>>>Where Beijing hides its art
Photo: ©Beijing Commune

Where Beijing hides its art

Arts and culture are hot property in Beijing’s 798 Art District. Along with Caochangdi village, this creative hub serves as the artistic heart of a city on the up.
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ver recent years, the Dashanze district of the Chinese capital has become known as the SoHo of Beijing – and with good reason. Back in the fifties, it was an industrial estate, devoid of tourists or temples but packed with factories making electronics to export to what was then East Germany. In the nineties, most of these factories closed down, leaving behind empty post-industrial spaces. By the turn of the millennium, artists and galleries had started setting up in this district, located just to the to the north west of the city centre, attracted by large, vacant premises and cheap rents.
798 Art District was the venue of the first Beijing Bienniel in 2003.
Photo:©Red Brick Art Museum

Mini creativity

Workshops, performances, reading corners, collage, graffiti walls: the 798 Art District also has a space for children. The International Children's Art Festival (ICAF) organises activities for the whole family in the Friendship Building.

The first of the closed-down factories to be transformed was Factory number 798, and it was from here that the current name for the area, the 798 Art District was born. Since that first transformation, the area grew to become the focus point for contemporary culture, not just in Beijing, but for the whole of China. In this the zone’s second life, art began to flourish both in the sober, unadorned Bauhaus style former factory buildings and out on the streets. Open air exhibitions and street graffiti are the trademark signs of 798, a complete contrast to the Ming Dynasty legacy that still dominates in the majority of the city’s districts.
“I like it when art gives me goose pimples. When that happens, I know I’m looking at something good,” Belgian art collector Guy Ullens tells us. Together with his wife, Guy set up an electronic component factory in 2007. They also set up the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art (UCCA) in the heart of the district. But they didn’t start out empty handed; they contributed their extensive collection of more than 1,500 works by contemporary Chinese artists. UCCA has a full exhibition programme for national and international artists, showcasing new talent while also celebrating established names. Located just a short walk away is the Beijing Commune. When the commune first started, they explored the different forms of contemporary art. Now they organise exhibitions, all focusing on the works of an individual artist. Hanging on the walls are paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, one of China’s most celebrated and valued painters. One of his paintings sold for $12.1 million at Sotherby’s in 2014. And another short walk from the Beijing Commune, is the 798 Photo Gallery serving as a cultural and commercial platform for photographers.
798 Photo Gallery shows both classic and contemporary photography.
Photo: ©798 Photo Gallery
Fifteen years after the first artists replaced the fuse boxes with their easels, the 798 Art District holds onto its status as the centre of the contemporary art scene in the Chinese capital, albeit one with a more pronounced commercial profile. Bookstores, shops and cafés are gaining ground over art galleries and art centres. The popularity of the district and rents that have risen tenfold in eight years, driving many less-established artists, and particularly those with more experimental visions, out of the area and north of Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road.
The interior design of the NUO Hotel Beijing is Ming Dynasty inspired.
Photo: ©NUO Hotel
Here, there the village of Caochangdi is now home to 20 art galleries, academies and institutions. Among these galleries “on the other side” is Three Shadows Photography, opened by Al Weiwei. The internationally-renowned artist was one of the first to move out to Caochangdi, and he has built up his gallery to become one the most important in Beijing. Other galleries are the Red Brick Art Museum that specialises in videos and installations, and the Egg Art Gallery, where two or three exhibitions of Chinese artists are held each year.

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