I’d been thinking about making the trek up to the Beijing 798 Art District for my entire week in the old city. I spent most my hours circling around the historical remnants of ancient empire, which was gorgeous but obviously collecting dust under the museum glass within the old city’s walls. Then I wandered the traditional hutongs in search of what it meant to be a Beijinger today, looking for bars or noodle houses that would shed some light on a completely different culture than the one that had raised me, I was curious to see the new or edgier parts of the city, or to find out if they even existed.
Where were the youth and the upstarts hiding? So far I’d only seen them at the immense nightclubs, getting out of flashy Italian cars at valet stands and disappearing into VIP rooms.
I didn’t know much about 798 Art Zone, (Chinese: 798艺术区; pinyin: 798 Yìshùqū). It was about an hour or so north east of central Beijing, about fifteen or twenty kilometers away – too far for a moped rental, and too expensive for a taxi. But the subway in Beijing is full of bilingual signage and easy to navigate, as long you don’t travel during the immense crush of rush hour.
789 Art Zone started out as an artist collective in army factory 798. After it had fallen out of use, the artists moved into the cheaper and abandoned industrial zone. It’s a pattern of urbanization that happens all over the world: old meatpacking districts in Toronto and New York have gentrified, likewise the infrastructure of former government industry in Berlin and Beijing and Poland has become cool and desirable after its property value plummeted.
I’d heard that at one time Ai WeiWei and all the international Chinese art stars of his generation had got their start in the district, but it was currently occupied by international gallerists who’d moved in and were making a killing selling to the nouveau riche of Beijing. If you didn’t know, Beijing currently has more billionaires than any city in the world. There is more than enough buying power to support a thriving art market. But I’d also heard that the famously inconspicuous eviction notices, which appear before rezoning, had started popping up in the 798 Art Zone.
What I found was interesting, almost like a fine art community, but community is the wrong word. It was more like a showroom, a grand outdoor fair, or an elaborate centerpiece to show off to a new guest. Tons of galleries packed in a walkable 6 or 7 block area. No traffic and pedestrians strolling and relaxing on the patios of restaurants and casual bars. In other words, totally unlike the rest of Beijing, it felt like a Western art theme park.
Lots of the galleries are big names, PACE, Ullens and bla bla bla to name a few, and there was, to be fair, lots of beautiful work being shown and, of course, sold. Leaning into the tags on the walls, it wasn’t out of the question to see prices in six figures, which is admirable. I respect an artist getting their share of a cultural glut and financial windfall. But I was left wondering just exactly who or what was the main draw at 798 Art Zone?
Go see for yourself. 2 Jiuxianqiao Rd, Chaoyang Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100096
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