You may be surprised to hear that Beijing is now commonly considered the place for art lovers to flock to and satisfy their curiosity for Chinese contemporary art over Shanghai. Among the hidden hutong bars and funky dining establishments popping up on every street corner, the 798 Art District is inside the Chaoyang District and has quickly become a burgeoning art scene in the northeast corner of the capital. Since 2002, artists and cultural organisations have breathed new life into this collective zone of decommissioned, Soviet-style factory buildings and filled them out with galleries, art studios and creative workshop spaces.
Sculptures scattered on the streets and graffiti on the walls are sure to catch your eye as you walk through the 798 Art District area, even if art isn’t your jam. You’ll also get a glimpse of the emerging artistic voices that go against the grain and can be seen as controversial. A headless version of Mao’s famous statue is a case in point.
It’s not the most accessible area via public transport so Uber over, bearing in mind that cabs are prohibited from driving into the complex as it’s largely pedestrianised so just hop out before the gate. Be sure to pick up a map at the information centre near Block E as you enter from Jiuxianqiao Road. Most of the galleries are closed on Mondays and it does get busy on weekends, so if you want to make the best use of your time, check in here beforehand to see what exhibitions are on.
There are five main blocks to explore (A through to E) brimming with local art expressed through a variety of mediums, from classical paintings and sculptures to modern performance art and innovative digital installations.
Although more and more local Chinese artists are gaining recognition on the global stage, some of the art on display can be a bit hit or miss, particularly the ones that are evidently knockoffs of Western art. Nevertheless, 798 Art District is still worth a visit if you’re at all interested in the state of contemporary art in China. Wander around with an open mind, get lost in the tunnels, go up random staircases and who knows what you’ll find.
Writer: Louise Yoo
Photographer: Louise Yoo