Friday, December 19, 2008

Beijing 798 Art District

After flying back to Beijing yesterday, I spend two nights in the Chinese capital city before heading for Tokyo. The aim is to see how far Beijing has developed to be a modern city.

Taking a taxi from the city center to the northeast for about 20 minutes, I arrive at the much-hyped Beijing 798 Art District (its official website only in Chinese).

The district used to be a place for secret weapon factories back in the 1950s, after communists took over mainland China. The factories were then abandoned until contemporary artists started colonizing the area, because of its cheap rent, in the 1990s.

If the description of the area stops here, it's not particularly unusual. Many cities in the West have such a contemporary artist colony in post-industrial chic. (The most notable is probably Tate Modern in London, the contemporary art museum housed in the former power station.) What's unique about the 798 Art District is that it is located in China, the country with long history and distinct culture, the communist government, billions of people, and "cool" Japan as a neighbor.

Therefore, art galleries are housed in the former factories with occasional appearances of communist slogans on the wall. Chinese letters on the signage look as if they are part of art and design. In an area of 800 meters in width and 400 meters in length, you cannot stop finding more galleries, with even more under construction. The popular art form is painting, often with influences from Japanese manga and socialist propaganda cartoons. Funny-looking giant sculptures stand along streets. In addition, the area is peppered with cafes and restaurants, some in style. One event space in a former factory exhibits the latest autumn/winter collection from several top luxury brands such as Comme des Garcon and Alexander McQueen. All of these make it interesting to explore the district. One day is certainly not enough to see everything.

The red letters say, "Hooray for the Communist Party!"

Chimneys with a giant red-star mug

More chimneys with a giant fly.

With Maoist slogans intact, this unused space in a former weapon factory looks as if it is a piece of art.

The main street in the District

Behind these iron doors spread the latest collections from Comme des Garcons and other luxury brands.

:phunk studio's exhibition at Art Seasons Gallery.

A gallery advertisement in post-industrial chic.

The Artkey 798 Showroom.

Bai Shi Tea House (白石茶館), housed in the Artkey 798 showroom, with piano music in the background. I'd frequent this cafe if I were a Beijing resident. The vibe is perfect.

An unused square in the district

A corridor to galleries

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