China’s art scene is flourishing — and nowhere more so than in Beijing, with its exciting art districts nurturing everything from the commercial to the avant-garde
Beijing has been a hot destination in art circles for some time now, but to find out what’s new and exciting, you need to go to the periphery of the city. Or so my guide, gallery assistant Sylvia Bai, tells me. We get out of the car in an artists’ colony called Heiqiao, which means Blackbridge, and it certainly feels like the edge of the world: there is nothing here but derelict buildings and a terrifyingly empty sky. “Are you sure this is where the cool kids want to be?” I ask. I’ve been told that art dealers and gallery owners come here hunting for new talent. She laughs and beckons me into a suspicious-looking alley leading us to goodness-knows-where.
In fact, it opens out to a charming garden in front of a string of converted warehouse spaces. The huge live/work units are fronted with vast glass windows; inside, walls are covered with canvasses, sketches, bookshelves. Artists are working, pottering, chatting. The atmosphere of collaborative creative living is a combination of Californian hippie and East German commune.
It’s clear that art is central to life here. Artist Zhai Liang greets us, saying that, unlike other Beijing art districts, warehouses here are still cheap enough to attract the young, the up-and-coming, the idealistic and the crazy. “The power and money may be in the centre of Beijing,” he says, “but this is the avant-garde. For now.”
Zhai Liang gives me a tour of his personal studio. Originally from Shanxi province, he has already had two solo shows, one at White Space Beijing and the other in Chengdu, and been an artist in residence in New York; all this by the age of 32. Many canvasses on display are from an exhibition entitled The Garden of Forking Paths — delicate self-portraits and abstract pieces, reflective and thoughtful. I ask him about living and working in Beijing. He talks enthusiastically about it being open-minded, explosive, a place of ideas and insane energy. Here, he has the freedom to be himself while living among like-minded artists. I hear this refrain repeatedly during this visit: artists who want to strike an individual note yet at the same time benefit from a shared community. “I am a lone wolf,” Zhai Liang says, but then laughs. “Beijing is a city full of lone wolves!”
Sylvia drives me from the home-spun, cottage-industry feel of Blackbridge to a very different art zone, the epicentre of Beijing’s commercial art-scene: District 798, Dashanzi. Every road has a plethora of imposing galleries and coffee shops that wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn. Swish restaurants sit next to designer boutiques and yet, somehow, it is undeniably Beijing. This area is a tangible intersection of art and money. It’s the living definition of “cultural quarter” or “creative cluster” and, as is often the way with heavily gentrified areas, now has an evident self-consciousness about its status. The entire district was once a factory that made military equipment, the buildings designed by East German architects lending the area an odd but appealing Bauhaus-Communist-Chinese vibe. I meet up with Hsinke Lee, director of exhibitions at Long March Space gallery in the heart of District 798. We go for an upmarket coffee on Middle Street and she tells me that Beijing is where it’s at in terms of ideas, creativity, commercial viability, finding new talent and providing a shop front for contemporary Chinese art to be sold to the rest of the world.
China’s astonishingly fast rate of development is reflected in its presence on the global art market: the pace of production, the exchange of huge sums of money, a whirlwind sense of an incredible number of exhibitions and views. Galleries keep pace by diversifying and mushrooming: places such as BTAP (one of the District 798’s original galleries); the impressive Ullens Contemporary Art Centre, funded by Belgian philanthropists; Galleria Continua; Platform China. It’s exciting to walk through the streets here, with sculptures on every corner and endless adverts for multimedia installations or exhibitions. A palpable sense of a thriving industry emanates not just from gallery shop fronts, but from the bricks of the converted factory buildings and the cobbled stones in the floor.
As I walk the Beijing streets I get a sense that the “art scene” and the raw matter of the city are inextricably linked. This is reinforced when I meet Liu Wei, an internationally renowned sculptor, painter and multimedia installation artist. Much of his work takes “found materials” salvaged from the never-ending construction and deconstruction of the city around him. Doors, window frames, paper and even dog-chews all find their way into his work. At one of his warehouse studios just outside District 798, I stand in front of a futuristic cityscape made from compressed paperback books, and note that his work has a profoundly architectural element. I ask him what the city means to him as a born-and-bred Beijinger. “Beijing is my reality,” he says. “It is how I understand everything.” But he insists that he doesn’t feel pressure to be a spokesperson for the city. Liu Wei was part of the ground-breaking 1999 Post-Sense Sensibility exhibition, which contributed to Chinese contemporary art bursting on to the international circuit, beginning the transformation of District 798 into the global destination it is today.
“I’m no longer part of a group, or a collective. I am in charge of my own destiny now,” he says and my tour through his vast kingdom, with teams mixing paints, curing leather and blowtorching metal for his latest projects, certainly testifies to that.
The next day Sylvia takes me to Song Zhuang, a very different artists’ colony in East Beijing. The feel is less industrial, more agricultural. Sylvia explains the area: “Song Zhuang is different from other art districts where the local government gives out land and galleries and the artists move in. This area has gained a momentum of its own. There are now more than 40,000 artists living here today. It is unique.”
As with everything else in Beijing, this artists’ colony is on an almost immeasurable scale. We are on our way to visit the famous female sculptor Xiang Jing’s studio, but we get lost, even though Sylvia works in this area every single day. We drift in confusion through a maze of roads, continually hitting dead-end streets and circling back on ourselves. All around from behind brick walls is the sound of whizzing, whirring, drilling, welding and hammering. “Song Zhuang is a microcosm of China’s process of urbanisation in the past 20 years,” Sylvia says, reversing out of yet another cul-de-sac, “a chaotic mix, easy to get lost in, a weird combination of wealth, poverty and lack of logic.”
Xiang Jing’s gallery space is as impressive in size as Liu Wei’s, but with a distinctly more feminine touch. The artist herself is petite, with a powerful presence, and her adopted dogs roam the rooms. Plants and a pond give the studio a nurturing feeling. Rather than teams of employees, her assistants are like family, each with a residential room in the studio. Work from several of Xiang Jing’s exhibitions is on display. Groups of naked female forms made from fibreglass make eerie companions, pieces from a collaboration with Juergen Teller in Hong Kong.
Does she find the labels “Chinese” and “female” difficult to labour under, I ask. Not at all, she replies. She is comfortable with her role in engaging in a dialogue “with the West”, in speaking for Chinese female artists and negotiating how their work is sold to the rest of the world. Like Liu Wei, she is a Beijinger with a strong association to the city.
“Working within limitations is how you find freedom,” she says. “Sculpture is like that. There are limitations, but you keep going, inwards, to find the answers. Beijing is like that — there are limitations, but you can choose your own life and live it.”
Xiang Jing is generous, I can tell, with the artists she chooses to help and support. When I leave, the team slips behind the vast studio doors to resume the strange business of creating personal, intimate art that will swim out into the wider world.
Having explored these contrasting art districts I am filled with a sense of the complexity of China. The vibrancy is invigorating, as is the dynamism pouring out of the artists living and working here, whether it’s fresh talent living on a shoestring in Blackbridge, or successful sculptors creating in Song Zhuang.
The art scene of Beijing exemplifies the uniqueness of China: the surreal, the illogical, the organically expanding. Above all, I come away with a feeling of unstoppable energy: a creative industry that contributes to a fascinating global conversation, while remaining very much an expression of itself.
Suzanne Joinson’s second novel The Photographer’s Wife is published by Bloomsbury