Arrow Factory: An Evening with Rania Ho and Wang Wei
January 12, 2016
Asia Art Archive in America
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise
Xiaofei Mo (XM): Tonight we are delighted to welcome Rania Ho and Wang Wei. They will introduce Arrow Factory, an independent art space in Beijing founded in 2008. Rania and Wang Wei are two out of the three founders and they’re both artists. The third founder is curator Pauline J Yao. I’ll leave it to them to introduce the history and mission of the organization but I do want to say two things: one is that if you’ve been to Beijing you know that most of the galleries, art schools, and museums are located in 798 on the outskirts of the city but Arrow Factory is located in a hutong [a narrow alley] in the very center of Beijing. Another thing is Arrow Factory is not a space in a conventional sense; it is not a building, nor a room. Rather it is a storefront window, and its doors are usually locked. People can look inside, but generally only through the window from the street. I would love to hear more about how this format effects your relationship with the local audience and the public, in addition to learning more about your exhibitions.
Rania Ho (RH): Thank you so much Xiaofei and Jane for inviting us, and we also want to thank Cici Wu, Wang Xu, and Bill He from PRACTICE, who are putting us up while we’re here in New York. They have an amazing studio space, and the programs they are doing in Chinatown are quite exciting.
First, I’m going to give a brief introduction to Arrow Factory. As Xiaofei said, we’re a small storefront in a hutong. And this hutong is located inside the Second Ring Road in Beijing. The Second Ring Road is actually where the city wall used to be, so we are located in what was the old city — in a very small neighborhood. And as Xiaofei said, the glass doors at Arrow Factory are usually locked, so people do not enter the space. There’s a couple of things that we’re focused on: one is that our size is very small, the second is that we operate on a very limited budget which means that we only do what we can with the resources that we have – within an economy of means – and the third is that we tend towards work that is site specific. In this regard, we like to have extended conversations with the people who are invited to come to work in the space; they come for a site visit, we mull over ideas, and sometimes it can be a year or more before anything happens.
Wang Wei (WW): This image of the hutong was taken before we rented our space.
RH: Oh yeah, you can see the ‘for rent’ sign!
WW: Previously, our space was a vegetable shop; the space next door is a pancake shop. As you can see, it’s very neighborhood-ish.
RH: The pancake shop will actually make several appearances tonight. To give some context, here’s a map of the Second Ring Road, and this is where the old city wall would have been. Most people know Beijing for the big, spectacular, repurposed factory spaces of 798 and Caochangdi, which are located alongside the airport expressway. Those are pretty far out of town. There is, in fact, a Third Ring Road, a Fourth Ring, and a Fifth Ring. The [industrial-style] spaces that are located outside the Fourth and Fifth Ring Roads look more like this.
As you can see from the slide taken at 798, it’s a Bauhaus style building, and the current tenants have intentionally left the old Cultural Revolution slogans, which now have kitsch value. East German Bauhaus engineers originally designed the spaces in the 1950s as factories. These are amazing spaces and very spectacular, but if you have a space that big it’s very difficult to show smaller art works.
In 2008, when we started Arrow Factory, almost all of the spaces that were opening up were in the warehouse district and all of them were massive. We saw one spectacular space after another; each week saw a new gallery opening. This created a lot of buzz and hype, but it occurred to us that it was also problematic. It occurred to us that maybe there were other ways.
So instead of thinking BIG as everyone else was doing, we moved into this little hutong. This is Jianchang Hutong. Jianchang literally translates into ‘Arrow Factory’, which comes from the fact that it is located just behind the old imperial college and the testing grounds for the imperial exams. Archery used to be part of the students’ training and Jianchang Hutong is where they used to make arrows. This is our neighbor; they sell vegetables. This photo was taken right in front of our space where there are often traffic jams because two vehicles can’t pass on the street at the same time. Here’s us again and the pancake shop. At night our space is often lit quite dramatically so that people can view the work from the street.
