Though threatened with eviction, the residents of Shanghai’s most authentic arts community continue their work, and the dimly-lit corridors and decaying walls of this former electronics factory are imbued with a palpable sense of creativity and artistic freedom.
Architecture alone does not make a city. One also must consider the real, human communities that develop, thrive, and eventually (inevitably?) decline and vanish from within those walls. Some of Shanghai’s most compelling spaces are thus not especially great in terms of architectural design, but are fascinating when considered as fragments of an urban experience that is constantly redefined – over time, yes, as entire blocks are leveled and rebuilt in what seems like mere days – but also spatially, as the experience wandering block-to-block in the city can transport you across continents and through decades as you pass by French villas, elevated highways, post-war factories, or down the narrow alleyways of the old city.
It’s this rich variety that makes Shanghai so compelling an urban study, and so it is a tragedy when any of these blocks that make Shanghai unique are threatened by forces beyond their control.
Initially, one may mistake the Weihai Lu 696 artists community for a government-sanctioned “creative cluster,” like M50, Red Town (Shanghai Sculpture Space), Tianzifang, or Beijing’s 798 Arts District. These complexes represent an urban planning strategy that aims to increase tourism, encourage investment, and above all present Shanghai to visitors and locals alike as a forward-thinking, progressive, arts-friendly environment. These spaces are quite compelling, and do provide a great alternative for businesses seeking unique office space (in the cases of M50 and RedTown), and have become tourist destinations for their unique spatial configuration, one-of-a-kind souvenirs, and overpriced imported beer (in Tianzifang). What these creative clusters lack, however, is the real sense of danger, experimentation, and freedom that is still present at artist communities such as Weihai Lu, not to mention the lower rents that allow working artists to afford studio space in the center of the city.
The old complex, alternatively described as a former electronics factory or opium storage facility, is the home to over 20 working studios and a handful of Chinese and international galleries. The walls of the dark corridors are etched with graffiti and the tile floors are chipped and stained, but this is exactly the type of space that artists need to fuel their creative impulses. The haphazard and probably illegal additions (and demolitions) indicate that this is a space that is used extensively, and it would be a huge loss for the artistic life of the city were it to be renovated and reopened as a pale imitation of itself.
I was lucky enough to meet with Jim Zhou, artist and associate professor at Fudan university, whose oil paintings of crumbling stone archways and rusted staircases seem to indicate a fascination with the vanishing, underground Shanghai of which Weihai Lu is a part. He offered me a cup of Nescafe instant coffee, and explained that the artists in the Weihai 696 complex will literally have nowhere to turn if they are evicted. The rents at M50, for instance, are too high for most artists, which has led to an exodus of working artists as high-end galleries and cafes took their place. There is no space in the center of the city comparable to Weihai Lu in terms of affordable rent and established community. Studio spaces far out in Pudong are available, but are unlikely to attract visitors, and lack the established network of artists and gallery owners that is Weihai Lu’s primary appeal.
Zhou was kind enough to take me through several galleries and studios in the complex, including Houhou Art, where Zhang Ping has two floors connected by a small mezzanine, where she can work in her studio space above, and exhibit work by herself and others below, a rare and productive configuration, only possible in this kind of space, where the decaying walls are imbued with a palbable sense of creativity and artistic freedom.
For the time being, Weihai Lu remains intact, and a half-day spent wandering the dimly lit corridors is a great way to see some of Shanghai’s most intriguing contemporary art. The community is planning an open house sometime in the near future, and they are hoping to gather signatures and testimonials to take to the government in an appeal to save this vibrant artistic community. If you’ve visited, and appreciate this unique Shanghai landmark, please send your thoughts (in English or Mandarin) to Jim Zhou (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Jiang Xueman (email@example.com) , and watch out for further news and events.
Weihai 696 is on Weihai Lu, between Maoming Nan Lu and Shanxi Nan Lu, in Shanghai’s Jing’an District.
More photos, on the author’s Flickr stream.