Not long ago, at the Asia Society on Park Avenue in Manhattan, I saw a photograph I couldn't stop thinking about. It showed a young Chinese man, naked from the waist up, sitting in profile against a raw concrete wall. His arms and one knee (the only parts of his body not in shadow) glistened as if they'd been oiled; around his eyes, his ears, and all up and down his arms were clusters of black flies. What was most striking about this picture was the concentrated expression on the young man's face, as if he were looking at something spectacular and inaccessible, just outside the frame.
The photograph was taken by Rong Rong, one of a group of artists who lived in the early nineties in a village a little beyond Beijing's Third Ring Road—what was then the outskirts of the city. The artists renamed their new home Dong Cun (East Village), and the daring work produced there soon attracted the attention of critics and foreign journalists. In a letter to his sister, dated June 3, 1994, Rong Rong described how his friend Zhang Huan had covered his body in fish sauce and honey and sat in one of the East Village's public toilets in 100-degree heat for an entire hour: "The worst was watching flies trying to get into his ears. Still Zhang Huan didn't flinch a bit, sitting as still as a statue. Holding my camera, I felt that I couldn't breathe, it felt like the end of life."
Zhang's performance, called 12 Square Meters, was dedicated to the artist Ai Weiwei, who as a child accompanied his father, the famous poet Ai Qing, when he cleaned latrines in western China during the Cultural Revolution. Two weeks after the performance in the toilet, the police came and arrested several of the Dong Cun artists, and in 2001 the village was razed to make way for a public park.
In the last dozen years, Beijing has stretched its borders; what used to be the periphery is now prime real estate, and some of the most interesting galleries and studios have had to migrate outside the city proper. Just inside the Fifth Ring Road, the tourist-friendly "art district" Dashanzi is still the best place to see what Beijing artists are doing today. Dashanzi is home to Factory 798, a cultural center housed in the complex of brick workshops that was once Asia's largest military electronics plant. Constructed in the 1950's with the help of East German engineers, many of the buildings have the serrated roofs and stark right angles typical of Bauhaus architecture. The north-facing skylights, designed to provide the most consistent light for working with fine tools, are also convenient for curators, who will host the third annual Dashanzi International Art Festival there in May. Although you can still see girls in pink caps and jackets playing desultory games of badminton outside the few remaining electronics workshops, most of 798's tenants are now artists' studios, galleries, shops, and cafés.
Factory 798 is constantly rumored to be on the point of destruction. Perhaps that is the secret to artistic vitality in Beijing. The international attention the old factories have received, combined with the lobbying efforts of artists and gallery owners, has persuaded the municipal government of 798's value— as architecture, as a cultural asset, and as a tourist draw during the upcoming Olympics. "They won't demolish it at least until 2008," said Jenny Wong, one of the curators at the Chinese Contemporary gallery, when I visited Beijing recently. "They wouldn't have time to build something new and glossy before then." Even in Dashanzi, it's hard to forget the 46-foot clock hanging over the National Museum in Tiananmen Square, ticking down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Wong gave me a tour of her gallery, an airy second-floor space with its original wood-beamed ceiling. Ma Liuming's arresting self-portraits were on display downstairs, while Lu Hao's architectural Plexiglas cages were on the second floor. Wong mentioned rumors that a Hong Kong developer was negotiating with the current owners to buy the 798 complex; although he'd promised not to evict the artists or the galleries, a bunch of new high-rises would dramatically change the atmosphere—not to mention the rent. "We just don't know," she said.
The pace of change in Beijing has been rapid but inconsistent—and that patchwork transformation is reflected in the art world as well. Shows are still canceled, but not necessarily the most transgressive ones. Because of 798's uncertain future, curators and artists who occupy these impressive spaces are forced to be flexible. The Long March Space, which is well known for its public-art projects along the route of Mao's Long March, uses its space at 798 more as a base than as a gallery. When I visited, members were displaying the results of their "Great Survey of Paper-cutting in Yanchuan County," a collaboration among artists, government officials, and the residents of one agrarian county in Shaanxi province. The subjects of this artistic census—people of all ages—were asked to cut traditional red latticework patterns into the design most familiar to them. The results ranged from scenes of village life, to profiles of Mao Tse-tung, to the logo of the official Chinese television station, CCTV.
Factory 798's tenants can rent for three to five years at a time; when their lease was up in 2005, the Long March Space opened a new location on the other side of the complex. David Tung, the gallery's young executive director, showed me around: Wang Mai's Space Bodhisattva, delicate ink drawings of Yang Liwei, the first Chinese man in space, and photographs of Wang Wei's brick-box installation, What Does Not Stand Cannot Fall, were on view for the inaugural exhibition.