In addition to our small size and our economy of means, another thing we focus on is working with artists and realizing site-specific works. A lot of people ask if we have community outreach or work with our neighbors. That kind of activity is nice, but for us, it’s secondary to focusing on the artwork. We’re a non-institution. We’re not registered anywhere, not in China nor the U.S.. We’re completely volunteer-based and noncommercial. We don’t sell any artwork, and all the money that we have comes from either grants or donations. Yes, we accept donations, and all the money donated goes into paying rent, producing artwork for the space and getting the artists to come to Beijing to do work. Our objective in working this way is to try to remain fully independent. When there are inquiries about buying artworks, we remove ourselves from that conversation completely and put the interested buyer in direct contact with the artist.
That’s a basic introduction to Arrow Factory. We’re going to show a few artworks and feel free to ask questions, we prefer having a conversation to giving a presentation. This is a work that we showed in 2013. For this exhibition, we removed the entire façade of our space and the artist installed an entire room covered in velvet fabric inside, which was designed to absorb all incoming light. Artist Liu Wei was trying to make a black hole in the space and then light it from the sides. At night it had a mirror effect. In the daytime it looked like this image. Each of our projects is usually exhibited for about two to three months.
Audience Member: This is Liu Wei?
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Yes. Arrow Factory helps artists realize work which may not look at all like their more typical work. Liu Wei, as many of you know, has recently created a series of big colorful striped abstract compositions that have become quite successful commercially.
WW: He recently had a solo show at the Ullens Center [of Contemporary Art – UCCA] in 798.
RH: We like to encourage artists to try things that they wouldn’t normally do – to take risks and try things that are not part of their normal practice.
In our own practice of running this space, there are some things that we don’t do. For example, we never have public openings for our shows. We just install the work, lock the door, and we walk away. Perhaps there will be a small reception with the artist and a few friends, but that’s it — nothing public.
JD: Do you have a website where you announce your different programs?
RH: Yes, we have a website. We make announcements about projects only after the work is installed. Usually the work goes up and then we spend a little time to write a press release and announce ‘it’s there!’ by sending it out over email. Invariably somebody will read the exhibition announcement and exclaim, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I missed the opening!’ But of course, there was no opening.
Audience Member: Do you cover the window while you’re installing it, like department stores do?
RH: No, we keep everything open, but the turnaround time for de-installing and installing is usually pretty quick.
Audience Member: How do artists hear about you? Is it just a community of friends? Are people waiting in line to work with you?
RH: It’s by invitation
Audience Member: So you contact them. Do you know the people you’re contacting?
RH: If we don’t know them already, we will contact them because we want to get to know them. It’s an extended process of learning about each other, learning how we work and learning how they work, and coming to something that might be appropriate for that space. It’s quite an organic process. And when I say a project is two to three months long, that’s an elastic concept as well. Some projects are a day and some things go longer.
This is a project by Yan Lei who is also quite a well-known artist. For this project Yan Lei asked us to hand over the keys to the space to somebody else. He asked us to give the keys to Arrow Factory to a neighbor of ours, Mr. Zhou, who is a used car salesman. Mr. Zhou parks his second-hand cars around the alley, and if you want to buy one, you can walk around, check them out and then buy a car from him. He always hangs out in the alley because he has to watch his cars, and during this time he would often play cards with his friends, especially in the summer months. Yan Lei thought he was a perfect candidate. So we gave the keys to Mr. Zhou, and in a week Mr. Zhou gave the keys to one of his friends, and the friend moved into the space. The friend hung up a curtain and we thought ‘oh dear.’ Then a month to the day, the friend left, and Mr. Zhou gave us the keys back. It was a little bit stressful and strange. We worried that we weren’t going to get the keys back. That was actually a very interesting experiment about letting go and handing over power, based on the terms of a gentlemen’s agreement.
JD: And none of the terms was written down?
RH: No, none of it was written down. It was just a verbal agreement. Interestingly, this project really capitalized on the dynamics of the neighborhood. Mr. Zhou knows us because we pass through periodically, and from time to time he helps Wang Wei fix his car. But we had no idea who the third party was and had zero interaction with them; they were only accountable to Mr. Zhou.
Audience Member: Who came up with the sign?
RH: The ‘locals only’ sign was Yan Lei’s. To celebrate the handing over of the keys, we had a hotpot meal together inside the space.
JD: Do you live near there so you can regularly monitor what’s going on?
