Painting the city on a shifting canvas
Contemporary visual arts are flourishing in China’s restless and sprawling capital
FABLED as the ancient capital of China’s north, modern Beijing is a smog-choked city of 22 million.
It combines the endless, characterless sprawl of Los Angeles (minus the glamour or optimism) with the dreariness of the most soul-crushing eastern European urbanism.
Its only obvious drawcards for the casual tourist are a handful of historic and modern monuments, its proximity to the Great Wall and the chance to eat Peking duck in its city of origin.
But for all its faults, and for reasons not easily quantified or articulated, Beijing remains weirdly fascinating. It’s the undisputed artistic and intellectual capital of China and Beijingers are keen to remind people that what they lack in style they make up for in substance.
First among the city’s artistic lures, at least for foreigners, must surely be its enormous visual arts scene. In the past two decades the Chinese contemporary art scene has boomed so much as to completely change the polarity of the international art landscape: China is now the world’s biggest art market and Beijing is where almost everything is being made.
The city is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of art galleries and dozens of villages housing artists from across the country and the world. A trip through the Beijing art world offers a stimulating introduction to the city and a guaranteed way to get right under the city’s thick skin.
There are three main contemporary art districts. The closest to the city is also the most visited. Dashanzi, or 798 as it’s known in reference to its biggest building, is a huge complex of disused arms factories in the eastern suburbs. It’s here you’ll find some of the best-established and largest galleries in the country.
Set within the soaring vaults of the old industrial buildings, the galleries at 798 are almost as dramatic as the art they contain. Here you’ll find renowned galleries such as the Long March Space, a rambling series of rooms exhibiting everything from vast installations to video works and paintings by up-and-coming and veteran artists.
Upstairs is Chinese Contemporary, a relatively small gallery by the hangar-like standards of 798 but one representing some big names in Chinese contemporary art, including Zhang Xiaogang, Huang Rui and the Luo Brothers. Another space with a vibrant exhibition roster is Amelie Gallery, featuring an eclectic range of shows, from avant-garde photography to landscape.
The 798 complex takes up several city blocks but is relatively accessible: the idea is to simply turn up and see what’s on. In recent years, however, it’s arguable that the art has become somewhat secondary, as 798 is now home to bars, restaurants, clothing stores and a boutique hotel. During the Olympics it even hosted an exhibition of Nike shoes, none of which has exactly enhanced 798’s image among the city’s avant-garde as a gentrified cultural theme park. Whether this criticism has any merit is a matter for debate, but those serious about Chinese contemporary art do need to go farther afield.
Founded in 2000 by Ai Weiwei, artist and architect of the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium, Caochangdi has since succeeded 798 as the hot spot of contemporary art. Centred on a series of complexes designed by Ai, the galleries offer a huge range of local and international exhibits.
At the northern entrance to the village is the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Founded in 2007 by Chinese photographer Rong Rong and his Japanese partner Inri, Three Shadows is housed in an enormous grey brick building designed by Ai that is a nod to both Beijing’s old hutongs and the Great Wall. The gallery, a non-commercial space, was the first in China devoted exclusively to photography and video, and features a changing roster of museum-quality shows.
Attached is an excellent cafe and bookshop where you can pick up free publications such as the CIGE Gallery Guide, which has numerous reviews, or Gallery Sights, which includes maps of Caochangdi and other art districts. Or you could just rest, drink tea and, in winter, watch the snow fall in the serene grey courtyard.
In the immediate vicinity of Three Shadows are commercial galleries and mini-museums that offer the chance to spend a day wandering from gallery to gallery. Next door is Ai’s original building, China Art Archives and Warehouse, a cavernous space showcasing avant-garde (especially conceptual) art from across the world. A few blocks to the south is the stunning ‘‘red village’’, a complex of minimal red-brick courtyard buildings designed by Ai and connected by a labyrinth of alleys.
Each building houses numerous galleries, many set among peaceful, beautifully tended courtyard gardens, making for one of the quietest and most pleasant walking tours the city has to offer.
A visit to Caochangdi is a must but it is also a reminder that it is difficult, if not impossible, to entirely appreciate art in China on a merely aesthetic level.
At the time of its founding, Caochangdi was considered to be on the periphery of the city. In only a decade, Beijing has swallowed it up and it is now prime real estate. As has already happened to other art colonies throughout the city — such as the Zhengyang Creative Art Zone, which was demolished in late 2009 — the whole of Caochangdi is slated for destruction and redevelopment for housing.
The protests of artists and gallery owners may have had some effect, because there seems to have been a stay of execution, although its fate remains uncertain. More disturbing still was the disappearance of Ai, who was arrested on April 3. His whereabouts remained unknown until he was released on bail last month. The charges against him are tax fraud-related, but many believe his imprisonment was a warning against his outspoken political views at a time when talk of a Chinese ‘‘jasmine revolution’’ was in the air.
Perhaps the vitality of modern Chinese art stems from the fact that the avant-garde still has the capacity to provoke the powers that be in a way that in the West has long seemed hopelessly quixotic.
Other than 798, the one art village unlikely to be threatened with imminent destruction is Songzhuang, in the Tongzhou district slightly north of the town of the same name, about 50 minutes by road from downtown Beijing. Comprising dozens of individual art villages and complexes, Songzhuang is now home to thousands of artists, including such senior figures as painters Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun, conceptualists Wang Jin and Zhu Fadong and satirical photographer Zhao Bandi.
For now the outlook of Songzhuang seems good; the local authorities in this satellite city seem to recognise the importance of the creative community and have encouraged events such as the annual art festival. Beijing, however, is a mercurial beast. Life in this city can change at a moment’s notice — so get there quick, before someone changes their mind.
A woman takes on the iron beasts of Liu Ruowang’s sculpture Wolf Coming