Almost Four 肆空间 in Chengdu is a family-run tailor shop turned artist-run space & residency, initiating and engaging in neighborhood projects. We caught up with them about working in a tiny space (not quite, but almost 4 square meters) and running a café to keep their storefront space running on a street of shops and restaurants.
Street view of Almost Four.
China Residencies: Thank you so much for taking time to talk about Almost Four and the projects you do! Who is part of Almost Four, and what are your backgrounds?
Almost Four: The space Almost Four technically does not belong to us as individuals but to our artist group "Company Art Team," a project we have initiated as an artist collective a while ago. The team members of the ”Company“ Art Project “公司”艺术项目are us three: Huang Jiao, Xiang Zheng, and Ma Kun. It started out in 2015, where the three of us all took part in a week-long workshop at the A4 Art Museum in Chengdu. During the workshop, we started our first collective art project, and then continued working together as an artist collective. Xiang Zheng and Ma Kun are artists, Xiang Zheng's works with oil paintings and paper carvings. Ma Kun works as a contemporary calligrapher and ink painting. Huang Jiao is an independent curator for art projects, and mainly responsible for the projects’ organization and implementation.
China Residencies: When and how was Almost Four founded? And how did Almost Four get to its name?
Almost Four: We set up Almost Four at the beginning of 2018. It started all in 2017, when Xiang Zheng told us that the lease on his family’s store would run out soon, and they wanted someone to keep it going. The three of us then discussed the possibility of using this place as an art space. Everyone supported Xiang Zheng's decision to use part of the store as a space to develop art projects. So this is how this space came about: with a small kitchen on the left side of the space, where we sell snacks and local favorites like red bean buns, egg tarts, milk tea, and coffee, and on the right side, there's the independent art space, which size is almost four square meters -- hence the name Almost Four. The name "Almost Four" was actually given by the first Swedish artist Tosten Jurell who we invited to take part in an exhibition. Originally, our floorplan was four square meters, but during renovation, city management asked us to install the door on the inside, which resulted in the internal space being just a bit less than four square meters. Everyone liked the idea, and for the Chinese name, we used the traditional character of the number four 肆.
China Residencies: What kind of shop did Zheng’s family run there before?
Almost Four: It was a tailor shop, which ran for more than 10 years.
China Residencies: You are situated in a residential street that is still filled with the old neighborhood sounds and feels, really close to the city center. How does the location influence the way you run?
Almost Four: The main reason we are here is because the store passed down from Xiang Zheng’s family. We have no choice to go anywhere else, since no one has the money to rent a location with a larger space. Another reason we're drawn to this location is that the small space fits our desire to experiment artistically. With less than four square meters of space, the question of what kind of art can you do and display is a really interesting one. For us, artistic creation and project developments should not be restricted to the physical size of the space. Being in a small space in this neighborhood means that local interaction is really important to us. It always reminds us that art needs to deal with the real world, and to be able to face the present.
Company Art Project 1.0, 2015
《Company Art Project 1.0》部分作品，2015
China Residencies: Aside from Almost Four as an art space where you host exhibitions, you have also host resident artists and are running a small café running on one side of the space. Can you tell us a bit about these different aspects of Almost Four of why and how you decide to run all three projects at once?
Almost Four: We opened the café for a simple reason: to be able to have a steady flow of income. It is mainly a practical way to keep going. The kitchen/café space on the left side of Almost Four is named JU JIAN. When Zheng quit his job to start this art space, he taught himself to bake egg tarts, and make different coffee specialties and milk tea. The income from the café JU JIAN is now his main income. The free space on the right of Almost Four is used for art-related activities and exhibitions.
China Residencies: Can you tell us a bit about the artist residency projects?
Almost Four: Since we are paying for the operating costs of the storefront all by ourselves, we don’t have a lot of funding, so it's very hard to run a residency properly. Still, even if we cannot provide a very high amount of funding, we link the resident artist with local resources, be it with fellow artists or institutions. Until now, we had one German artist here with us for one month, Fabian Hammerl. We have been keeping in touch with other institutions and artists, hoping to carry out a residency program more regularly in the future. So, we very much welcome artists, scholars, curators and art workers to stay and work on projects. Everyone is welcome to send us an email to get in touch, and we can chat about what is possible.
