It is the year of the Rat, the first sign of the Chinese zodiac, and in Chinese tradition it is the protector and porter of material prosperity. For Beijing it is also the year in which they Olympics will be held in their grand city on the 8th of August (the 8th month) of 2008…yes, 8 is the Chinese’s lucky number. To put it mildly this is the renaissance year for the Chinese, but mostly for Beijing the governmental head of China. The fact that the entire world will be looking in on a usually quite closed off society adds to the pressure to perform infallibly. However, there is a rebellious culture that is flourishing while the government is busy ripping up old streets to put in new ones in and tearing down traditional building replacing them with modern icons. There are Beijing’s artists!
After having been evicted in 1993 from derelict housing used as make-shift studio near the Old Summer Palace or Yuanmingyuan in Northwest Beijing the artists floated around the outskirts of the city in search for a place to settle their shunned community. Mao’s former Joint Factory 718 built in the 1950’s and abandoned in the early 90’s due to a lack of government funding, became a natural home for Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts when they were in search of low budget workshop area. Slowly local artists began to move in, gallery owners renovated the old factory spaces, and even a few visionary foreign art dealers set up amazing space in what is now called the 798 Art Zone.
No one paid much attention to the rapid influx of artists in an area that used to be considered on the outskirts of Beijing, in Chaoyang District. In the last few years though the picture changed with the arrival of the Olympics and the new Capital Airport. To get to and from the city one has to pass through Chaoyang District and the real estate around 798 is booming causing rental prices to soar, well out of the common artist’s budget. Just this last April when we visited the Beijing Auto Show we also passed through 798 and the roads were being ripped up and the area was completely is disarray, apparently because new roads need to be laid for President Bush’s visit!
The Beijing artist community is strong and resourceful and have been fighting to keep this area protected from tall buildings and commercial propaganda, but in doing so they have had to become commercial themselves. This is where the story gets interesting. A new and pure artistic group of Chinese artists who have been struggling for decades, not only financially but politically suppressed, have found in the west open arms and interest, financial interest, that knows no bounds. This has given the artists power to negotiate and lobby with the government and also unprecedented purchasing power. They have seized the opportunity to claim the areas around 798 and have poured the money into construction of studios that follow Joint Factory 718’s German Bauhaus plans and integration to the landscape. There are no high-rises, most of the buildings are made from brick and glass, with tall ceilings and a lot of natural light. While keeping the old buildings with arched windows and Maoist slogans written in red as an ironic nod to a communist past they have pushed the cut-throat developers out and become ones themselves. It is sad for artistic purists but it shows the resourcefulness of an ancient culture to survive and flourish through change and adversity.
As is any country it is the youth that is more ready and willing to try new things. With lots of new money in the city luxury cars and lifestyles are rampant, but most popular with young kids. Even in the 798 Art Zone aspiring artists dream of following in the nouveau riche bohemian bourgeois Chinese art elite. In doing so they have created a new street style that we call Beijing Streets; it's a bit punk, ‘bling-bling’ chic, and China vintage. And as in most Asian countries it's the ladies who are paving the way, boldly displaying their bodies, driving luxurious SUVs, and being empowered by their freedom. So even though the local government is sweeping the street people out of the city and making it presentable to the over 20,000 journalists expected this summer there are those who will not go, in fact they will stand taller and prouder of their new and improved way of life.