798: Before and After

November 12, 2008

With a prestigious grant from the Asian Cultural Council, Hammer adjunct curator James Elaine moved to China in April 2008 to seek out emerging artists within China and throughout Asia. This blog provides a fascinating insight into Jamie’s travels and the art world in China.

798: Before and After

798 is the art district in a northeast section of Beijing that cropped up several years ago and has undergone dramatic changes in a very short time. As I understand it, it began spontaneously as an art district, as art and galleries seem to happen anywhere. China is no different. It was not known at the time if it would be allowed to operate forever, fearing closure by the authorities. But eventually the government saw its power to draw tourism, money, and achieve international cultural recognition and decided to not only let it survive but to invest heavily in its infrastructure. This occurred in concert with the citywide overhaul for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It has not only changed the look of 798 from an old industrial factory district to verging upon an entertainment theme park but to also change the content within. Many artists and edgy galleries have already had to move because of soaring rents. What is now replacing them are high-end boutiques, restaurants, and Western galleries. When I arrived in April 08 it looked like a war zone in a forgotten village. I ruined at least 2 pairs of shoes walking everyday through the dirt and mud, and over mounds of brick, broken stone, mortar and garbage. There was no street light, so walking at night was rather dangerous. There were gaping holes in the streets, no warnings and no covers. It would have been very easy to fall into one and never be seen again. Huge plates of granite or concrete jutted out of the mounds of dirt and brick waiting for your head or shins to come along. The entire area was in upheaval. The landscape changed everyday as digging and building went on round the clock without stop. I would go to bed in one place then wake up in a seemingly different location almost everyday. Since I was not familiar with the district it was hard to find the same gallery twice because the look of the streets and buildings were changing so rapidly. I would get lost.

Beijing and China never cease to enthrall me. What is happening here and the speed of it is off the charts. I would not want to be anywhere else in the world at this moment, or maybe forever.

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