Interview: Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia of Intelligentsia gallery

The co-founders talk about taking on the city’s art establishment

Hutong gallery Intelligentsia was supposed to be a short-term experiment. Two years later it’s celebrating its anniversary and position at the vanguard of Beijing’s now thriving underground art scene with a challenging group show.

Of the handful of small,non-traditional gallery spaces dotting our innercity alleyways, perhaps none is more representative of the Beijing art underground’s communal, contemporary essence than Intelligentsia Gallery. The 18sqm hole-in-the-wall on Dongwang Hutong has just marked its second anniversary, a lifespan exceeding the initial expectations of its founders.

Intelligentsia is operated by Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia, architects from rural France and Puerto Rico respectively, who met while living in Brussels. They moved to Beijing in October 2009, due partly to the pull of the unknown, partly to the push of economic crisis. ‘We felt that Europe was a really heavy and pessimistic environment,’ Frankowski recalls. ‘We needed to try something different.’

Jumping in without preconceptions,the duo began to plug the work of their architecture studio, WAI Think Tank, into Beijing’s buzzing creative matrix.The absence of a rigid art-world framework proved a double boon.‘The lack of infrastructure for certain things allowed us to develop our own systems and infrastructure, to use the energy in the air as fuel for our projects,’ says Garcia.

The community of other creative types enthusiastically sucking the same air was a second positive. ‘I think that’s the most un-European characteristic of Beijing, this lack of cynicism. It’s easy to relate emerging artists with established artists – it’s friendly.’‘But also vivid and interesting,’ Frankowski adds. ‘There’s constant stimulation, a very varied scene compared to other cities in China.’

Grabbing hold of the frontier opportunities Beijing presented to them, Garcia and Frankowski soon began exhibiting under their own names. ‘We tried to create a different identity [from WAI] so that we’d have more freedom to be irresponsible. Architecture has too much weight, too much responsibility to do something in a gallery that doesn’t respond to architecture.'

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Intelligentsia was an outgrowth of this ‘irresponsible’, open-ended train of thought. The tiny white-cube room functions more as a salon than a traditional gallery; it’s a space for artists, architects, curators, critics and residential passers-by to engage with contemporary art and with each other.

‘Collaboration was always an integral part of the idea of what an “intelligentsia” is,’ Garcia explains in his characteristic rapid-fire style, which feels like the spoken equivalent of speedreading a graduate paper on Deleuze-Guattari. ‘It’s a collective production of knowledge, ideas and projects. That’s why we’re always looking for curators and new artists. We’ve already shown art from six continents – we’re missing Antarctica only. If you have 18sqm and you can do that, there’s no excuse for anybody to not be doing it, to not be opening boundaries.’

Intelligentsia has steadily gathered a loose stable of collaborators, a diverse spread reflected in the 34 pieces tightly jumbled in its second anniversary show, A Great Event Is In the Making But No One Has Noticed. On one wall, Wuhan-born Chen Xi’s epileptic video-game loop ‘No Game No Snow’ glitches above a brutal architectural still life by Moscow artist Lena Tsibizova. On another, a series of intricately redacted technical drawings by longtime Beijing resident Alessandro Rolandi melts into an absorbing void of black cashmere constructed by Shao Yinong and Mu Chen, artists from opposite corners of China.

Intelligentsia’s international timbre is a byproduct of its existence in Beijing, says Garcia.‘We represent Beijing. We don’t do cultural exchange projects, we don’t do “The New China”, blah, blah… that’s not our thing. We bypass that,try to transcend the momentary exoticism of the phenomenon.It’s more like a dialogue between things: what works relate to each other in what way.’

The aesthetically disciplined anarchy on view at Intelligentsia on any given month is distantly removed from the commercial concerns of galleries in established art zones like 798. And yet, hutong galleries such as Intelligentsia have slowly exerted influence on the more heavily capitalised end of the Beijing art spectrum. ‘The commercial galleries catch up so quickly,’ says Garcia. ‘Right now, if you go to 798, you see Long March Space, some mainstream spaces,they have internet art. They’re very quick, they’re very aware, and they have the money to back it up. It has changed the focus.’

Responding to this shift, in 2015 Garcia and Frankowski began organising exhibits outside their hutong comfort zone. In parallel to their anniversary exhibition, they’ve curated Superfetish, a group show at Caochangdi’s Ying Space that addresses ‘the intersection between museology and market trade in the era of hypercapitalism’. Two days after the double-opening, they were off to Dusseldorf, where they’d been invited to curate yet another assemblage of work from their Beijing cohort.

‘There’s the institution, there’s our art practice, and there’s our architecture practice. With time, the definitions get more and more blurry,’ says Garcia,almost breathlessly. ‘It’s all 24/7 everything. There’s no such thing as a day job; it’s a life choice.’

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Garcia and Frankowski originally intended for Intelligentsia to be a two-year project, but they’ve since pushed back the deadline. They have no plan to leave Beijing, a city they’ve come to adopt as their indefinite base and ongoing muse,a city whose grim processes of modernisation yield unexpected creative avenues at every turn.‘I feel Beijing is a city where nobody cares how you’re dressed,’Garcia laughs. ‘It’s not a city based on image or superficiality. It’s not very pretty, if you think about it. But the people are very interesting.'

A Great Event Is In the Making But No One Has Noticed is at the Intelligentsia Gallery until Sunday 28. Superfetish is at Ying Space until Monday 15.
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