This is the seventh city newsletter.  We shall now take a break to research and write a book.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
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A cynic might say that news of the first edition of the Wuhan Art Biennale, to be held at the end of this year, is no more than an attempt to help rebrand the city. After all, the world has come to assume that Wuhan is a synonym for Covid.
But such cynicism would be misplaced. For the last six or seven years, the city has been in visible transition – a building site as a Wuhan friend said.
Wuhan is forged from three cities, and seems also to have three overlapping identities, jostling with one another for prominence. One identity is tied up with the military and was represented culturally by the 2019 Military World Games, the first international military multisport event to be held in China, which cost 140 billion CNY (20 billion USD). In terms of military industrial production, Wuhan is home to submarine construction – and sales have been made to countries including Pakistan and Thailand. And this is not to mention PLA-related biolabs.
Wuhan’s second identity, the dominant one, is tied up with the historical industrial transformation of China. Wuhan was and remains the ‘steel city’ of China. Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation (WISCO) was the first steel company set up in China post-1949 and part of the First Five Year Plan. But times are achanging.
The founding of industrial museums in a city is usually one sure sign that a settled version of industrialisation is coming to an end – in Wuhan partly in response to the climate crisis.  As early as 2008, a Museum of Iron and Steel was founded, and four years ago the architect Daniel Liebeskind designed the huge Zhang ZhiDong and Modern Industrial Museum, on the site of the old steelworks. Zhang ZhiDong was a very important nineteenth century modernising and internationalising government official – the father or perhaps grand-father of the steel industry in Wuhan and China.
It may be an interesting sign of the changing industrial times in Wuhan that the high-end British car manufacturer Lotus, now owned by the Chinese multinational company Zhejiang Geely, will build its first SUV in Wuhan. Lotus is wagering that China will be a big market for a brand that used to be associated with James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Both Lotus and Wuhan are in search of a future.
It was a Japanese consul-general in the late Qing dynasty who first said that Wuhan was China’s version of Chicago. Pittsburgh might actually, at least at the present time, be a better comparison. As Pittsburgh shifted from an industrial to post industrial city, it founded a museum in the name of its famous son, Andy Warhol. In the same spirit Wuhan is clearly trying to develop an identity centred on culture and education (more on education below).
Covid may have forced a pause for a time in Wuhan – but now, with the virus not a current problem there, cultural infrastructure, particularly in the field of art, is developing at a fast rate. The launch of the Wuhan Biennale is just one example. Another is @Wuhan, which happens annually towards the end of the year and brings together a number of museums under the festival banner. Our interviewees are clinging to the hope that Covid does not return to the city and upset the plans.
The art ecology in Wuhan is nothing if not heterogeneous.  There is a thriving graffiti art scene where artists are encouraged to decorate old industrial buildings – intelligently encouraged by the local government which wants artists to ‘brighten up’ the city to help it forget about its recent trauma (Pittsburgh again is a decent comparison, with its regulated areas for street art).
There are also more traditional cultural spaces: for example, Creative Capital, a complex set up in 2016 which contains galleries, artist studio spaces – and the United Museum (合美术馆), a private museum; and the high profile commercial space, Surplus Space (剩余空间)  which has become somewhere with which foreign galleries will often collaborate. Its owner is in the property business.
The Hong Kong based property company New World Development has just opened a second phase of its K11 project, with the moniker K11 Art Mall II. The mall describes itself as a cultural retail space. Artworks by Antony Gormley, the Polish artist Alicja Kwade and Zheng Da punctuate the space – even if retail seems to trump culture in an immersive space where the mall itself becomes the primary object of desire.
Even when one has conjugated the range of spaces and events, there is always the question in China of what is government-related culture and what is not. One of our interviewees was keen to stress that @Wuhan was a non-government project while the Biennale was a government one. Yet the line is rarely easy to draw as our interviewer was ready to acknowledge. Another of our interviewees said that the United Museum, a good private one, actually enjoys government financial support. The Shanghai based collector Wang Wei, was scheduled to build the fourth of her private museums in Wuhan (two are in Shanghai; the third in Chongqing); and she even showed us some drawing plans. In the end it did not happen; it is said that Wang Wei could not square her ideas with the local government, which instead is building its own museum, Qintai Art Museum (琴台美术馆, see image above), on the site of her proposed one. It will open in the middle of December and will focus on contemporary art.