Solo Exhibition “Waiting for the not-yet-arrived“, Li Jun, 2019
China Residencies: What did the artist provide themselves, and what did you provide during the residency?
Almost Four: We provide an accommodation and a studio, and small amount of money to buy materials, daily life support such as a mobile sim card, a transportation card for bus and metro to get around in the city. We organize an artist talk or workshop in an academy or other institution, help to build local community connection, and assist in their artistic creation. For those who want to join the residency, they'll need to pay for their own transportation (international or domestic flight, train, bus), and a residency fee of RMB 4,000 per month to cover the costs.
China Residencies: When we visited Almost Four last summer, you told us about some of the projects you did with your neighbors. Can you tell us about a few of the projects you did in the neighborhood?
Almost Four: One of the larger projects working with the neighborhood and the stores next to Almost Four is the Qingyun-North-Street Art Festival, which happened in 2019. [Qingyun-North-Street is the name of the street where Almost Four is located]. For this, we invited the Chengdu-based artists Yin Xiaofeng, Nan Xi, Wang Yishan, Ma Kun & Liu Yingjun, Yang Ran, Xiang Zheng, He Liping, Li Aixiao, Wei Xiaojing and Guan Guan, the German artist Fabian Hammerl and Dutch artist Marco Osting. After an initial phase of talking to each store owners to get their permission, each artist worked in one shop, and displayed their final work in the window front there. We neither applied for an official permit nor notified the local government about this project -- rather went the personal route by approaching the stores one by one, and talking with the store owners directly. We did the same with the material fees and reimbursements for the artists. We also did not go through the formal route of publicizing it, we just posted the posters and flyers through Almost Four’s public Wechat account. In the end, the store owners who collaborated in this project were the ones who already knew us and our art space well, building on our long-standing good relations.
All together, the Qingyun-North-Street Art Festival was a four part project. The artists’ projects was one part, we also hosted children’s art projects, open-street workshops, and hosted public activities. We also decided to not set an opening or closing date. Rather, participating artists could decide on their own and work on their own pace during this festival. It really was a grassroots festival, as opposed to big events built up on formal grounds. The total time from the concept and development to the final implementation took between 3 to 4 months. Of course, we experienced a lot of twists and turns during these months. Conflicts of interests emerge when wanting to plan a public street festival. Some issues came from the blurring boundaries between the "art scene“ and public space, or frictions between the curated academic framework of some projects and their actual artistic execution. In some cases, the artist lost their inspiration at the physical location of a store or restaurant. In other cases, the shop owners wanted to receive a stipend or money for participating in this festival. All these issues were either interpersonal, or stemmed from frictions between individuals and institutions, and all of these issues were revealed during this process.
Despite these points of friction, the final works which emerged were very interesting. One included the work of Yin Xiaofeng, titled “21 Qingyun North Street“. The artist plastered the floor of Almost Four with relics of pottery pieces from different time periods on the floor, which were found from local archaeological sites nearby.
"21 Qingyun North Street", Yin Xiaofeng, fragments of ancient ceramics.
Yang Ran invited strangers to share a meal at the Qingyun restaurant for their work “Don’t speak while eating." It was located outside of a restaurant. During the meal, everybody was instructed to stay silent and not to play on their phones. A lot of residents and neighbors stood around their table, watching the performative work.
Don’t speak while eating, Yang Ran
Artists Ma Kun and Liu Yingjun re-painted Delacroix's classic oil painting "La Liberté guidant le peuple" into quite a different version. They replaced the banner in the painting with a gigantic pig foot, changing the title of the work to "Food is Everything for the People."
