The restless art scene of Beijing

published in (H)Art (belgium, Decmber 2009, online here:

Entering the famous art district 798 (also known as Dashanzi Art District) in Beijing’s Northeast can be quite disturbing – what people like to call the “Soho of Beijing” rather appears like an arty Disneyland: a big area of a former factory full of commercial galleries, cafés, restaurants and shops, populated by masses of couples and kids who take pictures of each other in front of the cheesiest gaudy sculptures one can imagine.

It’s ambivalent: on the one hand, it is definitely a pleasure to see both Chinese and international visitors of all kind strolling around galleries for contemporary art and obviously having a lot of fun with the artworks – where in Europe would you see this? On the other hand, it is somewhat sad that most of the art that attract the people in 798 is of almost painfully bad quality – and seems to prove the common prejudice that contemporary art from China is mainly made for the market, shamelessly copying other successful artworks.

But before judging, one has to review one’s own criteria for evaluating contemporary art and to be aware of the fact that one probably needs a bit more of context and knowledge about the culture in which this art is produced. As an ‘art tourist’ in China, who is neither exactly an expert for the contemporary Chinese art scene nor completely uninformed, one quickly realize that there are countless things one simply doesn’t understand – as there are everywhere in the daily Chinese life. This is not to discuss now issues of the transcultural discourse but one certainly has to keep in mind the complexity of conceiving artworks that refer to cultural contexts unfamiliar to the viewer. “It took me a while to understand that many things which in the beginning I dismissed as ‘copy of Western art’ must be perceived as part of the Chinese culture which at the moment is in a state of identification process”, says German artist Tobias Zaft who has been living in Beijing for more than two years now, “for example, I had to get used to the symbolism you find very often in contemporary Chinese art.”

It is helpful to have this in mind when visiting the Dashanzi Art District . Yet both Chinese and international experts share the opinion that 798 lost the edge it once had. Constructed during the late 1950s and early 1960s with funds by the East German government, 798’s Bauhaus-inspired designs are still intriguing. On the curved ceilings of the main halls you can still find Maoist slogans and socialist mottoes painted in big red signs – incredibly decorative, probably especially for someone who cannot read Chinese scripture.

In the nineties a large number of the buildings – many of them huge with great natural light – were left vacant. This situation attracted officials from the Central Academy of Fine Arts who were looking for an factory site for its sculpture department. They were joined by independent artists seeking for new working space. A new art district was born. “The space combines the past, present, and future of the ‘New China’ and the unique meaning of the socialistic culture”, as the organization of 798 proclaims on its website.

Artists found their studios there, galleries opened their spaces, established artists like Ai Weiwei, Cai Guoqiang or Zhang Xiaoghang were shown and big galleries from abroad such as Urs Meile from Lucerne, Alexander Ochs from Berlin or Pace Wildenstein from New York established branches here. Soon 798 became known as the hot spot in Beijing’s art scene and attracted artists, curators and collectors from all over the world. Not far away, more artist studios were set up in which artists like Yuan Shun who lives partly in Beijing, partly in Berlin, found a comfortable space to live and work. Only in 2007, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) was opened in the middle of 798’s main street, a non profit art center founded in Beijing by the Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens. Also in the end of 2007, Faurschou gallery from Copenhagen who inter alia represent Ai Weiwei celebrated the opening of their Beijing branch in 798.

But things in today’s China use to change rapidly, to say the least. The art district was quickly flooded with low-quality commercial galleries, boutiques, cafés and bars and not only few people had the feeling that “798 was no more an art area for professional galleries to work with focus and peace”, how Andrew Gong, director of White Space Beijing, put it. So the gallery decided in 2007 – at the same time when UCCA and Faurschou moved in – to move out. After the end of their leasing contract, in May 2009, White Space Beijing moved into a newly-constructed impressive building in Caochangdi village, an area not far away from 798 – but far enough to be clearly separated from the hype.

