The Beijing Art Scene
Published: April 2009
By Nell Freudenberger
Beijing's vibrant arts scene has gone from underground to
big-time. as the city rushes to transform itself, <span class="caps">Nell
Freudenberger</span> tags along with a few of the Chinese art
world's brightest stars.
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
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
"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
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
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,"
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
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
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
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
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
2 Jiuxianqiao Rd.; 86-10/ 6438-1005;
Long March Space (formerly 25,000 Li Cultural Transmission
Factory 798, 4 Jiuxianqiao Rd.; 86-10/6438-7107;
Imagine Gallery Laiguangying Donglu
Feijiacun Donglu and Laiguangying Donglu, Chaoyang;
China Art & Archives Warehouse
A gallery opposite the Nangao police station, in an area
just outside The Fifth Ring Road.
Caochangdi Cun, Jichang
WHERE TO STAY
Bamboo Garden Hotel
Charming hotel in a small hutong near the Jiugulou subway
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
Delicious Zhejiang cuisine in artist Ai Weiwei's
restaurant—tucked away in a lane behind the La Popo
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
Jichuang Fulu, near Nangao Rd., East Dashanzi, Chaoyang;
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.
By Rong Rong and Inri. Timezone 8, 2004.
Edited by Huang Rui. Timezone 8, 2004. A 50-year history of
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