A peek inside Three Shadows Gallery.

A peek inside Three Shadows Gallery (all photos by author unless otherwise noted)

In my last installment of the WTF Art Guide to Asia, I wrote about 798 Art Zone and compared it a bit to New York City’s Chelsea. But if Beijing has a Chelsea, then surely it has a Williamsburg. That “alternative” neighborhood is Caochangdi (草场地), an art village whose name literally means “grassy plain.” According to legend, Ai Weiwei moved out here in early 2000 to set up his studio and the China Art Archives and Warehouse. It was a strange move at the time, but galleries and artists soon followed, and the area is now home to a number of well-known spaces.

Caochangdi is a tougher place to understand than 798 Art Zone, but it’s also more rewarding. The neighborhood is about a 15 minute bike ride from 798 and feels like a world away. To this day, the streets have no names and cab drivers often refuse to bring me (they sometimes claim never to have heard of it). The area is a mixture of a thriving migrant community mixing in with the growing artistic community. On one side of the street you might find a space like Galerie Urs Meile, which has a branch in Lucerne, Switzerland, and on the other are construction workers relaxing with yangchuan’er (羊串儿), or lamb skewers, and a bottle of beer, while tossing the remnants to the ground.

Caochangdi in relation to downtown Beijing (click to enlarge)

Pros: Unlike 798, the rent is more affordable, so galleries here tend to be larger and are willing to take more risks. Spaces like Three Shadows, the leading photography space designed by Ai Weiwei and headed up by Rong Rong and inri, sprawls over multiple galleries and a cafe and bookstore. Platform China across the street hosts artist residencies in addition to the art. The Chinese National Film Museum, featuring one of Beijing’s few IMAX theatres, is technically in Caochangdi, but it’s a 20-minute cab ride away. Closer to the heart of town you’ll find Chambers Fine Art, which has a Chelsea branch, Beijing Art Now Gallery and Pekin Fine Arts, in large brick gallery complexes. Many famous Chinese artists have set up shop in Caochangdi, and if you know who you’re looking for you’ll see them on the streets or having a beer at Fodder Factory (草料厂).

Caochangdi's main drag, which feels like a world away from 798 Art Zone.

Caochangdi’s main drag, which feels like a world away from 798 Art Zone.

Cons: The “rough” nature of Caochangdi can be off-putting at first, with dogs running loose on the street (think Williamsburg’s Kent Ave circa 1996), coal and dust kicked up everywhere, and trash burning in open-air furnaces. It’s difficult to locate the neighborhood, which is 20 minutes away by car from the closest subway stop, and even when you find it, it’s difficult to locate the galleries within. With no street names and few landmarks, you have to make sure to give yourself plenty of time to find the art, which is scattered in three major sections of the neighborhood. Prior research is essential for less adventurous types. I recommend bringing a map like this one developed by Pekin Fine Arts.

Kids play in the snow outside the red brick gallery complex, host to galleries like Chambers Fine Art, Beijing Art Now, C-SPace and Li Space.

Kids play in the snow outside the red brick gallery complex, host to galleries like Chambers Fine Art, Beijing Art Now, C-SPace and Li Space.

What’s the future of Caochangdi? These days, there’s construction everywhere, with apartment complexes rising up multiple stories and new piping being added. In an article labeling Caochangdi the “New Artistic Hotbed in Beijing,” the New York Times featured this quote:

“Things are developing really fast,” said Pi Li, the co-director of Universal Studios. “I think you’ll see restaurants and shops here in maybe two years. After 20 years in China’s art world, nothing would shock me.”

That was in 2007, and today, Caochangdi Art Village is still very much a village, with just a few cafes and bars oriented toward the arts community.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.