Welcome mat for artists in residence

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A female portrait taken by Alec Von Bargen 

"Nothing Stranger" follows a young Chinese French woman who returns to China for the first time to visit her hometown, a fishing village - and finds "nothing stranger."

The short feature film is written and directed by young Spanish filmmaker Pedro Collantes, inspired by his previous trip to China, accompanied by a Chinese-Spanish friend who experienced a strange disorientation when he visited his hometown for the first time.

"I was right beside my friend during the hometown visit, and I was attracted to this disorientation and I knew I would come back and make a movie," the director tells Shanghai Daily. "This kind of feeling is both distinctive and universal. People from my generation can all sort of relate to it, because many of us move around a lot."

Collantes is one of an increasing number of artists and writers who find their muse in China and often times start out from Shanghai. The city has long been a magnet for its creative scene and has developed even more rapidly in the past three years, as the country and the city became better known abroad through increased cultural exchanges.

"I've seen a lot more exhibitions and other events related to China or Chinese artists in the past two to three years. The Chinese art scene and artists have definitely got a lot of exposure now in the United Kingdom," says Katie Surridge, a British installation artist working in Shanghai.

The city has a few residency programs, still small in number but getting more mature. It offers well-established programs and smaller, irregular but growing projects in both official and non-government sectors.

Collantes and Surridge are both guests of the Swatch Art Peace Hotel Artist Residency Program, which provides artists from all over the world a space on the Bund for three to six months. It is one of the best-known residency projects in the city, along with writer-in-residence programs of the Shanghai Writers' Association, and the M Residency hosted by M on the Bund.

"The city has always been vivid, but compared with my last visit to Shanghai in 2009, the creative scene has definitely become more dynamic," says American artist Alec Von Bargen from New York, also part of the Swatch residency program. "Since I arrived, I have had exhibitions or art events to go to every day."

Since he arrived three months ago, the American artist has also been invited to give talks, to exhibit his works and to work with other artists.

Other projects, mainly hosted by galleries and art centers, include Duolun Museum of Modern Art, Island6, the Pantocrator Gallery and JIA Boutique Hotels, and the list is getting longer every year.

"The change is quite dramatic, and we have definitely got more interested parties who want to join the program," says Hu Peihua, external liaison officer for the Shanghai Writers' Association.

The association launched a residency project in 2008 to welcome up-and-coming foreign artists to discover and experience the city for two months. The program started with three writers in 2008, and it will welcome nine this September.

Inspired by Shanghai

"The increasing interest is not only in the number, but also in its diversity," Hu says. "This year, we will welcome our first African guest to the program and we are very excited about it."

Many residency programs don't require artists to leave behind completed projects, however, some writers and artists have finished more than expected because they were inspired by the city's history, cultural distinctiveness, ambience and various attractions. So they felt driven to create.

Malaysian author Tash Aw, who attended both the Shanghai Writers' Association program and M Residency, wrote a novel titled "Five Star Billionaire," a tale set in Shanghai about five Malaysian expatriates. Swiss writer Philippe Rahmy, who attended the writers' association project, published his journal about the experience after he went back.

"The opportunities in China, especially Shanghai and Beijing, are amazing. I met lots of people during my stay and got some exhibition offers and commissioned works as well," says Rachel Zhong, an Los Angeles-based American sculptor who came to Shanghai for a small residency program last year.

Surridge from the UK and Von Bargen from New York are currently part of the Swatch Art Peace Hotel Artist Residency and are exploring the city.

Alec Von Bargen

The New York-born actor and photographer arrived in Shanghai with a working project "Veritas Feminae," a series of 12 portraits of women - first captured as photos, then presented as installation, video, sculpture and other forms.

Each will be paired with an important female historical figure.

One will be a Chinese woman, whom he has not yet found, but he says he is doing a lot of research on China and Chinese women.

"I want to take beautiful pictures, but I'm not crazy about getting the most perfect visual effects," he says. "I'm more interested in the stories, the history and the culture behind the pictures, probably a habit from being an actor."

Each of the 12 works is based on a photo of a woman Von Bargen took during his world travels - a young girl on a New York street, a woman weeping in a restaurant in Spain, a child prostitute outside a cabin in Southeast Asia, among others. All are marginalized women.

In "Veritas Feminae," each of these women is placed in the context of one historical female figure, such as American poet Sara Teasdale and Mary Magdalene.

"I use these images to find parallels with important women in history and together create my interpretation of their veritas (Latin for truth)," he says.

The project researches parallels and establishes analogies between "socially marginalized" women and important female figures throughout history.

"My intention is to create spaces in which the spectator becomes part of the inner dialogue of each of these women, a part of their psyche," he says.

Von Bargen plans to publish a book along with the portraits, and will show each of the 12 women in a different city, starting with a young black woman paired with iconic American jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959), to be shown on July 27 in Shanghai's Little Victories mobile gallery (described below).

Katie Surridge

Within a few days of her arrival, Katie Surridge, an installation artist from the UK, bought herself a small tricycle, with which she established a mobile gallery called Little Victories - intended to showcase her own works and those of her friends.

"It will be like a one-person museum where the audience can get on the tricycle and take his private visit of the works," she explains. "We will ride by creative spots where exhibitions are under way so art lovers will naturally gather."

In mid-June, Surridge and two artist friends showed their works on the tricycle in front of M50, a hub of upscale studios and galleries. They also built a website (www.littlevictories.co) for the mobile gallery.

The process of finding interesting objects and incorporating them into her installation works has always been a part of the works.

Back in London, she lives near a river bank where she can find lots of animal bones that she incorporates, often large installations that fill exhibition spaces.

She has made many discoveries in Shanghai and has tried turning these discoveries into different forms, such as painting on the bamboo mats that locals often put on chairs in the summer, or constructing an installation with pieces of broken old furniture.

"It is my first time here but it has been a fun experience, finding something intriguing all the time," she concludes.

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