The buzz around Chinese contemporary art has been increasing unabated for a number of years now. Museums are collecting it, exhibitions are examining it and its dominance in the art market is scrutinised in the media. There is good reason for all this, though, in the breadth and volume of interesting and exciting artwork being created in China. But there are also other factors at play, such as the power of capital and our desire to be involved in this moment of cultural and creative quickening that has been unfolding in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, but with more speed and vitality in recent years.
Beijing is the political centre of China and has long been considered the cultural and educational centre as well. When Chinese contemporary art emerged from the state sanctioned art of the Cultural Revolution, it was in Beijing that the groundbreaking Stars group held their first exhibition, a now famous show that challenged the status quo. That was in 1979, and Beijing has remained an important place for Chinese contemporary art right up to and throughout the recent art boom.
Beijing has two main contemporary art districts. The very idea of an art ‘district’ – a whole region full of galleries, studios and happenings – expresses the sheer scale and magnitude of the Beijing art scene. This isn’t an art fair or a special festival – this is all the time, every day. It’s somewhat overwhelming, and impossible to see in its entirety without a lot of time and energy, so sit back and enjoy this selection of highlights and must-see galleries, studios and pit stops for your next trip to the Chinese capital.
The first stop on our itinerary is Caochangdi. To the northeast of the city in the Chaoyang District, it’s most easily accessible by a short taxi ride. Caochangdi translates as ‘grasslands’ and became well known when Ai Weiwei set up his studio-home here in the early 2000s. Look out for a big, green metal gate; it’s called 258 Fake and has a CCTV camera pointing at the entrance.
Caochangdi comprises a number of different complexes housing numerous galleries over a vast expanse. Allow time, have a map (there is some walking between gallery complexes involved) and have the gallery names and address written in Mandarin characters should you, by chance, get lost.
A good first stop is Platform China Art Institute (Beijing), established in 2005. With exhibitions spreading across two adjoining gallery spaces, there is a focus on video and new media art by Director Sun Ning. Nearby Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, established in 2007 by RongRong (a seminal Beijing artist) and his wife Inri, is China’s first art space dedicated to photography. Housed in a beautiful building with courtyards where you can sit and have a cup of tea, it was designed by Caochangdi’s most famous resident – the aforementioned Ai Weiwei. Walk a little way back towards the city and you will find the tiny Telescope Gallery. Established in 2012, it is one of Caochangdi’s more recent additions and aims to foster emerging Chinese artists.
Still closer back to the city there is another sprinkling of complexes (some hold 10-plus smaller galleries: there is a lot to see). ShanghART Gallery, originally from Shanghai but now with five branches across Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore, has their Beijing branch here. Beijing Art Now Gallery (BANG) and White Space Beijing are well worth a look, to name just a few.
Next on the agenda is 798 or the Dashanzi Art District, Beijing’s busiest, best-known and arguably most important art district. During its formative years in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was host to many important exhibitions, housed artists’ studios and was talked about as the cutting-edge of the emerging Chinese contemporary art scene. These days it feels more like a commercial romp through the spectacle of contemporary art. Housed in a decommissioned military area, it calls to mind Sydney’s Cockatoo Island with its fascinating defunct machinery and disused buildings. The Bauhaus style, brutalist buildings make it worth a look for the architecture alone.
The sheer number of galleries here can be overwhelming, so it’s a good time for a coffee fix. Good coffee can prove elusive in Beijing, but Cave Cafe is the perfect place to plan the next stage of your exploration.
Just around the corner from Cave is The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), and it is outstanding. At the time of my visit there were three interesting shows: an exhibition by Stars member Zhao Gang and The Chinese Photobook, but it is Miss Dior which deserves special mention. This show weaves Dior gowns and perfume bottles with contemporary video art – a bizarre prospect – and to complete the surreal picture, a long queue of mostly young women wait for their moment in some of the most coveted selfie spots in the city.
Another highlight of 798 is Beijing Commune, a space that has launched the careers of some of China’s most successful contemporary artists, and continues to host cutting-edge exhibitions for emerging Chinese artists. Prominent international gallery Pace opened a branch in 798 in 2008, where they show international as well as local Chinese artists. There is also a plethora of smaller galleries, high-end homewares shops, boutiques and designer goods stores in the 798 district – seemingly endless things to admire and buy.
Head back into the city and swing by Red Gate Gallery. Founded in 1991 by Australian expat Brian Wallace, it is housed in the beautiful, 600 year-old Dongbianmen Watchtower. This gallery quite poetically expresses a recurring motif in China – that of the old and the very new side by side.
Finish your day at Arrow Factory in the Dongcheng hutongs. Hutongs are tiny alleyways that wind around the traditional courtyard houses of Beijing. Many of these houses have been levelled to make way for larger developments, but there are areas where this culturally important architecture is now being protected and revitalised. Arrow Factory is a tiny art space, a shop front really. When I visit, an exhibition called Publica by Liu Yin is showing. One work will be shown at a time, rotating through the exhibition over a period of two months. Its small size and simplicity sit in refreshing contrast with much of what else I have seen throughout Beijing.
For a beautiful end to the day, head around the corner (across from the Lama Temple) to Xu Xiang Zhai Vegetarian Restaurant for the greatest vegetarian buffet (on Earth) for only AUD$11. Go on, treat yourself – it’s been a huge day.
GALLERIES AND CAFES
Arrow Factory, 38 Jianchang Hutong (off Guozijian Jie), Beijing, arrowfactory.org.cn
Beijing Art Now Gallery (BANG), Building E, Red Yard No.1 Caochangdi, Cui Ge Zhuang, Chaoyang District, Beijing, beijingartnow.com
Beijing Commune, 798 Art District, No.4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, beijingcommune.com
Pace Gallery Beijing, 798 Art District, No. 2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, pacegallery.com
Platform China Art Institute (Beijing), 319-1 Caochangdi Village, Chaoyang District, Beijing, platformchina.org
Red Gate Gallery, Dongbianmen Watchtower, 9 Chongwenmen Dongdajie, Dongcheng District, Beijing, redgategallery.com
ShanghART Beijing, 261 Caochangdi, Old Airport Rd, Chaoyang District, Beijing, shanghartgallery.com
Telescope Gallery, 10 Caochangdi, Beijing, telescope-beijing.com
Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, 155A Caochangdi, Chaoyang District, Beijing, threeshadows.cn
The Ullens Center of Contemporary Art (UCCA), 798 Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing, ucca.org.cn
White Space Beijing, 255 Caochangdi Airport Service Rd, Chaoyang District, Beijing, whitespace-beijing.com
Cave Cafe, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Qixing Dongjie, (next to 798 Square), Chaoyang District, Beijing
Xu Xiang Zhai Vegetarian Restaurant, 26 Guozijian St, Dongcheng, Beijing