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The 411 on 798: Beijing’s vibrant, controversial destination for the arts

By 5 June 2009 One Comment

Fifteen minutes outside the city center, an outpost of offbeat cafes, galleries and bookstores thrives within a bleak industrial zone. Chinese tourists and fashionable youth pose on tree-lined avenues within the former Soviet factory complex known as 798 District, three numbers synonymous with contemporary art in Beijing.

Observers of the Beijing art scene say the levels of enthusiasm for contemporary art have never been higher, although the scene itself didn’t exist 30 years ago. Rising disposable income among ordinary Chinese is fueling new interest, and 798 is the preferred destination for galleries and artists alike.

But as the art scene has grown, so has the debate over who really controls 798. The government’s positive interest in the district’s success in recent years has contributed economic power, but for some observers has diminished its credibility as an engine of genuine artistic expression.

“There was a grassroots beginning here, and then the government just pulled the rug from under their feet,” said Lee Ambrozy, an art history graduate student and arts translator. When Ambrozy first came to Beijing seven years ago, “798 was still the fringes of the city,” she said. “There was no signage, like there is today. Cab drivers wouldn’t take you there. It was a very raw and creative time.”

But as local and international interest in China’s hot new art district swelled, so did government management and oversight. Just before the 2008 Olympics, the local government overhauled the electrical and plumbing infrastructure of the district and repaved the now-perfect roads. The tradeoff for these improvements, Ambrozy said, has been a loss of artistic control.

“They’ve changed a lot of rules,” she said, “and made a lot of things different for artists.”

One example is the stamping out of performance art, which thrived here in 798′s earliest days. Public performances are now virtually nonexistent in 798 due to the elaborate approval process artists must complete for a performance permit from 798’s management group, Seven Stars.

In visual works, according to Ambrozy, artists are prohibited from using Chinese currency, the image of Mao Zedong, or explicit references to sensitive political events. Plainclothes policemen patrol the area for violations of these rules.

However, artist Wang Guangle, who is represented by Beijing Commune Gallery in 798, believes that censorship should not stop sophisticated artists from achieving their messages, political or otherwise. “There are many ways to express art,” said Wang. “When you eat that forbidden fruit, such as artwork about June 4 or the USSR, that is when you are being controlled. You don’t have to go against the restrictions. You can get around them.”

Wang finds the government’s interventions in 798 to be overwhelmingly positive—he points to an under-construction parking garage in the district as proof of the government’s commitment to cultural growth in Beijing.

But however you interpret the government’s stance, it is clear that with the growing public interest and burgeoning art market in China, questions of independence and expression aren’t going to go away anytime soon. It’s hard to say how much artistic soul will be sold to stay on the government’s good side, but at least for now artists in Beijing still have a place to call their own.

One Comment »

  • Brandon G said:

    Fortunately factory complexes aren’t in short supply in Beijing. Great article, Natty!

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