We caught up with Gordon Laurin, the founder and director of Where Where Art Space in Caochangdi, outside of Beijing, to talk about his young program:
China Residencies: Can you tell us the history of Where Where Space?
Gordon Laurin: Three years ago, I decided to relocate to Beijing. After doing one year of freelance curating and writing, I thought that it would be interesting to set up a project space for artists from all over the world to come and do a residency here. I also wanted to have a project space where we could host exhibitions for young, emerging Chinese artists, and other artists from the international community living here in Beijing. We've been running the art space and residencies for three years now.
CR: Tell us about one of your favorite artist-in-residence, and a little bit about their work:
GL: Oh, that's a really tough question! You get to know an individual artist very well—their background, their motivation for coming, and their understanding of China. But, my favorite artist would probably be Alex Livingston, a painter from Canada. He was able to find a connection between his abstract painting style and aspects of the urban environment here, using photography and sketches. He did these landscape paintings, creating a new body of work, consistent with past projects, but deeply engaged with the new environment he was living in.
CR: Do you prefer artists to come with a project in mind, or to find inspiration on the spot?
GL: Oh that's a really interesting question. Sometimes when artists come for residencies in Beijing, they have very specific ideas of what they want to work on. Often their ideas and perspectives of China are informed by the news and media, so people come with preconceived notions. By coming to Beijing, they often find that their image of China is challenged, or does not quite line up. Other artists don't come with a specific vision, but rather allow what they see, who they meet, and their experiences in general to influence their work. My sense is that if you have an open perspective, you are more likely to discover new things and see the complexity of what is really a dynamic involving in social space in China.
CR: So how do you choose the right artist?
GL: We look at both their past works and portfolio. We only have one residency space and we only work with one artist at a time, so we also want to feel the same sympathy and connection with the artist’s work. It’s really a subjective process.
CR: Why did you decide to locate the residency program in Caochangdi?
GL: Oh, it's the place to be! It has the strongest galleries in Beijing, and is a great spot—very relaxed, very lovely—with great restaurants, and a diverse art community. Caochangdi has changed immensely in the last decade, and expanded, but the village still stands apart from Beijing. It's the meeting place for artists to get together, catch up, and set up studios.
CR: Do you have a system in place for artists who want to come, but don't have the funds?
GL: It's hard. We couldn’t sustain the space... I just own a space for a program and projects. Some artists have actually done work here, and been able to take on jobs—freelance photography, teaching—and sometimes we help people find jobs here, but this space itself can’t give employment. The space doesn't make money. It all goes towards paying the bills and sustaining the space and program as a whole.
CR: Do you host artists all year around?
GL: Well, in summer, spring and fall, it's very nice. But in the winter, we might not offer the residency program. You know, in January, February,spaces in Beijing are not well heated. If you've been here for a year or two, you kind of adapt to it, you have your techniques for surviving the cold, but I think for someone doing a residency, it's really difficult to work, especially if you’re from countries with warmer climates.
CR: Around how many applicants do you get a year?
GL: We probably get about 70 to 80 inquiries a year. It usually starts with an e-mail exchange that goes on for several months, and then we ultimately take six to seven artists a year.
CR: Can talk about the exhibition space and presenting artists’ work?
GL: Originally the space downstairs was intended to host exhibitions by the artists-in-residence. But we found out very quickly, especially when artists are just staying for a month, that it is not enough time for the artists to produce a completed body of work that they can present. Sometimes artists come with completed bodies of work, like videos or photos, that they can exhibit. Many artists come here to connect with other artists and galleries, so we invite curators and writers and use the space to make those connections. The gallery space is where you can make those friendships.
CR: Do you have any tips for artists to get the most out their stay? Anything that they should, or should not do, to a have a productive time here?
GL: Maybe the thing that comes up the most each year is people getting lost. Most residency spaces are located far from the city center, in the northeast section of Beijing. Artists often commute back and forth between the space here in Caochangdi and downtown. Many artists just assume that if they show an address to a cab driver, sometimes even in English, that they can get from A to B, but that’s really not the case. We make sure to coordinate with the residents, just to make sure they don’t get too lost.
CR: Well, thank you very much for your time, and good luck going forward!
GL: Thank you!
This interview was conducted in Beijing by Crystal Ruth Bell & Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.