The 798 Art District: Gallery of Galleries

An example of the 798 Art District’s industrial heritage.

Located in the northeastern part of Beijing and a conveniently short walk from Wangjing South Bus Station, the 798 Art District has been one of my favorite spots since I arrived in the capital. Not only does it house the best work of contemporary art from China and the world, but also preserves countless fascinating stories with its historic buildings.

As a History major, I couldn’t help but dig into the art district’s background and history, and I was not disappointed with my findings. The community began in the early 2000s, when young artists started moving into the largely abandoned industrial area for the workspaces in which they could express themselves. This compound of disused Bauhaus-style workshops built in the 1950s still looks much as it has been since completion and even preserves original Maoist slogans on many of its walls. For me, the high ceilings, large, empty spaces and asymmetrical piping from the buildings’ previous incarnation add to the ambiance and drama of the innovative art displayed on its walls. The area has rapidly grown in popularity, and in 2004 it held the first Dashanzi Art Festival, which landed the district on the global map.

A mural on a side street.

The 798 Art District has grown in recent years and now displays a wide range of worldwide contemporary art while continuing to support the local art community.

As a representative of international contemporary art, the art district has become host to a collection of galleries, all celebrating innovative expression. Exhibitions range in both movement and medium, displaying pieces of every style. I was pleasantly surprised by how different and innovative many displays were compared to the more classical art that is seen most often back in the United Kingdom. I was particularly captivated by an exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) called “The New Normal,” which exhibited new works by 23 artists from both China and beyond. Everything at the exhibition aimed to tackle and respond to international issues plaguing society today. Instead of producing a purely visual experience, these pieces brought other senses into play to create an engulfing experience involving senses of sound, sight and color to elicit an emotional response.

Works outside the Zhu Bingren Art Museum.

The outdoor areas of the 798 Art District are also a gallery thanks to an extensive collection of street art and sculptural installations. These works range from small metal sculptures of insects to vast murals stretching the length of the street and adding a pop of color against the background of grey metal and concrete block from the industrial era.

A sculpture of dinosaurs in cages outside the UCCA.

The art district is more than just a hub of China’s contemporary art movement. It is a community that continues to thrive and has become an incubator of creativity and innovation for anyone wishing to experiment and express themselves. The art district and its galleries continue to host workshops and seminars, which all contribute to the steady growth of an important expressive stronghold that continues to shape and promote the development of contemporary culture. Moreover, the art district inspires and celebrates both the old and the new. This is what makes it and its art relatable to all, regardless of age, nationality or belief.

Bold graffti and a large statue outside a 3D magic interaction gallery.

Spending only one day exploring the expansive five blocks that make up the 798 is not nearly enough. There was too much to take in and appreciate. As an art aficionado and frequent patron of the arts back in London, I knew that when I left for Beijing to intern, the 798 Art District was a must-see. When I finally stepped into the art district, I thought I knew what to expect, but I had not truly prepared myself for the sheer size of the area or for the emotional response that the exhibits provoked. I was in awe of the artistic creations gracing my eyes. However, the welcoming atmosphere and sense of a perpetually developing artistic community draw me back, just as they have drawn many before me. 

A bronze sculpture of a man holding a boy.

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