Beijing’s Art Districts: From Creative Hubs to Entertainment Centres

By Manuela Lietti 玛瑙

In many places in the world, particularly the 'West', artistic practice has frequently been carried out on an individual basis. In China, however, artistic practice has often been undertaken within the realm of a community of individuals bound by a precise common trait, be it of a political, social or creative nature. In a country whose history and cultural agenda have often been characterized by collective movements, the bond between individual expression and communal practice has always been tight and at certain moments even obliterated the individual's voice. When seen from a socio-cultural perspective, the phenomenon of art districts can be understood as the combination of individual sensibilities operating in a collective context. The rise and metamorphosis of art districts in the last twenty years provides a multifaceted prism through which to analyze the changes in the Chinese art world, art practice and the role of art more broadly.

My involvement as researcher specialized in visual arts in the ambitious project 'Map Beijing!', promoted by the Government of the Netherlands and finished in the spring of 2007, was an opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon of art districts and to consider their situation in Beijing. One of the unavoidable yet typical Chinese characteristics was the transient nature of many situations – a feature, it must be said, that is common to much of contemporary life in the world today. The constantly changing and evolving conditions of life in Beijing are particularly intense, so much so that the city is renowned for operating on so-called ‘Beijing time’.

After the ‘explosion of information’ characterizing the first half of the eighties, which culminated in the collective movement ‘New Wave ’85’ and the return to a standstill of the last years of that decade, the nineties finally saw the birth of two seminal stable art communities: the Yuanmingyuan and the East Village. Both were characterized by the geographic concentration of artists engaged in similar art practices – ‘riff-raff’ painters in the Yuanmingyuan area and the first generation of Chinese performance artists in the East Village. The efficiency or ‘economies of scale’ achieved through the geographic concentration of participants, the interconnectedness among the artists, and most of all the potential to gain strength and self-protection by generating collective action through artistic practices had the combined effect of positioning these two communities on the fringes of society, both geographically and metaphorically.

These two artist villages strongly emphasized the unavoidable fracture between the art world and society, resulting in an increasingly introverted tendency in the art world after 1989. Willingly isolated from the surrounding social and urban context and not desiring the recognition of society or the not-yet-existing market, these two communities were ‘pure’ creative centres: on the one hand, very organized and self-contained microcosms populated or visited only by members of the art circle; while on the other hand, still very spontaneous, allowing the coming and going of their members from all over the country. The two communities embodied a highly political manifesto, an act of independence of the artistic community from the social sphere which at that time banished them and considered such formations as a dangerous ‘surplus’.

By the second half of the 1990s these two communities were closed by the police and their artists dispersed, providing conditions for a new era of Chinese art districts to emerge. The artistic hubs of Songzhuang and Tongxian appeared. Although still located in peripheral areas, these communities went a step beyond their predecessors: even if artists were still aware of being part of a community (albeit one more scattered than in the past), they started to stress their individualism and their necessity for a more private dimension. The shift in policy and structural conditions coupled with the rise of interest by the international art market in contemporary Chinese art added further to the new economic potential of the artist-as-individual. It is not a chance occurrence that after the dispersal of the two early communities of the Yuanmingyuan and East Village, the artistic language and approach adopted by participants shifted from a collective, standardized mode towards a more personal one. This led the art world towards the real fragmentation of styles, the pluralism we witness today, where general trends are hard to discern and where only highly personal aesthetics seem to be tolerated.

Although Tongxian and Songzhuang marked a strong shift, these communities were still too much ‘self-oriented’. It was with the unexpected but rapid development of the new communities of 798 Art District, and then Jiuchang, Caochangdi, Huantie, Heiqiao and 318 International Art Village – to name a few centres which have flourished since 2000 – that art districts were officially recognized as a part of the city life and opened a dialogue with society. These recent centres are all well-organized, hybrid communities often chosen for their strategic position, characterized by the unprecedented coexistence of two dominant forces: creative (artists’ studios) and commercial (galleries, and various art institutions). They are ruled by a precise legislation and have transcended their original function, if they ever had one, as ‘pure’ zones of creativity. They have become key clusters for artistic appraisal and consumption; for better and worse, they have transformed into fashionable entertainment centres attracting both experts and ordinary people. Hardly tolerated at first, and then regarded by the government as the mechanism best suited for the implementation of specific community and economic plans, these art districts have rapidly shifted into an industry revolving around art’s cluster economies and the related business of artists’ studios.

The issue of art districts, and art facilities significant concentration in Beijing, along with their unpredictable expansion has posed questions about their cultural and economic sustainability. The topic is still waiting for an objective and comprehensive response – something that is all too easily overlooked in this current moment of commercial euphoria involving not just artworks but, even more so, art facilities.

Manuela Lietti is an independent art writer, art critic and curator based in Beijing since 2003. In 2003, she graduated from the Department of Oriental Studies of Venice University, completing her bachelor degree thesis on contemporary Chinese art. Then in 2007, she received her Master’s in Chinese History of Art and Criticism from the Academy of Art and Design of Tsinghua University, Beijing. Since 2003 she has been involved in various projects in China and abroad as a curator, coordinator, researcher and writer.