"The irony is that the people trying to destroy 798 are actually the neoliberals, the capitalists," Tung said as we toured the space. "It's the government—the right—who are preserving it. We're in a weird situation now: the left becomes the right, and right becomes left."
Tung's prediction came true in January. After years of uncertainty, the Beijing municipal government designated Factory 798 a cultural landmark, protecting it at least for the near future. The owners have requested a master-plan proposal from Studio Works, a Los Angeles–based architecture and urban-design practice that will set up a new design center in the factory. In collaboration with Chinese architects, the new studio will focus on developing an environmentally sustainable vision for the unique site.
I met Wang Wei and his wife, Rania Ho, at the Arts Coffee Haven, a tiny, welcoming place west of the Confucius Temple with Buddhist murals on the ceiling and a wood-burning stove. There, earnest art students consume mocha lattes, green tea cheesecake, and something called "masala toast"—a menu that highlights some hidden perils of globalization. Ho, who is an artist and a curator, was born and raised in California; the couple met as students at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1992, and are now married.
Wang is well-known for his installations, which often put the viewer in a confined or otherwise uncomfortable space. He agreed that Dashanzi is good for Chinese experimental art—although the glitzy galleries and welcoming atmosphere are a far cry from the underground exhibitions that characterized the experimental art scene a decade ago. At that time, artists and curators famously held shows in basements and on the outskirts of town in order to avoid being shut down by the police. "There was a period when if an exhibition stayed open for a week, that was a long time," Ho said.
The situation is very different today. At home and abroad, Chinese artists are being exhibited and fêted, and their work is being sold for record prices. An oil painting by Liu Xiaodong that went for $20,000 two years ago now goes for $200,000, and in 2004, Hong Hao became one of the first Chinese artists living on the mainland to have his work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Although most of the buyers at this level are foreign, Christophe Mao, the director of Chambers Fine Art, a gallery representing Chinese artists in Manhattan, says it's only a matter of time before mainland Chinese collectors descend on the market: "Just wait," he predicted. "Once they start, you won't be able to get your hands on any of it."
While grateful for the attention, some Chinese artists are a bit suspicious about why they're suddenly so popular. "Any article you read from the West starts with one of two things: the Cultural Revolution or June 4," Ho said, referring to the demonstrations in June of 1989, when the government turned on the protesters in Tiananmen Square. Wang, who was 17 at that time, added that the youngest generation of Chinese artists is now making work that is completely apolitical. He feels that exhibitions in the West (Wang's work has been shown in London, Chicago, and New York) tend to focus too much on political themes. "It can't be helped," he told me. "If people don't understand your work, they'll look for something exotic in it. Their first impulse is to say, 'Their society is this way, so they make art this way.'" He looked up from his laptop, where he'd been showing me the design for a new installation. "It's important to get past our curiosities," he said.
As Beijing expands, its artists move farther and farther from the city center. Those whose work is selling look for bigger studios and (marginally) cleaner air; the ones who are just starting out simply look for the cheapest possible rent. I visited the international art communities of Feijiacun and Suojiacun, where Chinese painters and sculptors work alongside visiting and expatriate foreign artists. Laetitia Gauden, a French curator who started the Imagine Gallery in Feijiacun in 2003, took me next door to Suojiacun to see the new live-work space she shares with her husband, a musician in a Beijing hard-core band, and their son. Gauden was tremendously excited about the potential for Suojiacun, which was attracting artists with its large, warehouse-like studios and low rents—it's significantly cheaper than Factory 798's. She showed me the border beyond which the community had recently expanded. "People kept coming," she explained. Soon after I returned to New York, however, the police gave the residents of Suojiacun a warning: because the developer lacked "proper authorization," their homes and studios were technically illegal. Although the artists and curators lobbied for the compound, the bulldozers arrived last November. After only 24 hours' warning, they began demolishing the buildings, leaving residents scrambling to remove their possessions.
The scene wouldn't have been unfamiliar to many of Beijing's more established artists, like Wang Qingsong, who lived in Songzhuang, Beijing's oldest surviving artists' village, in the mid 1990's. Because artists weren't allowed in the area at the time, he was constantly hiding from the police: "I moved ﬁve times in one year," he told me, when I visited him and his family at their home. Wang, whose strikingly beautiful large-format photographs at once criticize and celebrate the "global" commercial culture of today's Chinese cities (his work often includes a Coke bottle or McDonald's golden arches), now lives with his wife, Zhang Fang, their son, and Zhang's parents in a spacious but casual apartment in the eastern district of Tongxian, a neighborhood known for the number of artists living there. (The noted performance artist He Yunchang has an apartment downstairs.) A Donald Duck bicycle was parked underneath one of Wang's most famous pieces, China Mansion, a scroll-like photograph in which naked female models play out famous scenes from art history against a background of banquets and orgies. The work refers simultaneously to contemporary decadence and the excesses of imperial China. The only decoration aside from Wang's art was a drawing scribbled in pink and green crayon directly onto the wall. Its creator, the couple's four-year-old son, Ruyang, practiced writing characters while we talked. "His non-Chinese name is Michelangelo," his mother said, looking approvingly at her son's work. "I like the sound of that Italian name a lot."
