Interview Ma Shuqing

Ma Shuqing, one of the few artists still living and working in 798
Ma’s Studio
26 July 2014
Interview Frances Arnold / Vivian Song

V/F: Perhaps you could start by introducing yourself – your travels in Europe, your background and practice?

My hometown is in Tianjin, I went to study in Germany in February of 1989. I went to study a new kind of painting. I had studied fine art previously in China, but at that time, art wasn’t very open so that’s why I decided to go to Germany to study painting.

So I studied abstract painting in Germany and in 1994 I moved to the south of France, to Provence. I had friends over there, that’s one of the reasons I moved there. After that I went to Paris. The reason I knew about 798 was because during these years I would go back home [to China] to visit my family once in a while. Before this whole thing [798] even started, I knew about the area.

[Serves us tea in paper cups... We exchange thanks in French, English and Chinese…]

V/F: What were your initial perceptions of 798?

It was in autumn 2002 that I first came for a visit. At that time, it was muddy and not much was going on. It was also very remote. I came here because I was always abroad so didn’t know many other artists here in China, so I was trying to figure out who I needed to be talking to in order to get involved with the scene here.

So I went to talk to Tokyo Beijing Art Projects and they told me that this space was available [the one he’s in today]. I wasn’t planning on staying, but as soon as I saw the space I realized it would be a good one for art creation. At that time it belonged to another artist, Mao Li Zi [?]. He actually had four spaces and he decided to lease two out. So I moved in. At that time I was spending half a year in China, half a year in Europe.

I’ve been in this same space the entire time, although I’ve had to renovate four or five times over the years. I’m just about to do another, actually.

The rent is 1700rmb per month. The problem is that they now renew the contract every year. They raise the rent every time I sign a new contract, so it’s yearly. But the thing is that I want to do more renovation, and that means investing a lot of money. It somehow feels unsafe, even though I feel they don’t want to kick us out. Who knows, maybe they want to bring the artists back, but it still feels unsafe.

V: You say it feels unsafe, but also speculate that there might be a push for artists to come back?

For now, the management seems to want to hand it over for commercial use so that they can get more rent. That’s their perspective, but from an artist’s, 798 is a good space for us in terms of creation and market. Me personally? I don’t count on 798 for sales. I’m represented by various galleries and I travel to various places and have connections all around the world. I don’t rely solely on 798 for sales. But since I’ve been here for years and created so much from here with my own hands, I feel a sentimental attachment: this is home. So there’s no point in me getting a new space, I want to stay here.

Most artists have there studio here and live elsewhere. But not me: I live and work here, in the same place.

[There are steep steps leading upstairs and various home comforts visible – the sofa we’re on, cat food lying around, bookshelves and a Russian icon painting on the wall]

I like having a home office and studio space, all together.

V/F: Could you talk about who stayed and who left over time, and how things changed in that regard?

As the first group of artists, we were quite different from the artists who followed. They gradually changed over time. The first comers occupied these areas – we called them the老哥子[lǎo gē zǐ] [V can you check please?]. They stayed on this corridor where we are now. Gradually it became more famous with more people coming in. But a lot of them didn’t stay here because there were other small art zones around that offered cheaper rent. They were primarily just looking at costs, so they didn’t stay in 798. Instead they went to places like Hei Qiao, Songzhuang, Huangtie, ZhouZhuang and so on.

Artists don’t want to be too far from 798 because still this place is the center of art, we have lots of institutes – UCCA, Evergreen Gallery, for example – and these galleries often have openings where people gather. It’s still the center, even though they don’t live here because it’s quite expensive, they also don’t want to be too far.

I remember at that time I would see artists everywhere to the extent that I even got a little bit sick of them because I would always seem the same faces, even though I don’t necessarily know them personally. But they’re all gone today. It was a big change.

F/V: At what point did the 老哥子 start to move out?

In 2005 I sensed there were some changes. At that time, there were lots of galleries opening up. Almost every weekend there were several openings – so that meant drinks and food every weekend! There were lots of artists everywhere. I’d say they were mostly artists: I could tell from their dress, their appearance – quite different from the tourists of today. This whole fever continued until the beginning the Olympics.

