It’s hard not to feel a whiff of excitement walking through the narrow, tree lined lanes linking the buildings of the 798 Art Zone. From colorful graffiti sprayed across the red brick buildings to contemporary sculptures, creative visual stimuli are everywhere you turn in the famous art district.
The quick transformation of the former industrial zone into first a spontaneous, vibrant artistic community in the early 2000s and then a well-organized international art district boasting top gallery names, such as Pace Gallery and Alexander Ochs Galleries Berlin/Beijing, and chi-chi cafes has been nothing short of extraordinary.
China’s recent history is still quite literally written on the walls of the compound, where fading communist slogans exhorting the toiling masses can still be found alongside more recent statements by artists expressing their new-found individualism. Built during mid-1950s with the help of East Germany, the 64,000 square meter factory 798 was meant to be an example of harmonious collaboration between socialist countries. Conceived to produce lighting and electronics components, mainly for the Chinese military, the compound was actually divided into six separate factories. The massive scale of the architecture embraced the functional Bauhaus style, with a saw tooth roof design and tall north-facing windows that are ideal for the artists as they let as much natural light as possible onto the factory floor while minimizing shadows.
The factory operated between 1956 and the early 1990s and when it was eventually vacated it lay empty for many years until the Central Academy of Fine Arts, looking for space for its sculpture department, took some of the space in 2000. Soon after, artists started to congregate, attracted by the then low rent, the ideal lighting conditions of the buildings, and the idea of creating an artistic village where ideas could be freely exchanged. Early tenants included sculptor Sui Jianguo, famed for his Mao Suit’ series and his colourful bronze dinosaurs (two of which are currently standing in front of the Ullens Contemporary Center for the Arts), performance artist Zhao Bandi better known for his panda series of sculptures and paintings, as well as painters Liu Ye and Shi Guorui.
As Chinese contemporary art began to grab the West’s attention, galleries and cultural organizations, such as Beijing Tokyo Art Projects and the Long March Space, also moved in and started to divide and re-make the factory spaces. The area quickly gentrified with small cafés, restaurants and bookshops. Today, most artists have actually moved out, victims of the area’s success and rapid commercialization that caused rents to increase ten-fold in a decade – a situation not dissimilar to what happened in New York’s Soho district. “Very few artists remain,” notes Theresa Liang who in charge of international development at the Long March Space, which opened in 2002. Founded by curator Lu Jie, the space has been showcasing works under the Long March Project, an on-going project looking at artistic re-interpretation of the Chinese people’s historically significant Long March.
From modest beginnings, 798 has become China's premier hub of contemporary art with more than 80 galleries and art centres flourishing there, such as 798/Red Gate Gallery, Tang Contemporary Art, Cheng Xin Dong International Contemporary Art and White Space Gallery. Many international galleries which have opened there are also promoting international artists, creating a cross-cultural dialogue. “There is a very vibrant gallery community, with new shows on a constant basis. It can get very busy,” remarks Leo Xu, an independent curator.
Anchoring the district is the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, a non-profit art center, originally founded by Belgian couple Guy and Myriam Ullens in 2007. The center showcases established and emerging artists, and has also implemented a program of education and research.
Read the whole story in Prestige Singapore, Prestige Thailand and Prestige Indonesia this August