Shaking up the ‘burbs at 798 Dashanzi Gallery District
May 6, 2011
BEIJING, CHINA – It seems like no matter where you go in the world, there’s a history of artists fleeing. When they’re not running away from censorship or political persecution, they’re trying to escape high rents and gentrification. Like endangered birds, they continually get pushed out of their native habitats in their pursuit to keep doing what they do best: make the world beautiful and reflect us back to ourselves.
In the midst of all this movement, the avant-garde typically head for the extremes: ever grittier urban spaces or distant political exile. Rarely do you hear of them packing up and heading to…the suburbs, which usually represent a kind of conservatism that’s anathema to the production of art. In that way, Beijing’s Dashanzi Art District is a bit of an anomaly. In the mid-1990s, fleeing the pressures of censors and attracted by cheap rents, the city’s contemporary artists made for the ‘burbs. A number of them set up camp in the airy Bauhaus-style warehouses of what was once the East German-built Joint Factory 798, a state-owned electronics factory that today is an industrial-chic collection of galleries. It sounds like something that would be in the manufacturing core of the city (like SoHo in New York), but you won’t even find any subways in this neck of the woods. You’ve got to hop a cab into Beijing’s margins.
With their industrial design and faded Cultural Revolution slogans, the sprawling buildings of the 798 complex are fascinating to ramble around (and can be bewildering for first timers–don’t be shy to ask for directions). But the main attraction is the buzzing contemporary galleries, studios, and boutiques packed inside that have flourished over the last decade. With exhibitions ranging from wildly conceptual video art to boldly tongue-in-cheek sculptures of Mao, this is definitely not your typical suburban fare. Highlights include the polished Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, the 798 Space (which was the area’s original gallery), and the 798 Photo Gallery, though there are funky gems to be found in many of the smaller galleries, too. Boutiques stock hip, arty finds, and the trendy cafés dotted around the area make perfect stops to rest your feet and lounge with an espresso.
Of course, as seems inevitable with all artists’ enclaves, a touch of commercialism has set in. Professional buyers from major collections are known to troll the galleries in search of pieces that will go for millions in a few months’ time. (If you’re looking to make an artistic investment, these are the people you want to follow around.) Some complain that the art is losing its edge as 798 becomes more commercial, and while I always manage to spot a one-of-a-kind treasure or two, it’s true that the vibe is definitely starting to get too settled and (dare I say it) suburban to be at the avant-garde. As rents creep up and hipsters descend, the most serious artists have already started to push further out to “edgier” locales on the margins of the city, and new roosts like Cao Chang Di are starting to attract international attention…meaning it might not be long before the artists flutter away again, this time fleeing the looming threat of domestication.
Read more about Dashanzi Art District in our Beijing Guide.
RL contributed to this post.