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August 2, 2009

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Loft living pays off for photo artist family

PHOTOGRAPHY soul mates Rong Rong and Inri wanted a home and work space in a natural environment away from apartment buildings or villa compounds. They found it in a loft-like studio residence in the heart of Caochangdi art district on the northeastern fringes of Beijing. Yang Di paid them a visit.

Any visitor to Beijing will have heard about the 798 art space or very likely browsed among the many galleries and shops featured there. But just a few hundred meters further along the old Airport road lies Caochangdi, the more low-profile reincarnation of 798.

Caochangdi is home to an increasing number of art galleries and artists' studios. Avant-garde artist and self-taught architect Ai Weiwei was one of the first to build a house there and has designed many of the stylishly gallery-cum-residences in the area. For Rong Rong and Inri, the 500-square-meter grey brick house they now live in is their serene sanctuary.

The couple first met in Tokyo when Rong held an exhibition in 1999. Rong, a farm boy from China's southeastern Fujian Province, had never left home before he first arrived in Beijing in 1992 with a pure and na?ve perspective of the mega city.

Inri left the popular Asahi Shimbun as the designated portrait photographer because she was tired of taking celebrity pictures and first saw Rong's exhibition in Tokyo.

She was moved by his photography which, to her, "was permeated with an unsalvageable loneliness." Ten months later Inri visited Beijing. Since then, the photography couple have traveled extensively and photographed themselves in different places - beautiful or brooding places devoid of people.

When looking for a home and studio in Beijing, the artist couple wanted a space that blended in with the natural rural environment and exuded a sense of freedom, something away from standard apartment buildings or villa compounds. They wanted a space which could accommodate both their atelier and their home, removing the concept of going to work and back and being at home, giving total versatility between workspace and home.

In 2004, they found their ideal loft-like studio residence in the heart of Caochangdi art district on the northeastern fringes of Beijing. They installed themselves in the space to work, live and create. In time as the couple became a little family with one, then two then three children, the studio loft became the family home.

While preserving some space for creativity and art the then all in one space slowly became a home. The darkroom had to go and it became a children's playroom. Then the parking space was transformed to become the tatami room serving as a living room for the happy quintet.

At the property's entrance is a pomegranate tree in a mini courtyard with tall windows opening all the way from the first to second floor. A profusion of French windows from first to second floor creates a sense of openness and connection.

The space is 6 meters high, creating an amazing volume to organize, work and live in. The first floor is high ceiling studio space filled with photography.

It is more or less designed in black and white with little color touches, in keeping with the pictures that made the two famous.

"Life is not black and white, but to be creative we have to filter out those colors. The idea is to create a working space that stimulates creativity in the direction we aim for. The black and white space just puts us in the right creative mood," said Rong.

That open space then segues up to a small dining room decorated with more traditional Chinese or functional and discreet white furniture. From there, the raw brick walls lead to the tatami room. Back in the main studio room, an open stair leads to the second floor living area where sleeping areas and a study can be found. On top of the stairs a glass window opens up to a roof top terrace.

The most alluring thing about loft living is the blank-slate freedom of raw space. Possibilities are endless: keep it open and flexible or slice the space into rooms for designated uses.

Three years ago, in 2006, the pair opened the Three Shadows Photography Art Center close to their house. It was designed by Ai Weiwei, all in gray bricks, the same material used as a staple for the traditional Beijing hutongs.

The center's purpose is to liaise with parties from all spheres and backgrounds to promote knowledge of Chinese contemporary photography, a form of central database of work by local artists.

It's the first of its kind in China focusing on photography and video art. Composed of a main exhibition hall of 1,300 meters used for thematic exhibitions, the center also hosts the Library of Contemporary Photography, a publishing house, a production center, a Moving Image Studio and guest artist live-in apartments. Rong Rong and Inri wanted it to be their tribute to their art.


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