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Huang Yong Ping, Python, 2000 Huang Yong Ping, Python, 2000
courtesy UCCA
RECENT MONTHS HAVE SEEN BEIJING’S FAMOUS 798 ART ZONE CONSUMED BY THE PRE-OLYMPICS ORGY OF DESTRUCTION, CONSTRUCTION AND RENOVATION THAT HAS OVERRUN MUCH OF THE CITY. DEPENDING ON WHO YOU ASK, THE RECENT SPATE OF DEMOLITION, BUILDING AND ROAD RESURFACING IS THE DEATH KNELL OF 798 AS A SITE OF CUTTING-EDGE CREATIVITY OR A SIGN THAT THE AREA IS FINALLY ASSUMING ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE AS AN ART ZONE OF INTERNATIONAL RENOWN. EITHER WAY, THE RENOVATIONS AND ARRIVAL OF MAJOR INSTITUTIONS LIKE THE ULLENS CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ART SIGNAL A NEW PHASE IN THE AREA’S SHORT BUT VOLATILE HISTORY.

One of those lamenting the changes is Huang Rui, who was among the first artists to establish a studio here in early 2002. Rui was a member of the Stars Group that kick-started China’s contemporary art movement in the late 1970s, following the end of the Cultural Revolution. He spent much of the 1980s and 90s in Japan, but by the turn of the century was back in Beijing and looking for a space to work. When fellow Stars Group alumnus Ai Weiwei introduced him to 798, Rui was immediately smitten. “I felt so comfortable,” he recalls. “I felt the atmosphere and architecture were perfect.”

in the beginning: artists & workers

The sprawling 1950s industrial complex was designed by East Germans to manufacture electronics for the military and is distinguished from thousands of other Chinese factories by its Bauhaus architecture. Distinctive features include sweeping arched support beams, saw-tooth shaped roofs, and skylights that maximise the entry of natural light.

When Huang Rui began working at 798, the factory had long been in decline, a victim of China’s economic liberalisation. Nevertheless, much of it was still in use. “All the workers were still here", he reminisces. “20-30 per cent was empty, [but] most of the space was still active.” As word of the large, vacant spaces spread, more artists and galleries moved in, quickly followed by cafes, bars and a small theatre.

The industrial nature of 798 and the management’s lack of connection to the art world were key factors in the atmosphere of artistic freedom that blossomed in the burgeoning community. “Before 2000, the government hated contemporary art. But they didn’t really know what was happening inside 798”, explains Rui. “In other places people from the Xuan Chuan Bu [Propaganda Department] come to check the exhibited work." But as a functioning factory, 798 fell outside the department’s jurisdiction.

The presence of industry also added a unique dynamic to the site. “[Initially] I think the workers were uneasy about all these strange people, including their own local artists”, says Reg Newitt, manager of the 798 branch of Red Gate, the oldest contemporary art gallery on the Chinese mainland. “But it was ultimately an unrealised tension, because it seemed that soon after that there was a relatively harmonious association between the artists, the galleries and the factory workers. And it’s that balance which has created the dynamism of 798.”

The other tension underlying the early period was the threat of imminent destruction. “When I came to 798 there was already a fixed plan to demolish the area and rebuild it as an electronics market, so my lease was pretty short", recalls Rui. With other tenants, he began a prolonged campaign to save the complex. An increasingly irritated management tried to shut down an unsanctioned art fair in the spring of 2004, and finally resorted to blocking access by visitors. The Chaoyang District Government eventually interceded and resolved the dispute in the artists’ favour.

Local and international press coverage, a booming art market and a steady flow of visiting foreign dignitaries finally convinced authorities to shelve their redevelopment plans and 798 has now been designated an official “cultural site” for the Olympics. Governmental recognition has led to the aforementioned renovations, which have, ironically, included the demolition of some of the oldest galleries to make way for a car park. Inevitably, the early dynamic created by the presence of industry has all but disappeared as more of the old factories have closed down. And rising rents have forced many studio artists to move on. Despite his key role in saving the area, Huang Rui is deeply ambivalent about the changes he sees around him. “Under the pressure of controversy, the art of 798 expressed a responsibility towards society. But during the more recent commercial period the soul of the art can’t be seen", he claims. “Artists want freedom and the capability to create, but what they’ve got is a market.”

financial success, creative laxity

While 798 has undoubtedly become more gentrified, this is arguably an inevitable by-product of growing popularity. What’s more open to debate is what this means for the area’s future, and the impact it has already had on the art being exhibited. There is certainly now a preponderance of painting over all other forms, and much of the work is clearly pandering to Western buyers looking for images of the exotic Eastern ‘other’ on the one hand, and ironic revolutionary chic on the other. Revealing pictures of cute Chinese girls in Mao suits abound, as do workers waving Pepsi signs in place of Little Red Books. Indeed, a certain degree of creative laxity has crept into the visual art scene, a result of the vastly inflated sums now being paid for Chinese work. Red Gate’s Australian owner and long-term China hand Brian Wallace comments, “Up until four years ago there were only three galleries really doing something in Beijing…But then the larger market arrived, and coincided with 798. There was a lot of money being passed around, and a lot of artists played to that, and either put their prices up or just turned more commercial. Including some of the most senior artists in the contemporary art scene.”

Rising interest from domestic buyers has also contributed to bringing painting to the fore. “Going back five to 10 years, photography, video and installation work were very popular", says Wallace. “But the balance has swung back towards painting. And that, I think, is in part due to the Chinese market coming on the scene with more conservative tastes.”

But it would be wrong to say serious art or innovation has completely disappeared from 798, or in general. Spaces like Galleria Continua, Long March Space and Omin ART maintain a tradition of exploring art forms outside the canvas-bound concerns of most galleries. And the arrival of major not-for-profit institutions like the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) have, in the words of Huang Rui, “stopped 798 developing purely into a commercial gallery street.”

Owned by European millionaires Guy and Myriam Ullens, the UCCA fulfils an important function in a country where the national government is largely unwilling to lend contemporary art heavyweight institutional support. The Center is housed in one of 798’s best-preserved Bauhaus spaces, with a design that skilfully showcases the old factory structure. The inaugural exhibition in November 2007 was a retrospective, 85 New Wave—the Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art, widely regarded as a symbolic homecoming for a generation of artists who had mostly fled in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

predicting the unpredictable

In the best case scenario, institutions like Ullens will foster the development of 798 as a quality gallery zone for Beijing’s established arts community—a place to see where Chinese art has been and where its senior figures are going. Other zones will then provide a home for emerging artists and those seeking refuge from 798’s crowds and rising rents. To an extent this is already happening—Caochangdi, just a few minutes drive from 798, is rapidly gaining a reputation all its own. But it’s equally possible that clumsy, top-down management could transform the former factory into a kind of arts Disneyland, full of sanitised state-sanctioned culture. A bizarre exhibition of Michael Jordan memorabilia recently appeared like a portent of the area’s worst possible fate.

Most likely, however, the future will contain something of both these scenarios. Nothing is ever straightforward in China, and the one thing everyone at 798 seems to agree on is the unpredictable nature of what’s ahead. As in the country at large, it’s this sense of anxious, unstable possibility that makes the evolution of 798 so fascinating, often frustrating and utterly engrossing to watch.


Thanks to Wang Yi for her help translating the interviews with Chinese subjects.

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 53

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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