A Canadian in Beijing: 798 Arts District Accepts the Cultural Baton

The arts district of Beijing is called the “798” district. That’s its address, to be precise. It’s technically in “Da Shan Zi ???” (which is the area of the city) and this complex used to be a series of factories that have now all been converted to galleries and cafes. It’s quite beautiful and peaceful there and I have been meaning to tell you about it for a while.

My friend and I took the bus to the district. I don’t take the city buses here often because I frankly can’t figure them out. I’m sure they’re easy, but it’s confusing to me and I’d rather stick to the subways and taxis. Two out of three is not so bad, I say. Maybe I’ll work on understanding the Beijing bus system in my future, but not now. Anyway, this time it was fine because my friend is a Beijing expert and she knew exactly what bus to take, how much to pay and where to get off. Gotta love the escort service of seasoned ex-pats!

We arrived at “798” and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I have been through many gallery districts in North America, but I wasn’t expecting this labyrinth – a maze of alleys where any possible door could lead to another display of daring sculptures, huge paintings or strange installations of giant eggs or huge wax sculptures of naked men in the act of urination. I appreciate visual art but I’m not always a contemporary art lover, I must admit.

What I found especially beautiful about this area, architecturally, were how the above-ground pipes combined with the trees to form what felt like a living organism. The pipes were the veins and the trees were its limbs and the buildings housed the heart – the art. These pipes connected all the buildings and were obviously designed this way during the industrial activity of these old factories. Now, I have no idea If these pipes are still in use, but they seemed mythical somehow as they stretched above our heads and linked it all into one cohesive artistic force. If nothing else, may this be their perpetual use.

We turned a corner and came upon what my friend told me was a famous installation here in Da Shan Zi. It sits inside a circular, glassed-in, gazebo-style structure. It’s a series of posters that use very famous communist imagery like the face of Chairman Mao, the star motif, the colour red, large lettering, etc. These images are combined with the logos and slogans of famous brands like McDonald’s and Heineken as well as their logos and slogans. To me, this combination embodies all that China has become in its modern identity as a communist-capitalist country. Striking to see how branding exists in both a political movement and capitalist advertising. Both are so insistent. Both have spent time being ever-present and solicitous in this society. Communism is currently handing over the baton to capitalism and I feel as though this era is that moment of transfer. In my opinion, this art captures this perception precisely.

In one gallery there was a display of mops piled high all together. Yes, I said “mops” – the kind of mops that you’d use to mop a floor. These were all different brilliant colours, however. While it looked colourful and festive, I didn’t understand it until I looked at its reflection on the white wall. With a specially angled light pointing at it, it cast the shadow of a person’s profile with a huge mohawk, fittingly in black and white (of course, considering it was just a shadow). The artist had depicted something so everyday in a colourfully visible and elaborate way while something so unusual here which is commonly so colourful and elaborate (i.e. a punk hairstyle, which is growing in popularity, by the way) was muted and in the background.

The old begets the new.

Such is this entire district. Crumbling factory walls housing brand new ideas. Rusty pipes casting their reflection on shiny gallery windows. What used to be everyday here has now become a shadow. What is new and emerging is what was once just a shadow of a thought during the Cultural Revolution.

(Speaking of which, taking photos in art galleries is usually against the rules in Canada. Not so here. All photography was fine. This photo does not do the installation justice, but at least it gives you some idea.)

But, what makes me terrible as an art gallery attendee is that I did not take down the name of this artist, nor the gallery. I walked aimlessly and without my “investigative / photo journalist” hat on. I didn’t write anything down that day, actually. I just shot the odd photo and enjoyed the directionlessness. That’s just the way it was.

I did notice that many of the galleries are owned and/or staffed by non-Chinese (mostly white) people. There was a huge concentration of non-Chinese faces here, in face, which made me wonder how much this area caters to the ex-pat scene and tourist community as opposed to the local Chinese arts scene.

We didn’t stay for long but it felt like an important district to visit here in Beijing. I left joking that at least now I can tell everyone that I’ve taken in “some culture”! The joke is of course because this style of gallery is so very European or North American whereas the streets are where the Chinese culture sits fully and completely in every moment.

Leaving those busy streets for this quiet (and sometimes posh) gallery district was choosing to leave the inherent culture of what Beijing has to offer in its every breath. Instead, this 798 district “culture” is about taking in a new community, a new area, a new form of artistic expression here in China. And in its newness, it too has become part of what modern culture is here in Beijing – a small part, but still part of the culture of this city, nonetheless. So, I suppose that there’s no “leaving” of one kind of culture to take in another being done here; it’s more of an addition to what already exists. . . or, an extension into yet another definition of what this culture is.

Another leg in the race?

China’s joined the contemporary art relay.

And now, contemporary Chinese artists are starting to establish a global presence thanks to this 798 community, this movement, this newness. I’m sure their profiles will only continue to grow.

(And perhaps that’s what the egg is trying to tell me. . .)