Quick, name an artist from southern Oregon who has exhibited at 798? That’s right, me. Don’t worry, even if I named the gallery my photography exhibit was at, you likely wouldn’t be able to find it (smaller than a bedroom, bigger than a closet). My point is that over the past 4.5 years, I’ve spent some quality time in Beijing’s most popular art district. Since winter has finally acquiesced to the demands of spring, I ventured over to 798 to see how the old industrial complex, turned artist studios, turned art hub, turned café and souvenir shop magnet is holding up.
Like the flora and fauna around the capital, 798 is busy with activity as new galleries and shops are in a hurry to open now that the weather is better and the visitors are returning. If you are unfamiliar with the cyclical nature of the “art seasons” in 798, new shops and galleries open in the spring, flourish in the summer and fall, and die a slow death in winter due to neglect. The turnover rate there is staggering and this past winter, there were some major casualties, including two of my favorite galleries dedicated to photography. I spoke with one owner who said it is the rent that is driving the galleries away. Her landlord wanted to increase the gallery rent by 200% over the next two years. That makes my complaints about apartment rent hikes of 30-50% seem miniscule.
As I wandered through the spaces in the art district, I became a bit discouraged at how much less art there is than four years ago. I was ready to write the entire place off, and then I asked myself, “Self, why do most people come to 798?” Let’s be honest, most visitors are not looking to buy major works of art. They might buy an art book or two from an artist they discover, but dropping tens of thousands of dollars (I kept getting quotes in USD) on artwork is not in the cards for the average lover of art, let alone the casual observer.
No, I think most people go to 798 to have a relaxing time: enjoy a good meal, a fabulous coffee or cool beverage, take a nice stroll, maybe buy some trinkets to take home for the kids, and see some art. My mind put at ease, I reevaluated 798 and quickly came up with the following conclusion – 798 is a great place for a day out. Heck, with a few hours you can have a great little escape from the bustle of the city. So here are my hints for a good outing to the art district.
Leave the kids at school and go on a weekday. Have your spouse take a half-day off from work and make it a date. Trust me, things are more relaxed when the place is not crawling with weekend warriors.
A number of cafes have stood the test of time and continue to please the hungry. The Cave Café has a great lunch special where you can get two courses for RMB78 or add a desert course and get all three for RMB98. Down the road, At Café serves up some good pasta, and Timezone 8 has some great sandwiches. All have outdoor seating, and all three serve up some refreshing cold beverages, but I’m partial to the iced tea at Timezone 8. For an outstanding cup of coffee, head to one of the two Café Flatwhites in 798 and try a Flatwhite Coffee. I don’t even care that much for coffee and I have to fight the urge to order two. They also have a tasty menu.
Food taken care of, on to the art! Still acting like an anchor in the art zone is the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). This place does art on a grand scale, but they do charge a small admission fee of RMB20 (admission is free on Thursdays). Management at UCCA tried to operate a restaurant for years and finally gave up and opened another store instead. Smart move as the store was busy even on a Thursday afternoon. I believe it is indicative of how hard art spaces must work to produce enough income to keep the door open. Though the gallery is free on Thursdays, the day I went they were hosting a private corporate event. It is an inconvenience, but if it keeps the UCCA open and bringing in great works of art, I can live with it.
Two other galleries not to be missed right now are Pace Beijing and Zero Art Center. Pace is holding a solo exhibition of artist Hong Hao featuring paper and photography works. His sense of order and space are striking, despite the ordinary items he uses in his themes. This exhibit is worth returning for. Zero is holding the 2013 First Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition of Female Sculptors featuring graduates and some students from key art institutions. The themes are notably different from many of their male counterparts. It is a large enough collection that there is likely something to appeal to everyone who visits it.
Lastly, take in some shops and simply enjoy the street artists, couples being photographed in wedding clothes, and the graffiti art peppered around the district. It will be an enjoyable day and you won’t have any trouble getting back in time to meet the kids. You deserve a day out. Enjoy.
photo courtesy of Christopher Lay