image from ArtSignal
For the few readers not already aware, the 798 Art District in Beijing is wonderful thing to behold, by which I mean a location in China which brings about jaw-dropped wonder. The sheer scale of the installation, with its buildings and restaurants, galleries, auction houses, and so many other art-related facilities, is already a cause for deep impression. But in addition to this typical grandeur, one also gains a strong historical sense of where this place has come from, as the original buildings of the 1950’s East German-funded technology factory center are still largely intact, right down to the strangely airborne heating and plumbing system which lines many of the “foot-traffic only” (in quotes because it is traveled by both feet and wheeled vehicles of just about every stripe). The presence of these structures, from infrastructure “on up” so to speak coupled with the swanky new installations both artistic and shamelessly commercial somehow so entirely encapsulates cutting-edge contemporary Chinese culture that, for expediency sake, I can’t think of a better place to visit for one who might be interested in “what’s going on” in China today.
And by visit I mean, importantly, virtually. Simply by hitting this link one arrives at a 798 digest, something I have been contemplating since my first visit to the area in 2003, when it was a mere Maoist blueprint of what it is today. I had often thought, perhaps because I’ve never felt that I had adequate time to really investigate what is happening in this area, a fact compounded by the explosive growth, such that each time I return its to an exponentially larger territory populated by so many new sites (largely built upon the still warm ashes of the previous tenants). So to have a website that lists artists and galleries, gives a bit of historical information, and links to art centers worldwide, that “pulls it all together” is something I’ve been looking for.
But what are the implications? To have centrality reduces clearly the wily nature of the place, and its wily nature is so essential to its position on the cutting edge. Many artists (Huang Rui, one of the first residents of 798 “before its fame”) are fed up with the commercialism that saps all creative energy and are obliged to leave, and many similar art districts have grown up around 798 in Beijing, not to mention other cities. As the above banner (from the website homepage) makes clear, the market is the driving force of this operation, and the operation with the creation of this website, now seems to have a driver.
Just who this driver is is a matter of some interest. The “contact us” leads to Hong Kong, which is unsurprising given Hong Kong’s leadership in the promotion of Chinese contemporary art extending back into the 1980s. China Avant-garde, one of the earliest exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art (though a full 10 years following the stars 1979 exhibition in Beijing) was largely made possible by Hong Kong support.
So the website comes as little surprise, and is certainly welcome from the point of view of the would-be visitor who does not have a week, month, or year to spend in Beijing. That said, the negative implications of putting the entire area up for sale will also be observed in this blog, among other places.