Around 2006 and 2007 I saw construction going on everywhere – building roads, better infrastructures and then I moved out for one year during the Olympics.

F/V: What were the physical changes to the space?

Structure-wise, not much changed. But if you go into lots of galleries, they started doing new renovations that had nothing to do with the factory structure anymore. They went in for more of a minimalist look, and it was sometimes hard to tell they were ever used as a factory at all. So the interiors shifted according to the needs of the new users.

It’s interesting: one thing I’ve noticed since living here is that lots of gallery people come here because they see it’s a fun place and they want to experiment. But in a year they might not sell anything beyond just enough to cover the rent. So they decided to leave. Every spring, I see people moving in and starting to renovate, and then moving out at the end of the year. But a lot of these people become second landlords – they keep the space but sublet it to someone else. Even if they didn’t bring in much money from the selling of actual art, they still made money on the rent – more, in fact.

Because they invested money into renovating the space, they were keen to get the money back and become a second landlord. But you don’t really see any ‘For Rent’ posters in this area – the spaces get snapped up very quickly, plus people go through their own networks and channels, rather than advertising a vacancy.

F/V: How many people are in this situation do you think? Of paying more to a second landlord?

It’s very complicated, and very difficult to tell. One thing that I find extremely interesting – even mysterious – is that even for me at the very beginning when I was looking for a space, if I talked to 798 [management office] they would tell me ‘No, there’s no space’. But I always see people moving in.

Even now if you ask the management team they’ll tell you it’s full already, but there are always new people arriving in 798. It’s funny, I don’t know what’s happening. There’s some strange things happening on the other side as well [where V spotted the For Rent poster; is this the 751 developments RB mentions?], I don’t know what’s really happening there, it’s difficult to ascertain details.

V/F: What’s your own relationship with the management people? You’ve been here a long time – does that mean that they’re easy to deal with?

I only meet them once a year to pay the rent! Before I had a longer term lease of five years, but since last year we can only get annual contracts.

F/V: What was it like in its heyday? Was there a strong community? Did it feel different from anywhere else in China at the time?

Yes, I did get a sense of community, but you know us artists are very individual. We’d look at the space and really want to do a great job in renovating [our own individual spaces]. We all thought the same. We rented at the same time, we started renovating, and in a way we were all competing with each other to make a new creative space. Everyone was doing the same thing – but separately! I remember being with other artists, and of course, the style of my renovation was quite different from that of others. One friend had exposed brickwork – like outside inside. I told him that whenever I was in his studio I felt I was outside someone else’s!

I feel good here: this is my studio. For me, I think my emotions are kind of ‘flat’ [stable? nonsentimental? peaceful?] when it comes to the changes undergone by 798. My artistic approach is Western abstract painting. From the very beginning, 798 has always attracted foreign – mainly western – buyers and collectors to search for Chinese art, art that’s related to China. I mean literally, with a Chinese face! So my art wasn’t necessarily what they’re looking for. So for me, I didn’t go through that rapid rise of selling lots of paintings; for me, it was it was always a flat, peaceful, floating status. It was steady.

So, emotionally I didn’t go through that up and down like others did. And it’s not even like all of them became rich and then moved out, it was more the mental status that they overnight become ‘rich’ [successful]. Some were invited to show in exhibitions a lot. But for me, things were going up more steadily. I recall a German collector coming to visit me and telling me that he wouldn’t buy my work because my approach is the same as the one used in Germany. But he later came back and now collects my work, because, he says, the market has changed. Now there is a market for my kind of painting.

V/F: So this was forces outside of 798 shaping what happened inside. Were there any other influences like this – the market – that had an effect on the district?

I think one of the things that has helped keep 798 as not a total tourist zone is the fact that we have these great international institutes here, like Pace, Ullens and Evergreen gallery. I would even go as far to say that they’re amongst the best art institutes in China. They’re from the outside and came in, and they really helped raise the standard, change the image of art in China from something only showing a Chinese face – you know, something very clichéd – they raised the standard of Chinese contemporary art appreciation: what could it be? What should it be? Their existence raises the level and makes the area valuable, not overwhelmed by clichés and souvenir shops. I would say that’s an outsider influence coming in.

