Nanjing has become a thriving base for a clutch of modern artists, drawn by the city’s relaxed atmosphere and its cultural and historical roots.
Until early summer, Nanjing is often veiled in a mist of drizzle. The contours of the city are indistinct, the high-rise buildings seem dwarfed and the people blurred. This damp ambiguity benefits not only the verdancy that Nanjing is famous for, but also the art scene: modern artists and galleries are thriving here.
Zhao Qin, the man behind the famous cartoon sequence in Feng Xiaogang’s comedy Big Shot’s Funeral starring Donald Sutherland, made his home here for purely practical reasons. Compared with his hometown Xuzhou, in northern Jiangsu, Nanjing has got everything he needs.
"It’s not as important as in the 1990s, artistically," he says, "but we have no problems doing our art here. There’s a relaxed atmosphere, it’s relatively open."
For Mao Yan, Nanjing’s attraction is more discreet. One of the most sought after artists in Nanjing, he has developed a sketchy, misty style of painting, not unlike the climate. As a recluse, the quietness suits him.
But being a tranquil, secondary city is not enough. The art scene is flourishing also thanks to the ancient capital’s history – Nanjing was the cultural centre of China for 10 dynasties, and even today some 30 universities are located within the city walls.
Until recently most of the art was safely conservative, but then came the opening up of the mid-1980s. With it came a surge of modern art activity, such as ‘Basking in the Sunshine’ in 1986, which brought art outdoors, and the more controversial ‘Human and Animal’ event in 2000, involving live sparrows and naked artists leaping from carcasses, which managed to upset even some the foreign spectators.
An up and-coming name on the contemporary Chinese art scene, Liu Ding took part ‘Human and Animal’, and has chosen to live and work in Nanjing. "I have a great studio by a lake here," he says, before adding that Nanjing needs more modern art.
Artist-psychologist Guo Haiping is the first to agree: "The art scene is dominated by traditional art, as few people understand modern movements, so it tends to be the same people who do these things – we try to get others involved." So he opened Banpu Village, an arts caf?where local and visiting artists gather. Independent films are occasionally screened, and the 3M Gallery at the entrance holds monthly exhibitions.
Guo Haiping was behind the organisation of the second ‘Basking in the Sunshine’ in April this year. This one-day art event took place on a private island and involved more than 80 artists, covering installations, performance art, photography, sculpture and conceptual art – a vast range of exhibits that baffled the local farmers. But judging by the busloads of visitors from the city, the event was a great success, and Guo Haiping hopes it will be held every two years.
Banpu isn’t the only gallery in Nanjing. Keyi Gallery was opened in 1998 by Qian Xiaozhen, who also runs a hotel, beauty salon and bookshop. "Nanjing has a lot of talent and more people are interested in art these days," she says.
Why do these artists stay on in Nanjing? "Too much competition [in Beijing and Shanghai]," says wild-haired Wang Cheng, who works mainly with photography. "Here, I can make a decent living."
Tang Guo is an established artist whose abstract works reflect his passion for ancient culture. Still working during the day at a literary magazine, Tang has chosen to stay in Nanjing because of family ties. "Beijing is better, culturally," he explains. "If I was alone, that’s where I’d be." But with numerous exhibitions abroad he isn’t missing out by living here in his spacious apartment, full of the antiques that inspire him.
Certainly the relaxed atmosphere in Nanjing makes for a comfortable existence. And the adage that artists should suffer to produce great art doesn’t seem to hold here, although it may explain the definite lack of angst in the works that are being created.