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Duty-Free Art School

a cage with paintings displayed on it
  • Written byYixuan Zhang
  • Published date 02 August 2022
a cage with paintings displayed on it
Duty-Free Art School, Installation View (photo by Ben Qin)

On 14 July 2022, a fire broke out during the Degree Show at Chelsea College of Arts. Although the investigation into the cause of the fire points to the dump, questions like what initially caught fire and what was damaged by it were not answered. No one knows precisely what was discarded as rubbish. But what we do know is that a large number of artworks were abandoned at the dump, every year, right after the Degree Show. Due to the lack of suitable storage space or expensive transportation costs, many students' works - which can be made of any material - end up here at the dump. As the fire triggered the alarm, the black smoke rising from the dump also rings the bell: Where do the artworks go?

A man painting a large scene of people and birds
Ongoing Painting by MingChi (photo taken by Ben Qin)

Art students have developed a new ecology. Artworks made in art school studios can be easily disassembled, put into tiny spaces for temporary storage and reassembled quickly for the next exhibition, though many of the artworks made by art students last as long as the exhibition they attend, with a lifespan of three days or a week. The longest, for most international art students, will be no longer than the one-year visa permission for a master’s degree. The presence of these haphazardly stashed artworks in the non-designated art liminal space is a stark contrast to the school’s empty studios during the summer break. These artworks in their status of temporal storage, therefore, become heterogeneous elements of the art school.

A woman looking at work in a gallery
Opening site (photo taken by Ben Qin)

This is the evacuation of art, when students’ works are forced to leave the studio space; when Uber drivers are queuing outside the exhibition hall (a quote from one of the artists involved in the project); when the storage and corridors of the art school are filled with artworks. It is at this moment that Duty-Free Art School releases its first project. Held in a makeshift marquee, which is surrounded by two world-famous art institutions, Chelsea College of Arts and Tate Britain, the project, also called Duty-Free Art School, introduces a business model to the prestigious art school: an art warehouse.

A woman sitting at a table in an art studio
Archive Room (photo taken by Ben Qin)

Duty-Free Art School, to a certain extent, reverts to the state of storage of students’ works, which is very different from the status of artworks in art institutions (galleries, art fairs, auction houses etc. which are the rule-makers of the contemporary art market). It presents not only students’ works, but also their state of being. Tiger Head and Claws, a sculpture made by artist Maggie Menghan Chen, is standing upon a wooden crate, which is shipped from a factory in China. The marble-like sculpture, the crate and a hand pallet truck together constitute a monumental complex, stored in the centre of the marquee, demonstrating the necessary labour that is required to create, transport and display a piece of artwork, despite the light material the artist uses - styrofoam. Hazel O’Sullivan and Phillip Rhys Olney, whose works have been disassembled and stacked in the corridor outside the studio since the end of the Degree Show, present those deconstructed pieces rather than their intact works. Two works belonging to different artists with completely different concepts and materials are merged together and piled on the floor, just like how they are stacked in the corridor. One would seem to assume that easel works are easier to handle because the canvas can be rolled up and stored, like Xicheng Lu's painting, though many massive paintings can cause more trouble while transport or storage. Grace Mcnerney squeezes her works between the narrow gaps of several other paintings, with their canvases glueing to each other. Ming Chi’s nomadic work, a four-metre-long painting, is put on wheels for emigration to any place of the school. Or like Tong Wu’s painting, The Unicorn's Funeral, it still has the bubble wrap on.

a box on a trolly
De-install site (photo taken by Ben Qin)

The storage and transportation of artworks are never mentioned in any lectures of the art school, but they become the very first question art students encounter. Duty-Free Art School begins with such a simple but thorny question in art schools. It focuses on the status of art students and their works, questioning: Who has the duty to take care of their works?

We still looking for another available venue to run the next program, and looking for potential collaborations and proposals suggestions, please contact if you interested.

Organised by Ben Qin, Dian Yu, Xiaowei Xie, Yixuan Zhang

Presenting artists: Aleksander Naerbo, AnnaDeer Lu, Annan Shao, Diana Zrnic, Elene Pichkhadze, Fengfeng, Grace Mcnerney, Hazel O’Sullivan, Hyemin Gil, Haoyu Ye, Iris Xing, Jash Yuan, Jiayuan Peng, Lola Pedersen, Lan Tang, Lucy Meeber, Liu Renjun, Ming Chi, Maggie Meghan Chen, Meichen Lu & Lihong Liu, Phillip Rhys Olney, Qianhui Sun, Roy Elliott, Sam Ng, Shujing Huang, Tong Wu, Tongyu Liu, Tsukasa Kimura, Wuchao Feng, Xicheng Lu, Xueyi Ma, Yewon Lee, Yuanlong Chen, Yuliang Kang, YunChen Tu, ZheDuo Wang.

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