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Far from the Madding Crowd: Cicada’s Shed and its artists

The back of the art space remodeled from a deserted printing house. Provided by Lin Ke.

The troika of Cicada’s Shed

Resting on the red couches of a glass-walled main room with an artistic ambience set by several unique but casual installations, we tasted mellow Pu’er tea prepared by Li Wei and talked about things they feel like sharing.

Li Wei, the 27-year-old overseas returnee and artistic photography graduate of the renowned University of Arts London, is a meditative but confident young artist, with a calm temperament.

Last June, he came to the obscure town and rented the yard of 5,000 square meters for rebuilding the deserted printing house on it into a hospitable art space. In over half a year, the young man has singlehandedly accomplished the task. For Cicada’s Shed to look like what it looks now, He had strenuously worked as building designer, construction worker, painter and even carpenter.

“Most photographers are freelance and many existing platforms like guilds or associations are usually hard to get into, so, I think a gathering place without too many restrictions may be needed by them. That was my initial idea about the space,” revealed Li Wei. 

And his female co-founder Zhou Yu added “Cicada’s Shed, like what its name suggests, advocates to stay away from the city, from the madding crowd and gather in this quiet place for enjoying a lifestyle which is close to the nature. We get to hear chirpings of insects here in the countryside."  

Zhou Yu (周鱼), now the actual mastermind of Cicada’s Shed, joined in the cause this January. Among the three, she appears to be the most articulate, sharp-minded and impressive one. Majoring in clinical medicine and psychological counseling, Zhou decides to become a professional photographer.

“All the subjects I had learned before could help me in doing art—a science background equips me with a logical angel for observing things,” explained Zhou, who is now also working voluntarily for a NGO engaging in developing the artistic talents of autistic children. “I do psychological counseling and shoot pictures for them at the same time,” said Zhou with a cheerful smile.

She shared with me the current plan for Cicada’s Shed: they are trying to draw more photography artists into them, and then they would carry out specific charity projects together for various groups, like NGOs, state-owned big companies or private businesses.

Certainly, the three photographers also hope the art space could function as a platform for artists to get together, showcase their works and communicate with each other.

“Cicada’s Shed is certainly not about the three of us. We need more people with artistic pursuits to be on board. It’s ok whether he or she is a professional photographer or just interested in it. At the current stage, we need comrade-in-arms more than we need media or public attention,” Zhou Yu said frankly.

Documentary photography

These days, charity projects could hardly be seperated from documentary photography, a form of photography art that derives all its elements and materials from real life and is thus commonly accepted as representative of social realities.

Documentary photographers like Lin Ke are often seen working hand in hand with charity NGOs for helping those under-privileged groups in need. In fact, Lin Ke has devoted almost half of his working time into volunteering photography jobs, and through his works, support and commitment from the public could more easily be garnered for helping the miserable and obscure.

“I just want to ‘portray’ them and ‘record’ their stories. Those people that could tug at my heartstrings may be an individual or a group; they represent the cruel side of our booming era. “I could totally dive in the job, because my photos could help deliver the message and gain material support for them,” said Lin Ke,  meanwhile claiming he could get more satisfaction from working as a recorder of the era than as a charity deliverer.    

“Documentary photography could grab the detailed facts of social life and thus gain observers access to realities and moments of insight, or epiphany. An upbeat photo could warm our hearts and a desperate photo could stimulate us to fight back and make things different. I believe in the positive roles of documentary photography in pushing the society forward,” commented Li Wei, who is also a documentary photographer.    

Zhou Yu concluded, documentary photography, being a free, judicial and solid way of artistic expression, would be set up as the nucleus art form advocated by Cicada’s Shed at the current stage.

It seems, the artists aim for charity and charity has chosen the art form for them to practice.

Social responsibilities and charity as a self-reliant industry

Zhou Yu had worked long years in Germany and French for a foreign art research institute to curate exhibitions. Being immersed in western culture for long, the female artist has formed practical and ‘material’ ideas about doing art and charity.

“Charity should be run like a business which could not only provide for those in need but also for those who help,” said Zhou Yu, noting Cicada’s Shed decides to do charity in a profitable way that could sustain both the projects and the teams executing the projects.

“If we want to last long, provide more solid and lasting support, we need to build ourselves up as self-reliant and sustainable,” she said.

According to the resolved female mastermind armed with intellectual clarity and toughness, their plan in the next step is to help private businesses develop their “social responsibilities”.

“Unlike state-owned big companies, private businesses in China are not required by the government to perform social responsibilities (e.g. doing public service). These years, an upward Chinese economy has brought commercial success to many private businesses and make rich business owners ready to pay back society by doing charity which at the same time is also considered as an effective way to enhance brand image,” said Zhou Yu, “the problem is, except for donating money, they basically have no idea what else to do. They need specific projects. And we could contribute in the field, because we’ve gathered and will continue to gather resources they need—techniques, concepts and connections.”  

In the end, Zhou Yu told me what Lin Ke had mentioned before, “we are artists in the first place. We like what we are doing and we would be more than happy if us doing art also means those in need being helped.”

I may not be able to understand their artistic pursuits, but it is clear Zhou Yu admitted pursuing art would be their primary goal and hopefully along the road, charity would become the by-product.

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