RH: We live nearby. The reason we found this space is because we used to buy vegetables there. Then one day after Chinese New Year we came by and the vegetable seller had vacated the space, so we thought…hmmm.
JD: Has your rent increased?
RH: Yes. It has doubled, from $200 to $400 a month.
Audience Member: Can I live there? [Laughter]
RH: There’s no toilet and no shower, but there’s running water, so I suppose that you could live there. And there’s no kitchen, but theoretically you could get a propane tank. $400 U.S. dollars for a commercial space is, in fact, quite expensive for that area and the size of the space. But the space comes with a business license — a shop license that allows us to sell handicrafts. Included in our rent is a small bit of tax that is levied by the local commerce department. They came to do a tax assessment when we first rented the space. After looking at what we had placed in the display window they concluded that we probably would not be making any money, so they only charge us the minimum amount.
Audience Member: What experiences in the art world led you to make such an experimental space? It seems so pure, truly art for art’s sake vs selling art.
RH: That’s a very good question. In 2008 along with all the commercial galleries that were popping up each week in Beijing, several spaces opened with the intention of being non-profit and showing experimental work. In China, there’s no such thing as being a [registered] non-profit, at least officially.
JD: There is basically no institutional designation for independent non-profit organizations. You’re either a governmental organization or you’re a for-profit organization. There’s no or almost no in-between.
RH: Which means that there are no tax breaks, no grants, and no public money for independent activities like ours. So in 2008 a number of art spaces opened to much fanfare with the lofty intention of being ‘non-profit.’ But obviously at a certain point they realized that this was totally unsustainable. At the beginning it was not so clear. But once those spaces opened — they were all massive warehouse spaces — and after running for a few months or may be a year, they realized they were burning through money, and couldn’t sustain it. So they started turning commercial. Some shifted into a nebulous ‘we’re commercial, but we’re not commercial’ mode. But eventually they all turned into commercial art galleries. In a way this was a challenge for us. The challenge was: can it really be done? Is it really impossible to run a non-commercial space in Beijing? So we decided to try, despite the fact that everybody kept saying it was impossible.
Audience Member: How do you support yourselves?
RH: We support ourselves doing other work, like design and things like that. At the moment, Arrow Factory is supported by a grant from the Foundation for Arts Initiatives, which is based here in New York and is a really great organization. And for the first time, we are also supported by a small China-based foundation called the New Century Art Foundation.
WW: They’re focusing on support for independent art organizations. It was started by a collector. That’s a very interesting change in the last few years, meaning it may be more and more possible to sustain spaces like ours.
Audience Member: Has opening the space changed your own art practices?
RH: I think that this kind of public engagement, of doing things on the street, wasn’t something that we considered or was as much a factor before in our own practices [so in a sense it has expanded the types of possibilities that we can imagine for our work.]
Audience Member: Was it because you became bolder or better known in our neighborhood?
RH: Actually, after a while I think we realized that most people on the street aren’t really that invested in what we do, so we can really do whatever we want. I didn’t grow up in Beijing. I grew up in San Francisco, with all these pre-conceived notions about what a totalitarian government is like, but it turns out that it’s not quite what I envisioned. Average people on the street are busy getting on with their own lives and they don’t have the energy to pay that much attention. It’s actually quite freeing at the ground level, and also very humbling. People can really roll with it. If they are interested, they will stop and look for a few moments and maybe that’s all we can ask for from them.
Audience Member: Are there any signs or do people have to walk by to realize your space is there?
RH: There’s a small sign on the window here, with little vinyl lettering. We generally post some text about the exhibition there, so there is a bit of explanation.
JD: Who is this artist here?
RH: This is a very interesting project. It is called Channel Me by an artist called Nie Mu who basically turned the space into a television recording studio and invited all her friends to come and make their own programming. She did things like cooking shows, a type of Antique Roadshow (assessing the value of antiques) as well as talk shows, etc. In one of the programs some musicians were invited to come perform. The musicians were in a rock band and their performance was pretty loud. In fact, so many people gathered to watch that it blocked traffic, and (if you recall the size of the narrow hutong in front of our space) it ended up blocking a police car! So the policeman came out to see what was going on, asked us what we were doing, and complained that we were blocking traffic. He asked us to stop the performance immediately. So we stopped the performance, which luckily was just finishing. After resolving the traffic issue, Wang Wei went with another friend to the police station to explain what was going on. In the course of explaining the situation, the policeman acknowledged that he had seen many of our exhibitions and he started asking a lot of questions.
