An Artist’s Residency is when an artist resides within an institution with the intention of experiencing the culture, making art and sharing their own experiences. One established residency is the Red Gate Residency in Beijing and in August 2018 I became the first jeweller to take part.
I travelled with Jersey based fashion designer Kyle Moody, whose residency was made possible from The Rivington Travelling Scholarship. My own residency was funded by The Arts Council of England. We were to live and work in a shared studio in Feijiacun Village, a bustling complex of pink cement buildings in North-East Beijing. The village boasted humble restaurants, shops, doctors, tattoo parlours and countless barbershops. Every night dance lessons were held in the open air at the end of the village. This was not a wealthy area, and one of the last remaining migrant worker villages left around Beijing. Government officials did their rounds almost daily, spray painting the dreaded ‘chai’ (?) onto walls. It means ‘demolish’, and in the bid to improve Beijing the government are flattening villages to build shopping centres and apartment blocks.
At first it is overwhelming to walk down a street and not be able to understand a single word, written nor spoken. It made for a fantastic opportunity to clear my head and step back from my creative practice. Every artist absorbs the sights, sounds and concepts of their surroundings and filters it into art – but after a while our surroundings become background music, something we learn to ignore a majority of the time until a tiny element jumps out at us and inspires a piece of art. The experience of moving to somewhere so entirely different from home was like changing the radio channel. Suddenly there was no background music and everything was worth paying attention to.
In light of this, it was the contemporary culture that inspired my practice the most. Trust became a strong part of my work – the jewellery relied on the trust of the viewer that they were viewing something precious rather than disposable. I set a ring with an oversized sphere of plastic film and told the viewer that there was a genuine pearl in its centre. Because of the absurd amount of plastic concealing it, the viewer would have to trust that there was anything valuable in its centre at all. I hope to show some of these works in Jersey and Leeds in the next few years.
One of the other merits of the residency was meeting people from all over the world. Whilst attending my first private view in the famed 798 Art District, it took only one glass of wine to become acquainted with a backpacking Floridian, a Taiwanese gallery intern, a Portuguese photographer and an Australian art aficionado named Sally. Thanks to Sally and our mutual love for white wine and big earrings, it was not long before we found ourselves sandwiched between a wealthy Chinese-American artist and a fashion model watching the frontman of 90s punk band Brain Failure sing karaoke. People certainly seem to lose their inhibitions on a residency, and it is easy when everybody is generally there to get to know as many new people as possible.
There are hundreds of artist residencies in the world, each offering varying standards of accommodation, support and funding. Quite often you need a lot of determination and patience to organise the logistics of undertaking a residency, and depending on how far away the residency is, you need a certain level of confidence and resilience to get the most out of the opportunity. The best advice I can give anybody though is be open minded and do not pressure yourself to create a certain amount of work when you get there. Yes, set goals to be productive; but just go with it. It took me three attempts to visit the Yonghe Temple because I kept seeing something exciting and getting distracted by it. And that is ok, you are only there once so take every opportunity, enjoy the wine and be social. You never know what may happen.
One month after returning from Beijing I was informed that ? had appeared on the studio walls. The Feijiacun studios have been handed their formal notice for demolition.
For more on Jonathan's work, visit his website.