Paint­ing the city on a shift­ing can­vas

Con­tem­po­rary vis­ual arts are flour­ish­ing in China’s rest­less and sprawl­ing cap­i­tal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - BREN­DAN SHANA­HAN

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.

AP/ANDY WONG

A woman takes on the iron beasts of Liu Ruowang’s sculp­ture Wolf Com­ing

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