WW: He then said that he himself had videotapes that he might like to show.
RH: Wang Wei’s initial reaction was ‘no way’, but a couple of months later, it happened that we had a gap in our scheduling. An artist had to push their project back by a month, so we thought about the policeman’s videos. We were actually quite curious about the content. So we went back to his office and he was so excited. The videos were actually very interesting; they were public service announcements about how to avoid scams.
WW: These films were just perfect to show on the street!
RH: The films contained reenactments of common scams.
Audience Member: Amazing. They should probably play that video in every art gallery. [Laughter]
RH: The videos showed the kind of scams that regularly happen on the street, and gave tips on how to avoid them. Some of the footage included interviews with people who had actually been caught scamming others. The video showed them with their faces blurred out. These scammers talked about the techniques they used. The content was interesting, but also interesting was the way we interfaced with the police. In a way this policeman became Arrow Factory’s first guest curator. Presenting those videos in an art space, or at least in a space that our neighbors had begun to associate with quirky art projects, raised some interesting questions. I suppose it gave people on our street reason to wonder even more – wonder what is really going with this space? Did we actually have a relationship with the police? It caused some confusion. But that kind of dissonance was also productive. Here’s an example of the videos. It’s a close-up of a guy who was confessing to his tactics, about how he would target the weakest or most vulnerable in a crowd.
Here is another project, this time by a Taiwanese-American artist called Wei-Li Yeh in which he collaborated with two architects called Li Mo and Kong. It’s a bit of a convoluted story, but Wei-Li found a painting in an old army barrack in the south of Taiwan, in Tainan, and this painting is an allegory for inspiring soldiers. Basically this is about King Gou-Jian who in the 5th Century BCE was captured and held for 20 years in a prison, after which he was released and allowed to return to his homeland. For the next ten years he planned his revenge on his captors. It’s a bit of a ‘Count of Monte Cristo’ scenario. The military base in Tainan used this image to inspire their troops, but left the painting when the base was decommissioned. Wei-Li found it and took it home. Because it was painted on wood, the work gradually disintegrated. Nevertheless, he has taken this crumbling painting to many places and photographed it in different environments. He brought the picture to Beijing and worked with Li Mo and Kong on this installation. The set-up contained a very high-end massage chair, which had been gifted to Li Mo’s grandfather, a retired high-level government official, as a present for Chinese New Year. That year, all retired officials received this high-end massage chair as a gift. The juxtaposition of this allegory of perseverance and the luxurious massage chair created a very interesting discussion about cross-straits relations, between China and Taiwan and their complex relationship.
Audience Member: Where are the architects from?
WW: Beijing. It was a collaboration.
RH: This is another interesting project. It is by Li Yueyang who spent eight and a half years in prison for a botched kidnapping. Before he went into prison he was very good friends with an artist who had shown in our space in 2009, Li Jinghu. Li Yueyang and Li Jinghu grew up together in a village called Chang’an in Dongguan (near Shenzhen and the Hong Kong border). Our friend Li Jinghu left his village to go to art school, and Li Yueyang stayed, opening karaoke dens and such. At some point in Li Yueyang’s underground career, there was a botched kidnapping, and Li Yueyang went to prison. When Li Jinghu finished art school, he decided to go back to his village to live. When Li Yueyang was released from prison, he returned to Chang’an jobless and had some time on his hands. These two friends travelled two very different trajectories but both ended up back in the same village where they grew up. Li Jinghu asked Li Yueyang to drive us around when we visited Chang’an, because he had a minivan and nothing to do. Artists and other visitors come through Chang’An occasionally to see Li Jinghu, and because Li Yueyang was driving, he was able to listen in on their (our) conversations. At first, he would ask questions like: what’s so interesting about this place, why are they coming here? He didn’t understand. But we would chat with him, as did other people. At some point we invited him to an exhibition that we were part of in Guangzhou. In this exhibition somebody had exhibited a bed; it was an artist’s work. Li Yueyang saw this bed and thought ‘I have a bed with a story too. Maybe I could make art.’ So Li Yueyang went home and actually fabricated this bed with the help of another ex-inmate. The two of them made this prison bed, through discussions and body memory, recalling the height and sensation of sitting and lying on it. Li Yueyang’s idea was that this was the only personal space he had in prison, the only space that was his own. With a few adjustments (because his actual bed was one berth in a bunk bed), he made an exact facsimile. He even managed to include a set of prison clothes (carefully folded), shoes and the prisoner’s handbook, which he arranged to have smuggled out of prison for this work. When he finished his project, he had it just sitting in his living room; he didn’t tell anyone he made it, except Li Jinghu. It was Li Jinghu who told us about it and said maybe we should to come to Chang’An to have a look.