When I met them, Wang and Zhang had just returned from a show in Guangzhou; although his photographs have been shown all over the world, this was the first time they had been officially exhibited at a major museum in China. For the show he chose relatively conservative work (the nude girls were left at home), including Follow Me, a three-by-nine-foot photograph of the artist as a teacher, in front of an enormous chalkboard scrawled with error-riddled English and Chinese slogans: "Let the world learns about China!" and "Is it possible for me to exchange some British pounds for the U.S. dollars?" The piece was inspired by an English course that aired on Chinese television in the eighties, after Deng Xiaoping's reforms took effect. Wang remembers trying and failing the course, gathered with his neighbors around the rare television set, while the news reported the program's success stories—an ordinary soldier who graduated from the course and became an English professor, for example. "I was suspicious of this teaching method," Wang said drily. "Either those reports were false, or I was stupid."
In spite of Wang's caution, when Follow Me was exhibited in Guangzhou, a documentary film professor from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts spoke out against the work.
"She was very critical, very passionate," Zhang said. "She said this work looked with 'a wicked eye'—that it saw only the negative things in Chinese society." Toward the end of the lecture a young girl—a student in the Academy—stood up. "Maybe you don't understand this work," she said. "Maybe this work is using a strategy to criticize commercial culture." Like any good teacher's, Wang's criticism is inspired by love. "I miss the bygone days," Wang told me. "But I also appreciate the present. Now, whenever I go outside, I find inspiration to make my work."
On one of my last evenings in Beijing, I visited Rong Rong and his wife, the Japanese artist Inri, at their apartment just outside the Fifth Ring Road. The Beijing-based Canadian photographer Karen Patterson had agreed to translate for us. The first thing a visitor sees upon entering the double-height living area is a large photograph of the couple, naked and holding hands. It was taken at 798, when the complex was still a derelict industrial space. Even with the skyrocketing rents, the famous photographers could have their studios at 798 if they chose; a series of 16 of their prints recently sold in the United States for $100,000. But like many Beijing artists, the couple doesn't feel that Dashanzi is a good place to create art. "Too many people," Inri told me, making a face. Rong Rong added: "This is our life. This is our work. Over there, it's almost as if the artist's studio becomes a public place."
Rong Rong and Inri's home is a kind of temple to photography, where the tools of their craft dominate the space. The artists showed me a 10-foot-high, army-green enlarger the way a collector might show off a new treasure, and their work was everywhere on the walls, giving the austere new building a feeling of personal history. Maybe the most striking work was their recent Mount Fuji series, made on their honeymoon in Japan in 2001. While Inri served tea from a glass pot, the couple described the trip, completing each other's sentences. On their way to the hot springs at Ido, they happened to pass the sacred mountain when it was covered with snow—and ended up staying there for three days. Because the hotels were too expensive, they slept in their car. "We were freezing!" Inri exclaimed. "If the car had run out of gas, we would've died," Rong Rong added calmly.
The Mount Fuji photographs were taken with a self-timer: they show the artists from a distance, hand in hand, walking toward the mountain. In many of the photographs, there's so much snow that you can't see Fuji, only a trace of horizon and the twig-like figures of the artists in the white landscape. In other shots, they lie together on the frozen ground, or crouch like animals in the snow. In the last photographs, the massive cone of the mountain suddenly appears, shrouded in clouds—just as the artists vanish, leaving two sets of crooked prints. "There really is a Fate—or some sort of intermediary," Rong Rong said. "We came across this beautiful environment. The irony is that we wanted to photograph Mount Fuji, but in the end you could hardly see the mountain." "A gift from God," Inri said.
