If a Chinese artist had been asked 10 years ago what he thought the ideal location for his work was, it would have been unlikely that "Beijing" would have been the response. However, according to local scene insiders, this has been the rule rather than the exception for at least five years now. Even artists who left the country in response to political repression or in hopes of making a better life for themselves are now returning to the Chinese metropolis. The Dashanzi Art District -- known simply as "798" to aficionados and located in the northeastern part of the city -- is the best example to date of a site where foreign visitors can see for themselves the serious art scene that has developed in Beijing. Starting on April 30th, a four week long multi-media cultural program, the Dashanzi International Art Festival (DIAF), was held there for the second time under the motto "Language / Fable" (Yuyan / Yuyan).
According to directives issued by the Chinese government, cab drivers are supposed to learn English in preparation for the upcoming Olympics. This is a skill also desired by those who wish to go to the Dashanzi area these days. However, even with the aid of a Chinese-English city map and a map produced by the events organizers showing in detail the route from the airport expressway, the voyage -- like so many others in Beijing -- becomes an odyssey. You learn one thing very quickly here: The cell phone numbers on every invitation and business card serve to help call a person familiar with the area to guide the driver to the desired destination in Chinese. The reward for putting up with inconveniences such as traffic jams and aimless wandering is, however, well worth the effort in this case and a comparable equivalent can hardly be found anywhere else in the world.
Formerly one of largest military complexes in Asia, according to the catalogue, the maze-like factory and living quarters covered 500,000 square meters. The workshops based here provided approximately 20,000 workers with room and board. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many people from the Berlin art scene rejoiced at the empty buildings in the center of the city and surrounding area -- but even those beneficiaries of East-West German heritage would turn green with envy at the sight of 798. Designed by GDR architects at the end of the 1950s, the Bauhaus-style building complex, with its impressively modern, reduced architectural form, is appreciated by nearly every admirer of this style.
The eyes of foreign visitors, however, are captured by the marks that history has left on this place. Red letters in the central exhibition hall read: "President Mao is the red sun that shines in our hearts." Our Chinese companion was visibly bored as he translated this message for us -- apparently such remnants of the past neither hold any interest nor represent any esthetic value for the current generation of students.
This is, however, not the case for designer Feng Ling, one of the residents of the complex. Her trademark features a picture of Mao and she sells her fashion creations at prices that are clearly intended for foreign customers. "No," our translator told us, "Chinese people would not wear something like that."
The 798 catalogue and homepage show the changes that have taken place over the decades in the cathedral-like main hall. This building was actually the only one numbered 798, whereas the manufacturing plant was numbered 718. All military facilities in the Peoples Republic of China were numbered beginning with the digit seven. However, since this building was where the development of Dashanzi into a center for contemporary Chinese art began, the number itself has become a symbol of the entire complex.
New Yorks trendy Soho district is often referred to as a point of comparison when describing 798. This comparison, however, falls short. The lingering political past of the complex gives foreigners in particular an inkling of a painful part of Chinese history. That the dismal, wretched everyday life of the simple Chinese man continues on right next to the exciting creative buzz of the art scene is starkly illustrated in the immediate juxtaposition of the art districts increasingly international public with the 5,000 Chinese workers who scrape out a meager existence in the remaining workshops and dilapidated dwellings. Their observant glances at the photograph-snapping tourists make it clear that the transformations that have taken place here are still far from being considered commonplace. The scale on which Mao built 798 is still a reminder of the past for older Chinese people. It was only in the 1980s that the demand of the goods manufactured at the factory dried up -- along with the governments financial support -- as an adverse consequence of Deng Xiaping's policy of openness.