Audience Member: Why did he make it in the first place?
RH: Don’t we all go to exhibitions and you see something and think ‘I can make that!’ Well, he thought that; and then actually made it! It was amazing. When we walked into his living room, it was just sitting there next to his couch. And he was there too, sitting next to this prison bed, playing video games. We thought that it was quite incredible, so we invited him up to Beijing to install the work. This is a picture of him folding the blanket, the moment when he was obsessing on the corners of the blanket. He is a very interesting person.
Audience Member: Your projects can only be observed from the outside?
RH: If the work requires people to go in and interact with it, we can arrange that, but generally the work is designed to be viewed from the street.
Audience Member: I’m from India, so I have some familiarity with these kinds of small spaces. I’m not making a judgement, but it seems like you have created a certain façade of openness, when you’re actually blocking the public out, preventing them from crossing the threshold. This creates an interesting paradox. From my perspective I wonder why even envision a space like this? This story of the prisoner makes your decisions even more interesting — the search, the process, the curatorial approach. This kind of space, the limitations, and the search resonate with what I see in Delhi, but we don’t block people out. It’s this blockage that I’m interested in. It’s suggests a dialectic. I would never have thought to block out the public, because for me it is all about access, participation, interchange, and the messiness that ensues.
RH: I think that our format is in part dictated by working within an economy of means. We actually devised it this way so that we wouldn’t have to hire any staff. Of course, that’s only part of it. And even though there is a glass ‘wall’, people don’t see it as such; they see through it. This is emphatically not a gallery where there’s a girl behind a high counter, watching you and not watching you as you come in. In galleries there are all sorts of these thresholds to artwork. It seems paradoxical with the glass barrier, but we are trying to get rid of those thresholds. So part of it is practical and part of it is because we want people to experience the project without any mediation.
Audience Member: Is it open 24 hours?
RH: Potentially. We have works that were designed to be viewed at 3am in the morning; they turn on when it gets dark.
Audience Member: I have another question. The works that you showed are all by Chinese speaking artists. Do you invite non-Chinese speaking artists?
RH: Yes. Absolutely. But our budget is very limited. We don’t have much money to invite many international artists, but we would love to do more. We’re open to any kind of interesting work or project.
Audience Member: A lot of other similar spaces are selling things, but what’s interesting about this space is that it’s disrupting the space of commerce that surrounds it, that is all about shopping. You have removed the money from equation; you have literally interrupted the transactions that flow around you on the street, causing people to stop. Your space raises questions about the utility of art or the beautiful uselessness of art.
RH: It’s a kind of space of resistance. Because we control it completely, we don’t need to answer to anyone else. Over the years this has become extremely empowering – the process has been about discovering ways to engage on this level.
Audience Member: Do you want your space to grow, to be promoted more, or do you want it to stay the way it is now?
RH: We try to function in a way that is a little bit below the radar. We feel the work is more accessible if it’s not a big flashy thing. We don’t intend to expand. The beauty of the format is its scale and relationship to its surroundings. If we were to expand and take over more spaces, it changes the nature of this project.
Audience Member: But I would hate that my friends might go to Beijing and not see this.
RH: I think quite a few people know about us. It is not very well marked, but it’s also not too difficult to find.
Audience Member: Any vandalism?
