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Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, Revisited, Again (12/9)

After visiting The Museum of Women and Children (See part 3 here), our group checked in with the Beijing arts neighborhood known as 798. (For background on 798, see wikipedia here, but know that the essay needs a refresh.) This area was the focus on an exhibition (just deinstalled last week) that I did last year at the MMWC with help from Luo Wenhong of the Yunnan Nationalities Museum. For Jon Kay, it was his first visit, but for Carrie Hertz, Marsha MacDowell, Kurt Dewhurst, and I it was a revisit. Jon already had a good sense of the place from our discussions (and from the exhibition photographs that he walked by almost every day at the MMWC since April). For the rest of us, it was our reaction that was new.

We know well—from Wenhong’s historical and ethnographic work there and from our own brief visits—that the neighborhood is an always changing place. But this visit caused us to believe that 798 has really now turned another corner. Of the group, I had visited 798 most recently. In May 2016, I captured over 700 images of the neighborhood trying to document its sidewalk visual culture for the exhibition. (“Beijing’s 798 Art Zone” was presented at the MMWC from April 6 to December 17, 2017.) Discussing such things as the gentrification and new high-rise construction that presses in on the neighborhood, the increased presence there of major corporations and their promotional imagery, and a transition from confrontational street art to fun, selfie-friendly graffiti and amusing sculpture, I tried to suggest the ways that 798 is changing. I also tried to evoke some of the factors that were making the neighborhood a different kind of destination, while also noting the slipping away of the artistic cutting edge that other observers have noted. As my efforts were in the spirit of visual and urban anthropology rather than an effort in contemporary art criticism, I did not take a particular stance on these changes, just tried to convey a sense of them.

All that to say that a contemporary arts district is not the kind of place that any of us would visit expecting to find cultural continuity. At the same time, our visit in 2017 did surprise us with how rapidly things can change. It is hard to sort out day-to-day, and season-to-season variations, but the contemporary-art-first version of 798 seemed defeated as judged by its street-level visual culture, as we experienced it last month. Some iconic graffiti and fiberglass sculpture remains. Some of the more robust galleries and retail shops are still there, but in the course of about nineteen months, a lot had disappeared or been degraded. Through its various earlier phases as an arts zone, a kind of playful-but-edgy aesthetics dominated the neighborhood’s visual culture. That aesthetic was haphazard in the sense that it was not centrally coordinated, but it was coherent in the sense that there was the kind of coherence that is the hallmark of many successful art colonies and artistic “schools.” The aesthetic last month had tipped over into the haphazardness of the flea market. (As folklorists, we love flea markets, but the change is noteworthy.) Unlike on recent visits, there was also a lot of empty real retail space.

In the 2017 MMWC exhibition, I showed the store front of the +86 Design Store’s 798 branch, using it as a way of talking about how a commercial culture of cute and of design had been progressively overtaking the oppositional style of the neighborhood. On the latest revisit, +86 had partitioned off the back of the store and seemed to be renting it out as office space, thus reducing significantly the amount of goods available for sale and giving the place an aura of decline. Similarly, suggesting how an exhibition such as the MMWC 798 show is almost immediately obsolete is the case of the Sony display space that I pictured in the exhibition. I used the Sony exhibition space (bright and fresh in 2017) to evoke the ways that corporations were colonizing the neighborhood as a way of connecting with the many visitors that stroll its streets but also as a way of capturing something of the neighborhood’s residual cool factor. On our revisit, the Sony exhibition space was gone and it appeared that a failed spa had already come and gone in its place. The space was not in use. (It is not clear if Sony’s space had always been intended to be short-lived. For an occasional visitor, it is sometimes hard to track the differences between temporary commercial/corporate/foreign government exposition/exhibition spaces and longer-term endeavors.)

Different parts of the neighborhood are faring differently and, despite it being winter, there were plenty of visitors out walking and exploring the neighborhood. It is still, as described in the exhibition, a destination for making selfies and for more professional photo shoots. But emblematic of the newest incarnation of 798 for us was the store called in English “Iran”. As the name suggests, the store offers Persian art and objects. There are familiar kinds of objects such as woven rugs, but then there are (many) less familiar (to me, at least) paintings (?) on black velvet. Iran was crowded with people and crowded with what cultural critics in the west would call  (perhaps misperceiving what they see) orientalist kitsch mixed with textiles, metalwork and other genres with less ambiguous roots in Iran. To see something what Iran in 798 looks like, check out this short YouTube video published soon after our visit. Iran seems to be part of a changing culture of exhibition in 798. As the edgy aura wears off, but as people continue to visit (but, it seems to me, to not spend very much money), the neighborhood becomes useful for quirky soft-power projects. Iran’s place in 798 casts a new light on the Israeli chamber of commerce’s presence in 798 (noted on my last visit) and its activities hosting expo-like events in the neighborhood. (Iran is almost across the street from the Israelis.) Along the same lines, 798 is similarly home to a branch of the Beijing Goethe Institut.

The shift to a more random retail footing can also be seen in other new businesses getting going in 798. An example is the “Custom Barrrl [yes, three Rs, no E] Scotch Whisky Exchange”. The most dramatic new architectural presence is a building marked in English “798 Art Auction Center.” I have not found information online about what is going on with it.

Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, UCCA (Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art) seemed to basically be as it had been on past visits. But a quick Google search shows that it too has been changing recently. For those interested in the state and fate of UCCA, check out this story in the South China Morning Post. The 2017-10-9 story begins with these headlines:

Beijing contemporary art space UCCA sold to Chinese investment group, securing future of 798 Art District landmark

Deal for Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art ends year of uncertainty, and director is hopeful its new status as a foundation will help it raise funds, improve its exhibitions and attract more visitors.

It actually isn’t true that UCCA seemed unchanged at street level. Reviewing our photographs, I recall the shock I felt in seeing that the museum was hosting a bamboo basketry class. Those who know my own enthusiasms can imagine that I see this as a change for the better. Probably so, and in my book this is a rather cutting-edge thing for them to be doing, but still it would have seemed preposterous that UCCA would have had such classes at the time of our first visits there.

Things seemed less promising for us at at the Enjoy Museum of Art, which appeared to us to have closed. (Let me know if you know otherwise.)

Other new developments: a decorate-your-own-ceramics place, more kid-oriented retail and amusements, lots of boutiques with sophisticated women’s wear, many street vendors selling the kind of foods one can get in Chinese city parks (candy glazed strawberries on a stick, for instance), and lots of card-tables-on-the-sidewalk retail of used and simple domestic goods (these in particular contribute to the flea-market vibe) and tchotchkes. As is true everywhere in Beijing now, rental bicycles are ubiquitous in 798 and they crowd at the entrances to the district.

Of course, a series of quick visits and walkabouts are not the same thing as sustained attention, historical, ethnographic, or otherwise. It is not possible to fully understand the state and fate of 798 without deep knowledge of the political economy and culture of Beijing, China, and the international worlds of art, culture, and discourse in which these intersect and entwine. I am glad that there are in-the-know scholars working on these larger contexts in which 798 has a place.

As we entered 798 on this visit and approached the visitor center, we noticed that the sculpture on the left had been replaced by the less unnerving one on the right…

 

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