The Central Academy of Fine Arts discovered the site in the middle of the 1990s. Efforts were initiated to catch up with all that had happened meanwhile in the established international art scene. Decadent events that left a wasteland in their wake became part of everyday life. Ateliers and loft-style apartments popped up. In recent years the process of internationalization has rapidly led to the current makeup of the site. According to official reports, there are 33 ateliers, 20 designers and 10 galleries, as well as a number of cafs and shops located here. But these figures are probably already outdated. Marella Gallery, whose headquarters are in Milan, first opened March 28th with a Cui Xiuwen photomontage exhibition for which a trilingual staff from Italy was brought in. How simple life can be. In the case of White Space, a somewhat secluded gallery opened in February 2004 by Berlin gallery owner Alexander Ochs, potential communication problems were preempted by hiring an employee with excellent English skills (far from standard in all galleries), a Chinese-speaking trainee as well as a Chinese employee who had studied in Berlin and spoke German fluently. Perfect.
Those who have become accustomed to seeing Chinese artists also exhibited in the foreign galleries of 798 will be surprised to see Ochs current exhibition of works by Jrg Immendorff in Beijing. The explanation for this sounds plausible: in Berlin, the gallery owner displays art by known Chinese artists as well as by those who have just recently been discovered; in China, Ochs exhibits the major German artists about whom Chinese art enthusiasts know nothing. In short, culture transfer. A glance at what is offered in the so-called official "art bookstores" shows the extent to which this absence of knowledge exemplifies the dilemma of those who have not yet had the opportunity to travel abroad -- the appearance is produced that there was an international pause in creativity in between impressionism and expressionism and the art of the present day. Shockingly, this vacuum is fostered by official art institutions.
Besides Italian and German galleries, 798 also houses Londons Chinese Contemporary Gallery, an institution which simply cannot be overlooked as far as Chinese art is concerned. In addition to its hovering office floor, which plays off of the height of the exhibition area, the gallery also has no qualms about the kitsch shock effect of displaying an eye-catching sculpture of a weeping youth in high-gloss porcelain by Xu Wejui. Anyone who has heard the sappy love songs that play in every department store and bar in Beijing knows instinctively what the artist is trying to express.
France is represented by the gallery Xin-Dong Cheng pour lart contemporain. Here, a white cube style passageway with polished concrete leads into a small courtyard that is used very effectively for the placement of a bleak, headless gray torso of Mao by Fui Jianguo. In front of it are crouching, headless female figures by Liu Jianhua. This represents just a small sample of the younger art generations simultaneously ironic and humorous view of their countrys recent history and of the presents cult of trash.
From the range of Chinese galleries, Long March Space should be mentioned. It is not very easy to find and the first glance into the gallery reveals surprisingly dim lighting and an array of spaces that are not immediately visible. The multimedia versatility of the exhibited artists reveals a number of surprises. Of particular interest is the playful interplay with a genre that was still taboo 10 years ago: nude photography. Here, eggshells scattered like flower petals over the body obscure the view of would-be voyeurs.
80,000 visitors attended the first DIAF, which was also the first independent art exhibition ever in Beijing. The growing number of participating institutions is indicative of the increasing public interest it is receiving. The China International Gallery Exposition, taking place in the World Trade Center at the same time, is a further incentive for international visitors. A shuttle service between the two locations should prevent difficulties with orienting oneself.
Even without the bustle of a festival, the ambience of 798 and its focus on internationally exhibited contemporary Chinese art is quite an experience. One appreciates the achievements of Dashanzi Art Districts Chinese initiators even more when comparing it to a publicly sponsored and curated cultural institute such as the National Art Museum of China. Here, the façade and foyer attempt to hide the deplorable state of affairs -- yet the taped carpet, dangerously unstable ramp, crooked stenciled inscriptions and the uninterrupted flickering of camera flashes going off just centimeters away from oil paintings tell an entirely different story. A deafening piano rendition of "Pour Elise" drones on in an endless loop in every rest area. It is better not to mention the utterly outdated works exhibited here; the smug smile of every culture consumer spoiled by the West would fade away.
The fact that the wrecking ball continues to hover above 798 is not to be forgotten. However, those that live in China realize the impermanence of the present.
ULRIKE MÜNTER writes on art and literature from Berlin and Beijing.