BEIJING — It’s a four hour train from Seoul — two trains, to be precise, as a transfer is necessary. With a population of a little over a million people, it’s the sixth-largest city in South Korea. That city is Gwangju, whose name means, literally, the bright province. It’s a city of flashing neon lights, love motels, high-energy dance clubs and some of the best restaurants in Korea. Amongst international creative circles, it’s also known as the home of Asia’s oldest art biennale, the Gwangju Biennale.
If Beijing has a Chelsea, 798 Art Zone, then surely it has a Williamsburg. That “alternative” neighborhood is Caochangdi (草场地). 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.
It’s just a typical day at Xindanwei (新单位), a coworking space with a name that means “New Work Unit” in Chinese. Downstairs, Patrick Jost of vvvv.org is giving a talk … On the second floor, the EF Life Club are leading a workshop on self actualization through art, … On the roof is a meeting of marketing gurus enjoying the summer air. And in between can be found mini-meetings in corners, in hallways, on the stairs. Founded by Liu Yan, Aaajiao (aka Xu Wenkai) and Chen Xu in 2009 as a coworking space, Xindanwei has quickly become the center of Shanghai’s burgeoning technology and art community.
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.