On one side of the art colony, demolition workers slammed their sledgehammers against a wall, leaving a pile of bricks and a cloud of dust. On the other side, artists in hard hats strung coils of barbed wire across the hole in the wall to keep out the invaders.
Another day. Another demolition showdown in Beijing. What made this one unique were the weapons the artists chose to try to save the Black Bridge art garden where they live and work. They took paint brushes in hand and expressed their frustration in furious slogans on the walls and sarcastic images superimposed over paintings that spelled out "harmonious society."
They quickly assembled a postmodern art exhibit on Sunday, using their creative powers to try to prolong the inevitable tear-down of their studios, ordered by the local Beigao government in Chaoyang district.
Painter Ren Zhitian put together a quick art installation of bricks and eggs to symbolize the fight ahead. "If you're soft, you can be broken down," he explained, paraphrasing an old Chinese proverb about what happens when you throw an egg against a brick wall.
Well-known calligrapher Shi Fei wore a green construction helmet, decorated with his delicate brushwork. The green hat has always symbolized a cuckold in Chinese culture. "I haven't been betrayed by my wife," he explained. "I'm being cuckolded by the government!"
Nearby, female artists took less than 30 seconds to assemble another instant art installation, arranging yellow demolition helmets and toy water rifles in two rows.
There was no water for the squirt guns. All water and power in the art colony was cut off on May 4.
So on Sunday, the renegade artists brought in a portable gasoline generator to power rock music amplifiers, providing a rebellious sound track for visitors to a Group Exhibition of Artist Survival and Safety.
"They are not knocking down an artist village, they are knocking down dreams," proclaimed the curator, Feng Zhongyun, the art garden founder whose studio devoted to traditional Chinese art, music and calligraphy has actually enrolled several government officials as students. Feng spent 700,000 yuan ($102,500) renovating his studio under a 10- year contract that was abruptly cancelled after three years. It's a familiar story in Beijing.
On May 5, the renovation and relocation order went out to artists in 16 studios occupying 4,700 square meters of an abandoned factory complex.
The government says the land must be cleared for a children's playground. Even if that's just a pretext for a massive housing development to come, the artists might lose public sympathy, fighting the good fight with lawyers and petitions and possible clashes with club-wielding thugs in Ninja warrior outfits.
In Beijing's demolition derby sweepstakes, the big prize is always hefty compensation and something makes you want to tell the artists: "Settle!"
But Black Bridge has what artists need most, space. Space to nurture big ideas and space to exhibit them, in a village atmosphere where flowers bloom and chickens roam free.
"The art world has its own fragile ecosystem," says Feng.
The creative spirit always reflects the life struggles of artists at different times in history. Beijing's relentless march to build a city of tomorrow is now the inspiration for artists interpreting the Black Bridge demolition battle as its own angry work of art.