Giant dinosaurs. A swarm of jellyfish. Narrow lanes between old industrial buildings. Coffee shops. English. Swanky galleries and graffiti. Tucked away, artist studios for the lucky few who can still afford the rent.
I spent an evening with friends wandering Beijing’s official arts district, a collection of galleries, tourist-oriented shops, and street art that has grown out of the bones of old German-built factories from the Mao era. Like many arts districts, the artists saw the potential in the space first. They moved in on the cheap and then gradually transformed the space until it became a destination, gathering interest from the usual mix of food and drink businesses.
Arts districts are always a bit of an odd beast to me. On the one hand, they signal a city’s interest in supporting its artistic community, often devoting prime real estate to the cause or remediating difficult, contaminated properties. On the other hand, sometimes the official, designated-on-a-tourist-map nature of arts districts takes the edge off of the art, which is usually what drew people to it in the first place. And in China, where the arts community has an uneasy relationship with the state at best, it’s more complicated. Of course it is.
I only scratched the surface on my walk. But my impression of the district is that it’s lovely for a stroll, significantly influenced by Western culture, geared toward high-end art purchasers, and an important creative outlet for a new generation of Chinese young people. From what I have read, the government’s support for the arts district is partially wrapped up in a campaign to prove Beijing’s status as a global city. This makes sense to me, and is consistent with the way that most city governments view things like art districts—as evidence that the city contains interesting people with interesting ideas, and is an ideal place to live. If you want to be cynical, it’s great advertising for a city.
I kept returning to one main question as we ambled around: how much does art living in this kind of place represent the current of artistic expression that runs through the core of the Chinese art community? This is a question I’d ask of any successful, gentrifying artist district, but the Chinese context feels like the stakes are higher. I have to imagine that any “subversive” art in 798 would have to be just on this side of an invisible line set by the Party. I loved my evening stroll. But frankly it just makes me wish I could meet a few small time artists in Beijing, come to their parties, meet their friends, and figure out what else is really lurking in the art world in China.