Dressed in a full-on hipster uniform of white vintage jeans and mirrored sunglasses, 34-year-old performance artist Wei Yuan grins as he shows off some mildly disturbing footage of himself eating a rotten apple on his iPhone. The consumption of dubious food and drink is something of a theme in his work – he once sold dirty lake water in plastic bottles as an artistic comment about redevelopment plans for Wuhan’s East Lake High-Tech Development Zone.
We’re in a studio in Creative Capital, a slick white complex east of the Yangtze River that runs straight through Wuhan, the capital city of China’s southern Hubei province. I’m here because I’d been told that the city, arguably most famous for its historical tourist sites and industrial output, is undergoing an artistic boom – and that much of the buzz is emanating from this specific venue.
Creative Capital was constructed by the Wuhan Optics Valley Union Company in 2015 to function as a new arts hub. Wei, with his apple antics, is just one of the artists who now call the 40 individual studios home; the complex also features small galleries and the enormous United Art Museum, which, at 10,000m2, is currently the city’s largest private art repository.
Around the same time that Creative Capital opened, the ribbon was also being cut on the nearby 403 Art District: a converted boiler factory featuring a forward-looking exhibition space showcasing innovative young artists from across China. Meanwhile, K11 Art Village, funded by the Hong Kong-based K11 shopping mall group, offers studio space and artist residencies. It originally opened in 2011 in Wuhan’s Qiaokou District; due to its success, it is set to upgrade to a new location in East Lake later this year.
All these recent developments plonk nicely onto Wuhan’s art timeline, which stretches back a long way. The city is famed for the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts – where Wei graduated from – which was founded in 1920 and is considered one of China’s best art colleges. Other graduates include Ma Liuming, who was born in 1969 and whose nudity-based performance works have seen him banned in China; and Wei Guangqing, a painter who was one of the main players of the country’s 1985 New Wave art movement.
This development saw a generation of Chinese artists give birth to contemporary art in the country, influenced for the first time by Western artists. Up until the turn of the millennium, painting was the dominant art form in Wuhan, but then younger artists began adopting more varied styles, experimenting with video installations, performance art and more.
One day, artists around the world will love to come to Wuhan
The Everyone’s East Lake project, which saw Wuhan artists protest the redevelopment of the city’s stunning East Lake area through varied artworks, helped galvanise the young artistic community via three stages in 2010, 2013 and 2014. “Older artists tend to stick to their own style, whereas younger ones experiment and explore, and try to discover things for themselves,” says Yuan Xiaofang, an influential Wuhan-based artist and teacher at the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts.
Today, Beijing is considered the country’s arts capital, and Shanghai has seen huge developments in its arts scene over the past five years. However, the plethora of new gallery openings in Wuhan is indicative of something bubbling up in the city again – especially (and perhaps most importantly) in terms of a growing interest from its residents.
In fact, there has been an increased awareness and appreciation for art in the city over the past decade, since the opening of the Hubei Museum of Art and the publicly-run Wuhan Art Museum in their current locations in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
“Now, the public has so much more access to modern art,” says Yuan. “At weekends, there are often so many visitors to the Hubei Museum of Art that they have to limit their entry. People are getting closer and closer to art here.”
Respected local painter Lang Xuebo feels that the spate of new private galleries is a natural follow-on from the rising interest that the state-run openings have fuelled. Lang, 44, who also graduated from the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts, is another artist who has recently moved into Creative Capital, enticed by the sense of artistic community the new complex offers.
Prior to its launch, Lang’s art graduate friends, including Wei, were spread all over Wuhan. Since then, their creative community has been brought closer together by many of them living and working in the complex – some studios also include accommodation. As if to demonstrate this, two other artist friends casually bowl into Lang’s studio to drink tea, muck about with some VR headsets and discuss their latest art projects while we chat.