RH: We haven’t had any vandalism. This may come as a surprise, but there’s a good side to being in a place where there’s quite a lot of surveillance. Very close to us there’s a telephone pole with a camera, facing down the street, and there are always people shopping and doing things close by, so that anyone trying to break in would be noticed. And also we have everything on timers, so once midnight or 1 o’clock rolls around, all the lights shut off and everything shuts down. Our space becomes a dark hole. No one would know what’s in there unless you came before to scope it out ahead of time.
JD: We have just found you on Google Maps The area that you’re in is very nice to walk around.
RH: The area is also gentrifying, so we don’t really know how much longer we’ll be able to do this. We’re going to hold out as long as we can.
Audience Member: I guess there’s not much here that would attract thieves.
What I mean is that this space about experimentation; it’s not a place for gallery type objects. That’s probably also a factor….
RH: Our low-key demeanor is a response to the neighborhood. It’s a very down-to-earth area where people have lived for generations inside these 100-year-old courtyard houses, and they’re not rich. Our projects also operate on very limited budgets, usually about 2000 RMB, which is around $300 USD, although people can do a lot with that amount of money in China.
XM: I wanted to follow-up with the question about the blockage and the paradoxical relationship with the public. In my mind this speaks to the situation in China. Do you want to talk a little more about the public and how you and other people deal with it?
RH: That’s a good question! The subheading for the book we just published is ‘what is a good institution’, and we like to say that the term ‘institution’ is in air quotes. In addition to documenting the works that we have done in the last four years, for this book we’ve interviewed other people who have run their own spaces in China and abroad. We have asked them about how they deal with logistical issues, what’s important for them, how they focus, how they allocate resources, how and why they want to do projects similar to this. The book offers an interesting conversation because we were trying to figure out what we were doing. I don’t know if we came to any conclusions in interviewing these people and asking them to write some text, because everybody has different scenarios and is addressing different scenarios.
JD: I think on that note you could introduce your book, which cannot be sold here since we’re a non-commercial space, but we would be happy for you to talk about it.
RH: We made a book! And you can buy it on our website. All the money that we make off the book will go right back into running the space and supporting our projects. This is our second publication. The first one was published after three years and is now almost out of print. We’re very excited about this new book and sharing it with all of you.
JD: Well, Rania and Wang Wei, congratulations on the book, and this interesting presentation! I am sure we all look forward to visiting Arrow Factory and to seeing you both soon in Beijing. Thank you both very much for coming tonight.
All images courtesy of Rania Ho, Wang Wei, and Arrow Factory.
Founded in 2008, Arrow Factory is one of the longest standing, independent, non-commercial art spaces in Beijing. Located in a narrow alley inside the city center, this 15 square meter space organizes an innovative program, focusing on site-oriented artistic display, collaboration, and experimentation by local and international contemporary artists. Their recent publication, Arrow Factory: The Next Four Years, comprehensively documents the twenty-two projects mounted in this reclaimed storefront between 2011 and 2015. This publication features new perspectives from organizers of influential artist-run initiatives around the world and is structured around the elemental question: What is a good institution? Through the responses to this and other questions, Arrow Factory: The Next Four Years offers a window into the diverse conditions that shape China’s current cultural climate.
Rania HO (b. 1968, San Francisco, USA; currently resides in Beijing)
Through an ongoing engagement of whimsical irreverence, Ho’s installations re-assemble mundane and everyday materials into playful and emancipatory ‘anti-momuments.’ She has participated in exhibitions throughout Asia, Europe and the United States. She received her master’s degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University and her B.A. in Theater Arts from UCLA. She is one of the co-founders of Arrow Factory (www.arrowfactory.org.cn) an independently run, alternative, storefront art space in the center of Beijing.
WANG Wei (b. 1972, Beijing, China; currently resides in Beijing)
Graduated from Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1996. Wang is a multidisciplinary installation artist who looks at how the navigation of physical spaces can inform us about our own lived reality. Through modifying existing architectural structures with subtle, surprising additions or appropriating stylized features from disparate sources, Wang has developed a strong practice around interventions that aim to disrupt human perceptions of space while opening a dialogue about construction, labor, and ways of seeing.