[We notices a small kitten peering in from outside with ridiculously big eyes… turns out they’re street cats that Ma feeds – hence the big bags of cat food in his studio…]

V: Do you often have media asking you about the history of the district?

Not many Chinese media, but there was a Taiwanese book that interviewed me… I’ll give you a copy.

Is there anything else aside from the presence of places like Pace and Ullens that could stop this area descending into what you describe as a clichéd, tourist place. Do you think 798 will continue or will it completely change? Does it still need to be an artistic space?

It will be and should be, because there’s no alternative space in China with such a concentration of artistic production and commercial possibilities. Of course, you have Songzhuang, you have Hei Qiao but they’re mainly studios, there’s not many galleries around. So we need a place to kind of fly the flag, a center for Chinese art, also because the Chinese art market is going up now so we do need a space, we do need a place like 798. There’s no doubt. The only problem is how do we keep this image and reinforce this image as a center of art?

[Ma’s kettle suddenly explodes in quite dramatic fashion… lots of laughter ensues]

One thing that needs to happen is an improvement in the quality of the visitors – by which I mean those visitors here doing wedding pictures, buying cheap stuff. How do we stabilize the rent and make us feel more secure. With prices rising year-on-year, it’s very difficult for anyone to plan ahead. It’s kind of ridiculous… Ideally they’d give us five-year leases, then we could plan longer-term. Because otherwise you have people come in and then leave very soon. That’s not good. But worse still would be f these big institutes also left, because then it wouldn’t do tourism any good either.

Red Town and M50 in Shanghai are slightly different: their rent is really high so they’re mostly occupied by design studios. It’s not like Beijing.

V: What other factors affect whether you stay or leave? Other places are cheaper, or artists could go to second and third tier cities…

For artists it’s very important that you do your work in a familiar environment. For example, my work is very related to my space, which of course was built by me. They become one. This kind of familiarity is very important for my artistic creation.

Also, in terms of traffic it’s really not too bad – this is quite central [to Beijing]. Personally, I don’t want to work somewhere really remote with nothing around; I like to be close to the city center, to be connected. You know, China isn’t like the UK, Germany and so on where there’s really not much difference between the countryside and more urban areas in terms of food quality and things like that. But [here in China] if you travel just five kilometers away from here, the traffic is difficult, the water is not safe and the food, well, you just don’t know!

So that completely reduces quality of life, so that’s another reason I like to stay here.

V/F But you still maintain 798 isn’t important to you in terms of sales – where is?

I also sell through Osage Gallery in Hong Kong – that’s where my next show is opening. I’ve also shown at the Yuan Art Museum [Wanjing, Beijing] – lots of places in Beijing actually... For example, in August there’s a Chinese Oil Painting Biennale, at the China National Museum [NAMOC]. Then there’s the HK show, and HK Basel… I also show in Köln, in Taiwan, and in November in Shanghai at Halycon Gallery with Ding Yi and Zhang Peili… It’s a private gallery in Pudong, next to the Pearl Tower. They also have galleries in London but want to have my show first in their Shanghai space. Also art fairs in London…

There are a lot of shitty galleries in 798, but you see that they’re not doing good business. It’s not like seven or eight years ago when anyone could come here and make money. What happens is that the galleries that don’t sell transform their business model to start selling art-related products to get some money back [all of those souvenir shops dotted around]

On the changes in the market for contemporary Chinese art…

Before, big collectors would only go for big names. But now there are so many more collectors and their taste of course varies from one to another. It gives lots more artists new opportunities. At the same time, there are lots of new collectors – born in the ‘70s and ‘80s who also give us more of a chance.

One difference from the past is that before, galleries would only present the big names – literally, the same two or three artists time and time again. Always the same. But now there are more galleries, and so they’re more diverse. It’s good, but it’s also something required by the market.

Posted by Daan Roggeveen / 8.6 years ago / 4674 hits