Despite the fact that the city is still overshadowed by Beijing and Shanghai’s commercial art clout, Lang and his friends agree that there is something exciting happening in Wuhan’s art scene. “Compared with those cities, the pressure here isn’t so big,” says Lang, sitting by a row of his colourful, cartoonish works.
Although Lang works mainly in painting, Wei’s apple-based performance art piece typifies how many members of the younger generation are looking beyond Wuhan’s traditional art forms for their work. “We are more laid back, which gives us more space to create,” continues Lang, leaning in to peer at Wei’s iPhone as the on-screen chewing continues. “Plus, the new galleries give us opportunities to show our work.”
One of the most impressive new openings is Surplus Space: the centrepiece of 403 Art District. The complex features a small theatre, a wood-laden public events space perfect for a trendy TED Talk, a shop selling arty gift products, and a café so hip it could have been relocated brick-by-brick from Brooklyn.
Sun Chuanbiao, the manager of Surplus Space, names Chen Tingting, Wu Hao, Wang Zhiyi and Cai Ying as his favourite rising Wuhan artists, and his gallery is clearly doing its part to influence the new generation. As well as showcasing local creatives, it regularly hosts brilliantly curated exhibitions that straddle many modern art forms. According to Sun, artistic talent has always been abundant in Wuhan, but wasn’t previously served well enough by available venues.
During my visit, the eerie, sci-fi tinged video works of young Hefei artist Zhang Wenxin dominate the room. “This exhibition discusses the relation between reality and virtuality,” says Sun, pointing to one of Zhang’s videos, which shows a ghostly, shimmering figure walking along a computer-generated train station platform.
Lin Moru, the chairwoman of Dingyun Art Salon (7 Taixingli, off Shengli Rd), a stunning concession-era gallery building in Jiangan district, offers another reason. She feels that Wuhan’s strong economic growth in recent times – the city has posted an increase in GDP of around 8% for the last three years – has led to more money trickling down to art institutions. “I think Wuhan could even overtake places like Shanghai and Beijing one day,” she boldly – and perhaps optimistically – states.
Whatever the main factor behind the spread of art in Wuhan might be, it clearly isn’t stopping anytime soon. The new K11 Art Village will be unveiled in November, while the Dingyun team plans to open a space called Wuhan Art Terminus in a beautiful old train station in the city. Rumours are also swirling that a Wuhan branch of Shanghai’s respected private gallery, the Long Museum, is set to open soon.
“One day, artists from all over the world will love to come to Wuhan,” says Yuan. “It will take time, but I have confidence in this city.”
Tucked in a shopping mall, this one-room gallery has exhibited local artists such as Wang Xianglin and Bai Luyang, as well as Dongbei-based painter Li Baoxun.
D2-1-2 Jindi Jinghan 1903
Until the end of 2017, this venue is hosting a stunning but macabre exhibition of historic Tibetan artworks, some made from the skin of sacrificed teenagers.
Chenshia Museum website
This art mecca serves as a mini library, a screening room, an exhibition hall, a party venue and a gig space. Open from Mar to Jun, and Sep to Dec.
Wuhan has a reputation as a punk rock city, largely thanks to SMZB and AV Okubo: superb bands who formed in 1996 and 2006 respectively and still have big followings in China. Their legacy is loud and proud at these venues.
VOX Livehouse (118 Lumo Rd), which opened around 12 years ago, remains the home of underground music. It’s located next to Wuhan Prison, a dive bar run by SMZB frontman Wu Wei, where many of the city’s rockers hang out.
Wuhan also has a jazz club called JZ (153 Yanjiang Ave), a small livehouse called Coastline (29 Houchang St) that holds a jam night every Sunday, and a recently opened record store named Sense Club (38 Zhuodaoquan Rd) that occasionally hosts live sets.
Top local acts worth seeing include Chinese Football, which makes clever emo-tinged rock; Panicworm, which plays lo-fi post-punk; as well as hip-hop specialist BIGDOG.
This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.