Despite the rich stew of proposed events and spaces, there is the matter of what will fill them. Our interviewee on the Wuhan Biennale said that the model was the Venice Biennale – in terms of participants a truly global event. Yet with the central government not allowing non-essential travel into China – and international collaborations on hold for the foreseeable future – will the Wuhan Biennale be effectively Chinese only?

Vox Club, Wuhan
The much-lauded music scene in Wuhan and what has happened to it post-Covid provide an interesting perspective of what might happen to the Wuhan artworld. In the 90s Wuhan was famous as a lively home for punk and its bands did not shy away from social criticism. Together with the punk bands came a network of small bars, clubs and labels which nurtured music and not only the punk scene. There is even a recent film dedicated to it:
Pre-Covid, these clubs were a destination for foreign as well as local bands. Post-Covid, with foreign travel banned, the venues have provided ever-more exposure to local bands. But together with more visibility has come more regulation – not only what the band plays but also how they are marketed etc.
It’s certainly possible that something comparable will happen to the art scene. One of our interviewees said that many artists were trying – with difficulty –  to find truly independent spaces in Wuhan rather than ones in some way related to the government. The Wuhan Biennale will be overseen by Fan Di’an, Chair of the China Artists Association, who also directed the Chengdu Biennale. He will make sure it is politically correct, said one of our Wuhan friends.
Wuhan has 53 universities – and more than 1 million of its citizens are students, making it one of the largest university towns in the world. With such a weight of students, it is hardly surprising that the introduction of undergraduate and post-graduate courses on love and relationship at several of Wuhan universities became not only national but international news.
It is worth noting, though, that the first of such courses was offered at Beijing Normal University as early as 2007 (interestingly the same year that the popular magazine Psychologies was launched in China). The courses in Wuhan clearly meet a need amongst students – there are images of students stood outside the building, with inside a hall bursting at the seams.
But these courses also fulfil a social need – and it is tempting to think that it is this need which drives the international exposure that the Wuhan courses have been given by Global Times, China Daily etc. Like many governments, the Chinese one is worried that marriage numbers are down, divorces are up – and most critically that the birth rate is at a 60 year low. In a piece of research, 44% of women said they intended not to marry – and to have a child outside marriage is still an adventurous and unusual occurrence in China (see China’s Doomed Fight Against Demographic Decline’, Foreign Affairs, 3 May 2022).
The government has been bringing into being policies to change the situation – in 2021 instituting a 30 day ‘cooling off’ period in divorce proceedings, during which ‘family and marriage guidance’ is available. If one partner changes their mind over the divorce, it will not go ahead. In Wuhan this led to a 60% drop in divorces last year. For some this is a positive outcome – but there are those who believe that such initiatives may be part of the push back on women rights.
In one of our interviews for this newsletter, we were talking to a Wuhan female resident who temporarily lives in Europe. The line went down when we began to talk about feminism. To be frank, we saw nothing awry. But our interviewee said she was confident that was because feminism was raised as a topic – there is always someone listening in on calls with Chinese abroad, she said.
How the government’s pro natalist position develops in Wuhan is worth watching. The city has a huge student population, troubling graduate unemployment as in the rest of China – and Wuhan has a mythology of powerful women. Mulan, the legendary female warrior of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) comes from there and in the recent Disney live action version the actress Liu Yifei who played Mulan is Wuhan-born. More generally, Wuhan women have a reputation of being 凶 (fierce) – a fair description of one of Wuhan’s most famous contemporary daughters, Guo Jing, who as early as 2014 became the first woman to sue successfully a company in court on the grounds of gender inequality. More recently she has weighed in on domestic violence during Covid in Wuhan, on the indifference of judges to psychological experts – and on the shackled woman in Shandong.
If pro-natalist positions calcify into a requirement that women’s ‘special role’ is as ‘virtuous women and good mothers, assisting their husbands and educating their children’, as one of the President’s speeches has it, then we might expect Wuhan sparks.*******Recent figures, according to Gelonghui Institution(格隆汇), suggest that unglamorous cities such as Wuhan may have a more central role in China’s future – younger people, especially graduates, can’t afford housing and other costs in Shanghai and Beijing and are staying put in Wuhan. That’s why the success or otherwise of the cultural developments in Wuhan matters so much – to the economy of the city and of China.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

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