China currently has upwards of 1,560 galleries, over 740 of which of which are in Beijing. This is a staggering number, which would perhaps lead one to think that these art galleries are highly successful. Whilst they are not unsuccessful, it would be safe to say that since the galleries first began to appear on the scene in the early 2000s, they have been struggling to survive in the face of aggressive auction houses and loose representation systems. Yet this has not deterred them, and in Beijing, two distinct communities of artists have grown. These are 798 Art Zone, situated in the Dashanzi Area to the North East of Central Beijing, and a newer and smaller art district, Caochangdi, also to the North East of Beijing, but about 3 kilometres further out than 798 Art Zone. These two art districts have their similarities and differences, and are both highly worth a visit if you want to get an idea of Beijing’s distinct and unique art scene.
798 Art Zone is the older of the two art districts, and is based around the site of former state-owned factories, which included Factory 798, and originally produced electronics. Its artistic revival began in 2002, when cultural organisations and artists began to re-invent the factory spaces, dividing them and renting them out. These huge old factory workshops are ideal locations for artistic venues, especially for multi-media installations or even performance art; thus they were developed into galleries, art centres, artists’ studios, design companies, and not to mention restaurants and bars and loft living spaces. A lively hub of artistic activity, 798 Art Zone has been described as akin to Soho as an area of international character. This district brings together contemporary art, architecture and culture in this historically interesting location, creating for itself its own cultural concept. Evidence of its proletarian roots are visible everywhere in the district, a hangover from its communist heyday of the 1950s. Old Maoist slogans in red have been retouched, and can be seen decorating both gallery interiors and old Communist statues of labourers.
By January 2008, 798 Art Zone was home to over 400 cultural organisations from around the world, including European countries such as Britain, Italy and Germany, as well as other countries with a lively art scene such as South Korea, Australia and Japan. 798 Art Zone is arguably a foothold in China for international art galleries, and the area frequently holds important international art exhibitions as well as various other activities. These include the 798 Art Festival that runs from the end of April to the end of May annually, as well as the 798 Creative Art Festival, also running annually from the end of September to the end of October.
Whilst there are many who agree that 798 is more than just a number and stands for the country’s cutting edge art movement, it has also recently been disregarded as becoming too commercialised, thus losing its initial vanguard flare. Often described as the alter ego of 798 Art Zone, Caochangdi is a smaller and younger artistic community on the North Eastern corner of Beijing’s Fifth ring road, adjacent to the airport expressway. A highly motivated and expressive area of artistic creation and innovation, it has been described as a ‘city-within-the-city’, Caochangdi is home to a number of contemporary galleries, artists’ studios, and a variety of independent ventures, both creative and educational, in the arts. It is also home to a large number of migrants from impoverished areas of China, looking for a new start in the city of Beijing. However due to lack of marketable skills and finances, they are forced to live on the margins in areas such as Caochangdi, thus giving this district a distinctly unique feel, as art and community exist side by side, but rarely interacting.
The flourishing of this artistic community is commonly attributed to noted Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who settled in the area in 1999, thus drawing a large number of like-minded creative and artists. However in April 2010 the area of Caochangdi was put in jeopardy, as government notices appeared all over the district informing the inhabitants that it was scheduled for demolition to allow for the expansion of Beijing. As of yet, this has remained an empty threat, partially at least. It would seem that the resistance of the artistic community has staved off the worst of the demolition; they successfully pointed out Caochangdi’s importance to China’s cultural and economic development.
Despite its uncertain future, Caochangdi remains a lively artistic hub that partakes in many of Beijing’s cultural events, such as the Beijing Design Week in which it played a part for the first time in 2012. Off the back of this success, ‘CCD, The Community’ was founded as a satellite event and program to highlight the Chinese design landscape. Caochangdi is seen as the perfect location for this event given its essential mix of innovation, communication, and sustainability. So depending on whether your tastes tend towards the commercial or avant garde, 798 Art Zone and Caochangdi are two districts undoubtedly worth a visit in Beijing.