In the northeast of Beijing, just inside Fourth Ring Road, is 798 Art Zone. To reach it from the nearest subway station, you pass through the Dashanzi neighborhood’s residential area, made of rows of modest blocks of flats, with Chinese street merchants selling meat, fish and vegetables.
The art zone itself spans 10 blocks between Wanhong Road and Jiuxianqiao North Road. Once you’re in it, the scenery changes abruptly. Modern statues of flying pigs, caged red dinosaurs and oversized nudes decorate the space in front of buildings. The contours of industrial facilities, pipes and overpasses emerge as you walk down the road.
German Factory Designs
The area’s industrial history goes back to 1951, when the newly formed People’s Republic of China established more than 150 joint projects with the Soviet Union to build factories around the country during the first Five-Year Plan. The Chinese government later decided it needed one more factory to produce electronic components for the military. The Russians didn’t want to undertake an additional project, so they suggested the Chinese turn to East Germany.
Joint Factory 718 was built in Dashanzi, then a swath of farmland northeast of Beijing. The German architects opted for a Bauhaus design, which values a building’s functionality rather than external embellishments.
In the late 1960s, the 640,000-square meter industrial complex was split into several sub-factories, of which the largest was Factory 798. During Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s, the factories gradually ceased production.
The area came back to life two decades later, when avant-garde artists began setting up shop. The first to move in was Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, which opened several workshops in 1995. In the early 2000s, foreign artists joined in, opening projects such as Timezone 8 Art Books and Beijing Tokyo Art Projects.
Revival and Commercial Disputes
For a few years, 798 was an artist’s dream space – a neighborhood with affordable rent, away from downtown, where artists could set up their studios. The new galleries reinterpreted the industrial setting, often preserving the original designs and decorations such as painted slogans from the Cultural Revolution.
But by 2005 rent prices started skyrocketing, and many of the original artists could no longer afford their studios. The rent hikes also affected independent galleries.
In a blog post written in 2012, Xu Yong, the manager of 798 Space, one of the district’s oldest and most iconic galleries, detailed how the management company wanted to dramatically increase the rent at the end of his lease. The company eventually shuttered the gallery, according to Global Post.
Today, 798 Art Zone has the largest concentration of art galleries in Beijing, which are interspersed with artsy and upscale restaurants and cafes. The industrial architecture still sets the area apart, though at times the artistic interventions are overbearing, leaning toward kitsch – such as the robot made of mechanical parts, which is pointing toward the entrance of a D Park museum.
But unlike other artistic areas such as New York’s SoHo and London’s Brick Lane, which grew out of the city and are living, breathing components of it, 798 is isolated from its surroundings. If New York’s High Line, a suspended railway turned park, has become a beautiful and unobtrusive addition to its neighborhood, 798’s abandoned factories along with the many sculptures and colorful buildings look more like an amusement park.
Nevertheless, 798 is worth seeing especially because its galleries host solo exhibits of young Chinese and international artists. It’s also a place where you can enjoy a good coffee or a meal.
This season’s star exhibit at 798 Art Zone is Yoko Ono’s first solo exhibit in Beijing, Golden Ladders. The exhibit will be hosted at the Farschou Foundation gallery until July 2016.
Ono’s installation includes golden ladders made of different materials. She invites visitors to add their own and determine their “entrance to the future.”
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is one of the largest galleries in the art district. Operated as a non-profit by Guy and Myriam Ullens, the center aims to host exhibits that highlight the cultural situation in China.
The center currently displays the ME/WE video installation by artist Li Ming. Li has laid asphalt onto the museum floor, from which visitors can watch a video projection of people running, and approach a blinking installation that turns from “ME” into “WE” as you get closer. The gallery is also hosting sculptural installations by Haegue Yang.
Beijing Tokyo Art Projects
Beijing Tokyo Art Projects is one of the district’s earliest galleries, opened in 2002 by the founders of Tokyo Gallery in Japan. The building’s high arched ceilings have now become synonymous with 798 Art Zone.
During its current exhibit, titled The Great Darkness, artist Gao Bo will move his studio into the gallery and create photography and other types of art together with visitors.
ACE Café 751 is a branch of ACE Café London, a venue that caters to bikers and rock music fans. The coffee shop, which was built on the site of the old 751 train station, stands out through its exquisite design. A historic steam locomotive is displayed outside, and a stainless steel wall gives the illusion that it rotates from the exterior to the interior.
Lord of Salt
For a hearty dinner, visit the restaurant Lord of Salt. Both the food and the design are as expected from a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing’s art district. The food is tasty and spicy, while the room’s centerpiece is a pink statue of Chairman Mao standing in front of a picture of itself.