Art and Cities

In the early 1990s, when China’s artists were less able to participate in open debate about the shape of Chinese society, they turned to the production of urban space instead.

“If you want to see the political impact of Chinese artists, we can look to the city in order to see that.” 

Dr Christen Cornell

After the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square, Chinese cities entered a period of radical social and spatial reorganisation. During the process, artists began to move from the countryside into Beijing. Some artists took up residence in the old communist compounds that had once housed the collective work units – compounds that were now earmarked for demolition.

You have probably heard of Ai Wei Wei, the controversial Chinese artist who designed the so-called birds nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics. But what you might not know about artists like Ai Wei Wei is they have been reshaping the physical, cultural and perhaps even the political fabric of Beijing. We’re chatting with Dr Christen Cornell to find out how.

Christen says, when we look for examples of urban political activism in China many people search for signs of open protest in Chinese cities. And when we take an interest in the country’s artists, many people look for the political commentary in their artwork. But the role of the artist as a political actor in China involves a more complicated form of urban activism.

Drawing on ideas that were popular in western cities at the time, the Chinese artists renamed the sites they were claiming ‘artists villages’ and ‘art districts’. This was a political move to save these sites and their artistic practice. We talk to Christen about the shape and significance of these urban arts communities, and the impact they had on the physical and cultural life of the city.


Dr Christen Cornell is a Research Associate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Christen is working across issues of cultural policy, housing, urbanism and contemporary Chinese culture. She has lived and worked in China on and off since 2001.You can read more about Christen’s work here: Using movement: how Beijing’s post-1989 artists capitalized on a city in flux in Cultural Studies; and here: The temporal pocket: 1990s Beijing artist colonies in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies.



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