Working and living in Feijiacun 09/01/2015
What was it like living and working at the Red Gate Residency in Beijing?
Working and living in Feijiacun — the neighborhood that surrounds Bei Gao — was the best part of the trip. I had no idea I would end up immersed in a place so full of life and energy, and with so many things happening at once. On April 29th, on my first day in Beijing, I went on a walk around Feijiacun with Emma Karasz. I could not help but smile to see so many new things that were happening on the streets.
The first thing that struck me were the workshops in and around Feijiacun. There, the people worked so hard from dawn until evening, from Monday to Sunday. The people cut, glued, and welded plastic, steel and aluminium. Aluminium was the first material that caught my attention, so I bought a few pieces, painted blue on one side and exposed to aluminium on the other. There were also triangles, squares, rectangles folded to form three-dimensional structures.
Before coming to Beijing, I decided to learn about Chinese culture through objects, many of which I already knew and consumed as a child in the Caribbean, and which I saw as the main element in common between both cultures. While photographing and collecting objects from hardware stores, supermarkets, shops and the streets of Feijiacun, I realized I had much more in common with China than I thought. I felt China was a giant “parallel Caribbean,” where people spoke Chinese. It felt like as the Caribbean, China was also full of contrasts among rich and poor; urban and rural; and civilized and rebellious. As in the Caribbean, in China, traditions are hidden in the bustle of modernity.
Industrial and craft objects overlap in layers of modernity and tradition throughout Beijing. After several weeks immersed in this new universe, I decided to start working on a set of paintings, sculptures, textiles and audio found within this neighborhood. My intention was to show how the resources and customs of the big city are mixed with the rural traditions.
I started researching on aluminium and found that it was no accident that this material was so present because China is the largest aluminium producer in the world. Besides the physical attraction to aluminium, I found that this material was ideal in order for me to to talk about China. So, I tried different solutions and ended up on with painted plates.
After I worked with aluminium, I decided to work on audio in order to incorporate the sound of the city to the work. This was motivated by the speakers of the stores that are tuned on during peak hours; the music on all Feijiacun barbecues; the traditional music of portable radios carried by elderly people; and the remixes played while women dance during the evening throughout Beijing. I did a number of speakers, sound sculptures in which I also included traditional and contemporary Dominican music as a way to represent and confront these two “parallel Caribbeans.”
Working surrounded by artists from different parts of the world, was of great help to know the city and culture. The experiences of each were added to the group experience. It was enriching to have friends with whom to share ideas, food, a long ride the subway, and a beer or tea.
My time in Beijing was a laboratory that will eventually influence the evolution of my work. I want to continue the exploration of materials and resources I started there.
Working in Beijing made me confirm how far we are from China, but made me realize also how close we can be. By participating in a scene far removed from the Caribbean art, I was able to see many elements that serve as models applicable to our environment and experience the first exchanges of the Caribbean with China through art generated by the Davidoff Art Initiative and Red Gate. Also, I was able to see independent projects like Intelligentsia, a gallery in the Hutongs, directed by a Puerto Rican and a Scottish, in which works of Chinese and international artists are exhibited. These types of initiatives create a plural and open dynamic in the heart of Beijing.
Engel Leonardo use contemporary language to explore the realities of life on the island.