Caochangdi is a naturally grown district – the usually used term “village” can be a bit misleading – in the Northeast of Beijing, not yet blocked with skyscrapers and illuminated advertisings as so much of the rest of city. No other than Ai Weiwei, possibly the most famous Chinese artist at the moment, is responsible for the transformation of this low-key area into the next place-to-be for the art crowd. It was already in 2000 that the artist built his China Art Archives and Warehouse and thus established the mix of grey Chinese bricks and Bauhaus-minimalism now typical for the Caochangdi area. It didn’t take long until other followed; it is said that today almost 50 galleries, exhibition spaces and studios are spread over the area, among them Urs Meile, Michael Schultz or the non-profit Platform China with its ambitious programme.

The atmosphere in Caochangdi couldn’t be more different from the madness only some kilometers away in 798. If you don’t know what you are looking for you most likely won’t accidentally stumble into any of the art spaces of which some are well-hidden in the narrow lanes of the village. There are no souvenir shops or fancy restaurants , let alone Western-style coffeebars. The streets are seamed with greengrocers, small businesses and shops, populated by locals who don’t pay attention to visitors with cameras, hand-written maps and the helpless look of the lost. You can be sure that no one around you speaks a word of English (or any other language apart from Chinese). So asking people the way probably doesn’t help you to find what you are looking for but certainly to cheer up, with all the fidgeting and smiling that usually is involved in such attempts to communicate without a mutual language.

Roaming Caochangdi, even if you get a bit lost, is a pleasure as it provides a charming mix of strong local flavour and international contemporary art – what else could you wish for? Not only Ai Weiwei is based there, but also such well-known artists as A Chang, Li Songsong and Wang Qingson. Good quality and new discoveries are guaranteed by the already mentioned galleries and spaces as well as galleries such as Chambers Fine Art or Arario Gallery with their interesting exhibitions of mainly Chinese artists or the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.

In last November then, rumour had it that the whole Caochangdi district is to be demolished by the government in order to build new housings. Other than 798, Caochangdi is not an “official” art district and hence not protected from being demolished. Nobody knows something for sure but, apparently, the news came from different parties and therefore must be taken seriously. It is not clear if the demolition would affect all buildings or if at least Ai Weiwei’s landmark brick buildings would survive the plans. Anyway, “the demolition has been a rumor and we didn’t get the official notification, so there is no plan yet”, says White Space’s Andrew Gong. Or, as German painter Martin Wehmer who has been living in Beijing for almost two years now, says: “In China, it’s only factual when the guy with the wrecking ball turns up”. Interestingly enough, from the European point of view, the residents don’t seem to consider to demonstrate against the (conjectural) demolition plans. The resident artists rather already start to move to other areas in Beijing, mainly further East. “One has to keep in mind that Beijing is a city that has to provide homes for more than 16 million people (without the outskirts) and is still rapidly growing”, explains Martin Wehmer the somewhat stoical reactions that might be incomprehensible for Westerners, “people are very aware of this problem.”

Whilst the rumour mill is buzzing Caochangdi proves to stay the main focus of the international art crowd – the last visitors before I signed the guestbook at the Three Shadows were two curators from Tate Modern’s international department. But also 798 is still alive and kicking: in the last couple of months it saw some new openings, e.g. of the new White Box Museum run by artist and curator Sun Yongzeng. Pace Wildenstein inaugurated ist second exhibition, Faurschou presented Ai Weiwei’s “World Map”, and the Biennial organized last autumn by a team around Zhu Qi and Marc Hungerbühler were a success. In fact, due to the rising rents many artists had left their 798-studios but it is more than possible that 798 will gain more attraction again, considering the assumed changes in Caochangdi.

And another interesting development is to announce: In November, the China Art Research Institute opened the first institute for researching contemporary Chinese art (Zhongguo dangdai yishuyuan) with Luo Zhongli as its president and artist Ye Yongqing as artistic director. This institute aims to strengthen Chinese contemporary art, at the same time considering international standards and following the official Chinese strategy of cultural development – one can only wait and see what results will evolve from these efforts, however it is definitely about time that China takes charge of its artists and develops a sustainable concept for them. The hype around contemporary art from China might have been slowed down a bit but it is not at all over yet. And not only collectors and curators from abroad are attracted by today’s lively art scene in Beijing, but also international artists who appreciate the convenient production conditions – more and more of them come to China’s capital and enjoy the energy of the fast-paced developments. No doubt, Beijing’s art scene keeps on moving.