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Day 106 – Art Amongst The Factories (798 Art District)

June 17, 2010

Dateline: Beijing, China – Thursday, June 17, 2010

Beijing is a great city if you love history. The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Lama Temple, all are gateways into the past. Beijing is also great if you like big wide boulevards and lots of cars and smog. It’s a modern city to rival any other.

Beijing, I’ve discovered, is a lot like Los Angeles. If you try to take it in on your own, you get one impression of the city, but when you go with a local you get another. If you visit L.A. on your own, you think it’s all traffic and sprawl. Miles of freeway with a bland assortment of buildings in between. Visit with someone who knows where to look and you’ll find interesting neighborhoods tucked into surprising places. A little taqueria that serves the best BRC burritos, a cluster of Korean restaurants that serve the best bulgogi this side of the Pacific, or a hidden park with joggers and families out with their kids. Like L.A., Beijing’s treasures are there to be discovered, you just have to know where to look.

With Max’s guidance, I’ve been able to find some of Beijing’s hidden treasures. One night, we went to a spot near Max’s old university and found Beijing’s Korea town, local night market, and an active street life. He showed me the wonders of Uyghur Spanish music at 31 Bar in a quieter part of the Houhai Lake.

Max has also suggested that I visit the 798 Art District. It’s not on the tourist trail. It’s not even in my guidebook. Max hasn’t steered me wrong, yet, so I opted to explore 798 for an afternoon.

The day started out pouring rain. I waited out the storm through lunch, braving it twice to try to try to buy a train ticket from a nearby office (second time: success). By the time I hailed a cab to 798, it was already afternoon. I showed the driver my map with the district circled and we were off. 20 minutes later, through wet streets and traffic, we pulled into one of the district’s gates.

798 is city block in northeast Beijing on the way out to the airport. Home to an old factory complex, the buildings and worker housing have been transformed into an artist community. Warehouses, offices, and workshops have been refitted into galleries and coffee shops. The area doesn’t seem to have any artist studios, but this is a place where Chinese artists can show off their work.

The factory complex provides a great setting. Smokestacks tower over the narrow streets between buildings of assorted size. Large pipes run along the roads and still spew steam out of nozzles here and there. A lot of the buildings are red brick, giving the place an old but vibrant feel. You’ll often work through narrow passageways and stumble across an open square or burst out into a larger street. It’s a wonderful maze in which to discover art.

The real fun is exploring. The maps are frustratingly/delightfully vague. They don’t show which direction is north. Many don’t show where you are on the map; if they do, they don’t identify which direction you are facing when reading the map or show the names of the galleries or coffee shops.

That means you spend a lot of time stumbling in and out of alleys and onto new weird art pieces sitting out the open. Everywhere you turn there are outdoor sculptures, some gigantic, some small, and some in which you can walk around and climb on. Giant birdcages, brass fists, and people with no pants are all hidden somewhere in the rat maze of graffiti covered walls and aging factory equipment.

Galleries are also scattered and vary in size and offerings. Some are multi-floor exhibits with custom built stairs to upper viewing rooms, others are small spaces down the back of anonymous alleys, others are giant rooms devoted to one giant piece, still more are off long interior hallways that riddle the factory buildings. Some galleries are devoted to a particular kind of art like photography, digital media, oil paintings, or pottery. Others are set up for special solo artist exhibitions. Many of my favorites did not permit picture taking. All seem to have the same bored girl sitting behind a desk staring into a computer.

It’s a brilliant way to spend an afternoon. You’re bound to find something that appeals to you. Even for the stuff that isn’t appealing, it’s fascinating to peek into the minds of China’s creative set, especially when you consider they aren’t free create whatever they want. An offensive piece won’t just anger art critics or the public, it may land you in a reeducation camp or gulag.

If you have a bit of time, take a day to go to 798. The buildings alone are worth the visit. Between visits to various exhibits, you can lounge at any of the numerous cafes. Just keep in mind that most galleries close by 6 p.m.

It really is one of my favorite spots in Beijing. I enjoy it so much that I’ve decided to come back tomorrow. This isn’t the kind of place that I want to rush. Tomorrow, I’ll get a chance to wander the blocks that I missed.

GALLERY: Click to view today’s gallery which includes a BMW made of brick, pictures of pottery figurines, a gigantic piece called “Pink Utopia”, two large statues without pants, and a picture Mervyn took in a grocery store of something called “Milf Candy.”

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