"Food is Everything for the People", Ma Kun + Liu Yingjun
The owner of the Qingyun restaurant, his nickname is "Pang Ge", is also an avid fan and collector of folk pottery. After meeting and and learning about his story, the artist Nan Xi made a piece of personalized folk ceramic with the store owner on it. Wang Yishan set up a small table in front of the noodle shop in our street and invited passerby's to join him for a bowl of noodles in return for a conversation and a picture. Fabian Hammerl, the German artist, paired up with an owner of a shop selling braised pig trotters. He went to the shop owner's hometown and returned with photos of the surrounding scenery.
Distributed landscape, Fabian Hammerl
After asking the shop owner to pick his favorite, he then printed the photograph on one of those large, half-transparent plastic curtains used to keep the cold air-conditioned air inside. When sitting inside the restaurant and looking towards the street, the home scenery overlaps with the street view, forming a portal of space and time.
There were also other public events: “Look for the beauty of Qingyun North Street” and "Panorama of Qingyun North Street" was a children's art project; an artist talk in next door dessert shop, an outdoor artist workshop which was supported by the German Consulate General in Chengdu, and diverse flash art-and-coffee activities and concerts on the streets. We found that these projects were really welcomed by the neighbors, and a lot of residents took part.
At the start, the original reason for starting this street festival was because our space was facing the same issues of operating a commercial space as all the other spaces and shops on this street. But at the same time, we are also an art space. This led us to think about how art functions. What does art have to do with the people in our neighborhood? By being outside the context of an artist studio or artist villages, and being embedded in the daily life of a local neighborhood, we asked ourselves if there was the possibility to grow art projects. And if yes, what does the space look like? How do artists work outside of their studios, in public? When faced with reality, we need to re-think the creative process, starting from the very ideas we have about a work of art to the actual physical manifestation of an artwork. It's especially important to question if it is possible to solve real-world issues while still thinking in a conceptual way about art itself. What is the best way to open up such a conversation in this field? And how do we start a dialogue with the people living around us? How can art really function in real life? Although the street festival is over, we would like to continue thinking about these questions in relation to our space, and hope that it might continue to urge us to think about it.
Woodcut print public workshop.
China Residencies: What exactly is the "Company Art Project“ behind Almost Four?
Almost Four: At the beginning, we thought about the space as a bridge to provide artists a street-side window where they could create. In 2018, we hosted four exhibitions. In 2019, we hosted one artist resident, one exhibition, a street festival, and public events. The usual format we work in is exhibitions, projects, and public activities. On one hand, we hope that more artists can use this space for experimental creation. On the other hand, we welcome artists to explore the local life and issues the residents care about in this community and the neighborhood through this space.
Many of the "Company Art Project's" own creations involve collaboration. For example, in 2015, in the first project titled "Company Art Project 1.0", we worked with American artist Shannon to build a small station on some vacant land next to the Chengdu Sunshine New Industry Center, a district in Chengdu. Volunteers collected characters from the audience which were negatively viewed or felt by the audience. Then we assembled a "production line", similar to Ford's production line. We then one by one "processed" these words into something else, which was completely different from the initial characters. In an afternoon of 4 hours, we "processed" around 100 works [the results can be seen in the four small photos at the beginning of the interview]. For the 2016 "Grandma Kitchen" project, we invited young people to make home-cooked meals and snacks for the elderly living in the community. The barriers link different groups of people.
The 2018 project "Pour Out Your Heart" was commissioned by the A4 Art Museum. We interviewed more than 100 mothers and collected their feelings about womanhood in general, and as mothers, wives, and daughters. The main issues that arose were the conflicting and contradictory views of switching between their own social identity and their role in family relationships. We extracted some key information from the survey, and composed lyrics out of them and invited Chengdu rappers to sing, and finally presented in the form of music videos for the songs. In 2019, the "Huang Bian Tea Party" is the work we created for the "Creating and Painting the Future" Community Art Festival at the Guangdong Times Museum. We visited the people living in Huangbian Village, Guangdong, and held the Guangdong and Sichuan “Huang Bian Tea Party. Through organizing this event, we wanted to help the local community to figure out how they can open up and adapt to external environmental and cultural changes, which do affect them very much. When working on creations, we hope that through a specific and subtle point of access, we can start a more multiple-dimensional discussion of the interrelationships between individuals and groups and the real problems and contradictions of the internal and external worlds hidden or projected behind them.
