WildChina Expert Spotlight is a new program for the Year of the Rabbit. WildChina will invite one of our experts to join us for dumpling lunch in the office every other Wednesday and give a short talk. The visit provides our entire staff with an inside scoop on the latest trends in local architecture, journalism, history, art, and countless other fields of interest. And not only do we get to hear some great stories and find out what our experts have been up to with their work, we also get to pass the information on to you.
For the inaugural event, we welcomed Kat Don, our Beijing expert on contemporary art in China. She deftly summed up the comings-and-goings of the Beijing art scene for the staff, taking question after question from a curious crowd. We’d also be remiss not to mention that Kat was just married this past summer, and WildChina had the honor of planning her stylish Beijing nuptials. Congrats from all of us here at WildChina, Kat!
WildChina Travel: What are some starting points for someone interested in visiting the art galleries here in Beijing?
Katherine Don: The 798 Art District is the most well-known art district in Beijing that is great for a self-guided walking tour. The galleries and shops are usually open as of 10am or 11am to 5pm or 6pm everyday, although some may be closed on Mondays. As exhibitions change often, sometimes every few weeks, and finding an exact location may be difficult, it is always best to call ahead. For most people, two hours is ample time for a visit, plus time for lunch or a coffee break; a more intense tour for the serious art lover might consume half a day (3-4 hours).
WCT: What are some of your favorite galleries in the most well-known art district, 798?
KD: The 798 art district encompasses a range of art venues, from warehouse-sized art centers and galleries, fashion design outlets and the occasional artist studio to souvenier shops, design stores and cafes. At the heart of the district is UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) which is a must and a great place to start one’s tour (or end as it has a café and a design shop inside).
Other art venues with consistent art programs are Long March, Pace, Faurschou, Continua, Tang, Boers Li, Hadrien de Monteferrand, BTAP, Chang Art, Beijing Commune, and Cheng Xin Dong. The 798 Space is worth a peek to see the original Bauhaus architecture and original factory slogans. Also, the Yi House boutique hotel located in the fashion design area of the district has contemporary art in its lobby and restaurant. Lastly, Timezone 8 Books and Café is also great for a break to have lunch and browse its stash of art books.
WCT: What do you recommend for art lovers who want to get a bit more off the beaten path?
KD: Caochangdi, just a five minute drive from 798 is Beijing’s other major art district, which has a greater concentration of galleries presenting contemporary art and has much to offer but isn’t as accessible to tourists– you’ll need a Chinese guide or Chinese language skills to get around.
WCT: Are there any other spots you like, perhaps outside of the established districts?
KD: Outside of 798 and Caochangdi, I frequently visit the Red Gate Gallery, located in the Dongbianmen Watchtower; Beijing Center for the Arts (BCA), which is in the Qianmen 23 compound near Maison Boulud; and C5 Art in Sanlitun, which often features some really fun young artists. What’s nice about these three is that while they may be more spread out than galleries within the art districts, choosing one is still close enough to see together in one half-day tour of an art district.
WCT: What’s one of the questions you hear most often?
KD: People seem to view art as a way to interpret the events and life around them. With contemporary art in China, people most often ask about the role of censorship for Chinese artists. Most artists are saavy enough to self-censor their public works, and some do more or less than others, depending on their objectives. Ai Weiwei is an example of an artist whose blithe attitude towards the arts and controversy makes him seem less concerned with the consequences, especially since he has been somewhat idolized by the media.
WCT: What are some basic trends you see in Chinese contemporary art?
KD: Many people just getting to know modern China through its art are interested to know what is on the cutting edge, in other words, how has a society emerged from a decade of drastic historic changes and evolved into the global economic power it is today. This societal change is often described by the generation born in the 1970’s, after the Cultural Revolution and on the cusp of the modern era.
Once referred to as the “Me Generation”, common themes in works of such artists living in China reflect a journey of self-discovery. Instead of growing up, living and working with an almost mandated sense of duty to the government and the public, this generation is encouraged to explore the freedom to build a life around their own wishes and needs. Their art reflects this, as well as an awareness of the independent artistic practice established beyond China.
A wave of very personal art, such as documents of daily life and experience of the mundane, art focused on the “me” and the “I” began to appear. This is in stark contrast to, say, the social propaganda posters of the Red Army or the political outcries of artists from a previous generation. Also during this era, modernization meant a more free market economy. Thus, art began to reflect more the pop culture of a consumerist society. We still see remnants and practitioners of the “me generation” in art today but the somewhat trivial nature is being countered by a movement to incorporate and celebrate elements of traditional art in order to veritably connect with Chinese history, culture and values.
WCT: Kat, leave us with an interesting fact about the current Beijing art scene.
KD: Well, I think one distinguishing characteristic of the art scene in China is its association with education. It is considered the highest honor to be a professor or scholar, which distinguishes one’s resume in addition to exhibitions at well-recognized institutions both in China and abroad. Many established Chinese artists are current professors at the elite art academies, a tradition that encourages students to be well-trained and theoretical.
Image: Kat Don, PSFK