Heidi Bryce: Swatch’s Shanghai radical

The Jamaican artist talks transforming government newspapers into provocative collages in Swatch’s Art Peace Hotel residency

High up in her studio, nestled in the retro-futuristic Shanghai skyline, provocative Jamaican artist Heidi Bryce is subverting Chinese media. An artist in residence at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, Bryce’s high voltage collages remix newspapers and propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution, drawing biting comparisons between past and present. “I [read] two government sponsored English language newspapers here in China,” she explains. “But they’re both completely misleading, so I felt like I could have a bit of fun with them – I cut them apart because I feel they don’t really report what’s going on.”

She’s part of a scheme that, over the last three years, has given over 100 international artists the chance to live and reflect on the crazed city of Shanghai whilst it grows rhizomatically about them. “Shanghai is really a kaleidoscope – a place of continued inspiration,” Swatch’s creative director, Carlo Giordanetti explained. “With our residencies we provide an environment in which artists can really breathe and enjoy and express themselves.”

With space to experiment, current resident Bryce has been making work on the hot topic of Chinese politics. “There isn’t that much journalistic liberty here in China so I wanted to take the opportunity to make my own newspaper graphics,” the artist explains. “It definitely felt risky at a certain point. But seeing viewers laugh or gasp has made it really worth it.” Bryce also wanders the city with her 35mm camera, trying to capture the essence of the vital urban buzzes. “My work is the only way I know how to participate in society,” she says. “By documenting, investigating and conceptualising I begin to understand my surroundings.”

“Shanghai is a kaleidoscope – a place of continued inspiration. We provide an environment in which artists can really breathe and enjoy and express themselves.” – Carlo Giordanetti, Swatch’s Creative Director

It’s a certain colour that’s ended up catching her eye on the city streets. “I see red everywhere,” she tells me. “It’s such a patriotic colour here, symbolising prosperity and joy. Brides get married in red. But red is also the colour used for the government signs dotted around the city, which remind residents to behave in a certain way. There are these mundane little messages everywhere from the state. Now I can’t help but capture these flashes of red everywhere I go. It’s symbolic of their persistence.”

Swatch’s artist residency programme has its origins in their first collab with French artist Kiki Picasso in 1984, who designed a rotating watch coveted by fans today. Since then creatives from Keith Haring to Nam June Paik have been messing with their iconic line. But Swatch just love their innovations. “If you respect artists and if you really believe in the added value that they have, they really push you to go to the next step,” Giordanetti explains. “Often they ask for something that we’ve never done before and we have to develop it from a technical standpoint. It becomes a nightmare for the technicians but still we want to do it.”

Rejecting the wearable tech trend, Swatch’s focus is on the artistic and the mechanical – and their artist residency programme is a part of their continuing creative commitment. In Shanghai they host artists in luxury pads at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, providing them with free studio and living space in the heart of the city. “From a purely rational standpoint there’s no reason to do it,” says Giordonetti. “But it’s an investment in the emotional and the meaningful side of the brand.” For Bryce it’s been an individual journey as well an artistic one. “New settings help me better discover who I am,” she tells me. “As an artist and a person. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this residency in China will affect my work afterwards.”

Interviews conducted December 2014. 

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