I knew that nothing remained of the original Beijing East Village, but I was curious to see the place where it had once existed. Today you enter the south side of Chaoyang Park through a futuristic red and yellow archway. The park is enormous—790 acres—and signs point in several directions: to the Rainbow Children's Playground, the Boat Pier, and an area identified as Shade of the Tree and Happy Sound of Singing. On the morning I visited, it was several degrees below freezing, and with the exception of a few hardy retirees practicing tai chi near the duck boats, the place was almost deserted. It was in this kind of weather that Rong Rong returned to the site to take photographs, in 2002. Even after studying those photographs, however, it was impossible to determine exactly which corner of the park the East Village once occupied. I felt silly for trying. In the couple's recent book, Tui-Transfiguration, Inri observes: "People who go to visit those places cannot perceive the world of our experience. That world does not exist anywhere in the real world. You can only possess that world with us through these photographs." It's an observation everyone who travels understands: a city shows each visitor a new face, and every traveler arrives in a city no one has ever seen before.
Nell Freudenberger is the author of Lucky Girls. Her novel The Dissident will be published in September.
WHEN TO GO
Spring or fall is best. Temperatures average 55 to 79 degrees in September and May, the month when the annual Dashanzi International Art Festival takes place.
Beijing's Capital Airport has 98 international air routes linking the city to 39 countries. From the States, stopovers are typical, but United Airlines and Air China offer direct service from JFK, LAX, and San Francisco. Continental flies nonstop from Newark, as does United from Chicago O'Hare.
Taxis are relatively cheap in Beijing. Unless you are fluent in Mandarin, have the address of your destination written out in Chinese. The subway is also easy to use but doesn't go out to Dashanzi.
The respected gallery's new space at 798 was previously a liquor factory.
2 Jiuxianqiao Rd.; 86-10/ 6438-1005; www.redgategallery.com.
Factory 798, 4 Jiuxianqiao Rd.; 86-10/8456-2421; www.chinesecontemporary.com.
Long March Space (formerly 25,000 Li Cultural Transmission
Factory 798, 4 Jiuxianqiao Rd.; 86-10/6438-7107; www.longmarchspace.com.
Imagine Gallery Laiguangying Donglu
Feijiacun Donglu and Laiguangying Donglu, Chaoyang; 86-10/6438-5747; www.imagine-gallery.com.
China Art & Archives Warehouse
A gallery opposite the Nangao police station, in an area just outside The Fifth Ring Road.
Caochangdi Cun, Jichang Fulu; 86-10/8456-5152.
WHERE TO STAY
Bamboo Garden Hotel
Charming hotel in a small hutong near the Jiugulou subway stop.
24 Xiao Shiqiao Jiugulou Dajie, Xicheng; 86-10/6403-2229; www.bbgh.com.cn; doubles from $94.
A modern, elegant retreat steps from Tiananmen Square.
1 E. Chang An Ave.; 800/233-1234 or 86-10/8518-1234; beijing.grand.hyatt.com; doubles from $180.
WHERE TO EAT
South Silk Road
Spicy Yunnanese food cooled by a sleek interior at either location of this eatery owned by the painter Fang Lijun.
19A Lotus Lane, Shichahai, Xicheng, 86-10/6615-5515; or 3D Soho New Town Bldg., 88 Jianguo Rd., Chaoyang, 86-10/ 8580-4286; dinner for two $21.
Bed Tapas & Bar
Spanish and Asian tapas in a fashionable lounge.
17 Zhangwang Hutong, Dongcheng; 86-10/8400-1554; dinner for two $31.
Delicious Zhejiang cuisine in artist Ai Weiwei's restaurant—tucked away in a lane behind the La Popo sign.
16 Dongsanhuan Bei Rd., Chaoyang; 86-10/6508-1597; dinner for two $15.
Arts Coffee Haven
25 Chengxian Jie St., Dongcheng; 86-10/6405-2047; dessert for two $10.
WHERE TO SHOP
Guang Han Tang Chinese Antique Furniture & Art
Treasures spotted here recently: a Ming dynasty bed; pharmacy cabinets smelling of medicinal herbs. Ships internationally.
Jichuang Fulu, near Nangao Rd., East Dashanzi, Chaoyang; 86-10/8456-7945; www.guanghantang.com.
WHAT TO READ
Exhibiting Experimental Art in China
By Wu Hung. Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2000.
Rong Rong's East Village
By Wu Hung. Chambers Fine Art, 2003.
Tui-Transfiguration By Rong Rong and Inri. Timezone 8, 2004.
Beijing 798 Edited by Huang Rui. Timezone 8, 2004. A 50-year history of the Factory.
Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China
By Karen Smith. Scalo Verlag, 2005.
Most titles are available through Timezone 8 bookstore, Factory 798. 86-10/8456-0336; www.timezone8.com.
4 Jiuxianqiao Rd. (one block down from the CIMG building)
Dashanzi Art District
4 Jiuxianqiao Rd.
Dashanzi Art District