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Home Travel in Beijing Dashanzi 798 Art District: a Different View of China
Dashanzi 798 Art District: a Different View of China
Travel in Beijing



These days, mention Beijing to anyone, and the next thing you know, you’ll be talking about the Olympics, or perhaps the various famous cultural sites like the Great Wall, or the Summer Palace. But these aren’t the only things to see in Beijing. A vibrant contemporary art scene is also fast emerging in the midst of this red capital.

An Open Secet

altLike an open secret, the Dashanzi 798 Art District in Jiuxian Qiao (jiǔ xiān qiáo 酒仙桥), (just off the Airport Expressway) is a place that everybody knows but hardly anyone talks about. What was once a cluster of decommissioned military electronics factories have now become a haven of contemporary art galleries, artist’s studios, bookstores and cafes. While this space is now more known for its artistic community, traces of its past are still plain to see. The kitschy Mao figures and proletariat statues still watch over the premises, and many of the slogans are almost humorously preserved. The soaring metal structures and clanging pipes are also tangible reminders of area’s humble beginnings.

The outwardly industrial complex, made even more utilitarian-looking by the extensive road repaving that was going on in preparation for the Olympics, belied the hum and bustle of creativity that is only evident once one enters each gallery. Much like Alibaba’s cave, inside each red-bricked or steel-laden building lays a treasure trove of contemporary art, each exhibition giving off its own brand of brilliance.

Foreign and Homegrown Creative Community

As can be expected, many galleries feature works from foreign contemporary artists. The Beijing Tokyo Art Projects, for instance, includes artists that hail from Japan and Korea. Others, such as the Galleria Continua and the Paris Beijing Photo Gallery have also been known to feature works from European or Western artists.

Many galleries also proudly display homegrown artists whose works collectively provide many insights regarding China as it is evolving. For example, during my last visit to 798, Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art featured an exhibit called “Let’s Consume!” which asks its viewers to take a deeper look at the art and cult of consumption becoming evident in China. With works such as coke bottle collages made out of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, the current exhibit at Dimension Art Center also speaks of how China mixes old and new in its quest to modernize itself. Over at the First Sound Gallery we also see different ways Chinese view China’s rapid progress when faced with pieces such as Tian Yong Hua’s Just Do It that shows the artist and his doppelgangers flying off from the newly opened National Grand Theatre in Beijing. And yet another gallery explores how the Chinese feel with all the changes going on in their midst, with paintings that at once convey a colorful life, yet a seemingly more alienated one as well.

UCCA and House of Oracles - Signs of Things to Come

altAlmost unbelievably, even with so much already going on, it seems that the best is still yet to come for 798. From art appreciation, 798 has now embarked on art education with the recent opening of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art last November 2007. Renting one of the largest spaces in the area, UCCA has already made good use of it by hosting exhibitions such as a solo show of the Paris-based Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, one of the trailblazers in Chinese contemporary art. The exhibition called House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective displays just a few of the masterful large-scale installations in his career. By combining Eastern and Western elements, Huang Yong Ping takes both a serious and tongue-in-cheek look at the various misunderstandings that have come between these cultures. Through creative and irreverent means, he has also managed to merge these two together, at once paying homage to tradition and poking good fun at it.

Aside from 2 massive exhibition halls, UCCA also has a research room and an auditorium. Indeed ample space to hold the various lectures, seminars, and workshops they are currently planning.

Like the House of Oracles and the center who exhibits it, the Dashanzi 798 Art District truly seems like a sign of the times, an era which sees China playing an ever-increasing role in the global community. In the midst of Beijing’s urban sprawl, East is quickly rising up to meet West, occupying more and more of the same spaces, sharing and going up against each other’s points of view, and all in all, increasingly becoming intertwined and inextricably interconnected with one another.

Catherine Jao is a Psychology graduate from the Ateneo de Manila University currently studying in Beijing under the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation scholarship program. She spends her time alternately discovering the sights and sounds of the city and getting lost in it.