A cavernous space that rings with the sound of buzz saws, where offices look like over-stuffed attics and the roof is strewn with mud-splattered dishes, Downstream Garage seethes with a creative energy topped only by that of its founder Wang Jingguo. The epicentre of Shanghai's independent dance and theatre scene gives artists a rehearsal space, a performance venue and a community of like-minded creators. Anyone willing to work for free, to perform for non-paying audiences and who has artistic integrity is welcome. ‘Their attitude must come from the heart, with sincerity,’ Wang tells Time Out. ‘We don’t welcome mainstream groups. But I always let them try.’
Born in Harbin half a century ago, Wang was shunted between grandparents in Shanghai and parents in a factory town on the Soviet border. At age nine, he was making the three-day train journey alone. ‘It was horrible, but it built up my personality,’ he recalls, holding a small IKEA flowerpot full of instant coffee in thick fingers stained with black paint. ‘I was very independent, brave; I learned how to protect myself. I was a man, but I was also a dreamer.’
His coarse hair is escaping from his short ponytail and his face is war-weary, but his eyes are bright behind his dense glasses as he talks about art, books and travel. ‘When I was a child, I read so much, more than my teachers,’ he says, explaining that his great-grandfather had opened
China’s first publishing house. He was also obsessed with maps. ‘I liked all the weird place names, it made me want to travel.’ At age 26, he spent six months cycling from Shanghai to Dunhuang. ‘After that I didn’t fear any problem anymore,’ he continues. ‘Move your foot just once, the whole bicycle moves forward. Now if I want to do something, I just do it.’
Wang spent his childhood publishing poetry, then studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy – but the events of 1989 drove him to the US, courtesy of an arts grant from the Chicago-based Ragdale Foundation. He exhibited paintings in SoHo galleries, designed textiles for women’s fashion, and then had a vision for China. ‘At Ragdale, I saw artists being respected; everything was so positive, it was a dream,’ he continues. ‘It made me want to start Downstream.’
In 2004, his fantasy took on a bricks and mortar form, even as his ideals remained lofty. ‘This is not only a solid place, it is spiritual,’ he says. ‘I want people to understand art and how artists should be treated, and then to take that message out.’ Over its short lifespan, the venue has incubated a diverse range of talents, from the physical theatre of the Cao Tai Ban group to the award-winning work of underground playwright Zhang Xian. It has hosted festivals of independent video and performing and visual arts.
If that weren’t enough, Downstream’s latest feature is an art gallery for local artists where people pay what they can afford as donations to the venue. Although authorities still demand approval of every picture, Wang says he’ll ‘deal with that when they show up’.
For Wang, even more dangerous are the ‘fake artists’, or people in high-level arts administration positions who, ‘don’t understand it, don’t ever see a show and just make a mess of it.’ This goes double for so-called supporters, who want to pledge money only to attach their name, or worse, to affect the projects. ‘In the future I want this to be a foundation for artists and dancers, but only if it can keep the ideas, and the ideals,’ says Wang. ‘Downstream is not mine, it belongs to everyone.’