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.