What is avant-garde anymore?
Finally, FINALLY, I actually went to 798 Art Zone instead of always thinking about going there. Unfortunately I choose Monday of all days, because I forgot what weekday it was and that this specific weekday is an universal holiday for museums and also galleries. A lot of places were closed but many still opened so I was able to get the gist of it. I guess I will be back, 1 day is not exactly enough, especially if you arrive there after 2pm. I did not check much background and did not read any gallery suggestions, neither did I buy a map of the place, so to make my first visit a random expedition into unknown (stumble upon style). Didn’t want to be biased towards anything either.
First of all, how to get there? No subways go to 798 area so you need to take a bus. I suggest Google Maps or Baidu Maps (Chinese Google). Those are helpful and detailed, you can always find a route from any destination. This place isn’t so far away from San Li Tun Village, about 8 kilometers, so taking a taxi won’t be expensive either. It’s worth to check out what exhibitions are going on if you are specifically interested in art. Official Website
So, the mecca of all hipsters in Beijing and your source of fine design, I assume? Do you want to be hip and fashionable? Go to 798 and find out what’s going on in Chinese contemporary art scene. Try to ignore those groups of tourists on a tour, Illy coffee chain, and repetitive souvenir shops all selling the same boring shit. You will be able to find hidden gems among all these ‘we just want your money’ establishments and ‘warehouses’ of mediocre paintings.
Maybe because it was Monday or maybe because now is not summer (and thus low tourist season) I didn’t see crowds of people and the area was very quiet. I had a very pleasant and comfortable walk, the atmosphere was tranquil and enjoyable. It almost didn’t feel like Beijing at all. I liked how this place felt like and I also liked how it looked like. The settings were perfect, old abandoned factory area, just the place where you’d imagine all art people would go to hang out.
The area is pretty big and there is a lot to explore. Interesting sculptures scattered here and there, fine graffiti on the walls, cute cafe’s, and small shops tucked away in the alleys. Galleries are rather small and intimate, if you want you can engage in a discussion with the artist him/herself (in some). There are a few bookshops filled with art related books, artistic postcards everywhere, useful daily design items with relatively low prices, ideas, visions and thoughts flowing in the air. I definitely love the atmosphere. This is a perfect place for a date or an enjoyable walk with a friend (when it’s not busy).
Wait. You must have noticed how positive this post has been until now, almost too good to be true, eh? Of course, there is no place on this earth that I would only love. Here comes my two cents of disappointment.
So I went there waiting to see something original, even breathtaking, but what I got didn’t really fulfill my expectations. All galleries were not open and I am willing to give this place another chance but… Well, this is a bit unfair since I am not a big fan of contemporary art, I don’t really “understand” it like I “understand” the classics (being an old school art lover and all) but I have seen some amazing works in South Korea and Japan so why not in China?
In every gallery I went I saw a few pieces I liked but most of what I saw felt bland and frankly speaking, it bored me. I know the government must be keeping a watchful eye of every artist in this area but where is that hidden radicalism? Where is that special originality I was looking forward to? Why did I see that boring vintage everywhere? Where is the original Chinese wave of something no one expected?
Since 798 is becoming established as one of the major tourist destinations in Beijing, along with Forbidden City, Summer Palace, The Great Wall and such, the cruel and unforgiving commercialism has been seeping in and you can see that. While walking there I was wondering if “true artists” will choose to pack their tools and move somewhere else. We all know when something underground becomes trendy and popular it’s not underground anymore, pretty much loses it’s value as special and blends into the wide market. I wanted to say: “Hey, don’t give me what I want. Give me something unexpected and make me want it.” Personally I don’t care though, if it’s popular or not. “Underground” doesn’t have much value to me instead fresh, lively and different do. But above all I value talent because I myself don’t have it to create something as amazing as some artists do.
One of the most amazing contemporary art pieces I saw was in South Korea. Paper figures that looked solid from one angle but once you looked from a different angle you could see they were full of holes. Paper figures of Buddha for example, brilliant. That just shows you how empty everything what seems to be so well round and perfect actually is. I know this sounds boring but it was something that affected me and rooted into my memory. A woman who made stuff of old toys, it was awesome. But 798, so far I could find only one place that I would love to recommend to anyone and everyone. Splendid photographs. PMT: Interesting Chinese Photographs. A little shop tucked away in a narrow alley. They also have a shop at Nan Luo Gu Xiang.
This is just me rambling but I saw that some of the shops were selling CD’s of foreign artists like Pitbull, AC/DC and such. That just made me think about the underground music in Beijing and how it all seems to be concentrated on Andingmen and Gulou areas with so many musical instruments shops, live bars, and practice studios located there. So far away… But art and music are not that far from each other so why at 798 I could not find any CD’s of Chinese bands? Sell their CD’s and draw CD covers for them, help each other. That would be interesting.
Overall I would recommend 798 to anyone, if not for art then for a nice walk, a cup of coffee, and leisure shopping for something you won’t be able to find anywhere else (and a lot of stuff you can find at Nan Luo Gu Xiang). Though, I do not know how crowded this place becomes on weekends and holidays, I suggest you take some time off during the week.
I read that every year several galleries withdraw from 798 Art Zone.
And I wonder… where do they go?
Read more about 798
Cafe and gallery recommendations
List of the galleries
Interesting article about 798
Another great article. Critical, straightforward and very sad
Another blog post about 798.
Great blog post about 798