Late last year, I travelled to Beijing to experience a month in the city with Red Gate Residency. The previous year I was in Banff, a quiet mountain resort in Canada, which boasts a world-renowned arts and creativity centre – and, according to The Banff Centre website, the largest on the planet. Each individually evoked very different environments, one was a well-structured centre and the other an independent gallery in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Beijing.
Red Gate Gallery offers two types of accommodation: a studio within the confines of Feijiacun village, a gated complex that Red Gate shares with several other galleries and private artist studios, or a choice of three apartments in the centre of the city, close to Sanlitun Village – a large and flashy shopping complex.
The advantage of being in the centre is the ease of travel, with well-known parks and temples just a bicycle ride away. A disadvantage (some would argue) is that the constant hum of the neighbourhood, which the single-glazed windows of the apartment fail to block out, is a distraction; others would say that the chance to observe a different lifestyle at close quarters is fascinating, and that staying locked away at your desk in the tower block apartment is uninspiring.
On the morning of my third day, one of the other city-dwelling artists and I decided to wake at the crack of dawn and cycle to the infamous Beihai Park. Cycling through the city at first felt chaotic, but with the wide and continuous lanes it soon became more of a gentle meander, weaving in and out of the throngs of slowly moving mopeds, bikes and rickshaws.
On our way, we found an enormous shopping complex dedicated to plastic flowers and crickets, glass sculptures and tea sets, which distracted us for a while. We then changed our minds and made a detour to another well-known Beijing attraction, Jingshan Park, arriving at about 8am. The local residents were already there practising their morning dance routine to Chopsticks Brothers’ latest hit Little Apple, which (to our amusement) seemed to be the song of choice for most elderly folk. As we climbed higher into the park, we also discovered a succession of choirs having a sing-off.
One of the great things I found as an artist spending time in Beijing was the therapeutic nature of its people. For example, at any time of day you can take a walk down the street, or into a park, and expect to find it full of locals – taking a jog or chatting around the beautiful ponds. Dance and Ti Shi groups welcome you as you wander around; pairs of people can be seen using the exercise equipment, which was a feature that seemed to be found in almost every neighbourhood park I visited.
Before embarking on a residency, considering the way you work as an artist or a writer is important. I’ve found I need peaceful surroundings to give me time to contemplate and reflect on what I’ve observed, and to bring together my ideas. It is also wise to think about what it is you want to gain from the residency, whether it’s exploring a new city or interacting with fellow artists and creatives, or if it’s a solitary trip without a great deal of interaction.
The village studios with Red Gate Gallery were great for some time alone, set in a peaceful village with enough stores to adhere to your needs. The studios themselves are large and well lit, and there is even a lotus pond for tranquil evening strolls. However, if you’re looking for a little more structure, interaction and a wide range of facilities, I’d suggest that a creative centre or establishment would better suit.
For the same fee as Red Gate, however, Banff includes a health centre where you can swim, use the sauna or Jacuzzi, and take free yoga lessons. There is a dining hall and a separate restaurant, various evening events, classes, walks and visiting speakers. When you’re there, you really feel that the centre is about connecting with other artists and the teachers, and helping to create a routine that focuses on your health and your work simultaneously.
On the other hand, Red Gate Gallery had only a few organised cultural events planned for the visiting artists. This time around, it was left to us to arrange events. One such memorable occasion was when a few of us sorted a visit to Chinese artist Liao Sheng Xiang in his studio and factory on the outskirts of Beijing. As well as producing his own work, he takes orders from artists worldwide to produce their sculptures. We were invited to a small tea ceremony across the road from his factory, in his small but impeccably decorated studio apartment.
Later, while I was waiting for my taxi to Peking International Airport, I contemplated which residency had worked best for my working pattern and which had given me that productive mindset I was looking for. Spending a month in Beijing was challenging and exciting, but The Banff Centre was, overall, too hard to beat. There is much to be said for hiding away in the quiet and peaceful Canadian Rockies, with a wide array of facilities and support on hand. For an artist, it proved a productive and rewarding residency.
Article and images by Sophia Moseley