Occupying a sleek, modernist hutong storefront, Aotu Space doesn’t register as an art gallery at first pass. It also doesn’t quite look like a hair salon, even though that is the main trade of its proprietor, Ray Wu.
Aotu opened in late 2014 after Wu and co-founder Pilar Escuder met at the (now defunct) arts co-working space HomeShop, an early magnet for creative energy in the hutongs. Wu had been working as a stylist at Toni & Guy, but wanted to go solo. Meanwhile, his partner was looking for a curatorial space to showcase art and design created by their peers. Aotu quickly became a hub for the diverse network of artists, designers, musicians, and filmmakers that make up Beijing’s multidisciplinary creative scene.
In addition to DJ events and screenings, the space has hosted a variety of exhibitions by young artists, dabbling both in traditional and new media. One memorable show, mounted by the residency I: project space and Beijing-based design company Lava, involved an augmented reality treasure hunt that played out as both a critique of smartphone over-reliance and a vivid way to bring flat images into three dimensions.
Aotu faced down an existential threat last spring, when it received a two-weeks’ notice from municipal construction crews that it would lose the floor-to-ceiling windows on its first floor, as well as its entire second floor, where Wu had installed his hair salon equipment. Wu and his collaborators responded with a crowdfunded performance art series, and were able to rebuild the gallery’s façade and rooftop terrace. (A small stool and mirror suffice for Wu’s haircutting business today.)
Wu has also taken on the curatorial side of the operation, most recently hosting an exhibition of delicate, natural-dye paintings by CAFA lecturer Mary Johnson. While Wu recognizes the need for commercial activity to maintain an art space, he sees Aotu’s core function as a public good. He says that the shows and other “content provided by the art space enriches community life, and plays a role in broadening people’s horizons and inspiring imagination—this social value is what we strive to pursue.”