In 2006, I visited for the first time this complex of formerly vacant industrial buildings on the outskirts of the Beijing CBD. The 798 had become the center for contemporary artists’ studios because the rents were so low, and the buildings themselves were in disrepair.
There were a lot of artists working then on subject matter which was either overtly or subtly political, critical of either current government policy, or of Mao’s regime and the cultural revolution. Services were very basic at the 798 then, with one or two small cafes, a couple of clothing or design stores, a few larger galleries, and many individual artists’ studio/gallery spaces.
There was a raw feeling to the 798 then, that new artists, probably unknown in the West, were there to be discovered, at the price of only spending the day walking between the many factory buildings with few places available to take a break.
Today’s visit uncovered a whole new 798, one that is still recognizable, but now much more of a tourist destination for both Westerners and Chinese alike. There is a mix of large and small gallery spaces now, and many times the number of shops, stores, and cafes than just five years ago. Services are plentiful and quite high in caliber…everything from upscale teahouses to small restaurants to public bathrooms … all is here now, in abundance. There do seem to be fewer artists’ workspaces now than there used to be, probably because the rents are more than likely much higher than they used to be.
I must admit that I think the growth and new refinement of this area is generally for the better. There are many more visitors here, supporting many more retail businesses, and still the quality of the art being shown here is by and large very impressive, and very contemporary. The political content of much of the art that was here in 2006 is now almost totally absent, yet as a sort of compensation, nudity is now on display in both paintings and photographs, and almost anything that is not overtly critical of government policy seems to be welcome.
The district has grown tremendously in size, now requiring at least two days to cover, even with discretion exercised in how many galleries are actually entered. There are a lot of large scale sculptures on display in between the factory buildings, as well as dozens of professional fashion photographers shooting their models all over the place, so there’s always something to see, whether inside or outside.
It’s all part of the new Beijing, and for me, the 798 makes it that much more enjoyable of a city to visit.