Constructing The Real (E)state of Chinese Contemporary Art: Reflections on 798, in 2004

By Thomas J. Berghuis

One night in May 2004, I was in a taxi on my way back from Tongxian, 19 kilometers east from Beijing and heading towards the direction of Dashanzi, where I had been working during the previous three months to help realize the First Dashanzi International Art Festival. Most of the city was covered in darkness – a view that was interrupted by waves of highway lights pounding through the windows. The taxi speeded through the midnight traffic of lorries and trucks that were carrying the resources that supply all life in this gargantuan city. I couldn’t help asking myself: What makes the development of an art district at Dashanzi so important for this city? Is it able to represent experimental art production in China, or is it more geared towards the promotion of a trendy popular culture and promoting the new real (e)state of contemporary art in China? My thoughts wondered off in the night.

I consider myself lucky to have been amongst the first foreigners to visit the 798 Factory compounds at Dashanzi, as it made its transformation from an industrial zone to a trendy cultural district. I first visited Dashanzi in late 2001, together with the prominent Chinese art critic Li Xianting. We entered an old basketball court that had been turned into a thrilling modern complex that hosted a design studio and an office space for the New Wave (Xin Chao) art magazine, which was supported by a group of artists and art critics including Wu Wenguang, Qiu Zhijie, and Li Xianting. Unfortunately time had already caught up with these pioneers of experimental art in China, and soon after moving to Dashanzi the magazine got into financial trouble when it failed to attract new sponsors who were willing to support the next generation of experimental artists.

In November 2001 I spoke with a group of local artists about the tremendous growth of contemporary art exhibitions that where held across major cities in China. At that time we counted around 400 exhibitions had been staged in Beijing during the spring and autumn periods alone; many of which were held in ‘underground’ spaces and private residences spread across the entire municipality. Everyone seemed to be working hard in keeping up with the spirit that originated in the early 1990s – a spirit of constant experimentation, marked by a strong attitude and a desire for change on the part of the artists and their curatorial cohorts. Together, they ensured a constant flow of new art works that would forever change the way we conceive contemporary art in China.

Moving back to the 798 factory compounds at Dashanzi – a place that I came to visit again in the autumn of 2002 – things were starting to change. A growing number of artists had started to take up residency in more of the old factory halls and warehouses spread across the entire complex, and there was talk of a new experimental art district. Yet, amidst the excitement of new developments there was also talk about the possible demolition of the district in a few years to make room for high-rise apartment blocks. Nonetheless, many, including myself, seemed optimistic about even the short-term impact that this district could offer in becoming a place to showcase the true might of Chinese experimental art. At the same time, we knew that such a development would go hand in hand with the rapid gentrification of the district as a place for cultural leisure, which was already apparent with the number of trendy cafes and restaurants that started to be built.

Over the years, Dashanzi Art District managed to encompass all aspects that allow the recent district for experimental art production to become a site for fashionable marketing of contemporary popular culture. This becomes further evident in the terms that are now commonly used in describing this district. Frequently referred to as Beijing’s Soho, offering ‘loft-style’ warehouse spaces that accommodate the best of ‘hip art’ and ‘trendy culture’ in China, Dashanzi is clearly a place very different from what it was a few years ago. The entire area has turned into a site for cultural leisure, allowing foreign and local visitors to gaze at what is thought to be new Chinese culture at its best.

Experimental art production in China is working itself away from the underground scene, and into the realm of popular culture. Walking through Dashanzi it becomes evident that this place is no longer aimed at the production of new art, but rather becomes a market place for contemporary lifestyle that mixes buying a few canvases with a comfortable dinner and a chat over a familiar bottle of red wine before heading back to the airport. Travelling back from Tongxian, one of the main districts were real artists live, work, and talk to each other in Chinese, I feel less and less inclined to consider Dashanzi as being somehow representative of experimental art in China.

Clearly, Dashanzi has nothing to do with any of the experimental spirit that was evident in the 1990s, nor with the 400 underground exhibitions that were organized across Beijing in 2001. These days, the experimental art scene is reinventing itself as a highly profitable and marketable, commercial cultural industry. Is there still hope for real experimental art to exist? Perhaps not, unless people are willing to educate themselves of its history, and the move from true experimentalism to the new real (e)state of Chinese contemporary art.

Dr Thomas J. Berghuis is a lecturer in Asian Art at the University of Sydney, Australia and a Consultant Lecturer at the Sotheby’s Institute of Arts in Singapore. His book, Performance Art in China, has been published in 2006 with Timezone 8, Hong Kong.