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.