PRINT December 2004



BEIJING IS A MONUMENTAL WORK IN PROGRESS, ON A SCALE, like many things in China, that is a constant reminder of one’s microscopic position within a population of 1.3 billion other little specks. Any first-time visitor will remark on the slowly gyrating skyline of cranes. Veterans of the city will nonchalantly point out clusters of new towers that only recently were empty sites or, in many cases, old Beijing. Indeed, Beijing’s perpetually becoming new is, in a way, its most reliable urban constant.

Inevitably this pattern of unceasing change is woven into the city’s artistic and cultural fabric. Consider the best-known art zone in Beijing, the Dashanzi Art District (also called the 798 Factory). Formerly a military factory built in the 1950s in collaboration with East Germany and the Soviet Union, Dashanzi comprises a series of large, open-plan concrete buildings topped with sawtooth skylit roofs and stamped with Cultural Revolution–era slogans proclaiming, for example, that Mao Zedong will live for ten thousand years. The transformation began in the late ’90s when the Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of Beijing’s major art schools, established a massive sculpture workshop there. Artist Sui Jianguo, dean of CAFA’s sculpture department, soon moved his studio to the area. In 2001, Robert Bernell opened a publishing house and bookstore, Timezone 8 Art Books. Later that year, the first gallery, Beijing Tokyo Art Projects, was opened by Tokyo Gallery’s Tabata Yukihito, followed in 2003 by 798 Space Gallery, opened by photographer Xu Yong.

Today, Dashanzi features an array of international galleries—including London’s Chinese Contemporary, Berlin’s White Space, Singapore’s China Art Seasons, and Milan’s Marella Gallery Beijing 798 (whose doors will open to the public in March)—not to mention artist studios, workshops, offices, restaurants, and cafés. In fact, Dashanzi is now Beijing’s largest venue for new art, an important destination for international curators and collectors to discover contemporary work. And yet, significantly, the area occupies the opposite end of the spectrum from Beijing’s most prominent museums, which are generally unwilling to exhibit new or experimental art, and therefore points to a strange incongruity within the country: The West’s interest in art from China has been so phenomenal, the subject of numerous international museum exhibitions, that contemporary Chinese art is now often more visible in the West than in China itself.

In this context, Dashanzi has faced the prospect of demolition ever since it was first created. One key story of 2004 was the continuing struggle between artists and developers who have in recent years sought to transform the zone into a “New Silicon Valley,” threatening to apply a by-now-commonplace formula in China: demolish anything more than a few years old, wipe it clean, start anew. In April, Huang Rui organized the first Dashanzi International Art Festival—a series of exhibitions, performances, lectures, and symposia—to make the area more visible to the international community as a significant cultural center. The high volume of visitors, and increased media interest in Dashanzi (the event even received New York Times coverage), made government authorities aware of the area’s cultural importance, not to mention its potential appeal as a tourist draw during the Olympics here in 2008. As a result, they recommended that the area’s buildings should not be torn down. It remains to be seen how strongly this will be enforced.

This lingering uncertainty is a microcosm of the larger forces enveloping Beijing. In many older portions of the city, homeowners do not know if their houses will exist in the next few years, months, or even days. The momentum of the new is so unrelenting that Beijing is hardly an ancient city any longer. Little of the original urban fabric is left intact, having been reduced either to slums after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution or to rubble as a result of current property speculation. There are also the lanweilou or, literally, “rotten remnant buildings,” solemn concrete shells of unfinished projects, abandoned for various reasons—a developer lost his backing or was arrested or simply disappeared along with loan money.

Such tensions find numerous expressions in contemporary Chinese art—I’m thinking of Zhang Dali’s interventions in demolition sites, or Ai Weiwei’s performances of destroying genuine historic artifacts—yet in 2004 the architectural community might have provided their most poignant measure. This year, architects from around the world working in China had the chance to showcase their efforts in the first Beijing Architecture Biennial. The exhibition, which was to include symposia on ambitiously broad-ranging topics such as “Art and Architectural Creation in the 21st Century” and “Architecture/ Non-Architecture,” featured seemingly everyone in the architecture world and sprawled over eight exhibitions throughout the city, including one at the China National Art Museum. But organizers, in the spirit of the times, ultimately saw an opportunity to turn a quick profit and set ticket prices between $250 and $1,200—the latter including a “free introduction service to architects, engineers, designers, developers, [and] decision makers . . . for business contractual purpose.” Many prominent Chinese architects withdrew; exhibitions and forums ended up sparsely attended; and intellectual efforts, if there were any, seemed irrelevant. And so the event was less remarkable for any vision of the city’s future than as an indicator of the sheer volume of architectural energy now pouring into China. Intended to present the country’s ideal future, the exhibition could not escape the profiteering and messiness of the real world. For the time being, perhaps nothing can.

Sze Tsung Leong is a photographer based in New York and Beijing. His work is exhibited in the 2004 Taipei Biennial.