After spending a day without the kids in the Forbidden City, having lunch at an Imperial Kitchen in Beihai park and then touring the Hutong neighborhood of old courtyard houses, Julie and I went to find 798, a neighborhood we read about in our guidebook. Beijing is the centre of the contemporary Chinese art scene and we took the opportunity to find some local artists.
798 is named for the military electrical engineering factory that used to operate there. The factories are now mostly abandoned (although military police could be seen guarding buildings behind chain link fences).
First we had to find the place. We had been told that the area comes alive mostly in the evening, but since the kids were taken care of it didn’t make sense to go back to the hotel and then out again – we hailed a taxi at around 5pm and luckily he knew where we were going, out to the Fourth Ring Road in the northeast, toward the airport.
Having few expectations, I was still surprised when we got there. It was not a large factory building, but rather a district of factories, with alleys running between them. Signs everywhere pointed to galleries, studios and cafes. We started to wander and immediately were struck by a lifesize sculpture of three men cast in white, carrying a woman by three limbs. Her dress was red and her white underwear was visible. In the gallery next to the sculpture, a mural sized painting of the same scene filled one wall. The receptionist explained to us that these works were based on a famous “Internet photo” of a police crackdown on prostitution about two years ago. This was news to us (and we found it particularly interesting that the news photo was found on the Internet and was considered “famous” in China).
Next place we went into was a sculptor’s gallery and studio. The piece that caught our attention was called “Big Dog.” One impression I got from Chinese art was that it was fairly literally symbolic, and not very abstract or theoretical. This could be considered facile or, if you don’t know much about China like me, it could prove to be very informative. Big Dog was a case in point. A large tableau of characters react to the death of various dogs while other canines continue to frolic animatedly. Among the characters: a blind man mourning the death of his helper dog, foreigners appalled at the scene, a child playing with a dog that had been certified. What was this about? Apparently since the 1980s, there has been a crackdown on large dogs in China and they were beaten to death somewhat indiscriminately. Julie said this area was a like a lesson in contemporary Chinese history.
Around this time, we realized we had been somewhat mislead. Yes, there were bars and restaurants that would be opening later, but the galleries were all closing around 6 or 7. And so we sped walk around the buildings. Turning the corner from that first alley, there were factory buildings that were still dilapidated and looked unsafe. In fact, we found buildings with rubble blocking half their exits, and water running out the door, and after venturing inside the unlit stairways, we would emerge into beautifully renovated, well lit artists’ spaces. Or a renovated building would sit right next to a concrete hulk about to topple over. The mix of the new and the raw was pretty compelling. I’ve already seen on the Internet comments by people about how 798 is already “over,” but there is clearly potential for more space to be overhauled.
One gallery was run by an artist named Ma Hong who sold me a small poster of reworked propaganda with Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders taking the place of the male and female comrades who originally stood there. Hong seemed more of a graphic designer than artist. Another work in her small gallery was a pair of paintings of Mickey Mouse and the Monkey King.
Off we went to find more open spaces when I asked Julie if we should maybe buy a Mickey/Monkey painting. We ran back to ask about prices, but it was a little high, so we left again.
Some of the other galleries we peeked into had Socialist Realist paintings of scenes from the Korean War, primitive style scenes of people wandering urban streets, portraits stretched and warped into single stripes on backgrounds.
Then we went through a long tunnel, an enclosed alleyway that was a bit spooky, especially with the doors leading off of it mostly locked. There were some stenciled images spray painted on walls (some of which I recognized as Hong’s work). We emerged from the tunnel and wandered into an art bookstore/café. Although there were many works on Chinese artists, much of it was Western oriented and almost all of it was foreign published (Phaidon, Rizzoli, etc.) and I didn’t feel like I needed to shop there. So we wandered through the café where the tables had been cleared and someone was having a press conference! There were three Chinese people and a European woman and they were making statements about art in China in front of some reporters and at least one television camera.
Back on the street, a bicycle rode up to us. It was Ma Hong. She had called her friend who had made the Monkey/Mickeys and told her that we had been interested. The friend lowered the price and we agreed to buy. Apparently they each take turns watching the gallery for a month while the other stays home creating more work. We returned to the gallery and were pleased with our purchase.
Eventually we found ourselves in the Gao Brothers Studio. It wasn’t on our gallery map – for good reason it turns out. The Gao Brothers’ signature image was “Miss Mao,” a bust of Chairman Mao with breasts (“The Communist Party is the mother of China”) and a Pinocchio nose (“The Communist Party is the mother of China”). Again, we needed some explanation of this which was helpfully supplied by one of the brothers. By this time it was well after 7 and we weren’t in a gallery but in the artists’ work space. Since we had the ear of one of the brothers, we asked him about being an artist in China and censorship. He said that he felt pretty free to make what he wanted and he and his brother had exhibited in Europe and America. However, he told us, they couldn’t show “Miss Mao” anywhere in China. How about the nude photography that was hanging on the walls? No problem. But nothing political.
By this time we were tired and found Café Cave for a drink and some decent pizza. We talked to Shaun, our guide, about some of the things we had seen (he had never been in the area, but looked forward to coming back with his friends). What do you do with your friends? we asked. Hang out, play games, go out to eat, he said. How about you? Do you like discos? Julie said she liked salsa dancing. By this time, I was getting sleepy and we packed up to head out.
And then we peeked into the next room where the tables were all cleared, the floor was bare and a mirror covered one long wall. What’s going on? Salsa class! With the music blaring, we got new life and took a salsa lesson from a great Venezuelan dancer who had lots of flair and extra moves that he put into the rhythm. He was a great teacher, stressing the basics and then showing us some of those added touches as motivation to learn. And he refused payment from us, and even complimenting me (“You’ve danced before.” – a mild compliment but thrilling for me as a salsa beginner).
When Shaun asked us what we liked best in China, we had to admit that this may have been the best night.