Meet the artists documenting the changing hutongs

With the future of the hutongs uncertain, it's worth looking at the past

'Everyone speaks the same language, but they don’t communicate,' says Zeng Lin, discussing a work at a recently closed exhibition in his small workshop and exhibition space, Yi Pai Hutong. He’s slowly unfurling a six-metre scroll that holds an animation by Shaoxing-born artist Yesu depicting a narrative of his six-month stay in the hutong courtyard apartment. In one segment, a kuaidi delivery car crash is depicted as an array of abstract geometric shapes; in another, the staff of a street food stall are portrayed as a family of elephants. The section he’s describing now shows a mountain populated by a variety of creatures, which Zeng says represents Babel, the Biblical structure symbolising linguistic incomprehension.

Yi Pai Hutong is cramped, with Zeng and fellow co-founders Qu Yizhen and Zhang Jing sitting around a tea set in its anteroom, and a table with Yesu’s scroll, an overflowing bookcase and multiple screens displaying Zeng Lin’s video works crammed into a makeshift gallery space to the rear. From the outside, it looks like any other hutong residence. Inside, Zeng and Qu describe a dense, intellectual work in progress.

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Zeng is an artist, poet and curator from Hunan who has been living in Beijing’s hutongs for seven years. He launched Yi Pai Hutong last October as a youth community with a focus on hutong culture, which has become his primary source of inspiration. 'I’ve lived here for so long, I have so many friends here – the hutongs are my world, so I wanted to do something related to them.' Soon after opening he drafted the help of Qu, who moved to Beijing from Shenyang in 1993. Qu, with his low-key demeanor and white-flecked beard, is a familiar character in this circuit. He was previously a core member of one of Beijing’s first hutong art galleries and collectives, Homeshop, which closed in 2013. With Zeng’s new project, Qu found fertile new ground in which to set root.

In its first half-year, most of Yi Pai Hutong’s events have revolved around talking. The programme aims to give voice to the hutongs through lectures, workshops, art exhibitions and other interventions with local residents and an emerging generation of engaged artists.

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Zeng and Qu both acknowledge their position as outsiders relative to the longstanding Beijing families living in the hutongs, and adopt a sensitive approach to local engagement. At the same time, they exist on a continuum with hutong art spaces like Homeshop and I: Project Space, operated by foreigners who have their own perspective on the value of the hutongs. 'As an outsider, it takes time to understand Beijing’s past, to have meaningful exchanges with the people living in the courtyards and understand what their life was like before,' Zeng says. 'We use our own method to record what we see in the hutongs, and to engage in discussions with residents to understand something about our own country.'

'I think hutong culture is a mixture,' Qu adds. 'The people from outside Beijing and outside China who live and work here change it to some extent. We have our way of interacting with hutong spaces, and that brings about a new kind of culture.'

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In May, Yi Pai Hutong held their first exhibit, Cooland, which was a collaboration between the illustrator Yesu and Zeng Lin, who exhibits work under the pseudonym Zaizai. For his part, Zeng spent a year rolling through the hutongs on a one-wheeled electric scooter, sporting a helmet with a camera attached, documenting his environment. That exhibition has closed, but the larger project is far from over. Among several works in progress, Yi Pai Hutong is building an archive of videos and interviews documenting hutong life. Another iron in the fire is a forthcoming exhibition of photographs of the hutongs, taken by photographers born between 1930 and 1990. 'That will show how several generations of people have seen the hutongs,' says Zeng, who will set the exhibition this month.

'We want to understand it in stages,' Zeng adds after laying out his fledgling space’s near-future goals. The changes being wrought in the hutongs today are a complicated subject, one on which everyone living here – Chinese or foreigner, Beijinger or not – seems to have an opinion. Though it’s a difficult conversation, filled with sometimes conflicting voices, it’s certainly one that should be sustained, and Yi Pai Hutong will provide the forum.

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