I have to admit that being the philistine that many believe me to be, I had never in my life heard of 798 District in Beijing, until my friend Sushmita (in Dubai) mentioned to me that she had been taken there as part of a press familiarisation trip. I’m sure I nodded sagely at her and promptly placed the aforesaid information in the archive file that I am sure occupies a large percentage of my cranium.
But they say information is never wasted and you can imagine my surprise when talking to an artist friend in BJ who happened to mention the galleries and exhibitions at 798 that I was able to regurgitate the little information that had not quite been purged from my memory and come up with – "oh, you mean that complex of East German factories built in the 1950s that have now become a centre of the artistic revival in China" … or words to that effect.
798 Art Zone (798艺术区) is a part of the Dashanzi area of Chaoyang that houses a thriving artistic community - often compared with New York's Greenwich Village. Although it is known as Factory 798, this was only one of several structures within a complex formerly known as Joint Factory 718.
The Dashanzi factory complex began as an extension of the "Socialist Unification Plan" of military-industrial cooperation between the Soviet Union and the newly formed People's Republic of China. By 1951, 156 "joint factory" projects had been realized under the Chinese government's first Five-Year Plan. Factory 718 was built by the East German government with funds earmarked for the Soviet Union as reparation for World War II and was one of six large sites producing top-secret components for the Chinese military until the 1990s.
It was constructed during the late 1950s and early 1960s, just before the Sino-Soviet split, a so-called example of harmonious collaboration between Socialist countries. Its Bauhaus-inspired designs were also meant to showcase (to selected observers only, of course) Mao's vision of China's future as an advanced Socialist state founded on heavy industry and Communist ideology.
The plant came to an inglorious end in the 1990s, when the Chinese government began rolling back its subsidies for state-operated factories. A large number of the buildings were left vacant, some the size of football fields, many of them flooded with natural light. This situation opened the door for some canny officials from the Central Academy of Fine Arts who were looking for an inexpensive factory site for its sculpture department. Soon after, they were joined by a self-proclaimed group of independent artists desperate for a new home after their efforts to create an artist village elsewhere had provoked more restrictions from Communist authorities.
The 798 area is a fascinating collection of streets to walk through, cordoned off from the bustling metropolis of Beijing the other side of a low wall. Here you will encounter “art” to meet all tastes, from left overs of the East German factory days exhorting the workers to pull together for the common good…
to something that appears to be a cross between Alice and her White Rabbit mentor that would surely make Lewis Carroll spin in his grave.
At weekends especially, the place is packed – and not just by foreigners. The Chinese appear as attracted to the weird and wonderful as everyone else here and it is hard to imagine anywhere else on earth that sports as many poseurs per square metre.
The district is also beloved of advertisers, fashion photographers and Chinese couples who want to have their engagement photographs taken in this artistic wonderland.
While I was there I must have counted at least a dozen photographic sessions taking place – and from the bored looks of some of the gallery keepers, this was obviously a daily occurrence.
The art on display ranged from the frankly tacky to some quite interesting pieces, though being the arch philistine, I am not going to tell you which were my favourites.
Keepers of public parks who have a problem of what to do with storing their plastic chairs overnight, could maybe get an idea or two from one particular artist who made some into a tunnel that appeared to have everyone wanting to walk through it from one end to the other for some inexplicable reason.
And then again there was more tat and more tack around practically every corner, though some did bring a smile to people who happened upon these works of art unexpectedly.
If you are prepared to walk off the paved pathways and into some undergrowth, you could if you were lucky come across some nice graffiti that was totally unknown to those treading the straight and narrow.
The art was not just by Chinese artisans, though. 798 has become a Mecca for artists from all over the world. One of China’s neighbours – the DPRK – even has its own exhibition of Korean Military inspired art, though the gallery was totally devoid of human interest when I strolled by.
In keeping with the area's "community spirit", most galleries and spaces don’t charge either exhibitors or visitors. Instead, they generally sustain themselves by hosting profitable fashion shows and corporate events.
Italy was out in force when I passed by, lecturing in Italian at bemused Chinese passers by who nevertheless were happy to pick up free red-white-and-green pens and red-white-and-green iPhone holders. As I don’t have an iPhone I picked up three pens instead, reckoning on them coming in useful one day. No one seemed particularly interested in the prize exhibits which had been flown in from Florence and Milan especially for the occasion. The Chinese obviously prefer free give-aways.
Around a couple more corners, the famed Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery was showing off the works of a Chinese photographer who had superimposed what looked like Geisha girls onto mono-toned prints extending for some two or three metres along their walls. An example of never mind the quality, feel the width, I thought. But then what do I know?
Slightly more uplifting – though only for half the visitors to 798 – was a display of sculpture in the conveniences of one of the many cafes that jostle cheek by jowl with the galleries.
Kitch is also on open sale in the many side stalls that have obviously got their customers pretty well sized up.
One stall even sells bohemian canvas wallets with alluring texts printed on the sides for the mass international market who, it must be said, have not yet discovered this collectable art form.
Examples: Reads wife’s book, listens to wife’s words, instructs the management according to the wife, is the wife the good soldier?
Or how about: Chairman Mao praises me good at chat
Or: Just want to elegant turned behold luxuriant wall
Or: Don’t and I than I’m too lazy and than you
Or: During working I feel sad, when see beautiful girl I am exciting
So, that looks like my Christmas present dilemma is solved for this year at least!
All the while you need to be looking over your shoulder as you walk down the narrow streets to make sure you don’t get mowed over by one of Beijing’s speed-crazy taxi drivers (motto: charge at pedestrians first; ask questions later). The authorities have obviously got the traffic problem all sorted out, though, with signs that let people know what they can and cannot do (though I never did find out the definition of “appropriate”).
But for me the pièce de resistance comes as you get to the eastern end of 798 and find yourself wandering into 751 D•PARK: Beijing Fashion Design Square. OK, when I was there, there was no sign – apart from yet more photographic shoots – of anything remotely resembling fashion, but what you do find is a train and some rusting machines standing at the gate of 751 factory, where coal gas was once produced for the city for more than 40 years. It has now become a huge workshop for fashion designers.
751 was the power supplier for the whole factory area; and in 1964, it expanded and began to supply coal gas for neighbourhoods nearby too. By the end of the 1980s, it was providing one-third of Beijing’s coal gas.
However, in 1997, natural gas came to Beijing as part of the city’s effort to clear its air. In 2003, the 751 factory ceased production and all that was left behind were abandoned workshops, old train engines and rails, rusting machines, twisted pipelines, tanks and chimneys.
In March, 2007, D•PARK was established at the site of 751 factory, when it was designated as the venue for China Fashion Week. The workshop was rebuilt into a hall for catwalk shows, for up to 500 spectators. A huge tank where coal gas was once stored was given a new life as a venue for fashion shows and exhibitions. A captivating and unusual setting, the iron tank was a perfect place for spectacular parties.
751 D•PARK gained fame from the fashion shows it has hosted for China Fashion Week ever since. The old factory, in its incorporation with modern art, is blessed with a unique ambience. The train engine at the entrance, which served the factory for decades carrying coal and oil, is now a favourite subject of photographers and tourists.
For philistine-me, this is what art is really all about.