way. It’s a friendlier place, people are nicer to me, so it’s easier to do things here without feeling like you have to fight everyday for basic things. This is our city so whatever event we are doing, whatever things we are representing, we are always Beijing-based and that’s how it is. It’s also something that is not so common so when they invite to talk or something and say we’re Beijing based people are like “WHAT?!” They are not used to it. Sometimes people here ask where I’m from and I say, “I live in Beijing, if that’s what you mean,” because it’s the same, if you live in New York people don’t ask you where you are from. There’s always this perverse ideology there lying around and everyone participates in it, so we try to challenge that too. Also, because the work we do doesn’t have the aesthetic of ‘being Chinese to’ whatever that could imply, which is also something that is kind of dangerous too, it’s very reductive in a way because you don’t go to New York and try to make your work about New York or London. There is some level of freedom that you can get by being there in theory and that’s what we’re more interested in pursuing; being free.
Garcia Frankowski (b. 1983 San Juan, Puerto Rico & b.1985 Dundee, Scotland)
Garcia Frankowski is an artist/curatorial collective founded by Puerto Rican artist, architect, author and theorist Cruz Garcia (b.1983, San Juan, Puerto Rico) and French-Scottish artist, architect, author and poet Nathalie Frankowski (b.1985, Dundee, Scotland).
Garcia Frankowski’s work focuses on the dialectical imperatives of abstract, historical and symbolic manifestations of language. Their work with installations, objects, images, performance, film and publishing explores the limits of language reduction and its ethical, aesthetic, political and ideological ramifications.
Cruz Garcia & Nathalie Frankowski are also co-founders of Beijing-based WAI Architecture Think Tank and founding directors and curators of artist-run organization Intelligentsia Gallery 智先 画廊.
Their work has been selected to be presented at the 1st Chicago Architecture Biennial, the inaugural Changjian International Photography & Video Biennale, and the Venice Architecture Biennale. Their works have been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions including at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, the Chongqing Changjian Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kunst-Werke KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, Center for Contemporary Art, and Unicorn Center for Art in Beijing, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester, and in shows in Barcelona, Madrid, London, Paris, Dublin, Porto, Lisbon, Moscow, Venice, Bergen, Milan, Helsinki, Brussels, Prague, Zurich, Lausanne, Istanbul, San Juan, New York, Los Angeles, Columbus, Houston, Chicago, Guadalajara, Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Montevideo, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Osaka, Sydney, Melbourne and more.
Their theories and works have been presented in lectures in institutions in Beijing, Shanghai, Graz, Munich, Weimar, Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, San Juan and more. Their critical texts and manifestoes have been published in journals, magazines and books around the world and have been translated to Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, German and more.
Part of Garcia and Frankowski’s work includes the creation of original architecture, artist’s and children’s books.
Recent publications include Shapes, Islands, Text: A Garcia Frankowski Manifesto (Sevilla: Vibok Works, 2014), Pure Hardcore Icons: A Manifesto on Pure Form in Architecture (Artifice Books on Architecture: London, 2013), the children’s book The Story of the Little Girl and The Sun, several artist books including The Book of Shapes and the self-published WAIzine What About It? , a public resource on The National Art Library of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and part of the collection of Archizines.
Interview via email
KL: You are a pioneer in the Chinese graffiti scene, how did you get into it in the first place?
李球球0528: I was really into drawing and skateboarding… I saw graffiti for the first time from skateboarding videos and magazines. I was taught as a child that vandalism is forbidden, but when I saw those vibrant and colorful walls on the streets outside of China I could feel the freedom – it was almost irresistible for the rebellious teenager that I was at the time. I felt a force grabbing towards graffiti, and after a few attempts I was hooked. Moreover I think graffiti is within our nature, the nature that society and institutions try to stifle and murder at every opportunity.
KL: Did you have any particular inspiration (did you spend your youth watching Beat Street over and over)?
李球球0528: A varied range of things has influenced my style. I have a lot of influences. When it comes to graffiti and street art, I like Banksy, Bonzai, Obey, Kobra, Chinaman, etc. I like Otomo Katsuhiro and Kim Jung Gi’s comics. I listen to 2pac, Nas, Wu-Tang, Bob Marley, Mozart and Paquito [D’Rivera]. I read Wang Shuo, Jin Yong, Gu long…. Etc. The people in my life, my friends, my family are have an impact on my style.
KL: 有什么东西或人特别影响你的涂鸦风格或内容？比如Beat Street电影或者Hip Hop音乐等等？
李球球0528: 要說有什麼東西影響了我的風格。。那就有太多了。。我喜歡banksy。bonzai。obey。kobra。chinaman等等的塗鴉作品 。。我喜歡大友克洋。kim jung。的漫畫。。喜歡2pc。nas。wu－tang 。bob Marley。莫札特。帕奎托的音樂。。王朔。金庸。古龍的小說。。等等等。。。生活裡的人。朋友。家人都在影響著我的風格。。。。
KL: How long did it take to find like-minded people and create a scene?
李球球0528: It took about five to six years for me to find like-minded people and friends who were also into it, probably due to the nature of communication back then… It has to be easier now.
KL: What difficulties did you encounter throwing stuff up back in the day? Was it more or less difficult when you were starting out? The police aren’t hugely strict about it now, was it better or worse when you started out?
李球球0528: The biggest problem I had was the quality of the paint. It’s much better now, there are lots of shops selling good paint.
KL: Why did you stop painting? Do you think every graffiti artist is destined for a relatively early retirement? Is it “a young man’s game?”
李球球0528: I haven’t completely retired from it, it’s just that I don’t have enough time as I used to – I’ve got a family and a kid now. My life is completely different. I think everyone ends up going through this process of which the things you like and pay attention to gradually change through time. You have all the time in the world when you’re young to condemn the world and dismiss everything around you as shit, just because you can. It’s different now; my attitude and insight toward life and nature and people and things have totally changed. I see it as a new beginning.
KL: Is any of your work still up? They heritage list some artworks in Melbourne and other places, do you think China will get to a stage of truly valuing what you guys do?
李球球0528: My stuff is barely visible on the streets of Beijing now, most of them are covered up. China is different from most countries in many ways. We have way too many people, generally uneducated. Most consider themselves lucky to even have a job. We treat authorities like God, how could anyone expect these people to allow anything that hasn’t been thoroughly inspected and censored to stay up for long? I’m not optimistic about it… there’s no freedom, no future.
KL: How developed do you think the scene is now? Are there particular artists who impress you?
李球球0528: This shit is going places in Beijing. There’re paint shops, different crews and some foreigners painting around the city. There are also commercial events focused on graffiti. There aren’t any artists that I like though.
KL: Events like the Graffiti Neighbourhood Meet up is a huge celebration of graffiti culture, was there anything even remotely like it when you were painting?
李球球0528: None of this stuff existed back then, there were small-scale events but nothing like this. It’s my first time going to something like this, I’m pretty excited.