Posted by: David Stewart | October 1, 2011

"Is it art?" You be the judge. (Fat-faced kids in Beijing)

Back in February of 2009, I had a couple of hours to kill in Beijing, and having seen most of the monuments and tourist sights in and around the city, I decided to check out the 798 Arts District.

In September 2011, I went back to 798 because it’s one of those places that is constantly changing and is impossible to absorb in one visit.

798 Arts Zone is a massive area of former military factory buildings which has been converted to a collection of galleries, cafes and shops, filled with contemporary art. Frowned upon by the Communist government for many years, avant-garde Chinese art still has some less than enthusiast critics. "Is it art?" asks the China Daily, pointing out some of the extreme examples.

In my visit in 2009, I found the art to be quite tame – I have seen more shock-value pieces in my home of Portland, Oregon than I saw there.

In my return this year, I noticed a couple of clear trends:

  • 798 has become a major destination for portrait photographers. I saw a number of them either shooting photos or setting up or tearing down their equipment. In a city filled with the biggest collection of unconventional buildings in the world, reeking of space age UFO buildings and experimental structures, the obsolete industrial tech of the 1950s was more interesting for Beijing’s well-healed brides and grooms. 798 Art Center, Beijing
  • The art was still pretty tame by Western standards. There might be some images which might offend a truly delicate person, but in general there was not much to offend.
  • In spite of what I would consider inoffensive art, there were a few pieces which I would consider surprisingly critical of the people or of the government’s drive to make the people rich by monetary measures. This is a good sign of tolerance by the Chinese government. After all, an important role of art in a society is to comment on the culture and give new insights to it, perhaps showing the comical aspects of what people take for granted. This can be a pretty touchy, particularly if the central government’s goal is to build up national pride. 798 Art Center, Beijing
  • I was surprised how many art pieces had a common motif – round-faced children, often with rosy cheeks and a vacant expression. These kid images might be dressed as Buddhist monks or Chinese soldiers, repeated perhaps dozens of times, but it popped up enough to make me wonder if there was something in Chinese contemporary culture to explain it. I don’t know, but I wonder if over 20 years of the One Child Policy in China has created a cult of children. In a country where it is the norm to have only one child, the toddler seems like a revered figure, doted on and indulged by parents. Perhaps this is a commentary on it. 798 Arts District, Beijing
  • You can’t possible visit all of the galleries and shops in a couple of hours, it needs at least a full day to explore things. Take advantage of the cafes to get re-hydrated and re-energized or risk fatigue and burn-out.

I took a few photos in 2009 which are in this set on Flickr. More recent photos of 798 are in this set.



  1. zelasty reblogged this on Express yourself.

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