Close to the Bund, in the heart of Shanghai, is the former Palace Hotel. This towering hotel with its red brick Victorian façade has long been a part of Shanghai’s history. It has played host to none other than the First International Opium Commission in 1909 and the engagement celebrations of China’s former ruler Chiang
Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling. But now its residents come with less of a starch-suited appearance and more of a Bohemian feel… In 2011, one of Switzerland’s largest watch companies breathed new life into the building and they reopened it as the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, a concept that blends together shopping boutiques, seven hotel suites and 18 studios for artists in residence.
Walking underneath the Art Deco glass veranda and into the hotel’s wood panelled lobby, you get a snapshot of the building’s heritage. Even the boutiques have left the Art Deco gold-trimmed pillars intact in their stores.
But when you take the old elevator up to the next floor, the wooden doors open to reveal an entirely different aesthetic. You will be faced with a host of gallery-white walls and space age cells decorated with foot-high silver-painted numbers. And behind these pristine walls you can find the studios of painters, sculptors and film makers from all over the world.
But cast all thoughts of tortured artists from your mind. This lucky few get to enjoy New York-style lofts with designer bedding, and within their spacious brick-lined studios you’ll find Eames-style chairs for them to be kick back on. Since its launch, 139 artists from more than 30 countries have travelled to Shanghai to live and make art in the Swatch Art Peace Hotel. The artists apply via a simple website, where they state what they propose to do during their time in residence—they are also required attach, at least, 10 examples of their work. There’s also a small registration fee, which is donated on their behalf to Médecins Sans Frontières. But before they can step through these hallowed hallways, their applications need to be assessed by a special committee that includes the Chairman and CEO of the Swatch Group and actor George Clooney.
Singapore-based artist Jordi Fornies, one of the artists who passed the scrutiny of this prestigious team was recently invited to take up a residence at the hotel. Already a successful contemporary painter in Europe, Fornies relished the chance to immerse himself in a different culture and be surrounded by other like-minded souls. “I always wanted to be an artist in residence, but I was waiting for that special occasion,” says Fornies. “I wanted a residency that was going to push the limits of my painting language and bring a new and a totally different cultural richness to me and my work.”
Fornies chose to spend six months at the Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai, and it’s not hard to see why. When the artist would go to work in the morning, he would step out of his glamorous hotel suite and descend the Jacobean-style stairs to his super chic studio. Fornies was able to live rent-free at the hotel. All he had to do to repay his philanthropic hosts was leave a “trace” of his stay. But as Fornies can regularly command $23,000 for his paintings, that’s not a bad trade for the hotel. Visitors to Shanghai will be pleased to know that the works of Fornies and his fellow artists are now part of “The Faces & Traces” art exhibition at the hotel, which displays all the “traces” that the 139 artists have left behind.
Fornies says he would never regret his Shanghai adventure. “There are not many art studios overlooking the Bund.
It was definitely a dream. Being able to just open a window and observe the busy street was already inspiring,” he explains.
While he was there, Fornies often collaborated with the other artists in residence. “This was actually one of the best parts of this experience. I was surrounded by an amazing group of artists all of them working on different disciplines and from different countries,” says Fornies. “I spent a lot of time talking with South African artist Bradley Gray about our different styles, techniques, motivations… He pushed me to improve my skills with oils and I started using other traditional materials like Chinese ink. I composed some music for Gitta Gsell’s project, but she also collaborated with me sharing her advice. And Christian Berg is an amazing musician that pushed me to think again about composing music. They are now friends I will treasure forever.”
Keen to combine art and travel, Bradley Gray, on the other hand, was inspired by a fellow artist from South Africa who had done so as an artist in residence. Gray asked how he too could combine his two passions. “The Swatch Art Peace Hotel was first and only residency I applied for as it sounded unique. I had always travelled, but I had never combined it with my art. I always loved the art college buzz, sharing ideas and mixing with other artists… so this opportunity ticked all the boxes.”
And when Gray arrived at the hotel it didn’t disappoint. “It was amazing to be working in the heart of the city and next to one of the most recognisable skylines in the world. We could devote ourselves entirely to the pursuit of creativity almost to the point of being removed from the outside world.”
During his stay, Gray created nine large oil paintings. He was given the chance to work in two different studios during his residency. One was a huge dance studio with a mirrored wall and plenty of space to leap about in, should the whim take him.The other studio, which looked over the Bund, came with large lights so that he could work into the night.
While some of the artists chose to spend their time fully immersed in their work in their studios, Swedish electronic pop musician Christian Berg chose to leave the hotel behind and experience the art scene in this frenetic city. “I played at the Bank gallery with the dancer project and at the Rockbund Art Museum with a Chinese visual artist.
I also played at Basement 6 with the Bulgarian poet Yasen Vasilev.” Talking about his time with the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, Berg says, “I got a focus I hadn’t had in Sweden for a long time and that brought new energy and creativity to my work and myself as a person.”
While this was the first residency for some of the artists we spoke to, it was the second time for film maker Gitta Gsell. In the late ’90s, Gitta spent six months in an artists’ studio in Cairo. “As a filmmaker the financing of projects is sometimes overwhelming. There is almost no freedom to experiment with film art anymore,” says Gitta. “I felt I needed to take a creative breath, get some inspiration and open my mind to new cultural influences.” So when she found out about the Art Peace Hotel, she chose to sign up for a residency once more.
It’s clear that during their stay the artists are prolific. During his stay Fornies produced 21 works, the majority of which he showed recently in the Lion City. He was also invited to take part in the Water Tank project with Swatch in New York.
Though it is a hotel, even if you don’t have the artistic ability to set up in your own studio, you can still soak up the ambiance by booking one of the seven suites at the hotel. Admittedly, rubbing shoulders with the artistic elite doesn’t come cheap, but where else in the world would you have the chance to live in a place that’s a living, breathing art studio? ■ Rooms priced from $538. Visit www.swatch-art-peace-hotel.com