China Residencies: How have the past few months been for you all? Are you all located in Chengdu at the moment, or somewhere else?
Everybody: Everyone has been home.
Xiang Zheng: I was at home in Chengdu, mainly taking care of my baby.
Ma Kun: I have been staying in Dujiangyan for the past few months, my only movements were a straight line between my home and studio, every single day. I usually spend my mornings with the two little ones. We would watch the news together, or play inside. When they are down for their nap in the afternoon, I bike or walk to my studio.
Huang Jiao: I went back to my hometown to spend the Spring Festival with my parents and bought my cat with me. When I returned to Chengdu with my cat afterwards, my schedule looked something like this: staying at home, mostly sleeping, eating, and playing with the cat. Generally, I just had very little energy to do things. I bought a bunch of books online but could not concentrate on reading them. A while ago, I started going out for runs at night.
China Residencies: How has the pandemic impacted your daily life, and how did it feel to stay inside for so long?
Huang Jiao: The current pandemic had a huge impact on everybody. For me, it made me look closer at the value of life and also reflect on the value of art. Aside from psychological and spiritual ruminations, our financial income has came to a halt. As a result, we even switched to cheaper cat food at home. It feels a bit like going back to the planned economy. My main thought recently have been about ways to make money, to work towards re-opening, and new art projects.
Ma Kun: My emotions during the pandemic oscillated between being anxious and overwhelmed. Now, I've entered a stage of calmness. For me, I see this pandemic does hugely influence our way of life, but cannot control how we adapt, our ways of reflecting and dealing with things.
Xiang Zheng: The impact has been quite deep, up until now. It is still unthinkable to open our doors in such early stage. Because we cannot open the café for business, we don’t have the income we had before. Lots of regular customers were nearby office workers, so they would not be coming in now even, if we were open, so for me the impact on our income has been huge.
China Residencies: This is tough to hear. The crisis has made it so hard for people worldwide, and we've been hearing that a lot of creative spaces are struggling. Art workers has often been forced to live precariously, and nowadays it is definitively a lot harder to keep on. How will your next few months look like and how do you see the future?
Almost Four: We are waiting for the complete end of the pandemic. Once it's over, we are planning to resume our activities in our art space. Last year, we have been keeping in touch with some art organizations in Cologne and Berlin, and are looking forward to future projects with them.
