International Herald Tribune, MARCH 9, 2006
An artists' community takes shape on Beijing's edge
By Joyce Hor-Chung Lau
BEIJING Changdian village, on the eastern edge of Beijing, is the kind
of place where sheep are herded down the streets, laundry is left to dry
on trees and the town garbage collector is a guy with a donkey cart. It
is also set to be the home of the new Beijing Museum of Contemporary
Art, as well as a complex of artists' studios and exhibition spaces.
"The most interesting art developments this year will be in the
periphery of this area," said Zhang Zhaohui, a well-known curator who
will act as the director of the museum, known as BJ Moca. "There are
probably more than 300 unique artists' studios in the east district."
Zhang, his breath frosting slightly in the morning cold, stood on a plot
of land he had rented from a farmer and explained how one building would
become an 1,100-square-meter, or 11,850- square-foot, exhibition space,
while an empty block across the dirt yard would become the BJ Moca
headquarters. On yet another site, he plans to open about 30 studios and
two exhibition spaces in a complex he says is inspired by New York's PS1
It takes an extraordinary amount of optimism to look at a bunch of
unheated concrete blocks in an obscure Chinese village and imagine
opening a museum and studio complex by this summer.
But Zhang, a native Beijinger, has seen some extraordinary growth in his
hometown. China's economic boom has also meant a boom in its
contemporary art market, as well as a transformation of the rural and
industrial suburbs outside the nation's capital. As downtown rents
skyrocket, farmhouses and abandoned factories on the fringes of this
sprawling city of 15 million are being overtaken by artists and gallery
owners seeking larger and more affordable spaces.
The cultural development of east Beijing began in the early 2000s, when
local artists, along with one enterprising bookstore owner, moved into
the Dashanzi area, home to numerous abandoned former East German factories.
They stumbled onto a gold mine. The area's '50s-era Bauhaus architecture
gave their studios and galleries a fashionably edgy, underground feel,
while the timing of their move coincided with the rising price of
Chinese contemporary art internationally. Dealers and gallerygoers,
thrilled by the idea of viewing increasingly saleable works in such cool
surroundings, have flocked to the area.
The larger area now known as the 798 Art District - named after Factory
#798, the best known of the renovated spaces - has developed in the
blink of an eye. Today, against a backdrop of smokestacks and giant
factory pipes, shiny new signs advertise more than 30 galleries, as well
as cafés, restaurants, boutiques, small media companies and even a new
But despite the commercialization of the area, 798's art has generally
not suffered. There are none of the endless landscapes and portraits of
pretty Chinese women in red dresses sold in markets downtown. Instead,
there are works by critically acclaimed overseas artists, like the
French conceptualist Daniel Buren, who has transformed the three-story
Galleria Continua into a site-specific installation. Solo shows at 798
are granted to both big-name Chinese artists and to the young, like the
24-year-old Chi Peng, whose sexually disturbing series is displayed next
to old Maoist slogans painted in red on the walls - a leftover from when
the White Space Gallery was a factory during the Cultural Revolution.
798 has not lost its gritty touch - there are still far more factory
workers riding home on bicycles than SUVs - but in a city where the
average monthly salary is less than 4,000 yuan, or about $500, it has
already ceased to be an affordable refuge for many artists.
So artists and galleries are moving even farther away to what seem like
an endless number of little-known villages on Beijing's eastern fringes:
Caochangdi (which means "Grasslands" in Mandarin), Jiuchang ("Liquor
Factory") and the twin communities of Feijiacun and Saojiacun, the
second of which teeters between flourishing as an artists' community and
being demolished by the government.
The new F2 Gallery has wisely arranged for a shuttle bus to bring people
from 798 to its space in Caochangdi, which even local taxi drivers have
a hard time finding. It's a grubby little hamlet and the last place one
would expect to see works by Julian Schnabel and the late Jean-Michel
Basquiat, two darlings of the New York art scene, but that's what F2
showed when it first opened in January. It followed up quickly with
another high-profile opening Feb. 18, with brazenly political works by
Sheng Qi, the Chinese artist known for cutting off his pinky finger in
protest after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Fabien Fryns, F2's Belgian owner, who lives in an apartment behind the
gallery, says he deliberately opened somewhere off the beaten track.
He dismissed the suggestion that his gallery was too far away. "We had
between 200 and 300 for the Schnabel- Basquiat opening," he said. "And
anyway, everything changes so fast in Beijing. A new highway goes up,
and suddenly you're a half-hour closer to the city."
He could not have moved to Caochangdi village at a better time. The
village is also home to the pioneering China Art and Archive Warehouse,
LA Gallery, the CourtYard Annex and a new government-funded film museum.
There is a similar level of growth in another east Beijing village
called Jiuchang, home to what has probably been the most impressive new
development in this area: The Korean-owned Arario gallery's
five-building complex, with 3,000 square meters of exhibition space. Yun
Chea Gab, the gallery director, predicts that the area will be
"redeveloped as a huge art district, in accordance with the cultural
boom in this area."
Arario Beijing's debut exhibition, "Beautiful Cynicism," has dozens of
works by international stars like Cindy Sherman and Yue Minjun, and it
will be followed by a series of solo shows.
In general, moneyed galleries and dealers have an easier time in east
Beijing than actual artists looking for studio spaces. Mainland China's
muddled bureaucracy often makes it difficult to ascertain whether a
piece of land is private or public, belongs to a farmer or a government
department, or is legal or not legal to rent. Even 798's fate was
uncertain for several years before it became as well-known as it is today.
While some parts of East Beijing are flourishing, things are less rosy
at Saojiacun, an artists' community that has already been partially
demolished by the government, which says the development is illegal.
According to Chao Ziyi, a ceramic artist and sculptor at Saojiacun,
there were originally about 200 artists working in about 150 studios in
the area before the government sent around demolition notices. Now some
of Saojiacun's red-brick, one-story studios have been bulldozed, and he
is one of the few artists left.
Sitting in his frigid studio, with his 2- year-old son wrapped in so
many layers of winter clothes he can barely walk, Chao insists he will
stay. He can use a neighbor's electric kiln, he says, and in any case is
busy with an exhibition coming up at a gallery in the 798 area.
"The first demolition notification came last summer, and we put up a
fight for its survival. Artists were feeling despondent, because we put
so much time and money into fixing this place up," he said. "Several
months ago, when the police force came, we planned to move even farther
north and east. But I found nowhere better than here. So I decided it
was useless to worry about what I cannot control."
Despite it all, "I think this area will grow a lot," Chao said.
Zhang, who is hoping to open the BJ Moca, has also had issues opening
what will be one of the few privately run, contemporary art museums in
"It's totally different from the West," Zhang said. "There are no art
protection laws, no tax exemptions to encourage corporate sponsorship.
China is not part of the international museum network, where there are
lots of exchanges and shared resources."
Still, Zhang maintains the sense of ambition and optimism that has
driven these unlikely developments in Beijing. "In two or three years,
we hope to be exchanging from London, New York and Paris," he said.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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