On the outskirts of Beijing, away from the throngs of hungry tourists mobbing the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, Beijing’s thriving art community has established a permanent residence in what is now called the 798 Art District. Even here, on the other side of the globe, it seems that the story of artistic gentrification is the same. The district’s continuing rapid growth is evident from construction underway in all of the outer edges. Open areas within the neighbourhood are littered with large scale permanent sculptures, and young fashion and photography students linger in the dusty alleys striking poses amid industrial backdrops.
In the middle of the 20th century, the Dashanzi factory complex was built in the spirit of communist brotherhood between the Chinese and the East Germans. The area that now sprawls in the spirit of gentrification was once proclaimed to be an international model of social realist urban planning with housing, work and recreation all in comfortable walking distance from each other.
In 1995 Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts moved into this neighbourhood in search of a cheap location with an abundance of space just outside of the city. Since their decision to make it a permanent studio location in 2000, this area has fulfilled the fairytale of artistic urban renewal.The Bauhaus style buildings are currently occupied by over 170 art galleries and studios, shops, and cafes and are now home to the Beijing Biennale.
Because of the mass selection in this highly commercial area, it’s easy to be discouraged upon first entering. However, the tiresome process of wading through the seemingly endless array of shops hawking Maoist kitch and abundant commercial galleries displaying technically proficient art that differs only slightly from the aforementioned souvenirs eventually pays divendends. The handful of world-class galleries not only make-up for their commercial counterparts, but create in the visitor a level of inspiration that makes one happy to wander about in traquil elation of visual pleasure.
I was awakened from my state of disillusionment when I first wandered into Pace Gallery, the Beijing counterpart to the trio of Pace Galleries New York City. The gallery is currently housing an exhibition by Chinese artist Zhang Huan featuring large scale paintings using ash as the primary medium, as well as a series of fantastically disturbing Bhudda masks made from cow-hides.
At the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) , one of the first independant not-for-profit art centers in China, the large factory style space is reserved for cutting edge rotating exhibitions of Chinese and international artists. The current exhibition juxtaposes the work of young Chinese artists with artists from New York. Here, we are no longer being pushed into the tired conversation of nostalgic post-communist kitsch, but are presented with conceptual musings that draw parallels to two cultures that just happen to be existing with the same burgeoning global framework.
If the need for a bit of red tinged revelry does strike however, head over to gallery 798. Curation here is a bit more haphazard, but the architecture makes up for it. Antique factory machinery and fading Maoist slogans on the walls are illuminated with haze muted sunlight filtering in through the windows on the sides of the half domed ceilings.
For the artist or art lover, this location easily warrants a full day, and definitely warrants a visit while in Beijing. Hopefully, the presence of galleries and art Centers such as Pace, Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art , Beijing Commune, 798 Photo Gallery and the UCCA prevent this district from becoming just another global tourist trap.