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Photo: Aurelien Foucault
Photo: Aurelien Foucault

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Art of the matter - Beijing's 798 art district

Often described as China’s version of New York’s SoHo, Beijing’s 798 Art District is a dynamic hodgepodge of galleries, trendy shops, street art and cool cafés. But much more than just a boho hangout, this Mao-era former military factory is fast becoming China’s answer to Silicon Valley.

Western businesspeople in sweat-dampened shirts sip cappuccinos on a café terrace, neckties loosened, iPads in hand. Around the corner, a waif-like Chinese girl in dungarees and custom-painted sneakers takes a selfie alongside a revo­lutionary sculpture and the block-jawed, muscle-­bound workers stand united and proud. This is Beijing’s 798 Art District, a decommissioned military factory-turned-contemporary-art-oasis, with increasingly discernible Silicon Valley ambitions.The 798 Art District is located in a former military factory. Photo: Aurelien Foucault

On entering the complex in the northeastern corner of China’s chaotic capital city, the tug-o-war between history and development is immediately apparent. All around, swinging cranes shape evermore upmarket apartment blocks, while the 1950s pebble-dashed workers’ residences remain unchanged, save for the ornament of scrawled graffiti tags. A man with well-worn hands serves fresh egg rolls from the back of his truck. Across the street, young women in ripped jeans and fashionista glasses line up for a frozen yogurt in the shadow of three vertically-stacked sculpted dinosaurs, fierce but caged.

The factory – conceived in a tryst of Communist brotherhood between China and East Germany in 1957 – began life producing everything from Tiananmen Square’s loudspeakers to North Korea’s communi­cation components. Occupying 500,000sq m of low-lying farmland on what was Beijing’s northeastern periphery, the striking Bauhaus-esque architecture was designed for function, not form. Arched ceilings soar skyward before plunging dramatically into diagonally slanted banks of windows. The ­repeated sawtooth shape lets in maximum light, while the complex’s northerly gaze ensures fewer shadows are cast into the work rooms.

Although envisioned for industrial efficiency, the cathedral-like halls and lofty chimneys had an inspirational effect on the artists who gradually trickled in after the factory was disbanded in the 1980s. Thanks to then-Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping’s liberalizing reforms, the creatives had found themselves evicted from the rundown houses they had occupied near Beijing’s 18th century Old Summer Palace. The abandoned 798 Art District, simply named after the biggest of several factories in the complex, provided the perfect nesting ground for their frowned-upon avant-­garde activities.

By the early 2000s, the grassroots incubator was in full bloom, with off-the-wall large-scale installations the cardinal trend. In 2003, Wang Wei, graduate of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, proffered artistic commentary on China’s construction boom by having a team of migrant workers build, and then demolish, a 4m-high room within the exhibition space. The same year, Chinese performance artist He Yunchang invited the time-honored “Is this art?” question by cementing himself inside a scarcely ventilated wooden box for 24 hours before allowing others to chisel him to freedom.

Living Digital Forest and Future Park by Tokyo-based collective teamLab. The floor-to-ceiling projections have been described as “walking into a Persian carpet.” Photo: Aurelien Foucault

The district also became the permanent home of the annual Beijing Queer Film Festival, which bills itself as “the only community-based non-governmental film festival in China with a special focus on gender and sexuality.” This accolade alone is something to cherish, as China’s strict censorship laws generally prohibit positive depictions of LGBT lives. Even DVDs of Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain can only be obtained on the black market.

Frequent Beijing visitor Bob Rohrbaugh said 798 Art District was a charming mix of single-artist studios and reproduced kitsch when he first visited 10 years ago. Today, the 60-year-old smartly dressed New Yorker has come to see the new exhibition at Pace, a leading contemporary gallery with locations all over the world. Pace Beijing is currently hosting Living Digital Forest and Future Park by Tokyo-based collective teamLab. The kaleidoscopic floor-to-ceiling projections are immersive and interactive, an encounter Rohrbaugh describes as “like walking into a Persian carpet.”In a car park packed with BMWs and Mercedes sits an old red bus that hasn’t moved for two decades. Every inch of the exterior is daubed in graffiti, but a peek inside reveals an Aladdin’s cave of knickknacks, prints and original ink paintings. Photo: Aurelien Foucault

When asked if the district still strikes him as a place that nurtures emerging talent, Rohrbaugh is cautious yet ­optimistic. “I think something like Pace coming from the US and establishing itself here is evidence of increased commercialism,” he says. “But they’re bringing in very high-quality work so I don’t know if you can fault it.”

Tech-focused amusements are becoming increasingly common in the former Luddite enclave. Around the corner from Pregnant Princess, a “4D Fetal Imaging Photography Studio,” is “Let’s Move,” an anti-­gravity gym. Proudly fronting one art gallery are two virtual reality karaoke booths, where presumably bored culture-hoppers can recharge by singing their favorite songs while “snowboarding.”

But 798’s proletarian roots are far from faded, as evidenced by the red-daubed Maoist slogans and ­socialist-realist sculptures that still dot the complex. The artists have insisted they remain and are protected, safeguarding the relics of Beijing’s communist heyday against the district’s modern imaginings.

Some commentators fear the artists themselves are in danger of becoming obsolete, as large multinationals, such as Uber, Audi and Cannon, move in on their turf. From an elevated walkway at the far east of the area, the angular lines of Volkwagen’s China office make for a striking juxtaposition to the dystopian jumble of hissing pipes, molding chimneys and rusted ladders of 798’s now-disbanded industrial 798’s proletarian roots are far from faded. Photo: Aurelien Foucaultheart.

In a car park packed with BMWs and Mercedes is an old red bus that hasn’t moved for two decades. Every inch of the exterior is daubed in graffiti, but a peek inside reveals an Aladdin’s cave of knickknacks, prints and original ink paintings. At the far end sits Li Tao, drinking tea and doodling with a traditional bamboo brush. Having formerly curated Russian art and relics for museums and galleries in Beijing, the 39-year-old bought the “Red House” bus from a colleague a year ago. He says he does good business here, but laments the ever-­increasing ground rent he pays for the dusty parking spot.

“It’s quite commercial now and many of the artists have left,” says Li. “They’re going to places a long way outside the city center because it’s too expensive here now. The artistic atmosphere is not as good.”

But Tao says he and his bus will not be moved. Not out of principle, necessarily, but out of a fondness for the area, regardless of its adaptions. “I love 798. There isn’t any particular reason why, I just like it,” he beams. “If I like something, I don’t need a reason.”

Last edited: April 13, 2018

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