If you are looking to escape the eyes of censorship and catch some edgy art exhibits in Beijing, go no further than a converted weapons factory on the outskirts of town.
Once part of an industrial park developed in the vein of 1950s East German-Chinese Communist brotherhood, Factory 798 (a.k.a. 798 Dashanzi Art District) serves up a dose of fresh, creative and surprisingly uncensored air in a space now devoted to modern art workshops and galleries.
Though art purists and Chinese contemporary art experts may decry its commercialism and complain that rent is too high for aspiring artists, Factory 798’s exhibition space succeeds in offering moments of free expression and unfettered social commentary – features in which China sometimes runs a little lean.
An Exhibit with Expression
Within the first hour at Factory 798, we stumbled into a gallery and the vernissage (exhibition opening) for a young artist named Yang Shen. The gallery owners assumed that we were potential buyers and plied us with coffee, wine and snacks. Between sips and bites, we marveled at canvases featuring anthropomorphic, urban bunnies wearing face masks and suffering with nosebleeds in the shadow of an obviously polluted Beijing skyline.
A strong statement indeed. “How did this get past the censors?” we wondered.
Factory 798’s industrial brick buildings, street installations and cafes radiated industrial urban funk hipness. Personal expression was front and center; surprisingly, it hadn't bent under the heavy cloud of censorship that seems to surround much of Chinese life.
We wound up our visit at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), a chic new museum showcasing contemporary Chinese and International Art, for an exhibition entitled ’85 New Wave – The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art. The exhibit, a timeline of modern artists in China from the Cultural Revolution to the present, outlined the various movements within the Chinese modern art scene and the challenges they faced. The presentation, perhaps the most open that we had seen in all of China, was stunningly honest; it featured persecuted artists and made fair, relatively unrestrained comments regarding China's political and cultural history.
Factory 798 offered a pleasant reminder that Beijing had a creative pulse (other than the rush hour frenzy) and that it wasn’t all glass skyscrapers, newly built shopping centers and reconstructed historical sights.
If you find yourself tiring of Beijing’s traditional tourist sights or endless shopping opportunities, head out to Factory 798 for a dose of personal expression and creativity. Peruse the galleries, enjoy the fresh air and pop into a one of the hip cafés before dialing back into Beijing.
Factory 798 galleries and exhibitions are constantly in flux, but we offer some highlights from our visit. Maybe you can catch them in Beijing or find them at a gallery near you. After all, Chinese contemporary art is hot right now on the international scene.
Exhibitions and Galleries
- Demented Art – Chinese Mental Patients’ Art Exhibition: The content itself didn’t impress us, but an exhibit featuring contributions from remarkably lucid patients in a mental institution in China seemed exceptionally curious.
- The Golden Brick – Wow! This outstanding exhibit at the Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery featured the faces of smiling Chinese migrant construction workers in Beijing printed on bricks. The artist, Wen Fang, in her astute wisdom and vision, suggests that migrant workers are the only folks flashing true smiles in Beijing. The show has since expanded into another exhibit called “Foundations.”
- Beijing-Tokyo Art Project: Bright, airy exhibition space with hip installations from Japanese and Chinese contemporary artists.