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The CEO Story: The Art World of Modern China

While I was in Beijing recently I took some time off to visit some of my favorite artists and art galleries in China’s capital city.

Many of you may have heard of ‘Art798’ (also known as 798 Art Zone or Factory 798), an area surrounding a decommissioned military factory that was turned into a center of art and artists in 2000. Some people may tell you not to visit this art zone, saying the artists have left the area and so it is not an interesting place anymore.

My advice is: don’t listen to them. While it is true that only a few artists are living and working in Art798 as they cannot afford the rent, there are many galleries and museums worth visiting.

It cannot be denied that Art798 has changed to adapt to current times and has not strictly adhered to its exclusive art concept. However, it is a nice place to visit if you are in northern Beijing, with a really pleasant ambiance and showcases modern China with boutiques, libraries, coffeeshops and restaurants in addition to the art galleries and museums.

The place’s popularity is reflected in the visitors from all walks of life – from young Chinese couples walking around holding hands, people gazers sitting on terraces of quirky coffeeshops sipping espresso to the affluent wearing fancy Chanel shades carrying Louis Vuitton bags and folks from more modest background.

Most of the art galleries in the art zone do not charge entrance fees, and you get to see paintings, photographic exhibitions, sculptures, video art and much more – all for free!

There are also a few cultural centers in the area. One of the most interesting is the Minye Korea Culture Institute Official Art Museum, which exhibits art from North Korea. For most people this is as close as they will ever get to anything related to North Korea, apart from the North Korean restaurants in Beijing.

What draws me always back to Art798 is the contemporary art exhibitions where artists make subtle (or not so subtle) political statements through their paintings and sculptures. Most of it relates to the Mao times and his campaigns, the power of the Communist party and its implications in today’s modern China, policies of double standards, and changes in the political landscape. While written text on any of these topics would probably be censored most artists seem to get away with their work, which are not necessarily deemed ‘politically correct’.

A good example are the Gao Brothers who have a large studio and exhibition at Art798. If you have not heard of them and are interested in contemporary art and modern Chinese history, search for them on the Internet. Their creation of ‘Miss Mao’ – a figure similar to Minnie Mouse with a Pinocchio nose depicted in colorful sculptures – is known around the world. Their family history during the Cultural Revolution has influenced their art and the messages they want the outside world to understand. If you are at Art798 don’t miss a visit to their studio.

Huang Yin is another well-known artist. You may have seen some of her works in contemporary art museums and galleries around the world. Remember those small men and women wearing Mao-style blue pants with brown belts, red ties and waving Mao’s little red book, as well as her rendering of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ Communist-style under Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe? She moved her studio from Art798 many years ago, and now resides in one of the seven artist villages located around Beijing.

One of my favorite contemporary artists is Hou Quing, who is fascinated by traditional Chinese poems and Chinese opera. He combines beautiful traditionally dressed heroines of poems and stories with the scantily dressed modern woman of China in one modern painting. He also lives in an artist village outside of the city.

I had a cup of tea with Hou Quing and he told me that he wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to live and work in the artist village, as even there real estate prices are reaching levels that many artists can no longer afford.

While it is easy to visit Art798 on your own it is difficult to find the artist villages on the outskirts of Beijing, let alone meet one of the artists. We offer several art tours in and around Beijing with visits to art galleries, artist villages and artist studios. It’s not always easy to meet a specific artist as many live by their own schedules and often travel to exhibitions, but we are always able to arrange for interesting encounters in the Chinese art world. Most artists don’t speak English, but our guides or art experts are on hand to translate.

Experiencing a country through art and artist encounters gives a unique character to a journey. Our managers and dedicated specialists spend a lot of time researching the art world, meet artists, and fine tune excursions into the world of art. We will gladly share our expertise with clients interested in art, and Asian Trails China will be your primary contact to the art world of China.

Happy Trails!

Laurent Kuenzle
Asian Trails

 (Photo above from left to right: Zhen Gao from the Gao Brothers with Laurent Kuenzle and Xiaolin Zhang, Asian Trails China’s Managing Director).