Damon Kowarsky is a Melbourne-based artist working across drawing, printmaking and painting. He and Hyunju Kim were some of the first residents at the newly launched YAC Print Workshop residency in Tianjin. Damon wrote about their experience there in September 2018:

Some residencies are in the centres of astonishing metropolises, bound to their local communities by complex networks of personal relationship and geography. Others, in smaller towns and rural settings, are quieter, more contemplative. Still others achieve a level of focus that is almost monastic in its purity.

Tianjin Young Artist Community [YAC] Print Workshop is the first occupant of what will one day be a much larger complex of artistic and cultural venues. Currently it covers three floors in a cluster of buildings that opened in August last year. As well as the studio, apartments and gallery there is a large outdoor amphitheatre, three restaurants and a minimarket. The other buildings remain empty, lending the area a ghostly and somewhat surreal atmosphere. 

Damon Kowarsky smoking a hardground at YAC

YAC's studios are on the brightly lit second floor. Upstairs are numerous apartments for visiting artists. At ground level there is a café, gallery, and spaces for children's workshops. The land nearby awaits development. From the second floor windows there are hundreds of metres of open space. A few new buildings and apartment towers sit in the distance. Marking the horizon are the derricks of the container port, for the entire complex is part of the China [Tianjin]  Pilot Free-Trade Zone, 120 square kilometres of reclaimed land outside the city proper. 

YAC is 55km from town. It takes about an hour to drive there from the central train station on a series of expressways and toll roads. We pass the airport, distantly, for it too is part of this same free trade zone. The corniche and ocean are a short walk away. A private beach with sand imported from Hainan sits behind the neoclassical façade of a multi-storey, though largely empty, apartment block. Both beach and corniche are popular with families on the weekend. 

In spite of the isolation YAC is a hive of activity. By the end of our stay five artists from Russia, Ireland, Australia, Singapore and Korea are in attendance. Together with 12 staff and technicians, it is a busy and social work environment.

Hyunju Kim with her custom shaped plate

Printmaking shares much with disciplines like sculpture and ceramics in that it depends heavily on specialised – and often bulky or hazardous - materials and equipment. In many cases it is not practical for printmakers to purchase and maintain their own presses. Because of this many print studios around the world offer daily or weekly equipment access to visiting and local artists. One consequence of this reliance on centralised studios and equipment is that printmakers generally have a strong community ethos, and regard working together in a social environment as a necessary and beneficial part of their practice.

In this regard YAC is an ideal place to work. There are facilities for copper etching, silkscreen, and woodcut, both western and Chinese/ mokuhanga. A custom lithography studio is expected to open in 2019. The studios are accessible 24 hours a day seven days a week. A definite bonus for night owls and workaholics.

YAC supplies all materials, meals, and accommodation. In return they retain half the work produced, which over a standard four week residency is around 30 prints. This level of support is unique to China and remarkable in its generosity. China rightly regards printmaking as an artform with uniquely Chinese roots, and so provides exceptional support to the medium. I have yet to encounter printmaking studios so well set up for visiting international artists. 

Beyond the physical requirements of making work one of the key features of a residency is the opportunity to exchange ideas and build networks. We were lucky. For the first three weeks my partner Hyunju Kim and I were on our own and worked like crazy animals. Knowing we would only be at YAC for a short time we embarked on ambitiously scaled prints that required long hours in the studio. Our program was calculated to be tightly packed into the time available, providing we worked hard and there were no major setbacks. We would wake before 6am and be downstairs shortly after, often only finishing at 10 at night. The seclusion of YAC meant we could focus exclusively on our plates.

Celebrating the end of our time at YAC.

From left to right Damon Kowarsky, Hyunju Kim [and Mu Mu], Mei Sheong Wong, Zara, Stephen Lawlor, Oleg Mikhailov, Arya, Kong Yue, Jian Feng, Wang Caizhen and Zhao Linlin

Then other printmakers – including Oleg Mikhailov [Russia] and Mei Sheong Wong [Australia/Singapore], known from previous visits to China and the Australian Print Triennial respectively, as well as the highly respected Irish artist Stephen Lawlor  – arrived. The atmosphere changed completely. Our monastic life was supplemented with long conversations about materials and techniques. The hard work continued, but leavened by the ability to share knowledge and experience.

Art is usually thought to be internationalist in approach so I am often surprised by how specific local bodies of knowledge are. Oleg Mikhailov works with techniques that have a direct lineage to 19th Century European drawing. Stephen Lawlor uses light in ways that were previously unimaginable in print. Both their practices offer different directions, and clues to how work might evolve in the future.

For our last three weeks in Tianjin the artists and technicians worked in close cooperation, coordinating access to presses, acid baths, hotplates, work tables and studio space. Equipment was moved to facilitate working practices and time on the presses negotiated to a fine degree. None of this would have been possible without the assistance of the friendly and helpful staff at YAC, something all the resident artists commented on. It was very much a team effort, and a team that worked.

Jian Feng and Wang Caizhen printing intaglio, with Yulin and Kong Yue working on a silkscreen

But as quickly as we seemed to arrive we were packed and on our way to Korea for further exhibitions, workshops, and lots more drawing. Our time at YAC was valuable for the work we produced and the friendships we established. It is a specialised studio, and one that rewards highly motivated and independent artists who come with a clear plan for what in printmaking terms is quite a short residency. While the staff are available for assistance and are open to experimental techniques the residency is ultimately outcome driven. Two editions of 30 prints must be produced. With this in mind prospective residents would do well to carefully plan their stay in Tianjin, and give considerable thought to seeing it as a production residency, with time allocated before arrival for conceptual development and image planning and construction.

This article was written by Damon Kowarsky for China Residencies in October 2018