Written by Navjot Singh
Neatly balancing modernity with tradition, Beijing’s ancient palaces rub shoulders with a vibrant contemporary art scene. British writer and frequent visitor Navjot Singh explores what’s in store for art lovers in China’s capital city.
Art has always been a vital ingredient of Chinese culture; however, it is the emergence of contemporary art that is taking centre stage. What was once a minor alternative to the other sights in China’s capital city is gradually flourishing.
Despite always having been the cradle of Chinese calligraphy and ink art, Beijing cannot claim to be the most established city for art; however, it can claim to be the most enthusiastic. Art Beijing’s launch in 2005 has put the city on the map. In recent years, the contemporary art scene in China’s political, cultural, and culinary hub has exploded. So much so that Chinese contemporary artists are increasingly gaining recognition abroad too.
In March this year, Hu Zhijun made his international debut in Doha’s Al Riwaq Art Space as one of the artists participating in the exhibition ‘What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China’. The exhibition, the largest Chinese contemporary art collection to be presented in the Middle East, was sponsored by Qatar Museums and chaired by Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani as part of a year-long cultural partnership between Qatar and China. It was curated by the internationally celebrated Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, a regular on the Qatar art scene, who highlighted his work to show the strong connection between Arabic and Chinese civilisation and culture.
Back home in Beijing, with high-rises as far as the eye can see, there is an anticipation in the art community that things are about to go sky-high in the next few years. Unlike some of the other well-known Asian art centres, such as Seoul, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, Beijing still has some catching up to do. However, the fact that in the past 10 years the city’s art scene has grown at a dizzying pace is a true testament that things can only get better.
The vast majority of the city’s major international art galleries are clustered in the swanky art district of 798, sometimes known as the Dashanzi – a 30-minute taxi ride northeast of the centre, showcasing commercial works from emerging and established artists. Creativity is effectively boiling over. Every artist wants to grab the attention of Beijing’s increasingly art-aware audience, the vast majority of whom are from the affluent parts of the city. While the global recession has left many Western economies in the doldrums, this ancient yet stunning city of over 21 million people is holding its house-warming party. Here is where the action is, and here is where art lovers need to be.
Area 798, which is larger than New York’s famed Chelsea gallery area, has enjoyed a rich history going back to the 1950s, when it used to be a state-owned military factory. The Bauhaus-style factory buildings are still standing as they did all those years ago, bearing the architectural wounds of the Cultural Revolution. There is a sense of communist nostalgia looming beautifully in the air, with the only difference being that the Mao suits everyone wore have been replaced with chic Western designer wear and the latest digital wearables. In between the myriad art galleries, there is a blooming café culture. This is Beijing at its hipster best.
Two renowned local artists have had much success in 798 – Liu Liguo and Qiu Xiaofei. Liu embodies classic Chinese style, and Qiu is a contemporary Chinese artist. If you happen to wander into the rather modest studio of Feng Zhengjie, whose work brings close to US$400,000 at auction, you may be forgiven for thinking that you’ve bumped into Picasso in the South of France in the 1930s.
Miru Kim, a well-known contemporary artist, believes that Beijing is destined to become one of the most talked-about art destinations. “The diverse creative talent pool here tends to strongly support culture nationwide, and it is here that art has to embrace that culture,” says Miru, who prefers blue-chip galleries such as Pace Beijing, which is one of the eight spaces belonging to the leading New York gallery Pace. The Beijing branch promotes contemporary art through leading celebrated artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and many others.
Founded in 2007 by Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens, the three-storey Bauhaus-style Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (ucca.org.cn) is quite different to other galleries in 798 because it is a not-for-profit centre aimed at promoting contemporary Chinese art through innovative initiatives. On display until August is Robert Rauschenberg’s (1925–2008) magnum opus ‘The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece’ (1981–98), its 191 parts stretching 305m and exhibited for the first time since 2000.
Exhibitions at the must-see Long March Space (longmarchspace.com) stand at the intersection of contemporary Chinese art, social concept, and public discourse. The gallery is currently hosting Wang Sishun’s much anticipated solo exhibition. On a par with Long March Space, Chinese Contemporary gallery (chinesecontemporary.com) specialises in proudly promoting celebrated local contemporary artists, such as Huang Rui, whose solo show ‘Comerchina’ is being held in June.
A five-minute stroll from 798 is the Caochangdi art district, which houses many compact galleries specialising in contemporary art for serious collectors. Standing alone and away from the main art districts of 798 and Caochangdi is the Red Gate Gallery (redgategallery.com), situated at the top of the magnificent 16th-century Dongbianmen Watchtower in the Forbidden City. The gallery presents work by leading artists such as Lv Peng and Zhou Jirong, hosting up to eight solo shows a year.
For a more cutting-edge vibe, stay at The Opposite House (theoppositehouse.com), an intriguing urban hotel in the chic Sanlitun area, designed by eminent Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Whether you want lavish style or barefoot luxury blended neatly with art, this fabulous architectural marvel, which was the official partner of Art Beijing 2016, hosts quarterly art exhibitions in the atrium, including ‘Silent Theatre’ this year by contemporary artist Zha Songgang.
One of the best places to enjoy a family picnic is the ancient and somewhat less touristy Beihai Park. Located to the northwest of the Forbidden City, the park is a tranquil respite for the senses despite being not far away from the noisy hustle and bustle of downtown Beijing. Children can safely enjoy paddling boats, riding bicycles, or even flying kites when good weather prevails.
Explore the hutongs
Beijing is home to at least 4,000 hutongs – traditional alleyways weaving between courtyard homes surrounding the Forbidden City. The best hutongs to observe are around the Houhai or Nanluoguxiang area. Families can take a rickshaw ride to explore the hutongs and gain an insight into what life was like in Beijing before it grew so significantly.
China Science and Technology Museum
To the north of the city, close to the Olympic stadium, this museum provides a wonderful educational and fun experience for the whole family, and especially for kids under 16. The two main halls host a variety of exhibits, including those from the world of astronomy, aviation, life sciences, and information technology, as well as interactive displays illustrating the rich history of the city.
Chinese contemporary art
Most of the Chinese contemporary art sought in the West is from the 1990s. In Beijing, as well as in the rest of mainland China, there is a serious level of stature attached to buying art. It is more about prestige here than just an exhibition which may have a social value to it. It is one of the key reasons why you see more serious collectors than tourists in the art districts. Almost half the value of Western art in China is from sales of Picasso, Warhol, and Murakami.
In a city where art galleries are becoming more like restaurants, and vice-versa, it’s perhaps best to let someone like Ku Chi Fai, resident chef-de-cuisine at The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing, show you what real Chinese food is like with his culinary magic at Yu. Dining in any one of the seven private chambers, which are heavily decorated with period art, is an experience not to be missed.
No matter what time of the day or year, nothing beats the feeling of standing and admiring the sheer scale and beauty of the world’s largest well-preserved open square, which has welcomed crowds and royalty since 1415. Allow at least two hours to enjoy the full experience. One of the highlights is to witness the flag raising or lowering ceremony that is conducted every day at sunrise and sunset.
This shopping mall is the brainchild of celebrity art director Jeremy Railton, who is famed for designing the world’s largest electric screen in Las Vegas. Thus he brought the same iconic and uniquely creative concept to China’s capital city with this amazing walkway boulevard that houses Asia’s largest sky-screen overhead. Treat yourself to exploring Tourneau, China’s largest watch boutique, D&G, Ferrari, and many more selected luxury brands.
Distance: 6,164 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 35 minutes