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John Stanmeyer/Saba for TIME.
UNDERARTIST: ON THE FRINGE: Mao Xuhui appreciates the quiet pace of life in Yunnan.

Art on the Edges
Creative types are finding inspiration—and freedom—in China's southwest

At first you don't believe what you're seeing. On half a hectare of sloping clover meadow rises a surreal construction of dozens of red towers, conical as beehives, some of them four or five stories high. They have no windows, only small spikes protruding from the smooth, terra-cotta exterior. Inside are vaulted galleries full of large sculptures: female forms, Buddhas, herds of sheep. It could all be from a fairytale, but in fact it is a privately owned sculpture garden on the outskirts of Kunming. It was built by Luo Xu, a 44-year-old sculptor. Enjoying a freedom inconceivable for artists in the metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, Luo uses the halls as a place to live and work.

Artists thrive on tranquility. Monet found peace and beauty in his garden in Giverny, Picasso went to Juan les Pins and Van Gogh to Arles. Now Chinese artists are discovering the southwestern province of Yunnan as a place where they can work close to nature and far from the cultural commissars in the capital. Kunming and the small town of Dali four hours to the west are attracting a growing number of painters and sculptors—and their output is getting noticed by collectors and dealers outside China.

"I can't live in Beijing," says Luo Xu, who was born in Yunnan. "They would close me down," he adds, pointing to the striking nude figures in one of his halls. Art exhibitions are regularly shut down in Shanghai and Beijing for being too "controversial." But in Kunming, the local government is more worried about poverty and drug smuggling than policing artists. Luo spent a year studying at Beijing's Institute of Fine Arts, until his mentor, the head of the sculpture department, advised him to go home. "He said Beijing would destroy my art."

P H O T O  E S S A Y
Building Their Lives
The men of Yantang must move to Shanghai and go into hard labour to build better lives for their families




To Our

Certainly, the big-money art markets are in Beijing and Shanghai. But Mao Xuhui, 44, whose work has been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe, says Beijing's artists obsess about politics, engaging in a constant cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. "They are always trying to do something shocking to get noticed. They cannot paint calmly, they have no larger vision."

Visions take time to develop, and time is one thing Kunming has in abundance. "Here life is so slow," says painter Li Ji, 37, who also teaches at the Yunnan Art Institute. "People can spend a day drinking tea beside the lake. You would never get that in Beijing." Time seems almost to have stopped in the Upriver Club, a Kunming cafE set up by painter Ye Yongqing last year. In the late afternoon people sit around the club drinking chrysanthemum tea, chatting and playing cards. On the walls are paintings by Ye and artist friends who come here to swap notes. Upstairs is an exhibition of works by painter Chen Anjian depicting laid-off workers. "Probably the government wouldn't like these paintings, but what are they going to do?" says Ye with a smile.

Word is spreading among artists about the area's relative freedom and clean environment. Two well-known Beijing painters, Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, have opened studios in Dali. Local artists are delighted—they foresee a network that will help painters and sculptors find space to work, free of pollution and politics. It may sound surreal, but the art scene in Kunming is hardly abstract.

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