China Residencies: Are there any other things you want to talk about?
Almost Four: The thing we are working on right now is to combine all the projects we have done into a small manual or booklet. Also, we are slowly updating our website. But still, everything is going a bit slow.
China Residencies: Very understandable. It can be very hard to focus on things, and it is now the time to first take care of yourselves. Wishing you all the best moving forward!
Solo exhibition "Landmarks of the Nether", Tosten Jurell (SE), 2018
个展 《幽冥的地标》，Tosten Jurell（瑞典），2018
肆空间：其实肆空间属于我们“公司”艺术小组做的一个项目。 小组成员包括黄佼、向征、马锟三个人。2015年大家机缘巧合一起参加了A4艺术中心的七天工作坊，以小组的形式做了第一个艺术项目，之后就以艺术小组进行创作。向征和马锟是艺术家，向征的创作包括油画和纸雕， 马锟是当代书法和当代水墨，黄佼是独立的艺术项目统筹，主要负责项目的组织实施等具体工作。
肆空间：肆空间是在2018年初成立的。 在这之前2017年的时候，向征说他们家的铺面租约到期后想收回来自己做点什么，然后我们小组3个人就讨论了拿这个地方做一个艺术空间的可能性。大家都支持向征将店铺划一部分作为开展艺术项目的空间。所以就有了现在的左边是厨房，日常经营本地小吃蛋烘糕，奶茶，咖啡，右边就是不到四平方的独立艺术空间肆空间。 肆空间这个名字其实是第一个受邀参加我们展览的瑞典艺术家给取的。本来我们空间规划有四个平方，但是装修的时候城管要求我们把门安装在里面， 这样内部空间就少于四个平方了。 瑞典艺术家听说之后，建议说，干脆叫Almost Four作为英文名吧。于是大家都赞同，中文用的大写的肆， 就是这样来的。
肆空间：这个比较简单，主要从功能上考虑，左边的厨房名字叫JU JIAN,主要是向征辞职了专门来做这个，他自学烤蛋烘糕，做咖啡和奶茶， JU JIAN的收入就是他主要的生活来源。右边的肆空间就是用来做艺术展览相关活动的。
肆空间：肆空间做的有社区参与的项目，比较大的就是去年2019庆云北街街头艺术季了。当时我们邀请了几位成都艺术家和德国艺术家Fabian Hammerl，以及荷兰艺术家Marco Osting。成都艺术家参加的事尹晓峰，南希，王一山，马锟+刘英俊，杨然，向征，魏晓静，罐罐。经过与街道上的几个店铺沟通， 获得店主允许后，艺术家进入店铺中进行创作，最后作品在店内呈现。我们事先没有与社区政府沟通，全部靠自己去跟店铺一家家的谈，艺术家的创作费用也是各自解决的。也没有花大力气宣传，只是通过我们的微信公众号进行介绍。 最后支持并参与合作的店铺，也是相对比较熟悉，关系比较好的几家。除了艺术家创作的部分， 还包括儿童艺术，街头工作坊，公众活动，一共四个板块。艺术季没有开幕式也没有闭幕式，是以艺术家随机进入现场创作的方式，去贯穿整个艺术季。 整个项目立足草根，从构思，开展，到落地，经历3-4个月，中间一波三折。在市井中开展艺术项目，有很多不可预知的问题。包括艺术现场边界的模糊， 策展的学术框架与艺术实践之间的矛盾，又或是店家老板要求给钱才可合作，艺术家到现场没有灵感最后放弃，等等问题，都在人与人，人与空间之间的关系摩擦中被呈现出来。
Qingyun Meal, Nan Xi, Ceramic Painting
"Grandma's Kitchen", 2016
Pour Out Your Heart, 2018
Huang Bian Tea Party, 2019
“公司”艺术小组自己的创作，有很多是他人参与和互动的。比如2015年第一个项目《Company Art Project 1.0》， 我们与美国艺术家Shannon合作，在成都阳光新业中心门口的空地上搭了一个帐篷，志愿者现场收集引发观众负面情绪的文字，我们用工厂流水线操作的现场创作方式，对这些文字进行处理，最后获得与原素材完全不同的艺术呈现方式。当天下午4个小时，我们做了大约100份作品；在2016年《奶奶厨房》项目中，我们邀请年轻人为居住在社区的老年人做家常菜、小吃，年轻人与老年人聊天，通过食物打破隔阂链接不同的人群；2018年的项目《Pour Out Your Heart听妈妈的话》，受A4美术馆委托创作，我们采访了100多位妈妈，收集了她们对于女性的自我价值在母亲、妻子、女儿这些社会身份和家庭关系中进行切换时的冲突和矛盾的看法，从调查中我们提取了一些关键信息，并作词谱曲，邀请成都的说唱歌手来演唱，最终以MV歌曲的方式呈现；2019年的《茶话黄边》，是我们为广东时代美术馆的“创绘未来”社区艺术节中创作的作品。我们走访了广东黄边村的原住民，通过举办粤川两地的美食交流茶话会，来探讨面对外部环境变化和文化冲击时的向心式宗族文化和原住民群体的开放和改变的可能性。在创作中，我们希望通过某个具体细微的切入点，去展开对个体及群体间相互关系以及其背后所隐含或投射的内外部世界的现实问题和矛盾点的更加立体的讨论。
This interview was conducted in Chinese and translated to English by Xiaoyao Xu for China Residencies in May 2020.
With the current pandemic and the ongoing travel restrictions worldwide, people have been finding ways to keep in touch with artists and friends online, since they can't meet up in person. In lieu of our annual research trip, we are revisiting spaces we've met in the past seven years through in depth interviews over WeChat until we can meet again.