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WTF Art Guide to Asia: Beijing’s 798 Art Zone

Friendly maps in English show how to get around 798, and the vast proliferation of galleries.
Friendly maps in English show how to get around 798, and the vast proliferation of galleries. Photograph by the author.

This post is part of the WTF Art Guide to Asia series on Hyperallergic.

I get lots of emails from people these days asking about the Beijing art scene. What’s it like? How does it compare to New York and Los Angeles? In a country of 1 billion people, with a number of different art centers, there’s of course no simple answer. But if America’s art mecca is Chelsea in New York, then China’s is almost certainly 798 Art Zone (798艺术区) in Beijing. And with that comparison comes the inevitable complaints of commercialization and the loss of soul.

As with Chelsea, 798, pronounced qijiuba by locals, has industrial roots. Situated in northeast Beijing’s Chaoyang District, near where the Fifth Ring Road meets the Airport Expressway, 798 was once a no-man’s land. Its quirky numerical name comes from the code name for one of the factories in the Dashanzi Factory Complex. The area actively maintains the industrial feel, with factories, exposed piping and train tracks.

"Street art" abounds in 798... and almost nowhere else in Beijing. Image courtesy Flickr user Liz Wong on a Creative Commons License.
"Street art" abounds in 798... and almost nowhere else in Beijing. Image courtesy Flickr user Liz Wong on a Creative Commons License.

Pros: The heart of 798 Art Zone of course is the art. It features a ton of galleries, with clear signs and maps in English. Art spills out the streets, sometimes literally, and it’s hard to go wrong by just showing up and wandering around. Most of the galleries are free to enter, but some of the more established spaces, like the famous Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, require entry for the equivalent of two to five US dollars.  Other spaces not to be missed include the Long March Space, Pace Beijing and 798 Space.

This is also one of the most Western-oriented parts of Beijing without being overloaded by more overt commercial overtones like Sanlitun. Cafes and bars abound, with the popular Time Zone 8 serving as a day-time cafe for business meetings and night-time watering hole for Beijing’s art scene. This is also one of the few places in Beijing where I’ve seen anything resembling street art.

798 Space's sweeping hall hosts events and exhibitions. Image courtesy Flickr user bobbyxinhua on a Creative Commons License.
798 Space's sweeping hall hosts events and exhibitions. Image courtesy Flickr user bobbyxinhua on a Creative Commons License.

Cons: The Chinese for 798 can also be translated as “798 Arts District”, but Wikipedia’s translation is “798 Art Zone”. In English, this makes it sound like an Art World Disneyland, which can feel highly appropriate at times. On weekends in particular, tourists foreign and Chinese alike walk around, take pictures with the outdoor sculptures, and tote chic shopping bags filled with overdone design objects.

In a space so overtly commercial, the work is highly variable, and often not too challenging. One gallery director told me she can only afford to have one experimental, new media show a
year. As the rents have gone up, artists have had to move out, and fewer and fewer maintain studios.

If 798 is Beijing’s Chelsea, then what’s Beijing’s Williamsburg? In my next WTF Art Guide to Asia, I’ll take a quick look at Caochangdi, the Beijing neighborhood just five minutes from 798 that Ai Weiwei calls home.

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